So what are some key attributes of top travel books in my opinion? Well, they tell a story to be sure, but it’s more than that. They tell the soul of a journey—the initial excitement of a vessel leaving port or the joy of waking up to a brand-new place. It also celebrates the act of exploration itself—poking around, asking questions, getting lost and into scrapes, making all the mistakes of the newcomer. But most importantly it should ignite that travel bug spark to pack your suitcase and stumble sense-first into some world experiences of your own.
Eleven years ago, I picked up a copy of Paul Theroux’s “The Great Railway Bazaar” and have been a restless wanderer ever since. During the times that I’m not traveling, one of my most treasured activities that pulls me through the periods of vexing inertia is curling up with a good book and pretending I’m right there with the narrator. I’ll transform into their best-mate on a round-the-world road-trip, a stow-away on the Trans-Siberian railroad, their (not-so handy) handy-woman restoring their Tuscan Villa or a Monastery volunteer in Nepal – the list is as endless as one’s imagination.
Over the years, great narratives have inspired me to travel far and wide and have almost always left me with an insatiable starvation for new cultures and experiences. Their innate ability to also fill the gaps in my knowledge of places that aren’t exactly on the Australian Government’s safe-travel list – like the Congo or Afghanistan – is a curiosity-quencher that I’m continuously thankful to those brave (read: crazy) author’s for.
Disclaimer: What follows is a very subjective list of my top travel books penned in the last two decades. I’m sure I’m missing a few, so feel free to fight me in the comments section below. And no, Eat Pray Love is not on this list.
My Top Travel Books (in not particular order)
Most 60-something travel writers are looking for gigs in Provence and Tuscany, but Theroux, the grandfather of travel writing, trekked overland from Cairo to Cape Town for this modern classic. Why? Because he’s awesome and he could. The wittily observant and endearingly irascible author takes readers the length of Africa by rattletrap bus, dugout canoe, cattle truck, armed convoy, ferry, and train. In the course of his epic and enlightening journey, he endures danger, delay, and dismaying circumstances.
Gauging the state of affairs, he talks to Africans, aid workers, missionaries, and tourists. What results is an insightful mediation on the history, politics, and beauty of Africa and its people.
Everybody needs to travel to “Bat country” at least once in their lifetime. And so the journey begins with drug-addled men, nay, two of ‘god’s very own prototypes’ shrieking wildly in a red convertible christened the ‘Great Red Shark’, driving at break-neck speed through the unforgiving Las Vegas desert, straight for the mirage that is ‘The American Dream‘.
There it was; shimmering playfully in front of them, always just a little out of reach. Yet they drive anyway, hell-bent on grasping a tendril of it. Little did they know that they ended up creating their own version of it; a sick, twisted psychedelic nightmare birthed by drugs and fathered by pure Gonzo journalism.
Sometimes all you have to do to escape is look in your own backyard. This is true of revered travel-author Bill Bryson’s account of the time he spent in my motherland, Australia – a country that doubles as a continent with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet.
Bryson takes his readers on a rollicking fun ride far beyond the beaten tourist path. His deliciously funny, fact-filled and adventurous prose describing the clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine down-under makes me proud to call Australia home. And let’s not forget Bryson’s account of a uniquely sporting people (read: sports mad), who excel at games ranging from cricket to Australian Rules football: “It is a wonder in such a vigorous and active society that there is anyone left to form an audience.”
Notes From a Small Island
Bill Bryson is the Dave Sedaris of Travel Writing. In ordinary circumstances, the idea of an American explaining Britain to the British wouldn’t go down to well on our small island. But then this is Bill Bryson, who aside from spending 20 years in England is one of the most gifted humourists and travel writers of all time.
The Beach – Alex Garland
If only gap years in Thailand were really like this one. Well, up until a point. Alex Garland’s story of a young traveller who finds ‘the perfect beach’ by going off the tourist trail is inspiring for any would-be modern explorer, even if things do take a sinister turn by the end. Despite Garland’s suspicion of the Goa and Phuket faithful, few writers have described so well the thrill of a cliff dive, the joys of Tetris on a Game Boy, or the beguiling beauty of a tropical sunset—and inspired armchair travellers to embark on the real thing in the process.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals – J. Maarten Troost
Becoming fed-up with being a directionless Procrastinator and perpetual degree-dwindler, Troost decides to follow his girlfriend who landed a job on the remote island ov Tarawa. The Sex Lives of Cannibals tells the hilarious story of what happens when Troost discovers that Tarawa is not the island paradise he dreamed of. Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles through relentless, stifling heat, a variety of deadly bacteria, polluted seas, toxic fish—all in a country where the only music to be heard for miles around is “La Macarena.” He and his stalwart girlfriend Sylvia spend the next two years battling incompetent government officials, alarmingly large critters, erratic electricity, and a paucity of food options (including the Great Beer Crisis).
Troost hilarious travelogue will leave you thankful for staples of Western civilisation such as coffee, regular showers, and tabloid news.
Into The Wild – Jack Krakauer
In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild.
Krakauer is sympathetic to the spirit that led McCandless to set out for life off the grid.
Much like Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, this is a story that draws sharp lines between adventure and madness, shedding light on McCandless un-shaking romanticism for being free to wallow in the raw, unfiltered experience of nature, which ironically cost him his life. It is for this reason that I enjoyed this story as much as it frustrated me. A great read.
Lost on Planet China – J. Maarten Troost
In Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid, Troost escorts readers on a rollicking journey through the new beating heart of the modern world, from the megalopolises of Beijing and Shanghai to the Gobi Desert and the hinterlands of Tibet.
Lost on Planet China finds Troost dodging deadly drivers in Shanghai; eating Yak in Tibet; deciphering restaurant menus (offering local favorites such as Cattle Penis with Garlic); visiting with Chairman Mao (still dead, very orange); and hiking (with 80,000 other people) up Tai Shan, China’s most revered mountain. But in addition to his trademark gonzo adventures, the book also delivers a telling look at a vast and complex country on the brink of transformation that will soon shape the way we all work, live, and think. As Troost shows, while we may be familiar with Yao Ming or dim sum or the cheap, plastic products that line the shelves of every store, the real China remains a world—indeed, a planet–unto itself.
Between the Orinoco and the Amazon lies a fabulous forested land, barely explored. Much of Guiana seldom sees sunlight, and new species are often tumbling out of the dark. Shunned by the conquistadors, it was left to others to carve into colonies. Guyana, Suriname and Guyane Française are what remain of their contest, and the 400 years of struggle that followed.
The 2012 Dolman award-winning book by John Gimlette sets off along coast, gathering up its astonishing story. His journey takes him deep into the jungle, from the hideouts of runaway slaves to penal colonies, outlandish forts, remote Amerindian villages, a ‘Little Paris’ and a space port. He meets rebels, outlaws and sorcerers; follows the trail of a vicious Georgian revolt, and ponders a love-affair that changed the face of slavery. Here too is Jonestown, where, in 1978, over 900 Americans committed suicide. The last traces are almost gone now, as the forest closes in.
Beautiful, bizarre and occasionally brutal, this is one of the great forgotten corners of the Earth: the Wild Coast.
Wrong About Japan – Peter Carey
The novelist Carey and his 12-year-old son travel to Japan in search of manga and anime culture, which the son adores and the father can’t quite understand. The result is a nuanced and enchanting tour of Japanese culture, as entered through its garish, brightly lit back door. Guided–and at times judged–by an ineffably strange boy named Takashi, the Careys meet manga artists and anime directors, the meticulous impersonators called “visualists,” and solitary, nerdish otaku. Throughout, the Booker Prize-winning novelist makes observations that are intriguing even when–as his hosts keep politely reminding him–they turn out to be wrong.
The trip doesn’t bring Carey (or indeed the reader) much enlightenment about the country— in fact this book only serves as a reminder of the generational gaps and east/west divide —but that’s most of the fun, for even in a global age, it shows we can still meet with impenetrable and bewildering things when they are described in an unexplainable way.
Stewart’s first book recounts his journey across Afghanistan in January 2002. Even in mild weather in an Abrams tank, such a trip would be mane-whitening. But Stewart goes in the middle of winter, crossing through some territory still shakily held by the Taliban — and entirely on foot. There are some Medusa-slayingly gutsy travel writers out there — Redmond O’Hanlon, Jeffrey Tayler, Robert Young Pelton — but Stewart makes them look like Hilton sisters.
Paul Theroux once described a certain kind of travel book as having mainly “human sacrifice” allure, and how close Stewart comes to being killed on his journey won’t be disclosed here. He is, however, sternly warned before he begins his walk. “You are the first tourist in Afghanistan,” observes an Afghan from the country’s recently resurrected Security Service. “It is mid-winter,” he adds. “There are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, and this is a war. You will die, I can guarantee.” For perhaps the first time in the history of travel writing, a secret-police goon emerges as the voice of sobriety and reason.
So as you might well gather, “The Places in Between” is a pipsqueak title for what is otherwise a striding, glorious book.
There have been so many books by expats singing the praises of their new “homes” abroad – the unhurried pace of Provence, the frenetic excitement of Paris, the burgeoning passion of Rome — that we are often tempted to turn up our noses at these latter-day explorers. We roll our eyes at their quaint anecdotes, charming discoveries, life-altering realizations. We are NOT impressed. We’ve seen this all before. In short, we are jaded. The “been there, done that” mentality is certainly one to eschew for Under the Tuscan Sun. This is a gem of a book if there ever was one — part Money Pit, part every Fellini film you’ve ever watched, part Bob Vila and his trusty sidekick Norm, part Marcella Hazan cookbook and part insider’s vacation guide. Here Mayes explores every nook and cranny of Italian life, custom and soul.
The Great Railway Bazaar – Paul Theroux
To put it simply, this book ignited my love of travel writing all those years ago and deserves a special mention. Theroux’s strange, unique, and hugely entertaining railway odyssey has become a modern classic of travel literature. Here he recounts his early adventures on an unusual grand continental tour. Asia’s fabled trains — the Orient Express, the Khyber Pass Local, the Frontier Mail, the Golden Arrow to Kuala Lumpur, the Mandalay Express, the Trans-Siberian Express — are the stars of a journey that takes him on a loop eastbound from London’s Victoria Station to Tokyo Central, then back from Japan on the Trans-Siberian. Brimming with Theroux’s signature humour and wry observations, this engrossing chronicle is essential reading for both the ardent adventurer and the armchair traveller.
Feature Image via Nomad Head