Consolations of the Forest

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

consolations-of-the-forestIn Consolations of the Forest French author Sylvain Tesson heads off for a five month stay in a cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal in Russia – a retreat into the Siberian forest. It left me mildly disappointed. It sets out to be lyrical, to observe the land and nature and it does that very well. But it’s not really a hermit-like escape, he’s too well equipped for that (food, vodka, cigars) and he’s certainly not alone, after awhile I began to wish I’d put a tick beside each day somebody turns up or he goes to visit somebody. It seems like he’s hardly alone for more than a day or two at a spell. Plus he goes on about not missing anything or anybody then suddenly his life is ending when there’s a message from his girlfriend that she’s had enough and it’s all over. She’s not rated a single mention up until that point, if he was missing her he was keeping it well hidden.

Consolations of the Forest was the 2014 Dolman Travel Award winner, I chaired the panel of judges for the 2012 award.

Tom Neale 270Tesson takes an extensive library with him including assorted books on hermits and retreats. His shelves include Tom Neale’s An Island to Oneself, the superb tale of the Cook Island hermit’s stay on Suwarrow Atoll in the Pacific. I enjoyed the book so much that on a visit to the Cooks I made a pilgrimage to his grave near the Rarotonga Airport. ►

I’d have added Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s account of Christopher McCandless and his doomed Alaskan retreat. Now he really did cut himself off from all human contact. In 1998 I visited Robinson Crusoe Island, the island off the coast of Chile which provided the inspiration for the Crusoe story. I wrote a book – never published – on the Pacific islands I visited on that trip, click here for my Robinson Crusoe Island chapter.

Falkland Islands & South Georgia 270He never wrote a book about it, but I’ve always been intrigued by Duncan Carse’s 1961 stay on South Georgia Island in the Antarctic, a much more remote and unfriendly locale than Lake Baikal or Suwarrow Atoll. I wrote about Carse’s stay in the now out-of-print Lonely Planet guide to South Georgia & the Falkland Islands:

Ducloz Head
Between 1951 and 1957 Duncan Carse led four surveying expeditions into the inland areas and much of today’s mapping is still based on his pioneering work. Despite those earlier visits his most extraordinary stay was in 1961. Carse wanted to experiment with living alone and in complete isolation and became an Antarctic Robinson Crusoe when he was dropped off at Ducloz Head near Undine South Harbour.

He had been given a lease on 4 hectares (10 acres) of land at a token rent of one shilling a year, clearly sensing a bargain he’d paid the rent in advance for 10 years. On 23 February HMS Owen dropped him off, along with 12 tons of supplies, including a prefabricated hut which was assembled well back in the tussac in a sheltered cove.

HMS Owen dropped by again in early April to check up on his well being but on 20 May a freak surge wave washed most of his supplies and the hut along with Carse, fast asleep inside, into the sea. Remarkably he escaped and salvaged enough of his equipment to survive through the winter until he was rescued by a sealing ship, 116 days later.

Carse, clearly a man of many talents, was the voice of Dick Barton, special agent, from 1949 to 1951. This BBC radio serial ran for 711 episodes and in those pre-TV days just after the war it was enormously popular. At its peak it’s estimated that it had an audience of 15 million, virtually every third person in the UK! Later he was the front man for the TV series Travellers in Time. Mt Carse, at 2331m (7646 ft) the third highest point on the island, is named after him.