Ever since the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the New World, stories, legends and rumours have abound of a mystical lost city somewhere in the vast South American interior. Fueled by fantasy and the prospect of fame and riches, hundreds of intrepid explorers have hurled themselves into the pursuit of this famed location down the centuries and the most famous of these stories is unquestionably the idea of 'El Dorado', a legendary lost city of solid gold, clouded in mystery, swallowed by time and jungle and supposedly waiting to be discovered. The search lead adventurers to the snow-capped Andes Mountains, into the tropical depths of the Amazon rainforest and along jungle rivers in what are now parts of Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Guyana, but ultimately no lost city has ever been found. One of the most infamous quests for the site, one of myth, magic, obsession and mystery, is that of British geographer and archaeologist Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. He simply named it 'Z' and after five years of scouring the Brazilian jungle, he disappeared without a trace in 1925. As a critically acclaimed 2017 blockbuster based on the life of the great British explorer takes the movie industry by storm, we follow in Fawcett's footsteps, heading into terra incognita in the Amazon and some of the deepest areas of uncharted South American jungle.
Born in Torquay, Devon, on August 18th 1967, Percy Fawcett was imbued with the spirit of adventure from an early age. His father was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and his elder brother, Edward Douglas Fawcett, was a mountaineer, adventurer and an expert on Hindu and Budddhist alchemy, astronomy, magic and spiritualism. In 1886, Fawcett joined the army and would go on to serve in Sri Lanka before joining the Royal Geographical Society in 1901 to study surveying and mapmaking. Having served in Morocco for the British Secret Service, Fawcett worked for Spike Island's war office in County Cork, Ireland, between 1903 and 1906.
The true story of Percy Fawcett's quest for a mystical lost city in the Amazon begins at London's Royal Geographical Society. In 1906, the RGS was asked to intervene in a bitter dispute between Brazil and Bolivia, fueled by disagreements about precious minerals, gold and rubber, to once and for all establish and map the official border between the two South American nations. "Do you know anything about Bolivia?", the President of the society asked Fawcett before explaining the dangers of rampant tropical disease and hostile natives in the region. In his typical swashbuckling fashion, Fawcett accepted the job immediately.
Fawcett arrived in the Bolivian capital of La Paz in June of 1906 and the difficulties of surveying and charting the border region with Brazil began even before the expedition could get underway. Both the Bolivian and Brazilian governments had commissioned the Royal Geographical Society to conduct the operation as a neutral party, but a funding disagreement between the Bolivian government, Fawcett and the RGS lead to the expedition being delayed for several weeks. "The arrangement was for four thousand Bolivianos, not pounds", a Bolivian customs official told him. After finally departing La Paz, the challenges of South American exploration were brought home for Fawcett as one of the first obstacles standing between him and the Amazon was a 17,000 foot high Andean mountain pass which would see the party gasping for breath in thin air. Image Date: 08/05/2013
After travelling down the Mapiri trail towards the Amazon basin, and having his first taste of 'coca', the leaves of the infamous cocaine plant, Fawcett arrived in Cobija, a lawless frontier town on the edge of the jungle. Fawcett was shocked by what awaited him in Cobija as the local rubber and gold-mining companies treated their employees in the town almost as slaves, driving most of them to alcohol and substance abuse. Today, modern Cobija still sits on the Rio Acre directly on Bolivia's border with Brazil and a bridge known as Puente de la Amistad links to the two countries. Image Credit: Grullab (Wikimedia Commons) Image Date: 03/22/2016
Fawcett left Cobija by sailing down the Rio Acre towards a triangular area of land which Brazil had purchased from Bolivia for roughly two million pounds, but ended up taking more land than originally agreed. After stopping in a small jungle town of Xapuri, the expedition continued down river and it was on this leg of the journey that Fawcett encountered some of the Amazon's more notorious residents - tarantulas, Brazilan fire ants and an eighty foot giant anaconda. After negotiating a series of dangerous whirlpools known as the Araras, Periquitos and Chocolatal Rapids, the party clashed with hostile natives and the pilot of one of the boats was shot with 42 poisoned arrows and killed. Image Credit: Agência de Notícias do Acre (Flickr) Image Date: 02/20/2012
Returning to South America in 1908 after taking leave to return to England, Fawcett's next expedition saw him depart the Paraguayan capital of Asunción and sail up the Paraguay River into southern Brazil on a steamship named 'Fortuna'. Before the journey up the river, Fawcett was told of the dangers of the infamous swarms of piranha fish and of a toothless shark said to be able to devour a human hole. Arriving in Corumbá, in the modern day Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, Fawcett observed the sticky tropical swamplands which he called 'a paradise for snakes' as well as 'columns of giant mosquitoes' which lead to him dubbing the region a 'Poisoned Hell'. Image Date: 04/24/2007
Continuing north through Mato Grosso, hugging the border between Brazil and Bolivia, Fawcett arrived at Serra Ricrado Franco, a 200 foot-high sandstone plateau which runs for ten kilometres alongside the Rio Guapore. The explorer was captivated by the plateau's endemic species, which included otters, anteaters, jaguars, fish and amphibians completely unique to the area. Four years later in 1912, the plateau was catapulted into international fame when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, legendary writer and friend of Fawcett, used the Serra Ricardo Franco as the main inspiration for his iconic fantasy novel 'The Lost World'. Image Credit: Renato Soares Moreira (Wikimedia Commons) Image Date: 06/14/2011
After returning to Bolivia just under two years later, Fawcett left La Paz in June 1910 to map an area of the Amazon rainforest along the Rio Heath. Following an old gold trading and mining route across the Andes, the party arrived a 15,000 foot mountain pass known as Paso Aricoma where Fawcett was captivated by snow-dusted ruins which were seemingly not of Inca design. It was at this point, on his fourth expedition overall, that the idea of a fantastic lost city somewhere in South America first germinated in Fawcett's mind as he pondered that the ruins "were not of Inca construction and existed before the Incas first conquered Peru. Was it possible that in the unknown heart of South America there still lived descendants of the old races?"
The aim of Fawcett's 1910 South American expedition was to map and chart the Rio Patuyacu, a tributary of the Heath River which runs down from Bolivia's world-famous Lake Titicaca. Travelling upstream from the mouth of the Heath River for four days, the party encountered a problem as the previously sandy riverbed became stony and made progress difficult, Luckily, members of an Amazonian tribe known as the Echocas assisted the group, allowing them to stay in their village for night as well as passing on advice to help the continue upriver. By September 14th, Fawcett had completed his mapping after arriving at a tiny brook which he deduced to be the source of the Heath River and to this day, the river marks the official border between Bolivia and Peru. Image Date: 08/28/2000
Impenetrable jungle left Fawcett unable to to establish an easy return route after the goal of the expedition was achieved and so an the group followed the Rio Tambotapa to a tiny rainforest outpost named Astillero. Today, the river flows through Tambotapa National Reserve, one of the most biodiverse regions in the entire of South America and home to colourful bird species including macaws and parrots. Fawcett finally arrived back in La Paz on October 25th and for the next four years continued mapping the borders areas of Amazonian Bolivia, Brazil and Peru. When the political powderkeg exploded in Europe in the summer of 1914, the fuse was lit for the outbreak of World War I and Fawcett returned to England to rejoin the army. Image Date: 11/11/1993
War changes people and after answering his country's call and experiencing first hand the apocalyptic horror of the Western Front during World War I, Fawcett returned to South America a changed man on a quest for something which represented the better side of human nature. In 1920, Fawcett stumbled across a document at Rio de Janeiro's National Library. The manuscript he came across was in fact 'Manuscrito 512', written in the eighteenth century by a Portuguese explorer named João da Silva Guimarães, who claimed to have discovered the ruins of an ancient city in the Amazon which contained arches, statues, a temple with indecipherable hieroglyphics and gold, silver and riches beyond imagination.
The manuscript spoke of a mountain studded with diamonds which stood above a great city with streets, temples and roads of gold, arches inscribed with unknown glyphs and - curiously - artifacts including crystal skulls. The document also outlined a mysterious gold coin of unknown origin found by Guimarães and which featured a young man kneeling on one side and more unknown hieroglyphs on the reverse side. The description invoked images of the legendary El Dorado and this, coupled with his own previous theory of a pre-Inca civilisation still existing in the heart of South America, convinced Fawcett of both his destiny and his 'great quest' to find this lost city.
In 1920, Fawcett made his first attempt to find 'Z', only to contract tropical fever and abandon the expedition after shooting his pack animal at a jungle clearing near the Xingu River in the Brazilian Amazon which would become known as 'Dead Horse Camp'. In 1925 he departed once again for Corumbá, this time accompanied by his son, Jack Fawcett, and a family friend named Raleigh Rimell. It took three years to secure funding for the operation and having left Corumbá on February 25th, 1925, Fawcett, his son Jack and Rimell travelled 690 miles northwest to the city of Cuiabá, at the exact geographical centre of South America and often considered the southern gateway to the Amazon rainforest. Image Date: 08/03/2009
Knowing the danger which lay ahead of them in the depths of the Amazon, Fawcett instructed that no rescue party was to be sent if contact was lost. Braving ticks, gnats, mosquitoes, malaria, yellow fever and the piranha-infested waters of the Rio Xingu, the three arrived at Dead Horse Camp, the spot where the expedition of 1920 had come to a standstill. Fawcett sent their two Brazilian mule handlers, Simão and Gardenia, back to Cuiabá along with a telegram to his wife informing her of the expedition so far. Image Date: 06/15/2012
The departure of the Brazilian mule handlers from Dead Horse Camp was the last time that Fawcett, his son and Raleigh Rimmel were ever seen. The Kalapalo people of the Upper Xingu are said to be the last to have come into contact with Fawcett before he vanished and an oral legend passed down by the tribe details how three unidentified explorers - assumed to have been Fawcett, his son and Rimell - built campfires near Kalapalo settlements. The Kalapalo also maintain that after five days, the campfires had burnt out and after continuing east, into an area controlled by an infamously vicious tribe, that the trio most likely fell victim to a jungle ambush and possibly cannibalism. Image Credit: Eduardo Giacomazzi (Flickr) Image Date: 02/07/2008
"Beyond the Xingu, we shall take to the forest to a point midway between that river and the Araguaya", Fawcett told his wife in his final telegram, "we shall then head for Santa Maria do Araguaya and cross by an existing trail to the Rio Tocantins at Porto Nacional". The area of the Brazilian Amazon which Fawcett mentioned in his telegram, between the Xingu, Araguaya and Toncantins rivers, spans tens of thousands of square miles of nothing but dense jungle and stories soon began to spread that the trio were living in the jungle, that they were being held prisoner or had been shot with poison arrows by native tribes or, most sensationally, that Fawcett himself was now the chief of a tribe of cannibals somewhere along the Xingu River. Image Date: 08/28/2011
Two years passed without word from Fawcett and in 1928 the Royal Geographical Society dispatched a rescue team to the Amazon lead by explorer George Miller Dyott. Still, no trace of Fawcett or his two companions was found and in 1951, Brazilian explorer and activist Orlando Villas-Bôas claimed to have solved the mystery after he returned from an expedition on behalf of the Brazilian government to find any remaining trace of Fawcett. Villas-Bôas showed what he believed to be Fawcett's skull to newspaper reporters in the town of Nova Xavantina. A subsequent report by the Royal Anthropological Institute found that the skull was not that of Fawcett and the mystery remained unsolved.
In the decades since his disappearance, theories on Fawcett have included wild, outlandish and even galactic explanations, such as the explorer being abducted by UFOs. "The city he was looking for existed, but in another dimension.", suggested one Brazilan expert on the subject, "they found a dimensional gate, penetrated through it and found a civilization similar to the Aztecs". Over one hundred expeditions have headed into the Amazon to establish once and for all what happened to Percy Fawcett and some of these also resulted in disappearance and even death. Theories about a real-life 'Z' have also abounded, with experts now believing that the explorer was onto something after all and that Kuhikugi, a modern day archaeological site at the headwaters of the Xingu River in the jungle of Mato Grosso, could in fact have been Fawcett's 'Lost City of Z'. Image Credit: Pedro Biondi (Wikimedia Commons) Image Date: 08/05/2007