how to go on an expedition

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The Independent Culture
Holiday brochures leave expeditioners cold. For them the lure is exotic: tracking down striped hyenas in Kenya, and investigating their diet by collecting and drying their droppings, or befriending Chamacoco fishermen in Paraguay.

The British are jungle trekkers and mountaineers by tradition, dating back to Elizabethan explorers and through Victorian Empire days, when aristocrats drove frontiers forward through Africa and Asia. Nowadays, expeditions are generally smaller and planned in partnership with host countries. Conservation objectives are a prime consideration.

The world has shrunk so that even gap-year students travel to the ends of the earth. Serious Nineties expeditioners travel purposefully with Darwinian-style challenges endorsed by that illustrious home base, the Royal Geographical Society.

Upstairs, beyond a wooden framed East Greenland Kayak, covered in sealskin, and accompanied by hunting implements, is the Expedition Advisory Centre (EAC). Amid computers and shelves of files are adventures to inspire an armchair dreamer, from records of new bird species mapped in Colombia, to Icelandic surveys by a scientist in his mid-80s. Typically, the current Expedition Yearbook begins with Albania, where 12 explorers documented folk medicines used by mountain villagers. It ends (alphabetically speaking) in Zimbabwe's Umfurudzi safari area, where a Cambridge expedition identified assorted eagles and tracked down overgrown trails from the era of tsetse control.

Vampire bats bit two members of a team during a watery journey near Kaieteur Falls, during the rainy season in Guyana. A crucial aim of this ambitious pounds 26,000 tour in 1994 was supplying medical supplies to Mahaica Hospital, formerly known as The Leper Asylum, established in 1867, during the high days of colonialism. The expedition leader, Dig Woodvine, a 29-year-old senior health promotion advisor in Cheshire (whose expedition fervour was fuelled by Operation Raleigh) is setting up a 40-strong Guyana expedition for October 1997.

Those who join now may gain an NVQ in Management as planning proceeds (and that includes raising sponsorship). Volunteering on socially responsible and environmentally motivated expeditions is gaining a new brand of acceptance.

So are personal struggles with the force of nature. Pamela Watson, a white woman, spent two years observing African women at work as she cycled solo through 17 countries. You may even meet real-life expeditioners at the EAC. David Lyon is helping out here between trips to Ghana, where he is helping to identify sources of income from natural resources in Kyabobo National Park.

The EAC is the ideal starting point for those with wanderlust. There are shelves full of useful publications - from comprehensive handbooks to more specialist tomes. Joining an Expedition, which is updated for 1996, is aimed at would-be travellers who want to be accepted within teams. Within its pages are Trekforce Expeditions, with whom I went trekking in Sulawesi, Indonesia - and from abroad - the University of California, which has explored ancient Indian sites in New Mexico and conservation in Costa Rican rainforests.

Frontier, whose theme is "conservation through exploration" is seeking recruits for forays into Vietnamese rainforest to document marine life in the coral reefs of Tanzania, and to study big game reserves in Uganda.

Lone explorers and expedition planners, can use the EAC in diverse ways, beyond reading its publications - from tapping into its network of experts to scanning its new computer database with 5,000 entries to date, and taking part in planning sessions - or celebrating with the welcome home party in February to discover how the 1995 vintage fared.

Expedition Advisory Centre, Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 (0171-581 2057; fax 0171-584 4447)