From adrenaline-packed adventure to heart-wrenching sadness, these are the 7 best travel books I’ve ever read. If you’re not rushing to pack your case after reading these, you probably aren’t alive.
When it comes to books, they have to be pretty damn exciting for me to continue reading them past the first few pages. Especially travel books.
Maybe my attention span is short because I’ve done magic mushrooms in the desert before, been swept away by currents at sea, or been held to ransom by corrupt police & mafia. I guess you could say my expectations are quite high.
But these 7, in particular, have stood out over the years and evoked both excitement and sadness in equal measure.
Many are a testament to the indomitable human spirit, others a blight on how cruel we can be to each other. But one thing is for certain, they are bound to leave a profound impact on you by the time you’ve finished reading them.
Ex-marine Phil Hardwood’s epic source-to-sea descent of the Congo river is undoubtedly the most courageous adventure book I‘ve ever had the privilege to read. A man with massive balls and exemplary principles, he paddled head on to aggressive hippos and crocs, corrupt warlords and even cannibalistic tribes. Unperturbed by constant threats and harassment in one of Africa’s most volatile regions, he survived malaria, arrest, and deadly river rapids to finally complete his life goal after 5 months. Just try to imagine the scene for a second: a middle-aged white man paddling a canoe through one of the poorest and deprived countries in the world, and it gives you an insight into Phil’s incredible mental strength to have completed this journey.
Joe Simpson & Simon Yates’s nearly fatal climb of the Peruvian Andes is one of the most shocking and gripping adventure books you will ever lay your hands on. A short read, this book pushes the test of friendship to the point of life-or-death, and their harrowing ordeal upon surviving the descent is a testament to the bravery and spirit of both men. If you’re curious what would happen if two mountaineers would do if they broke nearly every bone in their body’s upon a 6,000-metre mountain in extreme weather conditions, then read this book. The ending is a shocker.
The Railway Man is Eric Lomax’s a story of his torturous capture by the Japanese during the Second World War. Sentenced to work on the notorious Death Railway in Burma & Siam, his story of innocence betrayed reveals the full horrors of the war in shocking detail. Emotionally scarred for the rest of his life, over 50 years later he was able to face his captors once again face-to-face. While this book may not be a conventional ‘travel book’ per say, it is still a young man’s adventure in his own right, back when the world was very different to how it is now.
I’ve probably read over a dozen books about prisoners locked up abroad, but this one is by far my favourite. Young British drug-dealer Thomas McFadden reveals in full detail his shocking stay at Bolivia’s most notorious prison, San Pedro. Forced to pay for his own cell, Thomas not only survived the worst of South America’s penal system, he arguably thrived in it. Running a cocaine-racket from his own cell, McFadden immerses you into an at times, an emotionally uplifting story of triumph over adversity, and the power of adaptation to your environment. He was once featured in the Lonely Planet’s guide book for giving out prison tours during his stay. Eventually, he got out, but not before he lost part of his soul to drugs. This one is a real page-turner.
The subtitle to Free Country is: “A Penniless Adventure the Length of Britain”, and that’s exactly what it is. A British classic, two young chaps, George & Ben, set off on a challenge to cover the whole distance of the UK without a single penny – or item of clothing except boxer shorts – to their name. They did it, and their story is hilarious and uplifting in equal measure. If you’re British, this one will either make you homesick or appreciate the country so much more. If you’re not, it’ll have you booking the next available plane ticket over to lap up the same laughs and hospitality these lads had.
There are a lot of spiritually uplifting books on this list, but Henri Charriere’s story is perhaps the greatest story of human endurance ever told. A world renowned classic, Henri was sentenced to life imprisonment in the penal colony of French Guiana. He made several attempts to escape throughout his incarceration and probably explored more of the world back in the early 20th century than most Millennials do today. Sailing to exotic South American islands, seducing prison guards wives, and eventually settling in Venezuela upon his final escape. Pappilon is a bit of everything, and then more.
While it’s another on this list which may not be classed as a conventional travel book, it’s one that will certainly get you flocking to Israel as soon as you finish it. Israeli journalist Ari Shavit explores the triumph and tragedy of modern-day Israel in a way you’ve never heard it before. Scrupulously objective, Shavit provides both a stunning case for and against his homeland, unafraid to tackle hard questions on the Palestinian crisis, as well as the existential threats Israel faces both now and in the future. It’s an incredibly moving book, but also one that is deeply fascinating in order to understanding how Israel came to be, as well as what it probably will turn out to be in the future.
One thing that struck me recounting my list is that none of the stories were written by women. Perhaps men are just more naturally fearless and adventurous than our female counterparts? Or maybe I’m just naive and haven’t been exposed to any epic travel books crafted by women. Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what your favourite travel books, so please share them with me below and let me know if you’ve already read any of mine!