“Keep Australia on Your Left” by Eric Stiller

The story of an attempt to kayak around Australia that ended -- refreshingly -- not with triumph or disaster but with honest failure.

Topics: Books,

Nonfiction
Keep Australia on Your Left: A True Story of an Attempt to Circumnavigate Australia by Kayak
By Eric Stiller
Forge, 412 pages

There comes a time in the life of every young man when he feels an overpowering urge to do something monumentally stupid. For Eric Stiller, that moment came at 32, when he decided to paddle all the way around Australia in a 17-foot kayak with someone he barely knew.

Stiller knew a lot about kayaks, not much about Australia. He worked for his father in a Manhattan shop that sold the boats to adventurers, but he had never gone off on the kind of grand expedition for which he had outfitted so many of his customers. Then Tony Brown, a 6-foot-4 model from Sydney, Australia, swaggered into the shop and announced that he was going to kayak around his native country.

Why was this a stupid idea? For one thing, Australia is bigger than it looks on the globe. The coastline, unspooled, would stretch out to 20,000 miles; cutting across many of the coves and inlets would trim the distance only to about 12,000 miles. Stiller and Brown’s small, canvas-covered kayak would be hammered by towering waves that, after journeying across thousands of miles of open sea, collide with Australia and bounce back in a hundred new directions. They would do most of their traveling in relatively quiet offshore waters. But twice a day, when they launched in the morning and sought shelter at night, they would meet with vivid and terrifying illustrations of the principle of chaos theory.

To be done safely, such an expedition calls for long, careful study of nautical charts, close questioning of sailors who know the hazards of the coast and so on. But here you run into another peculiarity of this adventure. Brown was not just a virtual novice to kayaking; he was actively opposed to buying supplies, plotting a course and similar annoying details. Before the trip, Stiller faxed him to ask him to pick up the British admiralty charts for the continent’s east coast. Brown’s answer came back: “We don’t need charts. We just keep Australia on our left.”

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A great line, even if it is unlikely to be adopted as navigational protocol by the Australian navy. Brown’s “just do it” attitude, though, clashed with Stiller’s more cautious way of doing things. In fact, Brown and Stiller clashed, period. The two quarreled almost from the moment they left Sydney.

Through backaches, hemorrhoids, mosquito attacks, bad camp grub and a thousand other griefs, they bickered like a couple who can’t quite remember what they ever saw in each other.

Anyone who has ever gone on a vacation during the ragged last days of a relationship can guess the rest: Resentments cropped up faster than blisters, and soon the great adventure was no fun at all. No fun, that is, for Brown and Stiller; it’s weirdly enjoyable for the reader, or at least for me. One reason I like “Keep Australia on Your Left” is that it made me feel a lot better about never having tried to kayak around a continent. After a couple of months at sea, Brown acquired a fungal infection that attacked his fingernails until they began peeling off at the slightest touch. I don’t remember what I was doing in 1992 while the trip was taking place, but I know for a fact that I had 10 fingernails.

Stiller is not a natural writer — there’s barely a well-crafted sentence in this book — yet he vividly expresses his discomfort and unhappiness. He has a gift for misery. Of the agonies he endured while crossing the Gulf of Carpenteria, a 200-mile open-sea passage during which the men didn’t see land for more than five days, he writes: “I suddenly felt a rash running a ring around my torso and I noticed that my hands were extremely puffy and dotted with septic sores all over them and in between all of my fingers. My hands felt hot, but a splash of water gave me instant chills … Spasms fired rapidly through all my major muscle groups … I was tortured by these uncontrollable gut-wrenching contortions for hours.” Shortly after the crossing, Brown began to talk about giving up. He’d experienced enough, he said, a point that is difficult to argue with. After reaching Darwin, only a third of the way around the country, they stopped and went their separate ways.

That this is a story about failure only dawned on me about halfway through. The fact isn’t advertised on the jacket, yet it’s one of the things that make the book compelling. Adventure narratives usually end with victory or, in the mode of current books like “Into Thin Air,” disaster. “Keep Australia on Your Left” is something different: a story about a journey that collapsed beneath a steady accumulation of bad days. (Stiller’s girlfriend back in New York even dumped him midtrip, breaking the news over the phone.) If the pair had made it all the way around Australia, the tale would have had an air of inevitability. Success, seen in retrospect, always seems preordained, as does tragedy; failure is more ambiguous. Yet as any Red Sox fan can tell you, the loser’s tale has its own satisfactions. In telling his story honestly, without cheapening it by portraying it as a triumph of the spirit, Stiller is doing something as brave as kayaking in 20-foot seas, and considerably smarter.

Pete Wells writes for Food & Wine, New York, Time Out New York and other magazines. He lives in Brooklyn.

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