TravelTraveler Magazine

Dead Reckoning

“You only know where you are by remembering how you got there.”

So says our professor, anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis, explaining the sailors’ process of navigation, dead reckoning. He stands in the aisle of the plane, gesturing with his hands, while on either side, a dozen flat screen TV monitors all show the same image of a young Polynesian man, crouched on the prow of his seafaring canoe, concentrating on the horizon and the travels ahead.

Listening to Wade’s first lecture of our expedition, I try to remember how it is that I got here.

It began two days ago at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC. Next, I lay wrapped in beige airline blankets, curled up like a sleeping cat across three empty seats on a British Airways flight, six miles above the Atlantic, five hundred miles west of Ireland.

Then I woke up in London, where all great journeys begin.

I began mine in Paddington, beneath a glass-paneled roof that glowed with unusual sunlight. Indeed, London was not herself yesterday, wrapped in happy sunshine and the unseasonal warmth of mid-October. Green Park was rather green, and mothers inducted their babies to the cult of the sun by rolling away the plastic rain shields on their prams. In Westminster, tourist crowds bought ice cream from Mr. Whippy vans while I stood on the bridge, admiring the shiny gold trim on Big Ben.

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A seagull flies past Big Ben at the Houses of Parliament in London (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

That evening, we dined together—all eighty of us fellow travelers, seated at round tables in the Four Seasons, while National Geographic CEO John Fahey explained what lies ahead:

“All of these destinations were chosen based on the recommendations of our own National Geographic Explorers.”

We are not going to Rome or Cairo or Beijing—we are going to Bhutan, Palau and the Okavango. Ours is an incomparably well-traveled group, but every one admits to me that the compelling factor for joining this expedition was the range of new and unknown destinations.

“A different way of knowing,” explains Wade, without a hint of the academic—he actually believes this. As an explorer, Wade has spent his life learning different ways of knowing, from Inuit hunters to shamans in the Amazon and the nomads of Borneo. Such is the essence of culture—and this is what travel gives us—a different way of knowing, seeing and thinking.

“Nomads are what we all once were,” states our lecturer, “We used to be wanderers on a pristine planet.” Listening to Wade is like tumbling through some psychedelic dream sequence, falling from Himalayan firesides into a Haitian voodoo trances and landing in the sacred heart of the South American jungle.

“Storytellers can change the world, and National Geographic is the best storytelling institution in the world,” adds Wade, and his words wake me from the colored reverie of his lecture in the air.

On the armrest of my large leather airline seat lie the latest issues of National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler magazines. These are not your typical in-flight magazines—there is no Sudoku or list of complimentary beverages. Instead, there are stories about the world, “and all that is in it,” just like early Society member Alexander Graham Bell wished for.

After 125 years of global exploration and all the amazing stories and pictures, it almost seems perverse to be sitting here, amongst champagne and caviar, whilst zooming high above the French Alps.

From up here, the lines of misted peaks are no more than a wispy snapshot of the mind, or some geographical afterthought. An hour later, the mountains have turned red-brown—this is Anatolia, a place I know only from reading National Geographic.

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Boarding our private jet this morning for National Geographic’s 125th Anniversary Expedition. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Inside the plane, Wade’s epic lecture has finished, and now National Geographic photographer Michael Melford heads up the aisle to take the mic.

“Which aperture should I set my camera to?” I ask him, joking, as if a single camera setting would do for the next three weeks.

“f8 & be there!” he shoots back with a smile, repeating the old-age mantra of every National Geographic photographer.

Be there. Be where the brilliant pictures are happening, and then maybe—just maybe, your pictures will be brilliant, too. This is the philosophy that made National Geographic what it is today—a way of knowing the world that compelled us to travel far and wide.

As Michael shows us each cover photo he’s taken, he tells the story that comes with it. Be it a brown bear in Russia or a silvery morning in Acadia National Park, not one of these captures moments is a static event. Each one took premeditation, error, adjustment, retrials and persistence. Each photo is a story of progression, each photo is an expedition all by itself—a trip that Michael remembers out loud, in his own form of dead reckoning. This is how I got here.

Now all of us are traveling together, on this rare journey of a lifetime. We are not going “around the world”—there is no conquest, no finish line with confetti and trophies and hoopla.

All we are seeking is to be there—and to always know where we are in the world, by remembering how we got there.

When we land, the air outside is warm and calming. Men with turbans float about in white robes, and the lights of Muscat glow with every color, as if we’re bouncing through some bizarre Arabic video arcade.

The hotel is a sumptuous temple of gold, marble, and light—I inhale the frankincense and feel woozy with the accomplishment of arrival. It’s so weird to confront this strange present—London seems infinitely far from this exotic reality, but logically I know how we got here.

The flight to Oman took just seven and a half hours, but when I consider everything else—the Society, the private jet, the army of inspiring experts like Wade and Michael, , the attics stuffed with yellow-bound magazines, all the great adventures and awesome stories, this lovely band of dedicated travelers I am with, and even me tapping this out online right now—it took us 125 years to get here.


This trip is one of the many ways to travel with National Geographic Expeditions. To learn more about all of our travel programs, click here.