Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Below is an excerpt from my recent expedition narrative, "Escape from Darien", in "They Lived to Tell the Tale: True Stories of Modern Adventure from the Legendary Explorers Club". I'll be in New York City on the 8th of November for the book launch, and to discuss my Iceland book with a publisher.

Escape from Darien

copyright 2007 by Cameron McPherson Smith

Another big Pacific swell came up fast and silent, moonlight flashing on its face. Hurrying east, it lifted and then dropped our sixty-foot raft with the smooth motions of an elevator. I caught my stomach and adjusted a steering plank. The glowing compass revolved slowly as the raft pointed back on course. I marveled at how quickly it responded, and in perfect measure.

But I didn't marvel for long. My mind was following the Eastward-driving swell, thinking on where it would end up. I knew exactly where it would end up, but I didn’t want to believe it. I knew that eight miles East the swell would rise and then curl and crash as luminescent foam on a dark, stony beach that cowered beneath thick jungle vegetation. I sensed the Darien out there, to my right, like the open jaws of a medieval Hell-Mouth.

Darien. I said it softly aloud. How many conquistadores’ tales ended there? How many human disasters had that monstrous jungle hosted, like a grinning spectre? How many old explorers’ tales of the Darien had I read throughout my life, and had the jungle – like an enormous net – finally drawn me in?

I took a breath and told myself that none of that mattered. All that mattered now was the wind. If it gave up completely our raft would follow that swell and run aground on that beach. There would be nobody to help us. Our sailing raft, a replica of a native vessel encountered by Spaniards in 1526, was built of logs, rope, and canvas. We had no engine. Our radio took an hour to set up, and contact was intermittent. We were half-way up a 200-mile stretch of primordial jungle that for five centuries had shrugged off every bloody club and every subtle wedge of civilization.

Manila rope creaked and clicked as the raft wallowed ahead. I looked up at the mainsail, a three-story high triangle of dirty canvas glowing yellow from a kerosene lamp. The sail fluttered, barely tugging us along. If the wind died we’d have just a few hours before the swells drove us aground. I imagined six men scrambling in the dark to get clear of a heaving raft that weighed almost as much as a Sherman tank. The breakers would destroy the little bamboo deck-house, containing our supplies and the radio. And then what?

As another swell swiftly elevated the raft I turned and looked back at the deck-house. There was no light and I turned back to stare at the compass.

For the full story, have a look at the book :) Or, if you're patient, I'll eventually post it here, in its entirety.


Jessica Krug said...

How much of the mythology of Darien is grounded in the fact that it was a refuge for Maroons? To what degree does the recursive metaphor of savagery rest in slavemasters' notions of socio-racial hierarchy and its connections to spacial regimes (i.e. the plantation v. the "jungle"). I assure you, I'm not intending to be an ass here, but this kind of narrative evokes a long tradition of concepts I truly hope you flesh out more fully in your full-length book.

Cameron McPherson Smith said...

thanks or the interest. maroons still live there. we landed in northern colombia, but it might as well have been Africa; the village was entirely of African descent. these folks were descendants of slaves brought over by the conquistadores. they tok us in and sent one of us to the next town on their fishing boat. thy mythology of the darien is all that was informing my knowledge of it; i'm writing about what i was thinking, not necessarily what the truth of the place was. some researchers go into the darien year after year, with no problems. others go in, and don't come back out. in most cases it's probably the FARC group who kill people. years before the voyage, FARC took hostage the brother of one of our colombian crewmates and after his parents paid the ransom, the FARC killed him anyway. so while there is definitely a white-man's 'bush' concept of the darien that was informing my thoughts about the jungle, that alone doesn't mean it is a benign place, or, more precisely, that the jungle isn't inhabited by people i did not want to meet.