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Rekindling the Spirit of Exploration


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Here’s a short test: Looking back over your last vacation, was it (a) lots of fun for the whole family, (b) reasonably adventurous, (c) an enjoyable learning experience, or (d) none of the above.

Be honest. If you answered (d) perhaps it’s time to rethink your holiday strategies.

In fact, if your trips have become a tad repetitive in location or format, why not try thinking ‘exploration’ rather than ‘destination’?With this simple change in viewpoint, you and your family can look forward to a whole new range of experiences and holiday outcomes. Test responses (a) through (c), for example.

Moreover, by transforming your time away into a ‘family exploration project’ -- with aims, plans and worthwhile things to accomplish -- subsequent enjoyment arises as much from the ‘journey’ as it does from the ‘destination’. And the group dynamic created by having something to find, a goal to achieve, builds both enthusiasm and sense of adventure. Even techno-centric teenagers happily pitch in, given the prospect of a real-life Indiana Jones computer game!

I know this approach works -- my family and I have used it for years.

But…you still have questions, right? Well, that’s understandable considering the uncharted territory stretching before you. Rest assured, though, amateur exploration is no more difficult than camping or caravanning. Better still, you can decide right up front just how complex you want it to be.

Nevertheless, let’s examine those lingering doubts:

Hasn’t it all been done before?

Not by a long shot, and here’s a case in point: Up in the north-west of Australia there’s a huge chunk of terrain -- we’re talking 3000 square kilometers of rugged sandstone reaching 600 meters above sea level -- that was virtually unknown until just 25 years ago!

Sure, Aborigines had been wandering through the Bungle Bungles for maybe fifty thousand years. But despite a couple of centuries of frenetic European activity across the entire continent, we missed it -- roughly equivalent to bypassing a jumbled pile of 200 Ayers Rocks!

Mind you, our history -- being relatively short -- needs to be kept in perspective. Although places like Sydney and a few coastal strips have been scratched over by explorers and settlers for more than 200 years, the vast majority of our continent didn’t see a bootprint until well into the 19th century. And for much of the time since, development was at a virtual standstill (during two World Wars and the Great Depression, for instance). Result being, it’s possible today to find hidden time capsules of Aussie life scattered right across the country.

One of my own explorations, for example, started with my fondness for bush poetry. Having waded through Lawson, Patterson and others, I became interested in Will Ogilvie, a lesser known poet who came to Australia in the late 1800s for a bit of ‘colonial experience’. In a couple of poems he mentions ‘Tringadee’, a remote New South Wales cattle property now long-abandoned.The upshot was, I developed a passion to find the place.

And we did. After studying old maps and sifting clues from Ogilvie’s writing, we became part detective, part explorer, part tourist until our mission was accomplished.

But interesting stuff happens every day. Railway lines are shut down, highways are re-routed, mines close, drought ravages vast tracts of countryside leaving abandoned homesteads in its wake. Every change -- natural or economic -- has human, historic and geographic dimensions, any one of which may grab the imagination and inspire exploration.

Won’t we need to travel long distances?

Not necessarily. Based on the notion that history is the story of people -- what they have done and how they lived -- then interesting projects can turn up in your own street. Even within your own family tree.

Another personal illustration: About a decade back we lived for a time in Melbourne’s outer west. A relative had sent me a yellowing page from a Colac newspaper (circa late-1960s), which reported how locals were upset with proposals to straighten a stretch of road down Gellibrand way. As it happened, the most vocal dissenter was one William Revill (no less!) who argued that proposed roadworks would obliterate an historic local site: a late 1800s wine shanty. Although all trace of the shanty was long gone, its proprietor was yet another William Revill (senior). It seemed we were everywhere!

Well, that was enough to get me started. Sure, a day trip would have done it, but we decided that, considering the family connection, a three-day camping trip was warranted. We tracked down the shanty site, caught up with a distant uncle, and even located the Revill plot tucked away in the Colac cemetery. 

The point is, exploration trips might be anything from one day to several months. (Had we still been living in central NSW at the time, my genealogical odyssey would, no doubt, have become a weeklong pilgrimage.) But since more satisfying holidays are our primary aim, it would seem sensible to seek possibilities in distant towns, or another state -- maybe the other side of the continent. After all, your family’s ultimate sense of achievement and satisfaction will be in direct proportion to the effort involved.

Naturally, though, distance to your exploration ‘site’ is determined by how much holiday time can be devoted to the project once you leave home. If time away is limited to, say, three weeks, then consider only those projects that have reasonable chance of completion (including travel) within that timeframe.

Aren’t months of research and planning necessary?

Rarely, because here again it depends on how involved or adventurous you want your exploration to be. In the majority of cases, a book or two, a few maps and some local information are all you need. On the other hand, some modern-day explorers happily spend months on painstaking research to gain maximum benefit from their project. Both approaches are equally valid, just differing in degree. Your choice.

Here’s another example: A few years back I came across a second-hand book that chronicled the colourful history of mountain cattlemen around Bendoc in eastern Victoria’s high country. There were several stories ‘behind the events’ that I found particularly interesting, although details in the book were sketchy.

With the help of a few topographic maps (1:100,000), the Internet, plus a couple of trips to the library, I was able to piece together a little more detail. Despite gaps in our knowledge, off we went, hoping to squeeze enough info from the locals to fill in the blanks. Once there, it became a 50/50 split between guesswork and map reading, locating forgotten sites of triumph and tragedy. For us, the human side of Bendoc’s history came vividly to life over a two-week camping trip.

The lesson learned was that, even if you don’t have as much detail as you’d like, don’t be afraid to head off anyway. Providing you’ve planned both the trip and the project to an appropriate level of detail (be it a BBQ-lunch day-trip or a six-week assault on Lasseter’s lost gold reef), there’s not much point constantly extending your departure date.

After you arrive you can get more information from local tourist centres, museums, park rangers, forest officers -- even fading photographs adorning pub walls! Not only is it free, it also helps complete the picture, making the project so much more interesting.

Won’t I need a 4X4?

Probably not, and here’s why: Back in the early 1970’s, when 4WDs were still rare enough to earn strange stares and whispered comments (“Bloody hippie!” was common), I first began to take exploration seriously. A particular fascination was the history of mining and logging throughout the Great Divide in Victoria. Whenever opportunity arose, I had the Nissan packed, maps on board, and we were on our way.

One particular occasion, as we cautiously negotiated a steep and rocky track, winding down into an overgrown prospecting area (circa 1940), I remarked how unlikely it was that anyone else would be down there. Wrong! There at the bottom, parked by the river, was a Volkswagen, its owner happily fly-fishing a few meters downstream.

Over 40 or so years of four-wheel driving, that sort of experience has been fairly common. And although a double-diff vehicle suits what my wife and I get up to, it’s by no means essential for amateur exploration. Agreed, under some circumstances conventional vehicles may impose limitations, but considering the size of this continent and the countless stories that make up our history, there’s still plenty to find out there!

Besides, if a ‘must do’ project arises requiring 4X4, why not hire one? Or invite participation by a friend who owns one? Once in the area, getting out and about on day trips from a basecamp allows other vehicles -- and all that bulky gear -- to remain in camp while exploration proceeds at a leisurely pace. Basecamp can be established at a nearby caravan park or national park, perhaps utilising the comforts of caravan or camper.

However, for complete flexibility, at some stage you may want to consider alternative transportation (everything from bushwalking to full-on four-wheel driving) and whatever trip format seems appropriate (from basecamp set-ups to totally mobile camping).Helicopter charter may not be entirely out of the question either!

By the way, our search for that prospecting site -- beside the Volkswagen -- was a huge success. We located extensive diggings and numerous relics, but the real bonus was a well-preserved digger’s humpy, complete with frame-and-sacking bed, decaying boots and cooking gear, and a canvas fly-over that over the years had become as brittle as ancient parchment. And the fisherman did not even know it was there! 

Don’t we need specialised equipment and expertise?

Highly unlikely. After all, what we’re talking about here are, essentially, planned and researched visits to sites of historic or natural significance. (Yes, tourism, but without the fees, the queues and the local guides.) More importantly, it’s this planning and research -- with an element of uncertainty and mystery -- that give personal exploration its sense of achievement, not the gear and the skills that may have been utilised. 

Another illustration: The caravanning memoirs of an elderly couple in the 1950s mentioned their nervous passage through an intimidatingly narrow tunnel, carved through the cliff-face alongside the Boyd River in NSW. This was, apparently, a major highway at the time!Since we were touring less than 100 kilometers from the place, we immediately detoured to check it out. At that stage, we weren’t even sure it was still there.

But it was, and we soon understood the couple’s concern: towing a caravan, the tunnel certainly is narrow.OK, no huge discovery, but an interesting stretch of unsealed ‘highway’ now almost forgotten.

Obviously, explorers should select projects that suit, firstly, their preferred degree of difficulty (as agreed within the group) and, secondly, resources available, ie, time, people, money, equipment. That’s not to say elaborate projects are out of the question, just that additional gear (eg, canoes, backpacks, GPS) and expertise (eg, navigation, first aid, vehicle repairs) may need to be acquired. But provided planning and preparation timeframes are realistic -- and group commitment is high -- these should not present a problem.

Finally, as with most outdoor activities, whatever the project, safety is paramount. During planning it’s wise to consider such issues as how you might handle accidents, injuries, sickness, forest fire, mechanical breakdown, emergency communications, and the need to maintain a point of contact among friends or relatives back home.

Well, there you have it. If you do decide to look beyond the well-worn tourist routes -- as good as they are in most cases -- exploration trips offer an exciting alternative the whole family will enjoy.

And if 3000 square kilometers of grotesquely shaped rock can be overlooked for ahundred years, then maybe it’s time to mount another search for Lasseter’s gold. After all, his legendary reef is, supposedly, only 15 kilometers long. Anyone could drive right by without noticing it!

Hmm. Where are the maps?


21 Stages of an Exploration Trip

  1. Brainstorm ideas among your group. (But don’t bog down yet in pro’s and con’s!)
  2. Analyse the top three ideas offering greatest appeal.
  3. Choose the project most suited, based on time, skills,  experience & motivation. (Which must have group interest and agreement!)
  4. Study maps. (Use current, superseded and historic.)
  5. Conduct initial research into the project. (Decide the aim and activities involved.) Search the Internet and the library.
  6. Confirm the project is feasible. (If not, back to Step 2.)
  7. Finalise the team. (Who; skills required; individual responsibilities; committees?)
  8. Decide accommodation and trip style. (Basecamp? Mobile camping? Bushwalking? RVs? 4X4?)
  9. Confirm duration and timing. (When, how long. Note likely weather conditions)
  10. Full and detailed research. Would a pre-trip recce be necessary/possible? Does the project still look OK?
  11. Arrange for any permits or access permission required.
  12. Detail emergency procedures, communications, safety, contacts, back-ups.
  13. Arrange training if necessary (eg, first aid, navigation, survival).
  14. List equipment and supplies (taking into account anything available on route).
  15. Publicity?
  16. Search for sponsors, if appropriate.
  17. List special requirements (eg, personal needs, trip-specific gear).
  18. Organise packing and loading. (NB: maintain access to items needed on route.)
  19. Conduct your exploration trip. (But keep detailed records: journal, video, photos.)
  20. Arrange a post-trip get-together (ie, a ‘debrief’). Arrange publicity?
  21. Letters and/or reports to sponsors, including “thank you” notes.

  Note: More or fewer steps may be required, often evident by about Step 6 above. 
 


21 Ideas for Exploration Trips

  1. Family history (homes, birthplaces, etc.)
  2. Outback (or historic) highways from start to finish
  3. Rivers from source to mouth
  4. Following the footsteps of an explorer
  5. Abandoned railways
  6. Aboriginal culture and public-access sites
  7. Historic sites (including tragedies and disasters)
  8. Bushranger country
  9. Deserted mines and gold towns
  10. Stock routes and watering holes
  11. Historic bush pubs
  12. Ghost towns
  13. Secluded, scenic places (mountains, beaches, rivers)
  14. Secret fishing spots
  15. Haunted sites
  16. Abandoned cattle stations
  17. WW2 airstrips and camps
  18. Wildlife habitats / endangered species
  19. Old sawmill sites and logging tramways
  20. Historic churches
  21. Bush huts and shacks 

Bill Revill is a freelance writer and outdoor lifestyle specialist based in New South Wales, Australia. His free e-book catalogue can be obtained from wrevill.iinet.net.au

This article may be copied, transmitted, shared or used in other media, but only on condition that his byline and the following information is included:

© 2007 by W.V. Revill

www.authorsden.com/billrevill





Published - June 2011









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