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The life of a travel writer is all in the story

Catherine Marshall |  12 September 2017


Three weeks ago I was sitting in the back of a Russian-built tank as it sliced its way through the tundra of Siberia's northern Yamal Peninsula.

Siberia's northern Yamal PeninsulaI was part of an expedition north of Salekhard, the only city in the world to straddle the Arctic Circle's 66th parallel, to a camp where the nomadic reindeer herders known as Nenet had set up their chums, or tents. We had already been driving for many long hours, and now we were faced by a rising river that had to somehow be crossed if we were to make our way back to Salekhard and then across Russia's vast interior to Moscow, by train, and then, finally, home.

The Nenet and Russian drivers in our convoy surveyed the scene nonchalantly. They smoked cigarettes and conversed. One of them waded into the water, ice-cold even though it was summer. Their jagged, strident Russian dialect swirled around us in an incomprehensible fog. What was going on? Would we make it across? Were we doomed?

I wasn't concerned about any of these things. Indeed, I had never felt so relaxed in my life. Here I was, traversing one of the most sparsely-inhabited parts of the world in a form of transport used by Russian troops during the Cold War. I had spent four nights sleeping on reindeer skins on the floor of traditional Nenet chums and swatting tundra mosquitoes the size of flies. I'd witnessed the harrowing slaughter of a reindeer, and had accepted the Nenets' offer of a piece of raw meat slashed from its bones and dipped in the blood that had pooled in its abdominal cavity.

And now I stood on the banks of a raging river feeling contented and at peace, because everything that had passed, everything that was now happening and everything that was still to come was glorious, priceless material. And that, as writers know, is what makes for enthralling stories. Without compelling copy, the page remains resolutely empty.

But compelling content comes at a price: contrary to popular belief, travel writers are not paid to travel; we are paid to write. Our living can only be earned once the words have been placed in careful formation, one after another, on the page.

Certainly, we are for the most part hosted by operators, airlines and tourist organisations. But travel is not the payment we receive in lieu of actual cash, for if that were so we would surely starve (or at the very least default on our mortgages).

Instead, we are paid to write once the travelling is over, and in order to write well we must assiduously observe the people and places we come into contact with so that we might conjure them upon the page when we're chained to our desks back home.


"I stood on the banks of a raging river feeling contented and at peace, because everything that had passed, everything that was now happening and everything that was still to come was glorious, priceless material."


It's an exhausting process: I can never quite relax while travelling. I am always agog, head snapping this way and that, ears flapping nosily, senses and memory expanding with the things I behold. I fill notebooks with my observations, copy verbatim the words of others so I can accurately summon their rhythmic expressions back home.

But the joys of the job can hardly be enumerated: the never-ceasing thrill of landing in a foreign country; the encounters with people whose cultures and beliefs are so different from one's own; the compressing of a once unwieldy, unfathomable, bewildering world into an increasingly compact and familiar place.

And then there is the writing, which underpins the whole enterprise and which is where the real work begins. Those detailed observations while on the road are deployed now: the silken sheen of the fruit bats that come to roost in the mushitu swamp forest in Zambia; the sound of air caressing the condor's wings as it passes overhead in northern Patagonia; the unbridled feistiness of the little old lady in East Africa who assures you she's travelling with the ghost of her late husband. By the time I've placed the final full-stop at the end of the final paragraph, I have lived my journey many times over.

And so, back on the Siberian tundra as our guides contemplated the rising river, I was observing their observations, knowing that though the journey had not gone to plan — indeed perhaps because it hadn't gone to plan — it would make for glorious copy.

In the end, we made it safely across. On the other side, a group of Russian canoeists invited us into their riverside camp and fed us tinned pate smeared on preserved bread, and shots of homemade vodka.

On the onward journey, we picked up a 13-year-old Nenet boy on his way by foot to his family's camp, and, conversing with him through our translator, were able to contemplate his nomadic culture from a teenager's point of view.

And then, in the early hours of the morning, we saw the Northern Lights. A faint green smudge washing the pale summer sky. This was a gift to us all — but a gift beyond all reckoning, beyond the wildest imaginings, for me, the person who must go home and write about it.



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall travelled to Russia as a guest of Intrepid. She is the recipient of the 2017 Kennedy Award for Outstanding Journalism (Travel Writing) and the 2017 ASTW Travel Writer of the Year. This is an edited extract of a speech delivered by her to the Society of Women Writers NSW.



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Submitted comments

You have the job I envy, Catherine. Although if I look unflinchingly at myself I can concede that I am not a robust traveller revelling in the unexpected. I have a passion for travel equalled only by my fear of flying and my dicey tummy. Congratulations on your well-deserved awards.

Pam 14 September 2017

Readers sometimes see travel writing as a 'glamour' job. I blame the late Paddy Leigh Fermor for that. These days much travel writing is based round photos for a feature on one of those impossibly glamorous locations where one imagines all the ladies basking by the pool look like the young Ursula Andress: utter fantasy. At least you've been to one remote, beautiful and challenging place and seen the Aurora Borealis, Catherine. That's more than just paying the bills.

Edward Fido 15 September 2017

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