Stuck in bed due to a bout of measles, the book I was listening to was the famous ‘Gods, Graves, and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology’ (Civilta’ Sepolte in the Italian edition) by C.W. Ceram, given to me for my birthday. An intoxicating introduction to history to a 12 year old and likely the trigger of an early passion for travelling, adventure, mysterious places, exotic peoples.
At 15, after good school results (more luck than hard work, I’m afraid), I finally earned the reward I had been pestering my parents for: a school holiday in the U.K., namely to learn English (Italian school holidays were gorgeous three and a half month long summer affairs).
For two wonderful summers I went to an English school in Chorleywood, just outside London. The ‘institute’- rather more an informal and friendly family arrangement, thank goodness - operated as a language school for foreign girls during winter but catered for boys as well during the long European summer holidays. It was a sprawling, lovely old farmhouse in a green, wooded area where I had a fantastic time and, incidentally, learned decent English (and acceptable French, as many of the girls were from there).
My acquired language skills opened up a wealth of reading material of which I readily took advantage of (in later years I would also learn Spanish and Portuguese: easy for me, an Italian speaking person).
I ran into another book that re-kindled my wanderlust by pure chance: one night, idly roaming around the streets of Rome, I happened onto a still open newsstand and started rummaging through the books, new and used, that were on offer. One colorful cover struck me: an anaconda slithering on the jungle floor. Irresistible.
My family had a well stocked library so I grew up in the company of London’s ‘White Fang’ and ‘Call of the Wild’, Kipling’s ‘Kim’, Conrad (my livre de chevet is still ‘Heart of Darkness’), Greene, Maugham, Hemingway only to move on to the writings of my hero Sir Francis Richard Burton, T. E. Lawrence, Freya Stark, Wilfred Thesiger, Captain Cook’s Journals or travel staples like Chatwin and Theroux. Darwin, Levi-Strauss and Frazer’s ‘Golden Bow’ provided a good starting point for further pursuits of a more scientific nature.
Whenever and wherever I traveled I always tried to imagine how the places I was seeing and the peoples I was meeting with must have appeared to the first European explorers: old travel journals and diaries are great for this. Sometimes they are comic in their presumption and arrogance, sometimes dramatic for the terrible experiences they recount, often full of surprise at the marvels of nature and man.
I will not presume to point out to informed readers travel or adventure books they are certainly familiar with. I shall however mention a few gems I read and loved hoping that at least a few might have escaped their attention, especially the younger readers’ attention, and that they might enjoy them as I did.
‘The Naturalist on the River Amazons’, by Henry Walter Bates, is one of those books that manage to convey rich scientific information while entertaining and fascinating the
In 1848, Bates followed Wallace (of Darwin’s fame) to South America in a joint
expedition up the river Amazons. Apart from discovering and documenting about
8000 new species during his 11 years of explorations (as Darwin himself attests
in his introduction to Bates’ journal), his diary is a great source of
information of all kinds - not limited to Natural History - about his
experiences up and down the mighty river.
From ‘Trader Horn: A Young Man’s Astounding Adventures in 19th Century Equatorial Africa’, a book published in 1932 (my copy has a great introduction by John Galsworthy), was born my love of Africa that would never abandon me. An old European adventurer, Alfred Aloysius Horn, recounts his incredible life as a hunter, trader, diplomat, military leader, what-have-you. An ode to being young and brave and the sadness of lonely old age with only memories as companions.
"South with Scott” by Admiral Evans, is a wonderful, engrossing book recounting the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition of 1910. Despite Scott having been a controversial hero and his reputation gone through various revisions and counter revisions, there is no doubt that his efforts benefitted science and advanced the exploration of Antartica. There is a lovely little museum in Cambridge, the Scott Polar Research Institute on Lensfield Rd., which is worth a few hours of your time (check first if it’s open to the public beforehand).
‘Tigrero’ by Sasha Siemel, is one of those books you need to put in context (we are talking early ‘20s here) but once you do, there is nothing to diminish the sheer courage of a man hunting jaguars armed only with a spear to protect the Indian farmers of the Pantanal, in the Brazilian Mato Grosso. On the same class as ‘The Man-Eaters of Tsavo’ by Colonel J.H.Patterson, this book is the ultimate classic adventure; it will make you restless and envious.
Call me partisan but despite Patrick O’Brien millions of fans, I feel obliged to mention his Aubrey-Maturin novels: a fantastic tour de force that will make the reader go back to his books again and again.
Set during the Napoleonic wars, it chronicles the friendship between a Royal Navy captain and a Spanish ship doctor (and Irish-Catalan intelligent agent for the British Admiralty, by the way). Don’t think for a moment this is all boring naval mumbo-jumbo. The meticulously researched and wonderfully written in fascinating period language novels – twenty in all- will be your magic carpet on which to follow the two friends (and their families, troubles and joys) to ‘800 England, Australia, Mauritius, trapped in the infamous Paris’ Temple prison in Paris, spying in Malta, to the Dutch East Indies, Ireland, Sierra Leone, Cape Horn and many more.
Undoubtedly inspired and spurred on by my curiosity and reading tastes, I have visited, worked and lived in many countries and had my share of adventures. Nothing stops you from doing the same though, even if you would rather sit comfortably on your favorite armchair while doing so: from Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ to Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’, just take your pick. After all books, to paraphrase Prospero, are such stuff as dreams are made on.