While browsing at a Charity Book Sale, I found a battered copy of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby, which I’d never read, and knowing it was a classic, I bought it. I don’t know why, but somehow I had an ingrained notion that it was a boring stuffy account by a military man, a leftover from the famous British Raj; and for this reason, I had always passed over the book on sale tables or library shelves. Was I ever mistaken!
Initially the preface put me off : it’s written by Evelyn Waugh and I thought : oh dear, this is going to be about two limp wristed chaps being precious about the scenery. Wrong again. Which just goes to prove how mis-leading assumptions nearly always are.
Eric Newby received a cable from his friend Hugh Carless (a career diplomat in the British Foreign Office) stationed at the time in Rio de Janeiro, pithily asking: CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE? The year was 1956. Newby – somewhat oddly – was then working in the London haute couture trade. Prior to that he’d been an army officer, and prior to that had lead an adventurous life travelling around the Mediterranean, plus time sailing. In 1938 when he apprenticed aboard the Finnish windjammer Moshulu and took part in the “Grain Race” from Australia to Europe by way of Cape Horn.
But a mountaineer he wasn’t; so far as I could see, no experience at all, and yet his chum Carless was inviting him to the wild mountains of the Hindu Kush, north-east of Afghanistan.
I had no idea where Nuristan was, and the maps in the book were hopeless. Whilst they showed the mountain ranges which Newby climbed, they gave no clue as to the whereabouts of the peaks in Asia. I hauled out my giant Rand McNally Atlas and peered at the maps of North India, Pakistan, Afghanistan to no avail. I did find the words ‘Hindu Kush’ spread out over an area of North eastern Afghanistan, but the area then known as ‘Nuristan’ seems to have vanished.
Once Carless returned to England, preparation time for the expedition was short. There was equipment and rations to buy, visas to organise, tickets to be bought. Newby’s wife accompanied them as far as Istanbul, and then reluctantly returned home – a good thing, in view of what followed.
Anyway, the two would-be mountaineers managed to squeeze in a 3 day trip to the mountains in Wales, to receive some hasty training by an experienced mountaineer, but that was the extent of their technical knowledge. At this point I shook my head in disbelief. In the preface Waugh witters on about the charm of British eccentrics and gentleman explorers. He wasn’t wrong. My jaw dropped when I read that Newby had been unable to source proper mountaineering boots prior to departure, so off he went equipped with PLIMSOLLS (a.k.a. takkies) and unbelievably, wore them on the descent. His boots were mailed to him and never reached him. Naturally he suffers terribly from blisters due to the unsuitable boots he does manage to find.
When I think of modern expedition equipment, state of the art clothing and kit, plus NASA space-style dehydrated foods – these two survived on tinned food, chiefly Irish stew, and on one occasions dined off a one pound tin of strawberry jam, and a tinned baked apple pudding. The mind reels. Finding provisions en route was difficult. The area was sparsely populated, and the locals lived on very little, without much surplus to offer travellers. And when the mountaineers did eat local food, the inevitable result was severe diahorrea.
Carless’ old and trusted cook was to have accompanied them up the mountain, but he only remained with the expedition for a short while, due to a commitment to his existing employer. Thereafter catering was a hit and miss affair. Mostly miss. Carless was completely disinterested in rations, food or cooking.
They hired a guide, plus two men, to look after the baggage and horses, (the poor old horses had a dreadful time of it, both animals and men were literally skeletons by the time they staggered out of the area.)
In the event they didn’t succeed in reaching their goal, the summit of Mt Samir. 700 feet below the summit of 19 000-plus feet , they took the wise decision to descend, whilst they had sufficient light. And even then, it was perilous. So near, and yet so far.
En route they encountered wild tribesmen, bandits, mullahs, primitive shepherds none of whom could speak the Farsi (Persian) or Urdu spoken by the climbers. All the local inhabitants spoke ancient tribal dialects, and the tale is sprinkled with historical graffiti about Timur (Tamerlane) and Alexander the Great. This mind you, only 70 years ago! Nuristan at that time was beyond remote, and I suspect that the passing of time has not brought much by way of modernisation to the Hindu Kush.
When the climbers were not traversing rocky slopes or treacherous windy roads bordered by precipices, they were descending the cliffs to river valleys, watered by icy rivers , bordered by willow trees. Apricot and mulberry trees provided fruit, wheat was grown. There were cattle, also flocks of sheep. The Nuristanis were renowned makers of butter, and bartered quantities of butter for other goods, but this meant their men had to cross mighty mountain passes, carrying enormous goatskin bags of butter to trade.
Reading Newby’s account is like taking a giant step back in time, maybe as distant as the Middle Ages, so far as his account of the land and its peoples is concerned. As for it being an account of an expedition, a journey of exploration, well, I’m not so sure. Part of the blurb on the back jacket says : Impossible to read this book without laughing aloud … the funniest travel book I have ever read. (The Observer). I didn’t find the book hugely funny – most of the time I was aghast at their foolhardiness, their unpreparedness!
Maybe The Times Literary Supplement sums it up best: A notable addition to the literature of unorthodox travel … tough, extrovert, humorous and immensely literate.’
I’m definitely keeping the book, I like the fact that is battered and worn – kind of like the two men who walked over the Afghanistan Mountains.