Travels by Kayak, Pony, and Plane

Getting there rivals being there in three books that feature both the transportation and the destination

PAUL THEROUX'S latest excursion, The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 528 pp., $24.95), reads like "Gulliver's Travels" - if Lemuel Gulliver had packed a portable kayak and a failed marriage on his journeys.

Just as Jonathan Swift propelled his protagonist on trips whose ulterior purpose was to reveal the flawed human condition, so too Theroux paddles the Pacific surveying life on its numerous islands only to discover how culturally bankrupt this cherished paradise of the Western imagination has become.

Unlike Theroux, of course, Gulliver was a fiction. Yet to an appreciable degree in this book, Theroux the writer has concocted Theroux the preoccupied, dour, recently separated traveler - a character who could have stepped out of one of his novels like "The Mosquito Coast" or "Half Moon Street."

The personal sadness of Theroux the traveler drenches "The Happy Isles of Oceania" like a tropical downpour. One senses that the tale's bleakness and its literary ending owe as much to the prevailing winds of the author-character's perspective as to the defiled landscape.

Paddling around 51 Pacific worlds apart (such as Tonga and the Trobriands), as he did in 1991, Theroux expected to find an assortment of earthly utopias, and a measure of succor to boot. Instead, the scenery loomed as a grim metaphor for personal and planetary decline.

Everywhere lagoons were littered with trash, beaches blemished with raw sewage, and villages so dependent on foreign aid that they have largely forgone foraging and gardening for the dubious pleasure of consuming canned luncheon meat and pea soup. No habitat was too isolated not to have an electric generator devoted solely to playing Rambo videos.

Only in Hawaii, when the sky darkened during an eclipse, did the gloom on Theroux's psyche lighten. Given that more indigenous species of birds and plants have been driven to extinction in the 50th state than in any other place on earth, one is confounded by its potential for such epiphanies.

Were it simply pristine spaces his spirit needed, Theroux might have tried the vastness of the Mongolian steppes. As reported in In Search of Genghis Khan (Atheneum, 241 pp., $25), by Tim Severin, the adventurer distinguished for his re-creation of historic journeys, much of Mongolia is still medieval.

Huge vistas and great distances encourage herdsmen to use images suited to the sea. In fact, Genghis Khan, the territory's renowned and immensely feared 13th-century leader, was given a title signifying Oceanic Ruler.

The great Khan remains a national hero in Mongolia, whose government, along with UNESCO, helped to organize a 1990 horseback expedition to retrace his route to the West.

Severin, who sailed the North Atlantic in a leather boat, navigated a reproduction of an 8th-century Arab ship from Muscat to China, and rode a motorcycle across China as he traced the route of Marco Polo, was a logical addition to the primarily Mongolian party.

As always, Severin's account is rich in social and political history. He describes tenacious traditional lifestyles, languages, and beliefs that even decades of Soviet authority could not erase. Severin is careful to underscore the irony that the survival of Mongolia's cultural identity is in significant proportion due to the fundamental poverty and remoteness of this region.

Disorder, frustration, and contention marred Severin's trip. The real champions of the venture were the agile, squarely built descendants of the wild horses of the steppes who provided the main means of transportation.

Smaller than the American cow pony, these stalwart beasts are capable of covering long stretches at a time, a deed made all the more remarkable by the Mongolian manner of riding. Horses are urged to run full out for an astonishing two hours and are then given a brief break. Standing high in their stirrups, riders cover up to 50 bone-rattling miles per day.

The sprinting time of a Mongolian horse is roughly equal to the flying time of the 1941 Stearman biplane flown across the contiguous 48 states by writer Stephen Coonts, who is best known for his thrillers involving aviation. The recently rehabilitated crop-duster, with a maximum altitude of 13,000 feet and the apparent capriciousness of a feather in the breeze, was dubbed the Cannibal Queen.

In The Cannibal Queen: An Aerial Odyssey Across America (Pocket Books, 344 pp., $22), Coonts wagers on his ability to pique the public's fascination with the minute-by-minute rigors of flying an open-cockpit aircraft whose navigational instrumentation consists of a single compass and the pilot's ability to spot prominent landmarks.

The text has a tendency to stall in midair when he feels obliged to comment on the American scene. Its originality lies in the terse record of the predicaments the Cannibal Queen encounters.

Will Coonts beat the angry thunderstorms, make the next fuel stop, keep the Queen from twitching nose first into the hungry trees? This is not a volume for white-knuckle fliers. Indeed, the account is likely to renew interest in train travel.

By land, sea, or air, each of these books puts a premium on the choice of transportation. Getting there rivals being there. Getting there may involve a few saddle sores, fog banks, crosswinds, or a meeting with a monitor lizard the size of a cocker spaniel.

Happily, getting there usually means being able to get out of there. Still, it comes as something of a comforting surprise that for authors as steeped in wanderlust as these, getting there means anticipating the pleasures of coming home.

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