We can’t possibly travel to every last rock on this planet, much as we would love to. That’s where writing kicks in. There’s enormous joy in reading of others’ experiences – living vicariously.
You can walk with bears in the Appalachians, travel the Nile, become a pilgrim on the Camino, run with the bulls in Pamplona, frequent the cafes and bars of old Paris. Not quite the same of course, but if the writing is good, the experience will still be inspirational.
Six travel writers reveal the book that inspired them in the cover story of The Sydney Morning Herald/ Melbourne Age Traveller, and you can read it below. The book I chose isn’s necessarily one I would choose now, but it was the book of my time and it captured the zeitgeist. The screenshots are below but the online link is here:
Also, here is my choice of five other great travel books that transport the reader somewhere else. I should really also include Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City, a beautiful contemplation of a complex city with a mysterious, melancholy past:
The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow by A.J. Mackinnon
A wonderfully eccentric travel book by Australian author “Sandy” Mackinnon, who has the batty idea of leaving his teaching job at a Hogwarts-style Shropshire school and sailing away in a dinghy “just to see where I got to – Gloucester, near the mouth of the Severn, I thought”. Totally unprepared, he bumbles along various waterways, eventually crossing the English Channel and carrying on to the Black Sea. Remarkably, he stays alive to tell the tale.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Bryson, like Paul Theroux, can be curmudgeonly, but his engaging, self-referential style and mastery of dialogue is mesmerising. I think this book is Bryson’s best – his funny account of walking the Appalachian Trail hike skillfully explores the challenges of the journey and the grand intransigence of the landscape (and his travelling companions). Thanks to Bryson, I too want to walk in the woods – just without the bears.
I’m also currently reading The Lost Continent which is Bryson’s hilarious take on returning to the US from his new home in the UK to try and rediscover the America of his youth.
Old Serpent Nile by Stanley Stewart
Stewart’s book is travel writing at its best – insightful, witty and elegant. Bernini’s sculpture in Rome, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (fountain of the four rivers), inspired Stewart’s dangerous journey from the Nile Delta to the Mountains of the Moon in Eastern Equatorial Africa. When Bernini made his artwork, the Nile’s source was unknown.
The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux
This is Theroux’s account of his journey on various trains from Boston to Patagonia – almost at the end of the world at South America’s southern end. He writes about his passion for trains and his fascination with people, from the misanthropic to the engaging. He makes keen observations on individuals and landscape. If a cross-looking gentleman with glasses tries to engage you in conversation while on a train, pretend you speak no English.
My Family and Other Animal by Gerald Durrell
Durrell’s affectionate book about his family’s five-year sojourn on the island of Corfu is a utopian portrait of a sun-soaked island and its inhabitants. Durrell’s book has been influential in Corfu’s ascendancy as a tourist destination because who wouldn’t be enchanted by his tales of wandering through olive groves, gorging on figs, snoozing under cypresses with the sea sparkling below?
Out of Africa Karen Blixen
Not strictly a travellers’ tale but if a book, in this case, a memoir, induces a yearning to visit a place, then it qualifies. The opening words paint a picture of Kenya’s exquisite landscape in a time now past: “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the north … In the day-time you felt that you had got high up; near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.”