At the age of 27, A. J. ‘Sandy’ Mackinnon throws in his respectable job as a schoolteacher and sets off on a pilgrimage to drink from the Well of Eternal Youth. In compliance with ancient legend, he must travel only by land or sea. Given that he is beginning in New Zealand and his goal is a remote Scottish island, this is no easy task. THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END is the story of Mackinnon’s miraculous journey across twelve time zones – the miracle being that he lived to tell the tale at all.
Now in his 40s, the author is looking back at events that occurred in 1990. He heads into dangerous seas aboard yachts skippered by suspicious characters. He enters unfriendly countries without a visa, more than once. He persistently fails to carry drinking water or food. He starts freezing winter journeys at 5pm. He urges reluctant yachties to leave him behind on a remote beach, assuring them that his friends are not far away… and as a result is forced to spend the night standing neck-deep in the ocean while ravenous komodo dragons patrol the shoreline.
On various occasions, Mackinnon is interrogated, threatened and imprisoned. He comes within a whisker of being drowned, eaten, shot – or even accidentally married. But don’t pick up this book expecting to read the reckless adventures of a youthful boofhead. This author is a gentle and spiritual soul, who gets himself into scrapes out of not bravado but innocence. He meanders through life with the dreamy impracticality of the poet. He sticks his hand into the jaws of reality expecting a kiss, but gets bitten again and again.
One of the strengths of the book is Mackinnon’s courage in revealing his own foolishness. Occasionally it gets annoying just how constantly he fails to learn, but it is mostly endearing. He also plays it up, knowing that his reader can see what’s coming even though his youthful self did not. At times THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END is the literary equivalent of watching a B grade horror movie and wanting to shout, ‘Don’t open that door!’
While hitchhiking in New Zealand, Mackinnon prattles on about how awful the tourist traps of Rotorua are, only to find that his driver owns a souvenir shop, in Rotorua. His lift ends abruptly at the foot of a volcano in the middle of nowhere. After hours of climbing without water, he sees lakes in the distance.
The day was blindingly hot and I was parched, so I turned that way with considerable eagerness. My route took me across a lunar landscape of bare twisted rock and finally to the tarns, which a sign declared were the Emerald Lakes. Any thoughts of a cooling dip or even a drink faded instantly. They were green in colour: a shiny, serpentine green, the sort of colour you associate with Listerine, or the stuff they spray people down with after nuclear accidents. (29)
Later, after a blundering journey through forbidden and dangerous territories of Laos, he ends up imprisoned in the back blocks of China. Thankfully, his guards speak English, but their often comical incompetence reminds him of Laurel and Hardy.
After a night in the cell, my two policemen came to fetch me off to headquarters and spent the next three days interrogating me. This didn’t exactly involve being beaten with bamboo rods but at times it was frightening, more because of their unpredictability and strange hopelessness than anything else. I spent much of the time wondering if I had wandered into a surreal sketch penned as a co-operative effort by Kafka and the man who wrote Dad’s Army. (210)
The humour of this book caught me by surprise. Half of it stems from the author’s wry assessment of his own foibles, and the rest from an ability to see the ridiculousness of the myriad awkward situations that confront a traveller. A. J. Mackinnon is funny in a whimsical style, without vulgarity: Bill Bryson meets Tolkien.
Mackinnon lost my good opinion for a while after dismissing Queensland, my beloved home state, in a few terse paragraphs about pollution and animal cruelty. He even resurrected that old chestnut about Queensland being the repository of all the nation’s rednecks. This seemed especially rich coming from someone who hails from Adelaide, the Serial Killer Capital of Australia. But now that I’ve got that out of my system, I have to admit this is exactly what we pay travel writers for: to have opinions. Often we enjoy their acerbic comments about someone else’s special place, but we don’t want them to criticise our own territory.
Mackinnon really can write. He has a gift for description that hits its target with a resounding slap. Standing too close to a mighty waterfall is like being ‘mugged by a gang of rainbows’ (31). He waits in frustration for a sailing date from a skipper who has ‘all the sense of urgency of a Zen oyster’ (62). The sound coming from a truckful of ducks is ‘the sort of croaking gibble-gabble you hear at a crowded cocktail party, but almost deafening in its volume’ (155). With a cyclone in the offing, huge ocean waves are ‘wrangling beneath the keel like pit bulls in a sack’ (83). An Atlantic storm flings raindrops at a window ‘like handfuls of wet gravel’ (8).
The author begins each chapter with an obscure literary quote, makes constant references to fantasy fiction, and frequently uses sentence constructions that might sound pompous if chunks are taken out of their context. For all this, I never felt alienated. Mackinnon is so happy to make fun of his own quirks and failings that he manages not to sound pretentious. He clearly loves animals, nature, art and music, and it doesn’t really occur to him that other people may not. He lives in his own little world, but swings the door to it open wide and invites the reader in.
Mackinnon’s friend Newton, a tall and gangly man who looks ‘like a dishevelled elk’ (286) joins him for the final stages of the odyssey, from Egypt to London. And here the author discovers, as many a travel writer before him has done, that there’s a reason most travel writers travel alone.
(T)here was now an eye-witness to all the improbability, all the magic, all the adventure of the trip. And a Gorgon eye at that. An eye that, falling on the airy spinnings of these pages, on the cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces of my web-weaving, would wither them to dry dust and hard fact. Someone, in short, who could say in five years’ time, ‘Yes, well. Now let me tell you how it really happened.’ I was going to have to kill him. (254)
Mackinnon doesn’t in fact kill Newton, but for a time, despite the author’s consciousness of this very problem, Newton kills the story just a little. The escapades are just as foolish, the scenery as beautifully described, the locals as charming or as crazy, and yet somehow a little of the colour leaches out of the tale during the Newton chapters. It’s still an interesting book, but for a while it stops being exceptional. Thankfully, THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END regains its momentum towards the end, and finishes in style.
Mackinnon may not always seem to be entirely of this planet, but an incident in New Caledonia shows he knows what life on Earth is like. He is served a disappointing meal of steak and chips, ‘accompanied by two yards of dry French bread that had the texture of asbestos’ (79). The churlish waiter refuses him butter.
The sort of grubby temper I found myself in sitting there in that little bistro is in fact the natural state of the traveller – tea not made how you like it, insecure about the exchange rate, feeling ripped off and sweaty from lugging around an overstuffed rucksack and desperately hoping to meet someone cleanish and relatively sane to talk to. (79)
Yes, Sandy, that’s exactly how we feel. But we come home with a collection of boring photos and some pointless souvenirs, whereas you return with a literary gem. I look forward to reading your next book.
The Well at the World’s End on Amazon
by A. J. Mackinnon
This review © Belinda Pollard 2010
First published M/C Reviews