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The Lost City of Z

posted Jun 3, 2017, 4:12 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Jan 10, 2019, 6:53 AM ]
“Have you ever heard the sound of the jungle? It’s not what you imagine. It’s not really loud or anything like that. But it’s always... talking.”

 ...a quote that made me shiver and smile and put me right in the heart of the unexplored Amazon Rainforests - the setting for David Grann's 'The Lost City of Z': the story of the lost explorer, Percy Harrison Fawcett. 

As a boy, I was fascinated by the legends and myths of South America: dense jungles, strange tribes and hidden mysteries lost in the depths of that uncharted land. Admittedly, my interest wasn't hugely academic - Conan Doyle's 'The Lost World', Indiana Jones (the epic sequence at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark), The Mysterious cities of Gold (yes, a cartoon) and Rick Dangerous (Uh-huh, a computer game) being my level of 'fix'. Nevertheless, I was quite enchanted by the promise of the unexplored, the sense of adventure to be had. In 'The Lost City of Z', the author quotes Kipling's "The Explorer" and catches this buzzing boyish wanderlust in a jar:

“Something hidden. Go and find it.

Go and look behind the Ranges.

Something lost behind the Ranges.

Lost and waiting for you. Go!


In describing Fawcett's world, the author does an excellent job of bringing to life the era as a whole. The early twentieth century signalled the end of the era of exploration - days when maps contained the tantalising word 'uncharted', days when men would step into jungles, deserts or wintry tundras utterly at the mercy of fate and mother nature. No radios, few aeroplanes, just mules, rudimentary medicines, guile and luck. 

But this is no fantasy story of heroes, quests and happy endings. Instead, what unfolds is a dark tale of obsession, describing a man's descent into near-madness as he searches for a fabled ruin that might cement his place in history and enlighten mankind. Relentlessly, he would raise funds, source a team, gather supplies and a form a plan, before plunging into the jungle in search of a lost, monumental city he referred to simply as 'Z' - talked of in tribal legend but seemingly forgotten, cursed or hidden.

The Amazon Jungle in Fawcett's time sprawled across most of Brazil and parts of Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and several other countries, covering an area significantly larger than Europe. The woods were packed with tribes - some friendly, some warlike and some cannibalistic, and many of which had only fleeting interaction or none at all with westerners. There were preying jaguars and merciless piranhas, vicious insects, boa constrictors and more. Fawcett clearly  thrived on the edge of danger and hardship. Indeed, in his diaries, he - competitive and protective of his theories and findings like most adventurers of the time - paid respect to the endeavours of the likes of the polar explorers, but felt that the jungle presented the greatest challenge a man could face. In his words:


"A polar explorer has to endure temperatures of nearly a hundred degrees below zero, and the same terrors over and over: frostbite, crevices in the ice, and scurvy. He looks out and sees snow and ice, snow and ice—an unrelenting bleakness. The psychological horror is in knowing that this landscape will never change, and the challenge is to endure, like a prisoner in solitary confinement, sensory deprivation. In contrast, an Amazon explorer, immersed in a cauldron of heat, has his senses constantly assaulted. In place of ice there is rain, and everywhere an explorer steps some new danger lurks: a malarial mosquito, a spear, a snake, a spider, a piranha. The mind has to deal with the terror of constant siege."


Yet he was determined to solve the puzzle of 'The Green Hell' (as the Amazon had been known since the times of Cortes, Pizarro and the Spanish Conquistadors during their fruitless search for El Dorado) and find proof that deep within the forest, the great wonder of 'Z' lay undiscovered.

The author recounts Fawcett's early expeditions into the Amazon brilliantly. Using epistles and passed-down accounts from departed eye-witnesses, he conjures a vivid image of 'The Green Hell'. Reading it while lying on a scorching beach in the Greek islands, I quickly became rather suspicious about every trickling sweat droplet or blown grain of sand that landed on my skin as I read tales of men driven to madness by clouds of mosquitos that swarmed around them like thick smoke, day and night, depriving them of even a moment of sleep; descriptions of espundia, a wasting disease transmitted by sand flies which causes the sufferers flesh to waste away into mush in leprous fashion; accounts of team members waking to find maggots writhing under the skins of their kneecaps; tiny 'sweat bees' latching onto their eyeballs and beetles burrowing fervently into their ear canals - one fellow driven so mad by this that he thrust a hunting knife into his ear to kill the creature before it dug too deep. Shudder, indeed. Worse were tales of men straying a short way from their camp to forage, only to return and find their comrades dead, riddled with poisonous tribal arrows (tipped with lethal frog toxins).

Left: The Ricardo Franco Hills, a plateau in Bolivia thought to have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Lost World'
Middle: The Cabellos Largos, an Amazonian tribe yet to have been contacted by the outside world - fortunately a reservation system has been established to protect such peoples and their habitat
Right: The depths of the rainforest


Fawcett's adventures are inspirational - each foray into the jungle peeling away another layer of mystery about the location and nature of 'Z' and throwing up a bunch of new intriguing puzzles. Along the way he loses trusted comrades to the maladies described above, but still he returns, every few years or so. Only WWI breaks up his efforts, seeing him enlist and command a unit with distinction. When the war came to an end, he was ready to pick up where he left off and tackle 'The Green Hell' once more. But from 1920 onwards, we see the start of a slow and sad decline in his endeavours. First, he loses the patronage of the Royal Geographical Society and the funding they provided as the intelligentsia of the day began to lose faith in his less than academic hypothesis over 'Z'. Instead, university-educated anthropologists and geographers were employed and stipended on the back of white-paper rationale. Fawcett began to lash out at the scientific establishment, which he felt had turned its back on him:


“Archeological and ethnological science is founded upon the sands of speculation, and we know what may happen to houses so constructed.” He denounced his enemies at the RGS and detected “treachery” everywhere. He complained about “the money wasted on these useless Antarctic expeditions,” about the “men of science” who had “in their day pooh-poohed the existence of the Americas—and, later, the idea of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Troy…”


However, the ageing Fawcett did manage to scrape together more funds for one more 'bare bones' expedition, but with his most trusted team members now dead or retired, he was forced to bring his young son, Jack, and Jack's friend, Raleigh, on board. It would prove to be his final sortie into the Amazon rainforest. In 1925, the trio kissed their loved ones goodbye, stepped into the jungle… and were never seen again. What happened? Were they killed by tribesmen? Were they being held captive? Did they succumb to illness? Did they find Z! The legend began that day, and ever since, rescue missions and hunts for the team's bodies have been launched, year after year - resulting in many casualties, many conspiracy theories, but no concrete answers.

The Lost Expedition. Form top left, clockwise: Percy Fawcett, Jack Fawcett, Raleigh Rimell.


Bravely, David Grann himself sets off on such a foray, interspersing chapters of narrative on Fawcett with his own preparation and  journey into the jungle. I would say though that this 'side' of the book does feel rather light in comparison to the accounts of Fawcett's travels, but perhaps that is the correct balance, given that Fawcett is the book's real star. Using Fawcett's diaries and carefully-mined artifacts to track his suspected path, Grann gives presents an interesting juxtaposition of the modern-day Amazonian landscape against that which Fawcett would have encountered. Rather poignantly, where the latter wrote in his diaries of miles upon miles of untamed jungle, the author instead finds bare, flat prairie, deforested and bleak. The author does unearth some startling facts as he goes: cave paintings have been found in the Amazon region that have been dated as over ten thousand years old - throwing the Bering Strait migration theory into chaos; and pottery shards of a similar quality to the Greek and Roman kind is to be found scattered all across the Amazon Jungle in huge quantities - not what one might expect from the so-called stone-age hand-to-mouth tribes of the forests. And he does find something rather incredible towards the end of his journey - something that ties the whole legend of 'Z' together nicely (no spoilers!). 


So, the age of exploration may be over, but the legends of those days live on. This is a cracking read. If you grew up dreaming of adventure in strange lands, you will love this. Highly recommended.

Buy 'The Lost City of Z' on Amazon