A century ago South America was at the tail end of the rubber boom, a jungle frontier wilder than the American West. Life was cheap, anacondas were 60 feet long and Percy Fawcett was in the thick of it, swashbuckling his way through exploits that make Indiana Jones look about as intrepid as a suburban paperboy.
An English army officer, Fawcett began his South American adventuring in 1906, surveying boundaries in remote wilderness along the Brazil-Bolivia border. This was a hideously arduous undertaking but Fawcett was the man for the job. His attraction for death-defying jungle jaunts seems to have baffled even himself. As he put it: “Inexplicably – amazingly – I knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me”.
Fawcett spent most of the first quarter of the 20th-century exploring Amazonia. He became fascinated by rumoured lost cities, particularly one he called Z, a mysterious civilisation of ‘white indians’ said to exist in the Matto Grosso. Z was his obsession and downfall; in 1925 Fawcett and two others (including his eldest son Jack) failed to reappear from an expedition in search of it.
The dream that unknown white civilisations might be found in the unexplored depths of new countries crops up again and again in the annals of European colonialism. The legendary ‘Welsh Indians’ were a staple of US frontier lore, while Australia had (or rather, didn’t have) its elusive ‘white colony’ which convicts believed lay in the bush just beyond Sydney, as described in my book Tour To Hell.
In the early 1950s Fawcett’s surviving son Brian assembled Exploration Fawcett from the Colonel’s journals, adding a chapter about the search for his father. It was a bestseller and no wonder, bursting with piranha-infested rivers, drunken gunmen, lethal wildlife, revolting diseases, haunted houses and poison-tipped arrows raining down from jungle tribesmen not home to visitors.
A major strength is that Fawcett himself is much more than your typical rock-jawed derring-doer. He frequently surprises. For instance, his method of avoiding starvation in the jungle was to ‘pray audibly’ for food, an early exercise in positive thinking that he claims invariably resulted in the sudden appearance of game willing to be shot for his pot. Ready to sign up for an expedition with this man?
Fawcett’s enthusiasm for extreme and horrific conditions is impressive, if more than a little barking mad. And it is debateable how many tall tales crept into the narrative, especially given that he often recounts stories from people he met along the way. Some critics have suggested his son Brian may have found vested interest in adding colour – and a few feet to the gigantic 62-foot anaconda his father described shooting (this is two to three times longer than various recorded maximums for the largest anaconda species).
Still Fawcett is a lively writer, a most entertaining vicarious travel companion and an excellent antidote to the gentle horror of a regular city commute. You can bet he’d much prefer a river churning with ravenous piranha to a train carriage stuffed to the gills with office workers checking Facebook.
PS: Paramount has a movie lost in pre-production, The Lost City Of Z, based on a book of that title (2005) by David Grann which offers a theory about Fawcett’s disappearance. Charlie Hunnam will play Fawcett; Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller also star. Director James Gray promises it will be ‘epic and hallucinogenic’ – two words which well describe Fawcett’s own book. And yet I wonder: could any Hollywood adaptation keep pace with the wild ride of the real story? Brad Pitt, whose production company kicked off the project, was originally slated for the lead role but dropped out four years ago. From Jungle Hell to Development Hell, the Colonel’s adventures continue…
PPS: A conspiracy theory (not espoused by Grann’s Lost City Of Z ) contends that Exploration Fawcett was a smokescreen concocted by Brian Fawcett to disguise his father’s true fate. Colonel Fawcett, so this story goes, never intended returning and abandoned the outside world to found a secret jungle commune. It’s an attractive idea – the indefatigeable seeker of lost worlds ends up building his own to lose himself in – but convincing evidence remains thoroughly lost, too.