Left: Map showing the Mato Grosso area in South America. Below left: Percy Fawcett fishing in the Upper Madidi, Bolivia, 1913-1914 (Image: RGS:IBG) Below: Cover of Brazilian Adventure written by Peter Fleming in 1934 and Peter Fleming himself
With Fleming onboard as official correspondent, the expedition organised by Robert Churchward embarked for São Paulo. From there it travelled overland to the Araguaia River and then headed for the Upper Xingu and ‘Dead Horse Camp’, the last reported position of the Fawcett expedition (the camp was so-named because Fawcett had shot a sick pack horse there on an earlier expedition). Riven by internal disagreements from the start, however, Fleming soon formed a breakaway party to look for Fawcett independently. Both made slow progress for several days before finally admitting defeat. The return to civilization became a closely-fought race between the two parties, the prize being the privilege of reporting home first, and gaining the upper hand in the inevitable squabbles over blame, squandered finances and book contracts. Fleming’s party narrowly won, returning to England in November 1932. His tale of the fiasco, Brazilian Adventure (1934), is now considered a minor classic of travel writing, in which Fleming, on the subject of Fawcett, remarked that “enough legend has grown up around the subject to form a new and separate branch of folk-lore”. By contrast, Robert Churchward’s wonderfully- titled Wilderness of Fools – An Account of the Adventures in Search of Lieut.- Colonel P. H. Fawcett (1936) vanished as mysteriously as its subject. Fawcett fever Except for the brass name plate recovered by Dyott in 1928 and a theodolite compass recovered in 1933 (probably jettisoned during an earlier expedition), nothing tangible had ever emerged from the jungle since the Colonel’s disappearance in 1925. Most likely the expedition had been murdered either by hostile Indians (perhaps the Xavante, Suyás or Kayapós,
finish up on the coast at the capital, Salvador. On May 29th, 1925, Fawcett sent a message to his wife indicating that the expedition was crossing the Upper Xingu, and was now poised to enter territory hitherto unexplored by Europeans. “Our two guides go back from here,” he wrote “they are more and more nervous as we push further into the Indian country.” Carrying only minimal provisions (as well as Rider Haggard’s curious idol) Fawcett reassured his wife with these final words: “You need have no fear of failure...”. The three members of the Fawcett expedition then disappeared into the jungle never to be heard from again.
Hunting in the Jungle – Being the Story of a Search for Three Explorers Lost in the Brazilian Wilds (1930), which received the silver screen treatment in 1958 as Manhunt in the Jungle . A very different story emerged from the jungle four years later courtesy of a Swiss traveller called Stefan Rattin. He had travelled into Mato Grosso along the Rio Arinos, where he claimed
Fawcett had always preferred small expeditions that could live off the land, believing that such a group would look less like an invasion to indigenous tribes and would therefore less likely be attacked. No novice in exploration, Fawcett planned the expedition meticulously yet prior to departure issued an ominous instruction to those he was leaving behind: “I don’t want rescue parties coming to look for us. It’s too risky. If with all my experience we can’t make it, there’s not much hope for others. That’s one reason why I’m not telling exactly where we’re going. Whether we get through, and emerge again, or leave our bones to rot in there, one thing’s certain. The answer to the enigma of ancient South America – and perhaps of the prehistoric world – may be found when those old cities are located and opened up to scientific research. That the cities exist, I know.” The three men began their journey on the coast at São Paulo from where they took the train to Corumbá, a frontier town near the Bolivian border. From there a boat took them along the River Paraguay to Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso, which Raleigh described as “a God forsaken hole”. This was the stepping off point for what Fawcett called “the attainment of the great purpose”. On 20th April, 1925 the party struck out northwards to the impoverished village of Bakairí Post. From there the plan was to eventually turn eastwards through the great uncharted wilderness between the Tapajós and Xingu Rivers (both south- eastern tributaries of the Amazon) and the Araguaia River. Somewhere east of the Xingu, in the mysterious Serra do Roncador (‘Snoring Mountains’), Fawcett hoped to find “Z”. Thereafter the party would cross the Rio São Francisco into Bahía state to explore the ruined city described in the 1753 manuscript, and
The hunt for Colonel Fawcett Despite the Colonel’s wishes, more than a dozen expeditions subsequently set out to discover the fate of the lost expedition. Allegedly claiming the lives of up to a hundred men, they generated little useful evidence of Fawcett’s fate. For some, ‘looking for Fawcett’ became an obsession, even a profession of sorts, offering exactly the type of adventure Fawcett himself found so addictive. And there was commercial gain to be had, too, whether in the form of book deals and newspaper articles for those leading rescue parties, or rewards for those Indians willing to reveal evidence, however spurious, of the lost explorers. Over time, finding evidence of Fawcett became a more lucrative business than finding his fabulous lost city. The Fawcett expedition was not expected back until 1927 but when it failed to return the rumours started flying. The first major rescue party set out a year later in earnest, led by Commander George Miller Dyott, a man familiar with the Brazilian hinterland. Despite being dubbed “The Suicide Club” it attracted a huge number of volunteers looking for adventure. Dyott picked up Fawcett’s trail in the village of Bakairí Post, and followed it across the wilderness of Central Brazil into the Amazon forest but was eventually driven back by hostile Indians and lack of supplies. From what Dyott could glean from the Kalapalo tribe of the Upper Xingu, and the discovery of a brass plate around the neck of an Indian bearing the name of the company that had supplied Fawcett’s gear, the Colonel and the others had most likely been murdered. These sketchy findings were detailed in Dyott’s extravagantly-titled book Man
previously unexplored north of Mato Grosso, on the top of which lay a vast ruined city, with the promise of gold. Inspired by the report Fawcett now gave his own imagined city an enigmatic name – “Z” – which he claimed was “for the sake of convenience” but was more likely to protect its location from possible competitors (the British polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott had around the same time been beaten to the South Pole by his Norwegian competitor Roald Amundsen). Fawcett was now determined to locate his “Z” for real – and to re-write the history books in the process. The quest for Z The story of the fate of Colonel Fawcett’s last expedition is an oft-told one, being cited as the original inspiration for all classic tales of jungle adventure. After active service in the trenches of France during the Great War, where he was promoted to lieutenant colonel for his bravery in holding his position, Fawcett returned to Brazil in 1921 for another expedition, to explore the western region of the country. Once again Fawcett returned from the jungle alive but he had failed to find evidence for “Z”. Now in his late 50s but still remarkably fit, he was adamant that his eighth expedition would be the one to provide the evidence he was looking for. With funding in place from a London group of financiers known as ‘The Glove’, the expedition finally came together in 1925, and consisted of Fawcett, his eldest son Jack, a would-be Hollywood actor, and Jack’s best friend Raleigh Rimmell.
to have met an elderly white man with a long beard held captive by Indians. The man allegedly revealed himself as Colonel Fawcett and showed him a signet ring, which he asked Rattin to report upon his return to São Paulo. Fawcett’s wife Nina said she recognised immediately the description of the ring, stirring up enough interest for further rescue expeditions to be mounted. One of the more successful expeditions was notable for the presence of Peter Fleming, brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, who in April 1932 replied to an advertisement in the personal columns of The Times : “Exploring and sporting expedition under experienced guidance leaving England June to explore rivers Central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Fawcett; abundant game, big and small; exceptional fishing; ROOM TWO MORE GUNS.”
Timeless Travels • Autumn 2017
Timeless Travels • Autumn 2017
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