Book & Video: Photographing Robyn Davidson’s Tracks

Tracks by Robyn Davidson

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.

Article & book: The Camino de Santiago & travel snobbery

We live in a world of systems and safety nets, and we learn at an early age how to navigate the labyrinth of modern life — leave the house, coin here, card there, please, thank you, timetable, schedule, departure, arrival, home safe, warm bed. The risks we face? Getting caught in traffic, missing a meeting, the corner-shop sold out of milk. And life’s essentials — food, water, shelter, contentment — are mere sideshows to this little merry-go-round.

Most of us easily fall in love with the romantic idea of a big adventure — grab a backpack and hiking boots, launch forth into a magical world of mountains and birdsong and fresh, clean air. Live. Breathe. Get fit like we always meant to. Take photos. Enjoy the simple things. Let modern life drop away.

This is an entertaining article from Tom Allen about snobbery and the Camino de Santiago.  

Noting that over 200,000 people hiked the Camino Santiago in 2014, making it one of the most popular hiking trails in the world, Allen takes aim at travellers who “tend to be the kind of ‘superior traveller’ who isn’t happy unless they’re getting one over on the ovine hordes”, the type who have to be “the first Westerner to go somewhere previously unreachable or unknown, or the only one doing something new and exciting, or generally just proving they’re ever-so-slightly better or wiser or more perceptive than every other dumb schmuck.”

True, his real target is a certain category of ‘adventurers’ but his observations apply equally well to travellers in general. 

Tired of people questioning what kind of adventure it can really be if so many people are hiking it, Allen laces up his boots and sets out along the Camino to uncover its virtues in spite of its popularity.  

Allen praises the Camino for providing a taste of real adventure with some degree of safety net for first-timers, Allen sees the value in the Camino because it might actually persuade people to make the leap of the sofa and give some form adventure a go.

You get the morphing landscapes, the constant exercise, the tangible sense of progress. You get the satisfaction of planning and executing; of braving the weather and coming out unscathed; of resting your weary legs at the end of a hard day. You get the feeling of immersion in a foreign land.  

As he progresses along the Camino, Allen realises that the Camino is not only a useful ‘gateway’ adventure but is also intrinsically enjoyable and offers the “surprisingly joyous sensation” of camaraderie and a shared goal.  

Tom Allen’s article is available at Medium or on his excellent blog, here.  

Reading Allen’s article had me looking out my copy of Taras Grescoe’s 2003 book, The End of Elsewhere, the introduction and first chapter to which are also about the Camino and, to some extent, pursue similar themes. However,  Grescoe’s target is bigger and is the whole notion of travel.  Why do we do it in the first place? 

“The sole cause of man’s unhappiness” wrote Blaise Pascal, “is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room.” Shivering on hostel floors and ferry decks, stuck ticketless on tropical isles, I’ve often asked myself the question I am now travelling to answer: why in God’s name can’t I just stay put. 

In an attempt to answer his own question and adopting a wry and irreverant approach, Grescoe deliberately follows the deepest furrows ploughed by the 700 hundred millions of annual tourists rather than seeking out “the world’s ever-diminishing pockets of authenticity.”

Grescoe begins at Cabo Fisterra in northwest Spain – Europe’s End of the Earth – and follows a route taking in some of the planet’s most visited places on the way to his destination, Tianya Haijao on Hainan – the End of the Earth in ancient Chinese cosmology.  

Starting out along the Camino de Santiago as a Camino-sceptic, and walking it in reverse to maximise the number of other pilgrims he met, Grescoe encounters a budget travel snob, eccentrics, commercialism, motives for undertaking the pilgrimage varying from the saintly to the libidinous and even an American who had been inspired to walk the Camino without having read Peolo Coehlo’s book about it.

Gradually, I began to grasp the advantages of walking, the oldest and simplest form of travel.  The more I walked, the more materialism and concern about self image seemed to slough away.

By the end of his time on the Camino, Taras Grescoe confessed to being a convert, appreciating the slow transition of landscapes and the subtle changes of the breezes during the day, gaining an understanding of Spain and the influence of rural traditions on its culture and feeling that in many ways the Camino and those who walk it had not changed greatly since the 12th century.

When Taras Grescoe’s book was published in 2003, there were 700 million tourists annually.  According to the World Tourism Council (WTC) that figure relates to number of international tourist arrivals around the world rather than to the number of individual tourists.  More importantly though, the figure has already increased to just under 1.2 billion and the WTC estimates that the figure could rise to 2 billion by 2026.  

The odds, therefore, of finding a corner of the world that no-one else has been to or happens to be visiting at the same time we choose to are only going to lengthen.

So, in order to be true travellers or adventurers, should we avoid popular or ‘obvious’ places and seek authenticity in ever more obscure parts of the world?  

Not necessarily.  In the same way that adventurers may eschew popular hiking trails to prove that they are ‘real’ adventurers, Paul Fussel noted in his 1980 book Abroad that, for the anti-tourist

Sedulously avoiding the standard sights is probably the best method of disguising your touristhood. In London one avoids Westminster Abbey and heads instead for the Earl of Burlington’s eighteenth-century villa at Chiswick. In Venice one must walk by circuitous smelly back passages far out of one’s way to avoid being seen in the Piazza San Marco.   

Fussell went on to label the affinity of some to see themselves as ‘travellers’ rather than mere ‘tourists’ as “a uniquely modern form of self-contempt” and a symptom and cause “of what the British journalist Alan Brien has designated tourist angst, defined as “a gnawing suspicion that after all … you are still a tourist like every other tourist.”  

Tom Allen seems to reach the same conclusion.  Observing that the people he met on the 800km long Camino possessed no extraordinary physical prowess but simply a desire to walk and complete it sometimes multiple times, he concludes: “perhaps that’s why superior travellers hate the Camino: it’s a powerful suggestion that there is nothing superior about them after all.”  The aim of adventuring where only few or none have been before could be seen as an exercise simply to set oneself apart from the crowd.  Or, to put it another way: “if everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.”

Grescoe is making a slightly different point but there are parallels.  He gets carried away by the Camino and is swept up by it.  Feeling his materialism and concern about his self-image start to fall away and finding himself giving away money and possessions, Grescoe might agree with Allen, seeing the Camino was being a part of something with others rather than being apart from others.  While concerns about materialism might also recede in an adventure to a remote place, there is a difference in not being surrounded by shops and material things as opposed to being surrounded by them and caring less about them.  It is the difference between living a cloistered existence and living a ‘normal’ one.   

Ultimately, a large part of what seems to have made the Camino for Allen and Grescoe is its history and, perhaps contrary to what a lot of travel writing tells us we should seek from travel, its popularity and the many people they met along the way.  That doesn’t necessarily make the desire to be away from crowds wrong, it is just to say that we should examine the motive for it.  

Both Tom Allen’s article and Taras Grescoe’s book are refreshing and a reminder that what is important and what defines you is not where you go, but why and how you do it and that you do, in the first place, actually go.

For Allen, that is “to travel without expectations, to see what my senses tell me when they’re not obscured by my own ever-so-enlightened personal narrative.”

Sounds like a good ethos to me. 

 

Book: RL Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes

Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes

by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)

But we are all travellers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of this world—all, too, travellers with a donkey: and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate voyager who finds many. We travel, indeed, to find them. They are the end and the reward of life. They keep us worthy of ourselves; and when we are alone, we are only nearer to the absent.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his journey through the Cevennes is a classic travelogue.

Undertaken in 1878 when Stevenson was a young man and before he had found fame as a writer, Travels was published in 1879 and was one of Stevenson’s first published works.

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The journey itself was a 12 day, 120 mile, self-supported hike through tough, sparsely populated terrain in an area of south-central France that had seen a protestant uprising during the reign of Louis XIV.

An often remarked feature of the journey is Stevenson’s love for occasionally sleeping out of doors, preferring to use a bespoke sack, rather than using a tent or finding an inn.

A tent, above all for a solitary traveller, is troublesome to pitch, and troublesome to strike again…A sleeping-sack, on the other hand…does not advertise your intention of camping out to every curious passer-by. This is a huge point. If a camp is not secret, it is but a troubled resting-place.

From his description, what he refers to as a sleeping-sack sounds like a setup akin to a bivvy bag and improvised basha.

I decided on a sleeping-sack….and….in case of heavy rain I proposed to make myself a little tent, or tentlet, with my waterproof coat, three stones, and a bent branch.

With his love for informal and makeshift outdoor sleeping, Stevenson would have a great deal in common with modern day adventurers Alastair Humphreys and Anna McNuff.

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Stevenson writes evocatively about being outdoors at night, sitting smoking and drinking brandy (these two items seem to have sustained him on his journey) while looking at the silhouettes of trees around him, appreciating the silence and beauty of the night sky.

I…sat upright to make a cigarette. The stars were clear, coloured, and jewel-like, but not frosty. A faint silvery vapour stood for the Milky Way. All around me the black fir-points stood upright and stock-still…I lay lazily smoking and studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish grey behind the pines to where it showed a glossy blue-black between the stars.

Communing with nature and being self sufficient is a large part of Stevenson’s quest in Travels.

He writes about his yearning for pure adventure and the thrill of waking and finding himself in completely unfamiliar surroundings.

He has no high purpose beyond that of travelling “for travel’s sake”, “to move”“to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly” and “come down off this feather-bed of civilisation.”

He yearns to be ‘in the moment’, an “exacting present” that occupies and composes the mind and he delights in travel’s non-conformity, feeling “independent of material aids”, and thinking that he had “rediscovered one of those truths which are revealed to savages and hid from political economists.”

Unable to carry his heavy sleeping sack and equipment, Stevenson purchases himself a donkey at the start of his journey.

It is through his relationship with the donkey, Modestine, that Stevenson highlights the second theme of Travels.

From the preface and throughout, Stevenson continually returns to notions of friendship and companionship. This creates a tension with his desire for occasional solitude rather than a “close and noisy ale-house”, although ultimately he reconciles them.

He writes of the “partial intimacies” formed when travelling and enjoys the easy camaraderie of travelling, setting the world to rights with strangers, meeting Trappist monks or expressing his “hearty admiration” to the waitress Clarisse which she took “like milk, without embarrassment or wonder.”

As is also true for many travellers, Stevenson found that the parting of company was accompanied by a mixture of regret and glee as the traveller “shakes off the dust of one stage before hurrying forth upon another.”

If he doesn’t quite anthropomorphise Modestine, he gives her real personality and humanises their relationship when he writes of the agony he feels at causing her pain, her virtues, faults and the loss he feels when they part company which it is difficult not to share.

A charming and personal travelogue, Travels is an absorbing, short read containing a great deal for modern travellers to identify with.

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It is still possible to follow Stevenson’s route and a small tourist industry has grown up around visitors who want to retrace his steps along what is now walking route GR70, either with or without a donkey.

Examples of writers who have done so are here and here.

Travels with a Donkey is available as a free ebook from the Internet Archive and also Project Gutenburg

Article: Alastair Humphreys busks his way across Spain in Laurie Lee’s footsteps

When you plan an adventure some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, “What is the use?” And so you’ll often walk alone. But If you make your journeys like this you will have your reward, so long as all you want at the end is a cold, crisp beer.

Alastair Humphreys hosted an evening to promote his latest book, Grand Adventures, back in May.  The event was organised by the travel book specialists, Stanfords, and took place at the Prince of Wales pub on Drury Lane in London’s theatreland near Covent Garden. 

Being close not only to where I work but also the imposing Art Deco Freemasons Hall (no connection to my job), I normally associate the pub with after work drinks on the pavement outside and the Freemasons I have seen descending the stairs from the pub’s first floor room carrying oversized briefcases.  So, it was nice at last to have the chance to form a different association with the ‘PoW’.     

Alastair Humphreys was entertaining, enthusiastic and passionate about encouraging others to try their hands at adventures, big or small. Towards the end of the evening, he outlined the ongoing preparations for his own next adventure.  

Humphreys told the crowded upstairs room that a story about someone else’s journey can often serve as an inspiration for your own journey.  As I sat in silent, self-satisfied agreement, Humphreys name-checked Dervla Murphy and Wilfred Thesiger as inspirations, before citing Laurie Lee’s As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning as his favourite travel book (if I wasn’t already, I must surely have been smiling and nodding with approval by now).

It was for this reason, Humphreys explained, that he was currently having violin lessons. He intended to follow in Laurie Lee’s footsteps and walk across Spain supporting himself financially only with the money he earned from busking.

Alastair Humphreys seems to have forged a career largely from persuading others that they need no particular talent or skill to undertake adventures of many different kinds provided that they have the enthusiasm and desire to go out and make something happen and the determination to see it through and succeed.  Alastair Humphreys is indeed a great advert for his own philosophy of adventuring.  

Thanks to Instagram, it was easy to follow his progress as Humphreys posted regular updates from his journey throughout the summer, posting a mixture of photos, video shorts and text sharing stories and reflections about his trip.  

In his posts, Humphreys explains that it is not only Lee’s writing he admires but also his style of travel noting that he “travelled slow, lived simply, slept on hilltops, and loved conversations with the different people he met along the hot and dusty road.”

Humphreys’ wanderings in Spain were great to follow.  Overcoming his fears about playing violin in public, we follow his disappointments and triumphs as he lived from hand to mouth.  It is a story of small successes and pleasures, measured in handfuls of Euros, but also of a tough life on the road walking across Spain’s meseta in the heat of summer before crossing the mountains of the Sistema Central and arriving in Madrid.  

Along the way, Humphreys’ Instagram posts capture the joys of travelling solo, adapting to the tempo of the Spanish way of life, settling into the rhythm of his journey and enjoying the abundance of time:

Time expands when you are away on a journey. It feels voluptuous and luxurious. Back home, time is my scarcest and most precious commodity… And now here I am beneath a tree, watching the leaves, listening to the swallows…I have nothing. Nothing but time. So scarce at home, so bountiful out here that I wallow in an excess of it. I’m wilfully inviting boredom (though I’ve rarely felt it, yet). I’m allowing my brain a fallow month to wander where it wonders and to recalibrate a little. 

Tramping across Spain, Humphreys received unexpected and generous hospitality, enjoyed beautiful scenery, found idyllic places to sleep for the night and also novel places to cool off.     

Setting off solo to follow a literary hero’s footsteps with nothing but his wits and a nascent proficiency in playing the violin may be a touch quixotic but is still impressive.  In the process, Humphreys shows what determination can do, living by his creed that the expertise one needs to undertake an adventure can, to a large degree, be obtained along the way.  That must have made the final cerveza he enjoyed in Madrid just that little bit sweeter and makes you wonder, maybe, just maybe, I could… 

Follow Alastair Humphreys’ journey across Spain on Instagram – www.instagram.com/al_humphreys/ – or find out more about him on his website: www.alastairhumphreys.com.

Article: Walking the path in Jordan with Leon McCarron

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.  

The article appearing in Wanderlust, while worth a look, is only able to scratch the surface and doesn’t do the journey justice.  The entries in the journal on the Walk the Masar website or McCarron’s Instagram feed are, however, a different prospect.  

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…  

Follow Leon McCarron on Twitter @leonmccarron or at www.leonmccarron.com which also has details of  his other journeys.

Book: Walking the Himalayas with Levison Wood

Walking the Himalayas
by Levison Wood 

Hodder & Houghton (2016)

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. 

Find out a bit more about Levinson Wood, his trek and explorer heartthrob status here in the Telegraph, here in Stuff magazine, here in the Stoke Sentinel, Wood’s local paper (as well as here and here).  You can also always try  Walking the Himalayas as an audiobook narrated by Levison Wood on a free trial from audible.com:

Book: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air
by Jon Krakauer

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”.

Into Thin Air belongs with Herzog’s Annapurna or Joe Simpson’s Touching The Void in the climbing canon.  There are less sensational books about Everest and climbing available (Jan Morris’ Coronation Everest, numerous books by Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, Feeding the Rat by Al Alvarez, Walter Bonatti’s The Mountains of My Life) but if you are in the mood for an adrenalin-filled adventure tale you could do a lot worse.  No wonder it makes the top 10 in National Geographic’s 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time alongside books such as Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey In The World and Shackleton’s South and also features in World Hum’s 100 Most Celebrated Travel Books of All Time (although apparently on the strength of its high sales).

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.

Indeed, Michio Kakutani, in his review for the New York Times, written in the year following the tragedy,  noted:

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.

Further reading can be found in Caroline Fraser’s review in the New York Review of Books (£) and Alastair Scott’s review for the New York Times in which he describes Into Thin Air as “a step-by-step account of how a diverse group of people try to conquer a mountain whose majesty is utterly dwarfed by the hardship required to ascend it.”  Not directly based on Krakauer’s book, the 1996 disaster on Everest have been made into a Hollywood film: 

https://vimeo.com/138192829

Krakauer himself is no fan of the film and in a recent interview with the LA Times declared:

“Everest is not real climbing. It’s rich people climbing. It’s a trophy on the wall, and they’re done…When I say I wish I’d never gone, I really mean that.”  

Book: No Hurry to Get Home, Emily Hahn

No Hurry to Get Home
by Emily Hahn

Published by Open Road Media (2014) 

“The old euphoria of the traveller, a sensation I’d almost forgotten in the forest, was stealing over me—that keen expectation of something happening soon, something fascinating.”

“Lazy, that’s your trouble” announced Emily Hahn’s surveying partner while she was studying engineering.  This memoir, however, reveals that Hahn was anything but.
 

No Hurry to Get Home opens with chapters focussing on Hahn’s childhood years.  Hahn reveals that at an early age the urge to get away was manifested itself in running away from home, probably as a result of a “hangover” from reading books with protagonists who “scorned the stale air of indoors”. 

Following Hahn from this early experience through her upbringing in St Louis and Chicago in the first two decades of the 20th century, we encounter a father who was careful to ensure that his daughters conversations about clothes remained practical and never became vanity and sisters who were competitive and poached boyfriends.  Hahn moves on to encounter the male chauvinist environment of engineering school and the joys of drinking homemade gin during Prohibition.  

Hahn’s first real travel experience was a road trip heading West across the States in a Model T Ford in 1924 when such a journey involved “virtuous, healthy discomfort” because of the lack of roadside services and “people still behaved as if motoring was a passing fad.”  The trip changed Hahn who became increasingly restless and recalled thinking:

It was awful to think of everybody in that big place getting up at the same time every morning, taking the same bus or streetcar to work, doing the same things every day at the office. Where in the world were people who did things simply because they wanted to—because they were interested? Did no one ever strike out along new paths? 

Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic inspired Hahn to new challenges and she quit work and headed West again to become a Harvey Girl.

 Emily_Hahn portrait

Subsequent chapters follow Hahn around the world as she travels to the UK and Africa before heading to Japan and China, where she stayed for 8 years and was at the time of the Japanese invasion and the first part of the Second World War before she headed back to the US.   

Hahn is humorous and candid without being sentimental as she encounters the Kurtz-like anthropologist, Stewart, in the Belgian Congo, makes her way overland to Lake Kivu with a party of bearers, is confronted by racism in Dar es Salaam and recounts a Japanese air raid while she was in China.   In one of the best known essays, The Big Smoke, Hahn recounts her experiences with opium (“I was quite determined. It took me a year or so to become addicted, but I kept at it”).  

Throughout, Hahn reveals common travellers’ preoccupations: communicating with home, the joy of first travel, conversations with other travellers, doubts about the suitability of traveling companions, concerns about the creeping commercialisation of popular travel destinations and the nuisance travellers can be to their families and friends when they return from travels full of anecdotes and extravagant habits. 

No Hurry to Get Home was originally published as Times and Places in 1970.  Originally intended to be an autobiography, the introduction records how Hahn’s enthusiasm for the project waned as she became preoccupied with new projects but had spent the advance.  

The end result became an anthology of articles which had been published in the New Yorker, the magazine to which Hahn contributed over a period of 70 years (as a staff writer for more than 40 of those).  The chapters in No Hurry are therefore stand alone which makes it an an ideal collection to dip in and out of.    

Hahn’s surveying partner at engineering school might have perceived recycling previously published pieces as a further example of laziness.  That, however, would be grossly unfair.  During her prolific career, Hahn wrote more than 50 books on a variety of subjects and made her final contribution to the New Yorker at the age of 96.  Selecting previously published pieces was simply a way of meeting a commitment.  In many ways, a memoir made up of pieces published in the magazine with which Hahn was linked throughout her professional life is a fitting testament and an ideal introduction to Hahn’s life and travels.  

The New York Times obituary of Emily Hahn is here.  Read more of Emily Hahn’s work in the New Yorker archives, here

Book: Laurie Lee on foot through Spain

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
by Laurie Lee

Published by Penguin (1969)

“Go where you will. It’s all yours.
You asked for it. It’s up to you now.
You’re on your own, and nobody’s going to stop you.”

Laurie Lee’s account of his journey through England and across Spain in the 1930s is a classic and makes the top 20 in World Hum’s list of most celebrated travel books as well as The Telegraph’s top 20 travel books of all time. 

Following the success of his childhood memoir, Cider With Rosie, Laurie Lee was a best selling author as well as a poet, musician, artist and scriptwriter by the time As I Walked Out was published in 1969 as the second part of his autobiographical trilogy.  

In an interview with Phillip Oakes for the Sunday Times in 1969, Lee commented:

If you’ve written one reasonably good book, why try to follow on? There’s no real point. You’re not proving anything. The only argument for it is that what I have to write seems to fall naturally into a trilogy. Childhood, then discovering Spain, then the civil war. (published in the Sunday Times on 30 May 2010)

As Robert Macfarlane noted In an article for the Guardian in 2014, there are similarities between As I Walked Out and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Time of Gifts.   Both journeys began within a year or so of each other, 1934 and 1933, respectively.  War awaited both authors at the end of their experiences and both accounts were published later in the authors’ lives; As I Walked Out in 1969 with Time of Gifts following in 1977.

In As I Walked Out, Lee describes how he left his village of Slad in Gloucestershire to busk his way along England’s south coast before stopping to work in London.  After several months in London, Lee departed for Vigo in Spain where he began a six month journey on foot across the plains and sierras to Madrid and then on to Andalusia before reaching Almunecar as the storm of the Civil War was about to break.

In its review of As I Walked Out in 1970, the English Journal concluded that “This is a book for an adolescent its itchy feet and a bent for vicarious living” (English Journal, 1 May 1970). 

In a sense that is fair.  Writing these memoirs was, in Lee’s words, “a celebration of living and an attempt to hoard its sensations”.  What he achieves is a vivid evocation of youth, loss of innocence and youthful travel.  Lee’s style is poetic but eloquent and economical rather than florid or ornate.  His phrases are well turned and he uses striking imagery.  

Lee recalls what it was like to be young, to be in no hurry and feel no pressure (“never in my life had I felt so fat with time”).  He remembers his youthful energy and physical strength and describes them in a way that only someone who has started to miss them could.

Lee also captures the pleasures of travel: the thrill of waking up in a place which holds no memories and has an unfamiliar language and likening it to being reborn; the unease of arriving somewhere at night; the unexpected moments which make one think of and miss home; the innocent ignorance and the feeling of independence and the satisfaction of having no plan but choosing one’s own path and making a journey happen.

At the centre of this is Lee the wandering violinist, the “prince of the road, the lone ranger developing a “taste for the vanity of solitude”, and it never occurring to him that others may have done this before him.

By the time As I Walked Out was published, Lee’s Spain was already changing.  Retracing his journey for the BBC in the 1960s he lamented:  

I remember Segovia as a place of ragged almost oriental poverty, where a stranger’s face was a matter of unusual interest. Tourism has changed all that.  But the old relationship between host and visitor has been corrupted and cheapened.  Tourism always corrupts and no country can stand against it. 
Lee realised how fortunate he had been, reflecting in the book that:

I was a young man whose time coincided with the last years of peace, and so was perhaps luckier than any generation since.  Europe at least was wide open, a place of casual frontiers, few questions and almost no travellers.   

Laurie Lee and As I Walked Out were the subject of an episode of Travellers’ Century, a BBC Four documentary series presented by Benedict Allen:

You can also hear Laurie Lee reading an extract from the book describing life and lunchtime in Madrid here or read how his journey has inspired others to make the same walk, here, here and most recently, P D Murphy’s As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee.

As I Walked Out One Midsummers Morning is also available in ebook format as part of Red Sky at Sunrise, which contains all there instalments of Laurie Lee’s autobiography:


Book: Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
by Bill Bryson

Published by Black Swan 

Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot.

Bill Bryson was (and probably still is) the UK’s best selling non-fiction author ever, largely a result of his million-plus selling travelogue, Notes from a Small Island which was published in the UK in 1996.

A Walk in the Woods was Bryson’s 1998 follow up.  Having lived in the UK for 20 years, Bryson moved back to the US in 1995.  Living close the to the Appalachian Trail, Bryson became curious about the hiking route which runs for over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine and “rashly” informed his family, friends and publisher that he intended to hike it.  Enlisting an old friend, ‘Katz’, to join him, the pair set out and the book is the result of their adventures.  

Bryson has subsequently said of hiking that “nothing happens. You just put one foot in front of the other. You might have a great day, but it’s not an interesting thing to write about, let alone read”.  It would be easy to share this sentiment (“A book about hiking the Appalachian Trail?… Excuse me while I watch some paint dry, or curl up with a good phone directory”).

A Walk in the Woods is not just about the Trail and nature.  Neither is it an opportunity for Bryson to “serve up his psyche on a platter” nor a philosophical enquiry into the outdoors.  Bryson makes this clear early on when he tells us why he wanted to hike the Trail:

I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, “Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods”.

Contrast this with the noble sentiments in Thoreau’s Walden

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. (the full quote is here

It is hard not to see Bryson’s approach as a direct riposte (especially as he refers elsewhere to Thoreau as “inestimably priggish and tiresome”).

A Walk in the Woods is certainly no Walden and neither is it a ‘hairy chested’ adventure book.  But that does not matter.  As Dwight Garner noted in his New York Times review: “You don’t sign on with Bryson’s big adventure because you expect him to show you how hairy-chested he can be. You sign on because he’s one of the most engaging cupcakes around.”

That is just what A Walk in the Woods is.  An engaging, funny account of one man’s attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail and everything that goes with it:  the physical privations, irritations with Katz, the annoyances, the fears and angsts, the history of the trail, its ecology, insights and reflections on the nature of their adventure and how it relates to everyday life, all recounted with a dry sense of humour and sufficient pace and one liners.  A Walk in the Woods is so complete an experience it is almost an alternative to doing it yourself and “you don’t even have to take a step”.

A Walk in the Woods has now been turned into a film starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte:

Book: Barbara Greene, Too Late to Turn Back

Too Late to Turn Back, Barbara GreeneLate to Turn Back: Barbara and Graham Greene in Liberia
by Barbara Greene (with an introduction by Paul Theroux)

published by the Travel Library

Too Late to Turn Back (also published as Land Benighted) is Barbara Greene’s account of her trek with her cousin, Graham Greene, through the Liberian bush in 1935.

From that adventure, Graham Greene produced Journey Without Maps.  Barbara’s account, to borrow from Paul Theroux, is however “quite a different pair of shoes”.

The difference between Graham and Barbara’s accounts can be characterised by the books they took with them to Liberia.  While Graham took Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and produced the darker more introspective Journey Without Maps, Barbara travelled with Saki and Somerset Maugham and produced a more accessible, vivacious travelogue.

While Too Late to Turn Back is considered valuable as a companion piece to Journey Without Maps and as a portrait of Graham Greene, there is, along side the self-effacement and modesty of its author, much more to Too Late to Turn Back.

Barbara Greene was 23 years old when, having been “merrily drinking champagne”, she met her cousin Graham at the wedding reception of Hugh Greene (Graham’s brother) (Although this article suggests that Barbara may have disguised her real age).

Greene’s plans for his Liberian adventure were already well advanced and, because everyone else had refused, Greene asked his cousin Barbara if she would accompany him. Barbara promptly agreed although she “had no clear idea of where he was going to”.

Both Graham and Barbara were later to recall the rashness of their decision to travel to Liberia.  Barbara described them both as being “two innocents” whose “ignorance was abysmal”.  Regretting her “champagne decision”, Barbara hoped her father would forbid her from making the journey but, to her surprise, found that he approved and so, within a fortnight, they were on their way.

As Barbara later acknowledged, it was “unusual then for young girls to adventure off into the wilds”, but “adventure off” she did and what follows in Too Late to Turn Back is the account of a young woman from a privileged existence who had admitted to enjoying her creature comforts roughing it through the African bush.  

As a travelling companion, Graham Greene was complimentary about Barbara, describing her in Ways of Escape as being “as good a companion as the circumstances allowed”.  He also recalled that she left all the decisions to him and never criticised when he made the wrong one.  An arduous journey is likely to strain even the closest of relationships of friendships and theirs was no exception.  Graham noted that, towards the end of the trip they would “lapse into long silences” but found this “infinitely preferable” to raised voices.  Barbara recalled many years later that they “never quarrelled, not once” and also that, although she had not, at any time, been the least bit helpful she “never, never complained”.

This last detail is a telling one.  Despite the seemingly carefree manner of her departure and references to the Savoy Grill and her privileged life in London, Barbara must have had considerable pluck to undertake a journey on foot through the West African bush as a lone woman with a cousin she regarded only as an “acquaintance” and an entourage of 29 carriers, cooks and guides.  They faced many hardships during their trek and Graham’s health progressively worsened prompting Barbara to fear he may die.

Although the book is the sort of travelogue that her cousin was keen to avoid writing, and despite the journey’s hardships Barbara’s account is engaging, revealing small details (such as Graham’s slipping down socks) which lend the narrative intimacy, warmth and humour. She is overly modest, although genuinely so and displays respect and admiration for her cousin, particularly over his handling of the carriers as well as for his presence, intelligence and intellect.  (At one point,  Greene admonishes Barbara over a pair of shorts she was wearing.  Barbara doesn’t repeat his words but, chastened, simply records that Graham “told me with all wealth of phrase at his command exactly what I looked like in them. It was worse than I imagined and hurriedly and humbly I gave the shorts to Laminah.”)

Theroux, in his 1981 introduction notes that Barbara changes during her journey from “scatty socialite” to “hardy and courageous”.  He notes her modesty, dignity, bravery and loyalty and suggests that her transformation shows that “however lighthearted a departure is, if the traveller is generous, observant and dedicated to the trip, the traveller will be changed.

Barbara later confessed to being unsure of how much the journey changed her although  admitted it must have done unconsciously.  She thought that managing “to stick through all difficulties to the end” showed “no particular merit” on her part as they had reached the point of no return early in their trip.  Although probably turn to a certain extent, one senses that this is more modesty and self effacement.

Unlike her cousin, Barbara never returned to Africa.  Remembering the trip in later life, Barbara identified the treasure that she brought back from their Liberian journey as being one that she kept in her heart: “a dream of pure beauty and peace, a vision of moonlit villages in the jungle, friendly people dancing to the twang of a native harp and the beat of a drum , simplicity where material values were of no account and where understanding could be reached without words.”

In Ways of Escape, Graham later stated that Barbara writing her book was the one thing in which she had disappointed him.  He had been so busy with his own notes that he had not even noticed that Barbara was making her own.  Greene was, however, grateful that Barbara had at least waited until a few years after his own had been published.  In fact, Barbara never meant for her book to be published and had only re-written her notes so that she had something to read to her father when he became ill.

Originally published as Land Benighted in 1938, Barbara’s account was reprinted in 1981 with a new forward by her and with an introduction by Paul Theroux. Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print but second hand copies can be found online.