Monday, April 8, 2013

W14: Quest Under Capricorn

I did not have high expectations when I saw the book this week, for I am not the sort that readily finds pleasure in reading National Geographics and the cover that fell out of the Biblio-Mat screamed nothing but dated misconceptions.  And then I read the author’s name.

A lesson to set aside budget for cover design.
Quest Under Capricorn is an ambiguous title that could pass for many things – video game, romance novel, fantasy film. In this case it was belonged to a 1963 first edition hardcover recounting an expedition into Northern Australia by the esteemed British naturalist David Attenborough. This man is to nature what Carl Sagan is to space. I had never read any of his books but have seen much of his BBC programming growing up and own all the Life, Planet Earth, and The Blue Planet boxsets. I read the entire book with his voice in my mind.

38 BW photos, 5 in full colour. Waiting on the HD release.
Contrasting with last week’s Scandinavia, Quest Under Capricorn is everything a travel book should be, and more. Recounting a journey to Northern Australia, Attenborough weaves in modern life, culture, history, and adventure together seamlessly while peppering it with bursts of humour. Starting off in Darwin, he makes no apologies on the ruralness of the city and sets the tone of the book – to explore the places that tie the past to the present. For even though the town is small and has not kept up with progress in the rest of the world, it was still vastly important technologically as it was the entry point of the underwater telegraph cables into Australia. Along with a cameraman and a sound engineer, he treks the surrounding areas to explore and document the culture and histories of the small towns and aboriginals that still live off the land. 

The part of Australia where only 70% of things are deadly
The first section of the journey has Attenborough embarking on a quest to film buffalo up-close. After meeting an endearing butcher his team encounters setback after setback, ultimately concocting a grand scheme of using a car to herd a stampede of buffalo towards the tree they were hiding behind to get a close up shot. It’s as dangerous as it sounds but at the last moment it was foiled by a flock of heckling cockatoos. Yes, that is the type of stories this book is full of.

While the first few sections dealt mainly with the flora and fauna of the land, the later sections are the ones that shine for he delves into the lives of the citizens of Darwin and the aboriginals. The characters he meets are the true heart and soul of this book as they are so unique and eccentric that one would think they were made up if not for the photographs. In one story he meets a British expat that is the epitome of polite anti-socialism, living along in the middle of nowhere playing classical violin all day. In another he befriends an aboriginal who is so gracious he ends up secretly giving him a tribal relic, a giant didgeridoo named “the Roaring Serpent”, which he has to smuggle out by stuffing it in a light aircraft. Along the way he also encounters a man who is being paid by the government to watch over a dock and catch the lines of visiting ships… who refused to catch the line of his ship as it was visiting.

The giant tribal didgeridoo. Worshiped by many, except the guy that gave it away.
Punctuating these adventures are short snippets of the history of the land told through fascinating anecdotes, such as the problem of the setting up of the telegraph network being hampered by aboriginal hunters stealing the ceramic transistors atop the telegraph poles to make spearpoints, which was solved by having tourists throw their empty glass bottles at the foot of poles as they journey through to give the hunters a better material. These brief windows into the past show a different side of the rich history in a way that is both enlightening and entertaining and the book was an extremely fast read.

Either Australian totem poles or a man just trolling the visitors.
What was refreshing about this book though, is that it makes no judgment on the people that live in these environments. Unlike expositions that skew the perspective of the subjects to paint them either in a pitiful existence or a human spirit triumphing over great odds sort of way, it is just a window into the daily lives of people living the way they do an ocean away.  It is a true exploration of life in a different culture, but then again, one would expect nothing less from Attenborough.

Book rating: 9/10 (a delightful read that holds up beautifully after fifty years)

Random quote: “These buffalo sound rather bad-tempered,” I said in what I hoped sounded like a nonchalant tone. “What does one do to avoid trouble?” “Shoot ‘em,” said Alan, draining his glass.

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