While I’ve met a few modern-day nomads in my travels, most of us can’t be on the road all the time. So how can we keep our wanderlust satiated in those stretches between journeys? We can escape into a really good book that brings a far-off place to us.
Here are three extraordinary travel narratives published within the past three years that deserve to be counted among the classics:
Novelist and essayist Rick Bass journeys to Damaraland, the red-hot heart of Namibia’s forbidding Namib Desert, to bear witness to the black rhino, a species that had been driven to the brink of extinction by human slaughter, and to its nascent renaissance, propelled by the unstinting efforts of a trailblazing coalition of African and Western conservationists.
Bass evokes the beauty, texture, and pace of this inhospitable desert, where one of the most prevalent plants is the poisonous Euphorbia tree and sand temperatures can soar to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. He vividly describes the wildlife he encounters: oryx, springbok, elephant, and giraffe, and especially the regal rhino, “a great silver tank moving slowly across the plains.”
Most moving of all is his own exhilaration as this new world unscrolls before him. At one point he writes, “I cannot remember being in such a state of perpetual wonder since childhood.”
Mark Adams’s rollicking historical-homage-cum-adventure-saga interweaves descriptions of explorer Hiram Bingham’s life and expeditions with a riveting account of his own adventures retracing Bingham’s storied, and sometimes slippery, steps toward the history-rewriting re-discovery of Machu Picchu.
Adams proves an engaging and enlightening guide. He is intimately familiar with the literary landscape of the wild — but, it turns out, charmingly unfamiliar with its real-world counterpart (the last time he’d slept in a tent, he confesses, was in 1978, and that was in his backyard). Despite this lack of preparedness, he engages a Peru-savvy Australian wilderness addict as his guide and sets out to follow Bingham’s trail along the Qhapaq Ñan, or Great Inca Road, through Choquequirao, Vitcos, Espíritu Pampa, and Machu Picchu.
He and his companion scale precipitous peaks, slash through the jungle, and endure torrential downpours. He brings to life the varied coca-chewing characters, sacred stones and peaks, and llama- and orchid-rich landscapes he encounters as he seeks to piece together the Inca puzzle.
Acclaimed travel writer Colin Thubron journeys to Mount Kailash, a peak that is sacred to almost one-fifth of humankind and an ancient pilgrimage site for Buddhist, Hindu, Bon, and Jain believers. He undertakes this trip as an act of reverence to mark the recent passing of his mother, an exploration of the role of solitude in his own life, and an investigation of this venerable rite.
Thubron evokes the “icy winds and dust storms that sandpaper the land,” the trailside presence of rocks “carved with prayers… faded, like a lost language,” the nighttime sky “dense with stars” whose “constellations multiply and blur together like mist,” the monks who “move in shambling pomp, puffing horns and conch shells, clashing cymbals… in a jostle of wizardish red hats,” as he guides us along on an unforgettable journey.
Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing. He has also edited several award-winning travel-writing anthologies, including Better Than Fiction. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.