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Surviving Mongolian Bandits & the Cape
Charles Gallenkamp's
Dragon Hunter
& Peter Nichols's
A Voyage for Madmen

by Woody Arbunkle

In Dragon Hunter, the first complete biography of Roy Chapman Andrews for adults, Charles Gallenkamp mixes science and adventure, while in A Voyage for Madmen, the story of the 1968-1969 Golden Globe race, Peter Nichols delivers pure, harrowing adventure.

Read Charles Gallenkamp's adventure-driven Dragon Hunter and you'll understand why Roy Chapman Andrews is often credited with being the real-life inspiration behind Indiana Jones (an inspiration which his creator, George Lucas, has repeatedly denied). While it's the first comprehensive Andrews biography written for adults, Gallenkamp rightly focuses most of his attention on Andrews's five expeditions into the Gobi Desert (taken between 1922 and1930), which Gallenkamp calls--without exaggeration, I think--"one of the most enthralling and widely publicized adventures in the annals of scientific discovery, an event that forever changed the nature of exploration."

Like many scientists of his day, Andrews was interested in Asia's role in mammalian origin with emphasis on the search for a 'missing link' that would tie humans definitively to their forebears in Asia rather than Africa, but the expedition's actual discoveries were quite different. Mongolia--which wasn't considered a particularly promising area for fossil hunting (only a single extinct rhinoceros's horn had turned up)--soon revealed itself to be a paleontologist's paradise. While lost near the end of the first expedition, for example, Andrews and his group literally stumbled onto a reddish-orange sandstone basin that readily yielded dinosaur eggs and a plethora of protoceratops and velociraptors (yes, the velociraptors--Jurassic Park...so no more). The Flaming Cliffs, as Andrews's group dubbed the basin, would in time prove to be what Andrews himself called (in typical immodesty) "the most important deposit in Asia, if not the entire world." Ironically, while Andrews made history with his discoveries, the racially tinged drive to find man's origins in Asia rather than Africa was halted by the 1924 discovery of Australopithecus africanus in South Africa.

It wasn't merely the discoveries that made good scientific history, of course; it was how Andrews conducted them, with speed and efficiency as the driving forces. One of Andrews's revolutionary concepts was using automobiles in conjunction with camel caravans to explore the desert. "Andrews had concluded," Gallenkamp writes,

Dragon Hunter
Charles Gallenkamp
344 pp.

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A Voyage for Madmen
Peter Nichols
298 pp.

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from his own experience and information reported by nomads and caravaneers that Mongolia's gravel-covered surface, sporadically broken by mountains, rocky outcroppings, badlands, and sand dunes, would allow him to utilize motorcars to cover great distances rapidly and with relative mobility, assuming that the supply caravan loaded with gasoline, oil, spare parts for the cars and extra food made it to each rendezvous point on schedule, without falling victim to bandits, drought, or insufficient grazing for the camels. Andrews cited the fact that camels averaged only ten or fifteen miles a day, whereas automobiles could travel a hundred. "If all went as expected," he wrote, "...we could do ten years' work in five months."


Perhaps as importantly, Andrews sent three or four self-contained units to work independently (and simultaneously) in the field to increase the number of potential discoveries. Thus, while Andrews undertook five expeditions between 1922 and 1930 with each lasting five months (Mongolia's harsh winters precluded year-round explorations), the explorations as measured in man-hours were indeed considerably richer.

Inevitably, the Gobi Desert also proved itself to be an adventurer's paradise. Aside from facing down the occasional band of roving bandits, Andrews managed to survive accidentally shooting himself in the thigh (he recuperated during raging sandstorms that shut down digging), and the expeditions' joyous tension of uncertainty was heightened by the caravan's once losing an alarming amount of gasoline after the storage cans exploded from the desert's extreme temperature swings. Of his sand-swept gunshot wound recovery, Andrews wrote


I think that no one who has not endured sandstorms can understand the torture to one's nerves, even in good health. Physically weak, in continual pain and with fever, it became well-nigh unendurable to me. Often I had to bury my head in the blankets to keep from screaming. It seemed that something in my brain would crack unless there could be a rest from the smash and roar of the wind, the slatting of tents and the smothering blasts of gravel.


As a biographer, Gallenkamp wisely avoids what he calls "unfounded psychological analysis" on the grounds that an adventurer like Andrews had little interest in philosophical ponderings or soulful introspection. Surely, Andrews could have been cracked open by a diligent therapist willing to follow Andrews around and poke at him with probing questions (his fear of water is particularly tantalizing), but the chances of performing such maneuvers now, given Andrews's taciturn record, are slim.

Besides, one has to wonder whether all biographical subjects are rendered more complicated by denying they are truly as focused on their stated goals as they seem. (As an example of the insight-denying surface track of Andrews's life, his first marriage seems to have ended in divorce simply because he gave too much of his time to the expeditions and not enough to his wife.) Andrews was an adventurer, not an armchair philosopher or a laboratory researcher (or a wanton philanderer, for that matter), and while he remained devoted to the idea of science, it was the call to adventure that he most clearly heeded. This certainly goes a long way toward explaining why Andrews made a rather indifferent director of the American Museum of Natural History, after China's civil wars forced him to end the expeditions. His greatest moments came, inevitably, when science and adventure came together in the Central Asiatic Expeditions.

Perhaps, we should simply take him at his word, as Gallenkamp suggests, and consider a biography of him as a doggedly patient adventurer to be complete (to say nothing of its capacity to thrill).


Readers too impatient to take a little science with their adventure literature, on the other hand, will be delighted with Peter Nichols's A Voyage for Madmen. It recounts the Golden Globe race of 1968-1969, in which nine yachtsman vied to be the first to circumnavigate the world solo without a single stop.

The sailing world had been riveted by Sir Francis Chichester's 1966-1967 one-stop circumnavigation, and as several men started designing sailboats and lining up individual sponsors, the Sunday Times drew up rules for a race that would insure the newspaper backed a winner. The Times would give £5,000 to the single-handed yachtsman who completed the fastest circumnavigation via the three Capes (Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn), and it would give a Golden Globe trophy to the first to complete the circumnavigation via the three Capes, regardless of their speed performance. (The same yachtsman could win both awards, of course.)

It was a cunning strategy because it didn't require an official, communal start to the race or even require that sailboats be officially entered into the contest. Any sailboat that left an English port (it was later broadened to include a French yachtsman) after June 1 and before October 31, 1968 (to avoid the Southern Ocean's most severe conditions) was automatically a participant--whether their individual sponsors (e.g., rival newspapers) liked it or not. As Nichols points out, "no circumnavigator could not take part."

The nine men who accepted the challenge were a decidedly compelling, if diverse group. Among them were a mystical Frenchman, a tough Scotsman who didn't know how to sail before the race began, a charismatic electrical engineer (an oxymoron if there ever was one; he cried all night before setting sail) and a British Naval officer who methodically kept a record of the classical music he enjoyed during his attempt. (Here's a sample of the thoroughly British officer's notes: "Later, ominous black clouds appeared ahead, and clad in oilskins, I sat in the wheelhouse ready for the worst, listening to Schubert's Unfinished Symphony.")

For many of them (in the beginning, at least), the adventure was less important as a competitive race than as a test of character. The non-sailing Scotsman summed up the self-aware drive for adventure quite nicely thus:


This business of making myself thoroughly unpleasant to the body which God gave me is something that has fascinated me for almost as long as I can remember....I cannot say that I enjoyed my Arctic and desert survival courses or the rough parts of the trans-Atlantic crossing any more than I can say I was enjoying having the stuffing knocked out of me in Dytiscus III--and yet there is an enjoyment....And I did not want, if I could possibly help it, to miss finding out all I could about this round-the-world exercise simply because my boat was not able to do the thing in one go. Survival, after all, was the object with which I began my preparations, long before a newspaper came along and turned it into a race. Provided I could go on without being foolhardy, I wanted to see the thing through. It was my voyage of discovery, and what I wanted to discover was me.


As it progresses into the seemingly impassable Southern Ocean, Nichols's text takes on an ominous quality of encroaching doom. "The further I go," one yachtsman writes in his logbook, "the madder this race seems." Shrieking gales and eighty-foot waves aside, though, the most compelling material may be the shocker that comes two-thirds of the way through the book: one of the contestants decides to fake his journey and meticulously maps out his feigned, record-breaking progress, which he reports by radio daily to a thrilled audience back home. (Robert Stone drew brilliantly on this element of the race for his novel, Outerbridge Reach.) Perhaps almost as shocking is the almost-certain winner who turns his back on the hollow victory the race represents and sails on, not up the Atlantic to England but past South Africa again, where he lights out for South Pacific territories.

A veteran sailor himself, Nichols does beautiful work bringing the minutiae of the yachtsman's daily experience alive with arresting details like the unnerving, atonal chords of winds howling through a boat's rigging and "the beautiful green of land that is always startling after weeks at sea." Cunningly, as he crosscuts between vessels in the tightening race, Nichols keeps veiled the identity of the one man who actually finished the race, and the effect--at least for those who don't already know, of course--is a resurrection of the race itself, with all its breathless momentum.

This is adventure writing at its most harrowing, most unnerving pinnacle.


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