Category Archives: Travel Writing

Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O’Hanlon

  1984. Vintage Books. Paperback. 183 pages.


Bought this at Books Inc, an independent bookseller, at their location on Chestnut St. in San Francisco.

In a nutshell:

Naturalist O’Hanlon and his fellow scholar-adventurer, James Fenton embark on a river journey deep into the forests of Borneo. They are guided by three Iban men: authoritative Headman Dana, small and quiet Inghai, and their main translator, the lively lothario, Leon.


As one can buy most books anywhere in the country, books aren’t my usual souvenirs. However, the Chestnut St. location of Books Inc. was near the motel where my friends and I were staying in San Francisco. I wandered in one night while my friends trekked further on a fervent quest for dessert. The bookshelves were dotted with recommendation notes from the staff. Into the Heart of Borneo had a few particularly convincing words of praise and I’d never heard of it before. When I brought it up to the cash register, it turned out that the guy behind the counter was the one who wrote the recommendation. So, very cool.

Travel narratives set in remote places like Borneo are intrinsically interesting to me, because I’m bound to learn something new about other people and cultures. This is certainly true of O’Hanlon’s book. Before reading Into the Heart of Borneo, I couldn’t name any of the peoples that call that island home or much about their way of life. And while this small book is by no means a primer on those subjects, new historical and cultural information is easily set side by side with the events of O’Hanlon’s trip.

O’Hanlon’s storytelling style is witty, self-deprecating and observant. The two British guys are definitely out of their element and entrust themselves to the skillful, good-humored guidance of Dana, Leon and Inghai. O’Hanlon has a number of things which cause him trepidation both before and during the trip. There are the tales of cannibalism and headhunters and death-by-blowpipe that officials and old books regale to him. The extraordinary diversity of fauna in Borneo includes poisonous snakes and a number of parasites, including threadlike worms that are barely perceptible when one goes to drink freshwater. O’Hanlon is also vicariously horrified and intrigued by the use of the palang by some of the men in Borneo. A palang is a tube that is inserted in a pierced hole of a man’s, um, instrument, apparently for the enhancement of pleasure.

I liked how O’Hanlon and Fenton both insisted on bringing a number of books with them on the journey. O’Hanlon’s illustrated natural history books provide some wonderful moments of cross-cultural connection when people from the Iban, Kenyah and Ukit tribes recognize the pictured animals and birds of their homeland. He also quotes liberally from these books in his narrative, but is judicious in his choice of quotes. Fenton hauls along Les Miserables.

I have observed in other travelogues and even in my own trips that there will be at least one or two recurring themes or motifs. It may be something explicitly sought out, like O’Hanlon’s desire to see evidence of a Borneo rhinocerous or find someone who has seen one. Or it may be a combination of the observer and the place: as O’Hanlon is a naturalist, the trip is punctuated by bird sightings. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a bird enthusiast to appreciate the avian-themed events, as O’Hanlon does  a good job of explaining his enthusiasm. He doesn’t assume that the reader will automatically feel as excited as he did in seeing such birds as a pair of hornbills or a Crested serpent eagle.

There are a number of times where O’Hanlon and Fenton are made uneasy by cultural differences. For example, O’Hanlon experiences some consternation when Leon sets his amorous sights on a very young teenage Kenyah girl. Also, when a Malay woman is injured during a party near the end of the book, O’Hanlon and Fenton clash with one of their hosts who is indifferent to the woman’s plight.

I’d been disappointed by some of the travel books that I’ve read this year, so I’m really glad to have picked up Into the Heart of Borneo which captures some of my favorite elements of the genre: fascinating locale, a gift for storytelling, memorable travel companions, and stuff actually happens. (I get impatient when the main purpose of the travelogue is the author ‘finding him or herself’.)

A couple of excerpts in conclusion to give a taste:

I looked at my legs. And then I looked again. They were undulating with leeches . . . They were all over my boots, too, and three particularly brave individuals were trying to make their way in via the air-holes. There were more on the way – in fact they were moving towards us across the jungle floor from every angle, their damp brown bodies half-camouflaged against the rotting leaves.

“Oh God,” said James, “they are really pleased to see us.

p. 117

. . . I sat down by the central tallow lamp as night came down, and began to look again with delighted disbelief at all the montane and submontane species which Smythies illustrates in The Birds of Borneo. The resident old woman, stopping her weaving of small pieces of fishing net, came and squatted down beside me on her haunches. I turned over the plates, very slowly. She bent forward, intrigued, and her distended, looped earlobes, weighted with some twenty brass rings apiece, cast two ellipses of shadow across the rough planks of the floor. It seemed to take her some time to realise that the pictures were images of birds, birds that she knew; and then she uncurled a thin arm from around herself and pointed with a creaky finger on which all the joints were swollen. It was Plate III, the Borneo raptors, and she pointed at the Brahminy kite, Haliastur indus intermedius. Tentatively, she stroked its red-brown back; and then she turned, her old eyes alight, and she smiled at me with one set of lips and one set of gums.

p. 85

Other reviews:

Are you sitting comfortably . . . ? – “This book will make you laugh, and in some parts wince, but mostly laugh.  It will also make you want to go to Borneo.  The way he incorporates the wildlife and nature into the books makes you realise just how fascinating nature really is . . .”

John Bokma – “The book is simply fantastic. It has a lot of humor, enough to make me laugh out loud plenty of times . . . The two things that bothered me about “Into the heart of Borneo” is that I would love to have seen some of the photos Redmond O’Hanlon took, and the book ends rather abruptly.”

Please click on photo for attribution.


Filed under Travel Writing

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

1977. Penguin. Paperback. 204 pages.

From: the library

Author recommended by: Vishy

In a nutshell:

Bruce Chatwin became fascinated by Patagonia when he was a child.  His grandmother had a scrap of prehistoric animal skin in her house, sent to her by her cousin, Captain Charley Milward, from one of the ends of the earth: Patagonia.

This book is the story of his travels in Patagonia as an adult, complemented by scraps of relevant history.


I think one reason I am fond of travel writing is that I love a good anecdote.  I like the short tales of people met, lives and places encountered, conversations with strangers.  When I visited cities as a child from a small Maine town, I was astounded by the throngs of people.  I wondered what all of their stories were.  Reading travel writing taps into that brand of wonder.

When Bruce Chatwin was in school, the Cold War was in full swing and everyone expected imminent destruction from bombs.  This prompted research into where one could flee from the fall-out:

We fixed on Patagonia as the safest place on earth.  I pictured a low timber house with a shingled roof, caulked against storms, with blazing log fires inside and the walls lined with the best books, somewhere to live when the rest of the world blew up.

p. 3

Later, traveling in Patagonia as an adult, Chatwin encounters people who find Patagonia an ideal remote refuge and others who are homesick for their original homelands.  Chatwin inquires locals about Butch Cassidy and members of his gang who fled to Patagonia to escape the law.  He is often on the trail of some local legendary and infamous figure.

As Chatwin’s travels take him further south to Tierra del Fuego, he increasingly focuses on the life and journeys of his relative, Captain Charley Milward who had spent time down there at the end of the Americas.  He even includes fascinating excerpts from Milward’s own memoirs of his seafaring days.

I did wish that I knew more about Argentinian and Chilean history while reading In Patagonia.  Chatwin often makes fleeting references to conflicts, revolutions and military leaders that I only half-understood.  It wasn’t enough to make me completely lost in the text, but I did feel that I wasn’t getting a full comprehension of certain anecdotes.

Chatwin tends to let tragedy and people’s callousness speak for themselves.  While on Navarino Island, Chatwin meets Grandpa Felipe, the last member of the Yaghan people lives in a shanty on base.  Grandpa Felipe tells Chatwin of how his people lost their language to compulsory English education, and then lost their lives to epidemics.  In another anecdote, Chatwin talks to an old English farmer who refers to the Ona people in terms of ‘tame Indians’ and ‘wild ones.’

After reading this book, the overall picture I get of Patagonia is that of a hardscrabble, lonely place, a place where one would likely  feel inconsequential.

Here are a couple excerpts from the book:

Paco loved his truck and called her Rosaura.  He scrubbed her and polished her and hung her cab with lace frills. Above her dashboard he fixed a statuette of the Virgin of Lujan, a St Christopher and a plastic penguin that nodded with the corrugations of the road. He pinned nudes to the roof, but somehow the girls were an abstraction whereas Rosaura was a real woman.

p. 79

Offshore there were grebes and steamer ducks, and out in the strait, sooty albatrosses wheeling effortlessly, like knives flying.

p. 134

Other reviews:

A Brooklynite on the Ice – “The tales Chatwin tells of them are typical of his unparalleled nose for backstory, his ability to find the choice historical nugget that gives a place meanings unrevealed by classical history.”

Macumbeira – “And what a story teller Chatwin was! We get it all and all in a same breath, in a short elegantly starved down style we switch from Paleontological Monsters to Mythological Unicorns, from American desperadoes to Communist agitators, from Wells and Darwin to Bakunin and Mandelstam.”

ricklibrarian – “The sharp-image quality may make little sense to someone plowing through the book quickly. To them it may seem to be just one thing after another. Readers need to pause and contemplate what Chatwin has shown them to draw their own conclusions about the place and its people.”

For credit, please click on photo.


Filed under Travel Writing