Thurston Clarke, Equator: An Epic Journey (1988)
It’s a rare sub-genre of travel writing, the business of following a line of latitude and seeing where it takes you. Over the years I’ve put together a trio of such books, by very disparate authors. Malachy Tallack is a British journalist and singer-songwriter who wrote about his travels at sixty degrees north latitude in 2016. Long before that, back in 1988, the American historian Thurston Clarke wrote about his efforts to follow the equator around the world. And sandwiched between the two (in time, but not location) is Simon Reeve, a British journalist and television presenter, who between 2006 and 2010 made three travel documentaries for the BBC, in which he travelled around the world along the equator and then on the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. He wrote a book about the Tropic of Capricorn journey in 2008, but his other two circumnavigations remain undocumented so far.
Malachy Tallack’s 60 Degrees North is subtitled Around the World in Search of Home, and that’s a hint about what you’re getting into with this book, as is the cover blurb that describes it as “brave”.
A bereavement in Tallack’s late teens had sent him back to the Shetland of his childhood, while leaving him with a dislocating sense that there is nowhere he actually belongs. He picks up on the Shetland Islanders’ identification with a sort of circumpolar community, characterized by their high northerly latitude and embodied by the idea of “60 degrees north”—a line of latitude that runs through the Shetland archipelago. So he sets off westward to explore this idea of a community defined by latitude, and to try to find some sort of insight into his own rootlessness. So this is as much a description of a personal journey as it is a travel narrative.
Tallack’s destinations are Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway. Each of these countries is sampled by visiting one or two places lying fairly close to the 60th parallel. So some pretty small places stand in for some pretty extensive territories—most notably the little town of Fort Smith on the Slave River stands in for the whole width of Canada from Labrador to the Yukon, and the whole of Siberia is represented by a remembered trip to Kamchatka which happened years before the other journeys described in the book.
Tallack is at his best when describing the history of his chosen locations, in long informative passages. And he has an evocative sympathy for those traditional ways of life that are under threat from the standardizing and “civilizing” agendas of modern society—the Greenlanders who feel that their traditional hunting methods are more sympathetic to the natural world than, say, a battery chicken farm; the Evenk herdsmen who demonstrate their reindeer herding skills for the benefit of tourist cameras. He also writes well about the natural world. Here he is on the topic of the wind in Shetland:
It can, at times, seem so utterly unremitting that the air itself becomes a physical presence, as solid as a clenched fist. And on those rare calm days its absence can be shocking and wonderful.
And he’s a keen observer of human nature, from the obsessive urge to tidy exhibited by the staff in a Russian museum (who are thwarted and disappointed when Tallack leaves their leaflets exactly as he found them), to the easy mutual affection of two shopkeepers and their customer in a remote Norwegian village.
But it’s all very melancholy. Tallack spends much of his time alone, and much of his time feeling slightly oppressed. He’s not very keen on cities, and a bit anxious about wilderness (though he does have fond memories of Kamchatka, visited at a time when he seems to have been a little less careworn). And he projects his worries on to others, most notably when he dithers about whether to take a boat trip from the Alaskan town of Seward:
It was a strange sight, this armada, with its cargo of expectant tourists, eager to glimpse something that perhaps even they could not quite specify. For what was this thing that drew them out there? What was it that took them north in the first place? What exactly did they hope to find?
Speaking as someone who’s been on one of those boats, I can report that it’s not complicated, really—we hoped to find spectacular scenery and interesting wildlife. And we did.
Interspersed with all this is the story of Tallack’s life—the loss of his father at the age of sixteen, rootless time spent in Shetland and Copenhagen and Prague, and what seems to have been a rare happy interlude on Fair Isle. So as his travels went on, I found myself hoping they would lead to a homecoming like the one T.S. Eliot described: “… the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” But it doesn’t turn out like that.
So while wishing Tallack well, and hoping he finally finds somewhere to call home, it was with some relief I moved on to Thurston Clarke. Clarke’s book is more in the traditional mode of travel writing. He throws himself into the journey, chatting to everyone he meets, and pretty much winging it on how he’s going to get from one place to another along the equator. He has an easy, upbeat narrative style, an eye for the odd or telling incident, and an ear for an eccentric conversation. And (apart from the odd explanatory note or funny story) he rarely gives any detail of his own life. He’s essentially the antithesis of Tallack, then. You can get an idea of his style from the following line:
The arrival formalities at Brazzaville’s Maya-Maya airport resemble those of a popular New York discotheque.
Remote locations, lots of hassle, quirky lightness of narrative touch. (On this occasion Clarke had arranged to be recognized on arrival, and so was whisked out of the milling crowds into an air-conditioned VIP area.)
Clarke travels around the world, west to east, making the crossing of each continent into a project in itself. Crossing directly from one continent to the next along the equator is a logistic impossibility—ships rarely make such a crossing, and airlines tend to have their trans-ocean hubs a long way from the equator. So between continent-crossings, he allows himself a bit of R&R in the USA or Europe before heading back south to start again. Although he’s travelling independently, with a visa-stuffed passport, a wodge of currency and no fixed plan beyond an aspirational list of “equatorial things to see”, he is not entirely unsupported. He has arranged to give lectures at various universities along the way, which makes him, to some extent, a representative of the USA, allowing him to call on occasional assistance from US embassies abroad. And the lectures also give him a sort of “official guest” status that he can trade on with obstructive government functionaries. His other solution to obstructive government functionaries, it must be said, is simply to ignore them. In Libreville, the capital of Gabon, he is told that he needs to write and present multiple letters of introduction to various members of the national and local government before he can possibly travel in the country. He promises solemnly to present the letters the following day, and then gets on the next train out of town.
The narrative is, of course, a little out of date at this remove. Zaïre, miserable and disintegrating as it was even when Clarke visited, had not yet descended into civil war. Nor had Somalia. And of Rwanda an aid-worker could say, in all seriousness, “There is no longer a tribal problem here.”
Deep economic hardship is a recurring theme, as are stories of displaced and disorientated populations and individuals, and Clarke works hard both to help us appreciate their plight, and to explain how things got to be the way they are. And there are very long bus journeys, alarming taxi rides, eccentric expats, dumb tourists, pickpockets, mountain gorillas, a nuclear test site, amoebic dysentery, and a near-death experience at the hands of drunken Ugandan soldiers.
All of it is narrated in a frank and witty style, punctuated by telling anecdotes. One anecdote must stand for the many—this one’s about Mbakanda, an equatorial town in what was then Zaïre, which when Clarke visited was gradually losing its European residents:
Mbakanda’s legacy of European toilets was shrinking faster than the number of people accustomed to them. Seats and cisterns cracked, and there were no replacements. Those unused to squatting in a field or outhouse became desperate, and thieves stole from occupied houses. Victims of the toilet bandits visited neighbors and found themselves using familiar porcelain.
Reeve’s book, Tropic Of Capricorn, is subtitled A Remarkable Journey to the Forgotten Corners of the World, which perhaps over-eggs the pudding a little, given his considerable harvest of tourist destinations along the way. Although similar in conception to the two other books, it’s different in execution. Reeve is making a television documentary, so he travels with a small film crew, and is handed off from one local fixer to another as the journey progresses. Like Clarke, he takes the trip a continent at a time, with time off to rest (and get married!) between continents. His television programmes alternate a series of arranged interviews with episodes in which Reeve stands in front of something impressive, being boyishly enthusiastic. So the book necessarily has the same pattern, but without the visuals. And because he’s making a documentary, Reeve strays farther from his chosen line of latitude than do Tallack or Clarke—he speaks about visiting the “Capricorn countries”, and he travels quite widely in search of good stories.
When I’m reading a book with the intention of writing something about it, I tend to mark evocative or dramatic passages as I go along, for later reference. The problem I had with Reeve’s book is that I was three-quarters of the way through and still hadn’t marked a single passage. Part of that, I think, is because of Reeve’s journalistic background. Things are described in a series of short sentences—one thing happens, then another thing happens, then another thing happens. Here’s an example:
Then, with an almighty tearing noise and a deafening crash, the tree collapses to the ground. It is a bit of a shock.
“Bloody hell!” I exclaim.
And the book was written on the fly, by candlelight or failing laptop battery, as the journey progressed, and then edited on a tight deadline to be released alongside the TV series. So there are some odd turns of phrase—I’m not sure filter-feeding flamingoes can reasonably be described as “munching” their food; nor do I fancy the idea of being “injected” with morning coffee.
Reeve is not so big on history, but very good on current problems. Of all the books, his does the best job of exploring the plight of indigenous peoples, since he deliberately seeks them out for interview. In Africa and South America, he talks to people displaced from their traditional ways of life to make way for logging, soy plantations and even national parks, and he’s at his best when he talks about the distress he feels on their behalf. He reserves his particular ire for the plight of the Australian Aborigine, however, to which he devotes almost an entire chapter, detailing the ways in which Australia has marginalized its first people.
He’s also good on deploying killer statistics, telling us for instance that, throughout history, perhaps half of all humans have died of malaria, or that the South American War of the Triple Alliance killed an astonishing 90% of Paraguayan adult males in the 1860s. (I’m not sure I needed to know where the world’s “third steepest railway incline” is, though.)
He samples tourist attractions at Iguazu, in the Okavango Delta, the Namib Desert, and the Atacama; gets involved in dangerous activities with South African and Brazilian border patrols; goes to visit a diamond mine in Botswana and a sapphire mine in Madagascar; has uncomfortably close encounters with hyenas, hippos, cheetahs and bees; and meets a rat that’s being trained to help clear minefields.
Through it all he’s constantly engaged with the situations he finds people in, and is always trying to tie those local problems in with the bigger global picture of climate change, shifting markets, and even the fashions in charitable giving:
Charitable Westerners donating their cheap clothes to Africa have undercut the local clothing industry. No Mozambican firm could ever make a T-shirt cheaper than a Western T-shirt donated for free.
Well, that’s obvious when you think about it, but I confess it had never occurred to me.
So these turn out to be three very different books—Tallack’s journey is intermittent and patchy, but layered with emotion; Clarke is the most devoted to seeking out his chosen line of latitude, but also the most laid-back; and Reeve is the most engaged, and has the widest variety of experiences. Of them all, I had the most fun with Clarke, and I suspect his is the only book I’ll go back to and read again.