Of all the modes of transport covered by the vast canon of travel writing, trekking is perhaps the most popular.
From the earliest explorers like Xuanzang in the 7th century BC to the Enlightenment to travel writing’s renaissance in the 1970s and ‘80s and beyond, exploring terrains on foot has never fallen out of favour.
And we are forever writing about it, and not always to sing the praises of locations and routes to try.
There's some great reads you should check out, either as inspiration or eye-openers to the delights and challenges that lie ahead€¦
Bungles in the Jungle
If you drew up a list of potential candidates for a perilous trek into the Borneo jungle, it probably wouldn’t feature a stout, unfit Oxford University scholar. But that’s precisely who Redmond O’Hanlon, author of In the Heart of Borneo (Penguin, 1987), is.
With the renowned poet James Fenton - similarly untutored in the art of jungle survival - O’Hanlon bungles his way past snakes, alligators, ticks, leeches, birds of prey, poisonous plants and whirlpools. The duo’s stated aim - to find the legendary Borneo rhino - seems less and less likely the more lost, sick and irritated they get. It’s clear from the outset that this is no trek holiday.
In the Heart of Borneo is a classic comedy travelogue, laying the groundwork for Bill Bryson, Geoff Dyer and later funny men.
Western authors can’t seem to get enough of hiking through jungles, especially ones in Indonesia and more remote trekking destinations.
Stranger in the Forest (Ebury Press, 1988) is the story of Eric Hansen, the first non-Malaysian to trek all 1,500 miles across Borneo. With no proper map and a pitiful grasp of the local language, Hansen is as ill-prepared as O’Hanlon.
Fortunately, he is accompanied by Penan tribespeople whose expert tracking skills save him from getting lost and almost certainly dying.
With its lucid descriptions and ethereal tone, Stranger in a Forest is a paean to a disappearing environment. Due to deforestation and pollution, it is unlikely that Hansen would be able to exactly repeat his adventure today.
On a more practical tip, there are currently dozens of guidebooks on the market telling you where to go, how to get there, what to bring and how not to make a fool of yourself a la O’Hanlon.
Currently riding high on the Amazon bestseller lists, Fifty Places to Hike Before You Die (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2010) is a bucket list featuring arduous altitude trips such as Lunana Snowman Trek, Bhutan as well as easier strolls like Japan’s Nakasendo Trail.
The 50 beautiful photographs between these covers will make you want to pull on your boots straight away.
Claes Grundsten’s Trek!: The Best Trekking in the World (Duncan Baird Publishers, 2008) is also a compilation of sorts, offering professional advice on the globe’s greatest trails ranging over 6 continents. Most handy of all is a regional reference section which provides all the facts and stats you’ll need before embarking.
Grundsten is well-qualified to write a book like this: he’s been an expert trekker for 4 decades and was the recipient of the 2000 WWF Panda Prize.
Arguably the most exciting trekking books are those concerned with risky expeditions. Following in a long line of daring Arctic adventurers, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Dr Michael Stroud completed the longest unsupported Polar trek ever (2700 kilometres), but not before Stroud almost died falling into a crevasse and Fiennes nearly lost his foot due to infection.
Fiennes chronicled this legendary trek in Mind Over Matter (Mandarin, 1994).
Former girlfriend of survival expert Ray Mears, Ffyona Campbell published On Foot Through Africa in 1995 which, as the title might suggest, is all about her 16000 kilometre walk from Cape Town to Tangiers - the whole length of the African continent.
This is no trek holiday - Campbell is almost raped, has a nervy encounter with cannibals and inadvertently walks onto a live minefield! She has to be evacuated from Zaire when a coup d’etat breaks out, but she returns a few months later and continues her trek.
Despite these traumas, On Foot Through Africa has a happy ending as Campbell arrives victorious in Morocco. It’s ultimately a book that will inspire trekkers of all levels and persuasions.
A Bright Future
Despite technological advancements in transport, it seems that travel writers are, if anything, getting more interested in walking and trekking. And it's not all about the mountains and cloud-clothed peaks of the world's nether regions.
Iain Sinclair, currently one of Britain’s most celebrated authors, has written several critically-lauded books based on seemingly unglamorous walks he has done around the M25, Essex and the London Olympic Village.
But it is his fascination with the strange facts, riddles and myths that surround these places, not to say his genuine commitment to the way of the walker, that make his books so readable.