Tag: Travel/Adventure

A Naturalist\’s Journeys on the Roof of the World
by George B. Schaller

I thought- mostly due to the cover image- that this book was about the field study of a Tibetan antelope called chiru. That\’s only a few chapters. It covers many different trips and field studies the author conducted or participated in, travelling through remote regions of the Tibetan Plateau- encompassing areas of China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Mongolia. His studies were all about wildlife conservation- but there is (disappointingly for me) not a lot of description of actual animal encounters or behavior. What little is described of the wildlife, is brief. Mostly it is a report on how many animals they find in the various regions, how they tallied death numbers (from poaching, trophy hunters or natural causes and predation), and their survey of the areas- in particular noting the attitude of local people to the animals, what they knew of them, how they interacted with them, what local laws were in place and how well enforced, etc. A lot of it is just plain facts, and rather dry reading. I did find it interesting enough to complete- but I think (similar to Joy Adamson\’s Queen of Shaba) this is a case where the author is relating crucial info and not really giving vivid storytelling, as I have encountered more in his works (the few I\’ve read so far).

The book describes in passing the yak, kiang (or wild ass), Tibetan gazelle, golden eagle, Tibetan brown bear, Tibetan fox and a number of other animals. More attention is given to the chriu- mostly in head counts- and an entire chapter is about how the desire of the wealthy to own shawls woven from the fine wool of chiru caused the animals to be killed in great numbers until protection was put in place. There\’s a chapter about pika- small rodents- all about how they fit into the ecosystem, but unfortunately local inhabitants blamed pikas for degraded pastures, and poisoned them in great numbers (on the contrary, Schaller explains that pika are important for a healthy land). Another chapter describes efforts to locate, track and study snow leopards, and a final one the Tibetan bear- but in both cases they barely get a glimpse of the animals, relying mostly on camera traps and information gleaned from the few individuals they are able to radio-collar in order to track movements. More about politics and legal tangles involved in protecting Tibetan wild sheep- the argali- and the Marco Polo sheep. A lot of it is just we-went-here, we-did-this, or in many cases, how they failed to. If you want to read about the difficulties and drudgery of field work, or an overview on how lifestyles have changed in that region of the world over the past decades – Scahller went there many times with repeated visits, so he was able to give a bit of perspective on that- by all means this is a valuable account.

It\’s just not terribly intriguing to the casual reader like myself. Personally, I would really like to read the book of pika fables he wrote, in order to teach local Tibetans why the small animal was valuable. Being written later in his career, Schaller also includes some introspective musings in this book, looking at what his life\’s accomplishments had been so far-

I have not lived up to my potential. I am neither leader nor follower, and instead inadvertently subscribe to the dictum of Ralph Waldo Emerson: \”Do not go where the path may lead; go where there is no path and leave a trail.\” It affords me great pleasure to observe the rich and complex life of another species and write its biography. . . I have published interesting and useful scientific information. But all scientific work, unless there is the grand, everlasting insight of a Darwin, Einstein, or Newton, is soon supersceded, forgotten or rated at most a historical reference as others build upon your research. That is how science must proceed.

This makes me think of a comment on Wild HeritageBut I wholly recognize that Schaller\’s work in surveying and reporting on wildlife in various parts of the world has contributed greatly to conservation efforts, even if his books aren\’t wildly popular or always make fun reading (I however, plan to read all I can get my hands on, even though my library only has a few. I\’ve been collecting the others- have one on gorillas and another on pandas on my shelf. Really want to get the one about his first study, on lions in the Serengeti).

I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5              372 pages, 2012

by Sara Tucker

Memoir of times the author spent living in Arusha, Tanzania and in Togo with her family of three. It started when she first visited Africa as a travel writer from New York, and met safari guide Patrick- a man born in France who had spent most of his adult life in West Africa. The book is in patches- some telling of the author\’s own experiences, other chapters relate her husband\’s adventures, both well-written but sometimes the narrative hopping back and forth is confusing. What\’s admirable is how much they simply wanted to make it work- Patrick fell in love with Africa as a young man and just did whatever he could to be there: safari tours, guide for trophy hunters, crocodile poacher, reconnaissance spy, hotel manager, you name it, he took the job if it got him out in the bush near animals. There are a few incidents related with wildlife- a leopard cub he raised, a close encounter with a wildebeest when his vehicle got stuck in a ditch- but more is about the political and social turmoil of the area, and how the family managed to live there. The author herself often spent long months with her husband\’s son keeping their house running while Patrick was off on a job. Hours of boredom, dealing with the locals who worked for them, constant expectation of being robbed. Fondness for some aspects it all, tedium with others. Reading about the ex-pats\’ lifestyle reminded me somewhat of Rules of the Wild (fiction). Another large part of this book is about the author\’s relationship with her stepson, what it was like for him to grow up in Africa, to make adjustments to boarding school among other things. It kept feeling like a foreign story from a time and place quite removed from myself, and then I would come across a detail that reminded me this story is quite current: she\’s reading Harry Potter with her stepson, he\’s playing World of Warcraft, they\’re standing on a street in New York looking at smoke in the sky above the spot where the Twin Towers used to be. Because at the end, a contract for working as warden in a game park in Togo falls through after they have sold all their household goods in preparations to move, and the family decides to come back to America. She\’s written a second book about the next six years living in Vermont, not sure if I\’ll look for it.

Rating: 3/5             287 pages, 2011

by Douglas Adams
and Mark Cardwardine

Sci-fi author (famous for Hitchhiker\’s Guide to the Galaxy) travels the world to view some of the most endangered animals on the planet, before they are gone. He goes to Madagascar to see the aye-aye, to Komodo for the iconic giant lizards, to Zaire for the mountain gorillas and northern white rhino (there were twenty living at the time), to New Zealand in hopes of finding a kakapo, to China in search of the Yangtze river dolphin, to Mauritius to see the Rodrigues fruit bat and some endangered birds as well. Some of these he just caught a glimpse of (the aye-aye), other animals he was able to observe up close. I was surprised what a fun read this was, in spite of its grave subject matter- it\’s kind of a wild travelogue, and the author\’s humor in describing situations frequently sparked a laugh. To note, in the years since this book was written, the river dolphin is presumed extinct, the northern white rhino is functionally so (down to two individuals), the fruit bat is increasing in numbers, komodo dragons are doing okay (listed as vulnerable), kakapo appears to be gradually recovering (their reproduction rate is incredibly slow), the gorilla and aye-aye are still very much endangered. When I read this book I was impressed at the actions the Chinese took to save the river dolphin, but it wasn\’t enough. Similar book, although now outdated in terms of the animals\’ predicament (and not nearly as enjoyable a read) : Wild Echoes.

Rating: 3/5               220 pages, 1990

more opinions:
Things Mean a Lot 
anyone else?

by Joseph Conrad

I had a hard time with this classic, even though I found the prose riveting. I\’m glad I knew a little about it beforehand, or I might have been thoroughly confused and not made it through. The narrative is by a seaman telling a story to his fellow sailors while waiting for a tide to turn- about a former trip via steamboat upriver into the depths of the Congo. He was hired by a trading company to travel to a remote post to collect a man named Kurtz who has a load of ivory extracted from the interior- as far as I could tell. Kurtz is strangely held in awe by many, and when the narrator finally reaches the destination, it\’s obvious he\’s been out in the jungle wilderness far too long- he has the native population (depicted in very racist, stereotypical fashion from a nineteenth-century imperialist perspective) under his thrall, raves in lunatic fashion and appears to be suffering from some awful disease.

Most of the novella is about the frustrating travel upriver through the dense jungle, suffering frequent breakdowns, lack of materials, poor management, horrific exploitation and suffering on the part of the natives. It\’s very rambling and dense, a lot of it internal monologue on the depravity of human nature and moves without description or explanation between scenes- so I often had difficulty understanding what was actually going on. In a way it is Kafkaesque, in another way the deeply visceral prose reminded me of William Golding\’s The Inheritors (which I now regret I culled out of my library- this book makes me want to read that one again, oddly enough). Many of the passages also brought to mind Lord of the Flies, and I rather wonder if Golding wasn\’t heavily influenced by Joseph Conrad. Sample of the descriptive power in the text:

Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high; and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat, like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty portico. It made you feel very small, very lost, and yet it was not altogether depressing, that feeling. After all, if you were small, the grimy beetle crawled on- which was just what you wanted it to do…

or: 

The mind of man is capable of anything- because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage- who can tell? – but truth- truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder- the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But…. he must meet that truth with his own true stuff- with his own inborn strength.

It\’s a book I found hard to put down even though it was difficult to get through, and one that definitely merits a re-read (or several!) in order to understand. I read this one in e-book format.

Rating: 3/5              280 pages, 1902

more opinions:
Melody and Words
Vulpes Libris
who else? let me know!

by Stanwell Fletcher

I was curious to read this book because I enjoyed Driftwood Valley, which I believe was by this author\’s wife. (However if so, he must have remarried because in Pattern of the Tiger, his wife\’s name is Peggy not Theodora). I hoped this one had a lot about the wildlife of India, but I was disappointed in that regard. The author\’s original intention was to re-visit India and see how much it had changed since his childhood there, and to make a rough survey of its wildlife in order to recommend future expeditions to collect mammal specimens for American museums. Fletcher arrived in India not long after the British government had withdrawn its sovereign rule, and he found it in turmoil. There was a lot of political unrest and in many places he felt uneasy staying for long. He travelled through many different regions, especially following suggestions by locals as to where he could view wildlife, stopped in many small isolated villages, visited some areas of neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan, went through Delhi, Kashmir, etc. and ended up in Calcutta. By far he enjoyed his time in the remote areas more than the crowded cities, and I think his wife (who joined him at the end of the trip) agreed. He quickly found that it was difficult to locate any wildlife- and the few glimpses did not produce any satisfactory descriptive writing. It\’s obvious he became far more interested in the situation of the people, and he relates many stories and legends told to him, describing local customs, modes of dress, new foods, interesting individuals he met, travel mishaps and the like for all the areas he went through. He especially compared the culture of Hindus and Muslims- which I learned quite a bit from, even though it isn\’t what I intended to read the book for! I admit when the chapters veered into politics I tended to loose interest and start scanning pages. I was surprised to read about a small area comprising the valleys of Birir, Bhumberat and Rumber, where the Kalosh people lived- Fletcher said they had absolutely no religion or belief system, yet were the happiest (in spite of being very poor) and friendliest people he met on his journeys.

Well, there were a few parts about animals, I will share a few tidbits. He noticed immediately the large numbers of monkeys that swarmed the cities, and learned that they devastated crops on a regular basis, because the Hindus would not kill the monkeys. Amusingly, when a misunderstanding led officials to believe that Fletcher\’s purpose in India was to skin and study mice, people started bringing him cages full of mice they had trapped in their homes. They would not kill the mice themselves (often trapped and relocated them, to no avail) but were happy to hand them over to Fletcher for disposal.

One time sitting outside a house, he saw two yellow-throated martens watching him. He quickly tried to grab his camera, but of course the martens disappeared. Incidentally, the book is graced by many careful illustrations the author made of various people in traditional clothing. I wish he had included more drawings, or some of many photographs he mentions in the text.

I was pleased when I found he wished to meet Jim Corbett, but the famous tiger hunter was absent. Noted that another man who accompanied Fletcher and tried to show him tigers from a jeep, completely scorned the method of tying out a goat as bait to bring a tiger near, which was often Corbett\’s method.

It was rather funny -and probably frustrating- how many times people misunderstood his intentions at being in India, and assumed he was someone important, just because he was a foreigner. He was once cross-examined by a group of tribesman under suspicion of being a spy. On another occasion a general insisted he give an impromptu lecture to his men- something not at all on Fletcher\’s itinerary! but he had to comply. On yet another occasion he was intensely questioned on international politics by the leaders of a community who wanted to know why foreign aid went to India and not Pakistan, and in a final instance he was requested to advise a small town how to rid themselves of rats- which were eating the roots of young trees and crops, destroying them.

I\’ve said a lot here for a book it turns out I didn\’t really care for, overall. It\’s certainly dense with information and interesting descriptions, just not the kind of read that usually holds my interest. It\’s full of recent (to the time) history, politics and local customs. I\’m sure a very worthwhile read, to someone else!

Rating: 2/5                 296 pages, 1954

by Peter Stark

Stark grew up in South West African and lived in Namibia most of his life. He was an accomplished horseman, received strict German training in dressage, and a skilled builder as well. But his true passion was hunting. At a very young age -seven or eight years old- his mother bought him a horse and basically allowed him to wander around the bush by himself with his rifle. He became fascinated with lions and adept at hunting them. Not just to remove lions that were killing people or livestock, but often he went hunting just to see if he could get one. The way he talks about hunting and catching live game (usually young animals) to sell to wildlife dealers, you read between the lines and realize he was a poacher. A renowned one, in fact. He knew the bush very well and was on close terms with the bushmen, able to speak the language of a local tribe, spend days out in the bush and survive off game and plants like they did. He learned from them. Later his skills at hunting and his understanding of the native people served well, when he became a game warden, turning about to protect wildlife in the game reserve, and hunt down the poachers.

So his book is all a retelling of hair-raising incidents, many close calls with lions, elephants and other dangerous animals. I was astonished at how many risky encounters he came out of alive. The man was no doubt very bold and knowledgeable, he led a wild kind of life and obviously loved what he did. He talks about the people he met, adventures they had, run-ins with poachers, frustrations with tourists, love of various dogs he kept over the years, and fine horses. But he also has no qualms mentioning his fierce temper, his need to take revenge on people -and animals- who had shamed or wronged him. He would often track down a lion just to \”teach it a lesson\” and once harassed a pair of lions until they fled into a tree, whereupon he drove under the tree and pulled the lion\’s tail. It defecated on him. I thought he well deserved it. I can\’t say I admire the man very much, his attitude towards animals put me off. He definitely respected the power and intelligence of the lions, but only a few times seemed to actually feel regret at killing them.

The writing is very straightforward, a bit dry- but it\’s an incredible book when you sit down and take in that his stories are all true accounts. I was really interested in the part that describes how he trained bushmen on horses to herd elephants out of farmland when they strayed from the Reserve- very dangerous work that sounded. I felt sad for his wife and children- they are barely mentioned at all, were it not for a few photos of his family in the center pages, I would not have realized he\’d been married at all. I\’m not surprised that at the end of the book he mentioned that he had ignored his family, being all the time in the bush, and his marriage failed. I wonder what kind of tale his wife would have to tell, of raising four children basically on her own.

It\’s a bit amusing, how I came by this title. My husband recently took a trip to Namibia, where he found this book in a shop. He bought the copy in Afrikaans (mine is translated into English by Jan Schaafsma) because he wanted to read it in the original. Back home he was often relating to me surprising stories from the pages, and I was a bit annoyed because it seemed like just the type of book I\’d enjoy myself! So he surprised me, purchased a copy online so I could read it too. Very kind.

Rating: 2/5           223 pages, 2008

by Gerald Durrell

If Durrell really wrote a book about every trip he went on to film or capture wildlife, I am happy there are so many yet for me to read! This one is from earlier in his career, when he was part of making a wildlife documentary for television. With a small film crew and his wife, he spent six months travelling through New Zealand, Australia and Malaysia to look at wildlife conservation efforts in those countries. Of course, having a short time frame in which to find elusive, often very rare animals and get good footage of them, often made for hectic schedules and amusing situations, such as when they captured \”flying lizards\” (gliding lizards in the Draco genus) and released them over and over from the top of a stepladder while the cameraman lay on his back below, to get it on film. Banter among the camera crew and his wife constantly interjecting caution (the cameraman in particular would take alarming risks to get the footage needed) interesting observations on culture and local people in the places they went, make for a lively read. As always, I was most intrigued to read first-hand descriptions of animals in their native habitat (for the most part- a few they saw in captive breeding programs). Some of these included the royal albatross, king shag, takahe, malee (two rare birds), platypus, mudskippers (not rare, but very interesting) and leatherback sea turtle. They witnessed a kangaroo birth and apparently were the second to ever get it on film. (The first footage made, by scientists at a place that studied kangaroos, was deemed unfit for television use). Durrell was apparently quite fond of wombats, but considered koalas to be dim-witted and dull. I wasn\’t aware that black swans were (at the time) considered an invasive species in New Zealand. Durrell makes a continual point how mankind has changed natural landscapes and many species are in danger of extinction. His final chapter is a plea (repeated in most of his books) for people to pay more attention to the needs of wildlife and support conservation efforts. It\’s nice to know most of the conservation programs he visited at the time, have since shown a good success rate.

Rating: 3/5           256 pages, 1966

One Woman\’s Epic Journey by Dog Team
by Pam Flowers and Ann Dixon

Pam Flowers fell in love with the remote, beautifully empty wilderness of the Arctic. She wanted to follow the footsteps of explorer Knud Rasmussen- traveling from Barrow, Alaska to Repulse Bay in Canada- crossing the entire width of the Arctic alone with her team of eight sled dogs. Lots of planning and preparation- training the dogs and herself in endurance, stashing caches of food, shipping supplies ahead to communities she knew she would pass through. Often she stored her items in a school and in return would speak to the students about her trip, about going through whatever it takes to make dreams become reality.

She accomplished her goal, but several times in the journey feared for her life. The cold she and the dogs could deal with, it was the relentless wind during one part of the year, and the early warmth of thaw at other times, that seriously threatened them. They faced whiteouts and early breakup, nearly drowning in attempting to cross a bay when the ice started rotting beneath them. It sounded terrifying. Twice she lost a dog, later her valuable lead dog became ill. They had a frighteningly close encounter with a polar bear, and several times encountered caribou or other wildlife that excited the dogs, causing trouble. Most times passing through native villages she was met with generous hospitality and helping hands, but a few times her visits were unwelcome. Kind of amusing was the time an Eskimo dog followed her out of one village, and wouldn\’t turn back. Later she found out this dog was famous for miles around, had a habit of tagging along behind whatever team came through.

Her story is told in a very straightforward fashion, drawn from brief journal entries I can only imagine she was often too exhausted or cold to write much at the end of a long day\’s travel. Still the vastness of the land and the stark beauty of it that inspired her is palpable. A woman who thrived on solitude, she speaks very fondly of the bond with her dogs. The story of her adventure is further detailed by side texts that describe various facts and history- everything from her daily routine to the effects of wind chill factor, how she planned for storms, what was behind certain abandoned structures she passed on her journey, methods she used compared to the Inuit and other natives, and so on. A very interesting and inspiring account.

Rating: 3/5              120 pages, 2001

by John Muir

This stunning novella is about a walk John Muir took on a glacier, accompanied by a small spitz type \”lap dog\” named Stickeen. Muir was on an exploratory expedition and had been advised not to bring the little dog along, as it was considered by others a \”worthless\” animal. The tough little dog certainly kept to himself, wandering in the woods and catching up to their boat at the very last minute. He was nothing special to Muir until the day they explored the glacier.

I have long admired Muir\’s conservation efforts in helping establish our national parks, but I had no idea he was such an intrepid, adventuresome and daring man. He deliberately walked out onto this glacier in the middle of a raging storm, just for the thrill! went on through wind and driving snow with only the dog as companion, no ropes or special shoes or any other tool than a hatchet it seems. Jumping crevices and nearly getting lost. In the end to make it back to camp, he had to cross a narrow bridge of ice over a deep crevasse and the dog was barely able to follow. It was in the moment of seeing the dog\’s terror at crossing the bridge, and its delirious joy at making the hazardous crossing safely, that Muir realized that Stickeen had more emotion and intelligence in his little furry head than he ever let on. (At the time animals were considered automatons of instinct by most scientists, so this revelation into the dog\’s emotional state felt groundbreaking to Muir). The dog was ever after devoted to him. Sadly, it was stolen from their company shortly after the expedition and he never heard of it again.

I was shocked to read of the dangers Muir faced on the glacier just for the thrill of it. I am astonished they got out of there alive. The writing is wonderfully descriptive, the personality and deportment of the bold little dog vividly drawn. It\’s an amazing piece of writing that anyone who enjoys outdoor adventures or who loves dogs might enjoy. The afterward of the particular copy I read has a timeline highlighting key events in Muir\’s life, which opened my eyes to what an incredible individual he was.

Borrowed from my sister.

Rating: 4/5              73 pages, 1916

by Betty and Jock Leslie-Melville

This is a hilarious, and sometimes sobering, collection of little stories and anecdotes by a couple who ran a private tourist operation in East Africa during the sixties. I\’ve read their book about raising Rothschild giraffe, and apparently they were famous through their other writings because they spent half the year touring in America, giving talks about their life in Kenya and drumming up business, the other half of the year taking people on safari.  The book has kind of an odd beginning- it pitches almost immediately into anecdotal stories about traveling around the States, getting into odd, amusing mishaps. Other parts have just as amusing snippets about their dealings with safari guests, and what life was like in remote, rural Africa. And their complaints about how things changed as it became modernized. The book is solidly placed in its time. Diane Fossey was still alive. There\’s mention of the Adamsons filming stories of their lions, and of Zamba as well. African countries were just gaining their independence from colonialism; in fact several of the final chapters went into great depth about the horrors of apartheid and the \”terrorists\” in Rhodesia, which gave a different view on the local situation as described in Don\’t Let\’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. There is not a lot about wildlife, something I missed as I rather expected it from what I remembered of another book they\’d written. In spite of that I found this one quite entertaining with its sometimes insightful look at people just being people. The friendly, down-to-earth tone reminds me of Betty MacDonald. Of all the many quirky little incidents related, I think my favorite is the one about a man who encountered a chicken in the outhouse, and thought it was a snake. In spite of his misfortune, I laughed so hard.

Rating: 3/5           253 pages, 1973

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