Bibliography of a Backpacker: ‘Moby Dick’ by Herman Melville

R: The White Whale and I have become great friends on this trip; and although I finished reading Moby Dick nearly four months ago, I thought it a fitting book with which to end my literary odyssey.

I’m not a great reader on the bus, suffering as I do from text-induced motion sickness. Planes and trains are no problem, but buses (and Fijian boats) are necessarily prose-free areas for me. With this in mind I left the UK with an unabridged audiobook of Melville’s classic.

Through bursts of Frank Muller diction the whale has followed me along Brazil’s Costa Verde, through Peru’s Sacred Valley, around Lake Titicaca, across the Altiplano, down the Chilean coast and twice over the Andes. And it has helped break the monotony of overnight rides from Melbourne to Sydney, Sydney to Byron Bay and Bali to Java. In Singapore Moby Dick disappeared amid the gloom – the backlight of my iPhone packed in – before resurfacing in Thailand, where, in Kindle format, I eventually made it to the book’s climatic final scene.

So what of the book itself? At first Melville’s style – long sentences, archaic language and florid descriptions – is a little difficult to penetrate, but as the mist clears you are soon pitched headlong into a salty, oily world of whales, whaling and harpooners.

But Moby Dick is as much famed for its verbosity as its virtuosity, and there is no denying that Melville’s prolixity can often frustrate and even defeat the pluckiest of readers. Arguably, nearly half of the one hundred and thirty-three chapters do not concern the main narrative, exploring instead the history, science and culture of whales and whaling. In fact, a more appropriate title for the book may have been Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Whales But Were Afraid to Ask.

But the hardy reader is rewarded, as the accumulative effect of each digression serves to both build suspense and enhance the central metaphor of the whale. I say central metaphor, as there are probably as many meanings as there are chapters in the book. But what does the White Whale itself symbolise? God, nature, immortality? And what is the significance of Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal quest? Sin, hubris, or just plain old-fashioned revenge? Arguably, the key meditation of the book concerns the limits of man’s knowledge: that no matter how many ‘facts’ we gather about the world – about nature, about life, about ourselves – there are some things which remain forever unknowable.

Elsewhere I have lamented the attempts of others to write The Great American Novel; and it is from Melville that any aspirants must wrestle this title. In Moby Dick Melville does not speak of America but of the world, not of a whale but of life. This is why he takes his rightful place among the literary heroes of this trip.

But it is in the metaphorical richness that Moby Dick achieves its greatness. Its layers are so numerous, its weft and warp so tightly packed, that the reader is free to invest his or her own meaning. For me, Moby Dick is a metaphor for both the limits and the glories of travel. And I will leave Ishmael with the last word on both.

On the limits:

‘Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.’

And the glories:

‘How vain and foolish for timid untravelled man to try to comprehend aright this wondrous whale, by merely poring over his dead attenuated skeleton, stretched in this peaceful wood. No. Only in the heart of quickest perils; only when within the eddyings of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly livingly found out.’

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Days 134-139: Byron Bay, Brisbane & Barney’s Back

After Sydney we headed further up the east coast on an overnight bus to Byron Bay. It was 12 hours in length and the seats were as upright as the Mel-Syd train, but it passed pretty quickly; low expectations tend not to keep you up at night.

Byron Bay is your quintessential Australian small hippy-surfer town. It’s managed to keep at arm’s length the grasping tentacles of the big hotels, and in doing so retained much of its authenticity and charm. It is said that you used to be able to get high just by strolling down its main street, but nowadays it’s the smell of cinnamon bagels and Italian coffee which dominates.

We stayed in the elaborately titled Arts Factory Lodge, just ten minutes walk out of town. It was basic and expensive – a common theme among Australian hostels – but fine for a couple of nights.

The beaches in and around Byron Bay are terrific and boasts Captain Cook’s Lookout and the easternmost tip of Australia. The fish and chips are rather fantastic too.

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More of a set from a lost Saturday morning kids show than a hostel

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On the lookout for Captain Cook

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That’s it. You can’t get any more eastern Australian than this.

Travelling further north makes you appreciate Byron Bay even more. As we Greyhounded our way to Brisbane we passed Surfer’s Paradise, a city that’s built more out of the sky than the surf. From the main highway we couldn’t see the beach for a massive wall of towering hotels and entertainment complexes. You couldn’t imagine two more different places in which to go looking for that perfect surf break.

Now, Brisbane: a travel editor recently wrote of two colleagues who each have a rule by which they live their itinerant lives. The first always maintains that he will never leave a city until he has experienced some form of cultural enrichment; the second that he will stay put in a particular town until he’s had some fun. Both friends, the editor observed, are currently stuck in Brisbane.

From the perspective of our four nights in Brisbane we think this is a little unfair. Yes, admittedly, the city may not smack of the highest cultural sophistication, but what it lacks in refinement it makes up through enthusiasm: there are not many cities which can boast half a dozen top art galleries and museums, and all free to the public.

And we had fun in Brisbane too – dining at Lady Lamington’s on Valentine’s Day night being just one example. The chilli burgers were rather fine, as was the South Australian Riesling.

While we were there one diner exemplified the Brisbane commitment to F-U-N. She was barracked and abused by a random passerby who, clearly feeling that he hadn’t given great enough vent to his feelings, came back and finished off his mean-mouthed monologue, this time from inside the restaurant. After he was forcibly removed from the establishment she brushed the incident off with great aplomb and went back to having a good time with her friends. More power to her.

So perhaps Brisbane gets an unfair reputation.

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It could be the Thames on a sunny day

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Brisbane getting all artistic

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The city’s approach to history and modernity

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This is what can happen when a boat crashes into a bridge

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Brisbane’s touching ANZAC memorial

Oh, and guess what? Barney’s back!

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Well, one of his relatives, anyway. We can’t decide if B2 is younger or older than his New Zealand cousin. Interestingly, B1 had quite a rough exterior but was beautiful on the inside; whereas B2 is shiny and polished on the outside but a bit shabby when it comes to the interior. This may be a specific example of a wider New Zealand-Australian phenomenon, but we will leave it to the reader to speculate.

Anyway, B2 or not B2, that wasn’t the question. We felt that after part train-ing, part bus-ing our way up the east coast it would be fun to drive the rest of the route to Cairns. Well, we proved partly to be right.