Raiders of the Lost City
New Yorker writer David Grann set out into the Amazon to find Percy Fawcett, the explorer who died searching for the fabled kingdom of El Dorado in 1925. Then he got lost himself. A spine-tingling interview.
David Grann is a New Yorker staff writer who, by his own admission, is unadventurous and prone to get lost on the C train. And yet for his new book, The Lost City of Z, Grann marched off into the Amazon jungle to search for a fabled El Dorado. Grann’s muse—and The Lost City of Z’s subject—is Col. Percy Fawcett, a Victorian-era adventure god who felt that there just had to be a city out there in the jungle. A real-life Allan Quatermain, Fawcett would endure anything for his prize: fierce Indians, giant snakes, and companions lost to the most gruesome diseases imaginable. In 1925, he vanished into the Amazon while searching for Z, never to be heard from again. It’s here that Grann picked up his trail. Grann talked to The Daily Beast about becoming a latter-day adventurer.
Did you entertain visions of being the Stanley to Fawcett's Dr. Livingstone?
I never think of myself in those terms. I am not by nature an explorer or an adventurer. As I say in the book I don’t camp, I don’t hike. I hate bugs and I’m phobic of snakes. I’m really the least likely explorer.
But I was swept up in it enough that I ended up going.
“I don’t camp, I don’t hike,” Grann says. “I hate bugs and I’m phobic of snakes. I’m really the least likely explorer.”
One of the great discoveries of the book is that for all the romantic Victorian notions, exploration was an unbelievably miserable business.
One of the most incredible things was finding the diaries of the people who had gone with Fawcett. They are some of the most compelling and disconcerting primary documents you will ever read. There was one naturalist who went with Fawcett who was doing all these studies. But he was slowly driven mad by the bugs and the insects. His diary becomes more and more delirious. It just becomes long listings of the bugs that are eating him and biting him and attacking him.
He was a biologist that studied microscopic organisms. And then these organisms start to take over him and he also starts to go mad. And you're reading his diary and he's like, "They're discussing right now whether to abandon me in the jungle." And what you realize is that exploration back then was almost unfathomable to us today.
They didn’t go in with much in the way of modern convenience.
Fawcett would go basically with a machete and a compass. He was going places that basically no one had been before. He was going to places where there was malaria, yellow fever; they would get elephantitis. They would get weird diseases where the flesh on their faces would slough off. And they were also marching in the areas where, because of the bloody history between the Native Americans and the whites, you were ambushed. If you went there, you almost never came back. Fawcett would take expeditions of just a few men and march into these areas with an almost crazy, divine sense of purpose.
He wrote, "I am in the hands of the gods."
Yes, he had this sense of destiny. He had grown up reading Rider Haggard [King Solomon’s Mines]. He was friends with Conan Doyle. The Lost World was partially based on Fawcett even before he disappeared. His brother even wrote quest novels. … These things filled Fawcett's mind and he saw himself as a mythic, almost Homeric character on these epic, fabled journeys.
A point you make in the book: In the Amazon, it turns out that there is almost nothing for an adventurer to eat.
It's a counterintuitive thing. You think of the rainforest as this incredibly abundant place of fauna and animals and flora. This great, rich wilderness. And yet it is such a biological battlefield in which everything is competing. Where animals have adapted for so long and the trees compete so much for nutrients from the soil that the soil dries out and it’s hard to grow any kind of crops. So if you're not accustomed, and you march into these areas and you haven't figured out how cunning the jungle is, you're basically just good prey.
What was it that led Fawcett to South America in the first place?
He had grown up during the great Victorian age of exploration. This was the beginning of mass print and chronicles and books. Stories of these adventurers, like Livingstone and Speke and Burton, had a cult status in Victorian society. And he had grown up reading all these stories. Kind of worshiping them. And he had always wanted to do it.
He eventually went to train at the Royal Geographical Society, which had helped launch the Victorian age of exploration. It's hard to believe but there was an actual finishing school for explorers. He went there to study how to map. And he read these books on how to document the wilderness and catalog everything, and how to study Native Americans. Anthropology was at its most incipient stage. It would be hard for us to define it as anthropology back then. But there are the first early manuals. So he would read all these things and learn basic techniques of how to survive, which were incredibly primitive. They would basically say, "If you get gangrene, cut off your arm. If you have poison, swallow gunpowder and make yourself throw up."
On your own quest into the Amazon, more than 75 years after Fawcett disappeared, you ended up getting lost yourself. Did you get a sense of the terror these guys must have felt being alone for years at a time in a strange environment?
I had a very good guide, but at one point we did become separated and I did become lost and there was a moment of real panic. The jungle is just so big. Even now, with deforestation, there are these areas that go on for miles and miles.
Fawcett was a hard man to fill with terror, but his men would get lost; his biologist was always falling behind. If you truly get lost and you can’t find your way—unless you’re Fawcett—you’re going to die. There’s really no way around it.
The people who seek out Fawcett’s body to this day are known as “Fawcett freaks.” By one estimate, more than 100 of them have died searching for him. Why does he have such a hold on the imagination?
I think on some level the story does have all these mythic elements, and there’s a reason these stories of quests for lost objects are part of our fables, fairy tales, and myths. It’s almost as if it’s wired into our DNA. These stories— Jason and the Argonauts; Kipling saying, “There’s something lost, go and find it…”—these stories of quests and searches have always been around and have this instinctual appeal, and Fawcett’s story had all these elements. He was almost a mythic character.
One of the things that captivated and compelled was…that it also had great intellectual stakes. The question of whether a city could have really existed in the Amazon that predated Columbus—those questions had a great deal of appeal to me. If such a place was found, it would transform our understanding of what the world really looked like before Columbus—the level and the extent and the breadth of Native American societies, and our understanding of the Amazon as a counterfeit paradise. And also our understanding of the power of cultures to transcend and overcome their conditions. So for me, it had all those elements that drove me at the mystery. You had obsessions and death, but you also had this intellectual narrative, this intellectual quest.
It’s sort of perfect that Fawcett and his companions were never found. There’s a mystery about it that we will never know.
I stayed with some of the tribes that he would stay with. Fawcett was one of the first white men ever to go into these areas—and of course, these whites going in became a powerful moment in their history. So the tribes had oral histories, and some of these histories had great clues. I turned out that Z was much more than a fable. As Paolo, my guide, told me, “Only the forest knows all.”