Our world, off the record

Remarkably, at the end of a century that has seen the shrinking of the planet, many places on Earth -- on land and under water -- remain uncharted.

May 23, 1999|By Shelley Emling

MIAMI -- The explorers battled fat leeches and cliffs so steep and slippery, one false step could mean a plunge of thousands of feet.

They navigated a raging, treacherous river. They even heard rumors of the Dugmas, a cult of females who load their fingernails with snake venom for attacks on outsiders.

It sounds like an Indiana Jones-style adventure, but it was real.

The expedition, sponsored by the National Geographic Society and conducted in November, took four Americans into the inner gorge of the Zangbo River, the world's deepest canyon, in a remote part of Tibet.

The 17-day undertaking was a lesson in endurance, but the reward was extraordinary: the sight of a thundering, 100-foot-high cascade, dubbed Hidden Falls.

What's equally extraordinary is that the existence of a giant waterfall on a major river had yet to be officially recorded. Indeed, on the eve of the 21st century, many unexplored spots exist on the planet, including in North America.

"Have we mapped every single inch of the globe? Certainly, we have not," said Rebecca Martin, director of the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Board. "There are nooks and crannies in the Grand Canyon no one has gotten to."

For sure, the world seems to have become much smaller during the past two centuries.

In 1806, two American explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, blazed a trail across North America and reached the Pacific. Early in the 20th century, many large patches of jungle in Africa and Asia had not been visited by outsiders.

Now, explorers have reached the highest mountain (Everest, 29,028 feet), the deepest ocean (at the Mariana Trench in the Pacific, 36,198 feet), and the coldest ice field (Polyus Nedostupnosti, Antarctica, minus 72 F annual mean).

In recent decades, seemingly every far-off locale has been charted, visited or analyzed.

Sometimes these locales have been seriously damaged by visitors. Scientists estimate that with an increasing number of people exploring the Amazon, up to 16 percent of the original million-square-mile rain forest has been ravaged.

Adventure travel is the rage. Growing numbers of tourists trek through the Himalayas, while 10,000 tourists visited Antarctica, the most isolated place on the planet, between November and March. This year alone, National Geographic Expeditions will escort travelers to sites as far-flung as the peaks of Nepal and the Yangtze River (also known as the Chang) in China.

Yet hundreds, if not thousands, of peaks and mountain passes are waiting to be mapped.

From Tibet to New Guinea, to central Greenland and remote reaches of Nahanni National Park in Canada's Northwest Territories, to the Arctic and Antarctica, a host of sites have been accessible only to the imagination.

In Africa, explorers haven't completely roamed the Ndoki forest, on the border of Congo and Cameroon. They haven't fully surveyed New Guinea, the world's second-largest island after Greenland. And they haven't scaled all the mountains in the Antarctic, half as big as the United States.

Perhaps the Holy Grail of exploration is the ocean. The sea covers 70 percent of Earth's surface, and 80 percent of it -- packed with little-known plant and animal life -- remains undiscovered.

"You can draw a parallel between the ocean and outer space, because there's so much we still don't know about them," Martin said.

Underwater caves hold a wealth of opportunities for discovery. The world's longest is Nohoch Nah Chich, located in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Only 32 miles of the cave have been charted. Divers believe that much more remains to be documented, but the pitch-black labyrinth can be deadly for a diver who becomes lost and confused.

In the United States, a National Geographic team is creating a three-dimensional computer map of tens of thousands of feet of submerged caves at Wakulla Springs, about 15 miles south of Tallahassee, Fla. The vast network of caverns and grottoes is believed to be the third-largest of its kind in the world.

"This digital mapping is wonderful, and it's going to help people figure out how ground water travels throughout Florida," Martin said.

Mountaintops symbolize the spirit of exploration. All 14 of the world's mountains higher than 8,000 meters, or 26,250 feet, have been scaled.

Mount Everest was conquered in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norkay. The famous mountain has been climbed so many times that today's challenge comes in trying to break the record for time spent at the summit. The record was set this month by a Nepali Sherpa, Babu Chiri Sherpa, 33, who spent 21 hours atop Everest.

But mountaineers shouldn't be disheartened, because plenty of peaks are waiting to be mastered.

Many unclimbed summits rise above 25,000 feet throughout the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan, near the borders with Afghanistan and China. Another unclimbed peak is Lhotse Middle, at 27,605 feet, in the Lhotse massif near Mount Everest.

The higher the mountain, the more discoveries explorers seem to reap.

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