Books: The book that shook

Explorers, edited by Desmond Wilcox and published by the BBC in 1975, really brought geography to life for me. It was based on scripts by various authors, which were narrated by David Attenborough for an accompanying TV series.

by Vanessa Lawrence, director general and chief executive of Ordnance Survey
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As a teenager, I was fascinated by Livingstone's African travels and how Stanley vowed to 'fill in the blank spaces on the map' on hearing of Livingstone's death. Stanley spent three years in the previously uncharted forests of central Africa, battling disease, wild animals and attacks from tribesmen. He plotted and named features and settlements until it became clear that his awesome river expedition was turning west to the Atlantic, and not north to Cairo as expected if it was to be the source of the Nile. Eventually, he realised he had discovered the source of the Congo, a development that contributed much to 19th-century geographical knowledge.

The story shows the importance of natural features in ultimately determining political geography, and was in my mind when I was helping with the creation of the electoral ward structure for the 1999 South African elections.

How Stanley, Livingstone and other 19th-century explorers overcame the challenges of discovering and mapping previously unknown landscapes is truly inspiring.

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