The cult of the writer-adventurer

Barnaby Rogerson is a co-owner of Eland Books and has travelled extensively in North Africa and the Sahara. He has written numerous guidebooks to the region as well as a biography of the Prophet Muhammad. Here, he diagnoses the travel-writing bug

A Russian Foreign Minister once complained to his English opposite number about the British cult of the travel-writing explorer. He tried to explain that when the Russian Empire sent out a spy to explore far distant lands, the subsequent debrief was securely locked up. So how was it that British confidential agents were allowed to publish their reports? Who could be expected to run a cloak and dagger intelligence service in such conditions?

I first stumbled across this story two years ago, when I was digging into adventurer Alexander Burnes’s mission to reach the fabulously remote Emirate of Bokhara. Burnes’s cover for this 1831 escapade was elaborate indeed. His excuse for visiting the Emirate was the delivery of a sumptuous gift from one king to another – giant Suffolk shire horses that were taken up the Indus River by barge.

My publishing company Eland Books draws its lifeblood from the work of writer-explorers, who range from Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, Habsburg ambassador to the 16th-century court of Suleyman the Magnificent, to Martha Gellhorn, the war correspondent and novelist.

To enter the inner pantheon of hero-travellers, however, it is vital to leave behind a stirring book and to die in some corner of a foreign field. Think of Mungo Park (1771–1806), who explored the kingdoms of West Africa alone on foot and then was killed on the river Niger during his second journey of exploration; or Captain Cook, who, having discovered and mapped the islands and coastline of the Pacific, was finally killed in a chance encounter on a beach in Hawaii in 1779. To an extent, it is their deaths while still young that have put the cap of fame securely on the heads of more recent traveller-explorers like Robert Byron, T.E. Lawrence and Bruce Chatwin.

Of course, it’s not necessary to die gloriously to be counted as a traveller not a tourist. But perhaps the desire to report back, be it via book, magazine, travel blog, Flickr feed or Instagram page, is one of the defining features of people seeking more from their journeys than mere luxury. The best travel writing helps us to see how wildly different and yet how fundamentally similar we are, and perhaps that’s why travellers’ tales are so compelling to tell and to hear.

All seasoned travellers follow in the wake of the world’s great writer-adventurers. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

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