Author: Richard Starks & Miriam Murcutt,
Publisher: Haus Publishing, London, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-906598-32-7

Click Here To Purchase Along the River that Flows Uphill: Between the Orinoco and the Amazon (Armchair Traveller)

The book starts out daringly:  the authors book a South American boat and guide over the internet.  They fly to Venezuela, board the old barque guided by the free spirited Lucho and about fifteen of Lucho’s invited travelers, and they began a slow trek along the Casiquiare.  The what you say? The Casiquiare, a fabled river connecting the Orinoco and Amazon River systems whose fame arises from the fact it must flow up and over the watershed in order to connect the two larger rivers.

Starks, who seems to narrate most of the journey, is an admitted fan of books documenting the expeditions of explorers like David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley.  The proposal for this venture was sent around to magazines and Geographical, published by the Royal Geographical Society of London, decided to support him.  I admit the book caught me at a good time, having just finished Richard Snailman’s “A Giant Among Rivers” documenting a major research expedition in 1974-75 along the Zaire River (Congo).  I wanted a rip-roaring river-read.  I wanted to blink with amazement as I followed them to their destination.  Then I want to blink with amazement when I finished reading and returned to contemporary life.  However, compared to earlier books by explorers, the events in this book are low key and reported with a casual tone.  This is perhaps to be expected.  Starks admits he’s a man adverse to risks, who says, “I now realize I do not want to go inside the cage with the lions.”  How different is his quote when contrasted to that of famous explorer David Livingstone who said, “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward.” 

“Our days at Casiquiare have fallen into a somnolent routine,” he journals.  A few events do take place, they visit a Yanomami village. They see a howler monkey.  They talk about eensex (the authors’ phonetic transcription of a Venezuelan man saying insects.)  Finally they sneak away from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia.  But most of the time Starks sits on the front of the boat with his journal, writing and digressing.  One chapter skims across ideas of Newton, time, laws of risk and the author’s formula for figuring risk, Heisenberg’s principle, and Pythagoras’ theorem.  These are interesting subjects by themselves and I think Starks has a future writing brief science articles.  I would have preferred it though if he'd replaced the digressions with a more adventures and a more compelling style of narrative.

A main event in the book is the visit to the Yanomami villages.  The author(s) postulates near the end of the book that, “The next outsider group to harm the Yanomami will, I am sure, be adventure travelers.”    They don’t consider themselves having done harm in seeking out Yanomami villages but their visit does raise some questions.   They recollect, “We peer through one of the doorways and see, in the curve of a hammock, two young girls and a baby…When she sees us in the doorway, she immediately becomes agitated, and angrily shoos us away.”  Later a Yanomami man threatens and spits at Starks for taking photographs, even though Starks knows in advance the Yanomami do not like to be photographed.  I also bristled at statements like, “The other [woman] is young and strikingly attractive – much too attractive for her own good” and “The Yanomami are not an attractive people – at least not to Western eyes.” 

Throughout history explorers trekked across great unknown lands with little more than spit and determination. Their accounts were written with a naivety unfathomable today but also with a style that kept readers thrilled.  Near the end of Along the River that Flows Uphill the adventure travelling authors write, “Lunch in San Felipe will give us the chance to tick off one more name on our list of countries we’ve visited.”  This is exactly the strength of the book, it captures the futility of trying to recreate historical explorations in an age when travelers collect country stamps in passports and when every spec of land can be surveyed using Google Earth on one’s home computer.

Click Here To Purchase Along the River that Flows Uphill: Between the Orinoco and the Amazon (Armchair Traveller)