Review – Secret Lands, Petrol Clams and a Bagful of Bolivars by Sharon Cracknell

Patricia Cleveland-Peck is reminded of what we have been missing for the last 18 months

Secret LandsAs we gradually emerge from our lockdown cocoon and cautiously venture further afield, reading this book will remind us of the sort of adventures the world can offer us. I must however, confess that in some cases I am quite happy to enjoy the exploits of intrepid, courageous Sharon from my armchair.

This is particularly true of the North Korean trip during which she and companion Matt manage to see the not only the huge 70th anniversary Military Parade but also the Mass Games attended by Kim Jong Un himself. These games take place in the largest stadium in the world amid deafening cheers from a wildly enthusiastic audience. Included are the amazing displays in which school children hold up coloured pages which they flip creating, ‘a gigantic moving background picture with the simultaneous flip of a page.’

Sharon describes the delight and thrill which she along with the loyal crowds experience at these incredible spectacles but she also conveys skilfully the underlying draconian restrictions imposed on tourists in this, the most closed and secretive country in the world. Having to empty their pockets and obey long lists of what not to do, feature at every turn. Luckily their tour guide Miss Kim, ‘the pocket rocket’, who tells jokes and sings to them on the bus every morning, manages to keep her group happy even taking them to a barbeque where clams are cooked by dousing them with petrol which is then set alight! Apparently they tasted delicious – but with a disconcerting aftertaste of motor fuel.

Previous to this journey she and Matt had made a trip to Venezuela arriving with backpacks stuffed with Bolivar banknotes which they had acquired on the black market in order to get a reasonable exchange rate. Although initially nervous, they soon found a few ‘gifts’ to officials sorts the problem and allows them embark on such things as the alarming ‘Pedals and Politics’ bike tour through the frenzied traffic of Caracas. Another time in Colombia Sharon persuades Matt to try paragliding over the Chicamocha Canyon in Colombia. She does admit that, ‘strangely, terror is a feeling I thrive on…I crave that heart racing, shaking limb, shallow breathing sensation.”

Her next destination offered ample scope to satisfy this craving

(But will not feature on my wish list…) The Danakil Depression is a North Ethiopian desert where temperatures reach 50 and poisonous vapours are emitted from deadly acid lakes. Even the natives nickname it the ‘gateway to hell.’ It involved Sharon’s climbing up an active volcano where clouds of sulphur dioxide gas burnt her eyes and almost asphyxiated her,

Of course not all the destinations are quite so daunting. Trekking to the summit of Mount Toubkal in Morocco is obviously tough but very rewarding and her visit to Cuba did actually make me want to go there before the country changes completely.

Sharon has an infectious capacity for enjoyment and an easy natural writing style. She includes a few useful tips including to carry deodorant drops for smelly loos and boots and Nivea wipes if bathing facilities are limited. She also so has the ability to create lightning sketches of local people and her fellow passengers. As we read, we suffer from the presence of smelly Brian, we object to the mean behaviour of Odd Val and are warmed by the kindness of elderly John who gives Sharon his gloves when her hands are frozen. She is also very good at expressing her feelings and emotions. As she comments at one point, ‘There is a weird and wonderful word out there waiting to be discovered. Scary yet exciting.’

It is our good fortune that she shares some of it with her readers.

Secret Lands, Petrol Clams and a Bagful of Bolivars
Published by Cranthorpe Millner @ £8.99
ISBN 9878-1-912964-71-0

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