There seems to be something curious happening to the book industry of late. From books on slow cooking to yoga and meditation and tomes on finding calm and balance in our lives, could it be possible that publishers are really taking notice of an inherent need out there? Are we really – dare I say it?… thinking about the possibility of actually Slowing Down?
Not sure about you, but 90% of my stress and 90% of my nightly Chardonnay ritual is securely hinged in The Rush. The need to achieve, to do, to complete, to succeed, to account. Even our family’s travels have been fraught with fitting as much as we possibly can into the shortest amount of precious and valuable time – a commodity not only defined by hours – but by money and effort.
So wonderful, then, to open and melt into this lovely book by Australian meanderer, Gillian Souter. This wandering author has already penned three books on walking journeys – Classic Walks in Western Europe, Walking France and Walking Italy – books that feature landscapes to readily tempt many a voyaging soul. Souter’s latest offering – Slow Journeys: The pleasures of travelling by foot – may not feature a collection of far-flung, ranging routes, but it is nonetheless a fascinating read for any traveller.
Essentially a ‘how to’ manual for the voyager who loves to drink in their surrounds (and makes the time to do so), Souter espouses the attraction of taking things slow – of returning to the overland journey, to the cobblestone path, the pebble-strewn track, the grass-trodden trail through hillsides, past lowing and bleating and eggs nestled gently in thatches of grass. Of the open elements, the sights and smells, the flora and fauna laid bare.
Make no mistake, the author is not talking about hiking on rugged terrain nor traversing the unpassable mountain pass. Slow Journeys is all about taking the pleasant route – the well worn path of certainty that has been trodden before – the relatively hazard-free, beautiful and physically pleasant groove that has been carved by the many before us. In doing so – in rediscovering the tracks that have already been forged – the focus becomes about enjoying the voyage. Being able to stop on a whim, camp or picnic at your leisure, enjoy the slower pace that allows one to mingle and meander with nature or locals or simply with a particular shade of sky.
I love this book. It has truly made me want to pack my pack and head off into the wildnerness. Souter has presented an incredibly detailed collection of chapters that are charmingly written – like a lovely long chat with a backpacker on a train ride through Europe. The author’s thoughts, ideas and experience are deliciously comprehensive and priceless for anyone wanting to experience the great outdoors – from their own backyard to the wilds of Peru.
I also love how the author doesn’t pretend to be a descendant of Grizzly Adams – she wants a clean, comfy spot to rest her head at night and she’s not afraid to admit she’d much prefer a glass of wine in the evening to a bucket of stream water sizzling with purification tablets. Perhaps like many of us – she wants to experience nature without rocks in her back, scorpions in her shoes or black bears drooling over her sleeping bag.
Slow Journeys is divided into a rich variety of chapters, covering an impressive variety of topics. Who knew going for a walk could be so involved? But if you want to know it, you’ll find it here. Opening with a ‘pre-amble’, Souter shares her love of walking and considerable experience in doing so. From there, she covers different types of walking routes – camping, hut-to-hut, assisted, fully serviced. She then moves on to the actual mechanics of walking, with eye-opening advice on how to navigate varying terrain, speed and distance, even how to achieve low-impact walking.
In Setting the Scene, we learn about walking sites and what might attract us – the mountains or the shoreline? the woods or more urban routes? We’re also treated to various suggestions on which contintent might best suit our meandering ways. Having walked extensively on most continents, the author certainly knows what she’s talking about.
Once potential walkers have decided on a destination, Souter then takes us through itinerary planning, travelling solo or in groups, what equipment to take, what and where and how to eat (the author readily eschews specially made high-energy bars in favour of something far more simple… “why bother when you can eat chocolate?”).
It’s then on to how and where to seek shelter, reading a map and a compass, even how to read waymarked paths. Did you know, for example, that in England yellow arrows mark footpaths but blue ones are used for bridleways (a path shared by walkers, horseriders and cyclists)? Norwegians use a red ‘T’. In France, red and yellow stripes are used for paths that circuit the region and in America, you can look for tree markings, metal dics or paint spots.
Once walkers are merrily on the way, Souter reminds us of obstacles and aids. There’s advice on how to cross streams, navigate moving ground, even how to read weather signs and deal with varying conditions. In case of emergency, the author offers timely advice – and I for one am glad to know that if ever I wander off the beaten track and need to be rescued by a helicopter, I should raise my arms into a Y shape to indicate distress. If all is going well and I don’t need assistance, I simply keep one arm up in the Y position and take the other arm down to form a diagonal line. Love it.
Another heart-warming part of the book I enjoyed was Walking Etiquette. Essentially, the author has taken the potential awkwardness out of trekking on our behalf by offering advice from past experience. We learn how to foster walking camaraderie, give people their space and how to be discreet (farting is permissable, according to the author, so long as it’s silent and performed downwind).
But probably my favourite part of all is found in Along the Way, a chapter designed to help you make the most of your journey. Under ‘Edification’, Souter reminds us that we have the power to create a beautiful or mundane walking experience. By taking the time to prepare ourselves to become insightful and appreciative of our journey – from geology to flora, fauna and local history – a long hike can become an extremely rewarding experience.
Rounding out the vicarious journeys in this wonderful book is advice on how to record your walking feat – from journal writing to photography and illustration, and throughout the book, Souter regales us with wonderful memories of her own travels, peppering paragraphs with beautifully researched quotes from famed amblers who went before us (Robert Louis Stevenson, W.B. Yeats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, to name a few). For those wanting more information, a list of suggested walks and useful websites on such things as walker’s sites, accommodation and maps can be found at the end of the book, and there’s even a packing checklist.
Whether you’re planning a trip abroad or into the wilderness of your own back yard, Slow Journeys will not only prep you for a glorious travelling experience, it will also teach you how to pause and breathe along the way. Given that pausing and breathing is something we all need to do more, I couldn’t think of a better leisure experience.
About the Author
Gillian Souter is a life-long walker who turned her passion into a business, having produced three guidebooks for walkers. She has the good fortune to live at Hyams Beach on the New South Wales south coast, where, in between trips to hiking destinations overseas, she gets her fill of walking in the local bush and along the coast.