True tales of adventure
February 6, 2007 3:22 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for true tales of adventure, preferably memoirs. Here are some examples I've already enjoyed: Apsley Cherry-Garrard's "The Worst Journey in the World", Thomas Cochrane's "Autobiography of a Seaman", and Ernie O'Malley's "On Another Man's Wound" and "The Singing Flame". Priorities are quality of writing, closeness of the writer to the events being described, and extremity of the adventures.
posted by stammer to Writing & Language (57 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Paddle to the Amazon an insane canoe adventure told by the main participant.
posted by Listener at 3:30 PM on February 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl (sailing to Easter Island from Peru in a balsa-wood raft).

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (less extreme, shorter accounts of widely varied kinds of desert adventure).
posted by sleevener at 3:34 PM on February 6, 2007

Jon Ronson's "Them" is pretty wild, though not in the traditional "slashing through the jungle with a canoe on my back" way.
posted by greatgefilte at 3:34 PM on February 6, 2007

Riding The Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux.
posted by klangklangston at 3:35 PM on February 6, 2007

One you may not have considered which was a page-turner for me: Bernal Diaz de Castillo's Conquest of New Spain.
posted by vacapinta at 3:37 PM on February 6, 2007

Two Years Before the Mast.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 3:40 PM on February 6, 2007

you might have already read it, but "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakuer is a great book.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:44 PM on February 6, 2007

The classic Seven Pillars of Wisdom can be a little dry, but it's big-time adventure.
posted by Bookhouse at 3:44 PM on February 6, 2007

You can't get more extreme than Xavier de Maistre's Journey Around My Room.
posted by winna at 3:45 PM on February 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

Kon Tiki is a good one. I also really enjoyed Travels With A Tangerine.

And if you want classic literature, I love Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad. Times and people have definitely changed, which is part of what I found so fascinating about it, and wow... that man was brilliantly funny. (You can actually download it on Project Gutenberg.)
posted by miss lynnster at 3:48 PM on February 6, 2007

Skeletons on the Zahara: a tale of the crew of an American merchantman who were shipwrecked on the Saharan coast in the early 1800s and enslaved by the local tribes.

In the Land of White Death: tale of the survivor of an icebound Russian ship trapped in the Arctic in 1912. A little dry, but the guy from whose diaries this account was drawn was sometimes given to making remarks of his fellow crewmen such as "they seemed to be engaged in a competition to determine who was the most useless".
posted by Midnight Creeper at 4:02 PM on February 6, 2007

Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea
posted by jedicus at 4:06 PM on February 6, 2007

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean
posted by MsMolly at 4:15 PM on February 6, 2007

The Perfect Storm
A Walk in the Woods
Into Thin Air
posted by blaneyphoto at 4:30 PM on February 6, 2007

I thought of a few more. North to the Night by Alvah Simon is a great story about one man's attempt to overwinter in his sailboat in the Arctic; also, although it's not a memoir, I'm surprised nobody's mentioned Alfred Lansing's Endurance yet. And of course, there's Touching The Void.

Nothing's as much fun to read as other people's stories of unspeakable suffering. (Especially when you know that they live to tell the tale.)
posted by harkin banks at 4:30 PM on February 6, 2007

Before The Wind: The Memoir of an American Sea Captain (1808-1833) was a quick and enjoyable read.
posted by SBMike at 4:34 PM on February 6, 2007

Nothing I've ever read in the true adventure genre comes close to the books by H. W. Bill Tilman.

Bill Tilman did everything. He was the first trekker in Nepal, did the first ascents of Annapurna and Nanda Devi, and dissappeared at sea when he was 79.

My favorite is the Eight Sailing/Mountain Books with the Seven Mountain Travel Books right behind. Eric Madge's biography of Bill Tilman is great too.
posted by Xurando at 4:44 PM on February 6, 2007

"I'm surprised nobody's mentioned Alfred Lansing's Endurance yet."

Oh yeah... that's the name of the book! I was gonna mention that one but couldn't remember the name. I also thought of Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire - Best book on the subject, ever.
posted by blaneyphoto at 4:48 PM on February 6, 2007

Paul Gauguin: A Life. Forget what you think you know about Gauguin and enjoy a tale of real determination in the face of...everything. A brilliantly written account of a brilliant life, it's a sin that it's out of print - do try and track it down.
posted by fire&wings at 4:54 PM on February 6, 2007


Why fishing the North Sea takes a special breed.
posted by johnny7 at 5:01 PM on February 6, 2007

Outside Magazine compiled a list of The 25 (Essential) Books for the Well-Read Explorer in 2003. Summary at Outdoor Book Reviews.
posted by djb at 5:15 PM on February 6, 2007

I can't believe I'm the first to mention The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition.
posted by alms at 5:20 PM on February 6, 2007

Across The Top Of The World: The Quest For The Northwest Passage, by James P. Delgado
posted by amyms at 5:23 PM on February 6, 2007

Pearls, Arms and Hashish: Pages from the Life of a Red Sea Navigator by Henri De Monfried
posted by bookley at 5:49 PM on February 6, 2007

A Man on the Moon formed the basis for the excellent HBO mini-series.
posted by frogan at 6:13 PM on February 6, 2007

Richard Halliburton, The Royal Road to Romance. Try to get an original copy from Abebooks or Alibris, not a reprint. You definitely want a copy with his original photos. Originally written in 1925, Halliburton chucks college and heads for Europe and Asia for adventure.

Halliburton is a bit of a goof, but he's honest about his goofy foolhardiness. He talks his way into a Matterhorn climbing expedition (he has no experience), gets jailed in Gibraltar, sneaks into the gardens at the Taj Mahal. The photos are his, taken with a personal camera. The book is an adventure through a world which doesn't exist anymore. Sometimes that's in Halliburton's political incorrectness here and there which reflects the time that it was written. But the majority of the time it makes you wistful for the days when you could just sleep on top of a pyramid without prior notice :)
posted by jeanmari at 6:17 PM on February 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

We Die Alone. It's got guns, it's got skiing, it's got Nazis.
posted by goetter at 6:36 PM on February 6, 2007

Shadow Divers is a fun read about two scuba divers trying to identify the wreck of a WWII U-Boat.
posted by mister e at 6:57 PM on February 6, 2007

Dove - A sixteen year old sails solo around the world.
posted by princelyfox at 7:34 PM on February 6, 2007

Eastern Approaches - "the classic true adventure story of a man who, by the pen, sword, and diplomatic pouch, influenced some of the most significant events of our era." Meeting partisans in WWII (including some guy named Tito)? Check. Only westerner at Stalin's show trials? Check. Playing the great game? Check.
posted by charlesv at 7:44 PM on February 6, 2007

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger
posted by bricoleur at 7:50 PM on February 6, 2007

I second MonkeySaltedNuts's suggestion of two years before the mast and sleevener's Kon Tiki idea. There are lots of neat things here. I also liked Ice Bound, about summering at the south pole. (By Jerri Nielson, who you may remember as the MD at the south pole who got cancer, treated herself there for a while, and was finally airlifted out.
posted by stupidcomputernickname at 8:22 PM on February 6, 2007

The Adventurist by Robert Young Pelton, a tourist who visits the world's most dangerous places.
posted by JDC8 at 8:35 PM on February 6, 2007

Tschiffely's Ride by A.F. Tschiffely (pub 1933 Simon and Schuster) documents his ride from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to New York. It isn't great writing (he was a Swiss, writing in English) but it's a cool thing to have done.

Two Years Before the Mast (per MonkeySaltedNuts) is a great read, especially if you visit the coast in winter, or livenear any of the places he writes about.
posted by anadem at 8:52 PM on February 6, 2007

Beyond the Deep by Bill Stone & Barbara am Ende is a pretty gripping story of the exploration of the deepest cave in the Western Hemisphere. There's quite a few other good books on caving out there, as well.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:02 PM on February 6, 2007

Beryl Markham's West With the Night and John Krakauer's Into the Wild are two of my favorites.

Also, this may not be quite what you're looking for, but here's a hilarious first hand account by novelist and one-time Mormon missionary William Shunn about his brief and doofy career in international terrorism.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 9:07 PM on February 6, 2007

Here's one that I really love that's hasn't yet been mentioned - In The Zone: Epic Survival Stories from the Mountaineering World . This book contains three great mountaineering stories that you needn't know all the mountaineering terminology to enjoy, it's written for all of us. The Colby Coombs epic survival story is particularly astounding to me. Astounding, astonishing, unbelievable - you pick the word. The man beats all the odds.

It is available very inexpensively used here. Don't miss this one if you've even a passing interest in mountaineering tales.

Paul Gaugan - A Life which fire&wings recommended is widely available used and very inexpensive on
posted by dancestoblue at 9:20 PM on February 6, 2007

I came in here to mention Kon-Tiki, but since it's already been mentioned, a good second choice is Jim Corbett's Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Really wonderful book about a dedicated hunter who has the greatest respect and love for tigers, and who occasionally hunted and shot one that had developed a taste for human flesh.

Among his discoveries: the man-eating tiger had almost always received a crippling injury that rendered it unable to capture its usual prey.

I was unsure if I could stomach a book about a great white hunter stomping in the forest in search of a bigger and better kitty trophy to hang on his wall; this isn't that book. His compassion and knowledge - about the tigers, and about a disappeared village way of life in India - make for a fascinating read. And when he talks about trying to move quietly through the brush at sunset, squinting in vain for a glimpse of a 1500 pound tiger, well, it's rather exciting.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:29 PM on February 6, 2007

I also enjoyed Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa, an account of a hunting safari Hemingway took to Africa. This really is the book about the great white hunter going to Africa looking for trophies to hang on the wall. If you are a fan of biodiversity and animals left to prosper in their proper habitat, it's sort of unfortunate; but it's so well written that it's worth reading anyway.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:32 PM on February 6, 2007

I love Robyn Davidson's Desert Places, a capture of the Australian writer's travels with the Rabari nomads in 1992, bridging her obsession with traveling on camels that started with her Tracks.

Her writing has resonated with me years after its initial reading...I often dearly wonder what has become of this writer.

Pulling the book off my bookshelf, I am still struck how she starts her tale with a quote from Robert Frost's "Desert Places":

"They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between start-- on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places."

posted by dchunks at 9:45 PM on February 6, 2007

Tristan Jones' Ice is excellent, true and harrowing.
posted by wsg at 11:42 PM on February 6, 2007

James Houston's Confessions of an Igloo Dweller meets your criteria quite well, I think. I found it riveting.

"James Houston arrived in Inukjuak in 1948 and lived among the Inuit in the Arctic until 1962 . He slept in Igloos, hunted walrus, ate raw seal meat and traveled by dog team." It's only fifty years ago, but it's very much another world.

Any of that northern derring-do makes for a good read. If you can overlook the promise that "this book will be an important document about Canada-Norway relations in the North" and the tedium wrongly hinted at by that, Ships of Wood and Men of Iron is a good -- but not first-person -- read.
posted by kmennie at 12:58 AM on February 7, 2007

The Long Walk. Polish calvary officer is captured by the Soviets in 1939 and imprisoned in the gulag. He escapes, and walks to India, crossing the Gobi and the Himalayas in the process. Amazing.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:52 AM on February 7, 2007

I asked a question that might provide some help for you. Also check out National Geographic's list of the 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time.
posted by Dasein at 8:54 AM on February 7, 2007

An Island to Oneself (Part 2, Part 3) by Tom Neale, which I found originally thanks to Metafilter's own hama7. hama7's link is broken, but there appear to be a few other book recs in the thread.
posted by clockwork at 9:19 AM on February 7, 2007

Kon Tiki, yes! I also enjoyed Papillon. What's more hardcore than escaping from Devil's Island?
posted by steef at 9:29 AM on February 7, 2007

Redmond O'Hanlon's Into the heart of Borneo is well and hilariously written.
posted by sevenstars at 10:04 AM on February 7, 2007

I can't believe no one's mentioned Sven Hedin yet. Or maybe someone did and I missed it. Try My Life as an Explorer. His writing's not great, but the stories are incredible.

I also like Beryl Markham's West into the Night, T.H. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, (from which, as a young lady, I learned the basics of guerilla warfare). And for something completely silly, I like most of what Bill Bryson's written.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:23 AM on February 7, 2007

oops, that should be West WITH the Night.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:25 AM on February 7, 2007

and that should be T E Lawrence. sigh
posted by small_ruminant at 10:33 AM on February 7, 2007

Many of my favorites have already been listed above. This is also my favorite realm of reading material. I appreciate seeing a number of books that I haven't yet read listed, I look forward to reading them too.

Captivated by Roy C. Andrews and Ivan T. Sanderson's early (pre cryptozology) books early in life I continue to read a lot of this same category of books. Alan Moorehead's Cooper's Creek and Laurence Bergreen's account of Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe are both worth a read.
posted by X4ster at 11:05 AM on February 7, 2007

Wholeheartedly seconding The Long Walk.
posted by initapplette at 11:14 AM on February 7, 2007

Two good contemporary reads are "The Places In Between" by Rory Stewart (a brit who ventures through current AFghanistan).

Also by Stewart, and also good is "The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq", where he relates his adventures as Provincial Governor in Iraq after the US invasion.

"A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler" by Jason Roberts is the biography of James Holman (1786–1857). Fascinating story.
posted by subajestad at 2:31 PM on February 7, 2007

While not necessarily about exploration, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex is an absolutely gripping account of the real-life story that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. It's got it all -- shipwreck, death, cannibalism, and survival. I ripped through it in 3 days, totally mesmerized. Nathaniel Philbrick is not only a thorough researcher, he's also a very descriptive and fluid writer. Probably the best book of its class that I've read.
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:43 PM on February 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'll second In the Heart of the Sea - I don't know why I didn't think to mention it... its an amazing book.
posted by blaneyphoto at 5:16 PM on February 8, 2007

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