Words & Storytelling

Solitude elegant park bench on Sydney Observatory Hill

Twelfth century runes in the chambered tomb at Maes Howe, Orkney

I love words and storytelling as much as I love photography and have been fortunate to be able to make my living with my pen as well as my camera. In the course of my long association with National Geographic I’ve written about nearly everything under the sun, from cheetahs on the Serengeti to astrophysics at the South Pole to the lives of Norwegian cod fishermen in the high arctic. I especially love stories involving history, culture and archaeology and over the years have made these topics my specialties. Here I’ve collected a few favourites. You can read them below.

The Diamond Shipwreck

Five centuries ago a Portuguese carrick loaded with gold and ivory and bound for the fabled spice port of Goa vanished in a wild storm off the southern tip of Africa. Days later it foundered on a mysterious fogbound coast whose sands were strewn with millions of carats of diamonds. This whole improbable yarn would have been lost forever had it not been for a chance find on a lonely Namibian beach in what’s known as The Forbidden Zone

Before Stonehenge

One long ago summer, around the year 3200BC the Neolithic farmers and herdsmen on Scotland’s remote Orkney islands got together and decided to build something big. Using thousands of tonnes of fine-grained sandstone they set to work constructing a vast temple complex whose scale and magnificence was unlike anything the Neolithic world had ever seen. Now it has been found.

Ghost Ship of Filey Bay

The Bonhomme Richard is said to be one of the last of the great historic shipwrecks that has yet to be found. Left burning and adrift after its epic battle with HMS Serapis off the Yorkshire coast in 1779 – during which John Paul Jones scorned surrender and uttered his immortal line “I have not yet begun to fight! – the ship is assumed to have been carried far out to sea by the local currents. Sophisticated computer modelling says that must have been the case. Yet an old Yorkshire fisherman swears it went down in Filey Bay, not five miles from the battle. And he’s producing some tantalising evidence.

Victorian lamp post and the Pakace of Westminster, London

The Knowledge

Think you know your city? To become a cabbie in London you’ll need to pass the world’s toughest geography exam – memorising the city’s 20,000 streets and another 40,000 landmarks and be able to recite the shortest legal route between any two addresses within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross instantly and without looking at a map. It’s called The Knowledge. Gaining it has been a right of passage for London’s cabbies for over 150 years

Illustration by Howard Pyle - pirates

The Real Dracula

No question about it – Vlad Tepes was a hard man even in an era of hard men. A Machiavellian prince in the fullest sense of the term, he made plenty of powerful enemies and did it at a time when the newly invented printing press made it possible to create reputations – or tear them down. Was Vlad truly as monstrous as legend has it, or was he at least partly the victim of the world’s first bad press campaign?

The Golden Age of Pirates

The Golden Age of Pirates played out in the first two decades of the 18th century. And what an age it was! In one of those rare satisfying cases where life and art come together, pirates really did fly the Jolly Roger, dress flamboyantly and swill rum punch. One of the last and most successful of them was Captain Bartholomew Roberts a.k.a. Black Bart – a cavalier swashbuckler and the nearest thing to a real life Jack Sparrow real life has to offer.