The best books about forgotten expeditions and extraordinary journeys

Stephen Haddelsey Author Of Shackleton's Dream: Fuchs, Hillary and the Crossing of Antarctica
By Stephen Haddelsey

Who am I?

Although I’m fascinated by the history of exploration, I’m most attracted to the stories that have been lost, neglected, or forgotten. Why, for instance, is Sir Vivian Fuchs – arguably the most successful British Antarctic explorer of the twentieth century – not as well-known as Scott or Shackleton? Why do we know so little of Operation Tabarin – the only wartime Antarctic expedition to be launched by a combatant nation? These are the kind of questions that I want to answer, and these are the expeditions that I have wanted to examine. I’ve been fortunate to meet and interview some truly extraordinary men – and telling their stories has been a joy and a privilege.  

I wrote...

Shackleton's Dream: Fuchs, Hillary and the Crossing of Antarctica

By Stephen Haddelsey,

Book cover of Shackleton's Dream: Fuchs, Hillary and the Crossing of Antarctica

What is my book about?

In November 1915, Ernest Shackleton watched horrified as grinding ice floes destroyed his hapless ship, Endurance. Caught in the chaos of splintered wood and tangled rigging lay his dream of being the first to cross Antarctica. He would not live to make a second attempt – but his dream lived on.

Shackleton’s Dream tells the forgotten story of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, an epic adventure that saw two giants of exploration, Vivian Fuchs and Edmund Hillary, pitted not only against Nature at her most hostile, but also against each other. Planned as a historic continental crossing, the expedition eventually developed into a dramatic ‘Race to the South Pole’ – a contest as controversial as that of Scott and Amundsen four decades earlier.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World

Why this book?

Libyan Sands tells the story of Ralph Bagnold’s extraordinary expeditions into the North African deserts between the two world wars. Remarkably for the time, Bagnold chose to use not camels, as his predecessors had done, but specially-adapted Ford Model-A motorcars, in which he covered tens of thousands of miles in extraordinarily inhospitable, waterless conditions, travelling where no motor vehicle and hardly any people had ever been before. The knowledge he accrued would lead him, ultimately, to found and lead the Long Range Desert Group in the Second World War. 

Having written about extraordinary journeys into the polar wastes, and having come to understand, through meeting many of the explorers involved, what it is that has driven them into those wildernesses, what most caught my imagination in Bagnold’s book was his incredibly vivid descriptions of the desert, a barren wilderness that he grew not only to respect, but to love deeply: a wilderness in many ways utterly different from Antarctica, but in other ways remarkably similar in its enduring appeal. 

Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World

By Ralph A. Bagnold,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Libyan Sands as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Libyan Sands" is unmistakably the work of an Englishman, a modest, machine- and desert-loving young officer whose passionate amateur enthusiasm led to the exploration of the Egyptian western desert and the Libyan Sahara on the eve of the second world war.

Book cover of The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

Why this book?

I first came across Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett when researching Born Adventurer: The Life of Frank Bickerton. In 1911, Fawcett and Bickerton crossed the Atlantic together; Fawcett to continue his work with the Bolivian Boundary Survey and Bickerton to hunt for lost pirate treasure. I thought Fawcett might make an interesting subject for a biography: an Englishman who undertook multiple expeditions into South America and who would eventually disappear altogether in the Amazon in 1925. What David Grann has achieved in The Lost City of Z is very different from a standard biography: yes, he tells Fawcett’s life story, but he also shares the ins and outs of his own search for Fawcett, and eventually sets off in pursuit of the lost city that so obsessed him. The result is a complex, multi-layered, and utterly riveting adventure story. 

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

By David Grann,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Lost City of Z as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'A riveting, exciting and thoroughly compelling tale of adventure'JOHN GRISHAM

The story of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, the inspiration behind Conan Doyle's The Lost World

Fawcett was among the last of a legendary breed of British explorers. For years he explored the Amazon and came to believe that its jungle concealed a large, complex civilization, like El Dorado. Obsessed with its discovery, he christened it the City of Z. In 1925, Fawcett headed into the wilderness with his son Jack, vowing to make history. They vanished without a…

Book cover of Nimrod: Ernest Shackleton and the Extraordinary Story of the 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition

Why this book?

Ernest Shackleton is now best known for the heroic failure that was his Endurance Expedition of 1914-17. But the skills that he displayed to such effect on that expedition were honed during his leadership of the British Antarctic (or Nimrod) Expedition of 1907-09 – an expedition with the conquest of the South Pole as its primary objective. Of course, in the final assessment, this expedition failed as well – because Shackleton turned for home when just 97.5 nautical miles from his objective, knowing that his team would die if he didn’t. Beau Riffenburgh’s account of this much less well-known expedition is masterly: meticulously researched and beautifully written; a joy to read. 

Nimrod: Ernest Shackleton and the Extraordinary Story of the 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition

By Beau Riffenburgh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nimrod as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On New Year's Day 1908, the ship Nimrod set off for the mysterious regions of the Antarctic. The leader of the small expedition was Ernest Shackleton who, in the next year and a quarter would record some of the greatest achievements of his career and would then, together with his companions, return home as a hero. Shackleton and his party battled against extreme cold, hunger, danger and psychological trauma in their attempt to reach the South Pole and to return alive. They climbed the active volcano of Mount Erebus, planted the Union Jack at the previously unattained South Magnetic Pole,…

Book cover of Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Secret Exploration of Tibet

Why this book?

This book doesn’t tell the story of one expedition, it recounts many, launched by men of nine different nationalities, all intent on breaking into the closed world of Tibet. I am not alone in considering Hopkirk to be one of the great masters of what might be described as ‘historical travel’ books, and this is surely one of his best. Populated by a wonderful cast of characters, all determined to be the first westerner to reach the sacred, and forbidden, city of Lhasa. I can’t recommend it highly enough – and, enjoy one of Hopkirk’s books, and you’ll enjoy them all.  

Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Secret Exploration of Tibet

By Peter Hopkirk,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Trespassers on the Roof of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For nineteenth-century adventures, Tibet was the prize destination, and Lhasa, its capital situated nearly three miles above sea level, was the grandest trophy of all. The lure of this mysterious land, and its strategic importance, made it inevitable that despite the Tibetans' reluctance to end their isolation, determined travelers from Victorian Britain, Czarist Russia, America, and a half dozen other countries world try to breach the country's high walls.

In this riveting narrative, Peter Hopkirk turns his storytelling skills on the fortune hunters, mystics, mountaineers, and missionaries who tried storming the roof of the world. He also examines how China…

The Places in Between

By Rory Stewart,

Book cover of The Places in Between

Why this book?

In January 2002, less than four months after 9/11 and three since the US invasion of Afghanistan, Rory Stewart set out to walk from Herat to Kabul. In the preface, he states, "I’m not good at explaining why," and he never really answers that question – but the book that resulted from that decision has become a classic in the author’s lifetime. I’m lucky enough to own a rare first edition – rare because it was produced inexpensively and in small numbers by Picador, who clearly expected it to attract little attention. They were wrong: it became an international best-seller and multi-award winner – deservedly so. As well as being packed with detail about the war-torn land through which he travelled and the people he met en route, it is also a deeply spiritual account – moving, troubling, and uplifting in equal measure. 

The Places in Between

By Rory Stewart,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Places in Between as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 2001 Rory Stewart set off from Herat to walk to Kabul via the mountains of Ghor in central Afghanistan. This was to be the last leg of a 21 month walk across Asia. The country was in turmoil following the recent US invasion and the mountain passes still covered in snow. Suspicious of his motives, and worried for his safety, the authorities provided Rory with two armed guards who accompanied him, but whom he soon out-walked. Later he was given a dog, whom he named 'Babur' in honour of the great Moghul Emperor in whose footsteps the two of…

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Interested in travel, explorers, and Tibet?

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