Friday, 11 October 2013

Amazon but true

With the recent casting announcement of the increasingly ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel Percy Fawcett, it seems a good time to pick up another book.

The title of this book might sound like the worst that adventure fiction can offer, but this is the true story that inspired much of the genre.
Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett was the original Indiana Jones, from an age when explorers strode forth from the Royal Geographic Society, pipe clenched firmly between their teeth and machete in hand, determined to fill in the empty spaces on the Victorian world map.

Before the obsession for adventure and discovery took over his life. Fawcett was already an outstanding sportsman and military officer, possessing uncommon mental and physical toughness. In one rugby match, he continued to plough through the opposition even after his front teeth had been knocked out.
In the jungles of the Amazon, he showed an almost freakish resistance to the hardship and danger he found there.
Allowing himself no quarter, Fawcett was inevitably frustrated by the frailty of other expedition members, who inevitably succumbed to the horrific diseases wrought by the region's insect life. During one journey, he seriously considered killing a gravely ill man so others in the party might better survive.
Fawcett seemed the perfect disciple of the British Empire, well equipped to carry its stern principles to the darkest corners of the globe. But this book shows that there was far more to him than that cliched image.

Rather like Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle also based his lead character from the novel The Lost World on Fawcett), he became drawn to spirituality beyond conventional Christianity.
Apparently, Fawcett ceremonially accepted the precepts of Buddhism while posted in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and sought out an infamous psychic, Madame Helena Blavatsky.
These influences combined to form an obsession that consumed the rest of his life: the quest to discover the remains of a fantastic lost civilisation at the heart of the Amazon, which he, inexplicably, named "Z".

Fawcett's philosophical depth made him the first explorer of the Amazon forest to treat the native people with respect, forbidding the use of firearms against them, even if his own life was threatened.
His adventures make fascinating reading, as do the difficulties he encountered in even putting together an expedition party. Unlike many of his rivals, Fawcett had little personal wealth and had to convince sponsors of the value of his quest.

His final expedition, for which he was certain he had pinpointed the location of Z, was delayed for four years by World War I. Being Fawcett, he spent those years in the thick of things on the Western Front, displaying his usual indestructibility and distinguishing himself as a natural and effective leader.
It was not until 1925 that the ageing explorer, his son, Jack, and companion, Raleigh Rimell, finally set forth into the Amazon jungle, this time never to be seen again.

In the ensuing years, the "search for Fawcett" became as irresistible to other adventurers as the discovery of Z. Many stories and theories have circulated. In the 1940s, a young, pale-skinned Amazon tribesman was paraded around Brazil as the "grandson of Colonel Fawcett", until the youth was revealed to be an albino.

Even today, "Fawcett nuts", as those still eager to solve this 75-year-old mystery are known, are regarded with amusement and suspicion. Many have disappeared on their own expeditions.
But one who did survive to return and write this excellent book is David Grann. His account of his Amazon expedition is woven into Fawcett's story and gives an insight into how much this untamed part of the world has changed.

At one point, Grann is driven to a location that had taken Fawcett a month to reach by hacking his way through thick rainforest.
Grann's journey might be expected to pale by comparison with the colonel's adventures, but, even in this age of GPS and Google Earth, the world's largest jungle still has its mysteries.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like it should have inspired many a mod for Call of Cthulhu...