Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (2009)
The route drawn up by Father John Augustine Zahm (the man that was primarily responsible for TR's desire for adventure in South America) entailed traveling on five of the best-known rivers on the continent: the Parana, Paraguay, Tapajos, Negro, and Orinoco Rivers. All five rivers were on any decent map of Brazil. However, within just days after arriving in Brazil, TR abandoned Zahm's tame itinerary, and started to plan a much more interesting and dangerous trek. On 18 October 1913, TR's steamship, the Vandyck, reached
Bahia, and one of TR's sons, Kermit (who had been working in Brazil for quite a while), was waiting in the harbor on a launch provided by the city's governor.
Theodore Roosevelt didn't stay in Bahia long, since he wanted to be in Rio de Janeiro by 21 October 1913 to follow up on discussions about government assistance for his new expedition. Once again, after a crushing disappointment/heartbreak (this time it was losing the Election of 1912), TR decided to do something adventurous. In 1909 after leaving the White House, TR went on safari in Africa with Kermit and a host of others, but he was only a hunter . . . this time, TR decided it was time to become the explorer that he knew had always existed in him.
Unknown to Rondon was that TR had exactly the kind of expedition in mind that Rondon desired. After discussions with Brazilian officials, TR decided to explore an uncharted river of which the only group that had seen its headwaters had been led by Rondon. Rondon had named it the River of Doubt, and he knew little about the river's course or character. Rondon had stumbled on the river five years earlier on one of his telegraph expeditions. Rondon and his men followed the River of Doubt just long enough to know that a separate expedition would be necessary to traverse-and-chart the river.
TR gave the men that were with him a choice to stay or leave, but all, even Zahm, remained with TR for the expedition to the River of Doubt. It was now official: TR was something he had always wanted to be, an explorer. To the museum's officials, TR's exploration down the River of Doubt was not just insane, but suicidal; TR ignored letters sent from the museum's officials telling him to revert to the original itinerary.
It soon became clear to most in the traveling group that they weren't properly equipped for their expedition on the River of Doubt. The man responsible for equipping the expedition, Anthony Fiala, had brought too many unusable/improper supplies, as well as an appalling amount of personal baggage. Fiala had been recruited by Zahm, since he had prior experience in the Arctic, but Fiala had made major mistakes on that expedition, and was persona non grata in the exploration community (he was working as a clerk in a sporting goods store when he first met Zahm). Fiala saw Zahm's offer as his chance to restore his reputation. One of the reasons why Fiala had brought so many of the wrong kind of supplies was that he wanted to make sure that TR traveled in luxury.
On 12 December 1913, Rondon (who was only 5' 3") awaited TR's arrival on the Paraguayan President's yacht; TR had just wrapped up the last of his speaking commitments in South America. Now both men could focus their attentions/energies on the River of Doubt, but the river was so remote that it would take two months to reach, first by boat, then overland. Much of the distance would be making their way across 400 miles in the Brazilian Highlands, which included plains, scrub forests, barren desert, and dense rainforest.
Once on the river, every mile traveled meant the expedition would be further away from any civilization, and closer to the unknown. The harsh terrain featured fierce Indian tribes that were deadly threats to any intruder; even for the most hardened explorers, what TR and Rondon were about to do was considered folly. Only a handful of men had ever seen the headwaters of the River of Doubt and lived, but they had been led by Rondon.
TR and Rondon were officially the co-commanders of the expedition. TR didn't speak Portuguese, and Rondon didn't speak English, but they both spoke French, and when Kermit was present, he was their interpreter. But TR and Rondon actually had very little difficulty in communicating, and by 15 December 1913, they had both developed a deep-and-lasting respect for each other. To TR, Rondon represented the Explorer he had always admired and aspired to become. After surviving the ordeal on the River of Doubt, TR counted Rondon as one of the four greatest explorers of all time, linking him with Amundsen, Byrd, and Peary. Rondon admired TR, valuing the former President's ability for rational thought in the face of hardship.
Rondon was a Positivist (scientific/logical idealism), and preferred to avoid conflict at all costs. The personalities of the war-loving and action-oriented TR and the idealistic/pacifist Rondon would be put to the test on the River of Doubt. TR still had the endurance of a man half his age, which TR proved on 1 January 1914 by taking part in a jaguar hunt. Brazilians came back from the hunt dead-tired, but Fiala saw TR and Kermit coming back, dragging a Brazilian official behind them. TR's clothes were in tatters, but Fiala said that TR had that "war-like look" about him, which Kermit did not. Fiala called out to TR if he was okay, and TR responded by saying "I'm Bully!". The next day, TR and Kermit were milling around about the camp as if nothing stressful had ever occurred the previous day . . . from that point on, the Brazilians in the expedition regarded TR and Kermit with great awe.