Armchair Travel: 10 Travel Writing Classics

These are some of my favourite classic travel books.

In this edition of Armchair Travel, I’ve curated a collection of some of the true classics of travel writing. The beauty of many of these travelogues is that they take us back to lands which no longer exist.

This is a selection of notable titles by some of the best-known names in the genre, many of which have inspired later writers and travellers. It includes well-known works seeded by mountaineering and polar expeditions, journals of travels in unusual circumstances and situations, and wry looks at more familiar places. It should be recognised that some of the content of the books listed and the ideas expressed within have aged much better than others.

Read on to dive into the inspiration that has fuelled generations of travellers, ideas planning a travel adventure, or to travel vicariously in space and time without leaving the sofa.

The Innocents Abroad – Mark Twain (1869)

Twain and a companion spend several months touring Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East on a cruise of the Mediterranean during the period of transition from Grand Tour to modern tourism. He writes sharp, insightful dispatches for an American newspaper, peppered with irreverent observations, satirical caricatures, and his trademark acerbic wit. However, it is to be noted that his views spill over into racism and Islamophobia at points. At a time when few travelled intercontinentally, his accounts were a lesson in culture and history, not just for his readers at home, but for those abroad encountering the brashness of Americans for the first time. The account is the source of the much-quoted observation below. Find it here.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people needed it sorely on these accounts.”

Mark Twain

The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)

The title of this book really is no exaggeration, and it’s no spoiler to let you know things do not go well. In 1912 Cherry-Garrard was the youngest member of the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. He was part of the team making the infamous Winter Journey to the penguin rookery at Cape Crozier with Edward Wilson and Birdie Bowers, and crossed the Great Ice Barrier and Bearmore Glacier with the polar party before being sent back at latitude 85° 20′ South. After leading the final unsuccessful rescue mission, Cherry-Garrard was part of the team uncovering the fate of Scott and the rest of the party, just 11 miles short of One-Ton Depot. Wracked with survivor’s guilt, he poured himself into this work, piecing together diary extracts from other team members, adding details of scientific endeavours and anecdotes of resilience and endurance in the frozen South. Get it here.

The Valley of the Assassins – Freya Stark (1934)

Stark is an intrepid explorer, trained as a geographer and cartographer, perhaps even working in the intelligence service, who writes engagingly of the people she encounters on her travels and challenged the perception of travelling safely as a solo woman. This book recounts several separate trips undertaken by Stark, into Luristan and its bordering regions, the mountainous area between Iraq and present-day Iran, as the fragmenting Ottoman Empire allowed access to areas previously off-limits to Western Europeans. It is hard to ignore that Stark is essentially a gravel robber, with obtaining grave goods and skulls the primary reason for her interest, which she justifies on the basis that it was better these were acquired on behalf of museums than fall into the hands of private collectors. Find it here.

Green Hills  of Africa – Ernest Hemingway (1935)

An account of a month Hemingway spent on safari in East Africa with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, in 1933 when such an expedition was the height of glamour. He aspires to spend his time in the Serengeti shooting big game, fishing, drinking, and debating literature and philosophy with his fellow hunters. The book graphically describes the killing of animals, and though Hemingway acknowledges this will be distasteful to many and imagines the feeling of his prey close to death, he only shows contrition over a job poorly done. Alongside capturing the adrenaline rush of the hunt, and the notions of masculinity it conferred, he writes beautifully about the landscape and nature of the African bush. Get it here.

Journey Without Maps – Graham Greene (1936)

In 1935, successful novelist Greene undertook a trip to Liberia, a part of West Africa little known to Europeans, with his cousin Barbera as a travel companion. All the others invited to join him turned him down flat, but Greene was fascinated to explore the influences of colonialism in the region, and investigate the factors enabling Liberia to retain independence in the late-nineteenth century Scramble for Africa. Starting in Freetown, in the neighbouring British colonial possession of Sierra Leone, he treks inland with a team of porters to French Guinea, then through Liberia, a nation founded around a hundred years prior by formerly enslaved people and free-born Black people from the US and Caribbean. Greene’s narrative is compelling and insightful, exploring and exposing European myths about Africa, albeit through the white male gaze of the time. Get it here.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – Rebecca West (1942)

West travelled with her husband to the Balkans in the spring of 1937, their six-week journey through inter-war Yugoslavia was a return visit to document the history, political situation, and people of the region as the dark clouds of WWII gathered over Europe. The scale of the undertaking is epic, with more than 1200 pages of travel journal, historic insight, and cultural commentary, probing the fragmented and troubled history of the Balkan states and the uneasy relationships of the people of the region. They travel through what was then Croatia, Dalmatia, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, recently on the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the remains of the Ottoman Empire, now lying between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. West’s writing is exceptional in its clarity and striking imagery, a masterpiece by turns witty and beautiful, on the edge of overwhelming. Find it here.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush – Eric Newby (1958)

Bored of his career in the London fashion trade, Newby undertakes an expedition to make a first ascent of Mir Samir (5,089m / 19,058′) in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. After just four days of training in Snowdonia, the woefully underprepared duo of Newby and Carless set off on their transcontinental expedition to reach Kabul, and into the mountains of Nuristan, where he bumps into renowned explorer Wilfred Thesiger. The book is an entertaining read, though for its frivolity is a comprehensive history of colonial expansion into South and Central Asia and the Himalayas, and the insight into the Nuristan region is a glimpse of somewhere much changed by events of subsequent years. Read it here.

Travels with Charley in Search of America – John Steinbeck (1961)

In 1960, Steinbeck loads up a pick-up truck camper and sets off on a road trip across the United States, travelling though forty states, accompanied by his French poodle, Charley. At the age of fifty-eight, feeling the softening of age about him and growing a little weary with the world, he aims to reconnect with his subject matter and meet the people that make up this new America and understand their stories. He writes with insight into the upheaval and change of the 1960’s, the loss of regional diversity across the country, and the changes in the environment. This is an account of a quiet journey rather than an adventure, slipping into travel-inspired fiction in places. Buy it here.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning – Laurie Lee (1979)

Lee writes evocatively of his younger days, when at the age of 19, he leaves his small village in Gloucestershire and travels on foot to London, via Southampton, to find work as an itinerant labourer. He travels to Spain, supporting himself by means of his fiddle, tramping across the country on foot and becoming enchanted by the country, the people he meets, the music and customs he experiences. It is 1934, and life is hard in Spain, poverty is inescapable, and the signs of impending civil war are everywhere. This is in part a coming-of-age narrative as much as a travelogue, as the young Lee is filled out by his experiences, capturing the atmosphere, beauty, and tensions of Spain in lyrical prose. Find it here.

The Songlines – Bruce Chatwin (1987)

Central Australia was one of the few regions of the globe inhabited not by herders, pastoralists, or farmers, but by nomadic hunter-gathering people. As they moved across the continent they carved a network of invisible pathways in space and time, the Songlines of the title, which tie together cultural heritage, rites and rituals, and the human condition. This stands in vivid contrast to the prevailing culture of Australia, and Chatwin explores the conflicts between an indigenous population and a colonial force, impoverished people and wealthy, wanderers and the settled. I feel the insights of the book are enhanced by the unusual, shape-shifting form of the writing. It compiles travelogue and anthropology with Chatwin’s famed diaries, and a touch of fiction, making only a token attempt to merge these facets together, often running through deep, probing passages, interspersed with some that are little more than field sketches, before breaking down completely into scattered notes and journal extracts. Get it here.

Do you have any recommendations for classic travel books that I should read?
Did this post capture your imagination? Why not pin it for later?

This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

What I’ve been reading | Autumn 2022

A collection of thought-provoking essays, articles and blog posts from various sources I’ve stumbled across over the past season, and I want to share with you. This autumn, I’ve been thinking a lot about extreme experiences and risk, and managing fear, both personal and global.

Extreme Environments

In Defence of Adventurous Mothers

Written following the death of ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson on Mansulu in early October, and examining the criticism directed towards women with children participating in high-risk activities in extreme environments.

An Acquaintance with Fear

Former British Royal Marine and safety specialist operator Aldo Kane explores managing fear while operating in risky and extreme environments.

The End is my Beginning

An essay by Tamara Lunger on when things go wrong in an extreme environment and those who are left behind must pick up the pieces and continue based on her experience on K2 in 2021.

Existential Risk and Ecological Anxiety

Half of the World’s bird species in decline as destruction of avian life intensifies

Findings from the State of the World’s Birds report that human activity and climate crisis have put almost half of all species in decline, and around 1 in 8 at risk of extinction.

Britain faces biodiversity collapse

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted nations on the globe, and current levels of biodiversity may not be nearly enough to mitigate against the risk of ecosystem collapse.

Climate tipping points could lock in unstoppable changes to the planet – how close are they?

An assessment of the potential climate tipping points which will result in ecological collapse and devastating changes to the planet, and changing understanding of risk with advancing models.

“More Like War Photography” photographing the Arctic during a climate crisis

An exploration of the ethics of tourism to the polar regions to capture an environment hanging in the balance.

Armchair Travel: 10 Books set on Pacific Islands

A selection of my favourite books which dive into the history and culture of the Pacific Islands.

Armchair Travel this season brings you my favourite books which explore the fascinating cultures of the islands and archipelagos of the Pacific Ocean. Included in the selection are histories and ethnographies, travelogues and tales of adventure which will deepen your knowledge and understanding of the region. I’d love to know if you’ve read any of these books, and if you have any recommendations for me, especially any fiction by Pasifika writers. Leave me a message in the comments below.

But first, read on to find a wee bit of tropical island inspiration for planning your next travel adventure, or set sail on a Pacific voyage of discovery without leaving the sofa.

Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 Books set on Pacific Islands”

Armchair Travel: 10 books set in the desert

A selection of my favourite books with a desert setting.

This instalment of Armchair Travel brings you a selection of the best reads that capture the arresting beauty of arid landscapes and the unique challenges for those who live in or travel through them. Including riveting accounts of adventures, classic travelogues, and fictional works that bring deserts to life, there’s something for all interests.

Read on to find inspiration for planning your next travel adventure, or just explore the desert sands without leaving the comfort of home.

Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 books set in the desert”

Gear Review | Aeropress Go Coffee Maker

Starting my day with a coffee is really a non-negotiable, and where possible it has to be freshly-brewed real coffee. When I’m backpacking I enjoy taking my time over a good coffee in the morning. It gives me the opportunity to spend a few moments preparing for the day ahead, going over the route for the day, assessing the weather conditions, and reflecting on how things have gone the day before. It’s a wee bit of time for appreciating the place I’d spent the night, and a little bit of luxury to keep morale going when the weather looks grim, or there’s a tough day in the schedule.

Waking up to a freshly brewed coffee on a winter camp by the coast

What am I looking for in a travel coffee maker for backpacking trips? It should be simple to use and easy to clean afterwards. It should be lightweight and small enough to pack into my travel bags, and robust enough to handle being stuffed into a rucksack. And the coffee has to taste good.

How I tested the Aeropress Go

I borrowed an Aeropress Go from my friend Josh to make a round of coffees for our group as we travelled back from South Georgia to the Falkland Islands on a Royal Navy ship, and was so impressed that I ordered one for myself once I got back home. When it arrived, I tried it out immediately in my kitchen and it quickly became part of my morning routine.

I took it with me on a two-night wild camping trip, a shakedown for taking part in the TGO Challenge, a self-sufficient coast-to-coast crossing of Scotland in May 2022, and kept it in my kit for the event. My TGO route on this occasion took 13 days to complete, walking between 25 and 30km a day, with one rest and resupply day scheduled around the halfway point. I carried all my equipment, including a Jetboil Flash 2.0 to heat water for hot drinks and prepare dehydrated meals.

Breakfast and a brew before walking the length of Loch Affric on the Affric Kintail Way.

For most of the TGO Challenge in 2022, I camped overnight in locations remote from local shops, cafés or pubs, so there was no alternative other than to brew my own coffee in the morning before starting to walk if I wanted it.

Product Description

The Aeropress Go is a portable coffee maker designed for outdoor use, expeditions and frequent travel. If you’re familiar with the original Aeropress, the Aeropress Go is a slightly smaller, more streamlined system, which packs into a dual-purpose storage container travel mug.

It can be used to make hot or cold brew coffee, producing around 250ml of espresso-style coffee which can be topped up with water or milk to make a long black or a latte, in less than 30 seconds.

The components are made from lightweight, tough plastic, with a silicone seal on the plunger and silicone lid for the travel mug. The stirrer and scoop have been redesigned to fold into the plunger, and the kit includes a case that can hold around 20 filters.

The complete Aeropress Go system weighs 326g, including the storage container/ mug, scoop and stirrer, and the dimensions when packed inside the mug are a similar size to a Pot Noodle. If you didn’t bother with the mug, the coffee press itself is a similar size to a small can of beer.

The only waste produced by the Aeropress Go is a small “puck” of ground coffee and a used filter. According to the website, the paper filters are both recyclable and compostable and can be rinsed and reused several times.

Field Results

After setting up my Jetboil to heat water, I put a paper filter into the filter cap of the Aeropress Go, twisted it on to the chamber, and added the ground coffee. Once the water was ready, I balanced the chamber on the mug and added the hot water, gave the coffee a stir, and pushed in the plunger to produce a mug of espresso-style coffee. I topped my brew up with more hot water to make a long black coffee, and it was lovely.

There’s a range of techniques for the Aeropress Go to brew coffee to your personal taste, and it’s worth trying a couple, but there are a few things to bear in mind. It isn’t suited to making massive mugs of coffee, if that’s your usual poison, but it does produce small, concentrated cups of consistently good quality, which can be diluted with water or milk to your taste.

The Aeropress Go is really simple to use. There are no complex parts that could break while being used or while rattling around inside my pack, and the materials are pretty robust. I think it’s as close to indestructible as something can be.

Coffee on the coast after swimming in Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight

The tight fit of the plunger means it’s essentially self-cleaning. This is one of the best features, and the convenience shouldn’t be underestimated. There’s no faffing around to clean it between uses, the used grounds pop out and can be collected in a bag for disposal, and it means there’s no additional water required to wash the coffee maker, compared to something like a Mokka pot.

Worth the money?

The Aeropress Go costs between £28 – £35, depending on the outlet where you find it, slightly more than the original Aeropress system which retails for £24 – £27. A pack of 350 replacement paper filter discs will cost around £6, while a reusable metal mesh filter compatible with either Aeropress will cost around £13.

The Aeropress Go kit actually weighs a little more than the original, by around 100g, but that includes the robust multi-purpose mug/storage container and lid. Weight could be saved by leaving out the coffee scoop and stirrer if you’re already going to be carrying a spoon or spork, and substituting the mug for something more lightweight that doubles as a cooking pot.

Otherwise, your camping coffee maker options could be a coffee press compatible with a stove system like the MSR Windburner or JetBoil Flash, for between £15 and £20 (plus the additional cost of the stove) or Sea to Summit’s collapsible X-brew for pour-over coffee, for around £15.

Conclusion

After seeing how many people used the Aeropress Go while working in South Georgia, I was already sold on getting one for myself. It’s now something I use pretty much every day at home, and has quickly become an essential whenever I travel.

Coffee and birdwatching from a shepherd’s hut in Northumberland National Park

It’s a brilliant bit of equipment. Simple to use and very easy to clean, compact enough for travelling and robust enough to pack into a backpack or kit bag. I think I’ll look at getting a reusable metal filter to replace the paper filters I’ve used so far, further reducing the small volume of ground coffee waste created.

With a change in my work schedule coming up that will include a lot more travel in the future, and a few more backpacking trips planned, I know I’ll get plenty of use from the Aeropress Go, making it well worth the investment.

Disclaimer: I bought the Aeropress Go with the money I had left over after all my bills were paid. This is my honest review after a few months of use.

If you’ve got any questions about making coffee with the Aeropress Go, leave me a message in the comments below.
Why not pin this to your hiking and camping boards for later?

Armchair Travel: 10 Books about Running Adventures

My selection of the most interesting and inspiring books about running adventures around the world.

I’m very much a walker rather than a runner, having decided I quite enjoy keeping my toenails connected to my feet. But a few years ago I dipped my toes into the world of ultra-running (distances beyond a traditional marathon length of 42.2km or 26 miles) and endurance events as I trained alongside my friend Rachel while she prepared to complete the Marathon des Sables, an incredible 251km (134 miles) race over several days in the Sahara Desert.

Very much at the lower end of the epic scale, my greatest ultra running achievement was completing the Isle of Wight coastal path, 113km (70 miles) over two days, with a lot of sunburn and just a mild case of heatstroke to show for it.

So if you’re looking to find the motivation to maintain your New Year’s running resolution, or you’re more than comfortable as an armchair ultra runner, read on to find inspiration for your next running challenge, or enjoy the vicarious exploits of these incredible individuals.

Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 Books about Running Adventures”

What I’ve been reading | Winter 21/22

South Georgia

The enormous hole that whaling left behind

Whales are ecosystem engineers, and the devastating impact of the whaling industry in the 20th century had a cascading impact through the entirety of the southern ocean food web.

Blue whale sightings off South Georgia raise hopes of recovery

An old article from the Guardian sharing the hope of increasing blue whale sightings around the South Georgia archipelago as signs of the recovery of the species and of the ecosystem.

Life, then Death, on a Trawler in Freezing Antarctic Seas

Matt Lewis discusses his experience as a Southern Ocean fisheries observer, and the events surrounding the loss of the Sudur Havid and ten of her crew in the waters off South Georgia in the winter toothfish season.

Now Shackleton’s Endurance has been found, who determines what happens to the famous shipwreck?

The excitement surrounding the discovery of the wreck of the Endurance leads to interesting questions surrounding the protection and preservation of heritage in extreme environments.

A Portrait of South Georgia: Abundance, Exploitation, Recovery

The slow road to recovery in the ecological restoration of the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, as witnessed over the last 40 years by field ecologist Sally Poncet.

10 Munros for Hillwalking Beginners

Are you new to hillwalking or visiting Scotland’s mountains for the first time? Have you heard about Munro bagging, and are looking for a way to get started? Are you looking for a new challenge in the outdoors and to push your skills and experience a bit further?

Mountains in Scotland over 3,000′ (914.4 metres) in height are known as the Munros. Named after Sir Hugh Munro, the first person to compile a list of the peaks back in 1891. With improved mapping and measuring techniques, the list has grown and contracted over the years, but the most recent revision puts the total number of Munros at 282.

In addition to the Munros, there’s also Munro Tops. These are summits over 3,000′, but considered a subsidiary top of a nearby Munro. There’s currently considered to be 227 Munro Tops.

A good day out in the hills.

Below are 10 of my picks for the most straightforward Munros, and dare I say some of the easier ascents, which are ideal for beginners to Munro-bagging or for a short day out walking in the Scottish hills.

Continue reading “10 Munros for Hillwalking Beginners”

A Beginner’s Guide to the Munros

What is a Munro?

In the simplest of definitions, a Munro is a mountain in Scotland higher than 3,000′ above sea level. However, the full answer is just a bit more complex. Just think of some of the long ridgelines linking several summits, like the Cuillin of Skye, or the grand massifs of the Grampians. Which of those peaks actually count?

Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe, the highest point on the Ben Avon plateau.

The definition from the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC), the organisation which maintains the official list is a Munro is “distinct Scottish peak of 3,000′ (914.4 metres) and over, of sufficient separation from their neighbouring peaks”. So what does sufficient separation really mean? To be honest, that’s all down to Sir Hugh Munro, who compiled the original list for the SMC journal back in 1891. That list was a work in progress at the time of his death, and didn’t actually contain a precise definition of what he meant by the phrase.

Continue reading “A Beginner’s Guide to the Munros”

Armchair Travel: 10 books about women in the mountains

A selection of some of the best books about women’s experiences in the mountains.

In time for International Mountain Day on 11th December, this edition of armchair travel retreads a little bit of old ground. I revisited my selection of books with a mountain setting, picked out a couple of titles, and used them to dive deeper into mountain books by, and about, notable mountain women and their achievements at altitude.

Read my selection of my favourite books with mountain settings, with a couple of new choices thrown into the mix. Or how about a selection of thrilling stories about survival and disaster?

But first, read on and find inspiration for your next mountain adventure or enjoy the vicarious thrills of these incredible women that got high.

Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 books about women in the mountains”