Adventure travel is the fastest-growing sector of global tourism. There are now legions of people trekking through jungles, bicycling across continents, climbing mountains, or kayaking in dangerous waters, either on their own or on expensive guided trips. And more are publishing books and stories of their journeys and adventures. Here is a selection from recent arrivals that will have you hauling out your backpack, or settling deeper into your easy chair with relief.
Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia By Jill Lawless ECW Press, 230 pages, $19.95 As Canadian journalist Jill Lawless points out in the introduction to this engaging portrait of modern Mongolia, the short version of the country's history is simple: They came thundering out of nowhere, terrorized and conquered most of the known world, and then they went home.
It's probably not too much of an exaggeration to imagine Mongol warlords at the peak of their power in the 13th century sitting around with Genghis Khan debating the merits of attacking Russia or sacking Burma. Within a space of a few decades they had subdued an area stretching from Korea to Hungary and Vietnam to Afghanistan.
But the empire of the Khan imploded and the world's consciousness of these fascinating people, and the great grasslands and deserts of their homeland, faded as they disappeared for centuries under the iron-fisted domination of first China and then the Soviet Union.
In Wild East, Lawless brings us up to date. Yes, more than half the population of this Europe-sized country still lives on the steppes in felt tents with their horses, sheep and yaks.
But now you can surf the Internet in Ulan Bator, find Mercedes in the streets, party in Western-style nightclubs and see trendy teens rollerblading around Soviet-era apartment blocks.
Lawless gives us a revealing, and often amusing, account of her journeys through a beautiful country awakening from a tumultuous era that saw it wrenched from feudalism to communism and then into the uncharted future of rampant capitalism, searching for its future in the new millennium. Explore: Stories of Survival From Off the Map Edited by Jennifer Schwamm Willis Adrenalin Books, 374 pages, $26 Here is a collection of 19 stories of derring-do written by some of the world's leading masters of adventure tales -- men and women who have made a career of recounting meetings with things like raging storms, disease, cannibals, starvation, killer bees and enraged hippos -- that will make you glad you're reading them from the comfort of your easy chair. Hair-raising selections from the works of contemporary writers such as Redmond O'Hanlon, David Roberts, Tim Flannery and Tim Cahill, as well as earlier explorers such as Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vavaca and Fridjof Nanson, will either have you packing your bags for Borneo or swearing you'll never venture beyond Orlando. Salon.com's Wanderlust: Real-life Tales of Adventure and Romance Edited by Don George Villard Books, 349 pages, $22.95 E-magazine Salon's travel component is gone, but while it lasted in the 1990s it was an award-winning site on the Internet, a grand experiment in bringing to the Web the work of some of the finest writers in the field. This is a collection of 41 of the site's best contributions, picked by Don George who, prior to joining Salon, was the travel editor of the San Francisco Examiner. Here you'll find Simon Winchester in Romania, Isabel Allende in the Amazon, Sallie Tisdale in Japan, Carlos Fuentes in Zurich, Taras Grescoe sampling absinthe in Europe, Jan Morris in Gdansk, and much more. Adventure, yes, but also love on the road, self-discovery, emotional entanglement and wonder -- all the things that make travel memorable and one of life's most valuable experiences. In the Mountains of Heaven: Tales of Adventure on Six Continents By Mike Tidwell The Lyons Press 230 pages, $37.95 The hallmark of a good travel story is the author's ability to draw out the people he meets on his journey. This is a talent Tidwell exhibits in spades as he probes his own emotions through encounters with the likes of a barber in Hanoi, a homeless fisherman in Washington, a Colombian innkeeper and nomadic shepherds on the Silk Road. There's plenty of adventure in the 20 travel essays Tidwell collected for this book. Plenty of getting-from-here-to-there accounts in exotic corners of the world, and lots of close calls of the deadly-rockslide variety. But what stands out in his writing is his pursuit of a sense of home wherever he goes. "It's my goal to get invited inside a culture's front door," he writes, "to make friends whenever possible, to avoid simply passing through, never daring to knock." It shows. These are fine, well-crafted slices of the world. The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-la By Todd Balf Crown Publishers, 293 pages, $36 Here's a tale that rivals Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air for locale, cliff-clinging excitement and eventual tragedy. Todd Balf, a former senior editor for Outside magazine, has enlarged a Men's Journal cover article for this book about an ill-fated expedition in 1998 to run Tibet's Yarlung Tsangpo, known in paddling circles as the Everest of rivers. In October of that year, an American team of kayakers travelled deep into the Tsangpo Gorge to paddle the wildest river in the world. On the 12th day of the expedition, the team's ace member, one of four paddlers, launched off a three-metre waterfall and flipped. He and his overturned kayak spilled into the thunderous "freight-training" heart of the river and were swept downstream, never to be seen again. Balf is a consummate craftsman in not only reconstructing the events, but in examining the motivations that propelled these adventurers to take on the deepest gorge on the planet. What drives presumably intelligent young men -- husbands, fathers, friends and brothers -- to tackle a monster river that was fearsome in its normal state and indescribably dangerous when swollen to three times its normal size with record rains and heavy snowmelt? Read the book and find out. Everest: Alone at the Summit By Stephen Venables Adrenalin Classics 262 pages, $23 When Briton Stephen Venables and three companions set out in 1988 to climb Everest's Kangshung Face, the mountain's most remote and challenging slope, there were lots of experts who gave them little chance for success, let alone survival. They were almost right.
The team was the smallest group ever to attempt such a difficult ascent of the world's highest peak. After weeks of struggle and a 16-hour climb from a high base camp, Venables reached the summit alone, only to be stranded by a sudden blizzard. He was forced to spend a night in the open at an altitude of 28,000 feet. And the team's troubles were just beginning. This is a real alpine thriller, by a climber who's a pretty good writer. Venables has five other books under his belt and -- aside from having made several first ascents in the Himalayas, Patagonia and elsewhere -- knows how to tell a tale. Tuning the Rig: A Journey to the Arctic By Harvey Oxenhorn Zoland Books, 284 pages, $23 Put yourself in the shoes of a landlubber who's a Harvard professor and published poet. He teaches the writings of Conrad and Melville but has never set foot on a tall ship until he boards the Regina Maris as a volunteer on a survey expedition to study humpback whales north of the Arctic Circle via Newfoundland, Labrador and Greenland. If you think his experiences would make for compelling prose, you'd be right. Tuning the Rig was first published in 1990, just before Oxenhorn was killed in a car crash. He didn't live long enough to enjoy the accolades the initial publication of this book drew from critics. Its reissue is sure to draw more. This is fine writing about life aboard a sailing ship, and about the intricate teamwork of a crew at sea, who start out as strangers but slowly become the kind of smoothly functioning, interdependent units absolutely necessary for mastering the incredible complexity of a three-masted barkentine. Oxenhorn seamlessly mixes his tale of the making of a sailor with a cogent save-the-whales argument, his own self-discovery, and some truly insightful comments about the history of Arctic settlements. On the Trail of Marco Polo: Along the Silk Road by Bicycle By Brady Fotheringham McArthur & Company 236 pages, $24.95 In 1997, Vancouver journalist Brady Fotheringham set out to retrace a portion of Asia's Silk Road, history's most famous trade route that once snaked more than 6,000 kilometres from China to the Mediterranean. He set out from Beijing on his mountain bike with two British companions, determined to cycle the desolate Chinese desert and the fabled Karakoram Highway that links China with Pakistan over the world's highest pass. The Brits fall behind, but Fotheringham goes on to visit with Pakistani royalty, dine with Taliban tank commanders in Afghanistan and savour the sights and tastes of this tumultuous region before arriving in New Delhi three months, 5,000 kilometres, and numerous arrests later. Hello Goodnight: A Life of Goa By David Tomory Lonely Planet Publications 243 pages, $19.95 Goa, on the western coast of India, became a notable stop on the hippie trail through the subcontinent in the 1960s thanks to its too-good-to-be-true beaches, laid-back lifestyle and easy-to-get drugs. But the first Western visitors to reach these shores arrived much earlier, and they came to stay. Sixteenth-century Portuguese sailors came to claim Goa for their king and the Roman Catholic faith. Amazingly, they stayed and ruled their patch of the subcontinent until the 1960s, almost four decades after the British had abandoned the largest jewel in their imperial crown. David Tomory explores the outside influences at work in Goa from the Portuguese to the present day and how they have fused with local culture to produce an Indian state distinct from the rest. From the horrors of the Inquisition to the age of technology, Tomory leads readers on an informative tour through a place caught between the influences of two worlds. Take Me With You: A Round-the-World Journey to Invite a Stranger Home By Brad Newsham Travelers' Tales, 350 pages, $36 "Someday when I'm rich, I am going to invite someone from my travels to visit me in America." Brad Newsham was 22 years old and travelling in Afghanistan when he scribbled that sentence in his journal. It would rattle around in his mind for years until it surfaced to change his life and the life of someone he had yet to meet. This is the engaging story of New-sham's 100-day journey through the Philippines, Egypt, India, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa in search of the right person to bring to his home in the United States. Who did he pick? Buy the book. Cold Beer and Crocodiles, A Bicycle Journey into Australia By Roff Smith National Geographic, 284 pages, $38.50 Four years ago, American author and expatriate journalist Roff Smith set off on his bicycle on a trip to lose himself among the cattle stations, mining towns, rain forests, aboriginal communities and desert campsites of Australia. Nine months and almost 16,000 kilometres later, he had collected enough material to produce this intimate and affectionate glimpse into the heart of Oz. "Somewhere in those thousands of miles," he writes, "I had gained a new home. It was the people I met more than anything else that opened my eyes to what it meant to be an Australian and instilled in me a deep and newfound pride in my adopted country." Anyone who has travelled Down Under will understand how easy it would be to form a genuine passion for the place, especially on a leisurely traverse of the continent. Kangaroo Dreaming: An Australian Wildlife Odyssey By Edward Kanze Sierra Club Books, 384 pages, $38 The Olympic Games drew a lot of attention to Australia and books about the continent are piling up this season. Here is another one. For nine months, naturalists Edward and Debbie Kanze drove an old station wagon more than 40,000 kilometres around Australia, spending almost all their time in places where wildlife abounds. From Tasmania to the searing heat of the Outback, the couple travel in search of the famous devil as well as kangaroos, giant monitor lizards, kookaburas, koalas, wombats, platypuses and hundreds of species of birds. Kanze overplays the hazard card, but not enough to ruin the book. It still manages to be an amusing, informative and enjoyable yarn of journeys in the continent's less-travelled regions in search of its unique wildlife. Adventures in Africa By Gianni Celati University of Chicago Press 170 pages, $27.95 Three years ago, Italian novelist Gianni Celati journeyed to West Africa with his friend, the filmmaker Jean Talon. In this translation by Adria Bernardi, Celati writes about Africans "who speak only with their eyes," of existential dramas framed by questions of identity and power, of beautiful women and manipulative men. Celati and Talon are far from experienced travellers, bumbling from place to place, encountering strangers in absurd situations, both marvelling and complaining over the splendour and squalor that is contemporary Africa. By turns amusing, probing and disturbing, this book is more about how Africa feels to two outsiders than about what it really is. But, as superficial as it may be, it is refreshing to get a glimpse of the place through a filter untainted by North American prejudices. On the Edge: Adventurous Escapades From Around the World Edited By Cecil Kuhne Lonely Planet, 232 pages, $19.95 If a thirst for adventure lies at the heart of most memorable travel, the 31 travellers featured in this anthology were sated. On the Edge follows the fortunes and misfortunes of some of the world's best travel writers as they journey off the beaten path, into jungles and onto the seas. The stories span all seven continents and range from a trek across the Sahara to a sailing voyage in Antarctic waters, from an encounter with giant spiders in South America to an unpleasant hotel experience in Europe. The book even ventures off the planet with an excerpt from Men from Earth, written by astronaut Buzz Aldrin. There are many tales in Cecil Kuhne's collection that go a long way to proving the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. On Celtic Tides: One Man's Journey Around Ireland by Sea Kayak By Chris Duff St. Martin's Griffin, 269 pages, $21.99 Apparently Chris Duff almost lives in his kayak. Since 1983, he has paddled almost 23,000 kilometres on some memorable long-distance voyages: first around the eastern third of Canada and the United States, then he became the first person to solo the British Isles before going on to circumnavigate New Zealand's South Island. On Celtic Tides is the story about his most recent adventure: paddling 2,000 kilometres around Ireland. There seems to be a rash of aging boomers paddling sea kayaks all over the world and writing books about their experiences. A lot of them are pedestrian in style and unengaging in content. But Duff is a fine writer, has a sharp eye for detail, and a good ear to capture his many encounters with the people of the Irish coast. Wilderness Journey: Reliving the Adventures of Canada's Voyageurs By Ian and Sally Wilson Gordon Soules Book Publishers, 246 pages, $16.95 The Wilsons, it appears, haven't grown tired of leaving home, adventuring for a year in Canada's wild places, and then producing a book about their experiences. Wilderness Journey is their fifth, and probably their best, work to date. The Wilsons built a birchbark canoe and left from Grand Portage on Lake Superior on a 3,000-kilometre journey northwest, following the fur-trading route of Canada's voyageurs. In the summer, they paddled for three months -- surviving some exciting bear encounters -- and in the winter they continued across Saskatchewan and Manitoba by dogsled and toboggan. To replicate as closely as possible the traders' life 200 years ago, they wore voyageur-style clothing, ate pemmican and pea soup, and cooked over campfires. The book is well illustrated with colour and black-and-white photographs and drawings.