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Adventurers at heart: Couple undeterred by honeymoon from hell

Potala Palace in Tibet
Potala Palace in TibetHolly Fitzgerald

You might think, after reading about their near-death experience on the Amazon River, that Holly and Fitz FitzGerald of South Dartmouth would bolt their door, never to leave their South Dartmouth home again.

You’d be wrong.

Holly Fitzgerald, who turned 72 this month, recently published a jaw-dropper of a debut travel memoir, which is already seeing interest from Hollywood: “Ruthless River: Love and Survival by Raft on the Amazon’s Relentless Madre de Dios.”

After meeting in Boston, the couple set out in 1973 on a yearlong honeymoon adventure: backpacking around the world. But five months into the trip, their plane crashed in the Peruvian jungle, and they ended up in a penal colony, warned the inmates are more dangerous than the jaguars. When they finally left the prison, they were told they just missed the last boat out.

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So on the advice of a local, the newlyweds built a raft and set sail down the Madre de Dios River. But soon a lighting storm rendered them adrift in waters loaded with alligators and piranhas. They faced jungle animals and pelting rain. They were shot at. They watched each other waste away.

Yet just months after being rescued and recuperating in a South American hospital, they were on a safari in Kenya.

Over the decades, the FitzGeralds have traveled the world undaunted, covering some 40 countries and some two-thirds of the United States.

We caught up with Holly FitzGerald recently to talk adventure travel.

Q. What was the first place you went after the Amazon disaster?

A. A few months after getting out of the hospital for starvation, we went to France to stay with a French couple we’d met in South America. They told us, “Well, you were planning on going around the world. Keep going!” That was the best thing. It gave us the motivation to get back out there. We were a little afraid at first to travel again, but they said, “Come visit our vineyard.” So we traveled to Beaune and picked grapes and helped them make wine.

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Then we flew to London to visit some English friends we’d met in Ecuador, and explored Scotland and Ireland with them. From there, we got a cheap flight to Bali, then took a train to Singapore with some Australians we’d met in Bali. We traveled up to Malaysia, to Northern Thailand.

Q. Aside from the Amazon, have you had any scary moments?

A. A few. When we were in India, they had a bread riot — there wasn’t enough bread to feed everybody, so there were fires; hungry people were upset. We ended up eating some bad fish and landed in a hospital in Patna.

Later, in Cairo, we were so hot, we drank these raspberry drinks, which was not a good idea, because the water wasn’t safe. By the time we got to Greece, Fitz was really sick; we checked him into a hospital in Athens. But when I came back in the morning, he wasn’t there. The bed was empty. And nobody could explain to me where he was. When you can’t read the signs, you get scared.

Finally, this American man told me Greece divides patients up by illness, so they probably sent him to the stomach hospital. I took a bus and found him and stayed there in his hospital bed because I knew I’d never find him again.

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Another situation: When I was five months pregnant we went to Nevis, in the Caribbean. I was standing in the water and something stung my leg. I limped to the beach and fell to the ground. My leg was paralyzed. It turned out I’d been stung by a Portuguese Man of War. Luckily, there was a solution: kerosene and papaya.

Q. Any other close encounters with animals?

A. On a safari in Nairobi, Kenya, we rented a Volkswagen and picked up a guide, from the Maasai tribe. He’d say, “Get up close, get up close!” We got up close to these lions — they’d just eaten a wildebeest, but the guide wanted to get action going. So he opened the door and got a stick and [antagonized] a lion, but he was so full, his stomach was dragging on the ground. So I guess there was no threat.

But then later, we got too close to a baby rhino, and the mother started roaring after the Volkswagen. Fitz was trying to get the gears going, and I’m in the back saying, “The rhino’s coming! Hurry, hurry!” He did get finally get it into second and third gear. The guide was laughing.

Q. What’s one of the biggest surprises from your travels?

A. On the Mombasa coast, and we were surprised to see a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Q. What have been some of the roughest accommodations?

A. In the Sudan, we had to sleep outside in sandstorms. It was so hot, everyone put their beds outside. The sand blew over you and you pulled the blankets up so you wouldn’t breathe the sand in.

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We traveled Egypt by train, and everyone slept on the roof because it was so miserably hot. You’d belt yourself into rungs to make sure you stayed up there.

Q. What was your most recent trip?

A. We went to Grand Cayman Islands this spring and did the tourist thing: swam with the stingrays.

Q. What’s the most fun place you’ve ever been?

A. I loved hiking across northern England with wild, hard-to-find trails, despite our three guidebooks, finding hamlets of friendly people, sheep everywhere, farmers haying. . . . So picturesque.

And hiking along the Pathway of the Gods, above Positano on the top of the Amalfi Coast in Italy. I felt I was in heaven. Later being able to ride and then climb to the crater of Mount Vesuvius and look down into the still-smoking cone.

Q. What have you learned never to leave home without?

A. Passports and money. Even in the swamp when we tried to escape, by swimming for our lives, we made sure we had money and passports in our moneybelts around our waists.

Q. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten in your travels?

A. After the swamp, I’ve not been an adventurous eater. Before, I’d tried calves’ brains and frogs’ legs and snails . . . caribou. But I skipped the scorpions and silk worms in China.

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Q. Have you ever gone back to South America?

A. About five years ago, we went to Belize. I loved it because I love jungles despite what happened. It was much tamer situations, we had a guide take us out to see the bats and snakes.


Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow he ron Twitter @laurendaley1.