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Desert Island Books

Most of us would relish being trapped on a remote desert island. So today I am going to select my Desert Island Books – a list that would keep me content until my eventual rescue. I’mm going to invite you to join in as well – have your say in the comments what your selection would be. In a reverse of the original radio format I will also let you choose one song as well as the usual luxury item. Bonus points for anyone who picks one of these books!

As well as offering your own selection please do feel free to cast your opinion on my taste: genius or woefully misguided..?

  • The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Not only beautiful writing and a vital documentary on Scott’s last expedition, but also the call to arms that prodded me to get on with my own South Pole expedition.
  • As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning – Laurie Lee. My favourite travel book. I love the lyrical writing, the freedom, the endless possibilities of the open road. (This would be my choice if I was only allowed a single book).
  • The Ascent of Rum Doodle – a farcical, comic account of the fabled Mount Rum Doodle. Helps remind me not to take my expeditions, nor writing about them, too seriously.
  • The Kon-Tiki Expedition – Thor Heyerdhal. Sail across the Pacific? On a balsa wood raft? Using only equipment available to mankind tens of thousands of years ago? Sure – why not?! Gung-ho adventure by an anthropologist seeking to prove a serious point.
  • Wind, Sand and Stars – Antoine St Exupery. The book I wish I had written. The beauty of the desert and the night sky as witnessed by an early pilot.
  • The Way of the World – Nicolas Bouvier. Two young men drive East, in search of Asia, the wonders of the world, wine, women and song. When I am old this book will remind me of my glory days.
  • Full Tilt – Dervla Murphy. Almost all books about long bicycle journeys are very boring. This one inspired me to think big with my journeys.
  • Sailing Alone Around the World – Joshua Slocum. The first man to sail single-handedly around the world. I love his spirit as well as the freedom he finds out at sea.
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway. It’s not really about travel. But it is about Spain. So that’s enough for me to shoe-horn my favourite novel into this list. It’s about life and living, love, death, and being a man.
Piece of Music – St Matthew Passion by Bach
Luxury Item – Bialetti espresso maker

This piece originally appeared in Wanderlust.

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  1. I’d have to put ‘What am I doing here’ by Bruce Chatwin as number 1 on the list of desert island books. Then in no particular order, ‘The places inbetween’ by Rory Stewart, ‘Call of the Wild’ by Guy Grieve, and ‘The Sea Wolf’ by Jack London.

    I’ll have to add a few of yours to my list for the next few months!

  2. akshay Posted


    My favourite on a deserted island would be ‘seven years in tibet’ by heinrich harrer.Its an epic account of his travels across the barren tibetan landscape.

  3. no hesitation Gabriel garcia Marquez, 100 years of loneliness..
    dont know yours by the way… 😉

  4. As a lover of the desert I can identify with Wind, Sand and Stars. Wind In the Sahara by R V Bodley (grandson of the founder of the Bodlian Library) is a good read.

    Depressed when watching the signature of the Treaty of Versailles, and seeing it as preparation for a Second World Was, Bodley stepped into a side room, Lawrence saw him and asked why he was in such a mood, and said ‘go and live with the Arabs’. This is the account of seven or eight years living in the desert in North Africa, your cup will always be half full after reading this – a wonderful account – and a book that has had a deep effect on my life.

    ‘Quiet for a Tuesday’ by Tom Sheppard – 2008 – an elderly desert explorer, alone in his Mercedes 4×4, confident to drive miles off the tarmac, alone for days on end (you might remember seeing the encounter with Michael Palin in Pole to Pole). An inspiration to go and do some extraordinary things, and a book (and some wonderful pics to boot) to read and reread…..

    And yes – As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning – is a favourite – I gave a copy to Andy Dextrous – the guy who taught me to juggle – just before he set off for Spain – ‘for the man who showed me what my hands were for!!’

  5. Great stuff Matt – had a peek at the Hoy film with Macleod – you’re all mad, and filming a madman – but superb stuff. Climbing filming has reached new levels with the latest equipment, hats off to you all.

    • Thanks very much for the kind words Mike. It was an incredible trip, and I definitely had some experiences that I will never forget (particularly the 18 metre pendulum swing 320 metres above the sea!) I can’t wait to see the edited film!

  6. Like the list you’ve put together there Al. The Ascent of Rum Doodle – pure class. For whom the bell tolls would definitely be in my top 10 too. I’ve been meaning to read As I walked out one midsummer morning for a while now so thanks for the reminder that I need to go and buy it!

    Some of my favourites are William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu, Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, and Jay Griffiths’ Wild which totally blew me away when I read it the other week.

  7. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy – an insight into Keralan life and beautifully poetic, I could read it again and again

  8. I would have to include “The Life of Pi”

    Strange book, but must be on the list.

    Other than that I think you have a fairly complete list.

  9. Focussing on travel related books, I’d have to go for:

    1. A Walk in the Woods [Bill Bryson] – hilarious insight into a regular bloke doing the Appalachian Trail with a loose cannon for a friend

    2. The Last American Man [Elizabeth Gilbert] – an outdoors legend

    3. Ultimate High: My Everest Odyssey [Göran Kropp] – it usually takes me about 6 months to read a book, but I was so mesmerised by this adventure I got through it in 2 days. A true legend, rest in peace.

  10. Mountain Days and Bothy Nights by Ian Mitchell / Dave Brown – describes the “social” history of Scottish Mountaineering at a particular time.

    Always a Little Further by Alistair Borthwick – again a bit of social history …but from a different point in time.

    Both explain a bit of my own motivation for finding micro adventure in the hills and glens north of the river Clyde.

  11. My Desert Island book would be an aptly named Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
    He depicts his entrancement with the deserts of the American Southwest

    The author has been compared to Thoreau which is an achievement in itself!

  12. Another one is ‘Three Men in a Boat’ by Jerome K Jerome. I’m currently swimming the length of the Thames in (very slow) stages and though this book may be old, it’s hilarious. Many of the passages still resonate – such as the description of camping in the rain and the joys (or otherwise) of going for a cold water swim in the morning.



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