As Pat Kennedy and his friends flew high above the Atlantic, en route for Colombia where they planned to salvage the cargo from a sunken galleon, his thoughts wandered, images of the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, setting out from Cadiz on his perilous voyage of discovery, drifted in and out of mind.
Pat's 60 million dollar Falcon jet was a galaxy of light years away from the navigator's wooden sailing ship, the Vittoria, the first to complete the circumnavigation of the globe. The 85 ton vessel, a mere 20 metres long compared to the 25 metres of the Falcon, stood high above the waves with its three decks and stern castle.
Magellan’s ship with its 55 man crew, made an average of 4 knots, driven only by the wind, for what was to be an incredible 50,000 kilometre transoceanic voyage, fraught with hardships and dangers unknown to Europeans at that time, a voyage into the unknown, in search of fame and fortune.
Pat unlike the navigator had more wealth than could be counted, though like Magellan he was driven by an insatiable curiosity, the desire for adventure, and the ambition to expand his banking empire into the New World.
How I met her was one of those strange coincidences, quirks of fate if you like, which can and do lead to strange unexpected and exciting adventures.
That evening I walked over the Seine towards Île de la Cité where the evening crowd of tourists was as always filling the square in front of Notre Dame. Passing the cathedral, I continued over the smaller bridge to Île de Saint-Louis, I was in no hurry and I paused to look at the Seine watching a heavily laden barge sluggishly making its way upriver, the deep throb of its motor echoing off the ancient buildings lining the river banks.
The weather was fine, a stroke of good luck for Catherine Demain who had expected rain. Catherine was the founder and owner of Librairie Ulysse at 27, rue Saint Louis en l’Île, the oldest travel bookshop in the world, and like the bookshop Catherine was getting on in years.
I made my way along the narrow street that ran lengthways across the island, past art galleries, restaurants and small hotels, and soon spotted a small group of people gathered between the book shop and the ancient church facing it.
It was the Cargo Club rendezvous, a meeting that occasionally takes place on the first Thursday of each month, I say occasionally because during the summer months Catherine moved to Hendaye, a small seaside town in the Basque Country, where she pursued her life work with another bookshop in the same theme situated in a Moresque style building dating from the beginning of the 20th century, once a casino, now transformed into apartments. The sole branch of Ulysee was tucked in between restaurants, souvenir and beachwear shops and surf schools, on one side it faced boulevard de la Mer, the other overlooking the sea.
Librairie Ulysse was a cramped and rambling collection of old, rare and often well worn travel books that ranged from guides to travellers’ accounts of sojourns in distant and not so distant countries, some of which no longer exist.
Ulysse, just a convenient short walk from my place on quai des Celestins, was one of my favourite stops when I stepped out, that along with Shakespeare & Company on the left bank of the river, though regretfully the latter had now become a tourist attraction, losing the charm and authenticity of Catherine’s place.
Catherine, a member of the French Explorers Club, had received honours from the French Geographical Society, and the Queen of Spain—with a photo receiving the medal from the queen herself as proof, for her contribution to what I suppose is the romanticism of travel and great travellers. As a writer I must say that you couldn’t invent Catherine, she is unique. Each year she presides over the Pierre Lotti Prize for the most outstanding traveller’s book, awarded to the kinds of adventurers who had canoed it up Siberian Rivers, or biked it across the Eurasian continent.
As usual each of us brought a bottle and something to nibble at as we exchanged news, pausing from time to time to make way for a car that crept slowly past—lost on what was a pedestrian only street.
‘Pat I’d like you to meet somebody,’ said Catherine putting a plastic goblet filled with red wine into my hand and taking me by the arm. Outside, before the grimy stone walls of the ancient church facing the bookshop, several clubbers were inspecting a powerful looking BMW touring motorcycle equipped for an odyssey to some distant land.
‘Pat, let me introduce you to a friend, she’s from the Basque Country, San Sebastian,’ she said in English, presenting me to an attractive Spanish girl of about thirty something. ‘Pat’s a writer, a regular visitor to Hendaye, he speaks Spanish.’
I didn’t catch her name in the hubbub, as Catherine, always in a hurry, turned to greet a new arrival, leaving me with her charming young friend who informed me she was in Paris on a research project at the French Geographical Society. Her French was quite good, but the conversation with the others was complicated by small talk of shared experiences, the strangeness of their stories and the jargon of their world.
Her English was much better than my Spanish, though after a moment she lapsed into Spanish when she took an amused dig at the eccentricity of the Cargo Club, a group of latter-day adventurers exploring Russia’s Far East—already explored by pioneers in the 17th and 18th centuries, men like Beketov and Ivan Fyodorov, or crossing Peru’s Cordillera Blanca in the belated footsteps of the Conquistadors.
We reverted to French when we were joined by a travel journalist from Radio France, Olivia de Bretteville, who was there for the promotion of Magadan, Kim Hoang’s travel book, the story of his eventful voyage across Siberia on a specially modified machine.
With the exception of Kim—the latest laureate of the Pierre Lotti prize, the adventurers were not that young, they reminded me more of eccentric bikers than Peter Flemming, or Ella Maillart and Ann-Marie Schwarzenbach—her cumbersome travelling companion, when they set out on their voyages across Central Asia to India.