COLONEL PERCY H. FAWCETT slipped into my life as a jokey footnote in my readings about exploration, but the joke mutated into a virus that colonized more and more of my attention. Casual inquiry turned into research and then tilted into esoterica. I found myself in used bookstores saying, "I'm looking for an obscure book called Mysteries of Ancient South America by Harold T. Wilkins, who also wrote Flying Saucers Uncensored.” The virus eventually evolved into an urge to trace Fawcett's last footsteps in Brazil's Mato Grosso, which is how I ended up on a painted stump in a thatch hut wearing a necklace made from armadillo bones. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Fawcett disappeared 70 years ago among the headwaters of the Xingu River. He is one of the strangest characters in the strange annals of South American exploration.
"He's the bane of my life," said Paula Lucas, exasperated archivist of London's Royal Geographical Society. Fawcett was a Founder's Medalist of the Society and sometimes lectured there about his forays into remote areas of Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. After listening to one such lecture, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reportedly conceived his South American fantasy, The Lost World.
"There are people," continued Lucas, "—and I don't know if you're one of them, but if you are and I insult you, I'm sorry—people interested in him because of the occult. They feel they have been receiving messages from him." Fawcett believed in telepathy and consulted clairvoyants. "And then there are the straight treasure hunters. And quite frankly," she added briskly, "I think they're mad. These people are completely obsessed by him." Suddenly I felt less alone.
A few biographical facts: Fawcett began his career as an officer in Britain's Royal Artillery, serving in Ceylon, Malta, Hong Kong, Ireland, and North Africa. In 1906 he jumped at the chance to survey Bolivia's disputed borders with Peru and Brazil. He undertook several more harrowing expeditions as a surveyor before being distracted by World War I, in which he won the DSO. By 1920 he was back in Brazil, his brain afire with tales told by conquistadors, Indians, and fortune-seekers about a fabled lost civilization hidden in the unexplored heart of Brazil. Hadn't the legend of Eldorado been confirmed by the Inca gold of Cuzco? Hadn't Macchu Pichu remained a secret until 1911?
In Fawcett's imagination, this lost city grew into the mythical Atlantis, where an ancient tribe of civilized Indians—white ones, with blue eyes—lived in a glittering ruined city of quartz, protected from discovery throughout the centuries by hellish terrain and a ring of savage Indians. He supported this castle in the air with an erudite yet preposterous theory based on archeology, mythology, geology, ethnology, sacred texts, historical chronicles, and Indian folklore. He shored it all up with rumors, fantasies, and psychic vibrations.
Fawcett organized several small expeditions to reach the lost city, but all failed, usually because his companions couldn't match his stamina. At the end of one such trip he recorded that he had lost 53 pounds but felt "none the worse for it.” By 1924 he felt his time was running out. He was 57. People were dismissing him as a crank or a treasure-hunter.
"The last few years have been the most wretched and disillusioning in my life," he wrote, “full of anxieties, uncertainties, financial stringency, underhand dealing and outright treachery. My wife and children have been sacrificed for it, and denied many of the benefits they would have enjoyed had I remained in the ordinary walks of life."
He cobbled together one last expedition, financed in part by the North American Newspaper Alliance. In April of 1925, Fawcett, his oldest son Jack, and Jack's friend Raleigh Rimmell set off from Cuiabá, capital of Mato Grosso. As usual, Fawcett carried few provisions. His basic gear included a .22, surveying instruments, gifts for Indians, a secret antique map, and an inordinate amount of misguided courage. He also carried a small statue made of black basalt, given to him by the exotic novelist H. Rider Haggard, which sent electrical shocks up the arms of the susceptible. Fawcett was certain the statue came from the lost city.
By late May the group had reached a place on the Rio Batovi that Fawcett called Dead Horse Camp. He and Jack were still healthy, though tormented by insects. Rimmell was nearly lame with infected bug bites. Their Bakairi Indian guides felt nervous about the proximity of hostile tribes in the Xingu region. Fawcett didn't want the guides to stay anyway. No one, including his wife, knew his exact route or destination. On May 29 he sent the guides back with the message that he was entering unknown territory and expected to be out of touch for a year or two, if he survived. It was his last official dispatch, but his story was just beginning.
I REACHED CUIABÁ 70 years behind Fawcett. The town, a backwater then, was booming now, enriched by soybeans, rice, and beef from vast farms in Mato Grosso. At Cuiabá’s largest tour agency, a large, polite man named Mario Albues was puzzled by my desire to retrace the steps of a long-dead Englishman through an obscure part of Brazil with no accommodations for tourists. He knew no guides familiar with the places I wanted to go. My map showed a few dashes snaking along Fawcett's old route and defined them as "seasonal tracks and trails." I wondered whether these routes were passable. Mario agreed it was an excellent question.
He eventually recommended George Duarte de Oliveira as a guide. A handsome, cheerful 25-year-old accountant, George moonlighted as a guide into the Pantanal. He knew absolutely nothing about the places I wanted to go but could say so in good English. Things were looking up.
Through the director of the Indian Museum at Mato Grosso University, I met Vitor Aurope Peruare, a Bakairi in his mid-40s with thick black hair and a penetrating gaze. Vitor knew about Fawcett and told me about a white Indian named Tripé, whom some believed to be Fawcett's son by an Indian wife.
I knew another version of this story. In 1937 a missionary woman in the Xingu region became convinced that a white Indian boy called Dulipe was Jack Fawcett's child from a liaison with a Kuikuro woman. The Kuikuros also told the missionary that Fawcett's party had continued into the territory of the Kalapalo Indians, who tried to dissuade Fawcett from traveling farther into the Xingu, where he would surely suffer and die. When Fawcett vowed to go on, the missionary explained, the Kalapalos mercifully spared the group from future suffering by killing them immediately. The missionary wanted Fawcett's family to adopt Dulipe, and shipped the unfortunate boy to Cuiabá. But Fawcett's family primly noted that Jack was "absolutely virgin and not in the least interested in women, either civilized or savage." In Cuiabá, Dulipe—or Tripé, as the Bakairis called him—grew into a belligerent drunk. One night in 1959, while passed out in a gutter, he was knifed to death.
Vitor knew two of the villages I wanted to visit in Mato Grosso—he had been born in one and grown up in another. He spoke Bakairi and Portuguese. I figured he would help me in gratitude for a free ride home, a fantasy hatched in my brain's vestigial bwana-sector. Vitor pointed out that the grateful person here should be Señor Gringo Ignorante. He joined the growing payroll as our passport to the Indian lands. Like Fawcett, I would have a Bakairi guide.
The second part of my plans, a trip to the area in Xingu National Park where Fawcett probably died, was possible only by boat or plane and would cost another $2,500-$3,000, impossible on a budget already blown to pieces. Goodbye Xingu.
By this time George had caught Fawcett fever and was enthusiastically entering into the spirit of the quest, but Vitor regarded the whole enterprise sardonically. His cool amusement jarred me. Why was I chasing this obscure ghost? As I had learned more about Fawcett’s indomitable courage, his unusual sympathy for Indians, and his severe privations, the laughable crackpot had changed into a complex, passionate man. Yes, he brimmed with barmy notions, but he risked his life and reputation for them, striding resolutely into the map's blank spaces. He followed his romantic dream with single-minded zeal. That fascinated me.
Vitor knew a woman in Cuiabá, granddaughter of a Bakairi cacique who had known Fawcett. We visited her one night in a cement-block housing project. Vilinta Kaiumalo was 57, with long black hair framing a warm face and sharp eyes. The apartment was lit by two candles stuck on upturned coffee cans. The candle-light flickered over an end table holding several CDs. We sat on a nice sectional couch.
Vilinta seemed eager to talk about Fawcett but first wanted to tell me how her grandfather, the cacique Antonino, guided an earlier expedition commanded by a German, Karl von den Steinen. I understood for the first time how green the past remains for Indians. Steinen explored the Xingu region in two expeditions—in 1884 and 1887.
Vilinta knew about Fawcett from her mother's stories. Fawcett had appeared in the village one day with two pack animals full of presents for the Indians of the Xingu. He stayed at Antonino’s house for one night, then pushed east with two Bakairi guides. They crossed the Rio Batovi and continued overland to the Rio Coliseu, where Fawcett's party got boats from the Kuikuro and Nahukua Indians. The Bakairis returned home.
That was the last the tribe heard of Fawcett until other white men came looking for him. Vilinta's mother had told her that all the Indians in the Xingu had agreed not to talk about Fawcett, for fear of reprisals from whites. But now many years had passed and the people who killed him were dead. The old ones knew the true story, which her mother had passed to her.
"And now," she said, dramatically sweeping her long black hair up into a bun, "I have the courage to tell you what really happened." Such courage, she added with a smile, had a price.
Fawcett had taken a Kuikuro wife, she said—Vilinta's mother had seen the happy couple. But one wife wasn't enough for the 58-year-old satyr. One day he penetrated a special hut in which four Indian maidens were sequestered before marriage and managed to sexually violate all four virgins before they could sound an alarm. The punishment was death. Fawcett's two companions were killed as a precaution.
"I've heard that rumor and it isn't worth much to me," I said. In one version the satyr is Jack. In another Fawcett is living with four Indian wives in a tribe that thinks he's a god. Vilinta wanted $100 for her tale. I gave her about $20—still a rip-off, but she had been entertaining.
"Why are so many people interested in Fawcett?" asked Vitor as we climbed into the car, his curiosity finally aroused. "Was his family rich and powerful?"
"No. His obsession impoverished his family. He fascinates people because his quest for a lost city sparks their sense of mystery, and because his disappearance has never been solved, and because until recently the Xingu itself has been a huge unexplored question mark. Fawcett's story is the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
WE EVENTUALLY ESCAPED Cuiabá in an '88 Volkswagen bus carrying 100 liters of spare gas. We were headed north to a fazenda, or ranch, on the Rio Novo. On his last expedition Fawcett spent a few days there visiting the owner, his friend Hermenegildo Galvão. I wondered if anyone at the ranch still knew about Fawcett.
About 100 miles out of Cuiabá we said goodbye to asphalt and turned east onto a red dirt road. The wet season had ravaged the road, carving serpentine washouts. The rivers began flowing north here, 1200 miles to the Amazon. The dense forests that had covered Mato Grosso ("Thick Wood") in Fawcett's time were now broken up by vast grasslands dotted with cattle.
We soon drove into a herd of the gawky white longhorns that graze everywhere in Mato Grosso. The cowboys rode mules. One mule's head was striped with fresh blood. The cowboy astride it, a dirty roughneck with a big hand-rolled cigarette clenched in his teeth, explained that this mule didn't like riders. Whenever it started bucking he lopped off a piece of its ear with his machete. By the end of the drive, he said with a thin smile, the mule probably wouldn't have any ears left.
The next morning I spoke to the owner of Fazenda Rio Novo, Humberto Simioni Jr., a wealthy industrialist from the Sao Paulo region. He wore sunglasses and a Rolex, and happened to be visiting the 10,000 hectare ranch, which his family had bought 20 years ago from a family named Spinelli. Simioni had never heard of Galvão or Fawcett, nor had his foreman or two of the ranch's oldest workers. I had hoped for much more, and felt a bit absurd.
George and I had dropped Vitor at the nearby Bakairi reserve called Santana, and found him chatting with the village's men in the shade of a mango tree. The women and children watched and listened from the perimeter. I asked the men if they knew of a fazenda nearby once owned by a man named Galvão. "Oh sure," said the cacique, Acelino Aiumare, who wore pegs in his ears. "We were friendly with him. He made a deal with Reginaldo, the cacique at that time, to have a ranch on Bakairi land."
And Fawcett? "On many of his trips he left tobacco and candy at his camps, and Bakairis followed him to get these gifts. He did this to start a relationship so we wouldn't fight with him. Once, we made stick-roads to help him pass over the swamps."
They also knew Spinelli, former owner of the other fazenda on the Rio Novo. Spinelli enslaved the Bakairis and forced them to become rubber-tappers. When they resisted, he brought in skilled tappers and paid them partly with Indian women. Their hatred of Spinelli, like their memories of Galvão and Fawcett, remained vivid.
A man from the village offered to show us the ruins of Galvão's house. We hiked for several kilometers along an old track lined by tall yellow grass. Fawcett had walked here just weeks before his death. It was eerie to find myself in his footsteps, knowing what his expectations had been as he headed east on this path, and how different had been his fate.
The track led toward a towering coconut palm, planted by Galvão, according to our guide. We pushed aside the high grass beneath the palm and uncovered rotten timbers. "This was the main house and there were two smaller ones," said our guide, pointing. Vanished now, except in the Indians' long memories.
WE STARTED for Area Indígena (A.I.) Bakairi, 85 miles east, along the same route taken by Fawcett. The road worsened. We picked our way across deep gullies, sprayed pebbles during controlled slides down steep hills, and sent roostertails above the windows while fishtailing through shallow ponds. During the frequent delays I tried to imagine what this journey had sounded like to Fawcett: hooves clopping, tails swishing at clouds of buzzing insects, the heat stifling any attempt at conversation, the southern lapwing mocking them with its urgent cry, "Quiero! Quiero!"—I want! I want!
We wandered lost in the dark for a couple of hours until Vitor finally recognized the grassy track that led to the village where he grew up, Pakuêra (the government calls it Simões Lopes). The next morning we ate breakfast in the house of Doroty Maeru Taukane, daughter of Vilinta Kaiumalo and great granddaughter of the cacique Antonino. Snow-white loaves of fresh mandioca bread dried in the sun. Meat and corn hung from rafters. Half a dozen men drifted in to talk about Fawcett. Someone handed me two worn black and white photos of Tripé, the white Indian.
Outside of Brazil, Fawcett's disappearance had been international entertainment, but it had changed the Indians' world. After Fawcett vanished, the Kuikuros cut off relations with the Bakairis. Twenty years later two Kuikuros came here and explained why: the Kuikuros were afraid that the Bakairis, who often rubbed shoulders with the white world, would hear incriminating information among the Kuikuros and pass it on to whites, who would seek revenge. This broken relationship didn't mend until the Kuikuros visited Pakuera to dance with the Bakairis again—in 1992, nearly 70 years after Fawcett's disappearance.
"Only the Kuikuros know how and why Fawcett was killed," said one man, "and they still don't talk about it because they're still afraid."
But Odil Apacano, whose father had been one of Fawcett's Bakairi guides, suggested another possibility. "There is a place in Xingu that is encantada—magical. A small river somewhere off the Kuluene runs between two mountains. The river is very narrow and dark, and to get there you must carry a canoe big enough for only one person. You catch so many fish there that you forget everything else. But the water is magic, and when you are half-way down the river, the current changes direction. So when you look up you think you are going back home but you are not, you are going toward something like a cavern, and you never come back again. Maybe Fawcett made a deal with those two Kuikuros,” Odil concluded, “to take him to this place and then tell this story about being killed.”
Other men nodded. They didn’t know the exact location of this magical place, but like Fawcett they all knew the general directions to it and never doubted its existence.
A group of us walked to the village’s main grass-and-thatch malocca. As we sat on painted stumps, Vitor translated my questions into Bakairi for Felix Taéle, an old man now, but a curious 7-year-old when Fawcett passed through the village. Fawcett was very tall, Taéle said, but his son was even taller. (Fawcett was over six feet, Jack a couple of inches more.) They wore tan clothing, like army clothes. They camped near the river, overlooking the men’s bathing place.
I asked why no one had mentioned the story about Fawcett being killed for molesting Indian virgins. Their eyes fell to the dirt floor. “They don’t like to speak of these things,” said Vitor. I took a deep breath and said that I didn’t believe this story, because Fawcett was an austere teetotaler who deplored the mistreatment of Indians and refused to shoot them, even in self-defense. Instead of being insulted, they were intrigued. They asked me to send them copies of these writings. (I did so, wondering if this new information would alter the weave of their stories.)
I presented gifts of bullets and hooks. The cacique, Antonio Kogapy, tied a heavy necklace of armadillo bones around my neck. For the thousandth time I wondered what had happened to Fawcett after leaving these gentle people.
IN LATE 1927, after more than two years of silence from Fawcett, the Royal Geographical Society organized a search party commanded by George M. Dyott. Dyott left Cuiabá in May 1928 with 64 pack bullocks and 26 men, including two radio operators and two cameramen.
Using Bakairi guides, Dyott traced Fawcett to a Kalapalo village on the Kuluene River. The nearby Nahukuas accused the Kalapalos of killing Fawcett; the Kalapalos said the Nahukuas did it. (Fawcett's death also has been attributed to the Suyas, the Chavantes, the Kuikuros, and other tribes, as well as to natural causes such as disease, starvation, drowning, and wild animals.)
The Indians offered to show Dyott the grave, but he was hearing rumors that Fawcett's tomb would be his own. So one night his group hightailed it down the Xingu River, then radioed his exclusive story to a news syndicate. It was an international sensation. Dyott's book about the expedition, Man Hunting in the Jungle (1930), ends with a description of an English clairvoyant "seeing" three explorers being massacred by Indians.
But Dyott hadn't solved the mystery and Fawcett's family refused to believe the explorer was dead. The New York Times reported that his wife "Cheeky" had received several reassuring telepathic messages from her Percy. (Fawcett's family didn't release his entertaining memoirs—Lost Trails, Lost Cities—until the early 1950s, and even then held out the possibility that he had been living in the lost city all those years.)
So many rumors and sightings popped up during the 1930s that the New York Times began using headlines like "Finding of Fawcett is Again Reported." Most were the usual purple stuff about a sad-eyed white man in tattered clothes living in captivity, or sometimes in glorious deification, in some godforsaken village. Stories had Fawcett hanging like dried meat from an Indian’s rafter, or luxuriating among a harem of jungle wives, or operating as a Soviet secret agent in Brazil, or wandering half-mad along wild rivers. The press pounced on every rumor and the public ate it up like exotic pulp.
Expedition after expedition plunged into the Xingu in search of Fawcett. A few were serious, but more were bald grabs for publicity. Many others were hapless or fatal flings at adventure or treasure-hunting. "Miss Elizabeth Steen, a University of California post-graduate student, went into the jungle with an Indian guide and a negro maid," reported the Times. An American actor, Albert de Winton, entered the Xingu alone and disappeared, like many others. Fawcett became a one-man Bermuda triangle. One foolish expedition had a happy outcome: Peter Fleming's saucy travel classic, Brazilian Adventure. All the expeditions failed.
In 1951 Fawcett flared onto the front page of the Times again. A Kalapalo chief said his tribe had killed the explorers after Fawcett insulted them, slapped one of their children, and refused to reward them with gifts for their help.
This story, though not absurd like the yarn about the virgins, still seems unlikely. Fawcett held some of the usual prejudices of white colonials but was enlightened for his time and often condemned the abuse of Indians. He also had a personal policy of never hitting or shooting Indians, believing that eventually even the most hostile would respond to friendliness. Once in eastern Bolivia, as his party was showered with arrows, he instructed a companion to play the accordion while everyone sang music-hall songs. It worked. He was known among Indians for his gift-giving. So the Kalapalo story rings false. It's more likely that the Indians simply wanted the guns and goods carried by these white strangers and saw no reason not to kill for them.
The Kalapalos also revealed what they said was Fawcett's grave, near the Kuluene River. The mystery seemed solved. But when the bones reached England, experts pronounced them far too old and small to belong anyone in Fawcett's party. The Kalapalos probably "confessed" solely to get the reward, dropped by government planes as the bones were on their way to England: "ten pounds of glass beads and a roll of fishing line worth $75."
WE WERE TRAVELING northeast today, to Marechal Rondon, an Indian reserve about 75 miles away on the Rio Batovi. From there Fawcett had headed deeper into the Xingu. People in Pakuêra urged us to take a shortcut that wasn't on the map. Big mistake, though I did learn a new Portuguese verb: atollar, "to get stuck in a mudhole."
Fawcett had expected to run into a fierce tribe near here called the Morcegos, cannibalistic ape-men who lived in the ground and hunted at night. When I mentioned them, Vitor said, “Yes, the bat tribe. Their eyes couldn't stand the light and they only came out at night. They lived in northern Mato Grosso, but I never went there." Ethnologists believe the Morcegos were a myth conjured up by Indian imaginations.
In late afternoon we finally hit the main road, a wider strip of red moonscape. We had hoped to cut out hours of driving by finding a shallow spot to cross the Rio Batovi from the west, but when we reached the river after slogging down a boggy reed track our headlights showed the river running wide, fast, and white. Backtracking in a loop to the east would take another eight or 10 hours and we had to be back in Cuiabá tomorrow night. Time and a river were ending my search for traces of Fawcett, at least momentarily.
FAWCETT'S BONES still turn up occasionally. The 1995 Rough Guide to Brazil claimed that his bones were found in 1985 by the same forensic team that identified the corpse of Josef Mengele, the Nazi. Penguin, the guide's publisher, told me the writer couldn't locate his source for the story. I eventually tracked down a forensic anthropolgist in Norman, Oklahoma named Clyde Collins Snow, who worked on Mengele's remains in 1985. During a break from the putrid Nazi, Snow's colleagues at the Medical Legal Institute in Sao Paulo invited him to look at some old bones in a handsome mahogany box incised with the word Fawcett.
"It was obviously an American Indian skull," says Snow, “so it was a scam. Our Brazilian colleagues had come to the same conclusion. Somebody had gone into the Amazon and some sharp Indians had sold him these bones as Colonel Fawcett's."
A Brazilian group called the Sociedade Eubiose believes that Fawcett found the door to an alternative reality somewhere in the mountains of the Serra do Roncador. They have built a temple near the town of Nova Xavantina and expect to speak to Fawcett once they too discover the magical portal. During storms in the mountains, people still see the explorer's face in the clouds.
Fawcett's bones no doubt lie somewhere in the Xingu. Almost everyone is sure of it. Yet Fawcett never dies because, in a world short of real mysteries, people won't let him. As long as Indians tell stories, or dreamers chase treasure, or spiritualists communicate with other realms, Colonel Percy H. Fawcett will remain at large.
©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.