The Armchair Traveller — Off the beaten track

Updated - July 24, 2016 02:53 am IST

Published - May 04, 2012 07:01 pm IST

The Whispering Land. Photo: Special Arrangement

The Whispering Land. Photo: Special Arrangement

The Whispering Land by Gerald Durrell

What is your idea of an exotic trip? Does it involve cresting desolate hills and fording mountain streams, all the while sleeping in cramped tents and living on packet soups? Well, I hate to disappoint you, but that is now a bog-standard holiday; kids in Class VIII do that sort of thing. To truly blaze a trial, you've got to do better than huddling under the rear-axle of a Land Rover, in the boondocks of a country nobody's heard of, and the next morning (or week, if you prefer) wrestle a savage puma and hand-feed a reluctant wild cat. Because that's what Gerald Durrell did — without much fuss too — as he journeyed across godforsaken bits of South America. Recorded in “The Whispering Land”, Durrell's trip to collect exotic fauna for his zoo in Jersey was fraught with much adventure. Landing in Argentina, he's taken aback by the vehicles' ‘time-honoured Buenos Aires game of seeing how close they could get to each other at maximum speed without actually crashing'; the customs give him a rough time by confiscating all his collecting equipment; and Claudius, his tapir, behaves very badly by ‘decorating' the floor of the kind host's house. But all these problems are swiftly forgotten once he sets off on his juddering, spine-shattering road trip to the windswept Patagonian countryside… because, once he's out there, filming approximately a million penguins (‘like a sea of pigmy headwaiters') or observing a fur seal colony (where the males were ‘enormous blundering tanks', and the females ‘beautiful, coquettish and at the same time loving') who's got the time to worry about foxes who nick toilet paper or rivers that swell from a piddly three ft to a whopping 300 ft across after one torrential downpour?

It works because…

This book takes ‘off the beaten track' to a whole new level. Even the most intrepid traveller would think twice before peering down soaring cliffs, searching for elephant seals. But for Durrell, ‘lying on the shingle, eating sandwiches within five feet' of a humungous specimen fulfilled his life-long ambition of seeing a ‘live elephant seal in his natural environment', much like others hanker to ‘visit Venice, or see the Acropolis before they die'. And it's this thirst — to seek out endangered creatures (such as the vampire bats, which he baits with his big toe) that takes him to the tropical paradise that is Jujuy and the wonderful Valdes Peninsula in Argentina, besides the more remote reaches of Patagonia, where the ‘monotonous and monochrome' landscape seems ‘apparently devoid of life'. Blessed with a gift to make images leap off the page (‘the sun set in a nest of pink, scarlet and black clouds, and there was a brief green twilight') and a knack to make the impossible seem entirely possible, Durrell's “The Whispering Land” is easily a dreamer's handbook. And if you're one, you really ought to be reading it.

And this one stays with you…

‘We set off eventually, full of brandy and coffee, in the pale daffodil-yellow dawn light and headed towards the place the penguins were to be found. Knots of blank-faced sheep scuttled across the nose of the Land-Rover as we drove along, their fleeces wobbling as they ran, and at one point we passed a long, shallow dew-pond, caught in a cleft between the gentle undulation of hills, and six flamingos were feeding at its edge, pink as cyclamen buds.'

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