Why do I read travel books? I read travel books to escape. I read travel books to inspire future travels. I read travel books as a form of research about a country before a planned trip. I read travel books to be amazed at bravery, warmed by humanity and acts of kindness and to be reminded that wherever we are in the world, we are all human.
I have shelves full of true-life travels and global non-fiction. I love to travel vicariously through explorers accounts of their extraordinary journeys, both present day and historical. Here is my list of my top 20 inspirational travel books from my bookshelf.
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary journeys ever undertaken was Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. His tragic tale is brilliantly told by British explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, in Captain Scott. Fiennes’ personal experience of Antarctica vividly brings Scott’s journey to life.
I love a travel book which follows in the footsteps of a historical expedition. I find it fascinating to learn what has and hasn’t changed over time for explorers and writers. Blood River by Tim Butcher is an excellent example of this type of writing. Butcher follows in the footsteps, not always successfully, of H.M. Stanley’s expedition of the Congo River.
Hiram Bingham III is the legendary explorer who cast himself as the discoverer of Machu Picchu. Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams is a brilliant account of Adams own expedition in Peru as he searches for the truth about Bingham’s inflated explorations. We learn of stolen treasure, Incan history and traditions and how the Peruvian government has tried to deal with Bingham’s misplaced fame.
I picked up Levison Wood’s Walking the Americas after watching the television series. I love a good travel series on TV! This journey by the acclaimed modern-day explorer took Wood from Mexico to Columbia crossing countries which we aim to visit on our planned Grand Adventure from Canada to Chile.
It would be impossible to create a list of inspiration travel books without including one by Paul Theroux. I have three of his books on my shelf, but I’ve chosen to include The Old Patagonian Express here which follows Theroux’s journey from Boston, Massachusetts to the end of the line in Patagonia. The concept of walking out of your house with a single aim in mind, and following it through to its conclusion is so appealing to me. I dream of doing something similar!
Malachy Tallack is a rising star of travel and nature writing. His gift for describing an environment and the emotion that a location can inspire is in full flow in 60 Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home. Read this to be transported to wild places and isolated communities and enjoy getting lost in Tallack’s beautiful writing.
If you haven’t read Wilfred Thesiger’s My Life and Travels: An Anthology I urge you to read it as soon as you can. Illustrated with superb, evocative photographs, this collection of Thesiger’s accounts of his explorations of the deserts and mountains of Arabia, Africa and the Middle East is a true travel writing classic.
Leave your own life behind for a while as you immerse yourself in Three Cups of Tea: one man’s mission to promote peace…one school at a time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Mountaineer, Mortenson, found himself moved by the kindness of strangers in a Pakistani village after an unsuccessful attempt to climb K2. His response to that kindness sets in motion the building of not just one, but fifty-five schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan while the Taliban rise to power.
An African Love Story: Love, Life and Elephants is the heart-warming story of Daphne Sheldrick. If you’ve ever visited Nairobi it’s likely that you will have spent some time at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and fallen in love with the baby elephants there. The wonderful book is the history of the Sheldricks and their own love affair with Kenya and its wildlife. I highly recommend reading the book before travelling to Kenya.
The next author needs no introduction. If you’ve ever watched Blue Planet and have been inspired to do more for our world then do read about the early career of its erstwhile presenter, David Attenborough in Adventures of a Young Naturalist. It’s a joy to read about the approach to making television programmes in the fifties and sixties as well as reading Attenborough’s accounts of his trips around the world including to Indonesia and Guyana.
Essential reading for any aspiring explorer is Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, Ranulph Fiennes’ autobiography. Just try not to feel bad that your moments of travel discomfort will never match his!
The Natural World
The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf is the brilliant biography of 19th-century, scientific celebrity, Alexander Humbolt. Wulf’s account of Humbolt’s ascent of Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador is awe-inspiring. We hope to visit ourselves, though perhaps not complete the climb, when we visit Ecuador on our planned Grand Adventure.
I read Krakatoa by Simon Winchester before I visited Indonesia 15 years ago. It sparked my interest not only in volcanoes (one of my top travel experiences was climbing Kelimutu volcano on the island of Flores at sunrise) but also in the global spice trade, reminding me how we are all connected.
The Political World
When we choose where to travel it’s often because we’re inspired by a particular culture. We sit in cafes and watch the world go by and wander through markets allowing the sights and smells to assault our senses. We visit museums, looking in awe at art and artefacts. We walk through historical sites and try to imagine what life was like in the past. Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography puts those experiences into context. He explains how a country’s geographical position in the world defines its experience. It’s fascinating reading! He’s also written a kids book, Prisoners of Geography: Our World Explained in 12 Simple Maps which my 9yo enjoys looking through. (For more recommendations of books for kids who love travel check out this post.)
Travel Writing Collections
Any traveller is bound to be a fan of the long-running Radio 4 series, From Our Own Correspondent. In 2005 they published From Our Own Correspondent: A Celebration of Fifty Years of the BBC Radio Programme. Featuring writing from Mark Tully, John Simpson and Orla Guerin it’s a collection of inspiring stories, bizarre experiences and unforgettable events. If you can’t get hold of the book subscribe to the podcast to be transported around the world on a regular basis.
I picked up The Kindness of Strangers: Travel Stories That Make Your Heart Grow at the Stanfords Stand at the Destinations Show in 2018. Stanfords Travel Writers Festival is one of my favourite events of the year and I always make an effort to see at least one or two of my favourite authors at this annual event. This particular book is a heart-warming collection of travel stories which both opens our minds to the possibility that things may go wrong when travelling but also restores our faith in humanity with these examples of kindness from strangers. It features writing from Pip Stewart, Benedict Allen, Ed Stafford and Anna McNuff.