Travel books of the year: From the Pennine Way to the wastes of Antarctica

Have your say

TO begin with, an ending. Peter Whitfield’s landmark Travel: A Literary History (Bodelian Library, £19.99) was published too late for last year’s selection but earns its inclusion in this year’s listings.

It covers two and a half millennia of travel writing motivated by conquest, exploration, religious missionary journeys, and the ceaseless human urge to crest the next rise, to chase far horizons. Whitfield draws our attention closely to hundreds of texts in what itself becomes a journey of discovery. A future classic.

Of this year’s travel-classic reissues, two stand out: Sven Lundqvist’s The Myth of Wu Tao-Tzu (Granta, £12.99) and The Divine Supermarket (Tauris Parke Paperbacks, £11.99) by Malise Ruthven. The latter has a foreword by Colin Thubron, who finds himself struck by Ruthven’s route across the terrain of religious obsession in modern America:

“Ruthven does not engage in the ostensibly random wanderings of a Chatwin or Theroux,” he writes. “He finds patterns and ancestors.” From sea to shining sea, and through every hang-up, cult and belief- system, Ruthven’s mission at the wheel of his beat-up campervan is to enter the troubled psyche, as well as the social and physical landscape of the States. Disturbing and unforgettable, his study does for America what Lundqvist’s does for India and China in a slender but piercing 1960s foray through Maoist China, the Indus Valley and the Khyber Pass, with the rat-a-tat-tat of the Vietnam war, a sinister soundtrack, ever present.

Another journey of discovery, specific and local, is poet Simon Armitage’s stride-by-stride trek south on the Pennine Way. In Walking Home (Faber, £16.99), he travels penniless, linking poetry readings with stretches of gruelling, masochistic slog over fells and moors. Packed with ruminative prose, so evocative at times that you’d swear you are there, Armitage proves his poetic credentials.

Another marvellous (and marvelling) British journey is recounted by Miriam Darlington in Otter Country (Granta, £20), her “water-level odyssey around our small archipelago” following river systems from Skye to her native Devon, sniffing for otters, sometimes unearthing more than she bargained for and reliving it in crystalline, sharp-eyed prose.

Astute observation is equally vital to the richness of Sara Maitland’s enquiring Gossip From the Forests (Granta, £20), which links 12 walks with a dozen Grimm fairy tales, bringing the meanings of forest and folk tale into convergence. The book tramps through woodland with the same antennae-sharp focus Maitland brings to her reimagined take on the world of the Brothers Grimm.

Food and travel have long been soulmates – a means whereby we taste and digest what other cultures and societies have to offer. In Al Dente (Simon & Schuster, £14.99), David Winner enters the labyrinth that is Rome, with its saints and feast days, its movies and paintings, pursuing “food, hunger, history and culture”. It is a tantalising journey.

On a much bigger platter comes the Lonely Planet’s Food Lover’s Guide to the World (£29.99), an instant guide to globetrotting foodie satisfaction. From the dumpling delights of Tibet to the Middle East’s mezzes or Oregon’s beers, it takes an irresistible gastro-glide through all the world’s greatest cuisines, scattering recipes, where-to-eat tips, and terrific photographs and description to make you not just downright hungry, but hungry to travel and devour.

If your travel book taste leans towards humour, exotic locations and native species, do not miss How to Walk a Puma (Nicholas Brealey, £10.99). The puma is Roy, the location Bolivia, and the writer Peter Allison – whose foray to South America takes him bee-keeping in the Amazon (unlikely?), hunting naked with tribesmen in Ecuador (mmnn, just possible), and generally up for anything – is unflagging in his phlegmatic determination to bring his journey to humorous life.

Likewise Dom Joly in The Dark Tourist (Simon & Schuster, £12,99). Though Joly may live in the leafy Cotswolds, his travel tastes run from outings to Chernobyl, or spending time at the grassy knoll, Dallas, (scene of the shooting of JFK), to having paintballing fun with Hezbollah, and banging his funny bone along the “axis of evil” from Iran to North Korea. Readability in spades.

Nor could I put down Alan Root’s memoir: Ivory, Apes and Peacocks (Chatto & Windus, £14.99), reliving his life and career in film making in Africa, which brings that vivid continent even more vividly to life.

India Rising (Faber, £14.99), by Oliver Balch, is a wonderful ear-to-the-ground traversal of modern, rapidly changing India, getting far away from the tourist trail, reaching shanty towns and the ivory towers of big business, catching the thrum and pulse of a country hurtling unsteadily towards the future.

Change and renewal have limited relevance in the two books among this year’s crop I read with most relish. The Robber of Memories (Granta, £16.99), by Michael Jacobs, and Empire Antarctica (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), a beautiful hymn to limitless solitude whose author, Gavin Francis, fulfilled a dream: “The idea of Antarctica had simmered in my ambition, a desire to go to the remotest land on the planet to see one of the most wondrous beasts.” His bracing year spent among emperor penguins presents an ordeal that is also a joy. And it’s beautifully written on every page. Jacobs’ Colombia also casts spells. He traces the Magdalena river route, one of the planet’s most dangerous journeys, to its source in the high Andes. His life is not dull. He meets the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and a posse of FARC guerrillas. He mingles personal, poignant memories with the dramas and risks of the journey, shining insight into dark corners. A true transportation of a book.

Finally, travel books for children are thin on the ground. Good ones still rarer. Bucking the trend comes Lonely Planet’s How to Be a World Explorer (£12.99). Packed with travel tips, quirky trivia and survival guides to stimulate and sustain the curiosity of fun-minded eight to 12 year olds, it is set to not just haul them out of the bedroom, but even propel them from the house.