Books: The search for Shangri-la

Crossing high peaks, empty deserts and vast seas, our bold travel writers conquer every obstacle. But the woman who loves across cultures makes the longest journey of all. By James Urquhart; Captain Bligh's Portable Nightmare by John Toohey Viking, pounds 16.99, 406ppAround the Sacred Sea by Bartle Bull Fourth Estate, pounds 20, 212ppSaddled with Darwin by Toby Green Weidenfeld, pounds 20, 336ppBeyond the Sky and the Earth by Jamie Zeppa Macmillan, pounds 14.99, 303pp
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In the wake of Longitude, Dava Sobel's enormously successful tale of science and the high seas, Fourth Estate could be forgiven for trying to catch the same trade wind with Captain Bligh's Portable Nightmare by Australian historian John Toohey. Subtitled "from the Bounty to safety: 4,162 miles across the Pacific in a rowing boat," this is a well-aimed shot across the bows of Hall and Nordhoff's 1932 classic Mutiny on the Bounty.

But Toohey offers much more than boys' own entertainment, or a sly cajoling of one of history's more infamous villains. His account retains all the adrenalin of mutiny, marooning and maritime misdemeanour, but re-charges it with insights into Bligh's own character. Cooped up in their tiny launch, the 18 sailors survived their weeks of misery largely because of the Captain's ruthless discipline - which trait some of the mutineers' aristocratic families would later use to demonise him. Using Bligh's own writings and those of his seditious second-in-command, John Fryer, Toohey skilfully draws out the doubting, intimate voice within the man who was welcomed home as a British hero.

An equally famous history of exploration underpins Toby Green's odyssey. He is squarely Saddled with Darwin as he rides slowly from Uruguay into Patagonia, and then up from Cape Horn towards the Galapagos. Fascinated by the journals of Charles Darwin's five years on board HMS Beagle, Green decided to retrace the route on horseback - a clearly logical decision for a 22-year-old philosophy graduate whose knowledge of horses seems limited to Ladbroke's.

Green is assailed by "the drabness of Patagonia" as he trudges gamely from one estancia to the next. Though he is clearly a lunatic, smelly gringo on a mission which none of his hosts understands, he is greeted time after time with unstinting hospitality, regardless of the poverty of the owner.

He encounters enough tipos gauchos to cast a spaghetti western. Each complains bitterly about the desiccating impact of the ozone hole and the disastrous droughts that are killing their livelihoods, before slaying sheep for the barbecue, pouring the mate and settling in for a session.

There is tremendous honesty in Green's style, graciously accepting alms from the very poor whose severe lives he never romanticises. But the very sameness of these often desperate livelihoods does make him somewhat of a slave to the idea of his "ridiculous journey". Green skilfully splices interesting gobbets of Darwinian thought into his travelogue and comments intelligently on contemporary "selfish gene" arguments in evolutionary theory; but there remains a plodding relentlessness which is often reinforced, rather than dispelled, by the harsh lives that he meets on such a journey. What his limpid account gains by avoiding Bruce Chatwin's legendary Patagonian egotism, it loses by rarely evoking Chatwin's sense of theatre. Some of Green's best writing simply describes the pantomimic saddling of his horses, and the gauchos' frantic lassoing of other dumb animals.

Curiously enough, Bartle Bull never really evinces much passion for horses at all as he and his chums canter around Lake Baikal in its first ever continuous circumnavigation by horse. Around the Sacred Sea reads unashamedly (whether Bull intended or otherwise) as a rites-of-passage adventure story. The rubric of ecological research proffered to Bull's sponsors is quickly supplanted by references to Rider Haggard and Robert Service's laddish epic The Shooting of Dan McGrew.

Cutting his way through dense tangles of Siberian taiga forests with local guides by turn soused and resourceful, Bartle Bull begins to admire the backwoods idea of a "taiga man", with a clear hankering to graduate from this trip as man rather than boy. But Taiga Man has the ring of a dubious after-shave (I once found Bognor Man in a Munich perfumery, and had to be escorted out by the store detective). The idea neither adds to the gravity of his reflections, nor lightens his sententious tone. There is little humour or humility on the modestly named Tamerlane Expedition. Schooled at Groton, Eton and Harvard, Bull allows his natural arrogance to describe the eminent Dr Yukhnin, who greatly facilitated the ride, thus: "for all his bluster, Yukhnin could be an insightful, sophisticated man".

John Boit's and Karim Yalman's many photographs redeem Bull's narrative with a panoramic sense of place. And I have to admit enjoying Bull's hunt sufficiently to start quaffing vodka on my back porch.

Jamie Zeppa found herself teaching English in rural Bhutan as a break from academia, leaving a rather baffled family and fiance in Toronto. Beyond the Sky and the Earth is a beautiful account of Zeppa's gradual transition from a preoccupied Canadian, questioning the direction of her life by immersing herself in an alien environment, to a woman reinvigorated by the warmth of Bhutanese culture. Later she converts to Buddhism.

The spartan conditions of her first school posting in a remote hill town force Zeppa to confront her own resilience. She rehearses phrases in the local language, Sharchhop, in her head. "Are you a teacher?... "No, I am a coward," is her grim reply. But the infectious enthusiasms of her pupils charm her fears. Self-confidence grows with knowledge and familiarity as she steeps herself in the slow Bhutanese pace of life. In many ways, this is an anti-travelogue. Zeppa covers her three-month holiday travels to Nepal, Delhi, Kerala and Calcutta in about 300 words before scurrying back to Bhutan: "I am back home."

Her exhilaration with the Himalayan landscape eventually focuses on Tshewang, an adroit student whose reciprocal love for Zeppa forces a completion of the question of where her future will lie. The turmoil of cultural negotiation that their passion engenders spans a greater distance, and touches a deeper core, than many a more heroic adventure.

Comments