Up the Amazon and Back Down Again

Rory MacLean and Shipibo healers in the Peruvian Amazon

Apologies for my lengthy silence. Since my last newsletter I’ve been travelling, making research trips to India, California, the US Great Plains, British Columbia and Bhutan. Three weeks ago I returned from the Peruvian Amazon and this afternoon my first draft topped 95,000 words. The last two research trips will be coming up in the next couple of months. With a fair wind behind me, I’ll complete the new book in early 2025. It’s no exaggeration to say its writing and research have been transformative.

With luck, the Sherborne Travel Writing Festival will also be transformative when it returns to Dorset next month. Once again a sensational line up of writers and photographers have agreed to speak about journeys that are broadening and redefining our world.

I founded the festival to respond to both yesterday’s lockdown limitations and today’s dramatic upsurge in international travel – returns to Dorset. Once again a sensational line up of a new writers and photographers will enable audiences to rediscover and redefine the world.

Noo Saro-Wiwa – author of the Sunday Times Travel Book of the Year Looking for Transwonderland – will open the festival, sharing her new book Black Ghosts: A Journey into the Lives of Africans in China and the extraordinary stories of economic migrants in the People’s Republic from a Ghanaian cardiac surgeon to a Nigerian popstar who sings in Mandarin. The pioneering explorer Benedict Allen, best known for his self-filmed BBC programmes, will follow to recount his nail-biting adventures from the Amazon to the Arctic. Kassia St Clair, author of bestselling The Secret Lives of Colour, will tell the incredible and improbable true story of the 1907 Peking to Paris automobile race. Other highlights include Monisha Rajesh who will relate rail tales from her wonderful Around India in 80 Trains and Around the World in 80 Trains, Bijan Omrani on Caesar’s Footprints, Tom Parfitt on Russia’s haunted high Caucasus hinterland and Devon-based Davina Quinlivan on the rewards of getting lost.

I’m particularly thrilled that Don McCullin has agreed to talk about his life’s work. Don is among of our greatest living photographers. Over 60 years he has proven himself to be without equal whether documenting the poverty of London’s East End in the 1950s or the horrors of modern wars in Africa, Asia or the Middle East. For Don, photography “is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

Three of my books have been written in collaboration with another celebrated photographer, Nick Danziger. Nick developed a taste for adventure from a young age and, inspired by the comic-strip Belgian reporter Tintin, took off on his first solo trip to Paris aged 13. Over the subsequent years he hasn’t stopped moving, while establishing himself as one of Europe’s most sensitive chroniclers, above all for his fearless humanitarian work. On the festival’s Powell Theatre stage, Nick and I will talk about the books and exhibitions that we created for United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and British Council in North Korea, Myanmar, Cyprus and former Yugoslavia. Together we will discuss our working method, the power of combining words and images and the challenges of advocating for social and political change through the telling of individual and personal stories.

Real travelling ‘is no pastime but it is as serious as the grave, or any part of the human journey,’ wrote Thoreau. But how to justify a celebration of travel literature at a time when difficult personal finances and climate change loom over many of our travel plans? “Because travel writing matters,” answered Jay Griffiths, award-winning author and fierce advocate of nature’s remaining wild places. “It refuses to let the world get shrunk to a sclerotic nationalistic enclave. It opens the world, feeding curiosity, imagination, and the wide horizons of the mind.” The master wordsmith Colin Thubron – who also spoke at the festival last year – added that travel is especially important in the present age for “travel connects us to one another in ways more potent and empathetic than the Internet or the package holiday. Despite the world’s apparent globalisation, its borders seem to be hardening, and travel is medicine for one of the worst diseases of our time: the demonisation of the other.”

Hence once again the festival’s aim – in common with that of travel writing itself – is to build bridges of understanding between peoples, to enable us to empathise with other lives and to broaden our world. Please join us.