Dreams of Elsewhere

By the camp bed these last few days has been a volume of untold joy, entertainment and learning.  It’s that man Halliburton again.  I sincerely hope that Tauris Parke have in their plan a re-publication of New Worlds to Conquer for it is a book to be read for another 90 years, and still as fresh as the day it first appeared.  This old volume of mine is most certainly not for sale, but I can give you a tantalising little insight.

Our intrepid adventurer sets out, initially by seaplane, flying just above the waves, heading due west.  He gives us the view from the deck of his caravel that Columbus would have had 400 years earlier of that first dull grey line, the breaking waves, then the confirmation of land.  San Salvador it is, and we are off to the New World, but we have a guide second to none.

A few years later Cortez landed at Vera Cruz and we march from there on Tenochtitlan, the ancient Aztec capital, or Mexico City as it is now better known.  From the summit of the Great Pyramid at Cholula we watch the sun sink behind the snowy cap of Popacateptl and it is to there that we are headed.  Halliburton climbs the 18,000 feet with his father, a guide and donkey.  He makes the summit, wearing his father’s boots after his own disintegrated, too close to the fire, with the pere descending alone through the snows, his feet wrapped in rags, perhaps taking paternal duties just a bit far.  But the photograph from the summit is not a success, so what does the bold Richard do but climb it again, dragging along a professional photographer and tens of pounds of equipment.  They climb through the night, through a blizzard, and are rewarded with thick mist as they reach the 2 mile crater, one thousand feet deep.  Then, with the sunrise, the clouds break, and they have a magnificent panorama, shot on a three foot length of film.

On all of his adventures our guide has with him the geography book he used as a 10 year old schoolboy.  Times have changed, we gave them back in my day, and they probably just use google now.  But it was that book, with pictures of the world’s highest, farthest and longest whatnots that drove the man on, ticking them off like a Munro-bagger in what we call hills.  On Popo he climbed on, past Mt Rainier, past Pike’s Peak, higher than the glaciers of Jungfrau – at last, one where I can add my tick – and on past the heights of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc.  And he reached these heights in his civvies, no ropes, no oxygen, no gps, not even a map.

From the heights he plumbed the depths.  A thousand miles across land and sea takes us to the Yucatan, dry and deadly despite frequent rain which falls on porous limestone leaving a very harsh life for the natives.  But there are little pockets, cenotes, where the water gathers, so our man has a swim.  In days gone by virgins were sacrificed by the hundred in these same pools and he wanted to know what the plunge was like.  So from the edge down he went, seventy feet to the surface and no inkling as to how he was to make the rim again, the walls being sheer rock.  But make them he did, though he had to leave his boots on a thin ledge.  So of course he went in again, to recover his footwear, and to have his feat filmed.

Panama was next up, but not the usual journey from Atlantic to Pacific, oh no, for Halliburton had to swim it, the full 50 miles, the ones with the alligators and the barracudas.  He got permission and paid his tonnage on the same basis as the liners of the day – 36 cents it worked out at.  Locks a thousand feet long, guarded by gates up to 85 ft high and 8 ft thick were opened to allow him to wallow his way through.  He was not unaccompanied, for he took along a sharpshooter in a rowing boat.  Said marksman carried a pink parasol, given to our hero after a night in Kelly’s Ritz where the hours and the houris passed in dancing from dusk till dawn, then he swam his first eight miles.

He was a fair swimmer, though owned only to a miserable sideswipe of a stroke, but he had swum The Helllespont three years earlier, the first to do so since Lord Byron, and had barely paddled a length since.  But make it he did, and we were off again on new adventures in the footsteps of those who had gone before, in search of that which had been lost.

Darien, and not a mention of sad Scots, to climb the peak from which Balboa glimpsed the Pacific, allegedly.  It was a sair trek indeed and from the summit of Mount Piri nothing but jungle.  He had better luck with the Inca Gold, finding a glade of the stuff, but as he brushed through the undergrowth so the golden butterflies all took to the wing.  And on he went, on the trail of Pizzaro and Atahualpa.  To Peru, and Lima, and a meeting with the President, bumping hads together trying to pick a dropped collar button from the floor.

And there were nights in Lima, ‘playing bear’ with Manuella – she of “startling perfection….. Her nose was a trifle Louis Seize.  Nor was it her youthful sprightliness.  She admitted to twenty five.  …….her considerable embonpoint”.  So he bought a guitar and learned to strum a few chords.  She wore her shawls and mantillas and he played on her balcony as she sat at the window.  Hopefully the darkness hid his yellow cordouroy trousers, yellow shirt and blue sweater, with his John-the-Baptist beard.  He sang her Jolly Farmer, and Oh, You Beautiful Doll.  She told him tales of Lima in days gone by.

Sixty miles up the Urubamba Gorge we go, with 2,000 ft precipes and 20,000 ft peaks.  It was but a decade since Hiram Bingham brought news of the old world and Halliburton found his way to Macchu Picchu.  As is his want he spent the night, alone under the stars, with dreams of yesterday.  Not for him the endless trail of guides and mules, the click-clack of trekking poles or the colour pollution of gore-tex jackets and gaiters.

From Cuzco across Lake Titicaca, and thence to Juan Fernandez Island, and Selkirk and Defoe, of which more later.  Buenos Aries saw some monkey business with an organ grinder and a sad ending.  But the Iguasso Falls are worth a visit, in trinity with Niagara and Victoria.  And then Devil’s Island and a fascinating spell in the penal colonies of French Guiana, in the days when the world’s last convict ship yet brought a cargo of 700 or more every six months.  I pictured Hoffman and McQueen in the film of Henri Charriere’s Papillon, and Halliburton described just what I had seen.  He acquired some striped pyjamas, red & white, and got himself a night inside, then a spell in the infirmary on the isle itself.  We hear, first hand, of evasion, libertes, blockhaus and en reclusion at Saint Joseph.

And finally he has his on Crusoe moment, on Tobago, alone, making clothes from goatskin, a hat and umbrella too; living out the life he had learned as that same schoolboy.  What a man, what a writer.  Read him if you can.

I’ve a book search to do, from his work on the penal colony – Blair Niles’ Condemned to Devil’s Island.


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