House of the Tiger King: a jungle obsession, by Tahir Shah

Travelling light in search of a lost city

All of us, travel writers included, tend to pack too much baggage, intellectual or otherwise, when we set off on our journeys. Not Tahir Shah. He has made a literary virtue out of travelling light. For this latest quest, he sets off up the Amazon with not much more that a carrier bag full of Pot Noodles and a bottle of water, to help with the humidity and the drugs.

All of us, travel writers included, tend to pack too much baggage, intellectual or otherwise, when we set off on our journeys. Not Tahir Shah. He has made a literary virtue out of travelling light. For this latest quest, he sets off up the Amazon with not much more that a carrier bag full of Pot Noodles and a bottle of water, to help with the humidity and the drugs.

The Pot Noodles prove an unexpected hit with the porters, while most of the drugs get taken by Richard Fowler, his indispensable sidekick from previous adventures. Richard is a Vietnam vet with an addiction to what Shah quaintly calls "flora-based hallucinogens". In past outings, Richard has flown over the jungle under the influence of ayahuasca. Now he takes to datura lilies, mushrooms and (with worse consequences) the bus driver's wife. Shah looks on with mock-horror as Richard behaves with rock'n'roll abandon and upsets his motley team: a hapless Swedish film-crew, a Russian millionaire, a Seventh Day Adventist and a stoned shaman. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

The ostensible pretext is a search for the "lost city" of Paititi. Ostensible, because Paititi has long been a joke in exploring circles: a mythical jungle city to which the Incas are supposed to have escaped when fleeing Spanish persecutors. Many a half-baked expedition has set off to find it before. The guru-figure whom they consult puts it with Tarantino-like concision: "Aaaaah, you are the fresh moth attracted by an old flame".

As his enjoyably shambolic quest falls apart, Shah comes to acknowledge that the survival of the myth is far more interesting than any search for a supposed real city. How it was sustained for 300 years by an Indian population desperate to believe in an Inca "king over the water", who would one day come back to liberate them?

The journey is not without the requisite hardships, wittily retold. Shah's cook threatens to kill him when asked to cook potatoes; Richard deserts, stealing the morphine and other medical supplies for recreational use; even the Pot Noodles turn out to have unwanted aphrodisiac side-effects. Yet what gives the book a cutting edge, along with the comic-book vivacity of the dialogue, is Shah's brutal candour about the jungle. Like Waugh and Redmond O'Hanlon before, he recognises the stultifying boredom of the place, and its reductive effect on those who live there.

House of the Tiger King is Shah's fourth Tintin-like escapade in as many years. King Solomon's Mines was the last, and expeditions to Tibet and the Moon will doubtless follow. Wherever he chooses to take us, Shah has an engaging ability to meet the adventure head-on, and with the bare minimum of protection. Perhaps we should all leave more behind when we travel.

Hugh Thomson

The reviewer's new book is 'Nanda Devi: a journey to the last sanctuary' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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