JELLA: A WOMAN AT SEA by DEA BIRKETT, (Gollancz, $185.00). Reviewed by RUPERT WINCHESTER. DEA BIRKETT spent four months travelling around Africa researching Jella: A Woman at Sea, a book about the Victorian traveller Mary Kingsley. Her work done, Birkett was looking forward to a leisurely trip back to Britain. She managed to persuade a shipping company to let her sail as crew on a working cargo ship. The ship took her ? the only woman on board ? from Lagos to Liverpool. Her internal voyage is as compelling as her physical voyage, so what we get is a quirky and engaging account of what was, if the truth be told, a fairly uneventful journey. Birkett won the Somerset Maugham Award for Jella and was nominated for the Travel Writer of the Year Award, both in Britain. But this is not simply a travel book. Part history, part autobiography, it is a compelling story of psychological adjustment to an alien environment. As the MV Minos sailed through the ports of West Africa, Birkett was able to grab time ashore. The book provides fascinating snapshots of the continent's bustling, dusty towns. Birkett occupied a strange position on the ship, an uncategorised outsider, a woman in a man's world, with no sea-going experience and no particular affinity for the sea. The crew, crusty sea-dogs, found it difficult to accept this young woman into their masculine, routine way of life. The story of how Birkett gained their acceptance, and how important it was to her, forms the core of this praiseworthy book. WHAT THE TRAVELLER SAW, by Eric Newby (Flamingo $126). Reviewed by DAVID DALTON. ERIC Newby always travels on a grand scale. His first notable journey was in 1938, when at 19 he joined the crew of the four-masted Finnish barque Moshulu, engaged in the grain trade from Europe to South Australia.Newby, at one time travel editor of The Observer newspaper in London, has since spent most of his life travelling with gusto and panache to the kinds of places most of us thought existed only in mythology; the Bosphorous, the Golden Horn, Thrace, Yucatan. This collection is an edited retrospective, an easily-digested trawl through the memories of a man who was making a pretty decent living out of travel writing before Paul Theroux was in nappies, never mind out of them. The pages bristle with exotica, but as is so often the case with any great journey, it is the seemingly mundane detail ? in the hands of a good writer ? that turns the ordinary into the extraordinary: beaver-tracking in Canada with a guide called Johnny Smallboy, or watching incredulously as barmen on a 1972 cruise ship made sure recumbents dozing on the sundeck were alive by holding a small mirror in front of their mouth. For Asiaphiles this book is a treasure trove. In Hong Kong Newby fell in love with the Mandarin Oriental hotel, ''where no-one once said 'You're Welcome!' If you wanted that,'' he says, ''there was a Hilton higher up the hillside.'' Macau, Newby notes was built on seven hills, but otherwise not at all like Rome, except perhaps morally. ''It had the most hideous hotel if not in the world, in the East.'' The hotel, as we know, is still standing and still hideous. VENICE, by Jan Morris (Faber, $153). Reviewed by BRADLEY WINTERTON. THIS is a new edition, the third to be precise, of Jan Morris' most memorable book, written when she was not Jan but James. It is a book that is impossible to open without an almost insupportable rush of nostalgia. Venice, as Morris says in her new foreword, was her youth. Venice was always more of a romantic and impressionistic record of Morris' personal experiences than an objective report. It was, she says, a product of love. Morris lost her enthusiasm for the place as it changed. She felt it became irreconcilable with the modern world; when her youth died, her love for Venice faded too. But she still experiences at least a strong enthusiasm for the canal city ? perhaps the world's most beautiful ? ''jangling its profits'' and ''flaunting its theatrical splendours'', just as it has always done.