The fear and subsequent desire to conquer the unknown has driven us as a species since our inception. Only a handful of men and women in history can lay claim to be a great explorer, a great journeyman, and in turn their names as regarded with an almost mythical whisper: Cook, Armstrong, Columbus, Alexander.
These are tales of epic journey, inspiring stories of one person against the elements, and recounts of first discoveries. What must it have been like to fully believe that the world was flat, yet still try and sail to the edge of it? What must it be like, to step onto the surface of an off-world location, as no one has done before? The chosen books are spread throughout history and the continents, and all are great stories that will take you to a different place and time.
Castaways (Naufragios) by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca
The engaging story of a handful of men shipwrecked in Florida in 1528, and their epic journey between that landing, and their emergence from the wilderness of Mexico eight years later.
The author, a nobleman and treasurer of an expedition to claim the lands of Southern Eastern America for his native Spain, recounts the journey, and the lengths of survival to which he and his companions were forced to go. Joining natives as a slave, and later on as a physician, learning languages and practices not known to any man on the other side of the Atlantic, and ultimately the difficulty with re joining his countrymen who did not even recognise him.
Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative describes the native cultures he encountered in wonderful detail, making this book a real precursor to modern day anthropology.
Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger
Arabian Sands is a Middle Eastern classic, recounting the great journey of Wilfred Thesiger across the Empty Quarter of the UAE on camelback, with the accompaniment of his two trusted Bedouin friends and guides.
A classic book of desert exploration, Thesiger recounts his interactions and insights regarding the locals, men and women who at the time may never have seen a European face. It remains the most interesting account of a now disappeared world, written with respect and humility as he crossed the largest sand desert in the world. Thesiger, educated at Eton and raised in Africa, remains popular in the Middle East due to these facts, and should be remember in the same way as the famous Lawrence of Arabia.
If this captures your interest, the Al Jahili museum features a permanent exhibition on the man the locals lovingly deemed ‘Mubarak Bin London.’
Moondust: In search of the men who fell to Earth by Andrew Smith
Only 12 men in history have stood upon the surface of the moon and looked back at our Earth. Each one in turn was changed by the experience. This is the story of the nine still living, and the way they were changed by looking back at everyone and everything that has ever existed.
Being shot towards another world in an under tested, highly explosive capsule directed by a computer with less memory than today’s mobile phones, the astronauts, paid $8 a day, landed back on Earth and experienced a level of fame more alien to them than the surface they’d just walked on. What do you do with the rest of your life once you’ve been the focus of arguably the human race’s greatest achievement? Andrew Smith goes after the nine still alive, and tells their stories with charm, and a sense of humour even when penning the darkest of chapters.
Endeavour: The Story of Captain Cook’s first great epic voyage by Peter Aughton
The intricately illustrated book ‘Endeavour’ tells the story of the first voyage of Captain James Cook, one of the most celebrated and important explorers in history.
Whilst the British government at the time tried to hide the true reason for the trip, Cook’s voyage between 1768 – 1771 was intended to discover the land known as Terra Australis, now Australia. The beauty with this read is the way it brings such an old story to life, the characters are described in detail and have real personalities, with the reader effortlessly transported back to the time in focus. Sailing into unknown waters to discover lands never walked upon apart from by the natives, the book si a tale of epic bravery and courage. Equally engaging is the story of Cook’s second and third voyages, which ended in disaster, but the best way to enjoy it all is to start with this future classic.
The Incredible Voyage by Tristan Jones
A book the pays homage to human single mindedness, this is the story of a man’s travels over six years, and his desire to sail on both the highest and lowest waters on the Earth.
It should be noted that the story is told with the traditional Welsh method of mixing fact and fiction, however, when looking at it for its strengths – the book makes the list. The sheer scale of the journey alone, sailing the red sea and transporting his vessel overland through war torn territory, followed by attempting to sail up the Amazon, and eventually transporting the boat again overland, hundreds of miles towards lake Titikaka. It’s this section in South America that is most enjoyable, with insights into the land and an evident human compassion for the people it belongs to. A real insight and inspiration to having a one track mind towards achieving your goals.
Alive by Piers Paul Read
Widely regarded as one of the most amazing survival stories in history, Alive is the tale of the plane that crashed into the Andes in 1972, carrying 45 passengers, of whom only 16 made it out with their lives.
Ten long lonely weeks on snow covered mountains, given up on by rescue missions, forced into eating their dead companions to stay alive. The survivors lasted 72 days in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, and the author presents this without any ounce of fiction added to their story. Relating to the incredible faith and friendship needed, the author stated; ‘It was never my intention to underestimate these qualities, but perhaps it would be beyond the skill of any writer to express their own appreciation of what they lived through.’
The Worst Journey in the World by Aspley Cherry Garrard
The worse journey in the world is a memoir of the world famous Antarctic expedition lead by Robert Falcon-Scott. The author himself was the youngest person on the expedition and along with others to track down the lost members of the expedition.
Prior to the expedition described in the book, Cherry Garrard had already undertaken a trip into the Antarctic, in the middle of winter. During Scott’s expedition, he was one of the men told to return to the camp as the team entered the polar plateau. While others sailed back to their homes following this, Cherry Garrard and others stayed to meet Scott upon his return. When the men did not return the trip was undertaken to track down their lost friends and comrades. Following the harrowing discovery of the frozen tent containing the three men, two of which were close companions from the previous trip, the book follows the themes of self sacrifice and heroism.
Farther than any man: The rise and fall of Captain James Cook by Martin Dugard
With extensive research into Captain Cook’s own personal journals, Dugard presents the story of the legendary explorer as the man he was, with incredibly ambition, a single track mind and intelligence. His love of power however also lead to his downfall, and ultimately death in the Hawaiian Islands.
The remarkable story follows Cook from his life as a youth on the farms of England to his fateful end as a Commander of the British Navy. An action packed story with descriptions of previously unheard of worlds, the story includes the discoveries he made throughout the Polynesian Islands, as well as the secret mission to Australia.
The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo
Older than any other book on the list, this piece of history is the travelogue of Marco Polo as he travelled through the Middle East, Asia, China, Persia and South East Asia, and is known as the book that inspired Columbus.
The writing of the book itself is a story, as following his 24 year trip away from Venice, Polo was imprisoned in Genoa for a year. It was from his cell that he dictated his story to an Italian romance writer. While it has always been debated that the story may not be entirely accurate, the recent consensus is that it is authentic, and what a story it makes for.