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Raleigh, who was the son of a British naval surgeon, was equally tall and robust, but with a more playful nature. The area was infested with ticks, and Raleigh was bitten by one on his foot, which swelled so much that he had to ride with his shoe off. To help him recuperate, Fawcett stopped for five days at a cattle-breeding ranch on the edge of the frontier—a place where Brazilian laws were considered irrelevant. He carefully unwrapped it, revealing a ten-inch stone idol with almond-shaped eyes and hieroglyphics carved on its chest. Occasionally, the dense forest opened up, revealing the blinding sun and blue-tinged mountains in the distance.
The trail became harder, and the men descended steep, mud-slicked gorges and crossed rock-strewn rapids, where they had to check their skin for traces of blood, which might attract piranhas. There are only about of them.
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The Indians carried seven-foot-long bows with six-foot arrows. Jack and Raleigh hurried out with the camera and took photographs of the men. Later, the three explorers went to the hut where the Indians were staying. Fawcett carried a ukulele and Jack carried a piccolo, and they performed a concert around a fire.
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On May 19th, a fresh, cool day, Jack woke up even more excited—it was his twenty-second birthday. The three explorers made their final preparations. They headed straight for terra incognita. Before them there were no clear paths, and almost no light filtering through the hundred-and-fifty-foot trees. Branches snapped back at them; creepers entangled their legs. The heat was oppressive, and they were encircled by swarms of piums—stinging insects that left splotches of blood on their skin. There were vampire bats and scorpions and anacondas.
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Even Fawcett, at times, felt his age. The jungle would soon be so thick that the explorers could proceed only by carrying equipment on their backs. Raleigh, unwilling to leave his best friend, said that he was fine, and Fawcett relented. Fawcett folded up various letters and a dispatch and gave them to the Brazilian guides. The explorers said their farewells to the Brazilians, then headed deeper into the jungle. We were heading north—that much I knew—with a driver whom we had hired when we rented the pickup. Pinage had told me that we would need a powerful truck and a professional driver if we were to have any chance of completing our journey, especially in the rainy season.
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When I first explained my mission to our driver, he asked me when the British colonel had disappeared. In Brazil, the last names of Indians are typically the same as that of their tribe. We have no choice. Upon leaving the city, we entered the central plains of Brazil, which mark the transition from dry forest to rain forest. After a while, a plateau came into view; Martian red in color, it spanned more than two thousand square miles, an endless tabletop that reached into the clouds. We left the truck and climbed a steep, rocky slope.
The ground was moist from a recent rainstorm, and we used our hands and knees to ascend. Lightning streaked the sky and a thin mist descended, making the ground more slippery. Rocks gave way under our feet, clapping as they hit the ground, fifty yards below. Jutting into the sky was a cracked stone column. I blinked in the rain—in fact, there was not just one but several columns in a row, as in a Greek ruin.
There was also a large archway, both sides of it still intact, and behind it was a dazzlingly large tower. They looked like what the bandeirante had described in Ever since the first Europeans arrived in the New World, explorers had been seduced by their own visions of Z. Twelve years later, Francisco Pizarro discovered and conquered the equally wealthy Incan empire, and the search for golden cities became a European obsession. His theory that the Amazon had once contained a prosperous city was not irrational, he maintained. It was grounded in science.
We eventually turned onto BR, one of the most treacherous roads in South America.
Yet almost all the asphalt from its two lanes had been washed away during the rainy season, leaving behind a combination of ditches and puddle-filled gullies. Our driver sometimes chose to ignore the road altogether and steer along the rocky banks and fields, where herds of cattle occasionally appeared, parting in our midst.
As we passed the Manso River, where Fawcett had got lost and where Raleigh was bitten by the tick, I kept looking out the window, expecting to see the first signs of a fearsome jungle.
Instead, the terrain looked like Nebraska—perpetual plains that faded into the horizon. A moment later, he pointed to a truck heading in the opposite direction, carrying sixty-foot logs.
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Between August, , and August, , ten thousand square miles of the Amazon, an area the size of Massachusetts, were cleared away—and, in the past year, at least another five thousand square miles were lost. In letters, Fawcett had said that the ranch was known as Rio Novo, and that name was marked on several current maps. We crossed a wobbly, wooden-slatted bridge over a river. The bridge creaked under the weight of the truck, and we looked down fifty feet at the torrent of water.
He also said something about some swallows he saw rise from the forest in the east, which he thought had to be some kind of sign from Fawcett. For the first time, we entered a swath of dense forest. Though there was no farm in sight, we came across a mud hut with a thatched roof. Inside was an old Indian sitting on a tree stump with a wooden cane in his hand. He was barefoot, and wore dusty slacks without a shirt. Behind him, hanging on the wall, was the skin of a jaguar and a picture of the Virgin Mary.
He spat at the name and waved his cane toward the door. Another Indian, who was younger, appeared and said that he would show us the way. We got back in the car and drove down an overgrown path, the branches clapping against the windshield. Several times, he paused, studied the tops of the trees, and took a few paces east or west.
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Finally, he stopped. Our guide lifted his machete over his head and slammed it into the ground. It hit something hard. He was a hundred feet away, standing by a crumbling brick wall nestled in vines. The farm had been consumed by jungle in just a few decades, and I wondered how actual ancient ruins could possibly survive in such a hostile environment.
For the first time, I had some sense of how it might be possible for the remnants of a civilization simply to disappear.
When we returned to the road, the sun had begun to set. We had lost track of the time in our excitement. As we drove through the night, lightning flashed in the distance, illuminating the emptiness around us. Taukane eventually nodded off, and Pinage and I became engaged in what had become our favorite diversion—trying to imagine what had happened to Fawcett and his party after they left Dead Horse Camp.
At the time, many Brazilians had assumed that Fawcett was searching for gold. The Victorian era, however, while still often consumed with exploiting distant lands, had also ushered in the age of scientific exploration—the pursuit not of gold but of knowledge. And though Fawcett no doubt wanted to achieve a certain acclaim, he also seemed to be after something more intangible.
We both slept for a time in the car. It took us two days. We went to the largest village, where several dozen one-story houses were organized in rows around a square, dusty plaza. Most of the houses were made of clay and bamboo and had thatched roofs, though some of the newer ones had concrete walls and tin roofs that clinked in the rain. The village, while still unmistakably poor, now had a well, a tractor, satellite dishes, and electricity. When we arrived, nearly all the men, young and old, were away hunting, in preparation for a ritual to celebrate the corn harvest.
But Taukane said that there was someone we had to meet. He took us to a house abutting the plaza, near a row of fragrant mango trees. We entered a small room with a single electric light bulb hanging overhead and several wooden benches along the walls.