The beginning of the 20th Century was a different era when it came to exploration. There were still a lot of blank spaces on the map, many of the world’s top peaks remained unclimbed, and neither Pole had been reached yet. It was a time when explorers and adventurers were household names and their exploits made front page news. British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett was one of those men, and David Grann’s bestselling book The Lost City of Z tells his story, and how Fawcett’s legend continues to inspire exploration today.
Born in 1867 in England, Fawcett would grow up to become one of the British Empire’s top explorers. He joined the military at a young age, and was posted abroad, where he was able to feed his natural curiosity about the world, but as his tour began to come to a close, the decidedly middle class Fawcett was unsure of what he wanted to for a living when he was discharged. He did know that he loved a good adventure, and he didn’t want to live a life that lacked in excitement. So, he went to the Royal Geographical Society where he was trained to become an explorer. At the RGS, Fawcett learned how to navigate, administer first aid, survive in the wild, and more, and he intended to put those skills to use filling in those empty spaces on the map. But the military had other ideas for him, and for a time, his skills were put to use in the world of espionage.
Eventually, however, Fawcett got his wish, and in 1906 he was sent off to South America, where he would under take his first expedition into the Amazon Jungle, a place he would get to know all too well in the years ahead. His first mission was to explore and map the border between Brazil and Bolivia, and he spent months in the field doing just that. When he returned to civilization, he told tales of giant snakes and strange creatures that inhabited the jungle, and his stories helped to build his reputation and captured the imagination of people around the globe.
Over the next 19 years, Fawcett would return to the Amazon on six more occasions, and each time his legend grew. The man seemed indefatigable, even as his own men went down for the count, he kept pressing on, exploring new territory. He passed through jungle rife with malaria and yellow fever, and yet he seemed to never get sick, and he had an uncanny knack for being able to befriend tribes living in the Amazon. Fawcett’s stories thrilled the world, and he too even began to believe that he was immune to all the deadly challenges that the jungle threw at him.
With all that time spent in the Amazon, the explorer began to believe that there was a lost civilization that remained hidden deep inside the “Green Hell”. Much like Spanish Conquistadors searching for El Dorado, Fawcett became obsessed with the thought of looking for a great lost city that he dubbed “Z” that he believed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, would be found at the heart of the Amazon. To that end, Fawcett began organizing an expedition to search for Z, but when he had difficulty raising money to fund the search, he ended up putting together a small team that consisted of himself, his son Jack, and Jack’s best friend.
In 1925 the three men set off into the Amazon, promising to return with evidence of Z. For a time, they sent back dispatches that were sent off to the world, and syndicated in newspapers across the globe. Fawcett’s admirers watched with bated breath, waiting for him to reveal his amazing discovery. After months in the jungle, Fawcett sent workd back that they would be out of touch for weeks at a minimum, and more likely several months. With the dispatch released, he set off, along with his two young companions, into the deepest depths of the Amazon, and he was never heard from again.
It took a couple of years before the general public finally believed that Fawcett may have died. He was one of the most experienced Amazon explorers in the wold, and his exploits were well known, so for months people believed that he was alive, somewhere in the jungle, perhaps he was even living in Z. But eventually, the truth began to set in, and the world came to realize that Fawcett either wouldn’t or couldn’t return. Search parties and rescue attempts were organized, and they continued for years, as the myth of Fawcett drove explorers, both professional and armchair alike, to go looking for the missing man and his lost city.
The Lost City of Z is not only a chronicle of Fawcett’s life, but also takes a look at some of the more spectacular attempts to follow in his footsteps, some of which resulted in other people disappearing in the jungle as well or returning home empty handed, and lucky to be alive. The book also happens to be about the author’s obsession with the British explorer too. In writing the book, Grann aslo felt compelled to go looking for Fawcett, and he shares his own experiences in the Amazon as a guy who seems much more comfortable in Manhattan than he does hiking in the rainforest.
The book is a compelling read to say the least. I personally knew very little about Fawcett before opening the cover to Z, and yet I was enthralled with his story and his determination to fill in those empty spaces on the map. I was also fascinated with the way he inspired others to go looking for him, sometimes at great consequence. Grann is wonderful at telling this multithreaded story, while sprinkling in his process for researching the story, which eventually led to him coming face to face with the legend of the Lost City itself.
With summer upon us, why not kick it off with a good adventure story that also happens to be true. I definitely recommend picking up The Lost City of Z to fill just those needs. It is a great story of a by gone era when adventurers were still celebrated and acknowedged for their valor, and Percy Harrison Fawcett was considered amongst the best of them. The story of his life and mysterious disappearance, remains an amazing story more than 85 years after he stepped into the Amazon and legend.
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