BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS / Travel: When you can bear it no longer

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The Independent Culture
DESPITE the right royal fuss over the photographs of the Princes of Wales in a gym, the King of Tonga had no qualms about exposing himself to the cameras while taking exercise. Three times a week the massive monarch would bicycle, on a special Maxwell-sized saddle, from his palace to a nearby cemetery. Every time he puffed back to the palace, a bell was rung to show that His Tongan Majesty wasn't on a one-way trip to his grave.

Of the five royals approached by Edward Fox in his Obscure Kingdoms (Hamish Hamilton pounds 16.99), this was the most co-operative. The Sultan of Java also fixed a date for a chinwag and let himself to be seen playing football, at fullback. By contrast, the King of Swaziland proved totally elusive, possibly because he really can, as his subjects believe, turn himself into a cat; Fox had to make do with an alternative king, a butcher who headed one of the tribes. In Nigeria, where there are possibly 700 kings, he was spoilt for choice. Fox writes wittily and well.

Any travel writer can stand accused of the charge of chortling at funny foreigners. William Dalrymple's City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi (HarperCollins pounds 16.99) is certainly full of laughable moments, but also of compassion and colour, from the Acknowledgements ('Khuswant Singh helped with eunuchs and goddesses') to the author's final pilgrimage to the stone lingam of the Hindu god Shiva.

Dalrymple was Our Man in India for the defunct Sunday Correspondent. Alec Russell went to Romania for the weekend and became Our Man in the Balkans for the Daily Telegraph. Unlike some fellow reporters who left the area in coffins, Russell survived to tell the tale, to great effect, in Prejudice and Plum Brandy (Michael Joseph pounds 15.99). 'The buildings were flayed until they looked as if they were suffering from monstrous leprosy,' he writes of a captured Croatian city. 'Vukovar was not taken, it was destroyed.'

Mark Jenkins had a more arduous but safer time with Off the Map: Bicycling Across Siberia (Robert Hale pounds 16.99). It was a cycling first, from Vladivostok hard by the Sea of Japan to Leningrad: five months and 7,000 miles. As you might guess from the author's CV ('He is the Rocky Mountain editor for Backpacker and lives on the high plains of Wyoming') the prose occasionally strips a gear when it attempts to be a sort of Zen and the Art of Pushbike Maintenance.

In The Ukimwi Road (John Murray pounds 16.95) Dervla Murphy, another international cyclist, pedalled from Kenya to Zimbabwe, pausing to chew over Aids and condom use with the locals, or to tell them to hand back her passport now. It is a sober and sad work: mothers ask her to pay for their children's school fees or even to take their boy back to Ireland with her.

To judge from South of Haunted Dreams (Viking pounds 15.99), there are no doubts about Eddy L Harris's courage. A black American, he rode his motorcycle into the heart of Southern racism, interviewing, among others, a bigot who longs for the return not just of segregation but also of slavery. Yet his look-at-me musings distract from his shocking material. If this Uneasy Rider really wanted to write entirely about himself, he might as well have stayed at home and saved on petrol.

Peter Davies went less dramatically back to his roots in The Farms of Home (Deutsch pounds 14.99), an account of a 200-mile walk from his home in Newbury to his childhood stamping ground in Shropshire. Davies's heart is in the right place but, sadly, his pen isn't. There is a touch of Wallace Arnold, but this is not a patch on John Hillaby's walking epic, Journey Through Britain.

Outdoing such ecological means of transport as cycles and feet, Ranulph Fiennes, in Mind Over Matter: The Epic Crossing of the Antarctic Continent (Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 16.99), shows how he even harnessed the wind, with a spinnaker, to power his sledge. Dear God, this is a dreadful place] The place in question is Sir Ranulph's gangrenous foot; would that Cosmetics-to-Go, who are included in the book's four pages of sponsors, had been there to apply make-up before the pictures were taken. Despite that, the author limps gamely around the South Pole, with abundant cliches.

Mike Stroud, Fiennes's companion on the trip, is a frosty Boswell to his Dr Johnson. At one point he was so overcome by hatred for his fellow pedestrian, he admits in Shadows on the Wasteland: Crossing Antarctica with Ranulph Fiennes (Cape pounds 14.99), that he considered shooting him and blaming the death on a polar bear. He changed his mind: there are no bears in Antarctica.

(Photograph omitted)