Time for a Paddle

For most that tends to mean rolled up trouser legs, sand between the toes and perhaps ice cream along a windswept beach as the North Sea numbs our toes.  But for John Harrison it means mosquitos and malaria, months away from home and, on a good day, monkey for dinner.

One of the Bradt books that arrived from winning a crossword competition was Up the Creek – An Amazon Adventure.  It had first been published back in 1986, from a wee trip by Harrison three years earlier.  This is a prime example of Bradt’s venture into bringing travel writing of the past on to our bookshelves today.  Up the Creek is a cracker.

It is also a book that has us looking back to the world as it was 30 years ago – and in South America that inevitably means the aftermath of Goose Green, Los Malvinas and all that.  It didn’t deter Harrison.  In a postscript to the new publication he brings us up to date with changes to the rainforest, and the creation of a national park in the Tumucamaque Mountians, on the border with Surinam and French Guiana, which is where he was headed all those years ago.  We hear also that the airstrip at Molocopote, a gold mining camp where he spent a final five mind-numbing weeks waiting on a plane out, was dynamited a couple of years ago, to thwart inroads being made to the forest by assorted miners and canoeists, and to try and preserve the area just a bit longer.

The trip itself was not without incident.  Firstly there was five weeks on the water with Mark, an Aussie keen to join the military.  But fed up with malarial attacks and dietary issues they headed back downstream and parted, not quite the best of friends.  Then he found Peter, and off they went, heading for the hills, paddling upstream, endless portages past rapids, fallen trees and everything else the rainforest could throw at them.  The plan was for a final 15km portage  – which eventually in their weakened state, and having lifted canoe and all gear through even 300m of jungle, they realised had been just a bit ambitious – over the mountains to journey’s end in Surinam.  It didn’t work out quite like that, and shortages of medication with expectation of more frequent attacks of debilitating malaria, meant the boys had to go for the safe option.

I use the word ‘safe’ metaphorically.  They made it back to Molocopote, but at the camp one young lad died in their arms.  Once back to civilisation Peter spent months in hospital recovering from two different malarial strains as well as leishmaniasis.  Food was scarce at times, and hunting not easy.  The machete was well used, hacking through jungle and the shotgun put to good effect, in various ways.  Fish was a major part of the diet, most of the time – the Amazon has thousands of species of fish, to the mere couple of score we have in Europe – including of course the piranha.  But there were too many times when rice and flour was all there was to keep them going.

It’s a terrific read.  An introspection on coping with pressure, and on life with a stranger.  I see that Harrison went back for another paddle, taking his wife along, and writing about that one in Into the Amazon, published 2011.  I’ll need to add that to the list.

And a quick look at JohnHarrisonExplorer.com will give you an idea of a man on a mission to live life to the full.  He’s right up there with Benedict Allen.  Sadly photographs in this book are few for the camera – this was back in the days of rolls of film – suffered from a capsize, never to work again.  But Peter was a master with a pencil and paper.

I’ll tell you no more of the journey up these tributaries of the Amazon, and into the depths of the jungle.  These were the days when picking up the satellite phone and calling in the chopper were not an option.  The only map was a 1:1,000,000 pilot’s chart and most of the time they had no real idea of precise location, and no prospect of rescue in the event of disaster.  It’s a terrific tale, and one well told.  If it hadn’t been for Hilary Bradt I probably wouldn’t have come across it.  But now I might just track down a first edition for the shelves.  And if Urchin the Elder jumps into a canoe off Cumbrae, I’ll keep my toes firmly in the chilled water, trousers rolled to the knee, for I’ve seen how real explorers travel.


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Filed under On the Bedside Table

One response to “Time for a Paddle

  1. Pingback: Tales of the Riverbank | laidbackviews

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