ALL things considered, the author who wants to write a book of hair-raising adventure in unexplored country is likely to get the best run for his money in South America. Ideally, he will set out for the headwaters of some river, a little-known tributary of some better-known river. He may never get there and he may push no furt her than the confluence of the tributary and still another river, a thousand or two miles downstream, but it’s always better to try for the headwaters in the first instance. It lends tone to the rest of the story. The literature of exploration runs heavily to headwaters.
Any old thing will do as the reason for the author’s expedition, which will be, primarily, his quest for a fabled species of bird, butterfly, monkey, or plant, so rare as to be thought all but legendary. But the author has also been commissioned to photograph and study a remote tribe of Indians in their native haunts, thus insuring for himself several chapter headings on their mysterious “secret rites, which usually have something to do with puberty. How the author ever wangled such a commission in the first place is hard to imagine; as the book will show, he was scarcely the man for it, but there’s a great deal of interest in puberty, and publishers have to settle for what they can get. Thus committed, the author embarks for one of the South American capitals and begins toiling away on the book.
Just to make sure he won’t run out of copy later on, the author begins with a rather copious description of the capital. He stays there several weeks, ostensibly waiting for his cameras and equipment to arrive, but in reality to gather many conversational warnings from old-timers around town about the dangers of his contemplated travel. “Up the Gilligolari? Heavens, man, have you lost your mind?’ The speaker was Evans, the gray-haired, genial American consul, himself the leader of many an expedition. . .”Only the German, Kluck, had ever gone up the river as far as the rapids which the natives call El Tigre (tiger), and the whole capital is aghast at the author’s intrepidity. Ten pages? Twenty? Time to begin loading those supplies.
A word about the supplies. The English adventure writer prefers to travel with only a rook rifle and a pair of sneakers, but the American goes in heavily for supplies. “How we were going to cram those three tons of boxes and crates into two frail dugouts I’ll never know ...”and the reader will have to figure that one out for himself. But the supplies are important. There must be supplies so that the author can lose ball of them every time one of the frail dugouts - why should a dug-out be so frail? — tips over. The aut bor usually budgets around six or seven tip-overs, spotting them at useful intervals and thus cutting down the supplies to an eventual one sixty-fourth or one hunclredtvvonty-eighth of what he originally had. I mention this because some of the more forgetful authors have a way of losing all their supplies again and again. One, in my recent reading, kept losing not only his precious shotgun but also his trusty .45 and all his ammunition, right up one river and down the next; yet his weapons remained ready to hand whenever the witch doctors began eying him too professionally.
Head-hunting, generally speaking, is pretty well on the wane in presentday South American books. The author may find a few heads here and there, but these are more like keepsakes than trophies — just something that the Indians have never got around to throwing away. But there must be tension in the book, other than what can be squeezed out of incessant downpours and the swarms of mosquitoes (“I was soon drenched to the skin" or “I was soon bitten from head to foot”), and the most dependable tension items are (a) the piranhas, and (b) the author’s feeling that he is constantly being watched by unseen savages hidden in the impenetrable jungle along the banks of the Gilligolari ("Hostile eyes were following my course every foot of the way, I felt certain . . .”).
Once the author boards a rickety little paddle-wheel steamer and shoves off from the capital, the book is mostly river river, rain, mosquitoes — until he unloads at the last settlement and starts looking for dugouts of a suitable frailness. At all stages, he is hailed lor his daring in tackling the dread Gilligolari, and there is much head-wagging over his intention to photograph the fierce tribe of Camisoles; more references to Kluck, the German, and his misfortunes in 1909. But he succeeds in hiring a crew of Indian boatmen—no boatmen, no book, obviously - and from here on it’s the reassuring drone of the outboards. “Suddenly a huge wave caught us and our engine began to splutter. I thought we were lost, but the gallant little machine recovered in a few seconds and we chugged merrily on through El Tigre (tiger).”
The mysterious rites of the Camisoles, I regret to say, are never quite so exciting to the reader as they were to the author; in fact, the Camisoles — celebrated up and down the Gilligolari for their warlike ways and their hatred of the white man — prove to be a dismal lot. The author has been worrying about them all the way, but their chief is readily propitiated by a packet of old phonograph needles, and the whole expedition is welcomed to the rites. It appears that the Camisoles stage these rites about once a week; even as the author arrives they are laying out great tubs of a repulsive-looking liquid, with a peculiar yellow froth on top and little pieces of odds and ends floating about in it. The author is obliged to fill two or three chapters with what he had previously heard about the ceremony and the initiation of the youths who had reached the age of puberty, for the rites themselves are anything but complicated, he finds: all hands simply begin, at nightfall, drinking calabashes of the repulsive-looking liquid — a home brew of sorts — and in short order they are all, youths included, good and drunk.
We need not take too seriously the search for the rare butterfly, monkey, or that sort of thing. Even if he finds it, the author will probably lose it in the final tip-over, from which a scant one two-hundred-fifty-sixth of his gear is saved.