Review in the Times Literary Supplement of Great Desert Explorers , by Andrew Goudie.

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  TLS  FEBRUARY 23 2018 I n Great Desert Explorers , Andrew Goudie– formerly a professor of geography at theUniversity of Oxford – writes about sixtyof the “most interesting, intrepid and impor-tant” explorers of the past three centuries. Henotes that many of them are “very little remem-bered or appreciated” compared with those“who ventured to the poles, climbed Everestor sought the source of the Nile”. It is interesting to speculate as to why.Partly, one suspects, it is because some of those other arenas involved large expeditionsthat required institutional backing and hence acertain level of publicity; a desert explorer, bycontrast, might make do with a camel or tagalong with a caravan. Part of the answer mayalso lie in the personalities drawn to exploredeserts, many of them lovers of solitude – indi-vidualists and mystics who liked to go at theirown pace and set their own agenda, unboth-ered by fame or recognition. And possibly lesswas at stake: deserts have usually lacked eitherthe enigma of an undiscovered passage or theclear-cut success of reaching a summit. Trav-elling from A to B across a desert might seem,to the European imagination, less an adventurethan a feat of endurance, like undergoing sur-gery without anaesthetic – and about asappealing, as Edward Eyre’s account of cross-ing Australia’s Nullarbor Plain in 1840–41makes clear: “Three days had passed awaysince we left the last water, and it was verydoubtful when we might find any more. Sixhundred miles of country had to be traversed,surely just as well known – and the moreobscure Friedrich Hornemann, who in 1797travelled south-west from Cairo to Murzuk insouthern Libya, becoming the first Europeanto cross the Sahara from north to south as wellas from east to west. In the 1820s the Association went intoabeyance, but its goals were taken up by a newgroup of explorers; of these figures Goudiefeatures Alexander Gordon Laing, the firstEuropean to reach Timbuktu (in 1826), andRené-Auguste Caillié, the first to do so andcome back alive (in 1828). Burckhardt, mak-ing a celebrated pilgrimage to Mecca dis-guised as a Syrian Muslim, had also been oneof the first to exemplify that other great tropeof desert exploration, the mystical orientalist.Richard Burton, Jack Philby (father of Kim)and Wilfred Thesiger all immersed themselvesin the Islamic, and specifically Arab, culturesthey travelled through, exploring desertsalmost as a by-product of their exploration of a civilization that, since European trade hadmoved to the high seas in the fifteenth century,had become progressively more isolated fromand unfamiliar to European knowledge. Goudie succeeds in bringing out the dis-tinctive flavour of exploration in other desertareas of the world, too: the bookish archaeol-ogists Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin excavatingancient cities in Central Asia; the no-non-sense hard men Charles Sturt, Edward Eyreand Robert Burke opening up central Austra-lia in the 1860s with a bull-headedness thatwas sometimes fatal; and the patriots of Manifest Destiny, John Frémont, WilliamManly and the one-armed John Wesley Pow-ell, piecing together the topography of theAmerican southwest for the expandingUnited States. But much of the twentieth-cen-tury coverage returns to the Sahara, where thevital innovation was motor transport. Whensuitably fitted out with wider tyres and moresophisticated engine cooling, cars became themajor facilitator of systematic exploration of Egypt and Libya between the wars, pioneeredby the New Zealander Claud Williams, theHungarian László Almásy (the model forMichael Ondaatje’s English Patient) and,perhaps Goudie’s hero, Ralph Bagnold, ageomorphologist extraordinaire and – asinstigator of the Long Range Desert Group –an inadvertent founder of the Special AirService (SAS).The book is richly illustrated with photo-graphs, engravings and paintings; the numer-ous maps showing the explorers’ routes arehelpful, though lacking in detail. The entriesavoid a formulaic structure: some give exten-sive biographical detail; some concentrate ondates, directions and discoveries; and othershave more to say on their subject’s contribu-tions to science, archaeology, or anthropol-ogy. This ever-changing focus can seemarbitrary, but the result is that a book that mighthave become leaden and bloated remains read-able and varied, retaining the constant capacityto surprise. JONATHAN DORE before I could hope to obtain the slightest aid”.Explorers of all ten of the desert regionsGoudie identifies across the world areincluded here; the only serious imbalance isthat the deserts of South America arerepresented by only a single explorer, WilliamBollaert, the Dutch-English prospector andhistorian (1807–76). Greatest emphasis hasbeen placed, unsurprisingly, on the largestdeserts, those of Arabia and the Sahara. Thesewere the scenes of the first desert forays byEuropean travellers guided by the Enlighten-ment ideals of exploring, cataloguing andunderstanding the world. The African Asso-ciation, formed in London in 1788, had thetwin aims of discovering the source of theNiger and the city of Timbuktu; finding eitherwould involve crossing the Sahara, and themany expeditions they sent out formed per-haps the only series of desert expeditions withconsistent – albeit arbitrary – geographicalgoals. Goudie passes over the most famousfigure, Mungo Park (1771–1806), as some-body already much discussed, and fastensinstead on Johann Burckhardt (1784–1817) –who, as the European discoverer of Petra, is Andrew Goudie GREAT DESERT EXPLORERS352pp. Silphium Press. £39.95.978 1 900971 45 4 Why explorers are drawn to desolation Just deserts
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