If you’re staying on Galapagos and notice a plume of smoke rising above the national park headquarters or the sickly smell of gas, here’s what it probably is: Ecuadorian riot police firing tear gas canisters to stop local residents assaulting park rangers.
Eric Campbell’s latest book Silly Isles is a hilarious piece of travel writing with a journalist’s sensibility, exploring some of the stranger, untouched islands on the planet and prodding at the absurdities that define them. This book collects the adventures of Eric Campbell for longer than a decade, both in his capacity as an ABC foreign journalist and also as a seeker of all things curious. His light-hearted, conversational writing style is evocative of Bill Bryson, arguably the modern master of fine travel narratives, and his eye for discovering a whacky story is unprecedented.
The best thing about Silly Isles is each chapter explores the unique culture of a different island, so in a way the book can be read more like a collection of Eric’s greatest adventures in global reporting.
Here are just some favourite picks:
On island Svaland, just off the coast of Norway, a group of otherwise unassuming university students practice shooting rifles at Polar Bear life-sized paper targets, because the 1800 human inhabitants are outnumbered by a population of over 3000 Polar Bears. Seventeen years later Eric returns to Svaland to find that it’s not rifle-wielding students doing the damage; it’s melting ice due to climate change that is causing the island’s beauty to literally evaporate.
The Faroe Islands, home to proud Viking descendants, continue to eat whale meat, joking to Eric that they ‘Save the Whales (for Dinner)’. But what has allowed this begrudging concession to exist? Isn’t whaling globally condemned?
In Taiwan, its capital Taipei is torn between its struggle for independence and the vice grip of Mainland China which refuses to acknowledge their sovereignty. These days, officially Taiwan doesn’t exist, despite having a population of 23 million people, the same as Australia. How can this be?
And in the Kuril archipelago, the Second World War is still taking place as Japan and Russia continue to vie for claiming a group of tiny islands as their own.
These are just some of the places he goes; Campbell visits plenty of other wonderful islands, including East Timor, Zanzibar, Antarctica, Cuba, and Iceland, and all of them have stunning backstories and present conflicts to uncover. With an intelligent, witty flair, Campbell plucks out microcosms of society as a whole, finding blood feuds, quiet wars, curious histories, and enduring customs in every isle.
This is an easy but observant and clever read. It’s perfect for escapism, letting you explore the far stretches of the weird and wonderful places in the world –its standout feature is not only pointing out the funny side of these absurd cultures, but also approaching them with a sensitive, empathetic view, allowing us to examine both sides of the case, the history behind the tragedy, and how our world has become so far-reaching and mixed.
Eric Campbell began his career as a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald. In 1996 he landed a job as the ABC’s Moscow correspondent and spent the next seven years covering the former Soviet Union, Central Asia, the Balkans and China. He has reported for 7:30, Lateline and Foreign Correspondent. In 1999 Eric won a New York Television festival award for environmental reporting and was a finalist in the Australian Walkley Awards for his coverage of the war and humanitarian crisis in Kosovo. In 2009 his stories on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan won a Logie for best news coverage.