Travel literature review: Looking for Adventure

Looking for Adventure by Steve Backshall

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Lorna Parkes

In essence, Looking for Adventure is about a man’s obsession with an idea that fixates all travel junkies: getting off the beaten track. In a world that is shrinking, where can we go that nobody else has been?

Reading about Steve Backshall’s travels and illustrious career make me green with envy, and are sure to spark the imagination of any avid travellers among you. It all started during a gap year at the age of 18, when he realised that the well-trodden backpacker trail was not for him; instead, he made a point of travelling to the furthest-flung places he could find in Asia, visiting villages that had never seen white people before. By his mid-twenties he was writing travel guidebooks and by his mid-thirties he had the ridiculously tantalising title of ‘Adventurer in Residence’ at National Geographic TV.

The British TV presenter and naturalist gets his kicks from extremes: both physical and mental. (Bearing that in mind, it made me chuckle to learn that when Backshall first joined the BBC it was as a presenter on the hit children’s program The Really Wild Show!) This book traces his adventures in Papua New Guinea, a destination that has enthralled him since childhood yet proved on his first two visits to ultimately get the better of him, much to the chagrin of the writer.

Backshall’s biographic account of three expeditions to Papua New Guinea over the course of a couple of decades is eloquent, entertaining and frank about what it takes to walk into the wild and come back alive. His biography certainly doesn’t glamorise his experiences; it’s a tale of fortitude piled high with many – sometimes laugh-out-loud ­­­– travel woes of broken bones, language barriers, endless swarms of mosquitoes, trench foot and leeches.

What makes his account even more interesting is his insight into the world of nature documentary film-making, as he describes his career with National Geographic TV and then later the BBC. It was the BBC that presented him with the opportunity to make the Lost Land of the Volcano documentary, which provides the impetus for this book (that was his third and final, successful, trip to Papua).

Plagued by famine, besieged by missionaries and surprisingly expensive to penetrate, Backshall paints a colourful picture of Papua New Guinea as a destination that is wild, troubled and inaccessible, yet simultaneously an alluring prospect for anybody who dares to undertake travel there. Armchair travellers might wonder why he ever bothered returning after his first failed writing trip to Irian Jaya (now West Papua). In fact, it’s fascinating to see that West Papua destinations like Wamena and the Baliem Valley, which virtually broke Backshall during his first visit, are now featured on Lonelyplanet.com as adventurous destinations with ‘sublime landscapes, extraordinary animals and an ancient and vibrant Melanesian culture’.

If you’re an avid traveller, as I am, this book is sure to entertain. Lonely Planet’s co-founder Tony Wheeler is famous around the office for his legendary desire to explore to the very end of the road. Looking for Adventure shows that Steve Backshall is similarly driven when he travels; I think the two would get along.

Review by Lorna Parkes, an editor in Lonely Planet’s Melbourne office.

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