Written by Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence

Following on from our recent The Geographer magazine on Active Travel, our Writer-in-Residence has produced three blogs about explorers who favoured human-powered adventures...

Frank Kingdon Ward

It’s likely that plant hunters are some of the least hurried travellers in the world; and one of the most intrepid of these slow-paced travellers was Frank Kingdon Ward. In the spring of 1924, Ward was on the trail of some of the most exquisite plants that grow high in the Himalayas of Tibet. Delicate primulas, vivid blue poppies, spectacular rhododendrons… it seemed as if there was a new species at almost every step, and each one had to be admired, examined and catalogued. Ward’s task was to locate the rarest and most exquisite beauties for future reference, and then return later in the year to collect the seed; this would be despatched home to Britain for propagation by eager gardeners and nurserymen. 

Journeying on foot through the Himalayas was no easy task. Aside from his basic food supplies, camping equipment and a medicine chest, Ward was encumbered by scientific instruments and plant collecting kit. He had planned well in advance: the bulky items would be carried by mules, and he would hire guides as he progressed from village to village, with the hope of finding accommodation and hospitality as he went along. He intended to stay in Tibet for a year.

Frank Kingdon Ward

Ward’s companion was the young Lord Cawdor, who had financed the expedition and had impulsively asked if he could go along for the adventure. He was now somewhat regretting it. The pair battled across the Tibetan Plateau in relentless icy winds, and picked their way through dark, mist-laden forests of rhododendron and juniper, where hail showers made slogging up the steep terrain even more difficult. As they shivered in their tents, they wished they hadn’t decided to leave the oil stoves behind to lighten their loads. Ward was a seasoned explorer, who had tramped along the difficult trails of Tibet before and didn’t mind the hardships too much; Cawdor was pining silently for the puddings of home.  

Within a few weeks they found themselves alongside the legendary Tsangpo Gorge, a mystical place whose ‘riddle’ Ward was hoping to solve. An enduring puzzle to geographers of the time was the fact that the Tsangpo river dropped many thousands of feet over a short distance from the Tibetan plateau to the Assam plains where it became the great Brahmaputra, and the only solution seemed to be a waterfall many thousands of feet high. The ‘Lost Falls’ tantalised their imagination as they gazed down the vertiginous sides of the deepest gorge on Earth. 

Tsangpo Gorge

Ward and Cawdor were walking through a sacred landscape known only to local Tibetans, and its magnificence and scale were almost overpowering. Meltwater was swelling the river and its tributaries, and every step had to be taken with the greatest care in order to avoid plunging into the ravine. As exhilarating as the scenery was, new flowers offered the greatest delight. In ‘The Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges’ (1926), Ward recalls a particularly exciting discovery: 

“Once when gazing across the torrent to a steep grass slope, I pointed out to my companion some brilliant scarlet leaves which formed a pattern on a rock; and he, taking out his telescope, looked at them long and carefully. ‘Why,’ said he at length, ‘they aren’t leaves, they are flowers; it’s a Rhododendron, I believe.’ ‘What!’ I shouted, almost seizing the glass from him in my eagerness; and gazing as he had done, I realised that he was right. They were flowers, not leaves - flowers of vivid scarlet flaming on the rocks. Straightaway we tried to cross the torrent, but finding that impossible, continued up stream to a dangerous-looking snow bridge; this we might have risked crossing, so great was our anxiety to reach the prize, but at that moment we observed another blaze at our feet, and there was R. forrestii Repens gp. ‘Scarlet Runner’ as we called it, laced to the rocks. For a minute we just stared at it, drunk with wonder.”