The first man to swim the Amazon

The first man to swim the Amazon

Matthew Mohlke and Slovenian endurance swimmer, Martin Strel, get together to write about Strel's swimming venture across the Amazon

Jai Arjun Singh
September 19 , 2014
01 Min Read

At times I’m convinced he’s a non-human swimming robot,” river guide Matthew Mohlke says of Martin Strel, and you can see why. Strel, the Slovenian endurance swimmer, is a fearless conqueror of great rivers, the holder of the Guinness records for swimming the Yangtze, the Mississippi, the Danube and finally, in 2007, the Amazon. This is an account of the last of those marathons, a potentially deadly 3,274-mile journey in 66 days.


This isn’t a travel book in the conventional sense; we learn the names of various anchoring spots along the river in Peru, Brazil and Colombia, but no real details about most of these places — which aren’t exactly tourist attractions anyway! It’s more a collection of daily journal entries, which makes for a quick read, but also a somewhat repetitive one — for all the fear of river pirates, crocodiles and other predators, there are days when nothing very exciting happens. However, Mohlke gets around this by detailing the little challenges facing the crew on the support boat: outdated maps (in terrain that can barely be mapped anyway); the need to store buckets of rancid pig’s blood, used to divert attacking piranhas; constant bouts with illness; the shifting moods and personal equations on board.


He gives us snippets about Strel’s life and describes how he deals with the exhausting swims by retreating into personal memory palaces and telling himself stories. Even as the support crew is armed with laptops and other modern equipment (something Mohlke admits to feeling ambivalent about, because it takes away some of the purity of this primal journey), Strel single-mindedly ploughs on, spending up to 12 hours in the water each day. “It’s just him and the river. It’s like he’s the only one left on the planet who’s still living like a caveman.” This is a lightweight book, but at its best it creates a vivid portrait of a portly, middle-aged man who dreamt a mad dream and then went on to live it.

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