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Making ‘Tracks’ in Australia

Tracks, a film based on Robyn Davidson’s 2,000-mile walk in 1977 from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, with four camels and a dog, is already being screened in cinemas throughout Australia and is due to open shortly in Britain. It’s that rare thing: a film of a book of which the book’s author heartily approves. That may be partly because the film-makers make no attempt to clear up a mystery that remained at the end of Davidson’s own account: what prompted her to embark on such a trek in the first place.

The Griffith Review, an Australian quarterly I’ve only just discovered online, has been prompted by the film’s release to direct its readers to its archive, and a moving piece Davidson wrote in 2006 on her return to Darwin. It runs to nearly 6,000 words, so print out the PDF and enjoy it away from the screen.

In the same edition of the Griffith Review, David Malouf tells how his novella Fly Away Peter was inspired by his finding an “exotic” landscape close to home.

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Hank Lentfer and the wisdom of sound

In a previous post, I reported on the work of Hank Lentfer, who is halfway through a two-year project to record the sounds of nature in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. He has written a lovely piece for the website of the Centre for Humans and Nature on what he has learnt so far: “Within the squawks of ravens, trumpets of whales, skittering of murrelets  and ripples of salmon is one compelling, absorbing, gorgeous, ever-changing, never-ending invitation to pay attention.”

You can read the piece on the website or, better still, listen to him read it on the soundfile below.

Macfarlane and Solnit on nature writing

I’ve mentioned before here the US environmental magazine Orion. It’s dedicated to  what its editor, Jennifer Sahn, calls “the most fundamental of all relationships – the relationship between us and the rest of nature”. Sahn was joined recently by Robert Macfarlane and Rebecca Solnit for a discussion of  nature writing and how it’s evolving. It’s a conversation that will be of interest to all those who enjoy reading as much as they enjoy travel — all readers of Deskbound Traveller, in other words.

Macfarlane is a familiar name to British readers, Solnit perhaps less so, though she’s a regular contributor to the London Review of Books. If you’ve not read her work before, try her tremendous piece on the “post-American landscape” of  Detroit,  written for Harper’s Magazine before the city filed for bankruptcy.

The cover of the current print issue of Orion is a photograph of an artwork by Martin Hill, a sculptor who borrows his materials from nature. If you’ve got a spare seven-and-a-half minutes, treat yourself to the video of how he and Philippa Jones created their “Watershed Project”.

Riding ‘the Beast’ through Mexico: a journey for the desperate

Nine times out of 10, a piece of travel writing will be an encouragement to go where the writer has gone. Not this time. This week, I’m publishing an extract from The Beast by Óscar Martínez (Verso), his searing account of the journey made through Mexico every year by hundreds of thousands of Central Americans intent on una vida mejor — a better life — in the United States. For many, that journey ends in death. I’ve already reviewed Martínez’s book, which is an exceptionally courageous piece of reporting and extremely well written. Read the extract and, if you’re as impressed as I was, buy the book (preferably from an independent bookseller).

‘A sense of place’ at Daunt Books

How can a writer best capture a sense of place? That question, which is one of the preoccupations of Deskbound Traveller, will be addressed by both travel writers and novelists in a session at the first Daunt Books Festival, to be held by the London bookseller at the end of next month. On the panel will be Colin Thubron, who has written half a dozen novels but is probably best known for travel books including Among the Russians and To a Mountain in Tibet; Barnaby Rogerson, a travel writer himself and publisher at Eland Books, home of travel classics; Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, that conjuring of 17th-century Delft; and Mahesh Rao, who lives in Mysore, India, setting for his debut novel The Smoke is Rising, which Daunt Books is due to publish in March.

The festival will be held on March 27 (Thursday) and March 28 at Daunt’s Marylebone branch, a lovely place in itself with its oak galleries and stained-glass windows. Tickets for the “Capturing a sense of place” session, from 8.30 to 9.30pm on March 28, cost £5 including a glass of wine. For details and other festival highlights, see the Daunt Books website.

Ocean to ocean across South America

“Near evening I took a walk for a couple of miles along the highway. I spotted a woman carrying an enormous cloth bundle, which she laid out on the gravel shoulder of the road. Inside the bundle was a load of recently harvested quinoa, which she spread out on her cloth. Then she waited. Within minutes, a large fuel truck whooshed by. The wind from the tyres blew over her pile, separating the light chaff from the heavier grain… The Interoceanic, it seemed, was not wholly without local benefits.” Monte Reel, for The New York Times Magazine, travels more than 3,000 miles by bus along the recently completed Interoceanic Highway, through the green heart of South America from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Lima, Peru. In its annual “Voyages” issue, the magazine also has a piece on a “journey to the centre of the world” – the town of Felicity, California, which has sprouted from one man’s imagination.

Nappies on – and into space

Some time this year, Sir Richard Branson promises, tourists will start taking off in Virgin Galactic SpaceshipTwo. Having paid either £125,000 (the early bookers) or £155,000, they can expect a two-hour trip that includes five minutes of weightlessness. What they can’t expect, according to a revealing piece by Jon Ronson in Guardian Weekend, is anything in the way of in-flight services or even access to a lavatory. “Every passenger will be required to wear a special astronaut nappy, or maximum-absorbency garment, under his or her flight suit, which hasn’t yet been designed.”

Bringing West Africa a little nearer

Deskbound Traveller is here to draw attention to the best in narrative travel writing — including writing that, in journalistic terms, has passed its sell-by date. The media’s attention span is short; if a book hasn’t been given space within the month (sometimes the week) of its publication, it’s unlikely to be given space at all. I don’t think Mark Weston’s The Ringtone and the Drum got the attention it deserved on its publication in Britain in October 2012. But then that’s partly my fault: short of reading time, and far from short of pieces from Africa, I glanced at it when a review copy came in to Telegraph Travel, and then put it on a shelf. It stayed there until I was having a clear-out last Christmas, dipped into it, and carried on reading. It’s a book about the far reaches of West Africa, a part of the world which, as Weston reminds us in his first chapter, is “nobody’s idea of a dream holiday destination”. A child there is fortunate to be born without losing its mother, to reach its first birthday and to survive a cold.

What keeps people going in such places? How do they not only keep body and soul together but maintain poise and spirit and summon the energy to make music? Weston, despite having spent years working in developing countries, decided that he didn’t really know, so he set off to find out, travelling through Guinea-Bisseau, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso, three of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world, to document the daily round. “I felt I needed a deeper understanding of this neglected corner of the planet,” he says, “and thought that perhaps, by writing about it, I might help bring its inhabitants’ lives a little closer to ours.” In The Ringtone and the Drum, he does just that. You can read an extract under “New writing”.

Highlights of a week in travel

Of the tens of thousands of words by travel writers I’ve read in the past week, this passage from Peter Hughes was my favourite:

“The thrill of Armenia’s churches comes not so much from their ancient masonry or antiquities but from their energy as fervent power plants, steeped in the certainties and rituals of the faith they have kept for more than 1,000 years. At Geghard monastery, a Unesco World Heritage site, two churches have been cut into rock. A monk billowed in, enveloped in a cloud of incense and irritation. He swung his rattling censer with the urgency of one fumigating the place against a dangerous outbreak of doubt.”

You can read the whole piece, about Hughes’s journey through both Armenia and Georgia, at Telegraph Travel. Another highlight, again from Telegraph Travel: Fionnuala McHugh,  in China, cruising through the Three Gorges region, a “riverine version of nesting dolls”.