Are there still unknown corners of this world to be discovered? Is there any purpose to sending out large-scale expeditions to explore far-flung places?
The answers to these questions have split the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) into two warring camps - “explorers” and “academics”. The academics distrust the explorers - a near-swear-word in their lexicon - as grandstanding exhibitionists, always searching for the media spotlight. The explorers accuse their opponents of wanting to freeze out those who are not university-tenured geographers and further their own narrow academic careers.
To be more precise, academic geographers want to do more focused work, often using data already collected; the other group wants the RGS to restore the traditional expedition in which teams made up of people from different disciplines are sent out into the world.
These differences erupted this week at a special meeting at the RGS headquarters in Kensington Gore, London, which generated enough heat to melt an iceberg. It was attended by a host of stellar names such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the polar traveller Pen Hadow and Colonel John Blashford-Snell.
A motion calling for “a return to the major expeditions that made the society's reputation” was defeated by 2,590 votes to 1,607. Also at issue was a sense that such expeditions are an “imperialistic” legacy of a 19th-century attitude in which the locals acted as bearers and explorers carried their discoveries like trophies back to London.
But stand back from the debate and there is an underlying popular conception that somehow the world has been completely explored and all that remains to do is reappraise the results. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Large tracts of the planet, from rainforest to the ocean bed, have yet to give up their secrets.
Past large-scale RGS expeditions have brought back valuable research from the Amazon to the Antarctic. An expedition led by Robin Hanbury-Tenison to Borneo in 1977 not only helped to preserve the Mulu rainforest, but the resulting scientific papers launched global concern over the disappearance of such forests.
John Hemming, a past director of the society, goes farther. His book The Golden Age of Discovery might be thought to refer to the 19th century, to the age of Richard Burton, David Livingstone and John Hanning Speke. Instead, he argues that the “golden age of discovery” is today - that modern scientific tools, from infra-red cameras to deep-diving submersibles, allow us to explore areas never reached before and to reinvestigate familiar territory.
In a small way, my own experiences in the Andes bear this out. I have taken several expeditions to look for Inca ruins, the largest of which the RGS supported. We made discoveries in the cloud forest that were sometimes within a day's walk from the rail or road-head, or within sight of Machu Picchu. While the world may be crisscrossed by paths, there are large quadrants in between, often of scrub or thick jungle. A natural inertia tends to keep all travellers to the same paths through difficult terrain; which is precisely why it often takes an expedition to venture off the beaten track.
Exploring has always been fraught with controversy - 150 years ago, in May 1859, the RGS was similarly riven. Speke who had returned to England before Richard Burton, made known their journey to discover the source of the Nile in a speech to the society, without waiting for Burton to share the credit. When Burton returned on May 21, he was furious. Yet somehow the two patched up their differences to present a joint paper later that year.
Michael Palin, the incoming RGS president, will need all his charm and sense of humour to soothe the troubled waters this time: so far all he has said about the issue, perhaps wisely, is that he wants “to know much more about it”. Luckily, in Rita Gardner, the present director, he has a capable executive who has done much to make geography more popular in schools and has kept the lecture room near the Albert Hall as full as it was when Burton and Speke gave their talks.
Some explorers are refering to the academics' victory at the RGS debate as “their Borodino” - in which Napoleon won the battle in Russia, but lost the war. And these explorers are made of stern stuff - if you've lost fingers to frostbite and toes to Amazon stingrays, you are more than capable of fighting for what you believe in.
By chance, Hadow's recent return from the Arctic perfectly illustrates their cause - and he was a vocal participant in the debate. His team took measurements along the Arctic icecap that can help to determine how fast it is melting, partly by reference to similar measurements taken by the late Sir Wally Herbert's RGS expedition in 1968. It is work of this scale and ambition that gives the RGS its worldwide stature.
Hadow made the point that our brave new world of computer technology analysis still needs people to go out and collect data on the ground (or ice): “The RGS is at the centre of world knowledge; we have a role to play in generating that knowledge, not just making it available to the public.”
Hugh Thomson, the author of The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland.