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My foray into Venezuela


How James Fenton almost drowned
Redmond O'Hanlon Writer
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We're pulling the dugout up beside a rapid. And the Iban with us hadn't realised yet that their myth was a myth, that their ancestors were giants and white, and all white people were immensely strong. Now they very soon found out, but they hadn't, at this stage. So we were expected to pull this dugout through... yes, they say a small rapid. Pretty bad. And we got up to the top of the side rapid, and we just stepped two or three paces too far to our left, into the main river. Now I'd still got my feet gripping a rock, but they'd been polished smooth by hundreds of thousands of years of rolling water. And I had James's [Fenton] hand in mine, and his knuckles were white, and he bites his fingernails, so there's nothing to grip, you know. And boom, off it went, and he span like this, sort of, pile of old clothes, and his hat came off. And I was thinking of Conrad, you know, your identity's gone. So the hat is spinning and James is spinning, or this pile of old clothes is spinning, and then boom, down... down the waterfall. And in the pool below, there he is, with his head white as an owl's egg, and as fragile, going round and round. And nearer and nearer, it seemed to me, to the rocks. Whereas this young, tattooed Iban... well, he would have been a great warrior in another era, jumps down the rocks, really fast, and then he leaps into the middle of this whirlpool with a great, long cry. And he said afterwards, 'Well, the cry is... you must cry like that to placate the spirits of the river, because the spirit's already taken James, and you're going to try and take him back, so please, you know, don't get angry with me. I acknowledge that he should be yours.' And he got him, and pulled him to the bank.

Now there was a little guy Iban with us, too, half the size. He was a very good bow lookout, but tiny. He'd also jumped down the rocks, but of course nobody noticed, you know, he's not a tough guy. And he jumped in, and after James was on the bank and being sick and gasping for breath and hyperventilating, little Ingai comes up, and in his hand, he's got the hat. He said: James, James, I save hat. And then we laughed. And then it's everything is going to be alright, then. James is sick and... yes, but it can happen very, very fast.

British author Redmond O’Hanlon writes about his journeys into some of the wildest places in the world. His travels have taken him into the jungles of the Congo and the Amazon, he has faced some of the toughest tribes alive today, and has sailed in the hurricane season on a trawler in the North Atlantic. In all of this, he explores the extremes of human existence with passion, wit and erudition.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: James Fenton, Joseph Conrad

Duration: 3 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: July - September 2008

Date story went live: 11 August 2009