Exploring a lost world

In this day and age of easy travel, satellite mapping and lightning fast communications, it’s easy to forget the world was a hostile place little more than 100 years ago.

By Charlie R Neyra

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Published: Fri 16 Sep 2011, 9:26 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:39 AM

Back in the mid-to-late 19th century, travel was overland or by ship, communications meant snail mail, and there were vast tracts of the planet still to be explored, let alone mapped.

Into this world went explorers — looking at it from a Western point of view (much of the planet being under the British flag at the time) — and these men were the heroes of their day, valiantly pushing into hitherto unknown lands, risking all for Queen and country. This Victorian world was peppered with explorers, many of who would risk little, merely going slightly off the beaten path, only to return to London with a lucrative publishing deal for their brave travel story.

But there were some true risk-takers out there; men who believed in pushing the boundaries of the ‘civilised’ world, those who wanted to fill in the blanks on the map, or those who desired glory and honour by naming new territory for Queen Victoria. One such man — who fitted into the ‘filling in the blanks on the map’ category — was George Hayward, a man who is little known, but is brought to life in , the title of which makes it blatantly clear that Mr Hayward’s exploring career did not end with a retirement package in a comfortable home in West London.

Author Tim Hannigan brings the life — and death — of George Hayward to a modern audience in stunningly researched detail, recreating a type of man who is rarely seen these days — a courageous, forthright, albeit flawed, but ambitious and brave explorer. Unfortunately for any similar types in the 21st century, the planet has been explored, thereby leaving the ability to be just an ‘adventurer,’ rather than an explorer. Bear Grylls was born into the wrong era, but he makes great TV.

Hayward was born into an age of exploration, which Hannigan recreates in detail, as we follow Hayward from his youth, onto India with the military, to leaving the army and entering into his final career as an explorer (officially a surveyor) for the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). The fascination — and romance — for modern audiences is the idea that the RGS took a punt on Hayward, gave an amateur a chance, set him loose, and waited for the results. It was a gamble that paid off.

Hayward’s main aim was to explore the Pamirs, an area in the Western Himalayas, but he is constantly confounded, pushed off course by weather, local rulers, politics, British interests and even dissuaded by a fellow British explorer, Robert Shaw. But Hayward perseveres, fighting to succeed in his goal, pushing through mountainous territory that is still dangerous today, even if you had an armed escort and modern survival equipment.

Hannigan relies on accounts written at the time to piece together his novel, so much of it reads like he too is filling in the blanks, e.g.: “What seems more likely is that Hayward was simply lucky and presented himself to Rawlinson at an opportune moment…” But, regardless of the guessing game, the story is still gripping. You can tell Hannigan loves his subject matter — and more importantly he is skilled at drawing the reader into loving his subject matter. At times he is clearly biased towards Hayward — such as being seemingly anti-Robert Shaw — but it’s forgivable as it builds Hayward’s story, creating dimension to a man who otherwise could have been considered cold and rather two-dimensional.

The ending of the story is written in the title, so there are no surprises there, but there are enough during the telling of Hayward’s life to keep readers enthused. It is an epic tale of loner against society, man against mountain and eventually explorer against natives. On top of which delivers a period in history that is travel at its most natural, romantic — and savage. Today’s backpackers don’t realise how good they have it.


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