Where the wild things are

Britain and Ireland’s best Wild Places: 500 Ways to Discover the wild by Christopher Somerville (Allen Lane)
Lisa Johnston

One thing that has always struck me about the Brits is their intense dedication to small patches of land that have escaped the ravages of urban sprawl.

Theirs is a tiny island, too densely populated, so their reverence for parks, walking trails, heaths and small wild spaces borders on a fanaticism that would put a faith healer to shame.

Christopher Somerville’s Britain and Ireland’s Best Wild Places makes a great gift for relatives and friends who have taken leave of their senses and chosen to emigrate to that soggy patch of land.
Or for yourself, should you fancy a spot of leprechaun hunting in the Irish heartland.

At 544 pages in solid hardback the book is a tad too hefty to lug around in a backpack, but is so beautifully laid out that it makes the perfect compromise between travel guide and coffee-table book. It is also more personal than the average travel guide, offering what comes across as heartfelt insights on a journey.

Somerville writes in his introduction: ‘On a bright cold winter morning at the start of 2006 I set out before sunrise in search of the wild. It was a moment of tremendous excitement and uncertainty. In front of me was a challenge I had set myself: to travel the length and breadth of the British Isles and the island of Ireland, looking for wild places wherever I might find them.” What follows are his musings on the meaning of ‘wild”.

‘What exactly was that quality I found so magnetically attractive about these manifestations of everything that was not me, that was not human, which I so freely labelled ‘wild’ and yet could not define, which I could recognise immediately without at all being able to pin down?”

All this before he gets into the nitty, gritty of actual travel. Each broad area has a map and detailed directions of how to get to individual locations along with key symbols to help identify sites of particular interest to individual readers—such as historic sites, birds, special habitats or an area of mythical interest.

Best Wild Places is best ignored by the armchair traveller; this beguiling guide begs to be well-thumbed and followed for the remaining years that Britain and Ireland’s few wild spaces remain.

50 Facts You Need To Know: USA A Tour Through the Real America by Stephen Fender (Icon Books)

If the mountain of bureaucracy you have to wade through to get an American visa isn’t enough to put you off visiting that country Stephen Fender’s 50 Facts You Need to Know: USA just might do the trick. Packed with lesser-known information about the grand continent and its people, the book offers an alternative take on the travel guide. It also explains why Christopher McCandless, the topic of a recent film, Into the Wild, went stomping off the map and died of starvation rather than deal with the drudge of life in the über-democracy.

For example, did you know:

  • Walden Pond has the highest concentration of urine of any lake in New England;

  • 2,9-million Americans claim to have been abducted by aliens;

  • At the millennium 44% of adult Americans believed that Christ would come again during their lifetime;

  • With a total audience of more than 7,5-million, Hot Rod has one of the largest circulations of any car publication in the world; and

  • When the massive volcano under Yellowstone Park erupts, it will kill tens of thousands of people and make the loudest noise heard by humans for 75 000 years?

Then there are the more obvious ones such as ‘Americans say more than they need to” or ‘Americans spend twice as much on civil litigation as they do on new automobiles”.

This book might not inspire a visit to the United States, but could make a great talking piece if you are travelling there anyway.—Lisa Johnston

African Islands in Style by David Robers, Jeremy Jowell, Ian Johnson (Africa Geographic)

This book is worth buying for the pictures alone. There are some astonishing shots of breathtaking palm-fringed islands floating in jewel-like waters—basically the kind of thing that makes the Indian Ocean islands justifiably famous. It includes the usual suspects such as Mauritius, Zanzibar and the Seychelles, but also ventures further afield to West Africa’s Principe and The Gambia.

It’s glossy, à la a travel brochure—an impression heightened by its focus on individual hotels and lodges, including at least one interior shot of each establishment. This is a coffee-table book and not a travel guide—some of the advice on places such as Nosy Komba in Madagascar paints a rosy picture of what is essentially a tourist trap. The writing can be a little formulaic and by the time you’ve got on to the 17th magical destination, it starts feeling a bit like just another damned fabulous day in paradise.—Nicole Johnston

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