The 5 Most Hilariously Inept Explorers of All Time
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.
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?
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.
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.
The Canadian Who Thought the North Pole Was Easy
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.
"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.
The Asshole Who Tried to Conquer the Arctic
Adolphus Greely, in addition to having a name like a Captain Planet villain, was a Civil War veteran and strict disciplinarian who, in 1881, was chosen by the U.S. Army to form an expedition to the Arctic to take scientific measurements of the climate. He was given a short amount of time and a small pool of volunteers to choose from, most of whom were cavalrymen and none of whom had ever been to the north.
Greely and his men arrived at their Arctic destination with little difficulty and didn't seem to suffer from any foreboding or sense of doom, even after their ships sailed away without them with middle fingers waving in the air. The plan was for a supply ship to return the following year, but until then, they were on their own.
But morale started to wither away as six months of darkness settled in and temperatures reached -60 degrees, while every day the men took 500 separate climate measurements. Greely forbade lying down during the "day," so the men ended up sitting on benches arguing with each other. Eventually the enlisted men got fed up with Greely's strict discipline, which included orders for them to do the officers' laundry, and got unruly. At which point Greely, with all the tact you'd imagine of a grizzled Civil War veteran, threatened to kill anyone who disobeyed his orders. He was not a well-loved man.
When the supply ship failed to show up the next year, Greely had to make a choice: He could stay in the current base, which was warm and had an ample supply of food and game, while attempting to contact the mainland, or he could follow the Army's contingency orders to the letter and sail through 250 miles of treacherous, icy seas in three tiny boats to meet up at a barren, desolate rendezvous point. Probably without even pausing, Greely loaded up his men onto boats and set out.
"How do you say 'I fucking hate you' in every language known to man?"
After sailing away, Greely started to lose what was left of his sanity and disappeared into his sleeping bag for long stretches of time. After 51 miserable days adrift, they finally arrived at the outpost, where they faced the added challenge of an absolute lack of food. When rescue finally came for them, only six of the original 25 men were still breathing, and they were surviving like the cast of Alive, subsisting entirely on shoe leather and the flesh of their fallen comrades. But hey, they got some insight into the climate of the Arctic. The consensus was "it fucking sucks."
The Mad Frenchman Who Tried to Take Over Mexico
In 1643, Frenchman Rene-Robert Cavelier de La Salle was on the path to becoming a Jesuit missionary, but after nine years of training, he was kicked out for "mental instability." Apparently it didn't sink in that they were very politely trying to tell him he was "nucking futs," because his next choice was to sail to Canada and become an explorer.
To secure his place on an expedition, La Salle initially lied about being fluent in the native languages of Algonquian and Iroquoian, possibly assuming that he wasn't going to have to put his money where his lying mouth was (despite the fact that they were traveling through the heart of the Iroquis Confederation), or maybe it was just his crazy acting up. The party did soon meet a group of Iroquois and discovered that La Salle couldn't actually speak the language, at which point La Salle faked an illness and disappeared into the woods, presumably leaving his party and the Native Americans awkwardly staring at each other like sixth graders at a school dance.
"Goddammit, what's that idiot doing now? Will someone please tie him up?"
La Salle resurfaced in Canada the next year as if nothing had ever happened, and much later he claimed to have discovered the Mississippi River during his disappearance and just neglected to mention it, maybe because he was seeing much crazier stuff in his head all the time.
But that's nothing compared to his later ambitions. To get into the good graces of his French homeland, which was at war with Spain at the time, La Salle proposed to conquer part of Spanish-owned Mexico by leading an army of 200 Frenchmen and 15,000 American Indians against them. Although he never adequately explained how he would convince 15,000 Indians to help him, as presumably he still couldn't talk to them.
Louis XIV thought the plan was just crazy enough to work, so he approved the project and let La Salle set off for disaster. La Salle immediately quarreled with his commanders and soon lost most of his men due to sickness, piracy, and mass desertions. The few remaining ships landed about 500 miles from their destination, which La Salle figured was close enough. He then did what any inspiring leader would do and immediately built a prison to hold those who had fallen asleep on watch.
The Indians weren't exactly enamored with La Salle's brilliant leadership tactics and decided to stay the hell out of it. Of course La Salle's amazingly stupid plan failed, and that's why today you can't get decent French food in Mexico.
"No, seriously, they just pick up anything and eat it over there."
Related Reading: At least these people ACTUALLY journeyed to where they said they did, unlike that hack-job Marco Polo. Maybe he was wise to skip out on his adventures. These clearly cursed expeditions are a solid argument against travel. The famous Dr. Livingstone ended up trapped in a zoo for all his wanderlust. Visiting unexplored spots on the map CAN work out, though- these guys were all mistaken for gods.