This is not the kind of book you should attempt to read in one day. One year would be verging on excessive. The glossy photos, the exotic locales, the relentless hyperbole: too rich, too heady. You risk suffering like one who has taken only dark chocolate or strong coffee for an entire day. However, like those undertaking the actual adventures, sometimes a reader must take a risk.
Circumstance in the shape of a prolapsed disc and a compressed sciatic nerve had rendered the reader prone. But he was, as they say in some circles, time rich. So over the course of a week, with kidneys on the carpet and heels on the couch, he digested more than seventy adventures. The method was dictated by Serendipity. Pain played its part, as did TradeMe.
“TREK CHILE’S TORRES DEL PAINE (wiki image above). A trek around or into the heart of one of the world’s most fantastically shaped mountain ranges.” Gravity had opened the book to page 22. “Brace for the brawn and beauty of nature…with gale force winds spearing ice into your face…” It was brutal that week in Dunedin too. The words and images fortified the reader for his personal trek through towers of pain, to the mailbox.
Monday’s mail: a letter and a smallish bar of dark chocolate from a friend in France. A double surprise: chocolate through the post, a friend in France. The adventures people were having. An idea occurred to the reader as he crawled back along the hall on his knees and elbows, hitched his feet up. France. He thumbed the contents page and turned to page 30.
“TAKE ON THE TOUR DU MONT BLANC (wiki image above). This international route, one of the world’s finest long distance hikes, has sections in France, Italy and Switzerland. The views encapsulate the entire Alpine landscape… the trails take you right to the foot of the towering rock faces and glaciers where alpinism was born. If you take the most strenuous route, it becomes as much as 11000 metres of climbing… the equivalent of Mt. Everest as you circuit this European mountain icon.”
And so the adventures unfold with rigorous consistency, one after the other, within sections: Hike, Dive, Bike, Above and Below (not a religious category), Climb, Ice and Snow, Animals, Water, and Drive. Each four-paged condensation of extreme behaviour in radical landscapes is presented with an eye for concision and aesthetics.Without deviation, you will encounter: prizewinning photographs, a map, a hyperbolic description, essential fact boxes, a select bibliography, and a paragraph titled The Adventure Unfolds which is written in the second person (“You’re suddenly standing in air so crisp and clear it’s as though you’ve stepped into a painting”) so as to stimulate your vicarium glands. It works. At the conclusion of page 33 the reader’s heart was pounding as if he had climbed Mont Blanc. But it may have been the dark chocolate. Sleep was elusive.
Wednesday’s mail: a kilo bag of coffee beans from Vanuatu. The reader had to stuff it up his vest to crawl back up the hall. He sat awkwardly under the grinder and ground a glass jarful. The aroma was anaesthetic. As the stovetop steamed he found something in the contents as close to Vanuatu as possible. Page 58.
“DIVE BIKINI ATOLL (image credit John Stancampiano). Regarded as the ultimate theme park for wreck divers, this former bomb-testing site in the Pacific ocean is littered with the warped wreckage of destroyers, submarines and ripped-open battle cruisers that have been reinvigorated by a stunning array of marine life.” By the end of the adventure the reader’s pulse was racing, but it may have been the Fairtrade coffee. Or the sense of outrage: Though the experts have concluded that “there is no danger of radiation poisoning from swimming in the atoll,” over half a century on from the 23rd detonation on Bikini Atoll, “2000 Bikinians hope that soil scraping will rid this atoll of radiation so they can return home. In the meantime, they await a settlement from the US Government for the destruction of their universe.”
Friday’s mail constituted a pair of second-hand Camper shoes, designed (and up until a few years ago, made) in Spain. The reader lay down, Campers on, and turned to page 110. “PEDAL THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO. For centuries, pilgrims have been foot-slogging their way across Northern Spain to Santiago de Compestela, to pay homage to the remains of the Apostle James. Today a new breed comes on wheels and 27 gears.”
Suppressing his misgivings about aluminium bike frames propped up against the Cathedral’s eleventh century stonework, the reader read on. “Beginning in the border town of Roncesvalles, the ride descends the Pyrenees into the city of Pamplona before crossing the wine region of La Rioja, where fountains dispense wine for pilgrims.”
It appeared to be the first great adventure that didn’t guarantee pain, terror or death. The reader placed a tick in his mental ‘Wouldn’t immediately say no’ column and continued with the remainder of the Bike section, during which he mainly placed ticks in the ‘Not even if you paid me in coffee and cacao beans’ column. By the end of it all, his elevated feet were aching, but it may have been the new old Campers.
On Saturday there was no mail delivery, an eloquent statement about changing communication trends. The reader’s morning lacked direction, until, in the first lucid flush brought on by a line of dark chocolate and a Vanuatuan short black, he recalled that his new old Campers were actually made in China. So he laced them back on, took his by now habitual position, flexed his triceps and turned to page 202.
“SEE PANDAS IN CHINA. We’re going on a beer hunt: clambering up the mountain, sneaking through the bamboo, tracking across the forest, tramping across the snow…following the trail of China’s most iconic and enigmatic but least colourful animal: the giant panda.” There are only 1600 of them still in existence, the reader learned with a heavy heart, and you’d need luck to sight “one of nature’s most beautiful mistakes.” But not as much luck as the giant panda will need to stay alive, the reader almost cried out before recognising that ecological passion would likely reinflame his sciatica. Focus on the photographs.
And truly, the image here of the giant panda, “lounging back, legs akimbo and surrounded by torn bamboo leaves, methodically crunching a a short, sweet stem,” was worth the price of admission to the book. It was also impossible for the reader to ignore his postural kinship with that panda. Substitute bamboo for chocolate and they were brothers. He looked deeply into the panda’s black rimmed eyes. They seemed to ask a question. “How do you feel, reader?” Like I have explored the world at its breathtaking best. Like a great adventurer. Like the planet is a little less lonely.
by Aaron Blaker
Great Adventures: Experience the World at its Breathtaking Best
Published by Lonely Planet Publications