‘Why did you walk from Cajamara?’ Dervla Murphy is asked towards the end of Eight Feet in the Andes. ‘It is a long way and the roads are bad. It is possible to fly from Cajamara ... to Cuzco. It is not necessary to walk.’ The speaker has hit upon a truth about modern travellers. They are not tracing a route from the known to the unknown. Their motives for travelling are varied and often oblique. Ms Murphy’s admission that ‘our treks are just playing at hardship’ in no way lessens the skill and satisfaction of her book. It records a journey with her nine-year-old daughter, Rachael, and a mule along the route taken by Pizarro in his conquest of Peru. Hardship is played to the hilt. Ms Murphy is a traveller in the classic style: moving at the pace of a beast, reliant for food on the land she passes through, entering so far as she is permitted into the lives of the peoples she meets. Her book takes the form of a journal, written up at the end of each day’s march. The immediacy of events is preserved. The wider issues of this ‘static, stylised, almost moribund culture’ are discussed as the day’s events draw them to her notice: the poverty and apathy of the sierra people and their sense of alienation from the central government, ‘the sloth and greed of the native Peruvian clergy’, the national inferiority complex, the cultural divide that causes one young man to say: ‘There is no room in Peru for two races whose minds have never met after 450 years of sharing the same country.’
Above all, there is no assurance that the next day won’t bring disaster, and so Ms Murphy’s readers are never denied that vicarious anxiety which is one of this genre’s greatest pleasures. Will they manage to coax the mule over the next precarious bridge? Will there be fodder in the next village? Is the approaching figure friendly or hostile? Ms Murphy’s sturdy adaptability almost diminishes this pleasure. If circumstances demand, she will not hesitate to use the saucepan as a chamber pot, or settle down to sleep on the floor of a bar with hens perching on her legs. Even when drunken campesinos flash their torches in her face and examine her papers, it is impossible to fear for her. But the child and the mule lend her vulnerability. Both are touching in their trust, and their inability to imagine harm deepens the reader’s concern for them. At the end of a day when, sustained only by a rusty tin of sardines, they have endured icy wind, hail and rain, and been menaced by a peasant family with a huge black dog, whose ponies kick the mule, Rachael writes in her diary: ‘I think this is the best day yet, though every day seems better and better.’ She has no doubt that the long slow route is amply justified. The reader is bound to agree.
Dame Margery Perham’s West African Passage was compiled from letters written in the 1930s. The purpose of her tour was to collect material for her classic Native Administration in Nigeria. Primarily she went to explore not a country but a system of government. The bewildering diversity of Nigeria and the task its administrators faced stay in the mind in sharp images. She visits Muslim courts where the judges recline, apparently less washed than the plaintives. An immaculately robed accountant assures her that his adding machine is run by a devil inside it. She watches dull-eyed schoolboys being forced through the English public examination system. Most memorable is the scene in the audience chamber of the Emir of Sokoto, where the policy of indirect rule is seen in action.
It was a wise decision to refuse to edit out the attitudes and expressions of the Thirties: the book provides a picture of a country and a vanished colonial society untinged by hindsight. Of the many people she observed the most ephemeral proved to be the British officials. Watching them stride like gods between rows of prostrating figures in the market-place, she wonders when the ‘proud assertive Nigerians’ will call our bluff. At Dikwa her English host was so appalled at the prospect of her visit that she found him paralytically drunk. Yet there was much to be said for one’s own kind. In Chad she was to discover that, for all their realistic and intimate knowledge of the people they governed (gained, it was rumoured, from their native mistresses), the French officials were sometimes ill-shaven and half-clad in their pyjamas. How difficult it was to work with people who did not speak one’s own language, who had not been to Oxford; how reassuring, when benighted on a seemingly endless stretch of bush, for the headlights to glint suddenly on a starched white shirt-front and a monocle.
Trevor Fishlock was until recently the Times correspondent on the Indian subcontinent. The observations that make up his highly informative India File are not strung along the thread of a journey but grouped together under subjects. Some of the least obvious provide the most enjoyment: the cinema, arranged marriages, bandits, tigers, the British legacy of puddings. The traveller himself is kept scrupulously out of sight. Whatever his point of view, whether he is gazing up at the forty-foot chariot of the great god Juggernaut or peering down a laparoscope at the sealed fallopian tubes of a patient in a sterilisation unit, Mr Fishlock remains invisible. There are few invitations to share an individual experience. We are offered a wide range of telling statistics, scrupulously quoted comment, convincing analysis. The great contradictions are laid before us: the expended Computer tape carried away in an ox cart, the extremes of wealth and poverty, of asceticism and avarice. Perhaps this is the only way to approach a subject so immense. To assimilate it through a single point of view must distort. The opening text is taken from Mrs Gandhi: ‘This is the secret of India, the acceptance of life in all its fullness, the good and the evil.’
Much that is dispassionately revealed is difficult to accept: the near-breakdown of the legal system, the living conditions on the city pavements, the position of women and the rural poor. Nevertheless, Mr Fishlock finds grounds for optimism. The great throngs he keeps constantly before the reader’s eye are living out their attempt at mass democracy in the open. In a country endlessly divided by caste, race and creed, the very overcrowding of the cities is beginning to wear away the barriers. The struggle to survive produces great human variety and ingenuity, and at times a marvellously direct approach to its problems. Resistance to the felling of trees takes the form of villagers hugging them in the face of hatchets and chainsaws. A bemused British diplomat finds a messenger helping a monkey to a cup of tea in the stately corridors of the secretariat at Delhi. ‘Why?’ he asks. The messenger replies with simple gravity: ‘The monkey is sick, sahib, so we are giving it tea to make it better.’
Castaway is an account of a year spent playing at survival on a desert island in the Torres Straits between Australia and New Guinea. ‘G’, the originator of this scheme, had advertised in a newspaper for a ‘wife’. The author was the winning applicant. Survival was to prove no easy game: before the year was out the couple had endured bitter dissension and near-starvation. We hear little of G’s opinions.
His vocabulary appears more limited than Man Friday’s and far less edifying. Ms Irvine, however, tells her tale unflinchingly. Her attitudes are strictly for the Eighties. On arrival they fling off their clothes and experience the ‘sudden shock of freedom ... anything could happen.’ Little does. There is a threat of crocodiles in the undergrowth but hone appear. Nevertheless, the oddity of the situation gives this tale interest, as do Ms Irvine’s comments on the effects of isolation and the confused motives of escapism.
What after all do they escape? Ms Irvine later admits that her real quest was for the limited options and distinct boundaries an island provides. Yet however much she may rhapsodise about her love for the place, it is the landscape of her own body which dominates this book. By its alterations she gauges what is happening to her. Its sensations dictate her morality. Ironically, the pair’s marital difficulties are only resolved when ‘G’ takes a nine-to-five job mending machinery on a neighbouring island. Although Ms Irvine denies it, it is tempting to recognise a note of contentment when she writes: ‘At the end of the day I would have a fire lit and the billy boiling as soon as the distant speck of G’s borrowed dinghy appeared to the west of Wia island.’ Ultimately it is liberation she escapes from. ‘The little woman inside’ triumphs even in paradise.
In In Search of the Sahara Mr Quentin Crewe and his friends appear to be milling about the void in search of the void itself. Inevitably they raise the dust of the heroic trans-Saharan crossings of the last century, and this only accentuates the modern lack of urgency and quest or, indeed, of any discernible purpose beyond the writing of a book. Nevertheless, Tim Beddow’s photographs are beautiful and Mr Crewe makes a genial and intelligent travelling companion who wisely fills in the intervals of his motorised crossing with anecdotes of the more romantic travellers of the past. His contacts with the desert dwellers of the present are less satisfactory. ‘At the end of the meal,’ he reports, ‘I realised that the chef had managed to tell us virtually nothing about his life or the life of the village.’ It is difficult not to feel that the Sahara eluded Mr Crewe, for all his jealous searching. Perhaps the greatest danger the modern travel writer has to face is the reader’s sudden loss of faith in the idea that his trip was really necessary.