In 1923, several scientists departed from La Paz, Bolivia to explore the headwaters of the Amazon. They crossed the high Cordillera, and descended by the Rio Negro and the Rio Madeira to Manáus. The purpose of their trip was to map the area, collect specimens, and to discover, if possible, previously unknown tribes of Indians.
If you ever plan a trip to the headwaters of the Amazon --- forget it. And if you plan to ignore this advice, try to do it by yourself. Never go with a pack of scientists. You might call it, "Seven Scientists in Search of a Coup" --- but it is also Seven Scientists learning to detest each other. Going on a two-year expedition with various entomologists and statisticians and botanists may sound like an educational venture but, according to MacCreagh, it is mostly an education into how silly and petty eminent mavens can be.
The most incompetent of the group, apparently, is the Director --- an M. D. --- who issues proclamations from his tent, doesn't know how to manage the feelings and fears of his companions, and tries to transport six tons of materials, stuff which has to be carried by burro and canoe over a very unforgiving landscape.
Not only does he bring everything packed in 40-pound wooden boxes, he forgets things as important as tools, medicines, and lamps. Worse, he includes generally unusable tents, strange canned foods, and folding boats. There is an outboard motor, but, as the author points out, in the upper reaches of the Amazon in the 1920s there is no fuel whatsoever.
MacCreagh ends up surviving not only the jungles but the boorish fights of his companions. On this two year journey, they meet frigid mountain passes, impossible rapids, dangerous poison-dart Indians, malaria, dysentery, leeches, electric eels, caymans, piume flies, mosquitoes, aniguas, piranhas, and bees which "get into one's ears and nose and hair, where they become hopelessly entangled; and if there is anything more terrifyingly uncomfortable than an insect lodged in one's ear, it is not known to science."
They hover for minutes at a stretch within an inch of one's eyes as one walks, and so damnably persistent are they that waving them away is of no avail. They return to their attack, and, if not caught and killed, presently find their opportunity to dart into the eye. They don't sting, but the exasperation of them is maddening.
Wild beasts are nothing to worry about. Wild Indians are largely mythical, and even when met with can either be placated or guarded against. Snakes are few and far between. Insects are the only creatures known that will consistently attack without provocation and all the time.
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The first weeks on the mountain passes brings him this memory from previous journeys:
It has been in my experience to see a horse in a much safer position become startled at a black smudge left against the cliffside where a charcoal-burner had rested his pack, and leap with legs all aspraddle into the air, crabwise so that half of him came down over the edge of the path; and I have watched him hang there, pawing desperately with his fore feet while he screamed with fear and while the rider clung helplessly to his neck, unable either to dismount or to reach for anything else. Just a few seconds of tense horror, till that scanty foothold gave away and both dropped from sight --- and the screaming of both continued long after they had dropped.
When they reach the rapids on the upper reaches of the Amazon, and embark in canoes to go downstream,
"Destruction seemed inevitable," is a triteness that I have always hated, yet I don't know how else to describe the situation. We swooped down, bow on, to a wall of rock, till I, who have used a paddle, said to myself: "Finished! We can't draw clear of that now." As I said it and looked for deep water clear of rocks on the off side, for my jump, the capitán shouted, "A hoep!" just like a circus acrobat about to perform his stunt. Both bow-men dropped their paddles, snatched their long poles, and with uncanny quickness of eye lodged the points of these in crevices in the slippery rock. Their big shoulder muscles bunched and cracked; their bare toes clung, monkey-like, to the balsa logs; the poles bent into taut bows, poised a moment thus in creaking suspense, and then slowly straightened out again as the balsa nose responded to the tremendous pressure and sheered off from the impending smash. The man behind paddled furiously to swing the stern into line, and in another moment we were clear, still tingling from the closeness of our contact with disaster, and were off on our new course. Another minute and we were at the opposite extreme of excitement, comfortably aground among the easy ripples of a wide shallow.
Once they reach safety,
A sorry-looking lot of explorers we were --- wet and bedraggled and shaky from the experience. But let me give due credit: not a man of them gave a thought to his personal condition. Their gear was the unanimous wail; their precious, soaked scientific equipment.
The Statistician was splendid. His clothes hung upon his lank frame like washing on a drying-rack. His long, thin black hair, which was used to be brushed carefully forward to cover the sparseness of his high dome, was all the way down his neck. His spectacles clung crookedly to his forehead. But:
"Wonderful!" he kept repeating between gasps. "Wonderful! I'd like to do it over again --- with my eyes open."
Gradually, under the heat and the bugs and the lack of medical help, the members of the scientific brigade melt away, and it is finally only MacCreagh, the "Respectable Member," and the "Young American." They make it upriver to meet with a deadly Indian tribe, the Tiquiés. MacCreagh, who had studied the formalities of the jungle (mostly ignored by other whites) manages to get the "savages" to accept the three of them, and finally, to treat them as family. They are even allowed to participate in a once-secret ceremony of the tribe to ward off the "Jurupary" --- the dark spirit of the jungles. This is accomplished by use of a narcotic called "caapi."
The three-day ceremony is described in detail, maddening because to read of it is to wish we were back there with this charming and eccentric man, to witness with him something that we know is now gone forever.
MacCreagh's style grows on you. At first, it seems a bit juvenile --- but by some magic, he steals our hearts, involves us with him, through the rapids, or while being eaten by piume flies, or negotiating with the various caciques, and at all times, being droll and (one realizes) exceptionally courageous. He finds at one point that a worm has "burrowed into my thigh and set up housekeeping there," something that might drive you and me looney, but which he is willing to put up with and, finally, finding a doctor who knows dermatobia and can pluck it out.
Or, when stranded near the headhunters of the Tiquié, he contrives to convince the Indians that he is different than the thousands of other whites who merely see them as savages to be robbed. The three whites have no possible way out (another tribe has run off with their large canoe) so MacCreagh, being the entrepreneur that he is, conceives of and builds a super-canoe, which ends up saving his life.
I can think of few travel/adventure books which excite and please as much as this one. In that list, I include the four greats: Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum, The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8,000-Meter Peak, by Maurice Herzog --- and Into the Heart of Borneo, by Redmond O'Hanlon. Now we have a fifth member of this august group.--- Angus McMurtry
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Go to a reading from White Waters and Black
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