When an acquaintance telephoned Peter Stark one afternoon to propose a kayaking expedition down Mozambique’s rarely paddled Lugenda River, the idea should have presented itself as an intensely irrational act. That Stark, at 48 years old, would even consider kayaking 750 kilometers of river—largely unexplored and populated with crocodiles and hippos, with two of four companions unskilled at kayaking (“‘Is this how you hold it?’ Steve asked, raising his paddle overhead”), illustrates he is beyond the sway of rational thought.
After taking into account his wife’s memorable warning (“[I]f you let these people push you into doing something stupid and you get killed, I’m going to be really angry.”), Stark prepared for the expedition that would take him and four others down the length of the Lugenda all the way to the Rovuma River. The result is his newly released book, At the Mercy of the River: An Exploration of the Last African Wilderness.
But At the Mercy of the River is not just an exploration of this last African wilderness; it’s an exploration of the idea of exploration itself. Riddled with extensive research that compares his journey to the journeys of the many explorers who came before, Stark recounts the travels of John Ledyard, Mungo Park, Vasco de Gama, Bartolomeu Dias, and many, many others. Intrinsic to the comparisons are the questions Stark puts forth in the prologue to his book:
“There are dozens of ‘reasons’ that people give for heading off into the wilds. But their answers seem to float about, knocking into one another like so much flotsam on a sea of mystery that rises from a deeper source within the human spirit…And what exactly constitutes the ‘unknown’ or the ‘wilds’ or ‘wilderness?’ Is it a place somewhere out there?”
For the well-known explorers Stark researches, the answers are both pragmatic and disturbing. They wanted access to new shipping routes; they wanted to conquer and tame unknown lands for the glory of their homelands; they wanted to pilfer the African wilderness for gold and slaves. For Stark and the others on this journey, their reasons are more elusive. “What is it that connects us? What is it that urges us toward the unknown?”
These questions set up a daring and emotionally honest account of the challenges faced by the expedition. With each chapter devoted to a day on the river, Stark not only details how the mysterious dangers of the river make themselves known, he also illustrates how he contends with the challenges posed by his team members. Cherri, the expedition’s leader, turns out to be more than tolerably bossy; her brother Steve’s inexperience in a kayak is, by degrees, endearing, annoying and ultimately infuriating; Clinton and Rod, the two young South African men leading the team through the rapids, are brash and full of machismo.
Arguably, the physical dangers faced by the team are compelling enough: an unknown river with more than a few exhausting rounds of rapids. Stark’s account, however, is more than one of adventure. At stake is the very idea of adventure, and whether or not this one is purely self-indulgent: “This all seemed too easy to me—these GPSs, satellites, aerial surveys, the list of rapids and landmarks with their coordinates, typed and laminated. How could this possibly be ‘exploration’ when you already knew what lay around the bend? You had spotted it from the air and marked it by GPS. How could you call this the unknown when the mystery was gone? Part of me wanted the reassurance of knowing what lay ahead while part of me resisted, wanting to be left in the dark. After all, wasn’t the mystery part of what we came for?”
Through his scholarly research, Stark presumably seeks help in answering these questions, which lie at the heart of every modern adventure. Yet despite what it indelibly adds to his reflective account, the historical references often overshadow the narrative by pulling us away from this team’s exploration of the Lugenda. Adventure writing is at its most awe-inspiring when the author’s prose pulls us closest to the action. Only then can the reader feel the thrill of the journey, and only then can the question of why we put ourselves at survival’s edge feel most acute. While Stark’s histories are exhaustively researched and enjoyably related, they often bleed the tension right out of his own adventure.
This is not to say At the Mercy of the River isn’t an enjoyable read. In one anxious moment, with the end of their trek a single day’s worth of paddling away, the team is blocked by four African men (one of whom carries an AK-47 across his shoulder) who insist the team meet with their chief before carrying on. Through an account as intense as it is funny, Stark plays the dumb American, using hand gestures and some fast talking to get the group quickly on its way. (“‘Good drum music,’ I said, giving a cheerful thumbs-up.”)
The reflections both before and after that scene embellish the questions expressed throughout the book. Within the context of exploration’s often devastating history, Stark doesn’t wonder at the aggression of the four men. How are these adventure explorers different from the conquering explorers of yesteryear? And why do we seek out the unexplored? By molding his narrative into a reflective journey into an explorer’s intentions, Stark’s account, and the challenges therein—physical, mental, and personal—allow At the Mercy of the River to redefine the traditional adventure narrative. Though we may not get as close to the danger as we might like, the questions we ask along the way will remain as long as there are rivers to run.
Peter Stark appears at Fact & Fiction for a reading and signing of At the Mercy of the River Tuesday, July 19, at 7 PM.