RIVER JOURNEYS by Russell and Others Braddon


Email this review


The texts (with 70 b/w and 48 full-color photographs) of a six-part British television series about journeys on six of the world's great rivers; this will be superb educational TV fare when it is aired on PBS in November. On the Kokolo, a fantastic six-decked steamer, historian Michael Wood begins retracing the Congo journey made famous by Conrad's Heart of Darkness. For the reader nothing very profound happens, though ""the spirit of Africa"" is suggested by the people and customs Wood sees, and by supernal sunsets which leave him struck dumb. The strongest note arises from a man on the Kokolo who tells him, ""We had a civilization before you Europeans came here; the village. That is our tradition. It made us what we are, and we would be foolish to abandon it for what you have."" More exciting is Christina Dodwell's deadly dangerous journey on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, where she risks her life in inflated rafts on razor-rocked whitewater rapids. A high point is when Stone Agers induct her into their tribe by scarifying her upper arm with a crocodile marking; Dodwell can't stand the sight of blood. She gets to places no one else white has reached, visits ""remote villages where little has changed since history began--spirit houses, skin-cutting, crocodile hunting, smoked corpses and initiation rites."" Journalist William Shawcross, an old Indochina hand with a gift (or saving need) for irony, travels up the Mekong to the sinister beauty of the temples at Angkor Wat and on to the Golden Triangle in northern Thailand. His sense of history intrudes a despairing bass note beneath his journey, though he clearly enjoys the light comedy of a repugnant dinner of boiled whole turtles he must politely sit through. Germaine Greer, whose father had just died, undertook her trip on the Sao Francisco in northeastern Brazil with a definite grimness and remained ever wide-open to the hard lives she witnessed. The Nordestinos ""would fish, wash and pee in the same river, as well as throw rubbish into it and drink from it. Decaying fragments of animal carcasses and human excrement fouled the alleyways where children played, and maggots teemed in the open drains. . . When I began asking about infant mortality rates, or parasitic infestation, or the resurgence of malaria, or the unrestricted sale of dangerous drugs and baby foods or antibiotic abuse, everyone lost interest. As I was a woman, it was difficult for any Nordestino to imagine that what I thought about anything was of any interest to anybody. At times I despaired of ever putting together an intelligent film. . ."" Hers is the most haunting journey. The others--which have their glories--are Braddon's journey on Australia's enigmatic Murray River and Brian Thompson's ferry ride up the Nile from Khartoum to Cairo. Not a coffee-table book, but something far more stimulating, like a seat on a space shuttle.

Pub Date: Nov. 6th, 1985
Publisher: Hippocrene