Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 10, 2010

The Well at the World’s End, by A.J. Mackinnon #BookReview

The Well at the World’s End is a fabulous book! Mackinnon is a romantic, a travel tragic and a superb raconteur all rolled into one, and I’d love to have him as a guest at my next dinner-party…

Back in the 1980s, Mackinnon set off from Australia on the obligatory see-the-world trip that most young Australians do.  His ambition in Scotland was to find the mythic ‘well at the world’s end’ and this book begins with his adventures in getting there as a penniless – guileless – young  man.  On the way he met up with a truly ghastly female called Pixie who relieved him of much of his money but he pressed on regardless to fulfil his dream of bathing in the pool which confers eternal youth.  Alas, it turned out he should have drunk it, not swum in it, and he got a beastly cold for his trouble.  Undeterred by this, he has been bitten by the travel adventure bug!

A brief stint as a teacher intervenes but his heart’s not in it and he happily succumbs to the wanderlust that is the inspiration for this book. This man just loves to travel, and he has the most extraordinary determination to do it, whether he has the money or the means or not. He is, it must be said, a bit of an eccentric (to put it mildly).

There’s nothing too unusual about wanting to see the world but Mackinnon scorns the use of an aeroplane because it seems like cheating – and that’s just a bit tricky when you live in on an island in the middle of nowhere like Australia.  (After all, it took a good long while for Europeans who were searching for The Great South Land to find it, and that’s because it’s a very long way from everywhere.) 

He does have to take a plane to his first port of call in New Zealand where he gets good advice from his sister (which he ignores) and hitchhikes all over the place in search of a berth on a yacht.  Some of this really is hilarious, especially the tale of the melancholy driver who set out to commit suicide one day but since he had a full tank of petrol decided not to waste it and so gave a hitchhiker a lift half way across NZ instead.  It is now his hobby to give hitchhikers lifts to obscure out-of-the-way places on condition that they overlook the shotgun in the boot of the car and submit to having their photo taken with him when they reach their destination. 

For Mackinnon the quest is to find a yachtie about to sail in the off-season, but he wastes weeks and weeks believing the assurances of an old salt called Les McLeod – whose boat hasn’t left harbour in years.  He gives up on McLeod, and then almost misses out on a berth to Noumea due to a quixotic change of plan by his French skipper.  When after weeks and weeks of delay he finally reaches New Caledonia he is given five days to leave because he doesn’t have a visa, and is promptly sailed back to Australia to start again, just missing a cyclone on the way. 

In Australia en route from Queensland to Darwin he survives a deadly bus crash, and almost starves while on a trial sail along the Kimberley coast aboard a yacht skippered by a sociopath.  It takes almost the first third of the book to get out of Australia and finally arrive in Ambon, Indonesia!

Romantic in his travel ambitions as he may be, Mackinnon is no naive fool.  He has a gift for description, sharing insights about the beauty of the landscape, but he can also be brutally honest about his own foolishness and disarmingly frank about the shortcomings of some of the places he visits, though the tone is jocular and light-hearted.  He’s also quite frank about the people he meets, occasionally having to resort to noms de plume to avoid getting sued! 

Getting around in yachts often involves sailing in flotillas of one sort or another, and this presents opportunities for droll observation:

For some time now, we had been travelling in a loose flotilla of cruising yachts of different shapes and sizes and nationalities.  We tended to go at our own pace, but we ended up at the same anchorages most nights and a social scene had sprung up.  One night it might be Monopoly aboard Moonshine, and the next sundowner drinks aboard Sirius III, a large mustard-coloured yacht owned by a genial American couple in their eighties … It was very healthy, especially for Skip and Brenda and me, as even my blunted social antennae were beginning to pick up faint signals that where a marriage is concerned, two is company but three ‘s a crowd.  Any new yacht joining our loose flotilla was generally a welcome chance to widen our social gene pool and avoid the insanity of conversational inbreeding. (p133)

Part II covers his travels in Asia, where he soon learns that officialdom isn’t keen on his overland travel plans but where he blithely ignores all the warnings he hears.  (I can just imagine DFAT staff scratching their heads in dismay at some of it, especially his jaunts in communist Laos and China where flouting the rules could have seen him languishing in a gaol for quite some time!) Still, his adventures show that mostly he is right about how good-natured and generous most people are; he gets help in all kinds of places from all kinds of people and even though he often doesn’t get where he originally intended, serendipity sees him on his way unharmed.

But by the time he gets to Europe in Part III he seems a little tired of it all.  He’s not a man for cities and tourists, and these days it’s pretty near impossible to enjoy Paris, Rome or Venice unless you develop coping strategies for tolerating the most tiresome of them.  He spent only a day or so in these wonderful cities which seems a shame to me, but I’m fond of museums and galleries and grand old palaces – while Mackinnon would much rather be on top of some crag or slithering down a mountainside.

It’s not possible to do this wonderful book justice in a review.  Some of his adventures (like the time he dived into an underwater tunnel and was nearly lost out to sea) are heart-stopping while others (like the time he was nearly locked into an ancient abbey overnight) are wildly funny.  He has an irrepressible sense of self-deprecating humour and many of his stories are in the tradition of the Australian Tall Tale.   

The book is profusely illustrated with charming drawings of birds, fish and palms from Mackinnon’s notebook, reminding me of something I read many years ago at school.  I think it may have been A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble, but I no longer have the book to check.

To see why Sandy Mackinnon would make a great dinner party guest, do watch this video from the launch of his first book, The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow.

I rarely recommend books because people’s tastes vary so much, but I think this would make a marvellous gift book for adventurers and armchair travellers alike.

Author: A.J. Mackinnon
Title: The Well at the World’s End
Publisher: Black Inc Books
ISBN: 9781863954761
Source: Review copy courtesy of Black Inc Books


Responses

  1. Sounds like a fun book, Lisa. I do enjoy travel memoirs. This one has such an odd olde-worlde cover and title – it looks and the title sounds like a sweet little English tale?

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    • That’s what I thought too, but a quaint old Brit he’s not! Some of his escapades are quite hair-raising, probably best kept from any parent with offspring overseas!

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  2. LOL Fortunately mine are both at home at present – so it’s safe to go into the sea!

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    • Would you like to borrow it? I think you’d love it…

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  3. Thanks a lot Lisa, I’m sure I would, but I’d better say no as the must-read pile of the TBRs is overwhelming me at present. I’m not sure when I’ll get to the Olsson one you sent me recently … (though I realise you don’t want it back, I feel I should get to it having said yes I’d like to read it!)

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  4. Thanks Lisa … I knew you’d say that but I still feel a bit guilty! I think you are right though about late reviews.

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  5. Dear Lisa,

    What a very generous and warm review… the very first, I think. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much… but what is a ‘travel tragic’??

    I do love palaces and museums sometimes, by the way, but was almost criminally intent by that stage on getting to England and having a decent cup of tea and buying some new underwear from Marks and Spencers – hence the rapid trot through Europe. Poor Newton…

    Thanks anyway for the glowing words of praise… and I look forward to the dinner invitations rolling in!

    Best wishes,

    Sandy Mackinnon

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  6. Hello Sandy, how lovely to hear from you!
    IMO all the best people are ‘travel tragics’…all my friends are travellers of one sort or another (but not tourists). I use the term in the sense of having an intense love of travel unmatched by time or money to support it!
    Let’s hope that you sell vast numbers of The Well at the World’s End so that royalties fund another trip, so that we can read about more escapades in the next book!
    Lisa

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