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Books & Reading Other People's Adventures

New Travel & Adventure Books For June 2014

This week sees the publication of two new books that I’ve been eagerly anticipating for several months. Both are written by accomplished and experienced writers who I highly respect; both sit within the category of adventure; yet these two books could barely be more different in theme and content.


Life Cycles by Julian Sayarer

Lifecycles1Julian Sayarer is probably better remembered for the utterly epic post-trip rant he published on his blog than for the feat of athleticism he’d achieved during the previous 169 days of riding.

His words, preserved online since their publication in 2009, were those of a man who — exposed and vulnerable and at 12 miles per hour — had just spent half a year experiencing a vast cross-section of global society, arrived back in London and perceived in a moment of clarity the sheer insanity of mainstream Western society.

Looking for a way to make sense of it, he’d lashed out publicly at the previous record holder, who’d taken the big-corporate sponsorship route to funding his own endeavour and thus represented all that Sayarer saw wrong with the developed world today.

The problem, of course, was that the insanity he’d perceived was one that only he had eyes to see, having earned a perspective almost impossible to gain in any other way than by doing what he’d done. This, together with the demonisation of the sponsored record-breaking rider in question, earned him infamy which doubtless lingers today, as well as the informal moniker of ‘Angry Young Man’.

Life Cycles, published this week by Blake Publishing, begins by acknowledging that while it may have been a slightly rash decision to hit the ‘Publish’ button on the aforementioned article before sleeping on it, there were a great many reasons why things looked that way at the end of the road.

We begin by learning of Julian’s background and upbringing, his deep love for cycling as an escape from the demands of social integration, and his self-identification as a questioner and misfit in a society that seemed blindly off course. We learn of the part the aforementioned record-breaker played in igniting Julian’s reactionary streak:

…it was the final straw… to see the bicycle reduced to no more than a corporate marketing strategy.

And how this spark, combined with the author’s being at a disillusioned loose end in his mid-twenties, set off what would be a self-fulfilling prophecy for his journey:

I was in need of a crusade and, however ridiculous it might sound, a small, embarassing part of me thought that, in beating him, perhaps I could change the world for the better. I suppose, at the very least, it was a worthwhile quest in which to fail.

It seems, perhaps, that the beginnings of the infamous rant were in place before the wheels began to turn. So it will come as a relief to many that Julian’s departure from home also marks a departure from anti-capitalist sentiment — at least, for most of the time — as he reveals himself as a supremely talented wordsmith, weaving an exceptionally succint and poetic tale of the events you’d expect from a long bicycle journey which in other hands would fall flat. Don’t expect a formulaic tale of hardship after hardship overcome; do expect sparkling vignettes of life observed as it passes him by, interspersed with the reflections of a thoughtful idealist who thankfully manages to poke fun at his own indignancy, as in this scene in a brand new Hungarian hypermarket:

Giving up on bread, I make my way to a delicatessen selling pizza and hotdogs. I point at pizza. ‘Ketchup-chilli-muzterd-méjonez?’ she yells. Above her head are four large teats, squeezed by her gloved hand. Down splatter sauces. Shuffling on, I move to another window with chicken legs at a price that guarantees those birds have not led happy lives. I gobble down pizza, lukewarm chicken flesh. She gave me too much méjonez, but all calories are valuable, so I dip chicken bones into surplus méjonez, scoop up a good globule and lick the bone clean, a lollipop of hydrogenated fat. And it’s that, it’s méjonez licked from cheap chicken bones… that’s progress… that’s the future… right there at a French multinational in central Hungary.

This incisive and critical eye, of course, is the one that made his original blog such a refreshing and worthwhile read in a blogosphere swamped with dry, diary-entry-style travelogs about people toddling around the world collecting consumable, commodified experiences. Some will inevitably rile against his tone, his focus and his views; others will be right there with him, wishing they’d both the gall and eloquence to express themselves likewise.

Throughout the story runs an undercurrent of disconnection, of frustration at the unbridgeable gulf between how the long-haul cyclist perceives the world at large and how the world at large perceives the long-haul cyclist. Are the author’s views a beacon of clarity and realism in a world gone utterly mad, or a collection of well-articulated but ultimately abstract rantings in a world that’s getting on with it, despite its various madnesses? Where does Life Cycles figure in its author’s quest to “change the world for the better”? How many traveller-adventurer-writers would put their hands up and say ‘actually, Julian, you’re damn well right’ if they had the bollocks to publicly do so?

I happen to be in a position to see many things through Julian’s eyes, because I’ve been to many of the same places (literally and figuratively). Others may not, and I’d rather not speculate how his tale will read to them. Regardless, Julian’s uncompromising perspective is bound to stir things up (again), and his talent for writing will ensure that he will do so by means of a unique and very worthwhile read.

Life Cycles was released on June 2nd, 2014. Order online via hive.co.uk with free delivery or collection from your local independent bookshop.


Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys

This week I finally made it into every decent bookshop in the UK and became an Amazon UK Bestseller… as a small, unidentifiable bearded bloke on the back cover of Al Humphreys’ superb-looking new book, Microadventures.

For those familiar with his long-running blog, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that this new offering, published today by Harper Collins, is every bit as on the money as his previous books. If you took everything Al’s done with the ‘microadventure’ concept over the last couple of years — including the immaculate photos and short films his own excursions have engendered — and boiled them down over your beer-can stove into a rich, well-seasoned reduction of adventurey goodness, this book is what you’d find at the bottom of your hard-anodized titanium saucepan.

If you’re not yet initiated, the #microadventure concept simply reduces ‘outdoor pursuits’ from specialist hobbies requiring time, skill, preparation and money (i.e. something you never get round to actually doing) to the simple act of going outdoors and pursuing something — whether it’s a daft idea to cycle from your mum’s birthplace to your dad’s, to walk from the highest point in your county to the lowest, or any number of other arbitrary concepts that aren’t actually the point at all. You use the time you already have available if you bother to use it — the 5‑to‑9 in between your 9‑to‑5; the three full nights’ wild camping you can squeeze into a normal weekend.

The point of Al’s new book, I feel, is to prompt you to stop making excuses and get out there doing this kind of stuff already. After leafing through the first part of this full-colour paperback, packed full of Al’s own excursions in the UK (including a couple of cameos from yours truly), you’re bound to be inspired to do something, else risk missing out on all the good old fashioned fun that people like Al are obviously already having. In the second part, you’ll find you’ll be given the tools and starting points to go on a few microadventures of your own.

For me, it’s the photos as much as the words that make this book a success: it is not a linear narrative, but a book to leaf through, see something that catches your eye (and there’s a lot to catch your eye), and dive into the text to see what it’s all about. Al’s photography skills are superb and they shine in both quality and quantity in this book.

It’s worth mentioning, also, that getting a book like this put out by one of the world’s biggest publishers is a huge coup for a previously self-published indie author who hasn’t had a helping hand, pushy agent or stroke of luck to get to where he’s got to: just self-belief and hard graft. And to think it all began with a little idea to cycle round the world…

Microadventures is released today, June 5th 2014, and is available from Amazon UK in paperback* and Kindle* editions, as well as a special iBook edition for the iPad.

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Books & Reading

6 Books That Inspired All These Adventures To Begin

Adventuring never came naturally to me.

When I was younger, to say that I was untalented at sports would be a kind understatement. I never went camping because of the one time my parents tried it and it rained. I wasn’t allowed to join the Scouts because of paedophiles. As a student I joined the TA to make up for it but failed to see out the first year. My list of potential career paths has included computer programmer, disc jockey, hotel manager, lighting designer, barista, ski guide, yardie, carpenter, pot-washer and shit-shoveller — but nothing resembling ‘adventurer’.

(Perhaps it was this unenviable list of prospective futures that I was trying to escape?)

Yet, somewhere along the line, a few seeds were sown that seem to have germinated into the only thing I’ve ever been able to call a career. Being someone who reads for escapism, I believe that most of those seeds were sown by books. Here are some of them.

Note that these are not necessarily ‘good’ books. I don’t suggest anyone buy them in anticipation of planning their own adventures. It’s just a collection of the books that I happened to read — long before I knew that ‘cycle touring’ existed as an actual thing.

* * *

1. The Smugglers’ Caves by Enid Blyton

smugglers cavesI read the usual complement of now-rather-imperialistic-sounding adventure stories as a child. For whatever reason, this is the one that stands out most clearly. I might conveniently romanticise history by suggesting that they inspired a spirit of healthy curiosity towards the unknown.

2. The SAS Survival Guide by John ‘Lofty’ Wiseman

1638652A very old edition of this classic Collins Gem was always on the bookshelf at my mate Andy’s house. Flicking through the little pages of advice on surviving mortally dangerous situations never failed to implant dreams of macho heroics (and corresponding success with women) into the minds of two teenage boys. Probably responsible for the presence of brass rabbit snares in my original kit-list for a cycling trip.

3. The Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook by Stephen Lord

adventure-cycle-touring-handbookBlackwells, Southside, Edinburgh, summer 2006. The bottom shelf of the travel section. It was from this book that I first learned that cycling across whole countries had actually already been done, and that at the age of 23 I wasn’t the first person to have the idea. So mind-blowing was the discovery that I ended up taking a Stanley knife to it and packing the middle third of the book in my panniers as inspiration for when the going got tough. (The author later told me that this was ridiculous.)

4. Off The Rails by Tim Cope and Chris Hatherly

9781408852552The first book I ever read about a long bicycle journey was this one, co-authored by two hapless Aussies who rode recumbent bikes from Moscow to Beijing, almost coming a cropper on several occasions, at all times appearing to be hopelessly naive and unprepared for what they were doing, but doing it anyway. The co-authored narrative was flawed, but the sentiment of the trip was a tipping point.

5. Pedalling To Hawaii by Stevie Smith

pedallingTipping point reached; local libraries raided — uncovering the tale of two argumentative testosterone-fuelled Englishmen whoe decide to circumnavigate the world by human power and build an ocean-going pedalo to do it. One decides that one continent, one and a half oceans and a ruined friendship is quite enough, thanks, and writes this book. (The other, Jason Lewis, continues for another decade or so and completes the project alone.) A highly memorable book that showed me what kind of a trip I didn’t want to do.

6. Moods Of Future Joys by Alastair Humphreys

moods-of-future-joysNo list of books that inspired a big bike ride would be complete without Alastair’s colourful modern-day classic; the tale of a young middle-class Brit with nothing better to do and a penchant for setting ludicrous goals to entertain himself — such as cycling the length of all the world’s major landmasses. I came across this excellently-written book about half-way through the planning of my own Big Trip, and it prompted a serious increase in anticipated mileage and a prolonged feeling of inferiority for failing to ever reach it.

# # #

Whenever I’m concerned that Internet-age information overload is in danger of clouding my decisions and unhelpfully influencing my current direction, I find it helps to look back and consider why I followed the road that let to here. It’s a good reminder of the priorities that make these journeys my own, rather than imitations of somebody else’s.

What past influences have led you down this adventurous path? Feel free to include links when posting your answers in the comments section.

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Books & Reading Other People's Adventures Product Launches

Walking Home From Mongolia by Rob Lilwall [Book Review]

walking-home-from-mongolia

Rob Lilwall’s second book, Walking Home From Mongolia, is a strange yet compelling beast.

It is, on the face of it, a linear account of an extremely long and admittedly monotonous walk across the full breadth of mainland China. Rob positions the story deliberately as a sequel to his Cycling Home From Siberia* book of some years ago. As with Siberia, the journey will begin somewhere dauntingly remote; rules few in number but clear in scope are set; and in declaring a final destination of Rob’s home in Hong Kong the foundations are laid for a simple, gruelling adventure.

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Books & Reading

5 Top Reads From Last Year

I’ve been reading through some of the older posts I made while on the road in the Middle East and Africa. Let’s face it, they’re far more interesting than the practical advice I’ve been trying to dish out recently — you can’t beat a bit of vicarious adventure! And this was one of the most fascinating and challenging periods of my life.

Take a look at the most popular reads from this time last year, which I’ve just updated with plenty of photographs:

  1. Along The Egyptian Nile To Luxor
    How tough it is to fully escape Egypt’s tourist trail, and the rewards of doing so
  2. Biking The Nubian Desert
    Trying to find adventure in an intensely remote, spiritual and unforgiving part of the Sahara
  3. Ethiopia — No Pain, No Gain
    A truly mind-boggling ride through one of the most idiosyncratic places on earth
  4. Trying To Ride Through Yemen And Failing
    Security scares in a troubled nation result in me and a truckful of soldiers blasting through the desert at 150kmph
  5. A Final Push To Dubai
    Braving the outrageous midsummer heat of the southern Arabian deserts
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Books & Reading Planning & Logistics Product Launches

The Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook

One of the most valuable resources I had when preparing to make the leap and begin cycle touring was the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook*.

In fact, I’d say that it’s responsible for my ideas becoming anything more than just ideas.