Great feats of travel


Speaking of “the winter journey” – six weeks of complete darkness and low temperatures (-79F/-62C) and gale-force winds – an experience of which gave him the title for his book The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard reflected on dangerous feats in travel. “Why do some human beings desire with such urgency to do such things regardless of the consequences, voluntarily, conscripted by no one but themselves? No one knows. 

There is a strong urge to conquer the dreadful forces of nature, and perhaps to get consciousness of ourselves, of life, and of the shadowy workings of our human minds. Physical capacity is the only limit.  

Now and then a great feat is forced upon the traveller, as with Captain Bligh’s open-boat voyage of 4,000 miles with 18 men after the mutiny on the Bounty, or Shackleton’s heroic rescue of his men, which necessitated his travelling almost a thousand miles through the Southern Ocean in a freezing lifeboat. But these epics of survival were unintentional.  

There are many other notable travel feats: a man windsurfed across the Atlantic (M Christian Marty, in February 1982); a woman windsurfed across the Indian Ocean (Raphaela Le Gouvello, 60 days in 2006, 3,900 miles, from Exmouth in Western Australia to the island of Réunion); a man skied down Everest in 2000 (the Slovenian Davo Karnicar), and a woman did it in 2006 – Kit DesLauriers, who has also skied down the highest peaks on every continent, including Antarctica. Some of these are admirable, even heroic journeys, and some are stunts; I am mainly interested in travel feats that have resulted in memorable books. 


Walking around the world  

Ffyona Campbell (born 1967), restless, despised by her father, needing approval, feeling rejected, walked the length of Britain from John o’Groats to Land’s End at the age of 16. She followed this up by walking across the United States, coast to coast, becoming pregnant on the way by a member of her back-up team, before getting an abortion in New Mexico; she accepted lifts and lied about that to the press. Later she came clean.  

She also walked across Australia, and through Africa, Cape Town to Tangiers. An amazing, contrary, opinionated, and admirable woman, Campbell recounted her experiences in three books: The Whole Story, On Foot Through Africa, and Feet of Clay.  

She recently described herself (in Outside magazine) as “a retired pedestrian”.  

No picnic on Mount Kenya  

The unusual itinerary in this book clearly illustrates one of the principal motives in travel: the wish to escape from boring, nagging, pestiferous people. That wish can inspire long journeys and ambitious travel feats.  

In 1943, Felice Benuzzi (1910–1988) was bored and irritated with confinement and his annoying fellow Italians in a British prisoner of war camp outside the town of Nanyuki in Kenya. But his mind was on other things. From behind the barbed wire of the camp, Benuzzi had a view of majestic Mount Kenya: “An ethereal mountain emerging from a tossing sea of clouds framed between two dark barracks – a massive blue-black tooth of sheer rock inlaid with azure glaciers, austere, yet floating fairylike on the near horizon. It was the first 17,000-ft peak I had ever seen.”  

A junior colonial officer in Italian-controlled Ethiopia, he had been captured by British soldiers along with thousands of other Italians and imprisoned in the British colony of Kenya. More than a year of imprisonment passed before he was able to choose two fellow prisoners, Giuan and Enzo, for his team. With great ingenuity they made ice-climbing equipment (crampons, axes) out of scrap metal, and they stockpiled warm clothes and food.  

With a copied key and an attitude, they bamboozled the camp guards and broke out, leaving a letter behind for the prison authorities stating their intention and apologising for the bother they might be causing.  

Their climb took them through the lairs of leopards and lions, through dense bamboo forests and fields of lobelia. Enzo was ill; rations were often short; the cold and the necessity to avoid detection were also problems. Yet given the circumstances, they were equipped for the assault on the summit.  

Without a map, they used their judgment and experience of other climbs. They struggled upward, at times in deep snow, blazing their own trail. On one of their climbs they were in the snow and cold for 18 hours. Although they were defeated in their attempt to reach Batian, the highest peak, they summited Point Lenana, 16,300 feet, where they left an Italian flag that was later found.  

After their arduous climb they descended the mountain, returned to the prison camp, and surrendered. The punishment for escaping was 28 days in solitary confinement, but the British camp commandant, saying he “appreciated our sporting effort”, gave them seven days.  


Sailing alone around the world  

Joshua Slocum decided to be the first man to sail single-handedly around the world. He was an experienced sailor – and restless from the time of his youth in Canada, where he had been an inveterate runaway. He found an old 37ft sloop, rebuilt and refitted her, named her Spray, and left in 1895 on his voyage, without a chronometer but using dead reckoning.  

The trip, which took three years and covered 46,000 miles, was full of incident, and Slocum’s account of the voyage, Sailing Alone Around the World (1899), is a well-told book – vivid, detailed, and very funny, right from the beginning, where he says, “I was born in a cold spot, on coldest North Mountain, on a cold February 20, though I am a citizen of the United States – a naturalised Yankee.”  

In the fall of 1909, he left Martha’s Vineyard, intending to sail the Spray to the Amazon. Nothing was heard from him after that – he was lost at sea, presumed to have been sunk after having been hit by a steamer, though he (as always using his self-steering device) was snug in his cabin, reading a book, his normal practice when sailing.