Backpacker Naturalist: Wild Times Down Under | James Hanlon | 216 pages | 48 colour photos | 48 illustrations | Brambleby Books | Softcover | 2011 | ISBN: 9781908241023
Publisher’s View: In this splendid illustrated travelogue, the author vividly recounts his dream of travelling in search of antipodean birds and other exotic wildlife by first hitchhiking to New Zealand, before moving on to Australia. Besides meeting up with many wild animals, Hanlon also has his fair share of adventures. Truly wild times down under!
Fatbirder Guest Reviewer View: Back in 1991 I did a ‘Big Year’. I was working for an airline at the time and my plan was to raise funds for an overseas conservation project by getting sponsored for every species I saw as I travelled around the world as part of my job, birding in my time off ‘downroute’ and adding a few local species or vagrants when I was back in the UK. I racked up just under 2000 species, birded (often for no more than a day or a day and a half) in countries from Argentina to Canada, the UK to Japan, and India to Australia, and had – as might be expected – a high old time. I saw some great birds, visited nature reserves and National Parks, met interesting people, and probably even held an unofficial record of some sort for something like ‘the highest number of birds seen in one year by someone working for an airline’. I even got filmed by the BBC for a programme that was shown in 1992 and resulted in someone recognising me in a hotel lobby in Hong Kong…
I thought at the time that my ‘exploits’ (as copyrighters like to say when they’re attempting to jazz up events that aren’t quite exciting enough to be called ‘adventures’ or ‘life-changing events’) might make a good book. I can write well enough, and I hope I come across as an amiable, intelligent, and nice enough sort of bloke. I’d just done something that other people (birders mostly) might consider interesting or even unique, and I would be able to throw in a little bit of conservation to give the book a selling-point. I mulled over the idea for a few months, but came to the conclusion that while I’d enjoyed myself hugely, nothing very much had really happened. I’d got on and off far too many airplanes and spent far too many hours jet-lagged and sleep-deprived to make proper notes, I didn’t have a camera (this was pre-digital of course) so had no photos of wildlife or the glorious places I’d seen, my fund-raising efforts had been frankly unremarkable (what would I have given for social media or even a basic internet), and whilst I’ll never forget seeing a rain-sodden Tapaculo hop onto a fallen tree at at Brazil’s Itatiaia NP would anyone else really want to read about a sighting of a small charcoal coloured bird that had been over in a second? Most importantly, I didn’t think I could bring much in the way of insight to a potential reader. I’d never been anywhere long enough to really understand in depth what made a site or a habitat particularly important or I’d not become involved in any projects that were changing the world; and I’d done the whole thing with barely anyone noticing anyway which meant I’d have to build up interest about something that very few people had actually been aware of when it had been taking place.
As the years passed what reasons I had for writing a book became less defined and clear, and I never got past the opening chapter and a few scattered pages…
Perhaps I was over-thinking the situation, but I was proved right (to my mind anyway) when the richly-detailed and pacy story of Alan Davies’ and Ruth Miller’s world record-breaking ‘The Biggest Twitch’ came out in 2009 and demonstrated how the ‘big year’ genre should be written (http://www.thebiggesttwitch.com/book). Aimed squarely at a tiny audience of hardcore birders it was never going to top a bestseller list, but it was packed with species accounts, was lively, and had an unfolding storyline that took a reader from A to B, and on all the way to Z as the number of birds seen built up and the record came (and went). It had an involving subtext too – just how would the two protagonists cope with living in each other’s pockets for an entire year…Anyway, back to the present, and you may well be asking right now whether any of this relevant to this review? It is, because reading James Hanlon’s ‘Backpacker Naturalist’ constantly reminded me of the thinking process I underwent when I was debating whether to write a book or not. It was a feeling initially triggered by the publisher’s blurb on the back of what is a very well-packaged and presented book, but which describes ‘Backpacker Naturalist’ rather underwhelmingly as a “lively travelogue” written by a “keen naturalist” who has his “fair share of adventures” from bungee-jumping to – er, others “guided by the hand of fickle fate”. The book, it goes on to say, “will engage all those who share a love of nature”. They’re carefully chosen words (presumably anyway) which aren’t breathlessly hyperbolic and which won’t open up a challenge under the Trades Description Act by a possibly disappointed consumer, but that do unfortunately suggest that ‘Backpacker Naturalist’ isn’t going to change your life, or probably even offer any lasting insights into either backpacking or the natural history of Australia and New Zealand.
Books don’t, of course, HAVE to actually recount anything memorable or momentous to be worth the few days they take to read. Like ‘Backpacker Naturalist’ they can just be well-written and a bit of fun, a diversion from financial worries or a boring job, a chuckle or two and perhaps a route into a trip of your own to a biodiverse and endlessly fascinating region that every serious birder (and naturalist) will feel a need to visit at least once in their lives. They can be, and if that’s enough for you – and there’s no reason it needn’t be – then give ‘Backpacker Naturalist’ a go and enjoy it.
However, and I almost feel unfair writing this because I don’t know first hand what James was trying to achieve when he sat down and put in the effort that will undoubtedly have gone into creating the 200 or so pages he’s constructed, what ‘Backpacker Naturalist’ won’t do is give a reader much insight into the truly unique wildlife of Australia and New Zealand, or the threats they currently face from droughts, suburban expansion, mining, and the wildlife trade. James, and this is really the crux of the matter, was travelling between 1999 and early 2000, and in a time of rapidly changing environmental concerns and issues that is an age for a book published just a few months ago. The impact of climate change on coastal habitats was barely acknowledged at the turn of the century, for example, sharks were still abundant, the loss of albatrosses to long-lining wasn’t properly understood, the Orange-bellied Parrot was very rare but not on the very brink of extinction, and koalas weren’t being decimated by chlamydia (http://theweek.com/article/index/207316/are-stds-killing-koala-bears). Am I being unfair (again)? If you’re going to include the word ‘Naturalist’ in the title of your book, then surely these are issues that a reader might expect to be broached if not explored? Even if your travelogue is set in the years before these concerns really surfaced, I think it’s reasonable to expect a proper discussion if you’re writing towards the end of the decade and with the benefit of hindsight. Unfortunately (for this reader anyway) we don’t get it.The stories surrounding many of Australia’s most iconic species have changed greatly in the last ten years, and – having been to a number of the places mentioned in ‘Backpacker Naturalist’ in the last decade – so have the cities and the places to stay within them. Sydney’s hosting of the Summer Olympics in 2000 changed its skyline and some of its neighbourhoods forever, and the colossal amounts of money taken out of Hong Kong since 1997 has now irrevocably altered cities all along the Pacific Rim. Besides which, ‘trendy’ areas come and go and backpacker hostels are notorious for closing down suddenly or changing ownership. More importantly, since James was ‘Down Under’ the internet has exploded and there are now literally dozens of hostel review websites and foray full of travellers discussing where – or where not – to stay on the cheap. ‘Backpacker Naturalist’ is not therefore all that useful as a ‘where to stay’ guide: had it been published in 2002 it may well have been, but in 2012 I’m afraid it’s not.
Being ‘out of date’ could be said about all books that describe a particular period of time of course. Being ‘of a certain time’ doesn’t make any book, including ‘Backpacker Naturalist’, necessarily valueless of course – but it does mean that they live or die on the quality of the writing or the adventures within their covers. As already said, the blurb on the back jacket of ‘Backpacker Naturalist’ is somewhat restrained and doesn’t suggest that anything too extraordinary happened in the course of the trip – and the blurb is right. Perhaps, having spent twenty years going around the world, I’m a jaundiced type who isn’t overly excited by arriving in yet another city that under its skin isn’t actually all that different to the one I just left, but Australia and New Zealand are not really all that different to the UK: the beaches are better, the mountains higher, and the wildlife different, but in terms of language, cuisine, culture and religion this is familiar territory. Other readers may feel that doesn’t matter, and while no-one dies, no new species are discovered, no great projects undertaken, and no earth-shattering insights are offered there are anecdotes aplenty in ‘Backpacker Naturalist’ and the author is undoubtedly an amiable, intelligent guy who took extensive notes and underwent the emotional highs and lows that other travellers will recognise and emapthise with. He also has a good turn of phrase, is witty, bright, and inquisitive. Reading ‘Backpacker Naturalist’ is – when all is said and done – a pleasant enough experience.
In the end though, I come back to the thoughts that I opened this review with: is all of that really enough to make a book worth reading? I didn’t think so when I sat down to describe my own year long ‘birding and flying Big Year’. James Hanlon and his publishers, Brambleby, evidently came to a different conclusion about his travels: only time – and sales – will determine if they were right.
Guest Reviewer – Charlies Moores