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Publisher's Summary

“Commit yourself to the Virgin Mary, for in her hands is the way into the Darién - and in God’s is the way out.”

The Darkest Jungle tells the harrowing story of America’s first ship canal exploration across a narrow piece of land in Central America called the Darién, a place that loomed large in the minds of the world’s most courageous adventurers in the 19th century. With rival warships and explorers from England and France days behind, the 27-member U.S. Darién Exploring Expedition landed on the Atlantic shore at Caledonia Bay in eastern Panama to begin their mad dash up the coast-hugging mountains of the Darién wilderness. 

The whole world watched as this party attempted to be the first to traverse the 40-mile isthmus, the narrowest spot between the Atlantic and Pacific in all the Americas. Later, government investigators would say they were doomed before they started. Amid the speculative fever for an Atlantic and Pacific ship canal, the terrain to be crossed had been grossly misrepresented and fictitiously mapped. By January 27, 1854, the Americans had served out their last provisions and were severely footsore but believed the river they had arrived at was an artery to the Pacific, their destination. Leading them was the charismatic commander Isaac Strain, an adventuring 33-year-old U.S. Navy lieutenant. 

The party could have turned back except, said Strain, they were to a man “revolted at the idea” of failing at a task they seemed destined to accomplish. Like the first men to try to scale Everest or reach the North Pole, they felt the eyes of their countrymen upon them. Yet Strain’s party would wander lost in the jungle for another sixty nightmarish days, following a tortuously contorted and uncharted tropical river. Their guns rusted in the damp heat, expected settlements never materialized, and the lush terrain provided little to no sustenance. 

As the unending march dragged on, the party was beset by flesh-embedding parasites and a range of infectious tropical diseases they had no antidote for (or understanding of). In the desperate final days, in the throes of starvation, the survivors flirted with cannibalism and the sickest men had to be left behind so, as the journal keeper painfully recorded, the rest might have a chance to live. 

The U.S. Darién Exploring Expedition’s 97-day ordeal of starvation, exhaustion, and madness - a tragedy turned “triumph of the soul” due to the courage and self-sacrifice of their leader and the seamen who devotedly followed him - is one of the great untold tales of human survival and exploration. 

Based on the vividly detailed log entries of Strain and his junior officers, other period sources, and Balf’s own treks in the Darién Gap, this is a rich and utterly compelling historical narrative that will thrill listeners who enjoyed In the Heart of the Sea, Isaac’s Storm, and other sagas of adventure at the limits of human endurance. 

©2003 Todd Balf (P)2003 Books on Tape, Inc.

Critic Reviews

"[Todd] Balf has written a compelling, tragic story." (Publishers Weekly)
"Balf's colorful account of the venture is compelling reading." (Booklist)

What listeners say about The Darkest Jungle

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  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Blake
  • 22-09-10

Good Story But Not Well Told

A book about a great adventure like this one should put the reader into the jungle right alongside the participants. Well written books like The River of Doubt by Candice Millard, Into Africa by Martin Dugard, Shadows in the Jungle by Larry Alexander, do exactly that, from cover to cover. The Darkest Jungle however, never rises to the story, fails to transport the reader's imagination into the jungle and never elicits suspense nor sympathy for any of the many characters. This is not a well written book, and worse, it is very poorly constructed. The author front loads the text with biographies on all the characters, before the reader has a chance to know or care who any of the people are and why any are to be important in the later narrative. Better books find a way to paint the characters as the story progresses. The end of the book falls off with many chapters of postscript that could have been woven into the text if properly edited. The narration, while credible, fails to deliver any excitement and is read as if the narrator is in a hurry to finish the project. All in all, this is not a great effort.

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars
  • Curtis
  • 27-09-10


I was expecting more of a true life adventure but this was extremely slow and boring. I only listened to one half and could not finish. Dont waste the credit on this one.

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    2 out of 5 stars
  • Stanley
  • 28-01-16

Dullest narration I've ever had misfortune to hear

What disappointed you about The Darkest Jungle?

Narration is just dreadful. I listen to a lot of audio books and have never heard such monotonous reading. Stupidly didn't listen to a sample first; big mistake. All this is compounded by an extremely slow first hour or so which covers the background to the main protagonist's life in mind numbingly tedious detail, such that I just couldn't bear to listen to any more.

What was most disappointing about Todd Balf’s story?

The begining (first hour or so) is very boring. I didn't listen to any more.

How did the narrator detract from the book?

Massively. Monotone delivery which just droned on in the most tedious way.

If you could play editor, what scene or scenes would you have cut from The Darkest Jungle?

Certainly the begining is far too detailed and slow.