Whilst our daily exercise is a short shuffle around the block, we thought perhaps a saunter around the globe via the pages of a decent travel book might be just the thing.
The trouble is what constitutes a good travel book? The coffee table ones you have to impress guests? The classics? Geopolitics? Guidebooks? Or the mindful stuff that makes you want to pack it all in and head off into the sunset – OK, hold that thought, you can still plan!
The answer, we think, is any of the above plus literature inspired by places, memoirs and much more. So, we’ve cheated the list a little and have entered a series of Top 5s starting with classics, humour and the clever stuff!
The choice is vast - but we’re slightly disappointed to note the lack of female travel writers – we’d appreciate your recommendations in that category.
1. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby
‘The funniest book on mountain adventure?’ Probably.
When Eric Newby, fashion industry worker and inexperienced hill walker, decided after 10 years in haute couture he needed a change, he took four days training in Wales then walked the Hindu Kush. This is his account of an entertaining time in the hills!
Of course, even the gear was inadequate – this was pre-Rohan after all!
2. Travels with Charley: In search of America – John Steinbeck
It’s Steinbeck – need we say more?
To hear the speech of the real America, to smell the grass and the trees, to see the colours and the light - these were John Steinbeck's goals as he set out, at the age of fifty-eight, to rediscover the country he had been writing about for so many years.
With Charley, his French poodle, Steinbeck drives the interstates and the country roads, dines with truckers, encounters bears at Yellowstone and meets old friends in San Francisco. Along the way he reflects on the American character, racial hostility, the particular form of American loneliness he finds almost everywhere, and the unexpected kindness of strangers.
3. Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene
Jim Wormold, divorcé, lives in Havana with his pretty teenage daughter, Milly. He has one friend, Dr. Hasselbacher and struggles to make ends meet as a none-too-successful vacuum cleaner salesman. Then an unexpected person walks into his life - with what you might call an ‘opportunity too good to refuse’. He can become the undercover British Agent in Havana, watch for/report on suspicious activity, recruit his own agents, set up an expense account, and start earning that second income he so desperately needs.
The only trouble is Wormold is about as ill-suited to this line of work as an elephant for bead-work. He is a very shy man. Did I mention he only has one friend? This friend suggests he start inventing fake reports, imaginary agents and – by extension – an appropriate expense account. This solves Wormold’s financial shortages but causes all sorts of other problems especially when London becomes concerned that it is too much work for just one man and they send him a secretary and radio operator.
And then things get even worse as real people with the same names as Wormold’s fictitious agents start dying.
4. The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos – Patrick Leigh Fermor
When the renowned British author and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011 at the age of 96, he left incomplete his trilogy describing his two-year walk (1933-35) across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople and into Greece when he was in his late teens.
The first two books were written a few decades after the events described, but this final volume was left unfinished, existing in various stages of completion, some parts nearly done and others still in diary form. Shortly before his death, knowing that he would be unable to complete The Broken Road, he gave his biographer Artemis Cooper permission to edit and publish it, which she has done with great skill and sensitivity.
The other books in the trilogy about this life-changing journey are ‘A Time of Gifts’ and ‘Between the Woods and the Water’. They’re now celebrated as among the most vivid, absorbing and beautifully written travel books of all time.
5. The Beach – Alex Garland
This is quite recent to be included as a ‘classic’, published in 1996, this was Alex Garlands debut novel. And, it was a start that inspired a generation.
The book follows Richard, a British backpacker who arrives in Bangkok and on his first night in a hostel is given a map that leads to a so-called Eden, a secret beach that few travellers know about. So, with French couple Etienne and Francoise in tow, they try to find the island. When life is idyllic for a while, cracks start to appear, and they find that their Eden isn't the Paradise it seems.
“A good laugh overcomes more difficulties and dissipates more dark clouds than any other one thing.” ~ Laura Ingalls Wilder.
So, here we have five reads to bring a much-welcomed chortle…
1. Down Under: Travels in a sunburned Country - Bill Bryson
It is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents and still Australia teems with life – a large portion of it quite deadly. In fact, Australia has more things that can kill you in a very nasty way than anywhere else.
Ignoring such dangers – and yet curiously obsessed by them – Bill Bryson journeyed to Australia and promptly fell in love with the country.
And, this is classic Bryson - page turning, brilliant and true.
2. An Idiot Abroad, Karl Pilkington
It’s a little-known ambition of ours at Rohan HQ to introduce anti-travel legend Karl Pilkington to our friend, explorer & sometime Radio 4 documentary maker, John Pilkington. The former travels to far flung places at the behest of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. The latter has travelled to Tibet, Patagonia, Afghanistan and the Middle East and received a prestigious Ness Award for services to Geography from the Royal Geographic Society (RGS).
Both engage with locals with a genuine warmth and honesty. And, they both find a sunhat useful – we even made a ‘Pilkington’ hat (about time we brought it back!)
So, included on the list is Karl Pilkington’s ‘An Idiot Abroad’. Because Karl says a lot of the things that travel writers would like to.
3. Falling Towards England - Clive James
The recent passing of Clive James brought back happy memories of the 1990’s TV travel documentary series ‘Clive James's Postcard from...’ In each episode, James visited a notable world city, exploring tourist hotspots and commenting on each city’s appeal in his trademark wry comic style, as well as conducting interviews with famous inhabitants. The TV series was part hilarious travelogue part interview.
‘Falling Towards England’ precedes the shows but has the same comically lyric wit synonymous with James and this in turn is part memoir, part travel – so we’re sneaking it into the list!
'When we got off the ship in Southampton in that allegedly mild January of 1962, I had nothing to declare at customs except goose-pimples under my white nylon drip-dry shirt.'
In the follow up to ‘Unreliable Memoirs,’ James sets sail from Sydney Harbour, bound for London, fame and fortune. Finding the first of these proved relatively simple; the second two less so.
4. The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold - Tim Moore
For those who are taking their bikes out for a quick blast of exercise around their local lanes, desperate to rack up more mileage – spare a thought for Tim Moore. Not content with tackling the Italian Alps or the route of the Tour de France, Tim sets out to scale a new peak of rash over-ambition: A 6,000-mile route of the old Iron Curtain on a tiny-wheeled, two-geared East German shopping bike.
Asking for trouble and getting it, Moore sets off from the northernmost Norwegian-Russian border at the Arctic winter’s brutal height, bullying his plucky MIFA 900 through the endless sub-zero desolation of snowbound Finland. Sleeping in bank vaults, imperial palaces and unreconstructed Soviet youth hostels, battling vodka-breathed Russian hostility, Romanian landslides and a diet of dumplings, Moore and his ‘so-small bicycle’ are sustained by the kindness of reindeer farmers and Serbian rock gods, plus a shameful addiction to Magic Man energy drink.
It’s a brilliant romp through places few in the West have seen.
5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
Far from a traditional travel guide, ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ is considered to be the funniest science fiction book ever written. Penned by Douglas Adams, this adventure follows Arthur Dent, an average British citizen, on a myriad of space adventures. Travelers will get a kick out of the crazy and thought-provoking situations that Dent finds himself in throughout the book.
Too bad we can’t all put a Babel fish in our ear to allow the brain to understand every language in the universe.
1. The Alchemist, Paulo Coehlo
‘The Alchemist’ tells the enthralling story of an Andalusian shepherd who wants to travel in search of treasure. But during his adventures, he finds himself, instead. Coelho shows us the journey that matters—a journey of lessons and charming stories of snakes, love, dunes and alchemy.
2. The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan
For centuries, fame and fortune were to be found in the west – in the New World of the Americas. Today, it is the east which calls out to those in search of riches and adventure. Sweeping right across Central Asia and deep into China and India, a region that once took centre stage is again rising to dominate global politics, commerce and culture.
A major reassessment of world history, The Silk Roads is a dazzling exploration of the forces that have driven the rise and fall of empires, determined the flow of ideas and goods and are now heralding a new dawn in international affairs.
3. Interstate, Hitchhiking through the State of a Nation - Julian Sayarer
Recruited to work on a documentary project, Julian goes to New York convinced he has hit big time at last. Finding the project cancelled, he wanders the city streets and, with nowhere else to go, decides to set out hitchhiking for San Francisco.
Revisiting this timeless American journey finds an unseen nation in rough shape. Along the road are homeless people and anarchists who have dropped out of society altogether, and blue-collar Americans who seem to have lost all meaning in forgotten towns and food deserts.
Helped along by roadside communities and encounters that somehow keep a sense of optimism alive, Interstate grapples with the fault lines in US society. It tells a tale of Steinbeck and Kerouac, set against the indifference of the vast US landscape and the frustrated energy of American culture and politics at the start of a new century.
4. The Outrun, Amy Liptrot
Set in Orkney, The Outrun is a beautiful, inspiring book about living on the edge, about the pull between island and city, and about the ability of the sea, the land, the wind and the moon to restore life and renew hope.
Part recovery memoir, true, but Amy Liptrot writes beautifully about nature and her connection to it. You can see the islands through her eyes, and felt the balm of the freezing water and isolated winds.
5. The Journals of Captain Cook – James Cook
Like Rohan, Captain Cook was born in Yorkshire, travelled worldwide, and his journals contain remarkable accounts of his many discoveries and he became something of a hero among the scientific community.
Cook wrote each journal entry on large unbound sheets folded so that they formed booklets with two equally sized leaves. At sea the left-hand leaves were ruled into a series of columns and rows into which he entered the dates of journal entries, recorded the direction of winds and other navigational information, as well as noting things pertaining to the good order of the ship. On the right-hand leaves, Cook recorded what thought worthy of remark about each day of his command.
Is there something about left brain, right brain in this for psychoanalysis? We don’t know. But it’s the stirring account of Cook’s scissoring across the world in creaking vessels, to places often unexplored that makes this a fascinating read, the technical stuff, is harder going for those not familiar with intricacies of navigation but helps highlight the enormity of his task.
Cook was one of a handful of giants in exploration when about a third of the world was unknown. By the time he was lethally sandwiched by natives in Hawaii, he had become famous at home and well known to much of the rest of the world.
The record of Cook’s voyages was to become popular reading. Louis XVI ordered it translated into French.
Note: The original Cook Journals are housed in The British Museum, London.