It’s meant to be one of the great travel novels, a must-read, a shoe-in on any top ten or bucket list. If you’re going to go off exploring, you simply have to have read it. The only problem is, I don’t actually like Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.
The book is about some teenagers driving around the US in the 1950s, and if you’re wondering what that reads like, it’s basically this:
Hey guys, let’s drive this car and spend some cash and bum around America … Look man, girls! Dig those girls! Hey, how about we drive to a different city and dig those girls too? Yeah man, dig that!
… repeated for 300 pages.
Perhaps I’m too harsh on the book. I read it at the wrong time of life: it’s a coming of age novel and should be read at sixteen when you’re champing at the bit to leave home. I was nearly twice that age when I finally got round to trying it, thinking more than anything else that I should fill the hole in my travel book lexicon, and it left me cold.
Let’s not be too negative though. I do like travel books, so if you want some recommendations or want to find out what makes me tick, here are some of my favourites. Happy reading!
Anne Mustoe was the head of a prestigious girls’ school near London when she decided to pack it all in, work her way out of her commitments and tour the world by bicycle. This she did, with a stern headmistressly word for anyone who displayed such bad manners as to try to rob her, fleece her or do anything else so rude. There are probably still criminals in Delhi and Mumbai who can recount an old lady who scared them into retreat with the threat of a lunchtime detention and a good caning.
Like a true product of a British classical education she uses each country to explore the remains of civilizations past; we get the Romans in Europe, Alexander the Great, the Mughals and more. Many people don’t like this part of the book – look on Amazon’s reviews and you’ll find people complaining about ‘not enough cycling too much history’ – but for me this was the best bit! Anyone who knows me will recognise my glee at finding a book that combines cycling and lots of useless trivia knowledge, and if a travel book isn’t going to expand your mind, what’s the point?
This isn’t a long distance book but a classic madcap British adventure, with two cousins pushing the boundaries of what could be done on a bike, back at the start of the mountain biking boom in the 1980s.
Beyond the obvious gung ho adventurism of it, I like the book because it connects me to my parents’ years living in East Africa just before the Cranes went out there, and to my old sports of climbing and mountain biking from before I ever became a roadie.
Their other book, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, is another I want to read – and the connection there is that their goal for that journey – a point near Urumqi in China that they determined to be the centre of the Eurasian landmass, is very close to where I toured in Central Asia last year. It’s strange to think that unless I go back to the area or go into space, I’ll never be further from the sea. Unfortunately for me this book is only available in hard copy so it’s unlikely I’ll get to read it on this trip but it’s definitely on there for the future. [Edit: it’s available in pdf at the link. Read it!]
“I’d never previously thought of alcohol as a performance enhancing drug but soon realised that in long distance cycling, anything that made the world seen like a better place – or heck, at least a different place – had something going for it.“
Tim Moore, a journalist staring down middle age, decides to do something truly silly: ride the route of the Tour de France. It isn’t long though before he realises quite what a stupid idea it is and resorts to standard Tour tactics: cheating and drugs. Along the way we get a brief summary of Tour history, a compendium of its most bizarre moments and a whole lot of dry observations on the eccentricities of touring, cycling and French life in general.
I know I said I don’t like cars, but the Land Rover deserves an exception: more than a car it’s an icon. The fellows in this book are of a type with the Land Rover themselves: affable chaps just out of Oxbridge who decide that wouldn’t it be a bally laugh if they drive these fine British cars to Singapore and back – which they do with many a tally ho, a toodle pip and a good British cheer.
Their attitude is endearing, but is no more quaint than the world they were driving through: they crossed through Eurasia in a brief window of opportunity to do their route, which closed shortly after they finished. Were you to try to repeat the drive today you’d run into several war zones which in the 50s were breathing a temporary sigh of peace after WW2 and you’d get stuck in the jungle in Burma, which they crossed on roads that were even then crumbling, having been hastily constructed to fight the Japanese ten years earlier. It’s a reminder of the ever-changing face of our planet, and of how capricious and frustrating travel can be.
These are the tales of two friends, fresh out of university, setting off to explore the world. They were jumping into the unknown, having formative experiences and using them to write coming of age books that appeal to me so much more than On The Road – make of that what you will.
At many points while reading these I’d internally yell out in frustration at the authors: why was Al carrying pointless and weighty spares like a bottom bracket and chain? Why did Rob ask a girl to wait for him in Hong Kong until he completed his trip, only to go and do it by the longest, most circuitous route possible? Many of the errors were because they were raw though, because they did it at a time when they could leave England without being entangled in official commitments – when they should have done it. This contrasts to me: I might have known better how to fix a bike when I set off aged 32, but I had to work for a year to disentangle myself from British society before I could depart. For that, and for having the guts to do it when they did, I envy them.
For the part they did together, the Road of Bones in Siberia, we have a double account, a story from both sides, and a insight into both of their personalities. One of the partners comes across as much more like I am, and the other as more like the person I want to be – and no I’m not saying which is which!
The Donald Crowhurst tragedy is well-known. Fifty years ago, gripped by a national fervour for sailing long distances, Donald Crowhurst raced a dozen other people to be the first to sail solo, non-stop around the world. The problem was, he wasn’t up to it and neither was his boat. In the south Atlantic he faced a dreadful choice: sail on and die, or quit and face financial ruin. He chose the third option: fake his progress while hiding out in calm waters, then return to a quiet last place that wouldn’t cause anyone to look too hard at his log books. He miscalculated though: when he broke radio silence he was in the clear lead, sailing for London to a hero’s welcome, a new world record … and certain discovery. His boat was found drifting in the Atlantic several weeks later, with Crowhurst nowhere to be seen.
The authors here have reconstructed Crowhurst’s voyage from his logs and transmissions; his growing realisation of the choice that faced him, the strain of maintaining the lie and his slow descent into madness. His voyage, they claim, had been doomed from the start, due to bad project management that saw optimism triumph over clear planning or prioritisation. If he’d taken a more realistic approach at the start, he might never have set out in a boat so unfit for purpose. Adventure might look fun but there are the boring bits too: you can never escape the planning and the paperwork. As one of the other authors on this list has commented elsewhere, “I spend most of my time doing boring, unspontaneous things in an effort to look exciting and spontaneous.” How true. In Donald Crowhurst, we have a salutary tale.