Friday, 13 February 2009

Into The Remote Places, Ian Hibell (1984)

Robson Books 0 86051 253 X Octo 204pp £8.95

An episodic account of cycle journeys made in the early 1970s across the Darien gap, south through Africa (including the Sahara) and west-east across South America from Lima to Recife in Brazil

Hibell is accorded a high plinth indeed among adventurous cycle tourists. He is cited approvingly by everyone from Josie Dew to Bernard Magnaloux and copies of this book are now reputed to change hands for hundreds of pounds. It is a deserved reputation. Into The Remote Places recounts adventures of spectacular audacity – most notably crossing the Darien Gap and the Sahara.

Since his untimely death, obiturists have adopted a kind of short hand to describe his most extraordinary moments: ‘rescued from certain death in the desert by Tuareg tribesmen, chased by spear wielding Turkana in northern Kenya and savaged by soldier ants in South America’. Taken alone, the Boys Own adventures would make this book worth reading. But its really special quality is Hibell’s self-effacing, humble attitude to himself. He paints himself as a very ordinary man, doing extraordinary things, without his modesty ever seeming false. Possibly it is this that makes it easy to project yourself into his cycle shoes – even if you are never actually going to pedal further than the shops.

He paints some vivid pictures of the scenes that he has encountered too. Here he is when he found himself amid a herd of elephants:

“Now there were currents of elephants; streams that flowed this way that that. I was a rowing boat in the midst of a regatta, a wheelchair patient negotiating the M1 on a bank holiday weekend. I sought and found the protection of another tree and pressing myself up against its rough bark, closed my eyes.”

Or, having a hard time of it in the Sahara:

“Three days. 147 kilometres. The afternoons were interminable. Dullness overpowered me. I might have been walking on the moon; for all I knew the day’s journey took ten years. Only at the ransom of my other faculties could I put one foot out before the other. And even then I would count, very slowly to one hundred. By that time my
dizziness would have disappeared and I would get to my feet and stagger on.”

There are also interesting reflections from an age now long passed. His sympathies for general set up in Rhodesia, as it then was, are illuminating given his liberal instincts and his long immersion in the rest of Africa.

The book is not without its curiosities. Hibell makes his final journey with ‘Jean’, a young woman he met at a lecture he was giving in the UK between his journeys in Africa and Peru. Love blossoms between them, but when ‘Jean’ returns to Britain early, Hibell starts to pine. And before he has reached, the Atlantic she has written to him to let him know that she was pregnant. Hibell is delighted and happily starts to fantasise about family life, marriage and a simple cottage with a door framed by rambling roses.

This does give the end of his narrative a very strong, human conclusion. But it also sits rather oddly in a travel book of this kind. Indeed, in the age of the internet it is almost impossible not to seek out further instalments. This turns up any number of gems – not least Hibell’s appearance of Blue Peter.

It also becomes clear, however, that the relationship did not thrive and the author was soon in search of yet more remote places.

It is a bittersweet revelation. The human desire for a happy ending is unfulfilled; but, hero Hibell, the unassuming global circumnavigator, emerges intact from the clutches of domesticity.

PS February 09

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