In The Last Wild Men of Borneo, author Carl Hoffman tells the stories of two Westerners who spent their lives in Borneo during the 1970s and 1980s, when it was still largely wild and unexplored. Their personal journies are very different, but they both become embroiled in the changing nature of this beautiful land where orangutans roamed the jungles and tribes of native Borneans lived their lives as the had done for hundreds of years, unexposed to the outside world.
Theodore Roosevelt had risen from being a sickly child to become a renowned outdoorsman and hunter, an outstanding soldier who saw plenty of action and finally President of the United States.
After two terms as a Republican President, Roosevelt decided to not run for a third term, but he became so disenchanted with William Taft, the Republican who followed him into the Oval Office, that he formed a new Progressive Party and stood in the next Presidential election. He ended up getting more votes than Taft but split the Republican vote which resulted in Democrat Woodrow Wilson becoming President. Also during this campaign Roosevelt survived an assassination attempt which left him badly injured.
Sadly, most modern-day politicians are not as colourful or adventurous as Roosevelt!
Having suffered this defeat Roosevelt felt depressed and was in desperate need for a challenge. He was then presented with the opportunity to go on an expedition in Brazil to chart a previously unexplored river, the Rio da Dúvida, or River of Doubt. So, in 2013 he set out with a group of fellow Americans including his son Kermit and Brasilians led by the veteran Brazilian explorer Colonel Candido Rondon. This was to become one of the greatest challenges of his life.
“The River of Doubt” by Candice Millard sets out to tell the story of Roosevelt and his partners in the adventure as they cross thick jungles and mountains overland before setting out on their river journey. She starts by giving a background to what brought Roosevelt to this endeavour and the other key players in the yarn. Needless to say, things didn’t go to plan from the outset which had unexpected impacts as the story unfolds. She also does a great job of describing the arduous nature of the expedition and paints a wonderful image of the Amazon Jungle; it’s flora, fauna and indigenous peoples. It is a tale of a challenging river full of dangerous rapids, many of which are impassable with the primitive wooden dugouts used by the expedition, so had to be passed by portage (carrying these heavy wooden canoes through the impenetrable jungle), death, disease, starvation and unfriendly indigenous tribes who had never seen a white man.
I have read this book twice and really enjoyed it. Although I would like to be an adventurer I am not, but I find it fascinating what drives and motivates people to launch themselves into the unknown and how they struggle beyond what most would believe to be the boundaries of human mental and physical endurance. It is all about the desire to survive extremes.
If you like stories of adventure and exploration then this is a great read. Even today the Amazon is a vast wilderness, making up 20% of Brazil’s landmass (about the size of Alaska) with only 1% of its population. It is still inhospitable and hard to navigate.