AN OLD BRICK BUILDING in Midtown Manhattan may house a secret society of adventurers and explorers who have single-handedly shaped the course of human progress. Or, perhaps the Explorer’s Club is for quirky scientists and academics to share inspiring stories under the wild eyes of stuffed animals.
I’m determined to find out which, and my invitation to be Masters of Ceremonies at the 108th Explorer’s Club Annual Dinner is the key I need to open this somewhat mysterious door.
The event itself is a sold-out black-tie soiree at the Waldorf-Astoria, a fundraiser that brings together members, sponsors, media, and, most famously, creatures that didn’t get away. Hissing cockroaches, python patties, lamb eyeball cocktails, and testicles are just some of the hors d’oeuvres on the menu, which never fail to attract some press (Read the full menu).
Some of the first people I meet include the Ambassadors of Papua New Guinea, the Ambassador of Nepal, followed by a Navy Seal, an archaeologist fresh off the plane from “major discoveries” in Egypt, and the world’s most famous ocean toxicologist, Dr. Susan Shaw. Add gorgeous women dripping in diamonds, free-flowing single-malt whiskey, and, well, it’s going to be that kind of evening.
I’m ushered on stage by two Maori dancers, channelling spirits to beat back their nerves. The ballroom is stunning — beautifully lit, big screens in every direction, a podium bracketed by clear “Obama” teleprompters. I’m wearing a rental tux with a bright tangerine waistcoat and bowtie. A marine scientist compliments me because, surely, I must have known that’s the colour certain fish turn to avoid predators.
Under the spotlight, nobody is avoiding me, as I begin the task of driving the evening forward, announcing key awards, introducing special guests (the keynote speaker is doc legend Ken Burns, astronaut Buzz Aldrin closes out the night while Rocket Man plays in the background), and trying very hard not to make a complete arse of myself.
Not for the first time, being a mongrel South Afri-Canadian aids my rescue. “You brought such an element of class to the evening,” a member tells me later, confirming the power of a good accent, even in a room of some of the world’s most traveled people.
I got the gig after meeting the outgoing Explorer’s Club president Dr. Lorie Karnath at a dinosaur fossil excavation in northern Alberta, organized by the actor Dan Aykroyd. We sipped vodka out of a crystal skull, and explored the area by jet boat and helicopter. You hear people say things like that all the time at the Explorer’s Club.
I didn’t yet know that the club’s illustrious past included members like Edmund Hillary, Jane Goodall, Neil Armstrong, Sylvia Earle, Ranulph Fiennes, Teddy Roosevelt, and every major explorer worth their pick-axe. The Clubhouse — with its steep staircases, hidden doors, and exotic curios — looks like it could hold all secrets of the universe, some of which are revealed with regular talks and events that are open to the public.
You have to be nominated by a member to join, and fees range depending on your status. Visit the Explorer’s Club website, look for events in your area, and perhaps do some digging on your own. Much like the 70 million year-old fossils I unearthed in the muddy banks of Alberta, you never know what you may find, and where it might take you.
Robin Esrock and filmmaker Ian Mackenzie stayed in New York courtesy of the zen haven known as Sanctuary Hotel.