Some people are natural leaders and bravely explore uncharted territory, fully prepared to take on any challenge in the pursuit of knowledge. Other people are lucky to get their pants on in the morning without serious injury, but dammit, they want to go exploring, too. Here are some explorers so flashily incompetent, it's a wonder they ever made it out their front door.
#5. The Pimp Who Crossed Alaska
Parisian Charles Bedaux led probably one of the most bizarre career trajectories in history. After dropping out of school at age 16, he became a pimp in Paris for a while until he picked up his comically oversized feather hat and made his way to America in search of greater aspirations. There he made his fortune as an efficiency consultant, after which he apparently got bored again and decided to explore a path for a proposed Alaskan-Canadian highway, a pursuit for which he had nothing remotely resembling credentials.
Well ... almost nothing.
In 1934, Bedaux fitted out his expedition exactly how you would imagine a former pimp would -- by gathering two limousines, five newly invented Citroen half-tracks, 130 horses loaded with essentials like caviar and champagne, a film crew, eminent scientific surveyors, his wife, a butler, a valet, a maid-in-waiting, and, of course, his mistress. Because you really want to spend months in the wilderness with your wife and your something-on-the-side both cramped in the same tight quarters.
Apparently, blazing a trail through the unexplored Alaskan wilderness was a little more difficult than the caviar-fueled cakewalk he'd imagined in his head. Things went to hell almost immediately on the "Champagne Safari" when the horses kept getting bogged down in the mud and the half-tracks continually malfunctioned. He soon dumped the surveying equipment (along with the "scientific" part of the scientific exploration) so there would be more room for caviar and formal ballroom attire. Rather than leave the half-tracks in the mud like any old boring explorer, he filmed his crew dumping a few over a cliff and attempting to blow one up, because that's how you abandon vehicles when you're a pimp.
The expedition was stopped by heavy snow about 15 days out from their destination, but that was close enough for Bedaux to call it a win and head home. There is some speculation that the whole exploration was actually part of a Nazi plan to build a highway to allow easy access through North America, a claim that is lent some weight by the fact that Bedaux tried to cozy up to both the Axis and the Allies during World War II, until he was imprisoned in the U.S. for espionage. It seems outlandish, but then so does a safari-going millionaire pimp, so who can say?
#4. The Cop Who Underestimated Australia
In the 1860s, the colonists of Victoria, Australia, were flush with money from a recent gold rush and decided to send someone to find a land route to the northern coast for no real reason other than to show how rich and generally awesome they were. Being that white people had only been in Australia for a few years at this point, we can maybe partially forgive the fact that they chose a policeman named Robert Burke to lead the expedition -- a man with no scientific or exploring experience who was well known for getting lost in his own town.
When the expedition set off from Melbourne on August 19, 1860, Burke made sure to load his wagons with everything he figured they would need for a few months in the desert, including a Chinese gong, a heavy wooden table and chair set, 1,500 pounds of sugar, and a stationery cabinet (where else was he going to store his stationery? In his backpack like an asshole?). Equipped more like a traveling circus than an exploring party, the group covered a whopping 4 miles on the first day of their journey, making camp basically within sight of their houses.
"This looks good for the night. Why don't we make camp and order a pizza?"
In fact, it was two months before they actually reached uncharted territory, which is amusing when you consider that the mailman routinely took the same trip in two weeks, but he didn't have a sweet Chinese gong. The long start meant that they arrived in the desert just as summer was beginning, but Burke didn't let a little thing like daily temperatures of over 100 degrees slow him down, possibly because to travel any slower, he'd have to be going in reverse.
Eventually, Burke got annoyed with the slow pace and left the bulk of the party at a base camp to wait while he set off with three men to continue to the coast. They almost made it, but were stopped by a dense mangrove forest, so the mission was technically a failure. On the way back to base camp, Burke accidentally set fire to the tent, destroying nearly all of their possessions, shot at the Aborigines who were trying to help them, and (we assume, based on prior idiocy) probably pissed in the water bottle.
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And that's how American beer was born.
They returned to base camp only to find it deserted, so Burke buried a note for his men and set off for home. Unfortunately, he was a much better digger than an explorer, because nobody could find the note, which was pretty much his final blunder, since Burke was never seen again.
#3. The Canadian Who Thought the North Pole Was Easy
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Vilhjalmur Stefansson was a celebrated polar scientist with a worrying lack of respect for the frigid Arctic wastes, insisting that it was "a friendly place to live in for the man who used common sense." This should have been the first red flag for those who decided to join him on his 1913 voyage to the Arctic, but he scraped together a crew anyway and embarked upon a journey that went about as well as expected for a guy who saw no effective difference between the North Pole and Florida.
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"You holdin' out on us, Santa?"
Stefansson's first move was to buy the cheapest ship he could find, an aging wreck called the Karluk, which had been condemned by the navy as unsuitable for use. Even several months of repairs couldn't convince the captain he'd hired that she would make it through the ice, or even to the ice, because the steering broke several times between ports. An experienced crew might have balanced out the problem, but unfortunately Stefansson hired crew members whose experience consisted mostly of being in the general vicinity of the dockyards right before they launched. Stefansson told them not to worry about bringing winter clothing because he would provide it. (He didn't.)
Unsurprisingly, the Karluk barely made it to the Arctic before getting hopelessly stuck in the ice. This was of course when Stefansson stepped up to the plate and used his leadership skills to guide his crew to safety. Oh wait ... actually, one day he told the crew that he was going hunting and simply never returned, making his own way back to civilization while the crew patiently waited for him to return with dinner. Eventually, half of the Karluk's crew managed to survive the harrowing journey across hundreds of miles of ice and freezing temperatures in what Stefansson regarded the happiest place on Earth.
"Personally, I compare it to a kiss from a rose."
Despite failing on a level that can only be described as epic, Stefansson has earned a probably undeserved hero reputation among some, even having the Stefansson Library at Dartmouth College named after him. Presumably "Asshole Library" didn't rate well with the committee.