Top 20 adventure books and documentaries

By Justin Walker with James McCormack and Carolyn Barry 6 July 2016
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You can’t spend every minute outdoors, but that doesn’t mean your relaxation time can’t still be exciting.

1. Touching the Void

Joe Simpson (1989)

An incredible true story, this climbing classic is a no-brainer for inclusion on this list – it has all the adventure, emotion and heart-stopping moments you could want in a Hollywood thriller.

From its (relatively) benign opening pages, where Simpson recounts the highs and lows of climbing in one of the world’s most remote mountain ranges in Peru’s Andes, the book hooks the reader. The crux of the story – the moment where Simpson’s climbing partner, Simon Yates, believes the only way to save himself from joining his presumed-dead partner, hanging unseen at the end of a climbing rope, is to cut the rope connecting the two – has to be read again and again. What happens after this point is something no scriptwriter could conjure up: Simpson survives the fall into the crevasse then, amazingly, crawls deeper into it before dragging himself all the way back to basecamp three-days later, where a shocked Yates initially thinks he’s hallucinating and seeing a ghost.

The book delivers on both sides of the story – it goes inside Simpson’s mind to reveal his indestructible will to survive, while also reliving Yates’ concurrent thoughts of initial guilt and then resignation. And, of course, it asks the reader to answer that same question: what would you do?

2. First Overland


What do you do if you’re a group of penniless university students from Oxford and Cambridge universities who have hatched a crazy plan for an overland vehicular adventure, from London to Singapore, through some of the planet’s most inaccessible country, and wish to document it? Well, you approach a young BBC employee with the surname of Attenborough, first name David, who convinces his employer to supply film (although only a limited supply initially, pending what early footage looked like) and a 16mm wind-up camera. Land Rover also came on board, supplying two vehicles, and the students raised the rest of the funds via around 70 companies.

The First Overland Expedition: London-Singapore, is one of the last “great British adventures” undertaken when the British Empire was still close to its full power. The footage was originally broadcast in three short black and white segments, but has been remastered in its original colour for DVD. The doco offers a fantastic view of what are now some of the world’s most inaccessible roads, including the Ledo Road from India to Myanmar (which is still closed to this day). The doco includes interviews with the remaining expedition members, and Sir David Attenborough. A real Boy’s Own adventure.

3. Valley Uprising


A climbing film from the best in the business – Sender Films – this doco traces the history of Yosemite National Park’s often volatile and always exciting climbing scene. From the late 1950s, when Royal Robbins and Warren Harding challenged each other and traded first ascents of such famous peaks as Half Dome and El Capitan, through the wild ’60s and ’70s when free climbing came into vogue and the “dirtbag” climber lifestyle defined itself, and then onto today’s equally ambitious climbers, the film mixes archival and recent footage with interviews to offer a fantastic insight to the Yosemite climbing scene. Included are the climbers’ often violent clashes with park authorities, which started in the 1950s and, although less so, are still not uncommon today as the authorities crack down on the more extreme edge of climbing (B.A.S.E. jumping) and limit the amount of time climbers can camp in Yosemite.

With a mix of climbers to interview, including Yvon Chouinard, Alex Honnold and Dean Potter, plus the real story behind some of the longstanding rivalries (think: Robbins and Harding), the film leaves no fact or fanciful story untold. The climbing feats are amazing; the footage Sender Films has compiled is even more so.

4. Into Africa

Martin Dugard (2004)

It must have been the dream assignment for a journalist: head into the deepest, most wild and remote part of Africa and find a long-missing (presumed dead) explorer. For Henry Morton Stanley, it was the job of a lifetime; for his employer – the New York Herald – the famous words “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” would encapsulate the story of the decade. It is, of course, a well-known and famous moment in exploratory history but the difference with this book is that author Martin Dugard delves far deeper, using a combination of unpublished diaries, Royal Geographical Society diaries and even a number of visits to various locations relevant to the tale, to produce a cracking read.

The author’s swapping of viewpoints between Livingstone and Stanley throughout the book keeps the pace fast and also reveals the incredible differences between the two men, and how each one reacted to the myriad obstacles they faced, from being stuck in the middle of intertribal wars, through to the constant fear of – and battle with – the multitude of diseases that were rife on the continent. The Livingstone-Stanley story has been nearly done to death, but Dugard makes it all seem fresh, and bloody exciting.

5. Shooting the Franklin

Johnson Dean (2002)

This cracking read follows the trials and tribulations of a group of mates who grew up paddling some of Tasmania’s most famous (and some now disappeared) rivers including, of course, the mighty Franklin. Dean and his crew (including constant paddling companion, John Hawkins) made three attempts on the Franklin before succeeding in 1958. Along the way they experimented with everything from fold-up kayaks through to fibreglass canoes, used in the successful descent.

However, this book is about more than just the one rather famous southwest Tassie river; Dean and his mates had already paddled down the King, the Pieman (both now under dammed water) and others as they enjoyed exploring what is still, even today, one of the most remote parts of the world. Dean’s words convey a sense of what those now-drowned rivers must have been like to paddle – and what the surrounding wild landscape was like.

The descents themselves were amazing – both in terms of what they paddled and how the men actually survived; the two earlier attempts resulted in near-drownings, destroyed watercraft and long walks back out to civilisation. It’s an amazing insight into a mostly disappeared – read: sunken – world.

6. Arabian Sands

Wilfred Thesiger (1959)

The Empty Quarter covers around 650,000km2 and is the world’s largest sand desert, sprawling over the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. Up until the 1950s this unforgiving land was the sole domain of the nomadic Bedouin. That is, until Sir Wilfred Thesiger, an Englishman, spent roughly five years in the region. During his time in the Empty Quarter, Thesiger crossed the desert twice and lived with – and learned from – the Bedouin. Upon his return to “civilization” Thesiger later published this, one of the most amazing books on the thrills (and chills) of desert adventure.

His recounting – in exacting detail – of the Bedouin way of life is amazing, especially in the light of just how much change was inflicted upon those people with the discovery of oil. His adventures were many, and included (during his second crossing of the desert in 1947) being briefly imprisoned by Saudi Arabia’s king, and having to deal with mutinous members of his first expeditionary party. Rather than the expected condescending tone, Thesiger’s words highlight his respect for the Bedouin way of life, and his descriptions of the landscape will make you want to book your flights, hire a 4WD, and travel deep into this still-amazing land.

7. The Cove


Both an adventure and a hard-hitting documentary about one of the world’s most shameful acts, The Cove won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2009.

The “action” follows a team of conservationists, free divers and videographers as they infiltrate a small cove in Japan’s Taiji to record the practice of dolphin drive hunting by local fishermen. Large numbers of dolphins are herded into the cove then cruelly and inhumanely killed by knife and spear before being butchered for the dolphin-meat industry; the township benefits immensely from the sale of both live dolphins and porpoises to aquariums around the world, and the sale of dolphin meat in supermarkets.

The doco team used a number of methods to record the slaughter, including hidden microphones and cameras fitted inside fake sea rocks. The aim was to expose the fishing techniques of the Japanese but also to highlight the dolphins’ slaughter, and the fact (most Japanese were unaware before this doco aired) that most of the meat is dangerously high in mercury, yet is sold for human consumption.

Hard – and sad – to watch at times, nonetheless The Cove is gripping, with investigative journalism being a major part, but balanced with the story of how it was all filmed, and the brilliant, albeit disturbing, imagery.

8. Into Thin Air

Jon Krakauer (1997)

Adventure book-lovers could not have asked for more: the world’s tallest mountain, a crack climber/journalist, and the coming together of modern greed and a seeming disrespect for the power of nature. The result is one of the best climbing stories you will ever read. Initially published in much shorter form in US publication Outside, the tale of how 12 climbers met their end on the slopes of Mt Everest in 1996 will leave you with a lingering sense of sadness and disbelief. This book was probably the first to expose readers to the darker side of commercial climbing, where the wishes of the client overpower the commonsense and caution of what were some very, very experienced guides during the course of this epic misadventure. Combine this with the worst storm on Everest in decades, a number of personal agendas having a huge influence on key decisions, and then the inevitable collapse of organisation as climbers become separated (and just simply disappear in some instances) and you’ve got a cracker of a read that will make you rethink both the effort required to climb mountains and the regard in which you hold those who do.

9. Summit 8000

Andrew Lock (2014)

Andrew Lock

Mountaineer Andrew Lock on his way to the summit of Annapurna in 2007. (Image courtesy Andrew Lock)

Summit 8000 is a memoir from Andrew Lock, Australia’s most successful mountaineer. Lock is one of only two-dozen or so climbers who have summited all 14 peaks, and the only Australian: four solo, six Australian first ascents and all except Everest without supplementary oxygen.

Andrew climbed with some of the world’s greatest through the 1990s and 2000s, an era when commercial guiding was burgeoning and it was still relatively easy to climb independently.

Andrew focuses predominantly on the Himalayan exploits of his 16-year project and doesn’t spare the room for tangents; there are occasional anecdotes, but the focus is on the climbs’ details, touching briefly on some of the more ethical issues.

As the book progresses with each climb, whether successful or not, you gain a sense of Andrew’s growing confidence. By putting you right in the action he conveys the elation and the addiction to the mountains, as well as the sacrifices made to get there – both his and the ultimate price many of his companions made.

There are many classic mountain climbing books, but very few of those tell Australian stories. Summit 8000 is one for your adventure book list.

Reviewed by Carolyn Barry

10. Beyond the Edge


Still probably the ultimate adventure story: a humble New Zealand beekeeper and a Sherpa from the lofty heights of Nepal are the first to reach the top of Mt Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. In 1953 it was an incredible achievement; when viewing the colour archival footage, newsreel footage and photographs, mixed in with the filmmakers’ faithful recreations and interviews, it is still, today, a brilliant story.

Of course, the climb is the main focus of the film, and rightly so. The achievement of both men making it to the summit is awesome in itself, and made even more so when you get to see the now “primitive” climbing equipment the team was using.

The backstory reveals just how important this climb was to the still-powerful British Empire. As a way to instil both pride in the Empire and to also restore overall confidence after the devastation that was World War II, the successful climb was a huge success. For New Zealand, it well and truly put the small, remote Pacific country on the world map.
Combine all this with the brilliant archival footage (most of which was donated by the Royal Geographical Society) and the attention to detail evident in the recreation parts of the film, and you have a winner.

11. The Summit


When it comes to dangerous mountains, few compare to K2, the world’s second highest, and arguably second deadliest (with a ratio of one death in four climbers). In 2008 one of the mountain’s worst climbing disasters took place, with 11 climbers killed on the descent following a series of avalanches.

The Summit uses recreations, actual footage taken during the descent and rescue operations, along with interviews with the survivors, to weave a tale that places the viewer firmly on the mountain. It shows just how difficult it is to make decisions at such heights, such as whether to rescue yourself or try, often in vain and with fatal consequences, to help those in difficulty.

Director Nick Ryan does a great job of recreating the sense of dread K2 imposes on all who climb it; the footage itself, and the soundtrack of howling winds, create an unforgettable atmosphere. The futility of the rescue attempts – amid the continued threat of more avalanches – are hard to watch (knowing the end story) but even harder to ignore. This is a film that captures the desperation and bravery of survivors risking their lives to help save fellow climbers. It’s gripping stuff and a great achievement in trying to put the many rumours surrounding this climbing disaster to rest.

12. Touching the Void


The only adventure tale that makes a dual appearance here and with good reason: the documentary’s source, the incredible tale of climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates and the former’s amazing survival of a climb gone seriously wrong, is a truly memorable tale of survival, and the life-and-death decisions that have to be made in split seconds. In the transition from book to film this story has lost none of its impact; thankfully director Kevin Macdonald has retained the essence of Simpson’s book to create a documentary that is equally amazing for its cinematography as it is for the intensity of the interviews that are entwined throughout the film. The climbing scenes were accurately recreated by a trio of actors, as well as by Yates and Simpson for some scenes in Peru. As the two climbers (and the third party member Richard Hawking) relive their experiences in the Cordillera Huayhuash range, the different emotions on show from each interviewee make for riveting viewing.

There are few documentaries that recapture the immediacy and urgency of past events as well as this one, proved by the film’s many plaudits including the prestigious Best Film gong at the 2004 BAFTA awards.

13. Home of the Blizzard

Douglas Mawson (1915)

Just another member of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition when it arrived Antarctica in early 1912, Mawson left Antarctica one of the most famous living explorers on the planet. Although the book recounts Mawson’s entire time on Antarctica, it is the near-disastrous journey across King George Land in the summer of 1912/13 that secure this title’s place on the list. Mawson was leading a team comprising himself and two others (Englishman Belgrave Ninnis and Swiss Xavier Mertz) that tragedy struck: Ninnis and most of the team’s food and sled dogs disappeared down a crevasse. With little food, Mawson and Mertz had to eat their dogs as they strove to return to base camp. Mertz died but Mawson made it back 30 days later, only to watch the expedition ship Aurora leaving camp on its way back to Hobart. He spent the following winter at the AAE basecamp before rescue arrived the following summer.

Mawson’s book is wordy but engaging, as this quote demonstrates: “We dwelt on the fringe of an unspanned continent, where the chill breath of a vast polar wilderness, quickening to the rushing might of eternal blizzards, surged to the northern seas. We had discovered an accursed country. We had found the home of the blizzard.” Epic stuff.

14. Miracle on Everest


Lincoln Hall

Lincoln Hall, Australian mountaineer who summitted Mt Everest in 2006 and survived a night in the Death Zone, died at aged 56 from mesothelioma, on 20 March 2012.

Aussie mountaineer, the late Lincoln Hall, had two attempts at the summit of Mt Everest – the first, in 1984, was as part of the first Australian team to reach the top of the world’s highest mountain (Hall did not reach the summit). The second, equally as memorable, was Hall’s 2006 attempt to make the summit, supporting young Aussie Christopher Harris.

It wasn’t the Harris attempt (which didn’t succeed) that focused the world’s attention on Hall. Coming down from the summit, Hall began suffering from severe altitude sickness, with the end result being a very near-death experience for the then 50-year-old. After Sherpas could not convince him to keep moving, and then Hall’s collapsing and being declared dead, the climber then spent a night in the “death zone” above 8000m before being discovered, dishevelled and half out of his gear on a cliff-edge, by American mountain guide, Dan Mazur, and his two clients.

Hall’s first words to Mazur: “I imagine you’re surprised to see me here” have since become part of Everest folklore. The documentary recreates the climb accurately, and the interviews of all the participants will keep you shaking your head at the combination of sheer luck and the selflessness of three men high on a mountain.

15. Into the Wild


A dramatised account of the short life of Christopher McCandless, based on the bestselling book of the same name (written by Jon Krakauer of Into Thin Air fame), this Sean Penn-directed film is brilliant. Penn captures the slightly naive character that was McCandless as the young man leaves behind all his worldly possessions to try and forge a simple uncomplicated life in the wilds of Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve.

The film uses a flashback/flash forward narrative to reveal the backstory of McCandless and this works very well to explain how this young idealist ended up in Denali NP. The story behind his demise is a combination of his naivety, ignorance of his surroundings and one simple, but in the end fatal, mistake. During the film we are introduced to the people he met along his journey of self-discovery. We also are shown just how upsetting his decision was for his parents who were initially left in the dark as to where McCandless had disappeared.

For a Hollywood film, Into The Wild is amazingly effective in delivering this unforgettable tale of a young dreamer and his fatal brush with the world’s unforgiving wilderness. Add in brilliant performances by the cast – and a cracking soundtrack by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam fame – and you have a winner.

16. The Emerald Mile

Kevin Ferdarko (2013)

Even now, it sounds too crazy a plan to be true. In 1983, a group of paddlers in a wooden dory, led by Kenton Grua, took advantage of a heavily flooded Colorado River, to complete the fastest ever boat ride (powered or unpowered) down the full length of river in 1983.

However, this is far more than just the story about a river journey; author Kevin Ferdarko gives readers the full history of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, from its formation millions of years ago, through to the evolution of the river guides who ply its waters, and the construction of a series of dams (and the lengthy conservation campaign) along its length.

It was one of these dams – Glen Canyon – that was threatened with destruction by the unanticipated high snowmelt flow and heavy spring rain. The dam’s spillways failed miserably to contain the flow, with the result a huge wall of water rushing down the river. With this, Grua saw his chance to break his own river descent record and the reader gets to jump in and enjoy what is an incredible ride.

17. The Snow Leopard

Peter Matthiessen (1978)

This book changed my life. The Snow Leopard inspired me to embark on my career path as an adventure writer. It is dazzlingly literary, evocative and brutally honest. Too many adventure books become bland recounts of the journey – a litany of events; I-did-this, I-did-that. Not so The Snow Leopard.

In 1973, Peter Matthiessen accompanied biologist George Schaller on a trek to study the little-known bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep, that roamed the remote Inner Dolpo region of western Nepal. Their aim was to arrive during the bharal’s mating season, just as winter and bitter cold approached. Much of the book’s tension arises from the race against the oncoming snows.

But this cold was important. As Dolpo turned hard and lean in the face of a brutal winter, so too did Matthiessen as he turned his gaze ascetically inwards. A soon-to-be Zen Buddhist priest, he stripped himself bare of self-delusions and imperfections, a process aided by one of his porters, the enigmatic half-devil, half-Buddha character of Tutken. It is this process of self-exploration that makes The Snow Leopard so special. It is not only perhaps the most poetic account of Nepal ever written, it is equally a reminder that the best adventures are not merely those of the body; they are equally of the mind and of the spirit.

Review by James McCormack

18. Congo: the Grand

Inga Project (2013)

Take kayak legend Steve Fisher, add some of the world’s best whitewater paddlers in Tyler Brandt, Rush Sturges and Benny Marr, mix them with what is claimed to be the world’s biggest rapids and you get arguably the best-ever kayaking film.

This film documents the team’s first daring descent of the Inga Rapids – an 80km section of the Congo River, in the Democratic Republic of Congo – and one that had previously been an impediment to some of the world’s most famous adventurers, including Henry Morton Stanley. The rapids had also claimed the lives of many others, including French adventurer Philippe De Dieuleveult and his team, who disappeared there in 1985.

Fisher knew the Ingas’ history but thought these savage rapids were negotiable in a kayak – with perfect planning, and the right team. It took four years to get the necessary permission from the DRC government, but the result is amazing. With plenty of budget (thanks to Red Bull involvement) and plenty more out-and-out ballsy paddling, this film transcends the everyday kayaking films you will see on YouTube/Vimeo. The perfect mix of paddle action and engaging behind-the-scenes dramas makes Congo: The Grand Inga Project one for the permanent collection.

19. River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey

Candice Millard (2005)

Most ex-politicians, once ousted from power, resign themselves to a life of privilege. For former US president, Theodore Roosevelt, this was never going to happen. Instead, in 1912, Roosevelt set his sights on a first descent of a long (more than 640km) unmapped tributary of the Amazon River known as the Rio da Dúvida, or River of Doubt. This was the Amazon of piranha-filled waterways, immense rapids and hostile local tribes.

Millard uses access to Roosevelt’s notes – and those of fellow team members, including co-leader and legendary Spanish explorer Cândido Rondo – to conjure in the reader a sense of being on the river with the men.

The story is a rollicking one, with the river asking a terrible price of both canoes (often the team was building new ones to replace those destroyed by the river’s unforgiving rapids) and expedition members. The hoped-for brevity of wild game for food did not eventuate, leaving starvation and disease a constant threat. There was a murder midway down the river, and Roosevelt nearly succumbed to a leg infection, while his son, Kermit, contracted malaria. Yep, the result is a story that – to use a cliché – really does not let the reader go until river’s end.

20. The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition


Frank hurley

Frank Hurley with his cinematograph under the bow of Endurance, 1 September 1915. On the same day, he also took a photograph of the entire expedition assembled on the ice. (Image: Frank Hurley)

A fantastic doco by director George Butler, this uses historical footage from Frank Hurley (the original expedition photographer for Shackleton’s 1914 expedition) and a mix of modern footage of the white continent to tell this famous story of survival.

Shackleton and his crew (27 members, all of whom survived) spent 10 cold, lonely months trapped in pack ice. Then, the famous British explorer decided to put his skills to the ultimate test and set off in a small lifeboat with five other crew members on an 800 nautical mile journey to try and find help from the whaling stations on surrounding islands.

RELATED GALLERY: Frank Hurley’s Antarctic images of Shackleton 

The documentary’s combination of the silent (but still dramatic) archival footage and photographs, Liam Neeson’s Irish brogue as narration, and interviews with descendants of the survivors works well together to deliver a sense of high adventure. In those days of Antarctic expeditions going seriously wrong, with multiple deaths and disasters the norm, Shackleton’s excellent leadership skills and sheer toughness shone through to ensure a successful rescue attempt for he and his crew. This film does a great job of recounting one of the world’s best survival stories.


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