Day 841: Hunting The Lost City Of Z

originally published April 20, 2014

There are days when I look at my life story and say, “Woah. This is not the stuff of exquisite drama. Where’s the page-turning twist, the perilous element of surprise?” Then I flip on the TV and get distracted by an old episode of Seinfeld and feel much better.

I suppose looking at the life of someone like Percy Fawcett shouldn’t instill a sense of regret or jealousy – after all, while it’s easy to admire his balls-on-his-sleeve bravado and fearless conviction to unpeeling what little mystery remained of the earth’s unexplored regions in the early 20th century, things didn’t end well for the guy. The truth is, my reasons for not pointing my footsteps into the murky depths of the Amazon jungle have nothing to do with cowardice or western-culture pussification. That sort of craziness just doesn’t tweak my interest.

Adventure… excitement… a Jedi craves not these things. And neither do I. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not forehead-thwackingly flummoxed by the souls who dare to venture forth, chuck their health and well-being into the scrap-heap along with their common sense, and live the kind of adventure that makes for good cinema. Percy’s life arc was a hell of a ride.

Like any manly man born in 19th century England, Percy served his time in the Royal Artillery, beefing up his macho fortitude by blowing stuff up. He met his wife… actually, the article states that he met his wife in Ceylon but I’m pretty sure she wasn’t his wife when he met her. That’s just lazy writing. Let’s just say he married Nina Agnes Paterson in 1901 and within five years they had two young, strapping boys: Jack and Brian.

Percy studied map-making and surveying with the Royal Geographic Society, then served for a period with the British Secret Service in North Africa. There he became chums with Allan Quartermain author H. Rider Haggard and Sherlock-concoctor Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle would later use some of Percy’s tales from the depths of the Amazon as the inspiration for his novel The Lost World.

It was the wilds of South America that called to Percy next. The lush, living and altogether vivid landscape would come to swallow his knowledge-hungry soul.

At 39 years of age, Percy travelled to Brazil to map out a dense and dangerous thicket of land near the Argentinian border. At 39 years of age, I had my first three-day hangover. Oh the stories Percy and I could have swapped with one another.

Anyhow, on this voyage Percy claimed that he put a bullet into a 62-foot anaconda. The scientific community had a laugh at Percy’s expense, but we all saw Jon Voigt get swallowed up in that movie, and that sucker had to be at least that big. Hollywood doesn’t lie – suck it, scientific community. Percy had other stories too: a cat-like dog that he saw twice, and a giant Apazauca spider which had poisoned a bunch of the locals.

Actually, the one story that science grabbed hold of from this voyage was that of the cat-like dog. Known now as the Milta cryptid, people have actually gone on expeditions to find this creature, hypothesizing that it could be a genus of cat similar to the Jaguarundi, or perhaps some sort of short-eared dog. Either way, Percy was getting the attention of the scientific world with his tales.

Percy made several trips through South America between 1906 and 1924. He was an affable fellow, and knew to bring gifts with him for the locals to earned a spot as an honored visitor with a tribe. He traced the source of the Rio Verde and the source of the Heath River between Peru and Bolivia. It was around this time he began to compile tales of a lost city, a mystical civilization that was still unknown to civilized (meaning “white guy”) society. He called it the Lost City of Z.

This was a big deal. In particular, it sparked Percy’s imagination and tweaked his fascination. The legend of El Dorado, the mythical city of gold, had been percolating around the European water-cooler for centuries. I don’t believe that Percy was looking for a massive monetary score here – he wanted to uncover one of our planet’s big mysteries. Perhaps I’m being naïve in ascribing such noble intent to his quest for the Lost City of Z, but I’m starting to like the guy. I’m rooting for him.

Except I know how this story ends.

In 1925, Percy returned to South America with his son Jack and Jack’s friend, Raleigh Rimmel. He’d chosen those two for their youth, their good health and their loyalty to one another and to him. Percy was very careful about this expedition – they travelled light and they travelled cautiously. He also left instructions that, if they were never to return, no one should head out to rescue them, lest they suffer the same fate. They were headed toward the untamed Mato Grosso region in western Brazil. Percy was convinced the Lost City of Z was there.

On May 29, Percy wrote to his wife that he and the boys were venturing alone – without indigenous guides – into the unexplored wilderness outside Cuiabà. He was optimistic – they would cross over the Upper Xingu (a tributary of the Amazon River) and discover the mythical city somewhere among the foliage. Unfortunately, that was the last time anyone heard from Percy Fawcett, his son Jack or Raleigh Rimmel.

They simply vanished.

Percy’s request that everyone refrain from searching for them went unheeded. Numerous rescue missions were launched over the years, only to return with rumors that the three were killed by local Indians, eaten by wild animals, and one particularly tasty story about Percy losing his memory and living out his days as the chief of a cannibalistic tribe. It’s estimated that 100 people have died on missions to rescue Percy and the boys – probably the reason Percy told people to stay the hell out of the jungle if they didn’t return.

Danish explorer Arne Falk-Rønne uncovered a story that suggested that the team had had a mishap on the river and lost the gifts they were bringing to the local tribes, thus sealing their gruesome fates. Brazilian activist Orlando Villas-Bôas claimed to have found Percy’s skeletal remains, though later scientific analysis debunked their veracity. The most credible story came from New Yorker writer David Grann, who visited the Kalapalo tribe and heard the oral history about how Percy had stayed with them before heading eastward, ignoring the tribe’s advice that the fierce Indians that way would murder them.

Percy’s story ends there, in a cloud of mystery. As for the Lost City of Z, it’s believed that archeologist Michael Heckenberger may have uncovered a cluster of settlements with curiously advanced engineering – up to European standards even – on a site called Kuhikugu. It’s not likely that Percy ever made it there himself, but it looks like he was pretty damn close.

Still way more adventure than I’ve seen in my 39 years.

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