Adventurers, explorers and writers

Adventurers and explorers have also often been good writers. Many early travellers in the first part of the twentieth century were prompted by their schoolboy reading (they were predominantly men, Sybille Bedford being an exception), and most are characterised by the degree of amateurishness and almost comic incompetence in their preparations.

A classic example was Graham Greene – looking for a ‘blank’ space – who walked across Liberia in 1934 with several crates of whisky and his cousin Barbara. It was their first trip outside Europe. She hardly got a mention in his book “Journey Without Maps” (1935) but wrote her own account of this extraordinary trip some years later. For Greene this was to prove a defining journey in terms of his future work, sandwiched between his first commercial successes (Stamboul Train and A Gun for Sale). The book records both what he experienced and his emotions during the 4 week trek from the border with Sierra Leone to the coast.

Greene’s perceptive contemporaneous observations reflect his background and the age in which he lived. At almost same time the self-taught Patrick Leigh Fermor was setting out as 18-year old on a year-long walk across Europe to Constantinople. But his travelogues “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water” were not written until four decades later, and perhaps reflect the experiences of a full life.

Post-war explorers were more purposeful and better prepared. Many of Gerald Durrell’s stories of wild animal collecting expeditions were written to raise money for his pioneering work in preserving endangered species through captive breeding. “The Bafut Beagles” (1954) is a self-depreciating and larger-than-life account of his experiences in North-Western Cameroon.

Different times also resulted in different styles. Bruce Chatwin’s “The Viceroy of Ouidah” (1980) is a short and dry fictionalised account of a Brazilian slave-trader in the kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin). Redmond O’Hanlon, who has enjoyed an equally diverse career, and who had previously written about Joseph Conrad and Charles Dickens, provides the armchair traveller with humorous and almost encyclopaedic descriptions of epic journeys in remote forests, and encounters with their peoples. In “Into the Heart of the Borneo” (1984) he is ostentatiously searching for rare rhinos, in “No Mercy: Journey into the Heart of the Congo” (1997) a fabled dinosaur.

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