Wild thing: How the writer Ray Howgego unearthed tales of derring-do adventuring

Ranulph Fiennes can get lost. Ray Howgego, whose 'Encyclopedia of Exploration' is the longest book by an English-language writer, prefers his subject's less-charted territories. Emily Dugan meets him on home ground

Sunday 16 August 2009 00:00

Even by today's standards, Ray Howgego is a prolific adventurer. He was the first man to navigate Kyrgyzstan's remote Torugart Pass since the Russian Revolution, he shares his favourite holiday destination with the Taliban, and he has traversed every continent, following in the footsteps of the great explorers.

With that in mind, I travel to meet him at the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington expecting nothing short of the Marlboro man. But the slight, bespectacled figure standing in the lobby is more Stephen Hawking than Lawrence of Arabia. With grey hair neatly side-parted and a pressed beige T-shirt tucked into his grey slacks, he does not look like someone who has pitched his tent on the sand banks of the Ganges and the deserts of Arabia.

A former physics teacher, the 62-year-old Howgego has applied scientific rigour to the world of derring-do and tall tales. Over a period of 15 years, he compiled the exhaustive Encyclopedia of Exploration, a 3.7 million-word odyssey that experts believe is the largest unaided single-author work in the English language.

His latest book is a little more accessible. The Book of Exploration is a glossy look at 150 of the greatest expeditions ever made. Beginning with a voyage by an Ancient Egyptian nobleman called Harkhuf, who is believed to be the first known explorer, and ending with Wally Herbert's 1968 trek across the Arctic, it stands out from its competitors by shying away from celebrity and choosing journeys that were truly ground-breaking. In this book, men such as Ranulph Fiennes do not even make it as a footnote.

Unlike other historians who have idolised Britain's poster boys of adventure, Howgego takes great pleasure in knocking them down. Scott was "a nobody plucked from obscurity who hated the cold" and men such as Ben Fogle and Michael Palin are "perfectly nice" but "never off the beaten track".

"I don't like 'celebrity' explorers," he explains. "The most significant explorers are those who were under-reported; they finished their journeys successfully and without fanfare. The ones everyone knows about – like Scott of the Antarctic – are people whose expeditions failed."

His book is at its best when describing the expeditions that even the keenest scholar of geographical history would be unlikely to have heard of. His favourite entry is one devoted to a virtually unknown man called Captain George Sadleir, who set off in 1819 to deliver a ceremonial sword from Queen Victoria to an Egyptian commander. He arrives in Egypt and finds that the tribal leader has gone to Mecca. Instead of turning home, he follows him in full military uniform and inadvertently becomes the first European to cross the Arabian Peninsula. After months of intrepid pursuit through the desert, he tracks him down, hands over the sword, and returns quietly to his posting in India. There's no death and no histrionics, but it is perfectly executed. "He's the sort of character I'm very fond of; unknown and unpretentious. He was unsung in his day and absent even now from the hierarchy of the great and the good."

Howgego's love of the unknown explorer makes his approach more interesting than the usual Boy's Own view of adventurers. Women and non-Europeans do not often make it as protagonists in those histories, but Howgego has made an effort to look at both. He has just finished a short biography of Gertrude Emily Benham, a woman he claims was "probably the most prolific traveller ever", male or female. "She travelled seven-and-a-half times around the world and she walked across Africa three times. She was more prolific than someone like Sir Richard Burton. She died at sea at 70 on her eighth trip around the world, yet most people knew nothing of her."

Instead of focusing entirely on the European exploration of the world, Howgego has also looked at the voyages in the opposite direction. "The Chinese made maps for more than 1,000 years, but then a Jesuit comes along and 'discovers' China. It is odd," he says. "I am interested in the other side. When the Chinese came and explored Europe in the 18th century, they made really peculiar observations. One man described England as 'a small island where there are lots of large houses'. I liked that."

But Howgego's distaste for the Hollywood version of exploration has not always made him friends. After the 1920s traveller Frederick Mitchell-Hedges received a passing mention in the latest Indiana Jones film for finding a crystal skull, Howgego was asked to write an entry for him in the Dictionary of National Biography. The DNB had been inundated with requests from fans of the movie who wanted to learn more of his life, but Howgego had no interest in standing up the myth. "He was actually rather a dull person. The reason he wasn't in the DNB already was that he wasn't that important. He wrote various autobiographical books that glorified his exploits, but they were quite minor excursions. Mainly fishing trips, really. The myth was that his daughter had found the skull, but records show she was at boarding school then. I think he just bought it in Mexico. I wrote the entry, but I'd rather be writing about someone like Thomas Arnold Joyce, who actually discovered all those Central American ruins."

For all his talk of loathing celebrity, Howgego does seem excited by the legends that have graced the Royal Geographical Society, where he has been a member for several years. Returning from a toilet break with a Cheshire cat grin, he says "I always go to the old loo. I like knowing I'm peeing where Richard Burton and Scott of the Antarctic stood. You can't beat it."

Despite his endearing geekiness, Howgego's recent adventures are enough to make some of the toughest explorers blanch. He may not look like Bear Grylls, but after 12 years in the Territorial Army, teaching self-reliance and navigation, he was capable of surviving some impressive journeys.

In 1997, he abandoned the TA and his career as a physics teacher to pursue his first love: exploration. Since the age of 12 he had been producing maps of the routes taken by explorers for his own entertainment – as well as written descriptions of their journeys. After he put his early work online, he was approached by the Australian publisher Hordern House to make it into a full reference book.

In between research, he spent several months each year following in the footsteps of his heroes. In 2005, he followed the route of the Belgian explorer Alexandra David-Néel from Yunnan in China to Tibet's Lhasa. "It was a pretty heart-racing trip; the roads were crumbling away," he explains excitedly. "That route is normally prohibited to foreigners because the Chinese are terribly edgy about the Tibetan independence movement. At every checkpoint they would tap into a computer and bring up our whole life history. There was no road but there was a fibre optic cable. It was insane. They sent back two people who worked for the Foreign Office because they thought they were spies. And they were right; they were spies."

For the past year, such adventures have been on hold as he and his wife Pat, who he lives with in Caterham, Surrey, completed the mundane but urgent task of moving to a house that could hold his immense library. A prolific travel-book collector, his hoard includes a copy of every major atlas made since 1850. "Our old house was beginning to look like the Victoria and Albert museum; you found yourself stumbling over artefacts in every room. We moved 185 boxes of books and 75 boxes of artefacts. The first thing I did on moving in was put up 300ft of shelving."

Despite his new library, it's unlikely he'll stay put in Surrey forever. His adult children have long since left home and he dreams of living somewhere more exotic. "I'd like to live in the northern mountains of Pakistan, which I think is the garden of Eden; it's remote, beyond the monsoon and the skies are always blue. I was there recently and arrived back at Heathrow and thought 'Why am I here?'."

Howgego's next project is a biography of Alfred Harrison, an almost-unknown Polar explorer; but as for calling himself an explorer, he's not so sure. While he may go on adventures, he thinks the epithet is no longer accurate for today's travellers.

"There's nothing left to explore – only perhaps in the ocean and the subterranean depths of the cave. When you can look at Google Earth and see every surface of the planet, how can you say you're an explorer? Exploration is dead."

The extract

The Book of Exploration, By Ray Howgego (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £30)

'... A lowly British captain named George Foster Sadleir would happen to become the first to cross the entire Arabian Peninsula. Even more exceptional was that Sadleir blazed his trail across fanatical Arabia in full military uniform ... alone and heedless of danger. He made no claim to fame, and by the time his report circulated 50 years after the event, Sadleir had expired in obscurity'

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