Interview with the author


Related links


About the book

About the author



Like this Book?
Hear about more



- National Geographic
- Men's Journal
- Book Page
- Publishers Weekly
- Kirkus Reviews
- Booklist

National Geographic Adventure
February 2004

The Darien Gap, on the Isthmus of Panama, definitely makes the list of the most remote places on Earth. It's a jungle so dangerous, so seductive, so impenetrable that the United Nations had named it a World Heritage site in the vain hope, no doubt, that the so-called forest-products industry will leave it alone. Todd Balf's aptly named book is about a forgotten 1854 attempt by U.S. Navy Lt. Isaac Strain to penetrate this wilderness--the Darien is only some 50 miles across, Atlantic to Pacific--and to find out whether it would be a suitable site for a canal.

What he sought was a pass. There is no pass, but an Irish fabulist named Edward Cullen claimed to have found one (though he had never been more than a few miles into the interior), and he persuaded government after government to sponsor reconnaissance expeditions. Lieutenant Strain's group (comprising 27 men) was one of the first, and without question the unluckiest. They could obtain no native guides. Trying to travel light, they didn't take enough provisions. Existing maps were a joke. Vampire bats drank their blood when they were sleeping. Scorpions stung them. Worms hatched under their skin and started eating their flesh. The men weakened and began to starve. Strain took off with three other men to get help. In the process, he lost half his body weight; he would never fully regain his health. Seven men died before the expedition was finished. To read about their ordeal is horrendous and thrilling and all the other things you want a book like this to be. Balf's research is impressive, and he describes Strain's trip with a fine sense of drama and in devastating detail.

When Balf made the journey himself in 2001, he found himself in a native village in the heart of the Darien explaining to locals—just as Strain might have done 150 years before—that he was just passing through and had no interest in exploiting their territory. In the end, Balf's feet became infected with some sort of rot, and he couldn't go on. Three men on burros rescued him. It's still a jungle out there.

Men's Journal
February 2004

Expeditions from Hell

As with barbecued rib seasonings, this month's best adventures come in two varieties: wet and dry. Dean King's Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival (Little, Brown; $25) is the latter, and reader beware: This account of 12 Americans shipwrecked in North Africa in 1815, enslaved by nomads, and then hauled along on a Dantean odyssey through the desert, is scalding enough to induce vicarious dehydration. "Our skins seemed actually to fry like meat before the fire," wrote the ship's skipper, whose men struggled against sand "as fine as house dust and hot as coals of fire," a desert sun that charred their eyelids, and edge-of-death thirst and hunger that reduced them to creakily walking skeletons.

In Todd Balf's The Darkest Jungle (Crown; $25), which chronicles a calamitous American expedition to Panama's Darién Gap in 1854, the humidity level may be higher, but the walking skeletons look much the same. On a mission in search of a route for the Panama Canal, the expeditioners expected a ten-day hike. Fat chance: Months would pass before the first dazed survivors emerged from the rain forest, half their body weight lost to starvation as well as the parasites, vampire bats, and tropical diseases that further chipped away at their flesh. Wet or dry, take your pick -- these are descent-into-hell tales of survival at its most nightmarish.

Book Page
January 2004

Todd Balf continues to excel in writing about man’s battle against the unknown and unforeseeable forces of nature. He scored three years ago with his best-selling The Last River, an action-packed account of an American whitewater kayaking team in Tibet. Now comes The Darkest Jungle: The True Story of the Darién Expedition and America’s Ill-Fated Race to Connect the Seas, in which he focuses on the search for a route to provide the world’s ultimate shortcut: a canal through Panama to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Balf reconstructs the absorbing 1854 saga of Navy Lt. Isaac G. Strain, whose 27-man task force underwent a grueling ordeal marked by unreliable maps, tropical fever, scorpions and flesh-dwelling parasites, rusted weapons, fear of Indian attacks, bouts of hallucination, mutinous temptations and cannibalistic impulses—in a terrain so torturous and a climate so cruel they were compelled to abandon some of their helpless colleagues who could not keep up.

Balf, a former senior editor of Outside magazine, demolishes the widely held notion that starvation is almost impossible in a lush jungle. Small game, reptiles and birds were difficult to catch and, added to retch-provoking plants, were unable to fulfill even the minimum food requirements of Lt. Strain’s weakened colleagues. At one point, the crew members survived by gorging themselves with palm nuts, the acid of which dissolved their tooth enamel and eroded their digestive systems. When rescued after the three-month nightmare, an emaciated Lt. Strain weighed 75 pounds, half his normal weight.

By chronicling the details of this incredible journey of survival, Balf has rescued Lt. Strain’s expedition from vanishing into history.

Publishers Weekly
November 10, 2003

In 1854, Isaac Strain, an ambitious young U.S. Navy lieutenant, launched an expedition hoping to find a definitive route for a canal across the isthmus of Panama. For hundreds of years, the Darién isthmus had defied explorers; its unmapped wilderness contained some of the world’s most torturous jungle. Yet Strain was confident he could complete the crossing. He was wrong. He and his men quickly lost their way and stumbled into ruin. Balf (The Last River) vibrantly recounts their journey, a disaster on a par with the Donner party or the sinking of the whale ship Essex. Using logs kept by Strain and his lieutenants, as well as other period sources, Balf follows the party from their first missteps (their landing boat capsized in roiling surf) to their near-miraculous rescue two months later. Strain and his crew endured exhaustion, heat starvation and infestations of botfly maggots, which grew under the skin and fattened on human tissue. The men were forced to make heartbreaking life-and-death decisions; e.g., voting to leave behind sick companions who couldn’t keep up with the rest (one shrieked after them as they trudged deeper into the jungle). Some men surrendered to despair; two of them quietly conspired to commit cannibalism. Balf has written a compelling, tragic story, reviving an adventure overshadowed, 60 years later, by the successful completion of the canal. Balf reminds readers that, like the transcontinental railroad farther to the north, the channel was "built on the bones of dead men."

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
October 15, 2003

The author of The Last River anatomizes another disastrous adventure in the unwelcoming outdoors: the 1853—54 effort to discover a potential waterway through the isthmus of Panama.

It was the height of the canal era, and the canal that would cut through Panama would be the grandest yet: the rude weather of Cape Horn could be avoided, travel time to the gold fields of California cut in half, the whole world of shipping turned on its head. At the eastern end of Panama, in Darién, rumor of a gap through the mountains had hardened into belief. Here the land was only 40 miles wide, and 19th-century mapmakers avowed that “the mountains parted and the oceans all but kissed." The U.S. government sent the Darién Exploring Expedition, headed by Lieutenant Isaac Strain, to "lead a ‘speedy’ overland crossing of the isthmus in an attempt to map and survey the route." It was anything but quick. The local Kuna population were evasive, worried about occupation of their land and reprisals for their ill treatment of an earlier expedition. But Strain thought he detected in their reticence a desire to hide the supposed gap’s location. Bad maps slowed the expedition’s progress, jungle damp fouled its scientific instruments, bloody flux and malaria felled its members. Strain was in way over his head even before he sailed into Caledonia Bay near Darién to find “mountains rising above mountains, a sea of dark peaks clothed in dark forests"—and no gap in sight. Balf pours on the historic doom and misery with such practiced ease that readers will not be surprised when a rescue party finally discovers Strain, weighing no more than 75 pounds, sporting a Panama hat, a tattered blue flannel shirt, one boot, and sores inflicted by burrowing insects. An epilogue recounts Balf’s own 2001 excursion to Darién and attests to the region’s utter wildness.

Crack contemporary place writing, related in wrenching, enchanting detail.

September 15, 2003

The 1854 U.S. Darién Exploring Expedition, led by Navy Lieutenant Isaac Strain, was seeking a ship-canal route that would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The men suffered from disease, exhaustion, deadly insects, starvation, despair, and failure. Despite a two-year search by Balf, author of The Last River, he was never able to find the journals and notebooks kept by the group’s 29 members. The journal entries appeared in only one place, an account written by the then best-selling historian Joel Tyler Headley. His story appeared over three successive editions of the 1855 Harper’s New Monthly, the most thought-provoking periodical of the day. The men had overcome unimaginable obstacles when they emerged from the rain forest after five months; six members of the expedition had died. Balf’s colorful account of the venture is compelling reading.





Home | About the book | About the author | Reviews | Enter the Darién
Interview with the author | Excerpt | Related links | Buy the book | Media & tour info