He charted the wilderness of South
America, but then disappeared without a trace.
"Do you know anything about
Bolivia?" asked the President of the Royal Geographical Society
to Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett early in 1906. The Colonel
replied that he didn't and the President went on to explain
the tremendous economic potential of South America and also
the complete lack of reliable maps. "Look at this area!" he
said, pushing a chart in front of Fawcett, "It's full of blank
spaces because so little is known of it."
The President went on to
explain that the lack of well-defined borders in South America
was leading to tension in that region. Much of the area was
'rubber country' where vast forests of rubber trees could be
tapped to provide the world's need for rubber and generate revenue
for countries like Bolivia and Brazil. The lack of defined borders
could lead to war. An expedition to mark the borders could not
be led by either a Bolivian or a Brazilian. Only a neutral third
party could be trusted with the job and the Royal Geographical
Society had been asked to act as a referee.
Now the President of the
Society wanted to know if Fawcett was interested in the position.
It would be a dangerous job. Disease was rampant there. Some
of the native tribes had a reputation for savagery. Without
hesitation, though, the Colonel took the job.
Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett
was born in 1867 in Devon, England. At the age of nineteen he
was given a commission in the Royal Artillery. He served in
Ceylon for several years where he met and married his wife.
Later he performed secret service work in North Africa. Fawcett
found himself bored with Army life and learned the art of surveying,
hoping to land a more interesting job. Then in 1906 came the
offer from the Society: His ticket to adventure.
The Colonel arrived in La
Plaz, Bolivia, in June of 1906 ready to start his expedition.
After a disagreement with the government over expenses ,Fawcett
started into the heart of the continent to begin the boundary
survey. He quickly found that just getting to the area where
he was to be working would be an ordeal in itself. The trail
lead up a precipitous path to a pass in the mountains at 17,000
feet. It took him and his companions two hours to go four miles
and climb 6,000 feet. The pack mules would struggle up the path
30 feet at a time, then stop, gasping for breath in the thin
air. The party was afraid that if they overworked the animals,
they would die.
Arriving at the town of
Cobija, Fawcett quickly got a taste of how difficult life was
in the interior of South America. Disease was common and he
was told that the death rate in the town was nearly fifty percent
a year. Cut off from the outside world, many depressed inhabitants
sought comfort by abusing alcohol. One night one of the local
army officers became enraged by his subordinate's refusal to
join him in a card game. Drunk, the officer drew his sword and
went after the man, injuring him. When another soldier tried
to assist the injured man the officer turned on him, chasing
him around a hut. The fellow sought refuge in Fawcett's room,
but the officer followed him inside.
"Where is that dirty so-and-so?"
the officer roared. "Where have you hidden him?"
When Fawcett reprimanded
the officer for chasing unarmed men with his sword, the officer
cursed at the Colonel and drew his revolver. Fawcett grabbed
the man's wrist and struggled with him, finally forcing the
gun from his hand.
was a lawless frontier is those days, much like the American
West had been a half century before. Fawcett, in fact, met an
American gunslinger named Harvey. The red-bearded, silent man
was quick with his revolver and sure with his aim. Harvey, a
bandit, had found the United States too civilized and dodged
the Texas Rangers, working his way down through Mexico into
South America. He had held up a mining company in a neighboring
country, and there was a large reward on his head. Boliva had
no extradition law, however, and he was safe in this new frontier.
Colonel Fawcett was appalled
by treatment of the native South American Indians. Although
slavery was illegal, rubber plantation owners would often organize
trips into the jungle for the purpose of capturing slaves to
be used as rubber collectors. Some of the tribes, in return,
became quite hostile toward those of European decent. Fawcett
believed that if you treated the Indians with kindness and understanding,
you would receive kindness in return. During a trip up the Heath
River to find its source in 1910, Fawcett had a unique opportunity
to test his theory.
He and his group had been
warned off traveling up the Heath because the tribes along it
had a reputation for unrestrained savagery. "To venture up into
the midst of them is sheer madness," exclaimed an army major.
Fawcett went anyway.
After a week paddling up
the river, the party rounded a bend and ran straight into an
Indian encampment perched on a sandbar. The natives were as
surprised as the expedition. "Dogs barked, men shouted, women
screamed and reached for their children" Fawcett recalled. The
natives hid in the trees while the group grounded their canoes
on the sandbar. Arrows whizzed by the men or fell around them.
Fawcett tried some peace overtures using native words he had
learned, but the message didn't seem to be getting through.
Then he had an idea. One of the group was seated just beyond
arrow range and was told to play his accordion. The man sang
"A Bicycle Made for Two", "Suwannee River", "Onward Christian
Soldiers" and other tunes. Finally Fawcett noticed the lyrics
had changed to "They've-all-stopped-shooting-at-us." Sure enough,
the singer was right. Fawcett approached the natives and greeted
them. Gifts were exchanged as a sign of friendship.
Not all contacts with the
Indians ended so well. During a trip down the Chocolatal River,
the pilot of the boat Fawcett was traveling on went off to inspect
a nearby road. When he didn't come back Fawcett found him dead
with 42 arrows in his body.
People were only one of
the dangers of the jungle. The animal kingdom was another. One
night while camped near the Yalu River ,the Colonel was climbing
into his sleeping bag when he felt something "hairy and revolting"
scuttle up his arm and over his neck. It was a gigantic apazauca
spider. It clung to his hand fiercely while Fawcett tried to
shake it off. The spider finally dropped to the ground and walked
away without attacking. The animal's bite is poisonous and sometimes
Vampire bats were also a
nuisance in some remote areas. At night these creatures would
come to bite and lap up blood from sleepers. Fawcett reported
that though they slept under mosquito nets, any portion of bodies
touching the net or protruding beyond it would be attacked.
In the morning they would find their hammocks saturated with
Near Potrero, wild bulls
became a problem for one of Fawcett's expeditions. The group
was traveling in an ox cart which gave them some protection.
Even so, the group was attacked by three bulls one day. They
managed to drive them off only after killing one animal and
riddling the other two with bullets. On that same trip Fawcett
was fifty yards behind the rest of the group when a big red
bull appeared between him and the cart. The Colonel wasn't carrying
a rifle and there were no trees or other places to seek refuge.
Fawcett was able to get past the animal, as it snorted, lashed
its tail and tore up the ground, by moving slowly while fixing
it with a a hopefully hypnotic stare.
were also a constant threat too. Once while traveling with a
Texan named Ross, they were attacked by a seven-foot long "Bushmaster,"
a deadly poisonous snake. The men leapt out of the way as the
Texan pulled his revolver, putting two slugs through the ugly
head of the creature. On close examination Ross realized the
snake had bitten him, but the fangs had sunk into his tobacco
pouch. His skin showed two dents where the fangs had pressed
against him, but never broke through. His skin was wet with
venom. The pouch had saved his life.
Fawcett often found it necessary
to swim rivers in order to get a rope across for hauling equipment
over. The Colonel had to be very careful there were no cuts
or open sores on his body that might attract piranha fish. Swarms
of these fish have been known to strip the flesh off a man in
minutes if he was unlucky enough to fall into the water were
they where congregated. One of Fawcett's companions lost two
fingers to them while washing his blood stained hands in the
Though not poisonous, the
giant anaconda is probably the most
feared snake in the jungle. Fawcett had a run-in with one not
long after he arrived in South America. In his diary he noted:
"We were drifting easily along the sluggish current not far
below the confluence of the Rio Negro when almost under the
bow of the igarit'e [boat] there appeared a triangular head
and several feet of undulating body. It was a giant anaconda.
I sprang for my rifle as the creature began to make its way
up the bank, and hardly waiting to aim, smashed a .44 soft-nosed
bullet into its spine, ten feet below the wicked head."
The boat stopped so that
the Colonel could examine the body. Despite being fatally wounded,
"shivers ran up and down the body like puffs of wind on a mountain
tarn." Though they had no measuring device along with them,
Fawcett estimated the creature was sixty-two feet in length
and 12-inches in diameter.
Colonel Fawcett probably
came closest to death during his trips not from human or animal
agents but from the geography of the land itself. While traveling
down the uncharted Madidi River by raft, his expedition encountered
a series of dangerous rapids. With each the speed of the rafts
increased until they were rushing down the river uncontrolled.
Finally, the river widened and the velocity slowed.
The crews had just given
a sigh of relief when they rounded a steep bluff and the roar
of a waterfall filled their ears. One of the rafts was able
to make it to shore, but Fawcett's was caught in the current.
With the water too deep to use a pole to snag the bottom and
turn away, the raft shot over the drop.
Fawcett later recounted,
"...the raft seemed to poise there for an instant before it
fell from under us. Turning over two or three times as it shot
through the air, the balsa crashed down into the black depths."
The group survived, but
lost much of their equipment. "Looking back we saw what we had
come through. The fall was about twenty feet high, and where
river dropped the canyon narrowed to a mere ten feet across;
through this bottleneck the huge volume of water gushed with
terrific force, thundering down into the a welter of brown foam
and black-topped rocks. It seemed incredible that we could have
survived that maelstrom!"
During a trip to map the
Rio Verde River and discover its source, Fawcett came face to
face with starvation. The expedition started well: The land
around the mouth of the river had plenty of game and the group
took what they estimated to be three weeks worth of food with
them. Then the expedition was forced to abandon their boats
because of rapids, and had to continue up the riverbank on foot.
Because the expedition needed
to minimize the weight they would carry, Fawcett decided to
bury some of his equipment and 60 gold sovereigns (worth about
$300) in metal cases near where they landed. Fawcett was amazed
when years later stories came to him about a "Verde Treasure"
that had been left behind by his expedition. The story had been
retold and embellished so many times that the size of the treasure
had been magnified to 60,000 gold sovereigns. The Colonel was
particularly amused because the story never mentioned the fact
the he had retrieved the cases after the trip was over. He was
sure the story would attract future would-be treasure hunters.
they walked upriver the water, which had been clean, turned
bitter and no fish could be found. Then game also seemed to
disappear. Soon the supplies they carried were exhausted. For
ten more days the group pressed on, despite only having consumed
some bad honey and a few bird eggs. Finally, the found the source
of the river and charted it (left).
Freed from the responsibility
of charting the river, Fawcett tried to figure out the quickest
route to somewhere they could get food. Deciding the best chance
was to go over the Ricardo Franco Hills, the group tried to
work their way up canyons that would lead them to the top.
The hills were flat-topped
and mysterious. They looked like giant tables and their forested
tops were completely cut off from the jungle below. When Fawcett
later told Conan Doyle about these hills,
the writer pictured the isolated tops populated with surviving
dinosaurs. Doyle used these hills as the location for his famous
novel The Lost World.
The expedition quickly found
that crossing the hills was futile, and returning the way they
had come impossible. Colonel Fawcett instead decided to follow
the direction the streams in the region were flowing, hoping
that it would get them out. Days passed and no food. One of
the expedition's Indian assistants lay down to die, and only
the prodding of Fawcett's hunting knife in his ribs got him
After twenty days without
food, the group was at its limit. Fawcett prayed audibly for
relief. Then fifteen minutes later a deer appeared 300 yards
away. Fawcett unslung his gun. The target was too far away and
his hands were shaking, but,in a miracle the Colonel could only
attribute to a higher power, the bullet found its mark, killing
the deer instantly.
The group consumed every
part of the deer: skin, fur and all. The expedition's fortune
had turned and within six days they were back in a town with
the Verde trip only a bad memory.
For the first three years
Fawcett had worked for the Boundary Commission charting the
region. When that job came to an end, Fawcett retired from the
military and continued exploring on his own, financing the trips
with help from newspapers and other businesses. After returning
to England to serve in World War I, the Colonel was again drawn
back to the South American jungle. As time went on, he became
more and more interested in the archaeology of the region. In
total he made seven expeditions into wilderness between 1906
The Final Expedition
Finding reliable companions
for his trips had always been a problem, but by 1925 his oldest
son, Jack, had reached an age where he could join his father
in the field.
Fawcett, by examining records
and sifting through old stories, had become convinced that there
was a large, ancient city concealed in the wilds of Brazil.
Fawcett called this city "Z" and planned an expedition that
consisted of himself, his son, Jack, and a friend of Jack's.
Fawcett had always preferred small expeditions that could live
off the land, thinking that a small group would look less like
an invasion to the Indians and therefore be less likely to be
attacked. The route was carefully planned.
Fawcett, concerned with
others, left word that should they not return, a rescue expedition
was not to be mounted. He felt that it would be too dangerous.
On May 29th, 1925, a message
was sent from Fawcett to his wife, indicating that they were
ready to enter unexplored territory. The three were sending
back the assistants that had helped them to this point and were
ready to go on by themselves. Fawcett told his wife "You need
have no fear of failure..." It was the last anyone ever heard
of the expedition. They disappeared into the jungle never to
be seen again.
Despite Fawcett's wishes,
several rescue expeditions tried to find him, but without success.
Occasionally there were intriguing reports that he'd been seen,
but none of these were ever confirmed.
So what happened to Colonel
Fawcett? What danger that he had eluded in the past had gotten
him this time? Hostile Indians? A giant anaconda? Piranhas?
Disease? Starvation? Or was it, as one tale told, he'd lost
his memory and lived out the rest of his life as a chief among
a tribe of cannibals?
In 1996 an expedition was
put together by René Delmotte and James Lynch look for traces
of Fawcett. It didn't get far. Indians stopped the group, threatened
their lives, and detained them for some days. They were finally
released, but $30,000 worth of equipment was confiscated. Even
seventy years after his disappearance, it seems the jungle is
still too dangerous a place for anyone to follow in Colonel
Percy Fawcett's footsteps.
to Virtual Exploration Society
Lee Krystek 1998. All Rights Reserved.