Victoria Falls by David Castro

Don’t know about you, but I love a good story. Especially it it’s true.

If the book touches on human issues or the meaning of life and gets me thinking, and if it’s set in a country with a different culture, then generally I’m hooked.

I wonder if you’ve read and enjoyed any of the following 10 books that I’ve selected? They are not in any particular order.

1. When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin.

Peter Godwin says it like it is, and then some.

“I am on assignment for National Geographic magazine in Zululand when I get the news that my father is gravely ill.”

He hooks you from the start and he’s compelling. Actually, I  didn’t know whether to choose Peter Godwin’s autobiography about childhood entitled, Mukiwa (A white Boy in Africa), or this his second African memoir which is a story about the disintegration of a family set within the collapse of a country.

Both are gripping, but this one is a real page turner.

when a crocodile eats the sun

Peter returns to Zimbabwe from America when he hears that his father is dying. What he finds is a country teetering on violent chaos, destruction and famine – but a country which his English parents refuse to leave. Like many good books, this memoir involves a secret – a fifty year old family secret and an omen – for ‘when a crocodile eats the sun’ is how the Shona people of Zimbabwe describe a solar eclipse – the celestial crocodile that consumes the life giving star as a warning that he is displeased with man below.  Peter Godwin’s writing is as always, astute, informational and very moving.


Loved it. There’s not a shred of self pity and the book is full of humour and wisdom.


2. The Sheltering Desert by Henno Martin

Sossusvlei, Namibia by Johanna Castro

After living in and traveling around Namibia for two years in 1986 I could relate to the scenery and the feeling of being a miniscule dot in an enormous vista in this fascinating, true tale. What I couldn’t relate to, and what was even more fascinating, was the concept of seeking shelter in a desert.

The book is all about the power of survival in a harsh but beautiful environment. During World War II in  South West Africa (now Namibia) two German geologists, Henno Martin and Hermann Korn were threatened with internment. They fled into the Namib Desert where they, “Sought the shelter of the desert in order to escape the madness of the Second World War.”

In this harshest of places they and the dog Otto, eked out an existence for 2.5 years, independent of human society living like primitive hunters, governed only by the laws of the wilderness and their own limitations.




3. These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach

OK so you’ve seen the movie? Haven’t you? The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? Now it’s time to read the book which is a comedy of manners about how different cultures cope outside their comfort zone – in this case in a ramshackle guesthouse in Bangalore. Funny and full of colour it’s also an insightful view of old age and what it has in store.


Couldn’t put it down.


4. Touching the Void by Joe Simpson

touching the void

Extraordinary, astonishing testament to the power of the human spirit. How climber Joe Simpson survived against the odds when he fell down a crevasse is told in one of the classics of mountaineering.

Joe Simpson and his friend Simon Yates  manage to get up to the top of the Siula Grande, a  perilous Peruvian mountain.  Unfortunately, on the way down, Simpson breaks his leg. At one point, in trying to lower him down with a rope, Yates unknowingly dangles Simpson over a huge crevasse over which he is not able to climb back. Yates makes the agonising decision to cut the rope and Simpson falls seemingly to his death.

But he lands on a ledge … and the rest you have to read.

Not only is it a heart stopping adventure it also touches on great life questions that really make you think. It’s all true, about the spirit of a man and the life force that drives us all. There’s a movie too – have you seen it?

Ohhh, gruelling, but I couldn’t peal my eyes away from the screen.


Harrowing. I was  repulsed by the agony and equally amazed by the human spirit.


5. I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann


African Sunset by David Castro

I defy any mother not to fall to pieces while reading this fast paced memoir. It’s a haunting, poetic and incredibly moving story, capturing the magic of Kenya with all its perceived wealth, its beautiful landscapes, its isolation and drama.  But the African dream of the book is pierced by human tragedy so intense that it stops you in your tracks.

I’d give the story away if I tell you too much here.

If you’ve ever been to Africa, or if you’re a Mum – just read it and weep.


One box of tissues is not enough.


6. Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer


Himalayas by David Castro

We moved to Kathmandu, Nepal when our son was five weeks old. I found this book in second hand book shop in Thamel when one day I diverted from my quest to buy spices for dinner.

As a severely sleep deprived, breast feeding mother, this book had to be gripping to keep my attention – and gripping it was. Heinrich Harrer, a mountaineer escaped from an internment camp in 1943 at Dehra Dun and headed for Tibet. He was a fugitive with no status and no papers traveling on foot with his companion Aufschnaiter.

They arrived in Lhasa penniless and in rags, but were met not with hostility but with kindness, and Harrer later became tutor and confidant to the young Dalai Lama. Life in Lhasa and the Chinese invasion are all covered in a memoir that gives a glimpse into another, and at that time relatively unknown world.


For anyone interested in Tibet and the Dalai Lama, this book gives a fascinating glimpse into a once forbidden country.


7. In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut


Lesotho by Jo Castro

I admit. I’m an expat. I suffer from rootlessness and loneliness. Galgut, who was born in Pretoria, South Africa addresses these issues in an unsettling, beautifully poetic way using sparse but vivid language.

He uses three journeys to tell his story. Journeys that take him through Greece, India and Lesotho in Africa. Each journey ends in some kind of disaster, and each journey changes his life in some way. If you’ve ever searched not only for love, but for a place to call home, you’ll probably adore this somewhat bleak, intense book too.


I kept having to read sentences twice. Mr Galgut has a disarmingly lovely way with words 🙂


8. Don’t let’s go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Malawi by Jo Castro

For me there’s nothing like a well written memoir, and if it involves either Asia or Africa, then I’m probably going to buy it.

Alexandra Fuller writes about her African Childhood in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia with great wit and insight, relating her experiences of living through a civil war at an extraordinary time with an eccentric family that displayed an unbreakable loyalty to their family farms as well as Africa, despite overt violence and uncertainty.

Alexandra can be so funny that she’ll have you laughing out loud, while at other times there’s an underlying sadness and hopelessness running through the story.


After living for many years in Africa I both laughed and empathised with this memoir. It’s true that Africa seeds herself deep into your veins.

one thousand chestnut trees

 9. One Thousand Chestnut Trees, a Novel of Korea by Mira Stout

A young woman embarks on a journey of self discovery by traveling to her mother’s homeland. She discovers a legacy left behind by the noble clan from which she’s descended and finds a temple, shielded by one thousand chestnut trees … A temple that was erected by her great-grandfather in defiance of centuries of invasions against Korea.

I was hooked and fascinated very early on in the book.


Made me cry

10. As I walked out one Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

England by Jo Castro

It’s a classic, it’s sensitive and it’s very  readable.

Back in 1934 a young man walked from the security of his home in the English countryside to London, and from there went on to Spain, tramping through a violent country on the brink of civil war.

The book is lyrical and encompassing, capturing the atmosphere of Spain in an undiluted way.


As a writer, I wish I had Mr Lee’s way with words. As a traveller, I wish I had his powers of observation.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? What’s your favourite travel book of all time?






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  1. Touching the void is compelling. As for the rest, agree wholeheartedly Jo that watching the movie, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, left me wanting more. Now to the other eight. My only dilemma is which one to read first. Fantastic roundup and birthday gifts for friends fulfilled.

  2. So glad that you could relate and thanks for the kind words. Hope you enjoy choosing your next read and that the list offers some helpful gift ideas 🙂 Thanks for replying.

  3. gabrielle

    Sad to say I have not read one of these books, I will rectify this in due course. Wish I had read the list before going on our hols, but have something to look forward to on our return!! Maybe have our own holidy story!

  4. Thanks for replying! For a starter try “I dreamed of Africa” 🙂 And I’m looking forward to hearing your own holiday stories too!

  5. Blond Duck

    Popped in from SITS! I loved your comments on the writer/ blogger post.

  6. Hi Johanna, beautiful. Initially I thought , nope, not interested in travel books , thinking, ‘guide books’. A trip to the library will be on the agenda soon! Thank you

  7. Thanks Annie, glad you liked the list and hope you find one that you can’t put down.
    Silly me :(, I bet a lot of people thought ‘guide books’ instead of what I really intended should be narrative travel books and books related to living in different countries.

  8. Sadly I have never read any of these books – and they all sound wonderful. I love reading memoirs, especially if they involve travel or life in different lands. I guess I want to peep into the lives of other people. I will have to definitely look out for “I Dreamed of Africa”
    So a question Jo – how is your memoir going? Don’t forget I am on the list to buy the first edition!
    I have so many travel or memoir books on my bookshelf I couldn’t even begin to tell you which is my favourite! although I do love Lydia Laube’s books ie Behind the Veil & The Long Way Home and others…
    The next one on my list is “Sinning across Spain” by Ailsa Piper which is one of the books I received recently in payment for writing a book review.

    Another great blog post Jo. I just have to work out why I don’t get them automatically in my in box!

  9. I also enjoyed Behind the Veil and Long Way Home. I think memoir is my favourite form of writing genre too for the same reason you give – it gives ‘a peep into the lives of other people’ without overwhelming you with the entire autobiographical facts of their lives. I have you down for the first copy of my memoir – Bless you! Now the pressure’s on!
    Look forward to hear what you think of “Sinning Across Spain”, and well done on the book review. Have you considered doing more for other publications around the country, or even overseas?
    I think, because I’m on self-hosted wordpress, that I need to install a plugin to get my posts sent out automatically. I’ve only set up Mailchimp to send out updates when I create new email campaigns. I need to look into that.

  10. Johanna – great list of books to get your teeth into. Thanks for your suggestions.

    Vicki Sly posted a few articles on Perth Walkabout with her suggestions on fiction and non fiction Australian books that you might find interesting.

    I especially enjoyed The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do. It was one of those books that you couldn’t put down till you finished reading it.

  11. Thanks, Nita – glad you liked the list. I’m going to have a look at your link right now. Thanks for that. It’s always great to get new book recommendations 🙂

  12. Have you read Paula Constant’s ‘Slow Journey South’ and the follow up ‘Sahara’? Talk about a women that full fills her life’s dream!
    I love travel stories as well, I really enjoyed ‘Unholy Pilgrims’ by Tom Trumble, all about the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. I not religious in any way but it’s another thing I want to do one day.
    And now have to see if I can find ‘Sinning across Spain’, sounds like my type of trip.

  13. Thanks Julie. Def another two books to add to my list of travel stories to get hold of. As a keen walker/hiker I’d also love to do the Santiago de Compostela. Let me know when you find ‘Sinning across Spain’ – I’d read that one too!!:)

  14. Memoirs are my very favorite books! And as a career expat for 25+ years, I love the adventure of travel. Thank you for sharing this wonderful list. Now, if only I can find them all in Kindle versions! I am off to right now. : )

  15. So glad you like the list. I hope you can find them all in Kindle versions 🙂 Sounds like you’ve travelled quite a bit, like me, as an expat? Thanks for popping by to comment 🙂

  16. Rob & Lee Wallis

    I read Mukiwa years ago and loved it. Will definitely read his follow up book. Mukiwa gave me a very good insight into the contentious colonial/oppression issues in “British” Africa. Peter Godwin writes with such apparent love of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and the people who had an influence on his childhood.
    I must say I can’t go past Bill Bryson for travel books. His books may not be inspiring as such (although the Appalachians in the US is definitely on my ever increasing must-do list), but for a good belly laugh he is hard to beat. But will definitely look up some of these books.

  17. Interesting thoughts Lee. I also enjoy Bill Bryson for belly laughs and yes, Peter Godwin is an amazing writer who hits the spot every time. Thanks for joining the conversation here 🙂

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