The Age of Exploration had long since given way to the Age of Sightseeing when, in 1981, Richard Bangs made his way to Victoria Falls on Africa's Zambezi River. But Bangs hardly glanced at the mile-wide cascade David Livingstone had named for Queen Victoria in 1855. Instead, as he writes in Rivergods (Sierra Club Books, $37.50), "I looked the other way, out of habit. Some 350 feet below the bridge we were driving over, a mighty river coiled and coursed through a dark basalt gorge. I could see two rapids.... They were pieces of effervescence, feather white, inviting. They looked like they could be run."
Rivergods, co-written by Bangs and his rafting buddy Christian Kallen, recounts 10 white-water expeditions, some of them "first descents," on four continents plus New Guinea. Bangs and Kallen take pains to mix a good deal of geography, cultural anthropology and politics into their roller-coaster narratives. And the 205 color photographs show clearly what the adventure traveler is in for—overturning boats, crashing glaciers, jungles, local inhabitants, stunning beauty and birds, lots of birds.
One of Bangs's first "exploratories" was the Omo River in Ethiopia in 1973, a relatively calm three-week affair during which he and a group of friends dined on hippopotamus meat, swatted tsetse flies and rapped a 12-foot crocodile on the snout when it clamped its jaws over the bow of one of the rafts. Eight years later, his passion now grown into a business, Bangs was leading clients and TV crews down the monstrous rapids on the Zambezi below Victoria Falls.
Through it all, Bangs and Kallen seem to possess an immunity to disaster similar to that of Indiana Jones. This is misleading; river-running is not without risks. Bangs fails to mention that one of his original partners, Lew Greenwald, an experienced rafter, drowned during an exploratory in 1975. But, for the most part, Rivergods is conscientious, worthwhile and makes a good case for the new, muscular form of tourism that has come to be called "adventure travel."
Rob Buchanan is a free-lance writer who lives in New York.