Category Archives: travel book

“Dead Man’s Chest” by Nicholas Rankin

As a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing since childhood and as someone who is fascinated by lighthouse history (RLS came from a long line of rather famous lighthouse engineers) I was delighted to find this book – subtitled “Travels after Robert Louis Stevenson” – on the 501 list. I bought it and set it aside for my summer holidays. I thought reading it on the coast would be appropriate.

Unfortunately, instead of transporting me to the many exotic locales of RLS’s life and work, the book tried to be part modern travelogue and part biography and for me at least, fell between two stools. It left me wishing Rankin had just written a straight biography of RLS and left the descriptions of tropical islands and darkly lit old houses to RLS himself.

Having said that, any fan of RLS’s writing will find lots of great information about the author here. His disbelief in God nearly broke his father, he was closely related to Graham Greene, his 1892 novel “The Wrecker” was one of the first to use a telephone call as an integral part of the plot, and most depressingly for any novelist – he wrote “Treasure Island” at the rate of one chapter per day and it has never been out of print since.

As for “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. It took a mere six weeks from idea to manuscript delivery and interestingly was written when Carl Jung was 10 and Sigmund Freud was only 29 and barely begun on his life’s work. I was also impressed to discover that Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific (more than 40 islands visited) helped confirm his political opinions. Despite declining health he tried his best, as a then wealthy and well-known writer, to raise their issues back in Europe.

Nicholas Rankin tries in this 352 page book to follow in the footsteps of RLS from birth til death. At times he succeeds in evoking a sense of the world where RLS lived and created. But I think he allows himself as narrator too large a role. I found out too much about his own opinions of people, nations, and customs and the book lacked interviews & contact with those who actually knew RLS or his family. But it’s an honest effort (despite at times simply skipping certain locations because they don’t suit him to visit) and will fascinate any keen reader of RLS’s amazingly varied and prolific writings – three of which are on the 501 List.

(read July 2012)

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“The Voyage of the Beagle” by Charles Darwin

I took my time reading this book and during that time I mentioned reading it to a few people. Every single one sucked in their breath and expressed amazement at my dedication to the 501 List. They all assumed that it would be a horrendously boring book to read.

Thankfully, it wasn’t.

Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that Darwin wrote a few books. The best known is “Origin of the Species” but the 501 list asked for “The Voyage of the Beagle” so that’s what I read. In it he describes his adventures during his five year trip around the world on the survey-ship, The Beagle. I assumed it would largely deal with his famous visit to the Galapogos Islands and was amazed when I found that trip only took up one chapter in the entire tome. I was pleased to find that it’s a well-written Victorian travel book covering Rio, Cape Verde Islands, Brazil, Chile, Patagonia, Tierra del Feugo, Peru, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, and Mauritius.

Now yes, there are scientific elements to his descriptions. You won’t find many restaurant reviews. This is not a Lonely Planet guidebook. But if you’ve any interest in the landscape, people, animals, politics, and atmosphere of those places at that time in history then this is a terrific read. I was surprised to find his main interest to be in geology, but he covers all bases with musings about the formation and movement of continents, the reason why new settlers invariably killed off the native peoples with imported diseases, ideas on climate change, and even how coral islands are created. His ideas of evolution were still evolving at the time of writing, but you will get tantalising glimpses of his great mind at work on the idea.

During his travels he survives many storms, a plague of locusts, a sudden blizzard high in the Andes, days of riding without water supplies, combative locals, and enduring sea-sickness. It’s a surprise to me that he managed to write anything in his diary at all. It’s clear that the voyage changed his life and perspective on more than just the natural sciences. The passages describing his sleeping under the stars in South America show a young man, freed from class constraints, revelling in that freedom.

However if you’re from New Zealand or Australia you probably won’t enjoy his assessment of those growing colonies. I don’t think their tourist boards will be quoted Mr. Darwin anytime soon.

Readers also need to be aware that the author is a product of his own times. There are many references to slavery, for example, although overall he disagrees with the idea and the treatment given to the slaves. He also eats a few, now very rare, animals and regularly documents hunting trips, which isn’t something I expected from a naturalist, but those were the times he lived in and in some cases the animals were imported back to England for zoological study. I particularly enjoyed his adamant prediction that kangaroos would be made extinct by the introduction of English greyhounds to Australia. I guess even Darwin gets things wrong sometimes.

He suggests at the end of the book that travel will help any traveller – “teach him good-humoured patience, freedom from selfishness, the habit of acting for himself, and of making the best of every occurance…he will discover , how many truly kind-hearted people there are.” If that doesn’t make you want to explore the world, then nothing will.

(read January 2011)

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