A great river journey never leaves you. John Gimlette has traced Mark Twain’s steps alongside the Neckar in Germany, and sailed down South America’s waterways on cargo boats and tugsby John Gimlette / July 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
My first night on the Río Paraguay, I slept on the wheelhouse roof. Every now and then, the skipper leant out the window, and fired into the swamps. What was he was after? “Capybaras,” he said, grinning, “Or alligators…”
A great river journey never leaves you. Anthony Burgess thought rail travel was perfect, because you slept as you progressed. But railways cut their way through the landscape. Boats ease their way along, doing the journey that nature intended.
So it was that, leaving Asunción, we clattered off midstream, causing the glassy surface to shiver. We passed a graveyard of rotting steamers, and then the river widened; a vast inert sea, sliding imperceptibly south. It was like vitrified sky. In its last 1,700km, the Río Paraguay drops only 30cm, maybe the length of a baby’s arm.
I’d paid $5 for the three-day ride upriver. The cargo boat looked like a long wooden dish, stacked with ugly sheds. On the top deck were the more refined elements of river society: cowboys, a horse-dealer, and a quack doctor who had medicines to cure everything from colds to jealousy. “Alligator fat makes excellent mosquito repellent,” he announced, “especially when it’s rotten.”
We spent the first afternoon dangling our legs off the roof, staring at the empty pewter world. Thick rafts of hyacinths floated past. “Big enough,” said the quack, “to float a man to Argentina—or a jaguar.”
On the lower deck were Guaraní Indians. Sometimes they fished from the stern. The piranhas were only small, but they eat you in shoals. To the Guaranís the piranha is the piraí, which is also their word for leprosy.
None of this was comforting. This skiff had already sunk once, and might easily do so again. The foredecks were heaped with cargo: ten palettes of cement and 98 leaky barrels of petrol. If we weren’t barbecued first, it would be a glutinous shipwreck.
At one village, two prostitutes got on. The skipper brushed his teeth, and selected the fatter one. Her friend joined the Indians in the galley, eating boiled pumpkin and pig fat. When they had finished, they wiped their faces on the tablecloth.
“Storm tonight,” said the quack, opening his Bible. He was right. The crew draped the decks in tarpaulins, and all night great sheets of static exploded over the river in a bewildering display of volts. By dawn the forge was spent, and the day emerged like newly-minted silver. “Drink this,” the quack told me. “Soothes the bowels.” I obeyed, and crossed the Tropic of Capricorn on a breakfast of tinned fish and cat’s claw tea.
You don’t always need to ride a river to enjoy it. Sometimes I’ve walked. A few years ago, I set off from Heidelberg, along the Neckar. It was 50 miles to Heilbronn, zig-zagging through a deeply forested gorge. Mark Twain did the same walk in 1878, writing about it in A Tramp Abroad. He was a hopeless walker, forever jumping on cabbage carts and rafts, making Tramp an unreliable guide—but the only one I had.
At the entrance to the gorge, I paused. JMW Turner had spent hours painting here (he’d returned home in 1836 with over 440 Rhineland scenes). The Neckar still flowed like a serpent through this green crack in the planet, but then it had been a crazy grass-snake. Now, it was a fat and silvery python. In 1933, it was calmed by a series of dams to make it deep enough for barges. In Twain’s time it was so narrow (he said) you could throw a dog across. Today the Neckar is two-and-a-half dog-throws wide, and even then, he’d probably get his paws wet.
Sometimes I walked on little roads, sometimes tracks and occasionally four feet deep in grass. Most of the villages were fortified. The Neckar valley was like a corridor of castles, each of them a stupendous, almost Disneyesque creation. Neckarsteinach had three, built by thugs with nicknames like the Grand Wrecker. Hirschhorn had only one castle, but it was newt-belly orange, and half-blocked the gorge.
I slept in the forest, unsure if this was legal. The idea had appalled people in Heidelberg. “Beware of the ants!” said one man—although it was the wild boar that kept me awake. I could hear them snorting through the grass, ploughing up the turf. I lay there wondering what they might do. Would I be trottered to death, or guzzled up like swill? At dawn, they snuffled away, leaving the hillside looking bombed, as if I’d spent the night under enemy fire.
My last night I spent at Hornberg Castle, as Twain had. Once the home of robber barons, it is now a hotel. I sat down to a baronial dinner in a hall that sloped like a cave. With difficulty, the waitress clambered up to my table—laden with venison, dumplings, cranberries and a bottle of castle wine—before slithering back to the kitchen. It was a truly Twainesque evening.
Occasionally, rivers offer the only access there is to an impenetrable world. Two years ago, I set off through the Cottica swamps, in South America’s Suriname. I was researching the slave revolt of 1773, and was looking out for N’Djukas, descendants of the rebels.
This time, I hitched a lift on a tug, which happened to be British. The MT Kite was my home for three days, or 232 miles of rivers. Everything about it had a deep, industrial bellow. The tugboat was three storeys high, and out front were two 200-feet long barges. Fully laden, they’d carry 3,500 tons of bauxite apiece, and sink to the depth of a house.
Life aboard was quaintly British. There were cups of milky tea, bacon sandwiches, and bottles of HP sauce. Up and down the companionways were pictures of London tugs, and, in my cabin, a bar of Lifebuoy soap. Most of the crew were Indonesian, yet the Kite was like a little British factory. As for the captain, he was strict, gingery, and expansively Welsh. “Went to sea at 15,” he said, “working the Bristol Channel.”
Sitting up in the wheelhouse with Captain Mansbridge, I felt as though we were in a tower. Down there was Suriname, sliding by, looking steamy and lush. Up here it was cool, and we had big aircraft seats, Welsh teas, and almost 50 years of sea-going tales. The captain had an extraordinary insight into the lives of those along the shore. He knew all the unseaworthy boats; the homes of the drug barons and the villas of the rich. Then there were the sand-dancers, tiny dredgers which were always being mown down by ships. “Imagine that,” he said, “getting yourself killed for a boat full of sand.”
Soon the river narrowed, swinging around in hairpin bends. It must have been a brave man who first sent the tugs and their barges down here. It was like trying to squeeze a warehouse down a woodland path. The trees were so close I could almost reach out and pick the fruit, and sometimes, we could see lines of monkeys spilling through the branches. At least one captain had lost a barge out here, Mansbridge said, and another had lost his wits.
For 60 miles, we saw no one. Then came signs of life. There were breaks in the trees, and the occasional figure appeared: an N’Djuka fishing, or a woman on the bank, peeing in the sand. Later, there were two tiny villages. When people heard us, they came running out, shouting “Bari! Bari!”
“Barrels,” said the captain. “They want our old oil drums, for collecting water.”
The Indonesians, who had little affection for the N’Djukas , telling me that they ate “tree chicken” (iguana) and “water chicken” (caiman). “Still crazy,” they said.
At dusk, the river was a canyon of trees. Then it lit up like a long pink ballroom, blazing with candles. It was the fireflies enjoying their first and last fortnight of life.
All night, the Kite rumbled on upriver. From the mast, two brilliant rods of light, sparkling with insects, felt out the shoreline ahead. In the darkness, everything closed in. I was no longer conscious of the enormous boat, or the enormous river all around. Ahead, the water looked like tar, sleepy and deceptive. Occasionally, we’d hear a faint bump, and a shiver would ripple through the Kite. It was the tree-trunks, disintegrating under 15,000 tons of steel.
At dawn, the engines stopped and I climbed up to the bridge. The river looked like a photograph slowly developing. It was bewitching, and I was tempted to plunge in. Then the captain appeared with a story about an alligator so big it broke his fishing rod in two. Instead, I had bacon and eggs and listened to the BBC news.
On the third day, we arrived and the Kite was unloaded before setting off back upriver. I’d almost forgotten that my river adventure was merely part of a cycle; what if that cycle stops and the tugs disappear? I had a sudden vision of the trees knitting together, and the forest healing over.