Three off-the-beaten-track travel narratives by women

Posted 6/18/20

"Tracks" by Robyn Davidson and "Shooting the Boh" by Tracy Johnston are among a trio of enjoyable books by women that can satisfy wanderlust in a time of stay-at-home orders and limited travel. by …

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Three off-the-beaten-track travel narratives by women

"Tracks" by Robyn Davidson and "Shooting the Boh" by Tracy Johnston are among a trio of enjoyable books by women that can satisfy wanderlust in a time of stay-at-home orders and limited travel.

by Hugh Gilmore

Got the itch? Want to get away, but your leash is too short? I know the feeling. With my family I usually go to Montreal in time for the summer solstice (June 20 this year). Yes, booked the B & B back in February in order to get our favorite rooms. Yes, applied to renew our expired passports then too. Then this funny little thing called “bug” came along.

Last Friday the hotel emailed to ask if we were still coming. The truth I’d looked away from tumbled out my fingertips as I typed, “Je regrette, etc.” Besides, I said, the border to Canada won’t open until June 21. To top that off, our passports hadn’t arrived. “Don’t feel bad,” a friend in Canada wrote yesterday, “from what I hear, there’s no way that border is opening on the 21st.”

Good, the illusion of choice has been stripped away. Five days later, of course, our new passports arrived. The saddest words, as they say: “What might have been.” I figured it was time for armchair travel. I made a list of some of my favorite contemporary travel/adventure books and then arbitrarily decided to pick three written by women. They are people who “got goin’ while the gettin’ was good.” In no particular order, here they are.

Sara Wheeler’s spellbinding book “Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica” (1997) is my favorite of the half-dozen she’s written. Wheeler, an Englishwoman, is a brilliant, funny and observant writer famed for her polar travel books. She was chosen by the US National Science Foundation to be its first female writer-in-residence at the South Pole. She spent seven months in Antarctica. She interweaves history, geography and biology with her personal experiences of being among the early modern residents of the scientific community in Antarctica. Among other things, her description of life down there includes passages about the eerie and unearthly sounds that icebergs make. They still fascinate and haunt me.   

“Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback,” by Robyn Davidson, was published in 1995 and went on to become a modern classic of travel/adventure lit. She opens with “I experienced that sinking feeling you get when you know you have conned yourself into doing something difficult and there’s no going back.” What she did was walk from Alice Springs in the center of Australia to the Indian Ocean on the west coast, accompanied only by four camels and her dog. When asked why she’d done it, she usually answered, “Why not?” She had no intention of writing about her walk until persuaded to do an article for the National Geographic – which turned out to be one their most popular of all time. From that, “Tracks” followed. Her adventures were many, incredible, and intense. (I loved the movie visually, but it’s polluted by an overdeveloped love interest with Adam Driver, who plays the National G photographer – as though her trek was basically a man/woman romantic love story.)

Not so well known as the other two is Tracy Johnston’s “Shooting the Boh: A Woman’s Voyage Down the Wildest River in Borneo” (1992).  Tracy Johnston was genuinely unprepared for what followed after she accepted free passage on a travel/adventure company’s river run in exchange for writing a story. Fellow adventurers included two American fashion models, a rich Italian and an adventure-seeking Chicago lawyer. The journey was, under any circumstances, dangerous and rough, but it was made horrible by the lack of preparedness of the travel company. Mishap after mishap followed. Every force of nature, including sweat flies, strange companions and the onset of menopause, combined to make her trip miserable. Nonetheless Johnston writes about the trip with a gritty good humor and a gifted eye for detail.

Probably the most enjoyable aspect of all three books is the one essential that all the best travel books have: the journey is actually an exploration and discovery of the traveler’s self as much as it is a movement through space. All three books make for wonderful reading – not just escape, but learning experiences as well.