Redmond O'Hanlon

  • Dorset


Redmond O'Hanlon was born in Dorset and studied at Oxford University.

From 1970-1974 he was a Member of the Literature panel of Arts Council England, and in 1982 was elected a member of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History. He has written several travel books, recording various journeys he has made, the most recent being Trawler (2005), an account of a journey through the North Atlantic from Stromness to Greenland. Into the Heart of Borneo (1984) records a journey to the mountains of Batu Tiban with poet James Fenton, and Congo Journey (1996) is an account of a 6-month trip through the rainforest of the northern Congo basin.

Redmond O'Hanlon was Natural History editor of the Times Literary Supplement for fifteen years, and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society of Literature. He lives near Oxford.

Critical perspective

In Trouble Again (1988), Redmond O’Hanlon’s account of his extraordinary four-month journey between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers, opens with a list of dire local diseases (with ‘special extras’) as well as the natural perils that the expedition may encounter.

These include vipers, jaguars, anacondas, spiders, piranha, giant catfish, candiru (‘the toothpick fish’) and the deadly assassin bug. O’Hanlon then relates his attempts to find a friend to accompany him on the journey. He is turned down by photographer Don McCullin, poet Craig Raine, while James Fenton – his companion previously Into the Heart of Borneo – tells him: ‘I would not come with you to High Wycombe’. It is O’Hanlon’s comic self-deprecation, as well as his ability to write about epic journeys of endurance in characteristic high-octane prose, that makes his travel writing uniquely entertaining. Eric Newby hailed Into the Heart of Borneo (1984) not only as a modern classic but also ‘the funniest travel book I have ever read’. Each of his books has moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity – sometimes ruefully or painfully so. But his comic sense in no way detracts from his skill as a writer about the natural world; his observations of species (especially the human varieties) are acute and wide-ranging.   

O’Hanlon is currently once again the Natural History editor of the Times Literary Supplement, a post he previously held for 15 years and which ideally placed him to combine his scholarly and travel writing interests. His own peculiar species of travel writing was spotted early on within Granta magazine, with the encouragement offered by its then-editor Bill Buford. O’Hanlon developed his persona as a modern-day throwback to the intrepid Victorian naturalist explorer. The ostensible purposes of his books typically involve him going ‘in search of’ impossibly exotic creatures – a rare rhino in the Malaysian jungle or a dinosaur in a Congo lake - in remote wild places and threatened habitats. His encounters with native peoples, bureaucracy, physical and psychological dangers give his books potent if vicarious thrills for the reader. They have something derived from Hunter S. Thompson – a writer willing to take on extreme experiences, survive, and report about them. Alongside this goes a fascination with states of consciousness, even insanity. O’Hanlon has a strong interest in religious beliefs and superstitions (being ‘unable to resist a proferred talisman or a passing fetish’); in moments of in extremis his mind habitually goes back to the Gloucestershire vicarage of his childhood and expeditions with his father. His favourite creatures are undoubtedly birds - he has an insatiable ornithologist’s curiosity to see exotic kinds, and they play a part in all his books.

With O’Hanlon, Darwin’s influence co-exists with that of Conrad so his travel writings are usually structured like darkly comic novels; written in scenes, with regular conflicts between characters and a fair few cliff-hangers. Preparations for In Trouble Again (1988) had involved him re-reading his 19th-century heroes, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates, re-tracing their journeys along the Amazon. O’Hanlon and his companions encounter the Yanomani (‘the most violent people on earth’) and yoppo, ‘a drug they blast up each other’s noses’. The latter provides the hallucinogenic high point, as O’Hanlon feels obliged to sample its effects: ‘My lungs filled with hot ash …. I was gulping oxygen through a clogging goo of ejaculating sinsuses’. Food is a constant preoccupation; the meals consumed along the way include boiled piranha, armadillo risotto, paca soup and crocodile (’a blend of halibut and chewing gum’). Counter-pointing the hardships, often ‘mindless with fatigue’, are sightings of amazing birds: hoatzins, red-throated caracaras, the harpy eagle. ‘I was wondering how many years I would have to live in the jungle before I saw the Amazonian umbrellabird’. By the end, O’Hanlon has an epiphany while climbing Toucan hill; in a trance of happiness he feels himself ‘ignorant, momentarily, like a Yanomani, of the laws of science’. 

Congo Journey (1996) opens with a visit to a feticheuse, an old woman witch doctor in the poor quarter of Brazzaville. Native beliefs and superstitions, the world of the spirits, come to have a major bearing upon the journey to the interior Lake Tele and its legendary dinosaur. O’Hanlon’s real purpose lies in observing pygmy tribes (‘We must find them, I said, feeling like Stanley’) but he somehow becomes the replacement mother of a baby gorilla. One of the important sub-themes in the book is how the realities of African life – with its family obligations, officials expecting bribes, and exploitation of wildlife – are often at odds with Western attitudes. A Cuban-trained naturalist and crocodile expert acts as their guide but often berates O’Hanlon’s ‘ignorance’. Meanwhile, they get accustomed to meals of manioc and monkey stew, even elephant trunk. Ever-present dangers rear up, as ‘fear moved in my stomach like the first warning of oncoming dysentery’. O’Hanlon finds himself conversing with a warning spirit, and later movingly digresses on his friendship with Bruce Chatwin. Having carried a fetish for protection throughout, O’Hanlon is eventually regarded by the native bearers as a sorcerer himself.

By the account he gives of his consciousness in Trawler (2005), his self-description as ‘Redmond O’Hanlon, unhinged writer’ seems peculiarly apt – not due to hallucinogenic drugs but to the equally disorienting effects of sleep deprivation. He joins a trawler sailing in January out of the Orkneys to the North Atlantic fishing grounds with a Force 12 storm coming in (‘Just what you wanted!’). The book consists largely of dialogues and manic monologues, trances and streams of consciousness. Out of this ‘broken up thought’ emerges a personalized mixture of arguments, ideas, and descriptions of the life cycles of strange fish. As his minder Luke points out, ‘compared to your rainforests … the deep sea is totally unknown!’ Moreover, ‘your behaviour, you know, it’s as odd as these skates!’ The very real dangers come from the cold, the sea, and from the equipment; when gingerly hauling himself out of his bunk and crossing the open deck, ‘my fingers [are] as committed as the suckers on a squid’. As ever, O’Hanlon finds solace in birds, such as ‘my spirit-lifting brave little gull’; he converses with a kittiwake - who replies. Amid the cooped-up male bonding and rivalry comes a gradual revelation of the lives of the trawlermen, their fears and superstitions. He finds ingenious parallels for these, with much that is ‘the same as life in Upper Congo’. O’Hanlon’s combination of real life adventure, comic timing, and scholarly observation, exuberant accounts of the wild places of the world (and their equivalents in human consciousness) make him a writer whose every new book is eagerly anticipated. 

Dr Jules Smith (2008)


Borneo and the Poet
Into Deepest Borneo
Congo Journey
In Trouble Again
Into the Heart of Borneo
Joseph Conrad and Charles Darwin: The Influence of Scientific Thought on Conrad's Fiction