When Mr. Algot Lange told me he was going to the headwaters of the Amazon, I was particularly interested because once, years ago, I had turned my own mind in that direction with considerable longing. I knew he would encounter many set-backs, but I never would have predicted the adventures he actually passed through alive.
He started in fine spirits: buoyant, strong, vigorous. When I saw him again in New York, a year or so later, on his return, he was an emaciated fever-wreck, placing one foot before the other only with much exertion and indeed barely able to hold himself erect. A few weeks in the hospital, followed by a daily diet of quinine, improved his condition, but after months he had scarcely arrived at his previous excellent physical state.
Many explorers have had experiences similar to those related in this volume, but, at least so far as the fever and the cannibals are concerned, they have seldom survived to tell of them. Their interviews with cannibals have been generally too painfully confined to internal affairs to be available in this world for authorship, whereas Mr. Lange, happily, avoided not only a calamitous intimacy, but was even permitted to view the culinary preparations relating to the absorption of less favoured individuals, and himself could have joined the feast, had he possessed the stomach for it.
These good friends of his, the Mangeromas, conserved his life when they found him almost dying, not, strange as it may appear, for selfish banqueting purposes, but merely that he might return to his own people. It seems rather paradoxical that they should have loved one stranger so well as to spare him with suspicious kindness, and love others to the extent of making them into table delicacies. The explanation probably is that these Mangeromas were the reverse of a certain foreign youth with only a small stock of English, who, on being offered in New York a fruit he had never seen before, replied, "Thank you, I eat only my acquaintances" - the Mangeromas eat only their enemies.
Mr. Lange's account of his stay with these people, of their weapons, habits, form of battle, and method of cooking the human captives, etc., forms one of the specially interesting parts of the book, and is at the same time a valuable contribution to the ethnology of the western Amazon (or Maranon) region, where dwell numerous similar tribes little known to the white man. Particularly notable is his description of the wonderful wourahli (urari) poison, its extraordinary effect, and the modus operandi of its making; a poison used extensively by Amazonian tribes but not made by all. He describes also the bows and arrows, the war-clubs, and the very scientific weapon, the blow-gun. He was fortunate in securing a photograph of a Mangeroma in the act of shooting this gun. Special skill, of course, is necessary for the effective use of this simple but terrible arm, and, like that required for the boomerang or lasso, practice begins with childhood.
The region of Mr. Lange's almost fatal experiences, the region of the Javary River (the boundary between Brazil and Peru), is one of the most formidable and least known portions of the South American continent. It abounds with obstacles to exploration of the most overwhelming kind. Low, swampy, with a heavy rainfall, it is inundated annually, like most of the Amazon basin, and at time of high water the rivers know no limits. Lying, as it does, so near the equator, the heat is intense and constant, oppressive even to the native. The forest-growth - and it is forest wherever it is not river - is forced as in a huge hothouse, and is so dense as to render progress through it extremely difficult. Not only are there obstructions in the way of tree trunks, underbrush, and trailing vines and creepers like ropes, but the footing is nothing more than a mat of interlaced roots. The forest is also sombre and gloomy. To take a photograph required an exposure of from three to five minutes. Not a stone, not even a pebble, is anywhere to be found.
Disease is rampant, especially on the smaller branches of the rivers. The incurable beri-beri and a large assortment of fevers claim first place as death dealers, smiting the traveller with fearful facility. Next come a myriad of insects and reptiles - alligators, huge bird-eating spiders, and snakes of many varieties. Snakes, both the poisonous and non-poisonous kinds, find here conditions precisely to their liking. The bush-master is met with in the more open places, and there are many that are venomous, but the most terrifying, though not a biting reptile is the water-boa, the sucuruju (Eunectes murinus) or anaconda. It lives to a great age and reaches a size almost beyond belief. Feeding, as generally it does at night, it escapes common observation, and white men, heretofore, have not seen the largest specimens reported, though more than thirty feet is an accepted length, and Bates, the English naturalist, mentions one he heard of, forty-two feet long. It is not surprising that Mr. Lange should have met with one in the far wilderness he visited, of even greater proportions, a hideous monster, ranking in its huge bulk with the giant beasts of antediluvian times. The sucuruju is said to be able to swallow whole animals as large as a goat or a donkey, or even larger, and the naturalist referred to tells of a ten-year-old boy, son of his neighbour, who, left to mind a canoe while his father went into the forest, was, in broad day, playing in the shade of the trees, stealthily enwrapped by one of the monsters. His cries brought his father to the rescue just in time.