Only by travelling alone can one experience the sheer joy of returning to loved ones – and “home”.
Duncan J.D. Smith has embarked on a lifetime’s adventure, travelling off the beaten track in search of the world’s hidden corners and curious locations. Not only has he penned wonderful and unique city travel guides, care of his “Urban Explorer” role, in which he not only writes of the old favourites but also handpicks those little hidden gems that all travelers love to discover, but his beautiful photographs are also regularly published in a whole variety of magazines and journals.
During our correspondence, Duncan spoke with passion and sensitivity about the places he has been, the people he has met, and the things he has seen. He is an inspiring individual, and uses his wide-reaching influence to encourage the new generation of travellers to reconnect with those explorers of times gone by. This culminated in his championing of the “Forgotten Travelers”, whose indomitable spirit he captures in a number of his own writings, as well as through a series of Penguin books of their biographies.
What touched me most during discussions with Duncan was the sense that his travelling seems not only to be driven by a wish to see all the world has to offer, but first and foremost, by a desire to find illumination and to nurture this desires in others to seek it too. He offer words of great kindness to me, and I have no doubt at all these would be extended to anyone with an interest in travel. For any inexperienced travel writer, you could find no better sage than Duncan for words of wisdom, and for any inexperienced traveler, no better example of how best to make the most of a travelling experience. We found common ground in our love for the polar explorers, as well as for those a little less known, and I am honoured that he agreed to answer these questions.
Read more about Duncan, and all of his interests and projects, here: www.duncanjdsmith.com
How did you first become involved in the world of adventures and travels?
I recall three formative influences. My maternal grandfather was an archaeologist and local historian in the east of England. I remember him cutting a turf maze for me in his back garden, and how excited I was when he showed me the grave of a Roman soldier. Then, in the early 1970s, My mother suggested we visit Tangiers in Morocco, where as a young boy the colours and aromas overwhelmed me. A few years later my late father enthralled me with tales of forgotten British explorers from the 1920s and 30s, including Greenland kayaker Gino Watkins, and Saharan lady adventurer, Rosita Forbes. After all that it was inevitable I would eventually be drawn further into the world of travel and adventure.
You’re known as the “Urban Explorer”, and write the “Only-In” guides, how do you decide what you do and do not encourage visitors to see?
With my “Only In” Guides I endeavour to give the history of a place by reference to less well known locations. Alternatively, I describe less well known aspects of famous locations! Either way, my aim is to encourage readers to get off the beaten track – preferably on foot – or else to look at things with a fresh pair of eyes. That way, in an age in which travel lacks many of the hardships of old, the reader might leave with a more indelible, and perhaps, enlightening impression. For example, I’ve just completed my latest book, “Only in Paris”, in which I encourage visitors to scale the Eiffel Tower (hardly off the beaten track!) but also to explore around its base, where can be found a 19th century grotto, a secret military bunker, and the engine room that powers the lifts. At the other end of the scale is the discreet Armenian Quarter in Paris, with its bookshop, library, and glorious cathedral in which the Armenian Orthodox liturgy is practised. Both locations offer enlightenment – but in very different ways.
You must be away a fair number of weeks and months overseas – researching, photographing, writing – so how do you balance this with relationships and friendships back home? Do you find it difficult to maintain these two parts of your life?
Not at all. I’m pretty self-sufficient these days and have no problem with time away and being on my own. I believe that one is not so open to new experiences when travelling with others. And only by travelling alone can one experience the sheer joy of returning to loved ones – and “home”. The writer Nicholas Bouvier in “The Way of the World” summed this process up rather well: “…deprived of one’s usual setting, the customary routine stripped away like so much wrapping paper…open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight…You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you – or unmaking you.”
What role do you see the traveller playing? In particular in rural or off-the-beaten-track places, how much should we aim to leave cultures “untouched” so to speak, and how much should visitors be encouraged to take balloons, pens, footballs, etc?
That is a tricky question. Each “culture” should obviously be treated individually depending on its status in the world. Forest-dwelling tribes who have never encountered the outside world should clearly be left well alone. But what to do about peoples such as those living in the Omo Valley in Ethiopia? They preserve ancient traditions and yet rely to a degree on outside intervention, especially as their homeland is threatened by river and land development from those living in other parts of Ethiopia. These days, pens and balloons seem mostly for children (the world over), whereas adults would probably prefer some hard cash. It’s difficult when travelling in countries such as Ethiopia to know whether to try to help individuals one encounters along the way, or whether one’s money is better spent through a recognised, albeit somewhat anonymous, channel such as a registered charity. It’s an individual’s choice, as far as I’m concerned. Certainly visitors should not shy away from spending time with local people when travelling, since such experiences are every bit as important, if not more so, than witnessing the sights and sounds of a place.
There’s always those moments when you think, “I will remember this forever”, and then inevitably other memories dislodge them, but are there any of these in particular that have stuck by you?
Winding my way down the narrow gorge that leads to the rock-cut treasury of rose red Petra, the city half as old as time. Standing alongside sixty plus elephants in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Descending into the sewer system in the German city of Cologne and finding a chandelier swinging from the ceiling. Exploring the labyrinthine medieval souk of Fes in Morocco. Enjoying a gin and tonic in Baron’s Hotel in Aleppo, Syria, where Agatha Christie wrote “Murder on the Orient Express”. Fulfilling a boyhood dream by dipping my toes in Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Falls. Scaling the rock of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka to see the thousand year old frescoes of the cloud maidens. Cooking soup over a camping stove on a beach in Northumbria with my then new partner, Roswitha, whilst overhead a flock of birds swooped low and out over the sea…
You’ve done much to champion the cause of the “forgotten travellers”, but so much has changed in terms of how and where and who travels these days, do you think lessons can still be learn from times gone by?
Good travel writing is only history by another name. And like history, where would we be without it? It amazes me how many politicians have failed recently simply by not reading up on their history. More history, including travel writing, should be encouraged in schools. Geography, too. As our planet struggles to cope with mankind’s abuse so we would all do well to remind ourselves of how the world once was, and how certain human values and characteristics go unchanged regardless of how “modern” the world thinks it is.
And, lastly, if you could invite 5 people, from any point in history, to join you for dinner, who would they be?
1. Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, who disappeared in the Amazon in 1925 searching for a lost city. He probably inspired the fictional Indiana Jones.
2. Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, who for many years rebuffed the might of ancient Rome until being captured and paraded in gold chains.
3. Michael Palin, who has done so much to pioneer television travel, and who hails from my home town of Sheffield. Maybe he could sneak in another Sheffielder, the late great travel writer, Bruce Chatwin?
4. Dame Freya Stark, traveller extraordinaire, who wrote a series of timeless travel books, and sounds to have been jolly good company, too.
5. Edward Wilson, artist and doctor, who accompanied Captain Scott on his fateful journey to the South Pole. He displayed an unswerving Christian faith in the face of dreadful adversity, and was a great source of comfort to his companions.