Hot and cold running writers

Lure of the Quest by John Balzar | Corsairville by Graham Coster | Grains of Sand by Martin Buckley
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Lure of the Quest by John Balzar (Headline, £12.99, 300pp) Corsairville by Graham Coster (Viking, £12.99, 276pp) Grains of Sand by Martin Buckley (Hutchinson, £17.99, 448pp)

As John Balzar points out at the beginning of Lure of the Quest - his account of a 1,025 mile dog-sled race through the heart of Alaska - there are few wildernesses left. Most of the world has been mapped and plundered, or marked for future exploitation. "It used to be that we described cultures we did not know with words like primitive or savage. Now we call them 'potential markets'," bemoans Balzar.

If the age of mass-tourism has colonised the wilderness, and corroded the mystique of travel, then it has inevitably changed the nature of travel writing, as well. Ian Jack, current editor of Granta - the magazine which lay at the heart of the Eighties boom in the genre - wrote recently that the "focus of curiosity has moved, from 'I wonder what Ruritania is like'... towards the question of why Ruritania came to be like it is'."

These days, fewer writers travel in search of adventure or in pursuit of the exotic. They travel to discover a forgotten history, or to follow in the footsteps of an earlier explorer, or to explore territories which are, apparently, familiar. Ian Jack's question could just as easily be asked of less exotic places - East Acton, for instance.

My first book is a travel book, of sorts, though it was written without leaving home: it describes a journey down the A40, from White City to the Hanger Lane Gyratory - a journey thousands of people make every day.

Leadville is about the people who live and work beside one of London's busiest roads. It was prompted, in part, by George Orwell's prediction that the future of England lay along the arterial roads, and it combines the stories of the people I met with an account of the history of the road - its construction between the wars, and its partial demolition sixty years later.

In Corsairville, Graham Coster embarks on another kind of quest. Infatuated with a relic of the Golden Age of travel, when flight was both an adventure and a luxury, he sets out to explore "the lost domain of the flying boat".

Coster's search begins with a story dredged from the annals of imperial history. In March 1939, the Empire Flying Boat, Corsair, crashed in an isolated corner of the Belgian Congo. Rather than abandon it Imperial Airways decided on salvage - an operation which took ten months, and involved damming the river and building a village on the water's edge to house the crews.

Having introduced the legend of "Corsairville", Coster then launches into a lengthy digression. He travels through Europe, Africa and America, tracking down the pilots who flew the flying boats, and hitching rides aboard the last surviving airworthy models. Almost 200 pages pass before he returns to his theme: "So what about Corsairville?" he asks.

Coster's enthusiasm for what he regards as a gloriously anachronistic hybrid is initially beguiling, but soon loses its charm, for Corsairville is a poorly written book. Coster qualifies almost every statement that he makes, re-iterating his insights and elaborating endlessly on their significance, so that his prose seems both fussily manicured and oddly provisional. Corsairville is an intriguing failure - proof that it is not where you go or what you do, but how you write about it that matters most.

Martin Buckley's Grains of Sand was conceived in the most improbable of places. He was sitting in the bath one day, studying an atlas, when he noticed that the earth is girdled by two swathes of desert - one to the north of the equator, and one to the south. "I saw that you could circumnavigate the earth without ever leaving the desert. The route would be a ragged one, winding across two hemispheres and making leaps across the ocean, but a route it was."

Approaching 40, and sickened by the twin evils of Western materialism and BBC bureaucracy, Buckley felt his "inner life was in peril". He was "ready to go into a Christly wilderness" of his own.

Buckley's account of his two-year journey is faintly po-faced, but contains some extraordinary encounters, particularly in the Sahara. In Chad, his life is threatened when he takes a photograph of two Arabs, and in neighbouring Niger, he is asked to play doctor to a group of Tuareg tribespeople - many of whom, he realises, will die, with or without his help.

If Grains of Sand is a conventional travelogue - and less interesting as a result - then Balzar's Lure of the Quest is an anomaly. It is not, strictly speaking, a travel book at all, but a belated submission to the canon of "new journalism" pioneered in the Sixties by Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson.

Wolfe hitched a lift with the counter-culture guru Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in order to write the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Thompson hung out with Hell's Angels, but Balzar chose to ride with dog teams and their "mushers" across "some of the planet's loneliest and most dramatic territory in the full bite of sub-arctic winter". In this world, male dogs wear pile jock-straps called "peter heaters" to guard against frost-bite.

Balzar is in love with the "storied landscape" and the rugged inhabitants of the Far North, but he is unable to resolve the dilemma which confronts journalists and travel writers of all description. He wanted an "authentic experience", one that was "unscripted by science or media".

And yet, as a press liaison officer for the Yukon Quest, and a writer by inclination and profession, he is in no position to escape his role as an Outsider. "It's apparent that I'm not one of them," he admits, at the end of his gripping account of the race. "The Quest belongs to the people who live by the myth, not to those who live from a suitcase."

Still, judging from his account of his experience "mushing" a team of dogs over an 86-mile section of the Trail, he found more than his fair share of adventure. More importantly, he has written a warm-hearted tribute to the inhabitants of one of the world's few remaining wildernesses.

Edward Platt's 'Leadville', a 'biography of the A40', will be published by Picador in June