Explorers still have work to do Earth: You might think that the four corners of the Earth have been explored, but their are still uncharted regions calling out to adventurers.

Sun Journal

October 05, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer whose life was as exotic as his name, dove into 18th-century Africa and found that the forest primeval could be boring.

"A little before sunset, having reached the top of a gentle rising, I climbed a high tree, from the topmost branches of which I cast a melancholy look over the barren wilderness," Park wrote. "The same dismal uniformity of shrubs and sand everywhere presented itself."

Park had by then already explored the Niger River. He escaped imprisonment in a hut with a wild boar, cataloged newly discovered fish, ran rapids, ran from lions, lost comrades to fever and dysentery, endured threats of death or mutilation, battled hunger and thirst and wrote a classic narrative.

He finally went home, became a doctor and married. He befriended Sir Walter Scott and settled down. But only briefly. Back to Africa went Park to see more, but in 1806, at age 35, he drowned there.

It's still possible to be a Mungo Park.

There are still truly remote parts of the world to which you could escape.

Yes, explorers have visited the highest mountain (Everest, 29,029 feet), the deepest ocean (Mariana Trench, in the Pacific, 35,797 feet), the coldest ice field (Polyus Nedostupnosti, Antarctica, minus 72 F annual mean). This evokes the conceit that Earth is explored out.

Not yet.

For example, only in recent years have bits of western New Guinea -- the part of Indonesia called Irian Jaya -- been opened. "Its uncharted marshy corners are impenetrable -- the last great Asian wilderness," says Thomas O'Neill after three trips there for the National Geographic Society. He has met people there who have never heard of oceans, Indonesia or the world beyond.

"When I think of unexplored places, I like places where the cultures have not been exposed to the outside world," O'Neill says. "There are not many left. Even in Irian Jaya, missionaries or government people have been in most areas. Once exposed, change often happens so rapidly. A man wearing no clothing next time you see him may wear a Nike jogging suit. Sneeze on a tough warrior and you may kill his whole family, they're so unused to change."

The most completely unexplored places are where people don't live -- the mountains are too high, the climate too severe. The food isn't there.

There are also the oceans. Scientists cruised the most remote parts of the Arctic Ocean last year on a nuclear submarine, the USS Pogy, taking water and ice samples and avoiding polar bears. Above the Bering Strait, they traveled 8,000 nautical miles of virtually unexplored depths and a complex ecological system once thought nonexistent.

"It's the last unexplored part of the world," says George Newton, a member of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

That's a comment frequently recycled, in the Antarctic or the ocean depths or the Amazon or elsewhere.

In August, Robert Ballard, the finder of the Titanic and the Bismarck wrecks, spoke of the unexplored Mediterranean. He unveiled a surprise found off the northwest coast of Sicily: five Roman ships and three modern-era sailing ships. The largest sunken Mediterranean ship collection, it was also a strong hint of a vast maritime mine.

"The average depth of the Mediterranean is 9,000 feet and so there must be a tremendous amount of antiquity preserved in the deep sea," says Ballard, suggesting a larger pool of Roman artifacts than the combined holdings of all the world's museums.

Explorers still find gems topside. Two years ago, Frenchman Michel Peissel, who had studied the Himalayas for 36 years, said he discovered a previously unknown breed of forest ponies in the remote Riwoche part of northeastern Tibet. The ponies resembled horses depicted in neolithic caves, Peissel said, and were found in one of "the very few unexplored areas left in the world."

In 1994, Peissel had led a French-British expedition in Tibet that said it found the source of the Mekong River. The river flows south through China, separates Laos and Myanmar, divides Laos and Thailand, flows through Cambodia and Vietnam and empties into the South China Sea near Ho Chi Minh City.

When Westerners talk about unexplored places, they often mean undiscovered by Westerners. Indigenous people -- often nomads may have lived there off and on for centuries or centuries ago.

Yet climbers still face many virgin slopes. Many Alpinists go if only because they'll be the first, the urge of many explorers. While the world's 14 8,000-meter peaks (26,250 feet) are climbed over and over, scores of lesser but also tough mountains remain unclimbed.

The highest unclimbed mountain? Probably Kankar Punsam (24,741 feet), on the Bhutan-Tibet border, the 67th-highest peak in the world. Also unclimbed is the summit of Lhotse Middle (27,605 feet) in the Lhotse massif near Mount Everest.

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