A selection of some of the best books that dive deeply into the daily lives of cities and the hidden worlds that lie within.
This instalment of Armchair Travel dives deeply into cities around the globe through rich and engaging histories, compelling travelogues, and works of fiction where the city setting is as much a character as the protagonists. These books really are the essence of armchair travel, capturing the character of a place and time yet unvisited.
Here are 10 of the best books that explore cities around the world, plus a bonus that looks into what makes an urban environment so alluring.
In early June, I was part of a team from the Cairngorms Connect project partners that carried 3,000 tiny trees up onto the Cairngorm plateau, to their new home in the Loch Avon basin. The downy willow (Salix lapponum) saplings are rare trees, which can survive in the low temperatures and high winds, and an important species in the montane scrub habitat of the upper slopes of the mountains.
Grazing pressure from deer and other animals mean only a few scattered plants remain, often in the most inaccessible locations, and too isolated from each other to guarantee successful reproduction. The idea behind planting the new saplings is to give the species a fighting chance, and attempt to safeguard the future of the montane scrub zone as part of a larger-scale habitat regeneration project. Read more about our day here.
At the end of March I packed up my stuff to move house again, after a winter in Aberdeen, to relocate to Ballater, in the heart of the area I cover as part of my job as a seasonal ranger for the Cairngorms National Park. I’m glad to be back on Deeside, and have some fantastic locations to visit available right from my doorstep.
The weather early in spring was stunning; bright warm afternoons following crisp mornings where the temperatured dropped below freezing overnight. Perfect conditions to get out on some of the walks around Ballater, like the Seven Bridges route along the side of the River Dee.
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.
A collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful essays, articles and blog posts from around the internet I’ve found or were shared with me over the past few months. This season, it’s mostly been pieces that examine the balance between different forms of recreation and conservation, and the perceptions we hold of certain activities versus their realities, that I want to pass on to you.
Reporting on the historic winter first ascent of K2, Mark Horell examines the collaborative summiting by a team of Nepalese climbers, and reflects on the often overlooked presence of Sherpas in the history of high-altitude mountaineering.
Akash Kapur explores the notion that our romantic perceptions of the high Himalaya obscure the realities of the people who make the region home, and how histories, geographies, and ecologies or mountain areas are often shaped by expectations.
An interesting piece by Dawn Hollis that dives into mountain history, mountaineering, and managing mountain environments against the backdrop of the global climate crisis. Are we prepared to ask ourselves hard questions about factors that drive us to stand on summits, and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to do so?
Well, the best laid plans and all that. At the start of the season I’d had ideas of visiting friends in the south of England for a long-overdue catch up, with perhaps a little holiday on the Isle of Wight. Lockdown in England in November, followed by a national lockdown across the UK from late December onward means I’ve been absolutely nowhere in the last three months, save a short visit to see my parents and sister in south Aberdeenshire on Christmas Day itself.
I relocated from Braemar to Aberdeen in December, so my activities have been limited to within the city boundaries, but it’s been great to explore parts of the city I haven’t been to for years and make new discoveries. Aberdeen is an incredible place for wildlife watching, and my winter sighting have included otters swimming in the River Don, roe deer in fields near the Bucks Burn and Kingswells, red squirrels in Hazlehead Park, and bottlenose dolphins hunting salmon in the mouth of the harbour.
Another small collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful essays, articles and blog posts from around the internet I’ve found over the past few months that I want to share with you. This season, they’ve mainly been inspired by thoughts of Antarctica, the Arctic, and the coming winter.
A masterful travel piece about the Falkland Islands by Larissa MacFarquhar, diving deeply into changes that have occurred over the past 30 years or so. One of the best destination profiles I’ve ever read.
A Condé NastTraveler article from early in the summer looking at the prosepect of a 2020/21 Antarctic tourist season in the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, and the knock-on impacts of cancelling a 2020 summer season in the Arctic.
The uncertainty of a 2020/21 Antarctic tourist season in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic may be the necessary pause to spark conversations about the future of the industry. This piece by Bella Lack asks questions about other potential consequences of this season.
In the two centuries since its discovery, Antarctica has seen a range of commercial, scientific, and diplomatic activity. This blog post from The Conversation journal looks at the ways natural resources have been exploited over time, and the impact of changes.
In positive news, a whale survey expedition recorded 58 sightings of Blue Whales, and numerous accoustic detections, around South Georgia in 2020, where the marine mammals were all but wiped out by the whaling industry.
A captivating National Geographic photoessay by Jennifer Kingsley and Eric Guth that travels across the Arctic, meeting people living and working in the far north, and reframing the perception of the Arctic as a remote, isolated and uninhabited region.
Who am I kidding? I’m going to be in Scotland this winter, and while there’s a chance of crisp, bright snow days, more than likely it’s going to be driech. So here’s a few beautiful paragraphs from great authors and poets to help me learn to appreciate the rain.
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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A long read from the Guardian newspaper exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the future of the global tourism industry, the hit to local economies, and ways to reinvent the sector in a more sustainable model.
A piece from the Washington Post in June that summed up the appeal of the late chef and travel writer Anthony Bourdain, particularly his understanding that food was a common language to share stories across cultures and experiences.
Endurance runner Rosie Watson explores opportunities for new ways of working and living in a time of climate crisis and environmental change, following the enforced pause of the COVID-19 pandemic and national lockdowns.
An article marking the 175th Anniversary of the formation of the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society (ScotWays), and landmark legal challenges that ensured continued protection of ancient drove roads and passes through the Cairngorms.
A response to a newspaper article forecasting the death of the Gaelic language in Scotland by Charles (Teàrlach) Wilson, posing questions about deeper impacts of tourism on rural and island communities, and how people are central to rewilding a landscape.