Eric Newby: Journey's end

He was a formidable English explorer of the old school, and, despite being a best-selling writer, always modest. Frank Partridge salutes Eric Newby, who has died aged 86

It is surely the finest title in travel literature: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Eric Newby's 1958 masterpiece (and bestseller) describes a quintessential piece of old-school British exploring, of the sort that makes travellers from other nations assume such blithe eccentricity afflicts the entire nation. "Thank God England is still cranking them out," wrote one American admirer. "It must be something in the water."

The "short walk" of the title is a typical example of Newby's self-deprecation, as if tackling a formidable mountain in one of the world's remotest spots is akin to a stroll in the park, with a possible detour to the post office on the way home. In fact, the expedition was planned just about as haphazardly as that, after Newby, staring out of his office window and wishing he were elsewhere, exchanged telegrams with Hugh Carless, a friend from the diplomatic service. With a few terse words they planned a trip to Nuristan, an inhospitable region of northern Afghanistan. Carless mentioned he planned to scale the formidable Mir Samir, nearly 20,000ft high. Newby and his indomitable wife Wanda decided to do a crash course in climbing. This involved four days of much mirth in Carnarvonshire. The couple arrived in the subcontinent hopelessly ill-equipped, with the wrong kind of tent and the wrong size boots. Then Carless neglected to purify the water and they contracted dysentery.

As the expedition unfolded, Newby honed what would become his trademark style, mixing jaw-dropping descriptions of the landscape with side-splitting anecdotes about the many obstacles - natural and human - blocking their path. The tale is peopled with larger-than-life characters, from intransigent bureaucrats to fearless fellow-explorers afflicted by wanderlust. Somehow, in spite of everything, they got within striking distance of the summit: "Below us on every side, mountains surged away it seemed forever; we looked down on glaciers and snow-covered peaks that perhaps no one has ever seen before, except from the air."

Discoveries like that cannot happen any more.

On Newby's 44th birthday, he and Wanda embarked on an expedition almost as foolhardy as the one to Nuristan: 1,200 miles down what they took to be the navigable section of the magical but infuriatingly mercurial Ganges, a river so complex that the communities whose lives depend on it have given it 108 different names. Newby, ever the scholar, listed and translated them all in his second classic, Slowly Down the Ganges (1966): "The consolation about being lost on a river is that if you go on downstream you are bound to arrive somewhere different, unlike being lost in a forest, where you are quite likely to end up where you started at the beginning of the day."

Things did go wrong, of course. They couldn't obtain a proper map because of political tension between India and China. The search for a river-worthy boat brought frustration at the hands of Indian bureaucrats, from whom the Newbys sought favours: "What we were doing was the equivalent in Britain of waking a fairly senior officer of the Metropolitan Water Board at a quarter to seven on a winter's morning, in order to ask him to wake a yet more senior official and request the loan of a boat from one of the reservoirs in order to go down to Southend."

The vessel they eventually secured had a draught of 20in. Two hundred yards into the voyage, the ever-shifting river became only 16in deep. Crunch. The heavily laden boat had to be dragged across the boulders, and the same thing happened another 62 times over the next six days. Wanda got the hump, threatening to leave, but gradually the river enveloped the couple in its spell.

In 1967, the couple returned to the region where they had met, while Newby was on the run from the Germans in wartime Italy. They bought a dilapidated farmhouse in a little-known area in north-west of Tuscany, in the foothills of the Apuan Alps.

All the tiles had disappeared from the roof of the "I Castagni" (The Chestnuts); they were plagued by rats as big as cats; and the septic tank was a cholera epidemic waiting to happen. They were the first outsiders to move to a society deeply set in its ways, but unlike other British incomers who have undertaken similar ventures, they bonded with their neighbours by taking an interest in the community and showing respect for the land. In return, they received invaluable help with the restoration, and the farmhouse became their second home. Read all about it in A Small Place in Italy (1994).

Eric Newby was equally adept at having adventures close to home. On his 66th birthday (which both he and Wanda had forgotten, he noted with sadness) they embarked on the first of several cycling expeditions through Ireland - the first two in the teeth of winter when few sane people would consider cycling anywhere. Eric and Wanda ended triumphantly at the source of the Shannon in an unseasonably hot October, and the result is Round Ireland in Low Gear. It's the familiar Newby cocktail of thrills and spills, exhaustively researched history, fable and hearsay, and wry, acute observations of Irish life. As they waited at a station for a train to the west coast, Wanda rushed into the buffet where Eric was ordering ham sandwiches:

"The train, the train is leaving!''

"It isn't leaving, whatever your good lady says," remarked a rather quiet man in railway uniform whom I hadn't noticed before, who was only about a quarter of the way through a pint of Guinness. "Not without me, it isn't. I'm the guard," and he took another long draw at his drink. Emboldened by this, I ordered a second one myself. Eventually we left more or less on time: the station clock turned out to be 10 minutes fast."

In 1977, Eric and Wanda, plus an official guide and photographer, journeyed across the USSR on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Brezhnev was in charge, the Cold War was on, and - being from the West - the Newbys were not allowed to reach the conclusion of the journey: the terminus, Vladivostok, was off-limits. Even so, The Big Red Train Ride chronicles a journey of nearly 6,000 miles in eight days. He and Wanda were harassed by the train conductor, delayed by red tape, and made ill by bad food and dodgy alcohol. They survived, of course, and Newby is at his most irreverent as he highlights the most ridiculous aspects of a failing experiment.

In the Soviet Union, as in the other places he touched, Newby gently guided the reader through a labyrinth of wrong turnings, setbacks, recoveries and sudden insights, emerging at last from confusion into a state of deeper understanding about the place he has explored. He always succeeds in answering the two essential questions: what is a land and its people really like? And how did they come to be as they are today?

Eric Newby's greatest virtue was that he wrote it as he saw it, seldom taking the easy option of over-egging his (mis)adventures for the sake of a good line. He encountered primitive and perplexing characters, but avoided the pitfall of caricaturing them either as noble savages or idiots. He was the archetypal Englishman Abroad, coping with the best and the worst of the world.

This is an edited version of The Complete Guide to Eric Newby, which appeared in 'The Independent' in December 2004

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