An intrepid Aussie becomes the first to paddle the entire length of the Mekong River.
In 2004, seeking adventure in a rapidly shrinking world, O’Shea grabbed his kayak and undertook a journey that lasted more than 140 days, pushing off from the Mekong’s source in the mountains of Tibet and descending 4,909 kilometers to the tropical South China Sea. In addition to problems with his support team and various financial difficulties, the youthful-yet-grizzled veteran of previous Asian expeditions found himself faced with competition from two other groups also undertaking the descent. After procuring the services of several old friends, however, he managed to get properly underway, paddling through a bevy of challenging rapids and risking bodily harm at every turn. Kayaking enthusiasts will love O’Shea’s descriptions of each whirlpool and eddy, but these hair-raising episodes become repetitive and lose their punch as the narrative progresses. (There are only so many ways to describe a raging class V rapid.) O’Shea’s adventure, however, is only half the tale; his narrative is also a history of the Mekong river region. The author expounds on the area’s religious conflicts and weighs in with social commentary, taking shots at the Chinese government for its Mekong Cascade of Dams project (eight dams flooding 650 kilometers of the river’s length by 2017), which he views as ecologically unsound and—given China’s dubious safety record—potentially catastrophic. He explains such cultural icons as the naga, a mythical dragon believed to protect boaters and fishermen. He also engages in a lengthy diatribe against the United States’ actions in Vietnam and extols the virtues of the simple life led by those who subsist on the river’s bounty.
A black/white worldview at times oversimplifies problems, but O’Shea’s flair for the dramatic and sensitivity to the cultures he encounters make this a journey worth taking.