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11 Of The Best Adventure Books

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March 16 15 minute read

For the best adventure books, we need more than a journal of times and dates, campsites, food and equipment. We need context, history, feeling. We need humanity, a good-humoured narrative that does not feel the need to talk up the exploits, even when it may detract from the heroic achievement. Being the first, or fastest, or longest or even the toughest does not guarantee a good story. 

The Last of the Nomads. W J Peasley. Outback.

In an Australian context, adventure is synonymous with the outback. Early day explorers were driven by the same curiosity that drives us now. Burke and Wills, Lasseter, Canning, Grey, Giles, Forest, Eyre. There are an awful lot of stories to choose from, but most of them I will leave for history fans. 

There are great books by Len Beadell, who surveyed and built many of the outback tracks we use on our own adventures. I have already written about him in an earlier article so I will leave him off this list.

Hence, ‘Last of the Nomads’, the remarkable story of the rescue of the last two people living a tribal life in central Australia. After several severely dry years in the Gibson and knowing the couple was of advanced years, the Mandildjara elders wanted to go into the desert to find them. W J Peasley was the leader of that 4WD expedition to places most of us can only ever dream of going, and this is his story of that expedition.

You should read it for the 4WD expedition but will find a love story. People are caring for people, even when they have broken tribal law. It is a beautiful story.

Touching the Void. Joe Simpson. Climbing and surviving.

Joe Simpson might be a pretty good climber and a damn good survivor, but he is an excellent writer. If you haven’t already read this story, then go find a copy, because Touching the Void is at the edge of all we do. 

We seek adventure to show ourselves who we are and that we have got what it takes. Joe Simpson shows us what it means to never give up, even if we have to crawl through shit to get there.  

The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow. A J Mackinnon. Small boat expedition.

Sandy Mackinnon was teaching somewhere in the backblocks of England when his contract came to an end. So he borrowed the school Mirror dinghy with the plan to row a short distance downstream to where he could catch the train to London and from there fly home to Australia. 

A year and 4900 km later, he arrived at the Black Sea.

What is so remarkable about this book is that he did not set out to conquer, or be the first or longest or fastest. Sandy Mackinnon set out with curiosity and flexibility and then wrote about it with such good humour. If ever you have been on a trip where someone has said ‘You’ll laugh about this later’ you will have some sort of an idea about Sandy Mackinnon’s trip. The follow-up book that explains how he came to be in England in the first place is also worth finding. It is ‘The Well at the Worlds End’.  

Kon Tiki. Thor Heyerdahl. A slightly larger but possibly less seaworthy boat.

To prove something about early men (and I suppose women), Thor Heyerdahl built a balsa wood raft and crossed the Pacific. If you ever are in Oslo go to the maritime museum there to see Kon Tiki.

This is the same Thor who years later built a reed boat called Ra and crossed the Atlantic. Actually, he made two because the first one sank, and the whole thing certainly proves something about men.

Thor Heyerdahl spawned a whole new form of adventure, the re-enactment. Tim Severin is one who has made a habit of nautical re-enactments of what may or may not be mythical voyages. If you enjoy reading this sort of thing, try him also.  

Adrift. Steve Calahan. Small boat, sinking.

When his small sailboat sank suddenly, Steve Calahan took to his liferaft and 76 days later became the world record holder for solo survival in a raft. 

He tells his story in ‘Adrift’ and displays the same survival grit of Joe Simpson. After the first week and with not much to do, he read the liferaft instructions: ‘Guaranteed to last one week’. Weeks later, after barnacles and things are growing on the underside of the raft and attracting fish, he ties a knife to a stick and tries to spear one. He misses and plunges the knife into the side of the raft. Oops!

The Riddle of the Sands. Erskine Childers. Fiction.

Published in 1903 this early spy thriller became a bestseller. Although fictional, it makes this list because it reads like a real adventure, and indeed much of it is autobiographical. Erskine Childers wrote it to demonstrate his belief that England was vulnerable to attack by a seafaring foe (Germany), who knew of secret navigation channels through the Baltic. 

Erskine Childers was a recreational sailor at a time when recreational sailing wasn’t really a thing. He owned a 33foot yacht that he explored the coastline of Great Britain and across to Europe in a time before the first world war. He did write articles about his trips, but it was his novel that brought him fame, and he continued to sail and explore. In 1914 as the push for home rule was taking hold in Ireland Erskine used his yacht, Asgard, to smuggle guns from Belgium. Irish independence was an adventurous cause he was increasingly drawn to.

Erskine joined the Royal Navy for the war but despite his patriotic service in 1922 Erskine Childers was executed by firing squad by the English. They accused him of being a traitor due to his support of the Irish Republicans.

Clouds from Both Sides. Julie Tullis. Mountaineering.

There are many fine adventurous women, but Julie Tullis is the only one here. It could be that this reflects women are eminently more sensible. Still, really it is a hangover from the heroic age when it was men outside and women in the home.

Julie Tullis was a climber in an era when it was almost exclusively men. She writes most beautifully of her love for the mountains and her frustration at the sexist world. The final chapter will bring you to tears. It’s a book that definitely earns its place on this list of the best adventure books.

Chickenhawk. Robert Mason. Vietnam war in a helicopter.

It is ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, by Charles Dickens, that begins with the line ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, wisdom at the heart of ‘Chickenhawk’. 

Behind the fact of the horror of war is that for many, it was the best, most exciting time of their life. Suburbia and civilian routine seemed guiltily dull when they came home. I know this was the case for my father who fought in the second world war, and for Robert Mason, it was also the case. 

His book blends the horror, the excitement, and the trauma of the return to life in America. For those of us with an adventurous desire, this is a sobering dose of reality.

Off the Rails. Tim Cope. Two boys on a bicycle.

You probably know Tim Cope from his later and more famous book ‘On the Trail of Genghis Khan’, his rather long horse trek across Mongolia. Off the rails is his account from an earlier trip by bicycle, from Moscow to Beijing, with his friend Chris Hatherly. 

While I admire people who can travel alone on very long trips, there is for most of us, the need for companionship. In ‘Off the Rails’ Tim Cope confronts us with the highs and lows of a relationship under stress.

This is not about two young men against climatic hardship and isolation. Like all great adventure books, though, we can learn something of ourselves. 

This Accursed Land. Lennard Bickel. The Antarctic. 

From the heroic age, there are numerous accounts of derring-do. Scott arrived at the south pole to discover someone else got there first. Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance who survived on the ice then took a small boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia.

‘This accursed land’ is Lennard Beckel’s account of the 1912 Mawson expedition to map the Antarctic coast and do a bit of geological fossicking. A few things went wrong, and the expedition turned into one of the greatest survival epics of all time. 

Afterwards, Mawson continued work as a geologist in South Australia. When he died in 1956, he had still not edited his journal from the expedition.

I think it is quite likely that Lennard Bickel has written a better account than Mawson could have done anyway. There are plenty of other accounts of the Mawson expedition, including those who claim Mawson can only have survived by eating his dead companions. Still, I think Bickel’s is the best.

If you read or have seen the film ‘Into the heart of the sea’ by Nathanial Philback, you will know the reality of cannibalism in a survival crisis. I don’t think the claim is valid for Mawson, however, if you are invited to go on a re-enactment of Mawson’s trek may I suggest you decline.   

White Limbo, Lincoln Hall. Mountain climbing.

Billed as the first Australian ascent of Everest there were several remarkable firsts on this expedition, and as far as the best adventure books related to mountaineering this is one of the best. Although authorship on the cover is given to Lincoln Hall, chapters were written by other members of this team. It’s an approach that displays each of their interests and strengths. It provides broad coverage and background to the story, and I wonder if their climbing success is because of this team approach both on and off the mountain. 

Tim Macartney Snape (who also writes for Adventure Curated) went on to repeat the climb, walking all the way from sea level. Lincoln Hall, who in 1983 had turned back just below the summit, went in 2006 to finish the last few metres. He made it but collapsed on the way down, and despite attempts to revive him, by nightfall, he was pronounced dead.

Eleven others died on Everest that season, but Hall wasn’t one of them. Next morning he was found sitting on a rock, and to cut a long story and even longer walk and recovery short, he got home and wrote a book about it. ‘Dead Lucky’ is that book. 

Hall died in 2012 of cancer. If that doesn’t motivate you to get out there adventuring nothing will.

I hope that by reading these books, you are inspired. Not so much to set off on an adventure, although that is important, but to become good at telling your own story. Start by lighting the campfire, turning off the devices, and when everyone is relaxed, start spinning some yarns. Maybe one day, your account will make a list of best adventure books, but it is guaranteed your stories will inspire those around you.

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Martin Chambers wrote the Canoe and Kayak Guide to Western Australia. He has been a paddler all his life and recently completed a 30-day canoe descent of the Eg river in Mongolia. Martin lives in Perth and writes full time. His latest novel ‘How I became the Mr Big of People Smuggling’ made the shortlist for the TAG Hungerford Award. The judges said the book gave the uncanny feeling that it could all be true.

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