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Paul Theroux on Travel Feats

In an excerpt from his new book, The Tao of Travel, writer Paul Theroux explores the motivations behind adventure travel.

May 31, 2011
Author and travel writer Paul Theroux
Author and travel writer Paul Theroux
Illustration by Dave Stevenson

In a recent interview for Four Seasons Magazine, travel writer Paul Theroux offers his take on the meaning of the term “adventure travel.” Some travellers (Theroux excluded) yearn for relaxing vacations, while others prefer group or solo ventures to less-tranquil locales. But what motivates some of us to undertake truly epic feats on our journeys? Read on for Theroux’s thoughts, excerpted from his new book, The Tao of Travel.

Travel Feats
Speaking of “the winter journey”—six weeks of complete darkness and low temperatures (minus 79°F) 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. I have tried to tell how, and when, and where. But why? That is a mystery.”

Maybe there is an answer. When I was preparing to write the introduction to the American edition of Alone, Gérard d’Aboville’s account of his single-handed journey rowing across the Pacific, I pressed d’Aboville on his reasons for making this dangerous voyage. He became silent. After a long while he said, “Only an animal does useful things. An animal gets food, finds a place to sleep, tries to keep comfortable. But I wanted to do something that was not useful—not like an animal at all. Something only a human being would do.”

What separates some feats from others is the way the tale is told. Sir Richard Burton’s book about how he, an infidel, travelled to Mecca in disguise is a classic. After Joshua Slocum sailed around the world alone, he wrote a good book about the experience; so did Aimé Tschiffely, in Tschiffely’s Ride, the story of his trip on horseback from Argentina to New York. Breaking out of a POW camp in Kenya and climbing Mount Kenya would have been a hilarious anecdote, but Felice Benuzzi wrote a detailed account of the feat, and so did Gérard D’Aboville after he rowed across the Pacific Ocean.

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 1,000  miles through the Southern Ocean in a reezing 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 (Raphaëla 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. Kayakers have gone everywhere, across oceans, around Cape Horn, and made ambitious circumnavigations (Japan, Australia, New Zealand). 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.


One Comment about Paul Theroux on Travel Feats

  1. Jean | says:

    Oh dear, I fear my tame travels would bore Mr. Theroux. My travel “feats” run more along the lines of afternoon teas and massages. On holiday, I have no “urge to conguer” anything but stress.

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