This Adventurous Life – Part 2
Are your rucksacks full of dried food and emergency supplies? Are the crampons fastened to your climbing boots? Oxygen masks at the ready?
It’s time for part 2 of my rundown of great real-life adventure stories!
Paul Theroux, the famous and rather acerbic travel writer called my first selection the greatest travel book ever written. Great praise from a man who’s no slouch in the genre himself.
I think part of my fondness for The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard is based on the circumstances in which I read it. In 2004, when I was island hopping around the west coast of Scotland, I got caught in a mini hurricane on the Isle of Barra, the most westerly inhabited island in the Hebrides. I soon gave up on any idea of getting out and about – the wind would blow an unwary rambler to America – and curled up on a lounge in the hotel and read all day. So whenever I think of this story, I think of howling winds and pouring rains and eating fish and chips in a pub to the music of Scottish accents.
Cherry-Garrard was a member of Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic in 1910. While (luckily for him) he didn’t go in search of the South Pole, he undertook a journey that sounds even worse – a trek to fetch an unhatched emperor penguin egg in the middle of winter. To give you an idea of how cold this was, ACG shattered most of his teeth as a result of them chattering so hard. Wow, that’s cold! This story is fascinating and tragic and suspenseful and uplifting – and an unforgettable account of an expedition that’s become legendary. Not altogether an easy read, but definitely a worthwhile one. And if ever a book made you appreciate your creature comforts, this one does!
My next choice is another classic of travel – and features quite a lot more cold weather! I gave A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby to a friend of mine who loved travel books many years ago and it rapidly became a favorite for both of us. It’s hilariously funny, for a start – something you can’t say for The Worst Journey in the World. It also sparked a reading craze where I ended up reading most of Eric Newby’s works – he’s a marvelous writer, but I think this is his best book.
In 1956, Eric Newby and his friend Hugh Carless set out to trek in the Hindu Kush, at that stage pretty much unknown in the west (and still pretty remote, even now). I remember a hilarious training session in the Welsh mountains which he hopes will prepare him for these huge, jagged mountains – needless to say it doesn’t – and a really funny meeting with famous explorer Wilfred Thesiger who is withering in his assessment of Newby and his friend’s amateurish ways. For a serious chortle, especially if you appreciate British understatement, get this now!
My last two are again by a British writer – this seems to have been an all-British installment of My Favorite Things, but then I think the Brits have just the right tone for travel writing with that ironic humor and modesty. I’ve read these last two books a couple of times – and intend to read them again before I’m done.
A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water are again classics of travel writing. Fresh out of an uncongenial school in 1933, the eighteen -year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to walk from Holland to Constantinople, and the result is one of the most magical reading experiences I’ve ever had. In the first book, Patrick falls into the clutches of various aristocratic families in the recently dissolved Hapsburg empire – a way of life soon to be swept away forever by the looming Second World War. In the second book, even more poignantly, he falls in love with Hungary and the Hungarians (and a Hungarian lady) and details a rich, fascinating way of life that will fall victim not just to the war but to Soviet invasion after 1945. There are so many wonderful set pieces in this second book, not least Patrick’s journey by horseback over the Great Hungarian Plain.
The writing is beautiful – just read the scene at the end of A Time of Gifts where he crosses over from Slovakia into Hungary and the bells are ringing for Easter. And Patrick himself is the best of travel companions. Endlessly interested and curious and willing to stop to contemplate a small detail’s significance. I can imagine just how he charmed all those crusty old aristocrats into giving him a bed for the night – or the month! If you like travel writing and you haven’t read these, don’t hesitate to pick them up.
So there are my eight recommendations for stories of real life adventure (here’s the link to part 1 if you missed it). I can’t imagine you’ll be sorry if you pick up any or all of them!
Of course there are a million other books out there that fit this particular genre. You could go old school and go for The Kon-Tiki Expedition by Thor Heyerdahl (which was a little unrelentingly masculine for my tastes), My Amazon Adventure by Sebastian Snow, any number of Gerald Durrells (I’m planning an MFT about his two books about family life in Corfu this year). There’s Tracks by Robyn Davidson which I liked, but I liked Wild better which is why it got a feature spot. And also anything by that master of travel writing Bill Bryson, who is also going to get a spot to himself this year sometime.
Long live adventure! Now I think I’m going to have a cup of tea and watch TV…