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?
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Armchair Travel: 10 books telling the stories of cities

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.
Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 books telling the stories of cities”

What I’ve been reading this season | Summer 2021

Climate Crisis

Our climate change turning point is right here, right now.

An article by Rebecca Solnit that examines our inability to recognise the impending climate crisis without a tangible catastrophe as we make our transition into the anthropocene era.

Just how historic was Western Canada’s heat wave? Nothing can compare.

An article from The Tyee outlining the devastating impact of the “heat dome” conditions experienced in North America in June and July 2021.

A heatwave thawed Siberia’s tundra. Now, it’s on fire.

A National Geographic article examining the devastating impact of fire in the boreal forests and tundra peatland regions of northern Siberia, ecosystems that lie over frozen permafrost soils.

Continue reading “What I’ve been reading this season | Summer 2021”

What I’ve loved this season | Summer 2021

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

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.

Laden down with willow saplings on the plateau.

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.

The crags of Hell’s Lum and the Allt Coire Domhain in spate with snowmelt.
Looking back down into the Loch Avon basin at the tiny patch of green of the willows cached for planting the following day.
Continue reading “What I’ve loved this season | Summer 2021”

What I’ve loved this season | Spring 2021

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

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.

Stopping by a pool on the riverside in Strathdee, near Braemar, to listen to the frog chorus. It’s hard to make out in the picture, but I counted over one hundred toads in the pool.
A wander up Glen Ey, near Braemar. Despite the low cloud and occasional drizzle, some excellent wildlife sightings from ground-nesting wading birds to soaring raptors overhead.
Continue reading “What I’ve loved this season | Spring 2021”

Armchair Travel: 10 books about lives we’ll never live

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.
Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 books about lives we’ll never live”

What I’ve been reading this season | Winter 20/21

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.

Mountain Matters

Is the first winter ascent of K2 a turning point for Sherpa mountaineering?

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.

Can we see past the myth of the Himalaya?

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.

Is it time to stop climbing mountains? Obsession with reaching the summit is a modern invention

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?

Continue reading “What I’ve been reading this season | Winter 20/21”

What I’ve loved this season | Winter 20/21

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

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.

Sunrise over the North Sea from my parent’s garden on Christmas morning.
And an afternoon sunset later on Christmas day.

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.

Last views of Strathdee for the season, looking up towards Mar Lodge.
Continue reading “What I’ve loved this season | Winter 20/21”

What I’ve been reading this season | Autumn 2020

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.

Heading South

How Prosperity Transformed the Falkland Islands

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.

Scenes from Antarctica

A slideshow of photographs from across the Antarctic continent, highlighting the human presence in the region.

What the future of polar travel looks like

A Condé Nast Traveler 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.

What will happen to the 7th Continent?

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.

200 years ago people discovered Antarctica, and promptly began profiting by slaughtering some of its animals to near extinction

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.

Blue whale sightings off South Georgia raise hopes of recovery

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.

The Other Polar Place

A mission to unearth the wreck of the Nova Zembla

An account of the expedition to hunt for the wreck of a Dundee whaling ship lost in the Canadian High Arctic by Matthew Ayre, sparked by a simple note in a historic ship’s logbook.

My Midlife Crisis as a Russian Sailor

A longread essay by Andrea Pitzer detailing a research trip in the wake of 16th century polar explorer Willem Barents, and the unexpected wild pleasure of a voyage completely under sail.

Reindeer at the End of the World

A beautifully atmospheric piece by Bathsheba Demuth detailing the collision of Soviet ideology with the nomadic lives of Chukchi reindeer herders, tuned to the natural cycles of the tundra.

Life inside the Arctic

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.

Winter is coming

Dreading a dark winter? Think like a Norwegian

An examination of the mindset that helps residents in areas experiencing the polar night get through the darkness of winter by cultivating resilience and inner strength.

The Best Rain in Literature

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.

Armchair Travel: 10 Best Books about Disaster and Survival

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 are potentially a couple of spoilers in this list.*

Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 Best Books about Disaster and Survival”