A selection of my favourite books about other people’s lives: those living traditional lives in remote communities; people living in unique circumstances as a result of conflict or disaster; and ways of life now long gone.
This edition of Armchair Travel is all about those lives less ordinary, experiences often far removed from our own everyday existance. These books explore different cultures from around the world, written by insiders as well as outside observers; lives in a state of transition and those being rebuilt after conflict and trauma; and snapshots of a traditional way of life now irreversibly changed.
Here are 10 books that bring an insight into a way of life that we’ll never live ourselves.
While international travel has been off the cards for a while now, I’ve been recreating my favourite meals from around the world in my home kitchen, and I’m now feeling confident enough to share some of them with you.
I thought with Burns’ Night just around the corner, I’d start off with my recipe for a vegetarian haggis.
What the hell is a haggis anyway?
A smallish beastie, endemic to the highlands, islands, and rough country of Scotland, a haggis has been compared to creatures such as lemmings, marmots, and guinea pigs*. With a long, golden brown mane, they are perfectly camouflaged against the heather-clad hillsides of the highlands. Highly adapted to their mountain homes, wild haggis have longer legs on one side of their body than the other, enabling them to traverse the most precipitous of hillsides without losing pace, which could leave them highly vulnerable to predation by eagles (probably).
*By me, just now.
It takes considerable hill tracking skills and many hours of watching to observe a wild haggis in its native environment. The best place to see one for yourself, especially if your time in Scotland is limited, is in the natural history section of the excellent Kelvingrove Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. They’re known to have a particular aversion to bagpipes, which are said to sound like the distress call of an adult haggis caught by an eagle. The skirl of the pipes can cause a haggis to start in fear and tumble downhill, which is why professional haggis hunters often play the bagpipes, and why you never usually see wild haggises on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh in August.
A selection of the best books about travelling on foot, from arduous hikes in far-flung lands to rambles much closer to home, and meditations on the nature of walking.
A few years ago I learned about the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod, which translates into English as the Christmas book flood, and was immediately hooked by the intention. Icelanders gift family and friends with new books on Christmas Eve, with the idea that the evening is spent reading together in cosy company gathered around the fire, while sipping hot chocolate, mulled wine, or a traditional Icelandic concoction of ale and soft drinks known as Jolabland*.
*It sounds very much like a shandy made of Guinness and Fanta if you’re tempted.
So for this festive instalment of my Armchair Travel Series, I encourage you to cosy up by the fire among friends and family, and crack open the spine on a new book about an adventure on foot (or given the lateness of this post, treat yourself to an e-book download). The list includes feats of endurance in remote and challenging environments, more gentle rambles close to home rich in observations of history and nature, and some journeys on foot where the landscapes tramped are as much internal insights as outwith the mind.
Here’s my selection of the best books about walking.
A selection of the best non-fiction books about tragedy and disaster, survival against the odds, and adventures gone awry.
There are a few travel and adventure books I’ve read that make me really envious of the experiences described within. Expeditions I’d have loved to be part of and thrilling adventures I wish I’d had. Satisfying challenges with successful outcomes, taking place in locations I desperately want to explore for myself.
I’ve also read many books telling the story of devastating disasters, adventures gone way wrong, and epic accounts of survival against the odds. Tales that make me very glad that I wasn’t there in that place, at that time, doing that thing. Not in a gawking, voyeuristic way, but to marvel at the strength and adaptability of the people involved, and the enduring hope that many of them can hold on to through their ordeal.
Here are 10 of what I consider to be the best non-fiction adventure books about disaster, survival, and human resilience.
*Warning: there’s potentially a couple of spoilers in this list.*
Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home – Nando Parrado
I first encountered this story in the film Alive, reading the book by Piers Paul Read on which it was based shortly after. It’s probably the first story of this type I read, and it piqued my interest in these tales of human resilience in unimaginable circumstances.
The story of a rugby team, along with some of their friends and family, whose plane crashed into the high Andes in 1972 on the way between Uruguay and Chile, is perhaps one of the best-known survival stories.
Survivors were stranded on the mountainside for 72 days and forced into an unconscionable decision to avoid succumbing to their situation. Parrado is one of the survivors, and one of the pair that set out to find rescue for their friends, and this is a deeply personal account of his experience. Buy it here.
Touching the Void – Joe Simpson
Experienced climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates make a challenging first ascent of the west face of Siula Grande in the Huayhuash mountains of Peru, and run into difficulty on the descent. Simpson is injured and unable to climb down, relying on Yates to lower him on a rope. But a series of unfortunate events leaves them trapped on the mountain in deteriorating conditions, unable to see or communicate with each other, while roped together.
Unable to determine the fate of his friend, Yates is forced into the nightmarish decision to cut the rope and save his own life. Remarkably Simpson survives to tell the tale, and probe the huge psychological trauma resulting from the event. Find it here.
We Die Alone: A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance – David Howarth
This book tells the story of Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian resistance leader and commando during WWII. Following a botched raid on a Nazi installation in Northern Norway and the sinking of his vessel, he’s forced to swim ashore and flee into the Arctic hinterland at the end of the winter.
Evading capture for more than two months, he battled against snow blindness and frostbite, with cold injury leaving him unable to walk from the blizzard-lashed high plateau for 27 days, before he was able to make contact with Sami reindeer herders and plan an evacuation into neutral Sweden. Find it here.
438 Days: An Incredible True Story of Survival at Sea – Jonathan Franklin
In an incredible turn of events, missing Salvadoran fisherman Salvador Alvarenga made his way ashore on a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands, 14 months after his seven-metre long skiff disappeared off the coast of Mexico in a storm. With no sails or oars, and a broken radio, he and his fishing mate, Ezequiel Córdoba, drifted out into the Pacific.
The author carried out a series of interviews with Alvarenga, piecing together the events of the storm and subsequent 9,000 nautical mile drift, learning how he managed to find food and water, and avoid scurvy. He also probes into the fragile mental state of Alvarenga, especially following the death of Córdoba, and being passed by several ships that had the potential to be rescuers. Read it here.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex – Nathaniel Philbrick
One the most notorious maritime disasters from the so-called golden era of the whaling industry, and said to have inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick (the device used to unravel the story in the fictionalised film of the book).
Using material from the memoirs of two survivors, the first mate of the ship and a teenaged cabin boy, Philbrick reconstructs the events leading to the destruction of the Essex by a wounded sperm whale, and their subsequent ordeal. Of the twenty crew to take to the open whaleboats, only eight survived the 90 days before they were rescued. Buy it here.
Raising the Dead: A True Story of Death and Survival – Phillip Finch
I bought this book for my ex, also my usual SCUBA diving buddy, while we were starting to get into wreck diving around the coast of the UK. We read it together and discovered exactly what our worst nightmare would be.
Two divers enter a cave system in the South African Kalahari known as Boesmansgat (the Bushman’s Hole), searching for evidence of a previous diver that had perished. They penetrated the flooded sinkhole to an incredible depth of 127 metres (886′), 127 METRES!!!!, which required a decompression time of several hours and flawless dive planning. Needless to say, it does not go well for the pair. Find it here.
Last Man Off: A True Story of Disaster, Survival and One Man’s Ultimate Test – Matt Lewis
A fast-paced and compelling account of the loss of an ancient and unseaworthy fishing vessel in the mighty Southern Ocean, written by the scientific observer placed on board. Fresh from graduating, marine biologist Lewis is the most inexperienced crew member on the ship, but plays a key role in the rescue of the others as they take to the life rafts in a severe storm.
He also writes on safety, security, and survival at sea, and on preparedness and training for working in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth, in an engaging way that is accessible for seasoned sailors and landlubbers alike. Buy it here.
127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place – Aron Ralston
I think most people will be aware of the consequences of Ralston’s notable self-rescue after he became trapped while hiking in a canyon, and that dramatic act is why the book features on this list. However, I find the character of Ralston hard to warm to and struggle with reading about his compulsion to seek out unnecessary risk in his outdoor activities.
I actually preferred the Danny Boyle directed film of 127 Hours, which cuts through a lot of the extraneous material of the book to the core of the survival story. Read the book before you see the film as you gain nothing from the other way round. Pick it up here.
Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic – Jennifer Niven
In 1921 Ada Blackjack, an Iñupiat woman, joined a team of five men on an expedition to Wrangel Island in the Chukchi Sea in a speculative attempt to claim the island for Canada (or the United Kingdom), backed by controversial explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. After two years facing starvation, scurvy, and the disappearance of three of the team, the only survivors were Blackjack, and Vic, the expedition cat.
It’s rare to read an account of an expedition where the voices of indigenous people are central, and more so that of a woman. During her life, Stefansson and her rescuer, Harald Noice, created a media furore to attempt to exploit her story, causing her to retreat from the public eye. Niven creates a deep and respectful portrait of a remarkable woman. Buy it here.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Alfred Lansing
This list would be incomplete without mention of Shackleton. The survival of the Endurance’s crew after the loss of the ship in the Antarctic pack ice, the subsequent voyage of the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and the crossing of the island from King Haakon Bay to Stromness against all odds are the stuff of legend.
Lansing’s gripping account of the expedition is my favourite of the ones I’ve read, drawing on detailed first-hand accounts from surviving crew members and diary excerpts, to create an enthralling historical narrative and a fascinating study of leadership in the most challenging of conditions. Read it here.
Have you enjoyed any of these books? Which epic adventures would you recommend for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.
After returning to the UK from Antarctica, I spent most of the previous season in COVID lockdown at my parent’s place on the coast of Aberdeenshire. I haven’t travelled much further afield this season either, just relocating to the other side of the county to start working for the Cairngorms National Park Authority as a Seasonal Ranger.
It’s been really exciting to get out and explore Royal Deeside, visiting sites that I’ve known since as a child, and discovering new places I’d never been to before. I’d been really worried about finding work this summer, with the sectors I usually work in completely closed down and existing staff finding themselves furloughed or even facing redundancy. So I feel extremely grateful to have this opportunity, especially when I thought working in the berry fields might have been the only option for the summer.
My only trip away from the area was a very personal one to spend a few days in Caithness, meeting up with family and friends to visit old haunts and remember times past. Despite the emotional circumstances of the visit, it was good to see the sea and sky in a different place for a short while.
What I’ve done
My current base in the Cairngorms, near Braemar, has been fantastic for getting out into the hills for hikes, and on most of my non-working days, I’ve been able to spend most of the time outdoors. I also stay very close to a couple of mountain rivers with excellent swimming pools, and have tried to fit in a dip at least a couple of times a week.
I’ve not actually done any overnight camps on my recent hiking trips, wimping out after seeing the midges that have been plaguing the campers I speak to on my ranger patrols. Although there are a few places that are always midge hotspots, it just seems like this is an especially prolific summer for the midges. I think I’ll wait for the end of the season before I venture out with my tent for a few nights.
I had the good fortune to meet the local ghillie fishing his beat while I was out on patrol one day, and managed to arrange a fly fishing lesson. There’s still a long way to go before I master my casting technique, and I’m pretty sure that if a fish ever took the fly it would end up with me screaming and falling overin the river, but it was a really enjoyable morning on the Dee, watching the fish and dragonflies, listening to the birds, learning to read the movement of the water.
My Summer Love List
Books: I’ve been getting down to some serious study and preparation for taking a Mountain Leader training course in the Autumn, so my Mountain Leader Handbook and the Navigation in the Mountains textbook have been indispensable.
I’ve also picked up the Cicerone guides Walking the Munros (volumes 1 and 2) to plan a few more hill days and mini-expeditions for my day’s off.
Interesting articles and blogs I’ve read can be seen here.
Podcast: I discovered theOut of Doorspodcast from BBC Scotland after they interviewed my colleague Duncan about the work of the Seasonal Rangers in the Cairngorms National Park. I got hooked by the eclectic range of subjects they discuss, and the warm, cosy feel of the show.
Clothing: Despite what you might think, summer weather in Scotland can be pretty warm at times, so a pair of lightweight but hardwearing trousers suitable to wear as part of my Ranger uniform was really important. My Rab Valkyrie trousers have a great fit, excellent quality, and meet my requirement for POCKETS!
Equipment: To go with the new trousers, my most essential piece of equipment this season has been a spray bottle of permethrin treatment which I use on my clothing. I work in areas where ticks, and other biting insects, are prevalent, and it’s really important to be aware of the risk of Lyme disease.
My only real vanity is sunglasses, and I found a great pair from a company called Waterhaul. As well as providing a good level of UV protection and looking good, I chose these as they’re made from recycled plastic fishing nets. The company are a social enterprise, and recover discarded nets from the beaches around Cornwall to turn into the frames. I love them so much.
I picked up a brand spanking new pair of hiking boots too, which I absolutely love. They’re Scarpa Peak GTX boots, and the blue and orange colour matches all the rest of my gear. Including my tartan pyjamas.
Treats: I picked up a bottle of my favourite Rock Rose gin from their gorgeous wee distillery shop, and a small bottle of their sloe gin, perfect for an autumn afternoon warmer when the weather turns a bit colder.
As rangers for the National Park, we get supplied with a few Clif bars to keep us going, so I’ve been testing out a few of the different flavours. My current favourite is Peanut Butter Banana. 10/10 would recommend for your next trip to the hills.
Autumn is my favourite season, and this year I’ve got a bit more to look forward to. It’s my birthday, and this year it’s a big one as I turn 40 in September. I can’t quite believe it.
I’m also in the process of booking a Mountain Leader Training course, to consolidate my skills and move on to the next level. I’m really excited about it, but also a bit nervous.
One of the things I love most about autumn in Scotland is cold, crisp mornings to go walking in the woods. Looking out for fungi and falling leaves, listening to the roar of deer on the hillsides, then finding a cosy spot by a fire to read and watch the weather out the window. I’ve got a few more days in hand this season, and some friends are planning to visit, so I’m really excited to be able to get out and show them around my home.
What have you been up to over the last season? Have you started to get back to some sense of reality?
Remember I’m always here if you need an ear; I’d really love to hear from you.
This post contains some affiliate links. If you purchase through my link, I’ll make a small commission* on the sale at no additional cost to you. These help me continue to run the 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.
A list of indoor activities and things to do around the home for outdoor and adventure lovers.
Though we’re encouraged to think of our current situation with the coronavirus lockdown as being safe while we’re at home, there’s no denying if you’re an outdoor type, you’ll inevitably find yourself feeling stuck at home. Denied that usual dose of adventure, there’s a serious risk of an outbreak of cabin fever.
So, given that there’s unlikely to be an immediate cure to our condition, I’ve compiled a list of activities that can bring the outdoors indoors, and help stave off longing aches for the hills, rivers, forests, and beaches for a while longer. They’ll help you stay mentally resilient, and get you prepared to get back out there when the time comes. They’re fun, and virtually all free, or at least affordable, so give them a go!
If you’ve got any of your own tips to share, let me know in the comments below!
Like many of you, the COVID-19 lockdown turned my life upside down. Plans I’d made as I prepared to leave Antarctica have been completely shelved, any potential opportunities remain just that. Both the travel and the outdoor industries where I’ve usually found work have had to shut up shop and furlough staff. I’ve signed up as a volunteer, but it has taken time for organisations to process the volume of applications they’ve received.
So, I’ve encountered an abundance of idle time in the last week or so. It’s been an unexpected chance to indulge in the things that are usually side-lined for more pressing tasks. For me, it’s reading for pleasure. In the last week, I’ve been able to immerse myself in a few good books to help fend off the cabin fever.
While lockdown has clipped my wings, and travel is an impossibility right now, a book can take the mind flying anywhere beyond the immediate four walls. Here’s what I’ve read, and my to-do list for the coming weeks.
I’ve put together a list of my favourite sailing movies, including Hollywood blockbusters, all-time classic films, and inspiring documentaries.
In my previous edition of Armchair Travel, focused on Ocean films, I struggled narrow it down to just 10 of my favourites, and not to fill up the list with sailing movies filled with beautiful boats. So I split the two, and decide to offer you up a second helping.
I’ve put together a list of the best sailing movies I’ve seen, a mix of modern and classic, drama and documentary film. Tragedy and terrifying ordeals, unimaginable tales of survival, tempestuous adventures, and inspiring journeys of discovery all feature in my selection of sea-soaked cinema. Perfect for a dry night in on the sofa.
I’ve compiled a selection of inspiring ocean-themed films, including Hollywood blockbusters, all-time classic films, and inspiring documentaries.
This edition of Armchair Travel is returning to the seas for a selection of my favourite films with an oceanic flavour. Many of these films are documentaries or dramas based on true events, though there are a few tales of thrilling adventure and suspense.
I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books about Antarctica, including biographies, travelogues, and expedition tales.
I’ve long had a fascination with Antarctica, being captivated by stories of exploration and discovery in Readers Digest books at my grandparent’s house on long Scottish summer afternoons. Primary school trips to see the polar vessel RRS Discovery in Dundee, the three-masted barque that took Scott and Shackleton on their successful first voyage south, and to the penguin enclosure in Edinburgh Zoo, where I met Sir Nils Olav (then just RSM of the Norwegian King’s Guard), further fuelled that interest.
So I’ve been in an absolute whirlwind of excitement since finding out I’ve finally got the opportunity to go for myself; the realisation of a long-burning ambition. I’m part of the team from the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust that will be based at Port Lockroy, to run the famous Penguin Post Office, for the 19/20 season.
In preparation, I immersed myself in Antarctic-themed reading, and these are some of my favourite books. Until you get the chance for yourself, these books will transport you South. I’ve also rated each book by the amount of penguin content it contains, not as a comment on the quality of the writing. They’re all good books, Brent.