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`River Journeys': TV thrills for armchair adventurers

Famous architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable once wrote that her travels have taught her that local color should stop at the threshold of her hotel. Well, River Journeys (PBS, starting Nov. 6, 8-9 p.m. for six consecutive Wednesdays) is a travel series for armchair adventurers about a breed of travelers who seldom, if ever, even cross the threshold of any hotel, whose quest is only to record local color. RKO-BBC assigned six writers to explore six rivers and the communities that cluster on their banks, as well as to report the adventures of the intrepid voyagers who traverse the waters. The rivers included the Waghi in Papua New Guinea, the Nile in Egypt and the Sudan, the Mekong in Vietnam and Kampuchea (Cambodia), the Congo in Africa, the Rio Sao Francisco in Brazil, and the Murray in Australia. What has resulted is the most exciting travel series ever shown on television -- and that includes ``The Se arch for the Nile'' as well as the current ``The Last Place on Earth'' on ``Masterpiece Theatre.''

It starts this week with ``Eater of Men,'' the story of white-water adventuring on the rivers of Papua New Guinea. Despite its thrills and exciting battles with rapids, it is the weakest of the series because too much time is spent with the members of the expedition and not enough with the Stone Age tribes and flora and fauna that inhabit the region. But Christina Dodwell, who makes the voyage, is a spirited, adventurous woman, and the premi`ere episode makes many previous white-water trips seem l ike amusement-park chute-the-chutes.

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It is a rapturously exciting prelude to five more weeks of vicarious adventure which may have you leaping unrestrainedly out of your armchair and onto a plane headed for remote rivers.

My favorite is the voyage on the Mekong with William Sharcross, in which one gets to see a bit of life in Ho Chi Minh City as well as Angkor Wat in Kampuchea. It airs on Nov. 13. Mark it on your viewing schedule as a program not to be missed.

Actually, the entire series proves to be the highlight of the new season, brought to PBS by WETA-Washington, a station that this year seems to be jumping into the lead in programming to rank right up there with WGBH-Boston and WNET-New York. ``River Journeys'' won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for ``Best Factual Series of 1984.'' It's good enough to double as this year's vacation trip for most people, so better bring along your ``having a wonderful time'' post cards.

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