Longacre Press, $34.99,
Twisting Throttle America
Sleeping with the Dead
Random House, $37.99,
These books cover three different kinds of travel experience – a focus on specific places, a long journey and a dramatic event. Each author has his own shtick or gimmick. Antipodes is a whimsical tale of a man breaking out of a comfortable Dunedin rut to travel first to Cape Reinga and then to Spain. His gimmick is that he equips himself with a GPS so that he can identify exact locations in New Zealand, then travel to their antipode, the point exactly opposite them on the other side of the globe. He takes 360 degree pictures of the environment, and their presentation as a circle at the beginning of each chapter is an added bonus.
The first part of the book recounts the family trip north, with its warmly familiar descriptions of travelling with teenagers and staying in Kiwi campgrounds. The North Island is portrayed as a bemusing foreign land to these southerners. The more challenging and more satisfying trip to Spain, especially to those exact antipodes, makes up the more substantial second part of the story.
With droll humour and a light writing style, this is a much smaller, warmer (though higher-tech), version of Martin Edmond’s Zone of the Marvellous (reviewed in NZB Spring 2009). It answers the question of what is around the other side – mainly scrubby Spanish countryside, populated by laconic, startled, but helpful locals. This is probably what a Spaniard would report if they did exactly the same expedition in reverse. And, for the record, the antipode of suave Madrid is in the backblocks of Eketahuna – when it comes to irony it is all about location, location, location.
Mike Hyde’s shtick is humorous accounts of riding his motorcycle around countries that begin with an A. Twisting Throttle America follows Twisting Throttle Australia, and his website shows he has since visited Antarctica (albeit without a motorcycle but with a helmet, to keep the photographic themes going).
America tells of his mission to motorcycle through 50 US states in 60 days. Look at a map and a calendar and do the maths: you’ll see his challenge. It makes for a very long but very thin road movie. The itinerary is always pressing, and the action all occurs close to the bike in gas stations, truck-stop cafes, motels, camping grounds or roadside attractions. He’s doing it all on the smell of an oily rag, and he never seems to get beyond the exhaust clouds surrounding US highways and byways.
Thankfully he plays down the butt- and brain-numbing boredom of 32,000 kilometres of motorcycling while exaggerating the insightful glimpses and fleeting interactions. He literally goes out of his way to find the best of bizarre US pop-cultural sites, such as the grave of Colonel Sanders, while he sets up many corny jokes and photos. He survived the journey and lived to write it up. Though for a man already taking cholesterol medication he eats far too much greasy road food.
People obviously get hurt and die everywhere but in Thailand it is volunteers who tend these messy situations. Sleeping with the Dead is a New Zealander’s story of being such a volunteer, and, especially, his experience recovering cadavers after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Marko Cunningham’s shtick is doing demanding and distasteful work in an unusual place. He’s worked with a Thai ambulance and aid service for a few years, his foreignness making him stand out and even granting him talismanic status.
Despite being used to handling dead bodies and tending messy accident scenes, he was shocked by the devastation when he was sent to Phuket immediately after the 2004 tsunami. His honest and graphic account of this traumatic experience and its ongoing impact on him, along with his stories of rescue and aid work, makes for a unique story. His Kiwi bloke humour serves him well.
All three books are “what I did in my (unusual) holiday” trip reports. They show that if you want to attract readers you need to chuckle softly and carry a big shtick.
Garth Baker is a Wellington reader and traveller.