Tracks, by Robyn Davidson, is one of those books which you know of and have an idea of what they are about but then never quite get around to reading. Then, when you do, you wonder why it took you so long.
Tracks is Davidson’s account of her 2,700 kilometre, 9 month solo journey across the Australian desert with four camels and a dog. Although raised on a cattle farm from the age of four, Davidson had few practical skills which would assist her and so she spent two years, including doing a dummy run of 300km before attempting her longer 1977 journey.
I had understood freedom and security. The need to rattle the foundations of habit. That to be free one needs constant and unrelenting vigilance over one’s weaknesses. A vigilance which requires a moral energy most of us are incapable of manufacturing. We relax back into the moulds of habit. They are secure, they bind us and keep us contained at the expense of freedom. To break the moulds, to be heedless of the seductions of security is an impossible struggle, but one of the few that count. To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe.
I’ve seen Tracks on the shelves in bookshops and referred to in the lists of best or favourite travel books but, if I’m honest, hadn’t paid it too much attention until I recently came across a video on Deskbound Traveller, the site of Michael Kerr, journalist with The Daily Telegraph.
The video is a TEdX video of Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer assigned to photograph Davidson’s journey which he did by periodically locating her along her route. He would then spend a few days with her before leaving, not knowing whether she would be alive the next time he came to look.
Rick Smolan’s talk is an unassuming yet jaw dropping insight to a quite extraordinary journey and watching this video has ensured that Tracks is now firmly on my ever-growing to read list. A separate book of Ricka Molan’s photographs is also available:
Smolan’s TEDX talk seems to be a re-run of a better edited version with more imagery available on National Geographic‘s website and also on Youtube:
Throughout the trip I kept saying to Robyn you need to keep a journal because someday you’re going to want to write a book about this and she said why do you have to turn everything into a product like why can’t you just experienced things and not always be filtering it and recording it and documenting it like you’re never there because you’re always outside looking in at it so when she called me and said she written a book I was like you’re kidding me…
Despite initial reluctance, Robyn obviously went on to write about her journey. A National Geographic article appeared in 1978 and the book followed in 1980, published by Jonathan Cape. Tracks was awarded the first Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1980. It is in good company as the list of subsequent winners of that award (it has been the Dolman Best Travel Book Award since 2006) reads like a who’s who of travel writing from the last 40 years.
In the course of writing Tracks, Davidson became friends with Doris Lessing and, according to Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography, also with travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who introduced Davidson to Salman Rushdie, an encounter which resulted in Rushdie leaving his wife for the woman Chatwin called “my friend the ‘camel lady'”.
There are videos available online with Robyn Davidson talking about her experience which are worth watching. Davidson has interesting observations on the objectification of her trip by others as well as nomadic culture and, in this interview, tips on how to work with camels:
MIKE SMITH: What would you give to the audience as Robyn’s three tips on how to work camels?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Watch the camel day and night, watch its behaviour and learn how it works. The first thing is just watch them endlessly. Adore them, but never let them take an inch or they will take a mile. And don’t be afraid to beat the hell out of them.
Robyn Davidson has written other travel books, including a book of essays, Travelling Light, Desert Places, about nomadic cultures and an anthology of travel writing published by Picador, Journeys.
I loved that journey. I loved it, I think, because I had never before in my life been totally without sight of another human being for a full day and a night. Few people have.
Roald Dahl is famous as the author of acclaimed children’s books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, George’s Marvellous Medicine, Fantastic Mr Fox, Danny Champion of the World and, of course, Revolting Rhymes all of which were among my favourite books when I was growing up.
Going Solo, however, is non-fiction and is the second of Dahl’s two short autobiographical works. The first, Boy recalls his childhood and school days. Going Solo finds Dahl leaving home and England to find his way in the world as an employee of the Shell oil company in an African outpost of the British Empire. A companion volume to both is Love from Boy, a collection of Dahl’s letters to his mother.
The PSES (now the British Exploring Society and part of the Royal Geographical Society) was founded in 1932 by Surgeon Commander George Murray Levick, who was a member of Captain Scott’s final Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13. The expedition which Dahl joined involved hiking through Newfoundland carrying a 114lb pack and involved experimenting with eating boiled lichen and reindeer most supplement their meagre rations.
Unsure what he wanted to do with his life after leaving school, Dahl told Plomley that he knew at the very least that he wanted to “get a job that will take me to distant lands.”
You must remember that there was virtually no air travel in the early 1930s. Africa was two weeks away from England by boat and it took you about five weeks to get to China. These were distant and magical lands and nobody went to them just for a holiday. You went there to work. Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours and nothing is fabulous any more. But it was a very different matter in 1933. (from Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl)
Dahl went for an interview with Shell to join its Eastern Staff. One of 5 successful interviewees out of 60 candidates, Dahl believed that Shell’s board of directors had been impressed by his school prize for heavyweight boxing.
Dahl’s Shell Company interview, his trip to Newfoundland and early working days in London as a businessman are covered in Boy:
The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him…A person is a fool to become a writer, His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it. (from Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl)
Dahl also described in Boy how he had been offered and turned down a position in Egypt:
What I wanted was jungles and lions and elephants and tall coconut palms swaying on silvery beaches, and Egypt had none of that. Egypt was desert country. It was bare and sandy and full of tombs and relics and Egyptians and I didn’t fancy it at all.
Within a week of turning down Egypt, Dahl was offered East Africa and Going Solo picks up his story after the Shell interview and the completion of two years’ training in the UK and joins Dahl on his way to Mombasa in 1938 aboard the SS Mantilla.
Please do not forget that in the 1930s the British Empire was still very much the British Empire, and the men and women who kept it going were a race of people that most of you have never encountered and now you never will. I consider myself very lucky to have caught a glimpse of this rare species while it still roamed the forests and foothills of the earth, for today it is totally extinct. More English than the English, more Scottish than the Scots, they were the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet.
Only 22 years old, Dahl was headed for Tanganyika (what is now broadly Tanzania) and Dar es Salaam, where he learned Swahili, shook scorpions from his boots, contracted malaria, visited sisal plantations and diamond mines and “saw that chaps had the right type of lubricating oil for machinery.”
Dahl was in East Africa for only a short time when the Second World War broke out. Dahl saw active service in North Africa, Greece and Palestine before being invalided back to the UK.
From there he was sent to Washington DC and formed part of British intelligence’s efforts to persuade the United States to join the war. It was in Washington and after a meeting with CS Forester that Dahl began to write.
At the end of the war, Dahl resigned from the Shell company and started his writing career. The rest, as they say, is history.
Going Solo focuses on Dahl’s time in East Africa and as a pilot in the Second World War. It contains entertaining descriptions of his journey out to Africa and the colonial/empire types he meets on board as well as his brief period working in Tanganyika where he encountered lions and black mambas. This part of Going Solo is relatively short although, as Dahl frankly acknowledged:
any job, even if it is in Africa, is not continuously enthralling, I have tried to be as selective as possible and have written only about those moments that I consider memorable.
Dahl, however, sells his East African experience short in his foreword to Going Solo. A volume of Dahl’s correspondence, edited by his biographer Donald Sturrock, was published in 2016 under the title Love From Boy.
These letters containfunny and candid glimpses of Dahl’s experiences in Africa, from daily routines, nights getting ‘whistled’ at the Dar es Salaam club, drinking coconut milk and gin, fancy dress parties, living 50 yards from the beach in a villa with staff, snooker, golf, cinema visits, dinners with colonels, breakfasts of tea and an orange and hours spent listening to the wireless or symphonies on his gramophone:
It looks as though [my drinks bill] may be a bit above the average this month – but as I said before – don’t get excited, I’m not becoming a toper [drunkard]
As the Second World War draws closer, both Going Solo and the letters in Love from Boy chart the rising tensions with the East African German community. In one letter, Dahl recounts an evening spent throwing darts at photos of Hitler and Goebbels, reporting:
There’s the hell of a showdown – you see there are so many Germans in this place & everything is rather on the boil – we seemed to have squeezed the bugger…Moral: Don’t throw darts at Hitler’s Balls in public they’re private parts.
After a brief spell in the King’s African Rifles rounding up Germans in East Africa at the outbreak of the war, Dahl drove 600 miles to Nairobi at the end of 1939 where he enlisted as an airman and completed his basic pilot training.
He writes about the “marvellous fun” of flying over Africa and viewing the Rift Valley’s volcanic craters, lakes, villages, flamingos, wildebeest and giraffes and how, in Iraq where he underwent further training, tribesmen took potshots at the planes from the hills.
While in Iraq, Dahl took a photograph of the Arch of Ctesiphon while flying a biplane, for which he was given a bronze medal by the Egyptian Photographic Society in Cairo. His letters also describe sightseeing trips to Cairo, the Pyramids and to Babylon and detail the daily hazards of life in Iraq from scorpions, snakes, the flooding of the Euphrates and the Bedouin.
After Iraq, Dahl was posted to North Africa and then to Greece where he took part in the Battle for Athens, flying a Hawker Hurricane fighter before being evacuated to Egypt. From Suez, he drove alone up to Haifa where he rejoined his squadron and the Syrian Campaign against the Vichy Airforce.
It was a Sunday morning and the Frenchmen were evidently entertaining their girlfriends and showing off their aircraft to them, which was a very French thing to do in the middle of a war at a front-line aerodrome.
Going Solo is primarily a wartime memoir but evokes the places he is posted at that particular time from colonial life in East Africa, drinking retsina and eating olives in Greece and encountering Jewish refugees in (then) Palestine. His letters in Love from Boy give more of a feel for daily life, are amusing and well worth a read.
Dahl’s descriptions of air battles in Going Solo are exhilarating although his enthralment with flying is tempered by sober descriptions of how only 3 of the 16 men he trained with survived the war, comrades who were killed and the long odds of surviving as a wartime pilot.
However, before reading Going Solo, I hadn’t appreciated that Dahl was nearly among those who died following a near fatal crash in North Africa which left him badly burned and temporarily without sight.
This crash has been credited with starting Dahl’s writing career. According to Ronald Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock:
A monumental bash on the head” was how Dahl once described this accident in the Western Desert, claiming that it directly led to his becoming a writer. This was not just because his first published piece of writing was a semi-fictionalised account of the crash, but also because he suspected that the brain injuries which he received there had materially altered his personality and inclined him to creative writing. (from Roald Dahl: the plane crash that gave birth to a writer by Donald Sturrock, published in The Daily Telegraph, 9 August 2010)
Dahl himself once said of the incident:
It’s my cosy little theory, that because i was a fairly square young chap intent on a happy business life with the Shell Company and that I started writing soon after that maybe the head helped. (from Roald Dahl: In His Own Words)
Dahl continued travelling in later life including to Japan as part of his work on the film of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel You Only Live Twice. Dahl also worked on the screenplay for the film of Fleming’s childrens’ story, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
He went onto to become a highly successful writer of children’s and adult fiction. In relation to his writing, Dahl thought of himself primary as an entertainer but also tried his best to teach children to love reading books:
My crusade is to teach small children to love books so much that it becomes a habit and they realise that books are worth reading.
Books, if you are going to be anything, are vital in life.
For more on Roald Dahl’s life, listen to this edited selection of interviews (or click on embedded player below) covering different episodes from his life and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 as Roald Dahl: In HIs Own Words as part of the BBC’s Roald Dahl at 100 season.
Alternatively, try Donald Sturrock’s biography of Roald Dahl (which was also serialised in The Telegraph, here) or Sturrock’s edited collection of Dahl’s correspondence to his mother which is an excellent and essential companion to Boy and Going Solo and contains letters from his Newfoundland trip, time in East Africa and his war years. There is also Jennet Conant’s history, The Irregulars, which focuses on Roald Dahl’s time in Washington DC.
The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene Vintage, 1st published in 1939
Only the bullet-hole in the porch showed the flaw in Paradise – that this was Mexico. That and the cattle-ticks I found wedged firmly into my arms and thighs when I went to bed.
Mexico held a long fascination for Graham Greene, who had been wanting to see it since reading DH Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent in 1926.
The Lawless Roads is Graham Greene’s second travel book. Journey Without Maps, his first, was about Greene’s 1935 journey through Liberia and was published in 1936, the same year that Greene started in earnest to plan his Mexican journey.
Mexico had been a secular state since its contitution of 1857 (amended in 1917), although the anticlerical provisions of the consitution were not seriously enforced until after the Mexican Revolution and the enactment of a law by President Calles in the 1920s which led to 10 year campaign of anti-Catholic persecution.
Calles lost the 1928 election but, although the new Cardenas administration condemned his policies and arrested and exiled Calles, some states refused to repeal Calles’ policies which still existed in some states by the time Greene visited the country 10 years later.
Although the ostensible reason for Greene’s journey was to visit the Mayan ruins at Palenque, his real purpose was to visit those remaining parts of Mexico where Catholics were still persecuted and were forced to practice their religion covertly. His journey yielded not only the travel book The Lawless Roads but also provided inpsiration and ideas for his 1940 novel The Power and the Glory.
The trip had a long gestation period. Greene didn’t make it to Mexico until the start of 1938 and over the two year planning period his plans suffered several setbacks. It did, however, give him plenty of time in which to prepare himself and according to his biographer, Norman Sherry, Greene had formed a dim view of the counry before he had even left England:
The reading is as morbid as Liberia’s. There seem to be even more diseases, and an average of one shooting a week. This is a conservative estimate by a pro-Government writer!
Greene was joined by his wife, Vivien, for the first part of the journey in the United States. After a brief stay in New York the couple travelled south to New Orelans where Greene parted company with Vivien and continued alone to San Antonio before heading to the border at Laredo.
THE border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money-changers… The man seeking scenery imagines strange woods and unheard-of mountains; the romantic believes that the women over the border will be more beautiful and complaisant than those at home; the unhappy man imagines at least a different hell; the suicidal traveller expects the death he never finds. The atmosphere of the border – it is like starting over again; there is something about it like a good confession: poised for a few happy moments between sin and sin. When people die on the border they call it ‘a happy death’.
Once he had crossed into Mexico, Greene made his way to Monterey, San Luis Potosi and Mexico City before reaching the coast and Veracruz, where the adventure proper was to begin.
Writing about his Mexican journey, Norman Sherry writes that “one has the impression that all was not well with Greene”. That is a considerable understatement. Greene takes every opportunity to express his hatred for Mexico and Mexicans. Little escaped his censure, from the food, fruits, the Mexicans’ attitude to one another, their habits and the insects. He was obviously not enjoying himself yet, as Sherry notes, “there is no doubt about the genuineness of Greene’s reactions” during his journey. Greene was not playing a character simply for literary effect.
From Veracruz, Greene continued his journey to Villahermosa on the Ruiz Cana, a boat he claimed he would not have travelled down the Thames on. The risky passage lasted 50 hours and the majority of it was on the Gulf of Mexico. The overland journeys he makes by mule are also dangerous and arduous and one senses Greene’s eventual relief at reaching San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, the object of his journey.
The entire journey seems to prove Paul Theroux’s point that travel is only glamorous in retrospect but, even though Greene is not breezy company, his descriptions of people and places make The Lawless Roads a great read.
From the Mexican Greene meets in Veracruz who is intent on proving himself a good sport, to Greene’s atmospheric portrayals of Villahermosa and Salto, the epic journeys over the mountains by mule and nights spent in remote huts with armed strangers arriving in the middle of the night, The Lawless Roads must be one of the best accounts of the self-inflicted boredom, discomforts and risks that travel can involve.
He retains an acerbic sense of humour throughout, whether about the food (“the food at lunch-time proved unexpectedly good. I don’t really mean good: one’s standard in Mexico falls with brutal rapidity”) or the relief suggested for his dysentry, (“we stopped at a cantina, and had some mescal – the driver told me it was good for dysentery. I don’t think it was, but it was good for our spirits”).
The Lawless Roads contains many quotable passages and a great deal of truth about the experience of travel including crossing borders; the precautions travellers’ take; the intimate conversations travellers have; the dangers of the ‘quick tour’ and forming generalised judgments about a place based on limited observations; obsessions with insects, not to mention a need to describe toilets and the state of his bowels.
Greene also considers the perennial problem of what to read when travelling:
What books to take on a journey? It is an interesting – and important – problem. In West Africa once I had made the mistake of taking the Anatomy of Melancholy, with the idea that it would, as it were, match the mood. It matched all right, but what one really needs is contrast, and so I surrendered perhaps my only hope of ever reading War and Peace in favour of something overwhelmingly national. And one did want, I found, an English book in this hating and hateful country. [He chose William Cobbett’s Rural Rides and Trollope.]
Perhaps most importantly though, Greene describes the anticlimax that can accompany the end of a journey.
Having suffered with dysentery, Greene was relieved to back on the ‘tourist track’ in Mexico and was looking forward to enjoying its comforts. Yet he seems to arrive back where he started. Despite enduring hardships and achieving what he set out to Greene experiences no joyful climax before the same “irritations and responsibilities of ordinary life” he sought to escape in the first place crowd back in on him. He also seems to feel little pleasure at being home, with war is casting its shadow over daily life in the form of posters warning about the possibility of air raids.
Apparently dissatisfied with Mexico yet not happy to be home, Greene quotes from Yeats’ The Wheel near the end of the book to express an incessant restlessness and desire for change which possibly explains his own wanderlust. A similar sentiment is neatly summed up by the professor he meets earlier in his journey:
The Brokpa, who are ethnically distinct from the Bhutanese, are a tribe of semi-nomadic yak herders. Up to now, the remote village of Merak could only be visited by undertaking a multi-day trek which went over a 4,300m pass. AJ Heath reports that that is about to change with the construction of the first road.
The traditional way of life and distinct cultures of rural communities like the Brokpa in Merak are at risk of disappearing. As communications improve, they lead to a desire for more modernised lifestyles. Electricity was introduced in 2012 which was followed by satellite TV and fridges and mobile phones.
In his article for Lightfoot Travel, AJ Heath noted:
As the majority are illiterate, I was fascinated to know how they put people’s names into their phones. One lady showed me that she used the emojis – ‘dog, dog, cat, heart’ was her son who lives in Thimphu and ‘cat cat heart heart’ was for her daughter.
AJ Heath’s project documents the Brokpa and their way of life, and the articles examine the change that completion of the new road will bring.
Their lives have not really changed in centuries, but change is coming and the change will happen very quickly. I wanted to capture this before it is lost.
As Bhutan develops, its people struggle to preserve their traditional way of life and unique identity as they look for diferent and/or easier ways to earn a living.
The road will increase tourism which will increase the incomes of the Brokpa. Paradoxically, tourism provides an incentive to maintain traditions but its increase will, in turn, also put more pressure on their traditional way of life as the Brokpa use that income to modernise and buy consumer goods.
There is an inevitable tension between the Brokpa’s desire to improve their lives and tourists’ yearning for things to remain as they are. In a bid to prevent the loss of culture as a result of modernisation, the Bhutanese government has introduced legislation to protect cultural traditions.
According to the articles, some fear that this could lead to unequal development within the country with some communites being preserved as living museums to satisfy lucrative tourist demand while other parts of the country are permitted to develop.
Travel in Bhutan is only possible as part of an organised tour, which costs around $250 a day, or $290 if travelling solo or in a pair. The rationale for this daily fee is to permit sustainable tourism which protects Bhutan’s land and culture while offering tourists an insight into a unique way of life. A portion of the fee is used by the government to fund roads, infrastructure, health and education programs.
While money from tourism plays a part in improving the country, the challenge for Bhutan will be how it manages not to distort development while maintaining that income; to keep both international visitors and Bhutan’s population satisfied.
While the tourists yearn for Bhutan to remain the same, Heath said that the Brokpa people welcomed the changes: “They all seemed very excited by the prospects of the new road being built. They thought it would improve their lives and that their living conditions would improve. The road would also bring in more tourists which will give them extra income to buys TVs and fridges.
In a country which places much stock in the idea of Gross National Happiness, only time will reveal the effect the road has on communities like Merak and whether the Bhutanese government and people are able to balance the competing demands of development, tourism and tradition.
And as I rose up and knew I was tired and I continued my journey. (Edward Thomas)
Two contrasting pieces about cycling: a short film on the joys of cycling for pleasure as part of a group and a book on cycling for a living as a courier in London which touches on cycling’s darker, obssessive side.
We go cycling for pleasure, not penance.
Cyclists Special is a 1955 British Transport Film promoting the virtues of weekend cycling for pleasure using special Sunday train services, with their dedicated carriages for storing cycles and buffet cars supplying packed lunches.
Starting in Willesden Junction, London (a station close to my heart), cyclists take the train to Rugby where they begin a tour of parts of Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and Leicesterhire, exploring the countryside and taking in places of historical interest like Kenilworth Castle.
Once outside the town each group spins away on its own particular route, away from the main road into the peaceful countryside where tree lined lanes welcome these friendly positions that bring their exhaust smoke, no petrol fumes, no record or blaring horn. Only the humming of tires and the talk that arises between solicitor and carpenter, teacher and typesetter electrician and radiographer; between people of all ages ranks and station, who rediscover their common humanity in finding countryside, exercise and companionship all-in-one.
As well as bikes, Cyclists Special has ties, jackets, cloth caps, plus fours, pipes, Brylcreem, quifs and trouser ankles as clipped as the accents. Cheery and informative this enjoyable film celebrates the resorative effects of cycling in the country, spending time with people of different backgrounds and occupations, gaining different perspectives and breaking the routine.
There’s always a certain excitement about coming to a strange place. Over the years you may have trained yourself to arrive anywhere looking as bored as a bactrian camel but if you’re honest with yourself a new place sets you simmering as your home town never could…every place like every person has its own unique history and character.
Containing wisdom such as “a cycle tour without a map is like new potatoes without the smell of mint”, it is unmistakably a film of its time.
However, I love its inclusive sentiment and it reminded me of Alastair Humphries’ ‘anyone can do it’ attitude to adventure and his notion that adventure doesn’t have to be ultimate, epic or awesome. A bit like Al Humphries’ Fred Whitton challengeandThe Office #microadventurevideos, Cyclists Special is an antidote to “hype and hyperbole” and, as Al Humphries might say: “Everyone is invited – and that’s part of the magic of cycling.”
Jon Day’s book, Cyclogeography, on the other hand, emphasises a darker, though no less spell-binding, side of cycling and its focus is firmly on urban rather than rural cycling.
Day is a lectuer in English at King’s College London and spent several years as a cycle courier in London. Based on his experiences, Cyclogeography mixes memoir with pyschogeography, philosophy, history and literary diversions.
The title is a play on the term psychogeography which, according to Joseph Hart, “encourages us to buck the rut, to follow some new logic that lets us experience our landscape anew, that forces us to truly see what we’d otherwise ignore.”
Day reflects on Baudelaire and the flâneurs‘ roles in understanding and portraying the urban environment by exploring it on foot, and joins Valeria Luiselli and Paul Fournel in speculating on the bicycle’s underrepresentation in travel writing and wondering why there is no cycleur equivalent to the flâneur.
Drawing on his cycle courier experiences, Day takes us on a journey through London to experience the city anew, and from the saddle. Weaving through gaps in trafffic, passageways, spaces beneath buildings and other unseen parts of the city, Day portrays the cycle courier as an outsider and someone who exists on the fringes of the city’s economic activity, practically inhabiting a parallel city to the one the rest of us live in.
Day’s writing is infectious and it is difficult not to be caught up in his excellent descriptions of how cycle couriers learn the city’s abstract properties, its rhythms, smells, signs and textures so that they eventually come “to feel part of the city’s secret networks, at one with its hidden rivers and its dead-letter drops, at one remove from its anonymous crowds of commuters.”
Day examines the cyclist’s relationship with his machine, a life measured in revolutions and also describes the physical and mental impacts of cycling. One minute he is revelling in the “the sheer joy of being physically tired at the end of a day’s work”, “the exhilaration of pedalling quickly through the city” and “the mindlessness of the job, the absolute focus on the body in movement”, and the next he is discretely vomitting by the side of the road after pushing himself in a street race and recounting stories about early competition cyclists whose obsession led to bodies ravaged by drugs and overexertion.
Along the way Day takes a number of diversions and examines cycling in a variety of forms including escape, observation, exploration and art. He meets artist Richard Long and writer Iain Sinclair, who voices his concerns about the changing nature of cycling, its politicisation and its shift from being subversive to becoming a colonising force in the city.
He also takes us on a literary journey, drawing on the work of writers like Jonathan Raban, Iain Sinclair, Will Self, Rebecca Solnit, Samuel Beckett, Robert Macfarlane, Edward Thomas, Hilaire Belloc and HG Wells as well as Guy Debord and Roland Barthes. Drawing a parallel between writing and cycling, Day notes that:
The rhythms of movement provided by cycling seem perfectly suited to the writer’s need to notice. At bicycle-speed your eyes focus on a single scene as you glide past, and for a few seconds you can isolate one incident before you’re rolled onward. Then on to the next. The saccades of the eye’s snatch-and-focus synchronise with your velocity, flicking from rubbish bin to lamppost, from bus swerving out in front of you to pedestrian about to cross the road in front. The bicycle provides a road’s-eye view midway between the ponderous bus-gaze and the start/stop stress of the car. Driving, in the city at any rate, is binary, reverential distancing. Cycling flows, converting static and isolated glimpses of the city into a moving, zoetropic flicker of life.
Valeria Luiselli also noted this ‘cinemtaic’ quality of cycling in her Manifesto a Velo (from which Day quotes) noting that “the bicycle is not only noble in relation to body rhythms” but “is also generous to thought”. Contrasting the cyclist with the pedestrian, motorist and users of public transport, Luiselli concluded that, “skimming along on two wheels, the rider finds just the right pace for observing the city and being at once its accomplice and its witness.” I am reminded of the truth of this every time I go out on my bike in London.
Despite the exhilaration and infectious energy of the book, Day highlights a darker side of cycling, revealing the loneliness of the job, human contact reduced to voices over the radio and the margins of urban life, suicides, the obsessive nature of cyclists and their acceptance and deliberate running of physical risks from knackered knees to the ‘alleycat’ street races. However, even in its darker moments, Cyclogeography is a compulsive read.
I chose a bike instead of a partner, the road instead of a basecamp. I chose Krygyzstan. Its intriguing network of old Soviet roads and endless peaks. I had no expectations other than what the guidebook said: Kyrgyzstan, the Switzerland of Central Asia.
Kyle Dempster is one of the world’s most accomplished alpine climbers who has trips to Pakistan, China, south America and the Canadian Arctic under his belt. The Road from Karakolfollows Dempster on a climbing trip to Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2011.
Dempster explored Kyrgyzstan by mountain bike, while pulling a trailer full of climbing kit. In a country where 90% of the territory is above 1,500m and 40% is above 3,000m, that alone is no mean feet.
He had originally intended to make the trip with his girlfriend but after she had to pull out owing to a skiing accident, Dempster decided to make the trip alone.
We use the word suffering way too much. Every adventure has both the light, the dark, the toil, the reward. To experience that alone is to become absorbed by an activity, by a place, by its people. The wall of daily noise, the modern trappings that define our identities give way. Our mental defenses grow thin. You no longer know where you end and the world begins. We become raw. This is why we take the trip. That is what we’ve come for.
For two months, Dempster cycled nearly 1,200 km on roads of varying quality through spectacular mountain scenery, crossing rivers, soloing peaks, passing through abandoned Soviet-era towns and drinking vodka, lots of vodka.
He recorded his journey using a mixture of GoPro and point-and-shoot, filming nearly 25 hours of footage. On his return, what was intended to be a four-minute climbing film was turned, with the assistance of Duct Tape then Beer and an editing process that took about a year, into the 25 minute The Road from Karakol.
The Road to Karakol is an extraordinary journey. It is not a self-aggrandizing video or sponsorship film but a personal record of an adventure where things do not go as planned and where Dempster is prepared to appear naked before the camera (emotionally as well as physically).
The camera is his companion and he shares his thoughts and fears, including a video letter to his family and loved ones, as well as his triumphs. His journey through the deserted valleys and mountains of Kyrgyzstan to rejoin civilisation is a testament to his determination and perseverance. Inspiring and impressive stuff.
Here’s what I believe. Real adventure is not polished. It’s not the result of some marketing budget. There’s no hashtag for it. It burns brightest on the map’s edges but it exists in all of us. It exists at the intersection of imagination and the ridiculous. You have to have faith. It will find you there and when it does, remember there’s just one question. In this life when the road comes to an end, will you keep pedalling?
For more background to this story, read Kyle Dempster’s interview with The Bicycle Story,here, Kyle Dempster’s interview with Alastair Humphreys, here, or visit the film’s website, at www.theroadfromkarakol.com.
The women climb in their traditional “cholita” garb, but trade in their bowler hats for helmets.
Inspiring photo essay from Bolivian Reuters photographer David Mercado about a group of Bolivian women who have set out to climb some of the highest mountains in the Andes.
The group of indigenous Aymara women, known as the ‘Cholitas’, are mostly in their 40s. The wives of mountain guides whose previous experience of the mountains was limited to cooking and cleaning for climbers, they decided to see what mountain climbing was like for themselves. With no formal climbing experience, they climb mountains in their cholita dresses, shawls and cardigans although do wear helmets and crampons…
They have now summited five mountains all of which are higher than 6,000 metres: Acotango, Parinacota, Pomarapi, Huayna Potosi and Illimani. Their goal is to summit Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside Asia.
Fantastic images and a great story about determination, possibilities and trying new experiences, the Cholitas show that climbing is a sport open to anyone. And the Cholitas’ verdict?: “It is difficult but not impossible.”
For the angler, that is what fishing is: an elaborate wait, a long silence filled only by his restless thoughts. His mind must be especially keen when fishing for salmon, a species that, when it enters fresh water, stops feeding and starts spawning; a fish with no desire for an ornate jumble of feathers obscuring a sharp hook.
Bremner follows Eddie McCarthy, the 68 year old superintendent on the river Thurso in Scotland.
As a salmon fishing guide and assistant to business executives, celebrities and royalty his whole adult life, Eddie McCarthy’s story is intertwined with with the shifting economic fortunes of Scotland’s country estates and changes in British society and attitudes.
Eddie McCarthy has a lifetime of experience and learning which has been passed down the generations. Driven by a passion for the river and his work, McCarthy is able to read the smallest changes in the river and his clients and, paying careful attention to the behaviour of both, McCarthy has learned the secrets of both.
A beautifully written portrait of a man who has devoted his life to a river and to salmon fishing, this is a highly recommended read.
Each day I must wake, and I must walk. I must find a place to sleep before the sun drops past my right shoulder. These are the unbreachable rules of engagement but beyond that everything every moment of every day is a mystery. It must be. To know too much would be to break the spell.
This article from Wanderlust magazine is about a 1,000 mile walk from Jerusalem to the Gulf of Aquaba at the southern end of Jordan that Leon McCarron began in November 2015. After his walking partner, Dave Cornthwaite, suffered a stress fracture shortly before Christmas, McCarron continued the walk solo. Their aim was simply to walk through the heart of the Middle East and report back with a narrative different to that normally found in the mainstream media.
Crossing mountains, valleys. wadis, canyons and deserts they passed through the Jordan Valley, Jericho, the Roman ruins at Umm Qais, Amman, Petra, Wadi Rum and some truly beautiful and desolate landscapes. Travelling by foot enabled them to move slowly and to meet people on their way. Their encounters allowed them to learn about the fig industry, share tea with shepherds, and brought them hospitality in many forms including from the Iraq al-Amir woman’s co-operative society. As a result McCarron is able to report:
the world is a good place. People everywhere are just that, they are people. They share the same hopes and dreams and fears.The love their families and they work hard to survive. This part of the world is no different, despite what we might be led to believe.
To begin with, both contain photographs of the stunning scenery through which they walked and the people they met. The website journal and Instagram commentary also go into much more detail about the reasons for the trip, the people they meet along the way, the hardships they experienced and also convey the journey’s satisfactions.
McCarron also writes about his personal motivation and fascination for harsh landscapes. In particular, how reading Shackleton’s South gave him a taste for adventure, Thesiger’s Across the Empty Quarter inspired his own journey to the Rub al Khali and how TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, echoes in his mind as he walks the deserts of Wadi Rum. From fantasising about far away inhospitable places from his “bedroom in green, rainy hills of Northern Ireland”, to undertaking adventures in Arabia, Iran and the deserts of Jordan, McCarron exemplifies TE Lawrence’s quote about day-dreaming:
All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.
So why suffer the pain, carry a 20 kilo backpack, clamber in and out of wadis, brave thirst and cold, cope with self-enforced minimalism and endure the absence of any human contact for days on end?
McCarron explains that it is necessary if we are to understand the world. Tempting as it is when we live in a globalised digitised society, he warns that we must not be be drawn into thinking that the world is small. McCarron has travelled slowly on foot and by bike across enough of it to know that it is not and that there is no substitute for travelling in person. His journal is a call to get out and experience the world in all its vastness, to move slowly across its surface paying attention to its changes and variety and to meet and speak to the people who live there. After all:
the riches of our planet are far too great to be reduced to the contents of a reporter’s dispatch (then skim-read by tired commuters through a 4-inch screen.)
After arriving in Aqaba, Leon McCarron crossed to Sinai and is continuing his journey in Egypt. As for me, although he is offline at the moment, I look forward to picking up his journey on Instagram when the feed starts again and so will make do continuing this journey through a 4-inch screen…
There’s nothing really can touch skiing, is there? The way it feels when you first drop off on a long run. (from Cross Country Snow by Ernest Hemingway)
Several articles written about the Swiss Alps by Hemingway while working as foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star in the early 1920s.
After returning to North America after World War I, Hemingway met his first wife, Hadley Richardson. They married in 1921, Hemingway was hired as foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star shortly afterwards and the couple then moved to Paris. While there, Hemingway developed a love of the Alps which he reported on in a series of short but evocative articles in the winter of 1922.
In another piece, about the thrill of bobsledding rather than the luge, Hemingway’s joy at the winter scene seems a far cry from a man often associated with the heat of Key West, Africa and Cuba:
While you wait for the train, you munch at ham sandwiches that a little boy peddles from a basket to the bobsledders, watch the sun go down over the great sweep of snow-covered country and wonder why people go to Palm Beach or the Riviera in the wintertime. (from Try Bobsledding If You Want Thrills (Toronto Daily Star, March 4, 1922)
A love of the Alps stayed with Hemingway, who returned to them to finish his first novel, The Sun also Rises (published in the UK as Fiesta) in Schruns, Austria rather than Switzerland (possibly owing to the exchange rate? see Tourists Scarce in Swiss Resorts, Toronto Star Weekly, February 22, 1922).
Despite sustaining leg injuries during World War I which could have resulted in amputation, Hemingway also developed a love of skiing, a sport then in its infancy, which found its way into his writing.
In the short story Cross-Country Snow, Hemingway conveys the thrill of dropping down steep slopes in passages like these:
The gale scouring the exposed surface into a wind-board crust, Nick, waxing his skis in the baggage car, pushed his boots into the toe irons and shut the clamp tight. He jumped from the car sideways onto the hard wind-board, made a jump turn and crouching and trailing his sticks slipped in a rush down the slope.
The rush and the suddens swoop as he dropped down a step mountain undulation in the mountain side plucked Nick’s mind out and left him only the wonderful flying, dropping sensation in his body.
Hemingway also evokes the camaraderie and satisfaction of getting out of the cold and stopping at mountain inns for meals:
They stacked the skis against the side of the inn and slapped snow off each other’s trousers, stamped their boots clean, and went in.
Schruns also founds its way into The Snows of Kilimanjaro, while Harry is reminiscing at the start of the story:
In Schrunz, on Christmas Day, the snow was so bright it hurt your eyes when you looked out from the weinstube and saw every one coming home from church.
…the snow as smooth to see as coal frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made a you dropped down like a bird.
Ultimately, Hemingway recounted his experiences in the Alps in his posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast. Although well known for describing his period as a struggling writer in Paris, the final part of the memoir recalls his time in the Austrian mountains while writing The Sun Also Rises:
I remember the snow on the road to the village squeaking at night when we walked home in the cold with out skis and ski poles on our shoulders, watching the lights and then finally seeing the buildings, and how everyone said ‘Grüss Gott’.
It was obviously a time he remembered with fondness: walking up mountains to ski with seal skins on the bottom of his skis, sleeping in alpine club huts, avalanches, skiing lessons and the smell of pines.
Hemingway’s time in Austria also marked a period of transition, with the completion and publication of The Sun Also Rises, the arrival of the rich in the ski resorts and also the impending breakdown of his first marriage.
In literary terms, at least, the Alps were for Hemingway a gift that kept on giving.
Cross Country Snow and Snows of Kilimanjaro are both published in The First Forty-Nine Stories:
Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Penguin Classics (first published in 1939)
We tasted the gentle excitement of a well planned celebration and yet we were inﬁnitely destitute. Wind, sand and stars. Austere even for a Trappist. But on that poorly lit patch, six or seven men who possessed nothing in the world but their memories were sharing invisible riches.
In hisNYRB review of Stacy Schiff’s biography of St-Exupéry($), Al Alvarez reminds us that air travel was not always “just another tribulation we endure in the name of impatience” which involved dashing to airports, endless queuing and anxieties about whether there will space in the overhead bins for your carry on bag (tip: pack less).
Alvarez recalls that those who flocked to watch early aviators were in awe of the strangeness of flying, the bravery of the airmen and the sheer miracle of mechanical flight. In its early days, flying was the “point at which engineering intersects with the imagination.”He notes that the French were “particularly susceptible” to poetic hyberole associated with the romance of flying.Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was one of those Frenchmen.
St-Exupéry was primarily a writer of fiction (Night Flight and Flight to Arras as well as The Little Prince) but Wind, Sand and Stars is St-Exupéry’s lyrical exposition of his fascination with flying. He expresses his delight for the new machines with a child like enthusiasm albeit tempered with caution (we are “barbarians still enthralled by our new toys”). Although he cares about the aesthetics of modern machines (“Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing to take away”) he is careful to emphasise that the machines themselves not the point:
The aeroplane is a means, not an end. It is not for the plane that we risk our lives. Nor is it for the sake of his plough that the farmer ploughs. But through the plane we can leave the cities and their accountants, and find a truth that farmers know.
The truth St-Exupéry is seeking is purposeful living. In Wind, Sand and Stars he aims to grab us by the shoulders while there is still time and urges us to live.
He begins by conveying the experience and sensations of early flight. Peter Hausler, writing in Post Road Magazineobserves that the most gripping chapters are those describing “the harrowing dangers faced by early aviators.” The physical exertion and mental toll endured by St-Exupéry and other Aeropostale pilots is vividly conveyed. Their work opening up the the first air mail routes was extremely dangerous. The pilots were exposed to the elements and had to feel their way through storms, flying blind without the technology available to modern pilots.
Wind, Sand and Stars contains atmospheric passages about preparing for night flights. The calmness, mundane routines and exchanges that precede the excitement and danger. There are elegies for lost comrades. the elation of being in the desert and treading on ground which nothing but celestial debris has touched and the famous crash landing in the Libyan desert which almost resulted in his death.
Despite the risks, St-Exupéry writes about those flights with a child’s love of fairy tales. He encounters strange lands, castles and forbidden kingdoms where mountains are castle ramparts and pilots are dragon-slaying knights.
St-Exupéry struggled with the idea of being confined by regular urban life with its stifling rituals, suburban trains and people living an ant-like existence with their freedom reduced to Sundays. Notwithstanding the dangers of his profession St-Exupéry was happy because he had at least tasted freedom (“breathed the wind of the sea”).
Some men stay closeted in their title shops. Others travel with urgency on a necessary road.
Wind, Sand and Stars is a manifesto then, for love, friendship, courage, humility, freedom, responsibility; for recognising what is of true value and seizing life. Its message is not that to live we must fly. It is that we should not allow ourselves to to ossify or spend our lives in pursuit of things which have little meaning:
When we work merely for material gain, we build our own prison […] If I search among my memories for those whose taste is lasting, if I write the balance sheet of the moments that truly counted, I surely find those that no fortune could have bought me.
It is an inspiring book which diagnoses the malady yet also prescribes the remedy:
What saves a man is to take a step. And another step. It’s that same first step repeated.
All the earth is seamed with roads, and all the sea is furrowed with the tracks of ships, and over all the roads and all the waters a continuous stream of people passes up and down travelling, as they say, for their pleasure. What is it, I wonder, that they go out for to see?
Throughout an impressive career that encompassed writing, travelling, political administration and diplomacy, archaeology and espionage, Gertrude Bell travelled extensively throughout Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Arabia.
Bell’s traveling career divides roughly into three periods – tourist, student and scholarly/political. This trip falls within the first, some time before the most famous part of her career when she was helping to shape British policy in the Middle East and Iraq as a contemporary of TE Lawrence.
Bell made this journey to Persia in her mid-20s following her studies at Oxford. Her uncle, Sir Franck Lascelles, had recently been appointed British minister in Tehran and Bell accompanied her aunt to visit him in 1892.
After this trip to Persia, Bell’s focus shifted to the Arab world and later to what became the Hashemite kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq in the period following the First World War.
The basis of Persian Pictures were the letters that Bell sent home during her trip. The book was originally published anonymously and was not published again and under Bell’s name until 1928, two years after her death.
Persian Pictures is, as expected, a series of sketches each covering different topics.
Tehran street life is described in rich detail with wry observations and her thoughts about the bazaar could be true of many others (“though little of really beautiful or precious is to be found, the thronging of Oriental life is in itself an endless source of delight“).
There is a visit to a Persian princess, camping with nomads in wild mountains, an inspection of the dazzling jewel laden objects in the Shah’s treasury and also a rest stop at a caravanserai on a journey to the Caspian Sea, where the loaves of bread for sale were thin flaps and resembled “flour mixed in equal parts with sand and fashioned into the semblance of brown paper”. Bell and her companions are invited to join a stranger for lunch and so are spared the unappetising bread and ride away having experienced the hospitality and courtesy of the East.
In another episode, spending the night on a stranger’s floor Bell describes the traveller’s delight of sleeping in unexpected places and of experiencing shared humanity in the simple and basic things. Throughout, Bell tries to get beneath the surface to uncover Persia’s secrets and closely observes the characters and manners of the people she meets including at a religious festival and in response to an outbreak of cholera.
Persian Pictures is a short book but full of evocative and tantalising depictions of aspects of a country that has long since changed. Poetic at times, Persian Pictures is rich in quotable descriptive passages and thoughts about the experience of travel, including an excellent section on the art of bargaining with merchants and another about travel companions and the true pleasure and purpose of travel.
Bell is joyful and exuberant in Persian Pictures. Like a rebirth, flowers bloom with just a little water from dead desert landscapes and, from the silent, extinct world of some ancient ruins, overnight rain brings forth the freshness of damp earth and desert flowers in the morning sun (“For us the wide plain and limitless world, for us the beauty and the freshness of the morning, for us youth and the joy of living!”)
The sketches in Persian Pictures give a very real sense of someone who is in thrall to the intoxicating pleasure of travel and who is being seduced by the sights and sounds of the place they are in despite all the challenges and differences. You know, reading Persian Pictures, that Gertrude Bell will be heading east again as soon as she can.
We cling regretfully to the close, but the beginning is what is worth having the beginning with all its freshness, all its enthusiasm, all its unexpected charm, Hercules for strength, Atlanta for speed, Gabriel for fair promise. Say what you will, the end is sad. Do not linger over the possibilities to which (all unfulfilled) it sets a term, but remember the glorious energy which spurred you forward at first, and which lies ready to spring forth anew.
There is a renewed interest in Bell and her life. This is possibly due to the two wars in Iraq and also the re-shaping of the political landscape in much of the Middle East. In 2015, Werner Herzog’s biopic of Bell’s life starring Nicole Kidman, Damian Lewis and Robert Pattinson was released and Bell has also been the subject of several biographies in recent years:
A ‘No Swimming’ sign. Thunder. Another toad pushed its bulk through the grate and the three of us sat and smiled in silence. “It’s the most beautiful lake,” the hut owner said finally and we agreed. “We really wanted to swim.”
In What Lies Beneath, the violent sounds of past conflict echo down the years in a thunder storm. Seeking shelter from the storm, through a chance encounter Freddie Reynolds discovers that there is more beneath the surface of the Julian Alps than the peaceful surroundings suggest.
Full text of the issue can be accessed by clicking on the cover below. The article is at page 32. In addition to Traveller, Reynolds also contributes to Huck, Renegade (RIP) and Compass Cultura. A selection of Reynolds’ work can be found on his website, www.freddiereynolds.com.
So long as you’re not armed and come in peace, you’re willing to adopt local customs with sensitivity to culture and tradition and try not to judge too much – however tempting – you’ll generally be fine.
This is the second published expedition from former Parachute Regiment officer, Levison Wood. His first, Walking the Nile, which was inspired by 19th century explorers such as Burton, Speke, Livingston, recounted his 2013/4 expedition walking the entire length of the Nile of 4,250 miles from from Rwanda to the Mediterranean and was commissioned as a documentary for Channel 4 in the UK.
In 2015, after a restless period in London, Wood decided its was time for another expedition and in 2015 he set out to walk over 1700 miles traversing the Himalayas, beginning in June in the west in the Wakhan Corridor, a finger of land separating Tajikistan from Pakistan in north eastern Afghanistan, and ending in the east in the kingdom of Bhutan in November.
This expedition was again commissioned as a documentary for television and the whole series is available to watch here on Channel 4.
The book however makes more than just an excellent companion and captures much more of the experience of Wood’s epic journey than a few short TV episodes ever could (good as the series is).
It has more background and takes three or so chapters before the walk begins proper. But, that enables Wood to relive a youthful backpacking trip during which he met one of his guides, Binod and also time to talk us through his frustration at finding himself back in London after walking the Nile. We learn a bit more abut him and what motivates and inspires him and he sufficiently conveys his boredom as he reorganises his extensive travel library thematically and whiles away his time in Gordon’s wine bar in Charing Cross.
Having fixed on the region, Wood decides that, rather than breaking records or climbing mountains, he will use the opportunity to explore on foot the foothills and lower mountains of the Himalayas:
For me it was the people I encountered that attracted me to travel. And travelling on foot is the only way to explore the backcountry and villages that are hidden from the main trails and roads. it is also the way people have travelled in these regions for millennia and there seems to be a common bond between pedestrians everywhere. The physical hardships, the risks, the user vulnerability mean that on the whole you will be looked upon as a fellow human being rather than a foreigner or, worse, a tourist.”
Wood is a great travel companion. He is knowledgeable and informative on the region and its history having visited most of the places previously but is unpretentious with an easy manner. He takes the journey’s difficulties in his stride (and despite being at relatively lower altitudes for the Himalayas, there were plenty.)
Its about the journey, its about the people that you meet and its about sharing those experiences.
The personal, whether the characters he meets, people who join him for parts of the walk or about what Wood reveals of himself, are at the heart of this journey and make it one worth accompanying him on. As you’d expect, he meets a wide variety of people and, while he approaches those he meets with openness, he has a healthy scepticism rather than a wide eyed naivety, which is refreshing.
London’s travel bookshop, Stanford’s held an event with Levison Wood in February 2016 and is available as a podcast on iTunes via their blog on the Stanford’s website. (sorry, can’t figure out to how to embed it here.) Worth a listen (32 mins plus 15mins Q&A) to get a good sense both of Levison Wood and of the trip.
Published by Pan, 2011 (originally published in 1997)
“With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill. The trick is to get back down alive.”
Into Thin Air began life as a magazine article. In 1996, Krakauer, an experienced climber, was sent by Outside Magazine to write an article about the commercialism of climbing on Mount Everest. He was to join an all expenses paid party being led by experienced New Zealand guide, Rob Hall. As it turned out, Krakauer was fortunate to return with his life after his party got caught in a storm on the day of their summit attempt and 12 people died. Krakauer turned in his article for Outside but, as catharsis for survivor’s guilt, Krakauer interviewed those involved in the events and gathered together more information to write a book.
Into Thin Air deals with questions of drive, ambition and vanity, the commercialisation of climbing on Everest and questions about trust and loyalty. It raises frank questions such as what climbers can expect from those who are on the mountain with them and the way the way that being a fee-paying client can change expectations and feelings of responsibility.
He accepts that this account cannot be complete and acknowledges the difficulties inherent in piecing together the fragments, despite his extensive research. However, although some questions are left unanswered, being a climber, Krakauer is able to help us start to understand climbing and climbers. Krakauer deals with the physical and psychological aspects of climbing including the effect that lack of oxygen has at high altitude. His insights help to understand the necessary drive (“in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die”), endurance (“the ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any mountain I’d been on”) and risk-taking (“this is an activity that idealises risk-taking”). He is honest about the selfish aspects of climbing and climbers’ complex and varied motivations:
“We were a team in name only, I’d sadly come to realize…. We would ascend as individuals, linked to one another by neither rope nor any deep sense of loyalty. Each client was in it for himself or herself, pretty much. And I was no different.”
Yet, despite his insights, it seems there are no firm answers here either: “attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility”.
Dramatic and exciting, Into Thin Air reads like a blockbuster movie (unsurprisingly the events have been filmed twice). Krakauer’s writing gives the events an immediacy and proximity. There are moments in the book that made by palms clammy and that were genuinely emotional. However, as Justine Burley’s review in the London Review of Books (£) noted, Into Thin Air is “admirably written” and “free of mawkishness, blame or a prurient interest in death”.
Have things on Everest changed since the 1996 tragedy? The commercialisation of climbing on Everest has continued, people continue to die and rubbish continues to pile up (see this 2015 BBC article). As Krakauer noted:
To believe that dissecting the tragic events of 1996 in minute detail will actually reduce the future death rate in any meaningful way is wishful thinking. The urge to catalogue the myriad blunders in order to “learn from the mistakes” is for the most part an exercise in denial and self-deception.
Oddly enough, none of this appears to have dampened amateur interest in scaling Everest. In recent months, The New York Times has reported, demand for the 200 available spaces in the base camp has risen sharply, thanks in part to all the talk about the casualties claimed by the Big E last year.