Great Travel Disasters

David LeffmanTravel writing 2 Comments

I hate lists. Patricia Shultz and her “1000 Places to See Before you Die”, first published in 2003, killed my enthusiasm for being a guidebook writer by persuading the industry that the beautiful intricacy of the world’s different countries, cultures and landscapes – not to mention the sheer enjoyment of travel for its own sake – could be reduced to a bland collection of bullet-points. (She also made heaps of money, which, having spent twenty-five years on a guidebook writer’s income, is another reason for me to hate her.)

Please note that the following is not a list. It’s simply a review of three books that have brought great comfort on the thankfully rare occasions when things have gone disastrously wrong for me on the road. Spanning three centuries, they also show how dangerous travel to distant lands has always been – and the insane resilience of the people (like myself, of course) who have undertaken it as part of their profession.

So, either as simple holiday reading, or as a way to restore a sense of proportion the next time you’re trapped for three days on a bus full of dedicated chain smokers between Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou, instead of the advertised eight hours the ride is meant to take, I’d thoroughly recommended the following list selection of Great Travel Disaster books:

Travels Into the Interior of Africa

Mungo Park (1799)

It would be hard to come up with a more complete catalogue of disasters than that suffered by the Scottish explorer Mungo Park (1771–1806), who in May 1795 embarked for West Africa on a solo expedition to explore the course of the river Niger and perhaps locate the semi-legendary town of Timbuktu. Long given up for dead, he re-emerged from the interior a year later having been beaten up, robbed and/or imprisoned by just about everyone he had met along the way; needless to say, he’d also failed to chart much of the course of the river, or to find Timbuktu. He returned to Scotland, wrote this account of his travels, grew bored, and in 1806 set off for the Niger once more (proving, perhaps, the futility of aversion therapy) – this time taking along a large, well-armed party of soldiers as bodyguards. Had Park not been so physically tough he would never have survived his first trip; this time around he sailed past Timbuktu before being killed in an ambush by tribesmen who, ironically enough, thought he was a Moslem slaver. Most of Park’s companions had already died from malaria, and details of his death were brought back by a young servant who survived the ambush.


Insulinde; republished as Unbeaten Tracks in Islands of the Far East

Anna Forbes (1887)

Anna Forbes (died 1922) was the wife of the Victorian zoologist Henry Ogg Forbes. In the 1880s, the two made a year-long research trip around some of the remoter reaches of eastern Indonesia, where Anna’s initial thrill at the novelty of tropical life was soon worn down by debilitating attacks of malaria, tiresome living conditions, and the near-murder of her husband. One typical episode saw the couple landing at the tiny island of Larat, where they unloaded their possessions and watched from the beach as their ship sailed off over the horizon, to return for them in three months time. Picking the nearest of two villages, they walked over to find bits of dismembered bodies hung in trees and impaled on the defensive bamboo palisade, and spent the rest of their stay trying not to get killed in the crossfire as the island’s various communities attempted to exterminate each other. Yet Anna’s writings seldom slide into (entirely justifiable) self-pity, even if her final opinion was that, “from the discomfort and even danger of travelling in such a tropical climate, [eastern Indonesia will] never become to any extent a resort for tourist voyagers”.


The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut

Nigel Barley (1983)

Africa and Africans tend to get used by everyone with a cause to promote, so it’s refreshing to read this utterly unromanticised account of anthropologist Nigel Barley’s first ever field trip, to study a remote group of pagans in northern Cameroon. Bafflement with West African bureaucracy begins before he even leaves Britain, and once settled into village life his ability to cope is severely tested by illness, boredom, culture shock, the difficulties of learning a tonal language and the loneliness of anyone adrift in an incomprehensible foreign culture. But Barley’s honest humour at his plight, and utter delight in the variety of human societies keeps him going, despite events which would have had most of us on the first flight home. After being injured during a near-fatal car crash, he visits a dentist where a man in a white coat promptly removes his damaged front teeth with a pair of pliers. When Barley, blood fountaining down his shirt front, asks about follow-up treatment to fit dentures, the man replies that he is just a mechanic, and wanders off to fetch someone with a medical qualification: “I had fallen into the obvious trap of believing that anyone in a dental surgery, wearing a white coat and prepared to extract teeth, was a dentist”.

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