Book an Off-Beat Escape

Six vintage literary journeys to take you far away.

What a wonderful story: Three Italian prisoners of war, held in Kenya by the British during World War II, decide to alleviate the doldrums of their captivity by climbing the mountain — Africa’s second highest — that looms over them. While it sounds like a plot concocted for a high-spirited film comedy, it is in fact entirely true, and Felice Benuzzi’s firsthand account of his wartime exploit, No Picnic on Mount Kenya, is an amusing, gripping, and singular narrative.

Having conceived the climb as a diversion from monotony, Benuzzi recruits two colleagues from among his Italian compatriots and then begins the arduous process of surreptitiously manufacturing the equipment they would need — no easy task under the circumstances. Yet the three manage to gather enough scrap metal and other materials to make crampons, ice axes, and other necessities at the same time as they squirrel away provisions. Setting out at last, they escape their confinement, elude capture, dodge rhinoceroses and other wild beasts, weather the onslaught of the elements, and, with resourcefulness and courage, master the taxing mountaineering conditions Mount Kenya presents. As Benuzzi deftly tells it, their ascent of more than 16,000 feet is both perilous and exhilarating.

Upon completion of their mission — the way down is no easy trek, and it provides some of the book’s best reading — the author and his two colleagues break back into the internment camp from which they had so ingeniously sprung themselves some two hundred pages earlier. Upon their reappearance, they are only half-heartedly punished for their escapade; the British commandant, in fact, expresses appreciation for their “sporting effort.” As will the reader, for between the prisoners’ departure and return, Benuzzi has treated us to a true-life tale filled with suspense, humor, bravery, and all the drama any armchair adventurer could desire. His 1947 book is a most unusual tale of escape, and a climbing classic to boot.

Adventure presents itself more often than we acknowledge, and in many guises: as accident, as disaster, as longing, or as love. What distinguishes adventurers from the rest of us is the courage that compels them to take up the reins when excitement beckons and ride where it leads without any map. The four nineteenth-century women profiled in Lesley Blanch’s The Wilder Shores of Love were adventurers indeed, following their hearts, misfortunes, and desires right out of their own time and place into an East that promised fruits forbidden in their native Europe.

Blanch’s pioneering 1954 group biography tells their stories with scholarly attention, literary style, and romantic panache. It’s hard not to get swept up in her narrative of the travails of French heiress Aimée Dubucq de Rivery, “a convent girl captured by corsairs and flung into the harem of the Grand Turk,” or the travels of Jane Digby, also known as Lady Ellenborough, a society beauty who “smashed all the taboos of her time,” fleeing midlife sorrow to live in the Syrian desert with a Bedouin sheik. Then there’s the Victorian Catholic Isabel Burton, who abandoned the conformity suggested by those two descriptors when she wed the iconoclastic explorer Richard Burton, whose exploits in Arabia and Africa provided his devoted spouse with tantalizing tastes of vicarious transgression. The last member of Blanch’s venturesome quartet, Isabelle Eberhardt, was a Russian-born woman who, disguised as a man, went to live among the Arabs; her haunting stories and diaries are filled with a strangely prophetic sense of the emptiness that would be invoked some decades later by writers as different as Albert Camus and Paul Bowles.

“Each of them, in her own way,” Blanch writes, “used love as a means of individual expression, of liberation.” In an exotic landscape, far across the borders of the manners and mores of their age, these women — lured onward by “glowing horizons of emotion and daring” — imagined unconventional destinies, and for both good and ill, embraced them. Blanch relates their lives with intelligence and captivating sympathy.

Nearly two decades before Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence created what seems to be a permanent vogue for food-enriched, wine-soaked sojourns in off-the-beaten-path European villages, Roy Andries de Groot composed the genre’s precursor and masterpiece: The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth. His poised, cultivated 1973 chronicle of the delights he discovered at a modest inn in the high Alpine valley of La Grande Chartreuse in southeastern France is the book that many well-read gourmets treasure above all others — and recommend to the uninitiated with an enthusiasm generally reserved for an undiscovered restaurant or an inexpensively wondrous bottle of wine.

The book starts with a storyteller’s flair, as the author reveals that he was drawn to his subject by the cryptic information he read on the labels of bottles of his favorite after-dinner drink, Green Chartreuse. “What did the rather mysterious words and phrases mean? Who were these ‘Pères Chartreux’ who distilled the liqueur at ‘La Grande Chartreuse’ by a ‘secret process’ known only to them?” In search of answers, de Groot soon found himself traveling on a road through a narrow cleft in a five-thousand-foot granite wall that led to his remote and mystifying destination.

But that’s only the background to The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth. The real story begins when de Groot settles in at the inn that gives the book its name, a hostelry whose uncommon cuisine was the emblem of a graceful way of life in tune with nature and its seasons. Befriending the two proprietors, the Mademoiselles Yvette and Ray, de Groot is initiated into the simple rites that seem to bless the meals cooked on the open, wood-burning hearth bedecked with wrought-iron chains and heavy cauldrons, grill bars and a turning spit. (In spring and summer, when the hearth was cool, antique copper pots held the flowers and plants that give the inn its name.) On several lovingly chronicled return trips, de Groot was a willing student of the Mademoiselles’ accumulated culinary wisdom, observing with pleasure the ins and outs of their livelihood — negotiating the local market, planning the seasonal menus, craftily building a discriminating wine cellar. While detailed recipes, perfectly amenable to American kitchens, make up the second portion of the book, it is de Groot’s substantial opening narrative of his experiences in the company of the Mademoiselles as they go about their daily business that makes this book such a delicacy.

“The lunatic idea,” writes Robyn Davidson of the genesis of the trip that is the subject of Tracks, “was, basically, to get myself the requisite number of wild camels from the bush and train them to carry my gear, then walk into and about the central desert area.” Unlike most lunatic ideas, this one saw the light of the sun — quite a lot of it, in fact. In April 1977, after two years of preparation (which included an intensive course in getting-to-know-your-humped-back-beasts), the twenty-seven-year-old Davidson — who by her own admission had “never changed a light-bulb, sewn a dress, mended a sock, changed a tyre, or used a screwdriver” — set out to cross the rugged outback of her native Australia accompanied by four camels and a dog (and, as things developed, the occasional photographer).

Tracks tells the story of her six-month, 1,700-mile journey through a timeless landscape inhabited by strange and sometimes threatening life forms. Given to passionate ruminations on the false reality a camera can capture, the Aboriginal way of life, and the pleasures and powers of solitude, Davidson is also stubborn, resourceful, and tough. She survives the onslaughts of both nature and civilization to tell her tale with a robust, wry humor that is vivid and engaging. It’s a genuinely unforgettable trek.

“I saw an open door. I got out. It was as though the world had been suddenly lighted, and I could see a great distance.”

Freya Stark, who died in 1993 having lived a hundred years, journeyed where few European men had dared to go — through North Africa, the Levant, Turkey, Persia, Syria, Anatolia, and Kurdistan. She exemplified the bravery, stubbornness, and literary sensibility that characterized the intrepid English traveler.

“An imaginative aunt who, for my ninth birthday, sent a copy of the Arabian Nights, was, I suppose, the original cause of the trouble,” Stark once wrote. Long before she was honored as a Dame Commander of the British Empire — a distinction that crowned her career as author of dozens of books, wartime emissary in Egypt, documentarian for the Royal Geographic Society, and star of BBC travel films — she was a bookish young woman who had read Homer’s epics, toured exotic locales with her footloose parents, and spoke several languages, including Arabic (“I always had a feeling for learning languages, and Arabic covers the greatest number of countries with the most interesting history”). She dismayed friends and family by setting out in 1927 on the trip that was to become the basis for The Valleys of the Assassins, published in 1934. In addition to wanting to see an uncharted valley on the border of Iraq and Iran, she was in search of the legendary lost fortress of the Lords of Alamut, a band of hashish-fueled assassins that Marco Polo had described in his own Travels.

Stark had not intended to write a book about her exploits, but upon her return, her mother typed up the diaries she had kept and insisted she rewrite them for publication. The result is a beautifully rendered account of a world few Westerners had occasion to witness. On her mapless journey through lawless territory, dependent upon the knowledge and kindness of local guides, she is both patient and perceptive, drolly aware of the passing peril of her position and keenly observant of the landscapes, costumes, and customs she witnesses: “I spent a fortnight in that part of the country where one is less frequently murdered, and I saw the Lurs in their own medieval garb — the white tight-waisted coat with sleeves hanging in points from the elbow and white felt caps over the curls that hide their ears.” Displaying her wise purchase on place, history, and people, The Valley of the Assassins is permeated with Stark’s authorial genius — aphoristic, vigilant, exquisitely well mannered — that would articulate the heart and mind of the traveler in many subsequent books.

The best book by the best travel writer you’ve never read, The Sea and the Jungle is a narrative, in the author’s words, “of the voyage of the tramp steamer Capella from Swansea to Pará in the Brazils, and thence 2,000 miles along the forests of the Amazon and Madeira Rivers.”

Tomlinson’s masterpiece of armchair travel begins on a dreary winter morning in 1909: “You know those November mornings with a low, corpse-white east where the sunrise should be, as though the day were still-born.” The absence of sunlight is metaphorical as well as real, for Tomlinson, at the time a reporter on the London Morning Leader, is despondent about the constraints of his daily prospects: “on my way to catch the 8.35 that morning — it is always the 8.35 — there came to me no premonition of change.” Indeed, the opening pages, suffused with a commuter’s restlessness within his perfectly predictable routine, are bound to resonate with suburban fellow travelers even a century on: “Where that morning train starts from is a mystery; but it never fails to come for us, and it never takes us beyond the city, I well know.”

But then, to Tomlinson’s surprise and the reader’s ultimate reward, unexpected opportunity knocks, and almost before he knows it, he is on a train to Wales, ready to board a freighter bound for the upper reaches of the Amazon. No longer resigned to “dutifully and busily climbing the revolving wheel like the squirrel,” he is off the treadmill for the next two years: “I saw an open door. I got out. It was as though the world had been suddenly lighted, and I could see a great distance.” The rest of the book tells the exhilarating story of his adventure on sea and land: It is both exciting and hilarious, and brilliantly written. Tomlinson’s voice, so engaging in the opening chapter, only gains dimension and perspective when confronted with the liberating exertions of a voyage and the natural wonders of the equatorial jungle. Describing flora, fauna, landscape, and native companions with unerring alertness and élan, he composes a narrative that is itself refreshing and spirit-lifting. Don’t miss it.

Adapted from the book, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich. Copyright © 2018 by James Mustich. Published by Workman Publishing.

Now: Author, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Then: publisher and chief bookseller, A Common Reader. https://www.1000bookstoread.com/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store