CANBERRA (Reuters) - A legendary British explorer disappearing in the Amazon with his son while searching for a lost ancient city? For New York writer David Grann it was an irresistible mystery and one crying out to be solved.
The story of Percy Fawcett became an obsession for Grann, a writer at The New Yorker magazine, who was intrigued by the failure to find out what really happened to Fawcett, whose 1925 trip -- and disappearance -- made international headlines.
Grann, 41, stumbled across the story of Fawcett and his search for the “city of Z” when researching writer Arthur Conan Doyle, who had used the Amazonian field reports of his explorer friend as the inspiration for his 1912 book “The Lost World.”
“I’d never heard of him at that point and then found all these amazing headlines about his disappearance, and I got intrigued,” said Grann, whose research led to his new book, “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.”
Fawcett was an experienced explorer who undertook about seven expeditions to South America and is believed by some to have been the inspiration for movie explorer Indiana Jones.
But it was in 1925 that he disappeared while with his eldest son, Jack, in the Amazon jungle in Brazil, looking for a mythical ancient city he named “Z” but others called El Dorado.
He left behind instructions saying that if his expedition did not return, no rescue parties should be sent as it was clearly too dangerous. But over the years, search parties did go looking for him, and about 100 rescuers perished along the way.
Grann said Fawcett’s immediate family closed ranks when it came to providing information about the explorer, who had been very secretive about his expedition, not wanting his rivals to beat him to the lost city he so desperately sought.
But two generations later, Grann found that Fawcett’s granddaughter in England was happy to share his diaries, maps and the letters he sent back while on the expedition, providing new clues about his route and beliefs.
Then Grann, who describes himself as out of shape, with poor eyesight and terrified of snakes and bugs, found himself in the Amazon tracing the steps of Fawcett’s party.
“Fawcett was very secretive at the time, and the coordinates he gave were a blind to throw rivals off the trail. The coordinates he kept in his diary were very different,” said Grann.
“I am the least likely explorer in the history of man ... but I went to the Amazon and found a guide and tried to retrace his steps using his log books and old maps and sketches.”
Grann’s travels led him to the Kalapalos in the Mato Grosso region, who shared with him the tribe’s oral history about Fawcett, one of the first white men they had seen.
“He had stayed with the Kalapalos Indians, who had warned him not to go into an area where there were much more hostile tribes,” said Grann. “They watched his party head off and saw their fires at first at night, but then they stopped.”
Grann said he was confident that Fawcett met his fate at the hands of a hostile tribe, but his beliefs about the existence of an ancient civilization in the jungle were not that far-fetched.
“For most of the 20th century, people thought Fawcett had sacrificed his life and that of his son in pursuit of a mad fantasy, but now there is increasing evidence that there was an ancient civilization in the jungle,” he said.
Grann’s book, out this month in 15 countries, has been optioned by Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company and Paramount Pictures, with Pitt expected to play Fawcett in the movie.
As for Grann, would his adventures continue?
“One trip to the Amazon was enough for me,” he said.
Editing by Miral Fahmy