Peter Fleming was a British writer. If his surname sounds familiar, it’s with good reason. His kid brother was none other than Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series. Before starting this transcription, I looked the elder Fleming up on WikiPedia, and found (to my delighted surprise) that he was a more prolific author than I thought. He had written two books that I was aware of, but it appears that he wrote nearly two dozen---ranging from travelogues to fiction and novels to essays. One collection of his essays is titled My Aunt’s Rhinoceros; another book, a comedy, published in 1940 is titled The Flying Visit. It’s about an unintentional trip to England....by Adolf Hitler.
My introduction to this man’s delightful writings was through his first book, Brazilian Adventure, published in 1934. And I had it on excellent authority that I would enjoy the book. Who was that recommended him to me? None other than my favorite author, Christopher Morley. I found the volume in a used book store in Easthampton, MA; it contained a little pamphlet citing what Morley had written for the Book of the Month Club.
Brazilian Adventure is Fleming’s description of an epic journey taken by himself and several others to determine what had become of Colonel Percy Fawcett. Forgotten today, Fawcett was the epitome of the “Great White Explorer.” In South America he had come across an account of an ancient city deep in the Matto Grosso of Brazil. The Matto Grosso is probably the last part of our planet to be explored by white men, and that only in the last 40 years or so. In 1925, Fawcett mounted an expedition to find the lost city, taking with him his 20+ year old son Jack and a Raleigh Rimell of the same age. He figured they would be at least two years in the attempt. They were never seen or heard from again.
Despite Fawcett’s insistence that no search party be sent after him (he was certain that if he couldn’t survive in the Brazilian jungle, no one else could either), interest in mounting one began in 1927. Such interest waxed and waned several times, but no expedition was actually organized until Fleming’s, in the early 1930’s.
What follows is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Part 2, titled At The Crossroads. It describes the sundering of the expedition when their guide, a Major Pingle, finally confesses that he had signed the contract to lead their expedition while having no intention of taking them to look for Colonel Fawcett. In fact, he was hoping they would be overcome with fatigue and privation, and be willing to throw in the towel early......
Between us and the Great Unknown stood the virtually omnipotent figure of Major Pingle, now a foreshortened and brooding manikin among the familiar litter of the camp on the praia below us.
The situation, which had come rapidly to head in the last three days, was as follows:
Major Pingle had come out into the open. He did not want to go up the Tapirape. He did not want---he never had wanted---to look for Fawcett. The root of the trouble had been the deplorably incomplete liaison between our headquarters in London and his own in Brazil. Not until a few weeks before our arrival had he been given to understand that we purported to be a serious expedition bent on clearing up the Fawcett mystery, and not a casual shooting trip. His first impulse on learning this had been to wash his hands of the whole business; but his good nature, his fatal good nature, had prevailed, and when we all arrived---as keen (to use his own vivid phrase) as mustard---he had not the heart to disappoint us. A kindly man, he had undertaken to do what he could.
He had done it. He had done his very best. But the run of events had been against him; the revolution had bothered him a lot, and that the cooling of our enthusiasm which he had foreseen as the inevitable result of discomfort and privation had not taken place. He now freely admitted that he did not want to go up the Tapirape; and that if in the end we did go up he would see to it---for our own sakes---that the expedition’s search for Fawcett was confined to asking the Tapirape Indians (whose language nobody knew) if they could tell us anything about events which took place seven years ago, 150 miles south-west of their territory. It was obvious that this could produce no useful results; and for his part he would vastly prefer to take the whole expedition straight on down the Araguaya to Para. We should, after all, thus complete an instructive journey through the middle of a vast and little-known country. What more could we want?
He was reminded that we had come out from England in order to make a serious attempt to clear up the mystery surrounding Fawcett’s disappearance: that, more specifically, he had brought us up country from Sao Paulo---and had in fact been paid in advance---to carry out a certain plan of action, drawn up by himself, in which the most important item was a cross-country journey from the headwaters of the Tapirape towards the Kuluene. It was further pointed out that he had authorized for publication in England dispatches committing us, on his authority, to a programme which, now that the time had come to put it into practice, he characterized as futile and impracticable. . . .
Poor Major Pingle! His good nature had landed him in an awkward position. He had bitten off more than he could chew; and if, in my account of subsequent developments, his behavior appears to the reader occasionally odd, the reader must remember that Major Pingle was actuated throughout by (among other things) a strong regard for the personal safety of all members of the expedition, and that the situation in which he found himself was one to the handling of which his character and temperament were singularly ill-adapted.
Epilogue: While the Fleming expedition did not find any hard evidence, they did eventually conclude that Fawcett and his party had most likely been killed by natives. Some of the natives living in the Matto Grosso are among the most violent and dangerous in the world.
But the icing on the cake? While for many years, Fawcett’s lost city was deemed to be apocryphal, it turns out that he may have been right after all; just not in the way he was expecting. In recent years, anthropologists studying the natives of the Matto Grosso discovered the remains of a city that Fawcett might have walked right through without even noticing it.
Like all Europeans, when Fawcett pictured a city, he thought of people building up, erecting towers and temples. But what was discovered was a city especially suited to life in the jungle; rather than build up, they built out, starting with a village of huts surrounded by a palisade of wood. As it expanded, more villages were added, and more and more, until they massed into a city of enclosures, interlinked with paths and bridges. Fruit trees were cultivated and gardens planted. And years later, when the city was abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle, the houses and palisades vanished, leaving only the fruit trees and other more subtle clues behind. An adventurer by trade, Fawcett was looking for stone structures like those he’d seen in Peru, and that can still be seen in Central America and at Machu picchu.
And the Fleming expedition? Half the team continued with the quest to solve the Fawcett mystery, and half sided with Major Pingle. When the rebel explorers got back to where Pingle was waiting for them, they found him in a singularly paranoid state of mind, and the expedition became a race to the city of Para. If Pingle and his loyalists won, he would charge the rebels with Breach of Contract; if the rebels won, Pingle would be so charged. It was just a question of who got to the British authorities first. So who won? To answer that, dear reader, you’ll have to read the book.