Perceptive Travel Book Reviews July 2019
by William Caverlee

In this issue: Another book on a long bike ride where the quest trumps all, a photo-heavy guide to wildlife viewing, and strange tales from travels around the globe.

Chasing Lines
By James McLaren

Anyone planning to challenge the speed record for solo bicycling across Europe may be interested to learn that, at least according to the people who decide these things, Europe begins in the Ural Mountains in Russia. This is where, in 2016, the twenty-nine-year-old Englishman James McLaren launched his bid to set a new record—namely in the city of Ufa in Russia, with hopes of cycling westward all the way to Portugal.

That he completed the journey and received his Guinness World Records certificate is, of course, the reason for this book. Chasing Lines is a day-by-day description of the nearly 4,000 miles he traveled, in under 30 days—all of it alone, without a commercial sponsor or support crew. (The "Lines" in the title are, it seems, the highway stripes he rolled over, mile after endless mile.)

From the beginning McLaren hoped to ride 120 miles per day. And he did so, with only a few exceptions, almost every day, several times going well above the mark, into the 130-150 range. Please let that sink in for a moment: To ride a bicycle 120 miles in a single day once seems to be worthy of a ticker-tape parade. And McLaren did it day after day for a month. His top mileage was his very last day when he rode a staggering 244.18 miles in 16.5 hours!

It was a harrowing journey. McLaren suffered extreme muscle pains, swollen limbs, and skin sores; while cycling alongside speeding cars and trucks; through rain, wind, and thunderstorms; through mountains and plains; through both freezing and scorching days; spending nights alone in a tent along the side of the road or else in tiny hotels; purchasing food and supplies at gas stations and small markets (food was fuel and he topped off his tanks whenever possible); with only an occasional restaurant meal or text message to his girlfriend and parents back in England as morale lifters. It's a wonder that loneliness and isolation didn't do him in. At times, they almost did.

Nor was there much time for sightseeing, needless to say, although McLaren has managed to weave into his account a number of fine descriptions of the ever-changing scenery of nine countries, and amazingly, even found moments of elation and joy amid the continuous ordeal to push on. Best moment of all, of course, was that final day, when he spotted the light from the lighthouse at Cabo da Roca, on the coast of Portugal.

I turn off, turn the GoPro on for the evidence, and then begins the best descent of my life. I'm whooping and hollering, so happy. Pedalling flat out-that's Cabo da Roca, the gold at the end of the rainbow, the place I have been chasing. Not a next town, not a check point, that's it.

With black-and-white photographs and one map.

The A to Z of Wildlife Watching

The A to Z of Wildlife Watching
Published by Lonely Planet

A handsome hardback volume, The A to Z of Wildlife Watching contains color photographs of 300 wild animals across the globe, with a brief accompanying text for each species. This is a straightforward compendium, aimed at travelers who are interested in viewing animals in their natural settings. As you'd expect, all the big-ticket items make an appearance: lion, tiger, elephant, giraffe, leopard, great white shark, zebra, whale, polar bear....

Birds too are heavily represented: Atlantic puffin, California condor, European goldfinch, resplendent quetzal, and many others.

In addition, there are plenty of insects, fish, and amphibians—including species like the leafy sea dragon, a yellow-green, seahorse-looking fish found off the Australian coast that looks like a creation of a Hollywood CGI department. And the great bustards ("the heaviest flying birds on earth") that look somewhat like an emu or ostrich and are found in England. And then there's Hawaii's reef triggerfish, that the author couldn't resist entering under its Hawaiian name: Humuhumunukunukuāpua-a.

Along with its photography, The A to Z of Wildlife Watching offers us brief informative lessons in natural history. Each of the 300 entries follows the same format. First, we're given the animal's common name, followed by its scientific name. Then, a section called "What" with an introduction to the bird or beast. Next, a section, "Where," with instructions on how and when and where a traveler might best be able to catch sight of the species—what continent you need to visit, what season to embark.

Of course, in a book of 300 animals, there will probably be many species you've never heard of. And, for some readers, there is always the interesting experience of turning a page and coming face to face with a startlingly large, full-color close-up of an anaconda or a Komodo dragon. Happily, for non-reptile fans, there are plenty of endearing animals to view: a pair of cuddly koalas snuggling between two tree limbs; a crowd of Emperor penguins, standing shoulder-to-shoulder like commuters at an icy bus stop; and, always the crowd-pleaser, a dazzling, sky-filling flock of starlings.

The A to Z of Wildlife Watching is an excellent book both for travel research and for armchair browsing—for its photography and for the information embedded in every page.

Strange Tales of World Travel
By Gina & Scott Gaille

Strange Tales of World Travel contains fifty brief stories (most are around three or four pages long) about the exotic side of travel. The book's sub-title indicates the kind of topics covered: "Bizarre, Mysterious, Horrible, Hilarious."

The authors are a husband-and-wife team who have logged a great number of miles of world travel. They themselves are the main participants in many of the narratives in the book. In others, they find themselves at the end of a trek or wildlife tour and ask their guide or newly found acquaintance a question that becomes a sort of mantra: "What's the strangest thing you've ever seen or experienced?" The answer to that question becomes another of the stories that the authors have compiled for us in this book.

Herein are accounts of shark attacks, car-jackings, man-eating tigers, tsetse fly swarms, Cape buffalo attacks, shrunken heads, guinea pigs for dinner, and so on. On the lighter side are stories about mistaking a pug for a pig in Saudi Arabia and UFO searching in Lake Titicaca and the Virgin Islands.

Countries visited in Strange Tales of World Travel include Japan, Togo, Botswana, Kenya, Australia, Pakistan, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, and many others—in nearly every corner of the globe.

For readers whose idea of travel is spending a cozy weekend in a bed-and-breakfast, Strange Tales of World Travel may not be the book for you. Others, with a taste for the wild side, will find much to take in. With numerous black-and-white photographs.

William Caverlee is a freelance writer who has been published in numerous magazines and literary journals, including The Oxford American, Cimarron Review, Flight Journal, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. His work appears in The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings, and he's the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

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The A to Z of Wildlife Watching

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Strange Tales of World Travel

Buy Strange Tales of World Travel at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon
Amazon UK