Even in this age of extreme sports and made-for-TV survival games, there still exist places on earth where the most intrepid among us can plunge into truly unknown territory. The acclaimed adventure writer Peter Stark had waited all his life for just such an opportunity. But when he was invited to Africa to join a small expedition kayaking down Mozambique’s Lugenda River, he balked. The 750-kilometer rivercourse was largely uncharted–dotted with rapids, waterfalls, and home to deadly crocodiles and hippos; two of his four travel companions were not skilled kayakers; and he had a family to think of, (not to mention that at forty-eight, he himself was feeling a bit old for the life untamed). Suppressing inner doubts and driven by that most human of urges–to see what lies beyond the next bend–Stark signed on for the adventure of a lifetime.
At the Mercy of the River is Stark’s harrowing, insightful account of this venture into the unknown. “Why,” he muses between capsizes in the Lugenda’s croc-infested waters, “are humans compelled to explore?” The expedition’s five distinct–and sometimes clashing–personalities provide individual answers to that question.
Equipped with only the most rudimentary comforts and lacking the customary explorer’s gun, the party encounters breathtaking natural splendor, rich wildlife, and villages little affected by modern life. Ever aware that they are following in the metaphorical footsteps of great explorers of the past–Vasco da Gama, Mungo Park, Ibn Battuta, David Livingstone, and other men of adventure who bridged Africa and the West–Stark shares these explorers’ stories with us, finding a common thread linking his experience with theirs. Using their accounts, his travails on the Lugenda River, and the insights of wilderness philosophers such as Henry David Thoreau, Stark attempts to understand the very nature of “exploration” while pondering the question, Where will we go when our wilderness vanishes?
At the Mercy of the River is at turns inspiring, heart-thumping, and even amusing. But most of all, it is a riveting adventure story for a time when adventure is in danger of losing its meaning.
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A National Magazine Award nominee, Peter Stark is a contributor to Outside, where he originally chronicled his Lugenda adventure. His work has also appeared in Smithsonian and The New Yorker. He is the author of Last Breath and Driving to Greenland and the editor of an anthology, Ring of Ice. He lives in Missoula, Montana.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I’d never had a knife pulled on me before. When it happened, I wasn’t anywhere near African wilderness. It was a little more than three weeks since Amy and I had talked in the bathroom that night. I had made dozens of phone calls trying to track down people who might have a grip on the dangers we might face. The picture was not a lot clearer, although I did manage to talk to one of the guides going with us. In the end, despite the uncertainties, I could not say no.
So I was on my way. I had flown from Montana to Detroit and then overnight across the Atlantic to Amsterdam where I was scheduled to wait all day before boarding another night flight to Johannesburg. Instead of hanging around the airport for eight or ten hours, I rode the shuttle train into Amsterdam’s Old City. I was curious: For years I had heard about its red-light district. I wanted to see it. What exactly I planned to do there I didn’t know.
At 11 a.m. the day’s first prostitutes were settling into the viewing windows along the old streets. They looked like immigrants in need of money—Eastern European or Russian or black African—and appeared less desperate or bored than simply forbearing. I hurried past them, suddenly not as curious. I skipped the hashish bars, too, and settled in for a quiet beer and a sandwich at a sunlit outdoor café along a canal.
After a pleasant meal, it was time for me to head back for my flight. On the way to the train station I wended my way through narrow alleys. I’d seen local Dutch people in office clothes using them and assumed they were safe. Not far from the station I arrived at the entrance to a particularly narrow alley only a block or two long. I could see cars whizzing by on its far end—the main thoroughfare that led to the station. I hesitated for a moment. There were thin men—most of them black, I assumed African immigrants—in long, stained coats hanging out on door stoops. The main street was so close, just over there through the alley. The Dutch people walked down these alleys, and it was broad daylight—early afternoon. If I was going to paddle an unexplored river in Africa, I had to screw up my courage for dicey situations. Here was a dicey situation. Don’t let yourself be scared too easily, I told myself.
I held my camera bag closer against my chest and started in.
Once I had committed myself, I saw word of my presence ripple among the clumps of men and their heads turn toward me. I momentarily considered turning back, but it was too late. Or maybe this was pride. I was heading toward the African wilderness and yet was frightened by a two-hundred-yard-long alley in Amsterdam? I braced myself and walked quickly.
Halfway down the alley one of the thin African men came up to me wearing a long-sleeved canvas coat.
“Where are you from, man?” he asked in accented English.
I kept walking briskly.
“Answer me!” he demanded. “England? America?”
I said nothing. He tugged at the small pack on my back as if to slow me down. I could feel the straps straining on my shoulders.
I spun toward him. “I don’t understand!” I said, feigning I didn’t speak English. I turned away and kept walking fast.
“I said where are you from, man?” he shouted at me from behind.
Now he was pulling hard on my backpack, on the straps, pulling me back toward him. My reaction was instinctive. Angrily, I spun at him.
“What are you doing, man?” I demanded, pushing him hard in the chest, away from me.
I saw his left arm jerk up. His hand shot out from his sleeve. A thin, razor-like knife blade flashed once in the sunlight, his index finger extending partway down its length to hide it. He held it there toward me, letting it hover for a moment as if to make sure I saw it. Then, already rocked back on his heels from my push, he lost his balance and staggered backward.
He recovered his feet. His hand disappeared up his sleeve again. He turned away and walked slowly back down the alley toward his friends. None of them moved.
I quickly exited into the busy street.
Jesus Christ! I thought. I almost got myself stabbed! Would he really have done that? To me?
I have to be more cautious, I told myself. That was really stupid. In the hushed air-conditioned comfort of the shuttle train to the airport, I realized what a fat target I must have been—camera bag dangling, daypack bulging. I dripped with the wealth of the West. I had to remember I was now branded with this status, wealthy and Western and white—things it was easy to forget in the United States. He probably only wanted to slit the bag’s strap and run off with the camera. But what if I had resisted and he had stabbed me? It would make an ignominious end to my grand plans for an African adventure before I could even get started. The same fate had befallen so many of the grand African exploration schemes of centuries before.
I had taken Amy’s advice and read about how difficult the Europeans had found it to penetrate Africa’s interior. The continent threw out endless ways to stymie them, usually fatally. Many didn’t even make it past the African coast. Some barely made it to the African coast. There was an arrogance on the part of many European explorers, especially those on big, well-funded expeditions, and an assumption that they had the sophistication, technology, resources, and intelligence to succeed. It was a kind of macho, I-can-do-anything approach—because God and civilization are on my side—that led them to believe they would just waltz to the center of the continent.
Other Europeans, more humble, arrived on Africa’s coast as solo travelers armed only with their incredible daring and adventurousness. I already knew of one such would-be African explorer in the person of John Ledyard. He was a kind of hero or anti-hero at my alma mater, Dartmouth College. Ledyard’s father, a New England sea captain of the same name, had died when John was young. With two other children to look after, his mother sent him to live with his grandmother in Hartford, Connecticut. Young Ledyard showed great curiosity about the world during elementary school and was a quick learner, but urged to take up the study of law, he promptly rejected it as too boring. His grandmother dispatched him north in 1770, age nineteen, to the wilds of Hanover, New Hampshire, where a family friend, Eleazar Wheelock, had recently founded a college to give Indians a Christian education. The grandmother’s hope was that Ledyard would become a missionary and preach to the heathens.
Ledyard lasted four months at Dartmouth, with much of that time spent mounting his own theatrical productions, before heading out into the forest to learn the Algonquin ways. He returned to Hanover briefly after three months in the wintry woods, hated school even more, chopped down an enormous white pine on the banks of the Connecticut River, and hollowed it out with an axe to make a canoe fifty feet long and three feet wide. He then set off alone down the Connecticut River toward the sea, carrying little more than a bearskin cover and a volume or two of the classics.
Thus began an outlandish series of adventures—first as a sailor on a ship heading across the Atlantic to Gibraltar, then as a petty officer on Captain Cook’s third voyage, where he witnessed (and detailed in his memoirs of the voyage) an angry Hawaiian run Cook through the back of the chest with a spear. Cook fell dead in the surf. Ledyard then hung out in Paris with Thomas Jefferson while scrounging up the backing for a sea expedition to America’s northwest coast. He had seen trade possibilities of the region on a voyage with Cook. When his subscribers backed out at the last minute, Ledyard decided to walk to northwest America, striding alone and nearly penniless at the rate of two hundred miles per week across Russia and Siberia toward the Bering Strait, where he hoped to hop across to Russian Alaska. He had almost reached the Russian far east when he was arrested as a spy and sent back to Europe.
In London, Ledyard was recruited for his boldness by Sir Joseph Banks. Banks had served as naturalist aboard Cook’s first around-the-world voyage and now was president of the Royal Geographical Society. Aristocratic and wealthy, Banks had met with several friends over dinner at St. Alban’s Tavern one night in 1788, a year before meeting Ledyard, and founded the African Association, dedicated to exploring for science and profit the mysterious interior of that unknown continent. The first task the association set for itself was to “solve the riddle” of the rumored river known as the Niger.
When could he start for Africa? Ledyard was asked.
“Tomorrow morning,” he replied.
Soon Ledyard had landed in Cairo on the African Association’s first mission. He laid plans to join a camel caravan traveling south across the Sahara and then bearing west toward what he hoped was the Niger River. But it was in Cairo, barely past the coast, that the African continent stopped the intrepid Ledyard in his tracks. According to a contemporary’s account, the hot Egyptian sun brought Ledyard a bout of constipation. This prompted Ledyard to take a remedy of vitriol. The ever-enthusiastic adventurer apparently swallowed too much; so eager was he to get under way that he tried to hurry the remedy. He suffered internal pain and burning. He then swallowed a tartar emetic to purge himself of the vitriol, no doubt figuring he’d be up and ready to go in no time. Apparently he took too much of this, too. He died in violent bouts of vomiting and diarrhea—certainly not the last would-be African explorer ...
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