« Hidden treasures of Stockholm | Main | Fancy a spot of whale shit? »

Explore this. 

I hadn't written a bad book review in a while, nor was I in any particular mood to, when I was sent a copy of "Walking the Amazon" by Ed Stafford, who earned himself a Guinness world record by doing just that. The Wall Street Journal put the piece behind its paywall, so I'm reproducing below. Thanks to Michael Robinson and his wonderful and wonderfully-named blog on the history of exploration, Time to Eat The Dogs, for a needed dose of context. 



Ed Stafford was a 31-year-old British army veteran and trekking guide living in Belize when he resolved to walk the full length of the Amazon. "F—ing hell, mate—this is going to be mental," Mr. Stafford told his friend and fellow outdoorsman Luke Collyer after the two had just agreed to walk the entire 4,345 miles from the river's source in Peru to its mouth in Brazil. The feat, if achieved, would land both men in the Guinness Book of World Records, for no one had yet proved mental enough to attempt it.

Mr. Stafford quickly hashed out the expedition's ground rules: They would walk 100% of the journey and never use a motor, sail or even the flow of the river to propel them. If they were forced to cross a body of water in any sort of craft, they would have to walk back to a point on the far bank perpendicular to where they had set out and continue.

In late March 2008, after 15 months of planning, Messrs. Stafford and Collyer flew to Peru, with celebratory hangovers and a pile of satellite equipment and other electronic gear that they would use to video-blog the whole journey. Their mission, since they felt obliged to declare one, was "raising awareness of the need to conserve the rain forest," although, Mr. Stafford acknowledges that "the adventure, the challenge, and therecognition" were more the point. 

It is very difficult to raise awareness of anything when one is only dimly aware of it oneself. "Walking the Amazon," Mr. Stafford's account of his successful 2½-year journey, is a study in contrasts between a noble physical and navigational achievement and a defiantly vacuous intellectual one. Mr. Stafford's extensive trip preparations, which included securing a publicist, sponsorship, NASA satellite photos, and an insurance package that included ferrying a team of English medics to any coordinates he supplied, didn't apparently involve reading up on the countries that the Amazon touches or their inhabitants.

Ethnography isn't Mr. Stafford's thing. "The people were still very indigenous-looking," he writes of one Peruvian settlement. "Despite all of them speaking Spanish, there had been little direct interbreeding with pure Spanish stock here and so tolerance to alcohol was correspondingly low." Neither is natural history. If Mr. Stafford describes an unusual animal, it is most often because it is poised to attack or because he is forced to eat it. The author explains that exhaustion prevented him from treating the Amazon as anything but an obstacle course. "Retaining interest in what we were seeing daily was harder than you might think," he writes. "The wonders of nature might as well have been whitewashed walls."

But Mr. Stafford did reserve sufficient energy to chronicle his wavering psychological health and his battles against "negativity," all the while taking measure of his own toughness, especially when there was some unfortunate soul around for him to measure it against. His accounts of visits by journalists, old friends, or well-meaning sponsors tend to end with them physically shattered and swollen from insect bites, with Mr. Stafford's morale boosted accordingly. "[T]he sense of rejuvenation was empowering," he writes after one hobbles off.

Even Mr. Collyer, a competitive climber and kayaker, is depicted as a slowpoke who is always calling his girlfriend, eating in fancy restaurants or buying donkeys to transport his heavy gear. When Mr. Collyer quits the expedition, oddly enough after a row over an iPod, Mr. Stafford feels "an exhilarating surge of freedom," as he is finally able to "throw off the past weeks of negativity" and get on with it. He is lucky to find a new travel companion in Gadiel "Cho" Sanchez Rivera, a Peruvian evangelical Christian whom Mr. Stafford is quick to inform that all religion is crap. Yet the meditative, Bible-toting Mr. Sanchez Rivera passes the toughest test of all: For thousands of miles, over varyingly hostile terrain, he manages to get along with Mr. Stafford.

In video blogs from his journey, when he is earnestly answering questions sent by schoolchildren from Pennsylvania, Mr. Stafford comes off as charming and even self-deprecating; in his book he is all hero, a Frank Buck steeped in self-help dogma. Surrounded by angry Ashaninkas in face paint pointing arrows at him, Mr. Stafford isn't afraid but rather adrenalized, time slowing and his senses sharpening until he is able to "ignore all that is not relevant to immediate survival." Crossing a dangerously isolated stretch of terrain, nearly starving, with no food in his pack and none in sight, "represented everything that, deep down, I wanted from the expedition."

Toward the end of the author's account, as he and Mr. Sanchez Rivera are in Brazil and soon to run giddily into the crashing Atlantic surf, Mr. Stafford mentions Henry Walter Bates, the 19th-century Englishman whose own Amazon explorations lasted 11 years and whose travails were no less formidable. This reference invites an unflattering comparison, for in his own travelogue Bates played down his struggles, the better to highlight the wonders he encountered, leaving a narrative as engrossing today as it no doubt was in 1863.

Mr. Stafford emerged from his Amazon adventure a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, of which Bates himself was once secretary. But the very idea of exploration has changed since Bates's day. Mr. Stafford is only the latest of many modern explorers to make his personal crucible his overriding focus. As the historian of exploration Michael Robinson has noted in books and on his blog, it is in part because they have little choice. There are few if any truly unexplored places left in the world, and national pride and economic gain are no longer fashionable motives for exploring. Celebrated most nowadays are firsts of identity and method: the youngest pilot to fly solo around the world; the first woman to circumnavigate Australia in a kayak. Mr. Stafford deserves credit for being not only the first to walk the Amazon but the first to explore his navel while doing so.