Turn Right At Machu Picchu
by Mark Adams
(Text Publishing $30)
This is very good, with an unusual proviso; this narrative has more routine everyday mountain climbing than anything I've read. Mountains are climbed before breakfast, with another before lunch and another before dinner. There is more perpendicularity here than I have experienced before and was almost as vertiginous and tiring as if I was walking the walk and not just reading the read.
Mark Adams had never done any serious climbing or exploring before he undertook this catalogue of exhaustions. He edited an adventure travel magazine and got interested in the American academic, adventurer and explorer - and chancer - Hiram Bingham III, who achieved great celebrity by "discovering", in 1911, the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes, which are now visited by tens of thousands of tourists every year. That is to say, "interested" enough to check up on Bingham's veracity, and to undertake the same epic walk.
He had the great good luck and judgment to engage as guide an Australian, John Leivers, whose obsessive preoccupation with Peruvian archaeology and history must have made this admirable book achievable.
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Because it is very well written, whether the immediate subject is the scenery; the topography; the social history; the religious symbolism and mystery; and the dazzling engineering accomplishment of the Inca architecture or what it is like to walk hundreds of miles around a strange part of the world, we have a vigorous traditional literary travel book.
However, there is also the intriguing, unlikeable, ambiguous, historical figure of Bingham. Over-achieving and over-compensating scion of an American big-ego, biggish money dynasty - dynastic enough for him to be Hiram III - Bingham became an early example of the thrusting breed of new-world academic.
He combined a reputation for scholarship with an obvious flair and need for self-publicity, and persuasive fundraising skills that some people later came to regret.
He was a very good photographer, and nobody could say he wasn't a ferociously energetic worker, of the born-to-rule kind, with their minute attention to the detail of other men's labour.
But trouble came because he was in the habit of taking things that didn't belong to him.
This was not always called what it is: theft, because a lot of rich Europeans did it anywhere they could tell the press at home that they were exploring or doing research. But the Peruvians have not forgotten.
Then Bingham, as if in an ironic fiction, gave it all away. The "gentleman" scholar/adventurer/antiquities collector who took world-beating photographs, took a violent career swerve, to glitter somewhat vulgarly for a time before utter disgrace, as a professional politician of the Republican brand.
Rick Bryant is an Auckland reviewer.