Here is a breathtaking – and occasionally breathless – account of one of the greatest ever feats of exploration. Until this book, it had been almost entirely forgotten. Between 1866 and 1868 six young Frenchmen, who constituted the Mekong Exploration Commission, ‘outmarched David Livingstone and outmapped H M Stanley. They also outshone them in that display of sociological categorising, economic sleuthing and political effrontery that was expected of nineteenth-century explorers.’ Starting in Saigon, with fourteen devoted local helpers who supplied most of the muscle, they poled, pulled and hauled their way up the Mekong, probably the most difficult river to ascend in the world, through the leech-infested Cambodian and Laotian forests, along parts of unexplored Burma, and eventually to near the Chinese–Tibetan border. This ‘epic of endurance’, John Keay rightly says, ‘dwarfs nearly all contemporary endeavours’.
I don't know whether Keay means exploration in the nineteenth or twentieth century by ‘contemporary’, but the Frenchmen’s feat certainly, to my mind, outshines the achievements of any men rocketed into space, with their elaborate back-up, or the recent adventures of sailors round the globe or sled-pullers journeying to the