In April 1925 explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett set off into the Amazon jungle, highly skilled but ill-equipped, all stiff upper lip and unwavering purpose, determined to locate a legendary city of gold. This wasn’t the first time Fawcett had hacked his way through the jungle but this time he had his 21-year-old son Jack and the boy’s strapping friend Raleigh with him. They never returned.
Stories of Fawcett’s adventures filled the newspapers in his day, and he has inspired radio plays, novels, and documentaries, but for some reason he is not as famous now as Earnest Shackleton or David Livingstone.
American writer David Grann stumbled across Fawcett’s name while researching a story for the New Yorker, and was captivated. Grann’s new book, a biography and adventure story titled The Lost City of Z, may go some way to putting Fawcett back in the spotlight.
Grann is an unlikely author for this tale: an urbane, self-deprecating, widely published Manhattan resident, he’s a novice when it comes to jungle exploration. Hats off to him though – he not only tells a thrilling, meticulously researched yarn, painting a clear picture of a land where men were felled by yellow fever, disease-spreading insects, skin-eating maggots, snakes, and poisoned spears, he also makes his own journey into the Amazon. Grann’s enthusiasm for his topic is palpable, and it’s hard not to feel enthralled with his telling of Fawcett’s adventures.
Remember, this was a time when maps showed dragons for areas uncharted, when there was no Google, GPS, lightweight tents or effective insect repellent. Exploring the Amazon was gruelling and many of Fawcett’s companions died on the track. The jungle is vast and the river that cuts through it all is, as Grann says, the mightiest in the world, ‘mightier than the Nile and the Ganges, mightier than the Mississippi and all the rivers in China.’
Part of Fawcett’s legendary status came from his near inhuman resistance to disease and physical hardship. Fawcett was lean, tough and ascetic. He had no sympathy for those who succumbed to illness or displayed unmanliness, describing one companion who struggled as a ‘pink-eyed weakling’.
Studies at the Royal Geographic Society had taught Fawcett tricks to cope with ‘the horrors of thirst and starvation’, how to deal with savages, and how to treat a wound with hot grease. He ventured into the wilds armed with tea, sardines, rifles, opium, and a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The Explorer’.
One wonders why Fawcett felt compelled to repeatedly enter a place he describes as ‘green hell’. What drove him to leave his family in search of a city that may never have existed? Was he proving himself to his parents? Was he inspired by his brother Edward’s popular novels, one of which featured an archaeologist called Arthur Manners who comes to trouble while searching Arabia for the ruins of the Oasis of Gazelles?
Some answers are offered by Fawcett in his diaries and log books. In one, he says that while he while he yearned to ‘be just ‘ordinary’’, that never lasted for long. He was called by ‘the voice of the wild places’. He says: ‘Inexplicably – amazingly – I knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me’. Time and again he fled the ‘prison gate slowly but surely shutting me in’.
Grann says: ‘Part of him, like many of the great Victorian explorers, was fleeing the constraints of British society. Part of him was driven by scientific curiosity and his own demons. But I do think, at heart, he was a romantic who saw himself as an almost mythic figure embarking on an epic quest.’
Should you think, as I did initially, that this is a tale entirely relegated to the past, think again. You’d imagine that nowadays there is no part of the world unexplored, yet the Brazilian government says there are still tribes in the Amazon who have never had contact with outsiders. While we have destroyed some two hundred and seventy thousand square miles of jungle in the past four decades – an area the size of France – there are still people living there who are unaware of our existence.
The Lost City of Z is a corker of an adventure story, and a movie in the making – the book is being developed into a screenplay by Brad Pitt’s production company. It might turn out to be a fabulous movie, but I’d strongly recommend you read the book before we find out.