Books: How to be an Explorer by Tiger Cox

From Living Woods issue 62

Paragliding instructor TIGER COX has drawn on his love of the great outdoors to write a book for children. It’s packed full of practical ‘how-to’ guides to introduce children to a wide array of outdoor skills, as well as inspirational stories about real explorers.

In a world when we are often cautious about letting children exercise their curiosity and make their own mistakes, this book is a breath of fresh air. It encourages children to explore the world around them and gives them the tools to do it safely. Tiger explains how he came to write it.

128 pages, illustrated
Button Books
RRP £16.99, available online and from all good bookshops.

Every 13-year-old dreams of waking up and not having to go to school that day, or the next day, or potentially ever again. Rarely does such a fantasy come true, but for me it did. What would have been a transition into Year 9 became a transition onto a home-built sailing boat. I don’t think it would have been my first choice, to explore the world by sea, in such close proximity to my parents. Ask most kids what they would do without school and their answers might revolve around friends, pizza, and a heavy amount of screen time. Not so much parents, rice, and near constant seasickness. Luckily, I didn’t have too much say in the matter and we set out to sea in June 2011.

Sea and shore
Our boat, Bumblebee, was a 32ft Wharram catamaran, built mostly from wood. She had two masts to complement her two hulls, weighed three tonnes, and was a real labour of love on my parents’ part. When my father built his first boat, he acquired a felling licence and made the mast out of a tree from Abbot’s Wood. That mast had promptly snapped under the stresses of sailing, so I took great comfort in the fact that Bumblebee’s masts were aluminium.
We sailed down the west coast of Europe to Africa, stopping and exploring many places along the way. Then we set off across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean, a near-three-week voyage in itself.

In a remote bay, off the Caribbean island of St Vincent, we made a discovery. On that island, the jungle grows right down to beaches of black sand, and often there is a shallow coral reef close to shore. So we anchored our sailing boat at a safe distance and rowed our smaller inflatable dinghy towards the nearest land.

As we got closer, we could see the shapes of buildings hidden among the leaves, but not a person in sight. When we reached the beach, we tied our dinghy above the high tide mark and followed an overgrown path into the jungle. There, to our surprise, we found the abandoned buildings of an old hotel.

All around us, isolated guest rooms were being reclaimed by nature, branches sprouting from their windows as if the guests had turned into trees. A deserted restaurant still had tables ready for diners, but the only customers now were lizards and giant land crabs scuttling across the floor. It is remarkable how quickly plants and trees will take over man’s hardest efforts.

As we reached the highest point above the bay, we came across a house that had taken many blows from storms and hurricanes over the years, and half of the roof was missing. We crept from room to room, passing by a row of empty bookshelves. Books were scattered across the floor, most of them water damaged and unreadable. Just one hard-cover book was in reasonable condition. I grabbed it and hurried to join my parents on the wobbly balcony. A great view of the Caribbean Sea stretched out before us; I wasn’t looking though, I had begun reading.

Planting the seed
That book sparked a great curiosity in my mind, and led me to the realization that young people do not need to ‘become’ explorers, we just need to ‘be’ the explorers we already are. To find out what that book was about, you’ll have to read my book, which was inspired by it.

When I was writing my own book years later, I drew on my experiences growing up to craft the kind of content I would have liked to read back then. Not just during our year of sailing, but before that. I have always found myself at home outdoors. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t stand being indoors or in a classroom, I didn’t have any conditions or learning difficulties that made being indoors difficult, I just found that my practical mind had more freedom to create things outside, especially in woodlands.

I grew up at the eastern end of the South Downs National Park, near Lewes, where the rolling hills are mostly barren of trees. That only made going to the woods even more exciting. I was introduced to Friston Forest at a young age. I was shown how to read a map and build a sense of direction, which left me without fear of venturing into the unknown.

Perhaps more importantly, my parents weren’t breathing down my neck all the time saying ‘be careful’. I think they had used all that kind of energy up on my four older sisters.

Well-meaning parents can be the biggest barrier to kids feeling comfortable in the natural world. I am not a parent, so who am I to give parenting advice, but if I was, I would try very hard to not project my fears onto my children. The more time I spend helping them to acquire skills, and the ethos behind the use of those skills, the safer they are going to be. If I didn’t help them learn anything (and that might mean learning some things myself first!), then all I’d be left with are words of fear.

It may sound depressing, but this cycle of ignorance around nature, outdoor skills, and what is truly risky, is actually getting worse from generation to generation. It is up to us, the responsible adults, to flip this spiral upside down. Now is not the time to lament the amount of time we are all spending looking down at screens. Now is the time to find some balance in our lives and those of young people, perhaps with a book about outdoors skill or with a few hours spent under the canopy of a forest. Or better still, take an outdoor skills book into the forest with you!

I think I have just the thing . . .