The Explorers Club: Inside the world’s most elite group of adventurers

CNN  — 

Across the stark steppes of the Gobi Desert, an arid Martian-like landscape stretches toward the horizon.

This is the largest desert in Asia, accounting for roughly 30% of Mongolia as well as a good portion of northern China.

It was in this harsh terrain over a century ago that American naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews came across a nest of dinosaur eggs – a major discovery that led to a host of fossil excavations.

Just this past summer, the Hong Kong chapter of the Explorers Club, together with the Mongolian Institute of Paleontology and Geology, traced a similar route through the desert, this time using NASA technologies, such as drone-mapping, multispectral and thermal imaging – the same technology used to explore Mars – to collect data and help identity fossil sites.

On the 20-day Roy Chapman Andrews Centennial Expedition, the 35-person team found potential evidence of at least three previously unknown dinosaur species and excavated 250 new dinosaur fossil sites.

This is just one of the club’s many adventures in destinations around the world.

Together, they’ve hiked through the snowy mountains of Kazakhstan, skied the remote mountains of Kashmir and, in the near future, plan to embark on new missions to explore hidden underwater civilizations in Indonesia and subterranean cave systems in Thailand.

“I truly believe that exploration is at the core of humanity. It’s why we are where we are today and it’s why we’re seriously looking into being an interplanetary species in the not too distant future,” Matt Prior, director of the Explorers Club’s Hong Kong chapter, tells CNN Travel.

“It’s instinctual and it’s vital to our survival.”

Meet the Hong Kong Explorers Club

Established in 1904, the Explorers Club is made up of some of the world's most fascinating adventurers.

Adventure is embedded in the DNA of every Explorers Club member, and Matt Prior is a prime example.

A former Royal Air Force pilot, in 2006 Prior drove a US$200 Suzuki car from London to Mongolia – an adventure that set him on the path he’s on today.

“Off the back of the Mongolia trip, several other overland trips evolved, including a circumnavigation of Siberia’s Lake Baikal in winter on a World War II-era motorbike to participating in a round-the-world trip and an ascent to Everest base camp in an old London taxi,” says the 34-year-old, who now runs three adventure travel businesses and holds the Guinness World Record for “Highest Altitude Reached by a Taxi.”

That’s 17,143 feet, in case you’re wondering.

“You could call it an instinct to explore or just pure curiosity.”

While building his adventure resume, Prior met fascinating climbers, paddlers, explorers, scientists and photographers from all over the world.

They all seemed to have one thing in common: The Explorers Club.

Established in 1904, the New York-based Club brings together some of the world’s best minds, with a shared mission to further multidisciplinary field research and cross-border cooperation.

During the recent Gobi Desert expedition, the group excavated 250 new dinosaur fossil sites.

After a few years circling the periphery, he was invited to join the club in New York in 2015. After leaving the Royal Air Force, he moved to Hong Kong to be a full-time commercial pilot and explore new opportunities.

Soon enough, the stars aligned. Michael Barth, a veteran explorer and Bhutan expert, asked Prior and a few other members to help establish the Explorers Club Hong Kong Chapter in 2016 – now one of 32 international branches.

“As with anything of this nature, it’s literally starting from scratch. The hardest thing is actually getting busy, successful and transient people together in one room, at the same time, and then make something actually happen off the back of that meeting,” recalls Prior.

“We managed to form a core group and soon realized that we needed to do something big to put the Hong Kong chapter on the map…This is why we decided to plan [and execute] the Gobi Expedition.”

That’s exactly what they achieved. At the Explorers’ Club annual dinner in March, headquarters awarded the Hong Kong Chapter the prestigious Citation of Merit for their discoveries.

It’s the first chapter in the history of the Explorers Club to achieve this merit, which has previously been awarded to the likes of Naomi Uemura, the first man to reach the North Pole solo; intrepid wildlife conservationist and award-winning author Anne LaBastille; and Jeff Bezos’ Apollo F-1 Engine Search and Recovery Team.

World’s most elite travelers

The club has over 3,500 members worldwide.

First rule of the Explorers Club? Don’t call it a “travel club.”

“It’s not some sort of holiday service or travel club, which some people seem to think,” says Prior. “It’s very much about being a self-starter and gathering the right people and resources together [for extensive, scientific-driven expeditions] to turn your ideas into reality.”

Counting just over 3,500 members worldwide, the elite group of explorers and scientists has been involved in many of the world’s most prestigious discoveries across the realms of astronomy, archeology, physics, ethnology, paleontology, zoology, geography and much more.

These aren’t just everyday travelers – the highly exclusive club requires extensive criteria for membership, including participation in “one or more documented scientific expeditions,” according to the site.

Sorry, travel photography, educational tours, game hunting or simply exploring remote corners of the world doesn’t cut it.

To become a member, one has to have participated in at least one documented scientific expedition.

For those who aren’t qualified to be a full member, it’s still possible to join as a “Friend” of the club while building up credentials.

But those who pass the vetting process will be surrounded by an impressive crowd: Members have been among the first to reach the North Pole, summit Mount Everest and walk on the moon.

In Hong Kong, there are over 70 members, including Barth and Prior, ultra-marathoner David Gething, trekking specialist Adrian Bottomley, former Canadian ambassador to North and South Korea Ted Lipman, and wildlife conservationist and Nat Geo Explorer Laurel Chor, to name a few.

“The club is legendary,” Chor tells CNN Travel. “It’s known for its amazing members who’ve done [notable] things, like astronauts and people who have gone down into the deepest parts of the ocean… It’s amazing to be a part of the community.”

The chapter meets once a month to listen to talks from fellow members, discuss upcoming expeditions and welcome new faces.

“We invite members from within our chapter to introduce themselves and their area of expertise – to deepen relationships and foster new ideas,” says Prior. “It’s also a social opportunity to catch up on existing projects and see how we can all help each other out.”

There’s an annual club fee of US$340-$1,365 per year depending on membership status, plus an additional fee of HK$1,000 (US$128) per year in Hong Kong.

Trip funding varies. Ski and dive trips are self-funded, whereas for the larger expeditions, the club often tries to secure sponsors, though that’s on a case-by-case basis, says Prior.

Adventures around the world

The group has embarked on many adventures together, including journeys to Nepal.

New ideas constantly crop up. Coming up in 2019, Explorers Club members will travel all over the world in pursuit of science and discovery.

Though still in planning phases, anticipated Asia expeditions span from uncovering underwater civilizations in Indonesia to kickstarting conversation projects in Africa, exploring underground cave systems in Thailand and studying flash flood warning systems in Bhutan.

These are multi-disciplinary expeditions bringing together experts from all over the world to work in harsh environments. Every trip is the result of a tremendous amount of organization, cooperation and planning across borders.

“First and foremost, you need to think about what it is you’re actually trying to achieve and then work backwards from there,” says Prior.

“This will include things like basic survival, the weather, environmental conditions, technology, logistics, budget, partners, how the resources will be allocated and tracked… Is this efficient? How will we process and use the data? How will we deal with people coming and going? Do we have a backup plan for when things go wrong? What’s the medical and evacuation plan? The list just goes on.”

Exploration drives progress

Matt Prior, director of the Explorers Club's Hong Kong chapter, says exploration is vital to the survival of the human race.

According to members of the Explorers Club, the world is in desperate need of more exploration.

“Honestly, I’d go as far as saying it’s vital to our survival. With all the distractions and technology that’s very much a part of modern-day life, I think a lot of people are really struggling with who we are as humans and why we’re here,” says Prior.

“My own opinion, as I travel the world and just observe, is that many people don’t seem to be that conscious and aware of what is going on around them… and they’re definitely not willing to be intentionally uncomfortable even for a short time.”

While it might not be realistic for everyday travelers to discover new dinosaur species in the Gobi Desert or uncover ancient underwater civilizations in Indonesia, Chor agrees that breaking out of your comfort zone can lead to more meaningful travel.

“I think exploration reflects this growing trend in people who want to have more meaningful experiences that contribute to something – society, science, exploration – instead of just visiting [a place]. I think, in a way, it also reflects more awareness about environmental issues, since explorers of course emphasize conservation and preservation of wild spaces.”

Prior echoes this sentiment, adding that travelers who push mental and physical boundaries will not only grow personally but also contribute to the global community.

“By exploring, we can find answers to life’s many mysteries, many of which have global applications that can benefit us all,” he says. “It helps to break down barriers in terms of relationships and knowledge, which ultimately drives positive progress for us as the human race.”