Landscape of the Atacama Desert, in Chile, glassy, glamorous and beguiling

Books that inspire travel writers | a word before you fly

Cool, understated elegance that belies inner sparkle and sizzle.
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The thrill of a new place often starts with a book. Here, travel writers share some surprising inspirations.

Even with their wings clipped, travel writers are frequently asked to nominate their favourite destination.

Since going there in 2012, my answer is usually Chile’s Atacama Desert. Rating high are its Tatio geysers, the Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons, the hot springs of Puritama, the volcanic ash town of Toconao, Laguna Chaxa for its pink flamingos. And the infinite, star-studded night skies that oversee one of the driest places on Earth.

But I might have settled on Chile before I’d even been there. Travellers big on homework will understand that you can fall in love with a place long before you actually arrive. Novels, memoirs, biographies and essays are a bewitching aperitif.

Vicuna, llama, alpaca … the woolly mannequins of the Atacama Desert runway. Photo Susan Skelly

Argentine-born Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman had, for me, already nailed the awesomeness of the Atacama Desert in Desert Memories*, his 2004 portrait of Chile’s chameleon north:

“There are long hours where nothing seems to change. But then suddenly there is a cuesta, a series of hills and such a dizzying array of browns and greys and terracottas, all the hues that blend into each other and into something approaching whiteness farther on, and then a shining arenal, dunes of almost carrot-like pale red and then another granular slice of distance that wants to be the colour of milk, but can’t quite manage it.”

Ariel Dorfman’s romance with the desert

Dorfman was the cultural adviser to Chile’s Marxist president, Salvador Allende, until the bloody US-backed coup by General Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973 ushered in a brutal dictatorship. In exile in Europe, Dorfman wrote prolifically, ever mindful of the dead, the disappeared and the silenced. As one critic noted, “He leads us, like Dante, into the pit of his country’s experience.”

Related stories: The Atacama Desert playlist

A voyage around Neruda

Ratchetting up the romance of the region was Memoirs*, the poetry, prose and politics of Pablo Neruda, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 (he shared the World Peace Prize with Paul Robeson and Pablo Picasso in 1950). Memoirs is an immersion in Chilean and indeed world history: Neruda, a Communist, had many diplomatic postings, thus the gold-plated name-dropping – Gandhi, Che Guevara, Mao Tse Tung.

La Sebastiana, now a museum dedicated to Pablo Neruda

You can’t help but think of that Big Picture when arriving at the Small Picture that is La Sebastiana, Neruda’s idiosyncratic house in Valparaiso. He occupied the third and fourth floors, which along with the tower pointed to a love of things that included naval eclectica, maps, posters, paintings – and a horse that’s escaped its carousel. Permission to collect!

If he’d lived a few decades longer, Neruda might have had an Instagram blog devoted to sunsets, which he liked as much as he liked New Year’s fireworks. “In the late afternoon, outside my balcony, there unfolded a spectacle I never missed for anything in the world. It was the sunset with its glorious sheaves of colours, scattered arrays of light, enormous orange and scarlet fans.” Hashtag Chilean sunset.

Neruda’s room with a view of the Pacific Ocean, at La Sebastiana


The spirit of place

Many destinations have seduced via literature:  Saul Bellow’s The Sheltering Sky (Morocco), John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (Berlin), Orhan Pamuk’s Memories and the City (Istanbul), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (Mumbai), Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s (New York), Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (Tokyo).

Washington Irving’s glowing account of the Alhambra in Granada did much to save the palace and fortress from ruin. And Henry James had a knack of finding elegance and energy in something as prosaic as London fog.

Then there are the books that magic up a lifestyle everyone wants, like Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence* and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love* (Bali).

Lonely as a cloud

As a school leaver, with English texts still fresh, my first goal was to wander lonely as a cloud, find William Wordsworth’s former homes in the Lake District (Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount), look for a field of daffodils and read his poetry in situ, soaking up the “bliss of solitude” many self-isolators would like to master in 2020.

It was poetry, too, that had Sydney-based travel writer Katrina Lobley yearning for the Yukon, in north-western Canada.

A bank clerk turned poet, Lancashire-born Robert W. Service (1874-1958) was known as the Bard of the Yukon. When Lobley first read the spirited ballads inspired by the Klondike gold rush, she knew she had to see this wild corner of Canada.

Before pestilence intervened, Canada’s Yukon was on Flight Centre’s Wow List for 2020

“He brought it to life in such a vivid way,” she says, “peopling the desolate landscape with characters such as Dangerous Dan McGrew, who met an untimely end in a rollicking saloon, and Blasphemous Bill MacKie, found frozen, ‘arms and legs outspread’, unable to fit in his coffin.

“Today, in Dawson City, in front of Service’s two-room, sod-roof log cabin, you can watch a costumed guide perform his lively works,” says Lobley.

Related stories: The Canadian Maritimes

A 1930s guidebook by Peter Hibbard, called All About Shanghai and Environs*, nudged Melbourne travel journalist Kendall Hill in the direction of Shanghai.

“I hadn’t been to Shanghai before but obviously it’s a city that looms large in the mind of any historically curious traveller,” says Hill. “Not much of cosmopolitan Shanghai’s Golden Age remains. Since the 1990s, almost everything old has been knocked down and re-imagined 30 storeys high.”

Within the pages of this travel classic lies a fast-disappearing Shanghai

But armed with this slim volume he managed to find, in Bubbling Well Road and Love Lane, traces of a city in its heyday, and marvel at the neoclassical and Beaux Art palaces lining the riverfront Bund.

Travel and the chain reaction

One of the books that started San Diego-based travel writer and author Joe Yogerst roaming the planet was The Razor’s Edge* by Somerset Maugham, published in 1944, a reflection on the whole shebang: life, meaning, love and relationships.

As an aspiring writer, as well as an avid traveller, Yogerst could relate to protagonist Larry Darrell, an American pilot traumatised by his experiences in World War I, whose cathartic moment comes during a sojourn in India. Inspired by the fictional tale, it determined Yogerst’s own lengthy wandering through India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Finding the meaning of life in The Razor’s Edge, published in 1944

It was a journey of chain reaction. “I fell in love … with someone who turned me on to Africa … where I met the law student … who knew a newspaper editor in London . . . and so it went.…

“It was a decision that shaped what I would be doing with the rest of my life.”

Christine Gee, adventure travel company pioneer, says it was Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species that lured her to the Galapagos Islands, and Jerusalem The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore that opened the door to Israel.

Sydney’s Ute Junker had never wanted to go to India until she read Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain.

Says Junker, “This dizzying novel delivers a crash course in Indian culture, religion and society. What seduced me the most – apart from the typewriting monkey – was its vivid description of everyday life in India. It launched a love affair with the country that continues to this day.”

India’s everyday life writ large

And that’s the thing. Once you’ve found your happy place you can’t get enough of it. You go hunting for affirmation in a new cache of books. Chile is generous with its after-parties, among the guests Isabel Allende (House of Spirits), José Donoso (Curfew) and Roberto Bolaño (The Savage Detectives). Go to Gate.

Finding beauty in the salt plains and silence of the Atacama Desert


* This post may contain affiliate links. Excess All Areas may receive a small commission, at no cost to readers, if a purchase is made



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Copyright © Susan Skelly 2020.