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Sort of Like Bicycling the Antarctic

November 12, 1995|JOHN MUNCIE

THE CHINA VOYAGE: Across the Pacific by Bamboo Raft by Tim Severin (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., $25, illustrations, photos).

It's tempting to write Tim Severin off as a nincompoop. One of those modern adventure seekers who, now that all the good stuff's been discovered and conquered, must create obstacles in order to overcome them. Like climbing Mt. Everest backward or bicycling the Antarctic.

But Severin is too sincere to be written off. He puts his adventures ahead of his ego and gives them at least some historical/educational context. Severin's particular gimmick is to recreate ancient odysseys. He has motorbiked Marco Polo's route and ridden in the hoof prints of Genghis Khan. His best-known re-creations are of oceanic voyages, including sailing the North Atlantic in a leather-covered boat to show that Irish monks could have reached America long before Columbus.

In May, 1993, Severin set out from Hong Kong in a 60-foot bamboo sailing raft called Hsu Fu, after a mariner who, about 200 BC, explored the Pacific for the Chinese emperor. Severin wanted to test the theory that Asian sailors reached the New World before Columbus (Severin seems to have it in for Columbus) and influenced the great South American civilizations.

Severin and his four-man crew endured a number of trials--from cracked ribs to storms to depression--but the star of the book is the raft itself. Hsu Fu was built in Vietnam using traditional materials and a traditional design. While there was a lot of high-tech safety and communication equipment aboard, ancient Asian sailors would have been at home atop the raft's bamboo deck.

Hsu Fu had innumerable idiosyncrasies. Among others, it sailed in the water, not on top. No matter how strong the waves were, they simply sloshed through Hsu Fu's open structure, allowing the raft to stay level and sail calmly on.

The raft was lashed together, not nailed. From the start, the crew's main job was to keep Hsu Fu from coming undone. Seven months after leaving Hong Kong and about 1,000 miles short of the California coast, they lost the battle and had to abandon ship. This is a rousing adventure told with immediacy and verve.


PYRAMIDS OF TUCUME: The Quest for Peru's Forgotten City by Thor Heyerdahl, Daniel H. Sandweiss and Alfredo Narvaez (Thames and Hudson, $29.95, photos, illustrations).

Thor Heyerdahl started all this replica-adventure stuff when, in 1947, he sailed the balsa raft Kon-Tiki from Peru to Polynesia.

Forty years later he returned to coastal Peru for a different kind of adventure--an archeological study of an ancient pyramid complex created by a pre-Incan culture called the Lambayeque. Excavations began in earnest in 1988 and are on-going intermittently.

It's an odd book, part dry archeological data from Heyerdahl's co-authors and part a recounting of Heyerdahl's adventures living with the local Peruvians and putting the project together.

There's nothing Kon-Tiki about "Tucume," but the project has uncovered some remarkable artifacts.

Quick trips:

FIELDING'S FREEWHEELIN' USA by Shirley Slater & Harry Basch (Fielding Worldwide, $17.95, paper, maps). Very comprehensive guide for the RV traveler. Slater and Basch discuss everything from the pluses of mini-motor homes to cable TV to RV insurance to carrying a gun. Included are detailed accounts of 10 RV adventures. Among them: Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, the Florida Keys and the Alaskan Highway. A breezy style makes "Freewheelin' " lots more fun than most guides of this sort.

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL VILLAGES OF TUSCANY by James Bentley, photographs by Hugh Palmer (Thames and Hudson, $40). Thirty-six villages, 288 color photos. Serene piazzas, empty cobblestone streets hemmed by medieval buildings, strikingly calm facades--beyond question, a beautiful coffee-table book. But a serene, empty, calm Italy? Where is everybody? Italy is wine, women and Vespas; noise, dishevelment and gesticulation. Either Palmer shot all his film at 5:30 in the morning or waited until midday siesta to find such quiet moments.


Books to Go appears the second and fourth week of every month. For information on more travel books, see L24 .

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