Monday musings on Australian literature: Some Australian travel writing

At luggage carousels one can question travelling (Donald Horne, The intelligent tourist)

Having just returned from our trip to Hong Kong, I thought this would be a good opportunity to post about some Australian travel writing. Hmm … good idea, but where to start? The first problem is that while I usually enjoy travel literature when I read it, I don’t read it often. And the second one is the focus: should I post on Australians writing about travel or on anyone writing about travel in Australia? I’ve decided on the former, which means that while the writers will be Australian, their subjects will not necessarily be so. Travel writers, as you probably know, are a varied lot: some only write travel, but many are novelists, journalists and other sorts of writers who have, for some reason, written travel books.

To keep it simple, I’ve chosen 3 fairly recent examples that represent different types of travel writing.

1. Robyn Davidson‘s Tracks (1995)

Robyn Davidson has to be the Australian travel writer most contemporary Australians would first think of when asked. Tracks is Davidson’s first travel book and it chronicles her 1,700-mile trek across the central and west Australian deserts using camels. It resulted in her being dubbed “The camel lady”. It also resulted in her developing a fascination for deserts and nomadic life, and in 2006 she wrote an essay titled “No fixed address” for the Quarterly Essay. Her book is an example of what I would call adventure travel literature. There are many more examples of this type – from walkers, sailors, mountaineers and so on.

2. Thomas Keneally‘s The place where souls are born (1992)

Monument Valley

In Monument Valley, one of the areas that inspired Keneally

Australian novelist Keneally’s book is about the American southwest. It is one of my favourite pieces of travel writing because I lived (and travelled) in the area for three years and fell in love with it, and because Keneally writes about it so evocatively. He matches criticism with reverence, and shares the area’s history and culture with us alongside his own personal reaction to it. What more  do we want in travel writing? This book is from Jan Morris‘s Destinations series. Keneally says he considered Sudan (“that bitter, lovely republic”) and Australia before settling on the Southwest. He sees the Southwest the same way I do, as being different (“the space of enormous elevations of mountains, of canyons deep enough to make the brain creep and waver”) from Australia but also similar. He says:

An Australian has to keep on referring to the snow and the heights to remind himself that this is not some town in western New South Wales. It is as if similar passions have run through the earth’s crust and core and made an organic link between the two places.

I’d put this in the category of traditional travel literature – it’s both descriptive and reflective of place and people, and it shows what is individual to the place in question while also revealing the universals. He concludes the book with:

But, in the spirit of the book, it is the chanting [from the Pueblo] we fix on, going away with it more or less in our ears. I take to the road strangely assured that someone is singing for us, celebrating matters we have got out of the way of celebrating for ourselves. The eternity of things. Even of our own spirits.

3. Don Watson‘s American journeys (2008)

Don Watson has impeccable writing credentials. Not only has he written about cant, jargon and weasel words in Death sentence and Watson’s dictionary of weasel words but, with American journeys, which covers his travels in America, post-Hurricane Katrina, he won the Age Book of the Year and the Walkley Award for best non-fiction book. “To journey in America,” he says, “is to journey in language”. While the book is a little repetitive at times – because the same issues keep cropping up as he travels – it captures the paradox that is America. He sees how its wonderful can-do-ism is offset by a focus on individualism that refuses to see that sometimes individualism needs to be over-ridden for the common good, that there are some things that government should do to ensure that all its citizens are well cared for.  Katrina ably demonstrated this. Watson says:

… if it is true that private businesses are efficient because it is in their nature to seek and maximise profit – which is to say their self-interest – then the pursuit of the public interest is not in their nature, and one may as well look to a rattlesnake for kindness as to corporations for the rebuilding of a city full of people. It is pointless; and it follows that it’s just as pointless to imagine that a country governed by the principle of private interest is capable of fixing problems in the public interest – be they local, like New Orleans; national, like poverty; or global, like the environment or peace …

He goes on to say that while American churches, corporations and the nation as a whole

do good and selfless works at home and abroad, it is also true that, in these days of culture wars, the idea of government being the principal agent of such works is faded. That is what New Orleans revealed …

Watson’s book is in a category I’d call socio-political travel literature. This sort of writing tries to understand how a society works, what makes it what it is.

The travel writing I like best:

  • is generous towards its subject matter, that is, it doesn’t whitewash the negatives but neither does it refuse to understand them
  • uses language that captures my imagination
  • has a sense of humour (though not necessarily laugh-out-loud funny)
  • illuminates place and people – that is, it looks beyond the clichés

In his book The intelligent tourist, Donald Horne (known to most Australians as the author of The lucky country and The education of young Donald), suggests that tourists “give up sight-seeing for sight-experiencing“.  This sense of “experience” is what I look for in travel writing – as well as in my own travelling.

Do you have favourite pieces of travel writing?

12 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Some Australian travel writing

  1. I love reading H. V. Morton. He’s been dead for many years now, but his books still resonate. I read In Search of London (which he wrote post war) before my first trip there as an adult and found it moving to read about the city of my birthplace as it was when I was a child too small to understand why there were vacant house blocks in the middle of a city. I read A Traveller in Italy before my 2005 and A Stranger in Spain before my recent travels. Even though these books are out of date, they are still wonderful to read because he chats to the locals and picks up all sorts of fascinating information. I think he fulfils your four criteria.

  2. Oh my, this is one of my favourite subjects….before I left Australia to travel and live abroad it was all I read, as if reading about other people’s adventures would inspire me to start living my own…it worked!

    Some of my favourites are:

    True Pleasures: A Memoir of Women in Paris by Lucinda Holdforth. Holdforth was speech writer for the Labour government in the early and mid 1990s, and came to a bit of a crossroads in her life where she was in search of more pleasure and fulfilment….what better city to explore this than Paris! It’s part travelogue, part biography as she intersperses tales of her own discoveries with those of other women who lived in and travelled to the city before her – Colette, Nancy Mitford, Chanel…I have not read it for years as I loaned it to a friend who was about to go there (before I did) but would love to read it again.

    Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner – very funny, very absorbing travelogue as Weiner travels to various parts of the globe, some well known some obscure, to find out where in the world people are happiest. Very eye opening!

    Under the Tuscan Sunby Frances Mayes – I don’t know if this counts as travelogue, but was certainly one of the books that most captured my imagination. A Year in the World was also excellent. Mayes is a poet and hence the writing is quite exquisite.

    Black Earth City: A Year in the Heart of Russia by Charlotte Hobson is the most recent piece of travel writing that really moved me. As a student she spends a year in Russian to study – this is 1991, as Communism is being dismantled. While it has political overtones, the book is mostly about love and friendship. It’s really elegantly written and honest, and very much looks beyond the cliches.

    That’s probably enough for now, but there are so, so many that I love. Nothing like a bit of armchair travelling!

    • Love it, green ink! So glad it worked! What is it about speechwriters? Don Watson was one too.

      I have Mayes’ sequel (but not read it) and have seen the movie, but haven’t heard of Holdforth, Weiner or Hobson.

      My very favourite travel book – didn’t mention it here as it’s not Australian – is Flora Tristan’s Peregrinations of a pariah (1838). I sometimes think I should re-read it just to post on it here. A remarkable woman.

  3. I don’t read much travel literature, but I did fall hook, line and sinker for those books by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman when they did all that stuff on motorbikes! Sadly, it all became a bit cliched and turned into a franchise, so I wouldn’t recommend them unless you’ve watched the TV series.

    My favourite travel book is Jan Morris’ Venice. It’s a truly beautiful read.

    • I did wonder about those McGregor-Boorman books. I guess they fall a bit into the adventure category don’t they? I’ve seen them interviewed and found them entertaining, but I think I’ll take your recommendation and leave it at that. Jan Morris’ Venice sounds great – presumably it’s in her Destinations series that the Keneally belongs to.

  4. I am intrigued by Watson’s statement about travelling in America being a journey in language. I think I know what it means but what does it mean for Watson? I’m not much of a travel book reader but I have read and enjoyed Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel.

    • You should take me up on that one Stefanie as I realised when I wrote it I rather left it hanging. I do that sometimes in an attempt not to let my posts get too long. His main point is that speech and language, rhetoric, are rather driving forces in America and so understanding how Americans use language is a critical part of being there. Here is what he writes in the paragraph that ends with that comment (and remember that one of Watson’s past roles has been a political speechwriter):
      “It is not that Americans have louder voices than the people of other countries, but rather that they use them as essential instruments of commerce and belief. ‘Let freedom ring’, Martin Luther King said, and Americans do. The habits of their speech seem to have come from the great political, religious and economic contests of American life, for all of which the primary skill is persuasion. Speech is a free-for-all, a primal force animating the whole society … To journey in America is to journey in the language” (Oops, I left out “the” when I quoted him above – that makes a bit of difference doesn’t it!)

      This is a long comment, but I’ll add just one more and that is to say Australians tend to comment regularly on how American kids are taught and encouraged to speak. We tend to see young Americans as being more articulate. I think Australian schools are trying to up the ante here these days but speaking has not traditionally been pushed as much as we perceive it being so in the US. We are rather envious of that.

      • Thanks for such a wonderful elaboration it was totally different than what I had thought it meant (regional language differences mostly) and so much more fascinating. I am going to have to find a copy of this book!

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