Wanted: heroic dreamers

Do you have the right stuff to enter our pounds 25,000 travel challenge ? By Justine Hardy

On Monday evenings in central London plans for expeditions are nurtured behind the big black door of the Royal Geographical Society. The lecturer of the week steps behind the lectern to tell his or her tale of virgin peaks, deep-sea monsters, and desert survival, and the audience leaves inspired. They walk away from the lecture hall down corridors lined with pictures of the great explorers of the past, dreaming their own faces into that gallery of heroes.

On one of these evenings in 1993 many of the mountaineers who were involved in the conquering of Everest met to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary's ascent on 29 May 1953. Embryonic mountaineers came, too, to hear their stories. One of these was a young solicitor, Philip Leonard.

By the following year he had progressed from dreaming of summits at Monday lectures to joining a mountaineering team. They took on Mount McKinley in Alaska to cut their teeth - in what are reputedly the coldest climbing conditions in the world. Later that year Philip turned to the Map Room, the hallowed inner sanctum of the RGS, to hunt down maps covering the Hindu Kush in search of uncharted peaks to conquer.

"We used the only maps that were available: British survey maps of India from 1928. I ended up setting out to climb our unmarked peak clutching photocopies from the RGS Map Room. Ultimately it was like something from the Great Game; we found a man who drew a map on the back of a cigarette packet telling us to follow a stream, turn left at the big grey boulder and climb." Philip and his companions achieved their expedition goal of making a first, the mountaineering term for unclimbed peaks.

Why, where and how? This is the tricky triplet for the aspiring expeditionary. Why is not so hard to answer. Some people pursue a dream, others go to gather research on topics from the leisurely mating habits of the three- toed sloth to examining why snow is cold. All expeditions start with copious reading, whether it is to try and understand the heartbeat of the destination, or to find a viable route. In London, Stanfords in Covent Garden, the Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill, Daunt's in Marylebone High Street, and the Traveller's Bookshop in Cecil Court are lined with the stuff of inspiration. Stanfords also has a good map section to furnish your route planning.

So where to go? If you are of the research variety, the destination has probably always been known. For those chasing adventure, the lands of unspoilt beauty are harder and morally more difficult to find. Mountain ranges seem to whip the adventurer's imagination, the Himalayas being the most popular followed by the Andes. Deserts come next. We seem to desire not only to cling to sheer marble rock faces, but also to cross unwelcoming sands with angry camels and not enough water.

Finally, how to do it? For those bent on research, the Royal Geographical Society is not only the great bastion of centuries of exploration, but it is also has an expedition advisory centre. Here they receive about 400 applications a year for expedition support, out of which about 100 are given backing.

The purely adventurous usually pay their own way or find a sponsor with an urge to have their name linked to desert storms or a high-altitude drama. It is a hardened corporation that does not feel a charitable twinge towards a young man or woman determined to cartwheel across the Andes or traverse a desert in a wheelbarrow for a deserving cause. And until 26 April Heineken Export, in association with the Independent, is inviting applications for a travel bursary of pounds 25,000. Details of the Wildest Dreams challenge are given opposite.

Expedition Advisory Centre, Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR (0171-581 2057). e-mail: eac@rgs.org

Daunt Books for Travellers, 83 Marylebone High Street, London W1M 3DE (0171-224 2295)

The Travel Bookshop, 13-15 Blenheim Crescent, London W11 2EE (0171-229 5260)

The Travellers' Bookshop, 25 Cecil Court, London WC2N 4EZ (0171-836 9132)

Stanfords Maps and Travel Bookshop, 12-14 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LP (0171-836 1321)

The Wildest Dreams Travel Challenge

The biggest obstacle to independent travel is cost. So Heineken Export, in association with the Independent, is offering a travel bursary of up to pounds 25,000 to help you overcome this hurdle.

Who can enter: Anyone aged between 18 and 35.

How to enter: Fill out an application form giving details of your travel plans. These will be assessed by a panel of experts and a shortlist of applicants will be interviewed. Forms from: tel 0171-231 5432; the Lonely Planet Internet http://www.lonelyplanet.com.au, or at STA Travel shops.

When to enter: By 26 April. Winners will be announced on 6 May. We will be making interim awards, if you're planning to leave before then.

How much is the prize: The total bursary is pounds 25,000. The amount awarded is at the judges' discretion. It is possible that one exceptional proposal could win the full amount.

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