Percy Fawcett was a man possessed. An Amazon explorer already fêted by the Royal Geographical Society, he was obsessed with returning to the jungle in quest of a lost city which he called ‘Z’. Covering his tracks, obscuring his route to put off his rivals, he set off into the rainforest in 1925 accompanied only by his son Jack and his son’s best friend Raleigh Rimmell.
Keeping up correspondence with home via Indian runners, the expedition finally set off alone in May 1925. They were never heard from again. Fawcett disappeared off the face of the earth, spawning an obsession to find his bones and discover what had become of his final, disastrous expedition. Grann estimates that over a hundred people so far have died in pursuit of Facett pursuing shadows.
Many of these would-be explorers were inspired by the conflation in the public’s mind of Z with El Dorado, the mythical city of gold that glittered so brightly in the imagination of the Conquistadors. However, ‘El Dorado’, originally referred not to a place, but to a man, a great king:
“THE GREAT LORD … goes about continually covered in gold dust as fine as ground salt. He feels that it would be less beautiful to wear any other ornament … to powder oneself with gold is something exotic, unusual, novel and more costly—for he washes away at night what he puts on each morning
There was plenty of evidence for Fawcett’s belief in a mighty civilisation that had once thrived in the Amazon. The region remained widely unexplored in the 1920s, and when Fawcett had begun dreaming of Z, it had been in the midst of a golden age of archeological discovery. Hiram Bingham had uncovered Machu Picchu in 1912 and Howard Carter had opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.
Fawcett had been champing at the bit to set off in search of Z throughout that time, but money worries and the First World War had delayed him so much that he could only make his final, fateful trip at the age of 57. For the aging explorer it was a last throw of the dice in search of his fortune.
Part of Fawcett’s huge pull on his dedicated followers is that he was very far from the wildlife-slaughtering imperialists that make up so many explorers in the popular imagination. A vegetarian and a Buddhist, he only ever went on small expeditions believing that these posed less threat to the local people. This is why he was alone with just a pair of twenty-two year olds when he vanished.
A man of peace, he refused to let his men shoot on the Amazonian tribes. Fawcett’s technique of making peaceful contact was simple and direct. Even under a hail of arrows, he would drop his machete and walk towards his assailants with his arms raised as a gesture of peace. Astonishingly, this direct route often worked.
Fawcett was brave because up until his final disappearance, he had seemed indestructible. While companions on other expeditions suffered from wounds and parasites, and sometimes perished, Fawcett remained almost impervious to disease. Missions in the jungle were beseiged by pests and insects, and parasites that would infest their skin in ways far too horrible to mention here. One of the least of which was vampire bats:
“We awoke to find our hammocks saturated with blood,’ Fawcett said, for any part of our persons touching the mosquito-nets or protruding beyond them were attacked by these loathsome animals.”
The Lost City of Z tells the story of Percy Fawcett’s life and death and also contains a modern narrative where the author goes in search of his bones.
This latter thread of the book is less interesting than the 1920s adventures, as the Brooklyn-based author potters about his local travel superstore in search of gadgets, and then is driven into the jungle by local people. By the end, his guide barely tries to disguise his contempt for this urban journalist’s illusions of being a great explorer. Nevertheless, it is interesting to hear how the jungle of Fawcett’s time has changed in the intervening eighty years (the book was published in 2009).
As a last curious detail, it is widely believed that Fawcett inspired a character in Tintin: Ridgwell, a European lost in the Amazon jungle. Tintin stumbles across Ridgewell in The Broken Ear, written in 1935, only ten years after Fawcett’s disappearance. Hergé portrays Ridgewell as a heroic figure who has been befriended by the local people and learned their ways.
Alas, it seems Fawcett’s doom was somewhat darker.