Perceptive Travel Book Reviews April 2018
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: Two books that demonstrate that the glorious age of exploration on land, sea, and air is not quite dead and a third that charts the making of a travel writer.

Departures: A guide to letting go, one adventure at a time
By Anna Hart

From her childhood spent in Singapore, where her father was a church minister and her mother an eye doctor, Anna Hart from Northern Ireland felt most at home in airports. One of the family's favorite outings in the 1980s was to shiny Changi Airport for the air-conditioning, butterfly park, and ice cream parlors. She loved watching the destination flip-board announcing exotic destinations, which probably gave rise to the book's title, and propelled her into a life of travel. As an expat child in Singapore perceiving herself to be a bit of a misfit, she reflected comfortingly that “As travelers, none of us quite belong, which means we all do.”

With talent and determination she landed a job with a men's lifestyle magazine (now defunct). Her first serious assignment was to New Orleans six months after Katrina. Despite her youth and inexperience, she manages to get under the skin of the city, by learning to be nosy and finding human stories. She stays in a hotel that was re-homing displaced New Orleans residents, rather than in a bland chain hotel. She loves to anthropomorphize places and notes that the city “wears her complicated, periodically painful history on her sleeve and isn't afraid to talk about it on a first date.”

Her career combining writing and traveling was launched. For a writer, travel never lacks purpose, something that could not be said of the self-indulgent young generation of backpackers, nor of the man she later marries, who viewed all the adventuring and leisure as pointless (the marriage didn't last).

In these book review pages, we often complain when autobiography takes over from travel writing, and when relationship history replaces evocation of place. Of course it all depends on the quality and originality of the writing. Departures is written in a lively, humorous, and self-deprecating style and she often hits the nail on the head with her travel truths. Dreamy praise is always tempered with reality, so that the Scotland she explored as a student might have felt magical with its roaming deer and soaring golden eagles, but it is also the place where "midges do their usual bastard flying-into-your-eyeballs thing." Early on she discovers what makes a good traveler, which is to be able to laugh in the midst of chaos and adversity. She aims to master 15 phrases in the language of the place she is visiting, and she likes to make every pit stop count, so that detours for gas or groceries are combined with a scenic picnic or market. 'Travel is all about attitude; and when attitude fails you, there's always alcohol.' Which makes her sound sillier than she is, because she is a thoughtful traveler, an original writer, and a successful digital nomad.

Voyage of the Southern Sun: An Amazing Solo Journey Around the World
By Michael Smith with Aaron Patrick

Eighty years ago, the first Sydney-to-London seaplane flights were launched by Qantas in Imperial Flying Boats that took ten days to complete the journey. From his boyhood in rural Australia, Michael Smith was captivated by this story and in middle age decided to attempt to replicate the 1938 route solo in a small one-engine flying boat called Southern Sun. He had the requisites: a pilot's licence, enough resources to pay for it (for this is a rich man's game), and an understanding family willing to tolerate his long absence. When he gets to London, he is so consumed with the joys of flying that he decides to press on around the world, to attempt to become the first solo flyer to circumnavigate the globe (or "circumnaviate" in his coinage, combining aviation and navigation). It is not surprising that he seeks to recreate the age of empire, because he is himself an empire-builder, having made his fortune in creating a worldwide cinema empire.

It is not necessary to be keen on the literature of aviation to enjoy this well-told (ghost-written) account, although in an ideal world fewer paragraphs would have been devoted to manly plugging/unplugging and studying wiring diagrams to resolve technical faults. It is not too surprising that one of his heroes is Howard Hughes, of whom a famous actress said 'I don't think he could love anything that did not have a motor in it'.

But this is an emotional as much as a physical journey, in which exhilaration and pride can quickly be replaced by shame and dejection when he makes an avoidable mistake. The dangers and risks are always present, and one blind landing on the east coast of Canada nearly finishes his journey (and him) for good. One suspects that he is afflicted with a certain amount of machismo, though he is honest enough to admit that his intense relief on landing safely after his brush with death dissolves into uncontrollable blubbering. It sometimes seems that we are seeing a man learning to control his ego and overcome hubris.

Of the 93 places he touches down, many are known only to aviation buffs—who has ever heard of Foynes in Ireland or Botwood in Newfoundland? Although his adventure isolates him from humanity for long stretches, he has enough contact with locals from Timor to Greenland, Alaska to the Philippines to be able to appreciate the kindness of strangers. He experiences some of the scrapes that all travelers might encounter, like suffering a bout of diarrhoea after eating at Raffles Hotel in Singapore or being unable to pay for fuel at St. Nazaire with a non-French credit card. His encounters with immigration officials at airfields are usually cordial, with the notable exceptions of Britain and the US. His seven-month journey is a remarkable achievement.

Atlas of Untamed Places

Atlas of Untamed Places: An Extraordinary Journey Through our Wild World
By Chris Fitch

This beautifully produced book devotes four pages to each of 45 uniquely wild places. Mankind and tourism have tamed and conquered so much of the planet, it is reassuring to be reminded that there are still some untouched and untouchable corners. Most of the destinations featured were new to me, even though I have read similar books, most recently to review Atlas Obscura. Each choice is illustrated with an arresting black and white photo and an impressive colored map, like the one of the Skeleton Coast of Namibia showing named shipwrecks or the one of the Chernobyl area according to degree of nuclear contamination. It is hard to imagine these maps ever being useful; not many readers will be making a beeline for the 2km deep “bottomless” Krubera caves in disputed Abkhazia or to the Mariana Trench. But that is not the point. This atlas is half-way towards being a coffee table book and serves to amaze and entertain.

Even the places categorized under the headings “Extreme Environments” and “Isolated Realms” bring human stories to the fore. The author favors attention-grabbing first sentences such as “Colonel John Magee McNeill had a train to catch”—which he never catches because his horse-drawn carriage plunged into the Vanishing Lake of Northern Ireland. There’s “Captain James Cook faced a problem” when sharp coral pierced his ship forcing him to spend weeks at Endeavour River, now deemed a biodiversity hotspot in far north Queensland. (The chapter openings that are truisms— “It can get lonely out in the desert” —are less successful.)

The text is full of historical and contemporary stories of human contact in these untamed places, like the 49ers trapped miserably at Furnace Creek in Death Valley and the small uncontacted population on North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Sea who shoot arrows at anyone who tried to land. The author describes places that were unknown until very recently, like the Maliau Basin in Borneo discovered in 1982. There is a peak in Bhutan, Gangkhar Puensum, that has never been climbed and perhaps never will since the government of Bhutan now prohibits climbing parties. We mere mortals can only marvel at the heroism of the people who have tried to conquer and explore these wild places.

Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World and Teaching English Abroad, she has also turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes hotel reviews to the Daily Telegraph, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

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Voyage of the Southern Sun

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Atlas of Untamed Places

Buy Atlas of Untamed Places at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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