Searching for Z: Col. Percy Fawcett: A filmmaker goes in search of the original Indiana Jones

23 March 2011

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Chris Doyle/Editor’s Note: Last fall, I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Lost City of Z, by David Grann – a gripping tale of the search for Col. Percy Fawcett, deep in the Amazon – an Indiana Jones-like, real world character. Now, Producer/Director Peter von Puttkamer, who’s behind a new PBS documentary airing, in the U.S., of the “Secrets of the Dead” on April 20, 2011, follows up where the story left off. He reached out to the ATTA and requested we consider alerting our industry to this upcoming program. And, while this story is a bit off-piste for AdventureTravelNews, I thought, sometimes it’s good to grab something warm to drink, sit back, put the planning and operations aside, and take 15 minutes to dig into mysterious side of adventure – this one’s worth the read…and watch.  Thanks, Peter! Intriguing!

Peter von Puttkamer, who holds a B.A in Film & TV from the University of British Columbia, has been directing/producing international award-winning films worldwide over the last 28 years.  His production company formed with his producing partner Sheera von Puttkamer- Gryphon Productions Ltd. has created documentaries for Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, History Channel, BBC, Discovery Channel Europe/International/HD, PBS, TLC,  CBC and more. These programs, directed/ produced by Peter, have won more than 75 international awards. Peter von Puttkamer’s fascination with indigenous peoples, anthropology, archaeology, mythology, music and wildlife has led to unique and imaginative projects around the world. To read his full bio, click here.  The following is his article, "Searching for Z: Col. Percy Fawcett: A filmmaker goes in search of the original Indiana Jones."

Beginning in the early 1900’s, decorated Royal Geographical Society explorer Col. Percy Fawcett ruled supreme as the toughest man in the Amazon.  By the age of 46, he had mapped the borders of Bolivia and western Brazil.  Working in this deadly no man’s land,  he fought disease, dangerous animals and befriended fierce Indian tribes.   A war hero and British spy,  his tales of dinosaur tracks in the jungle, giant snakes, fantastic hidden worlds and lost cities inspired books and Hollywood movies that led to Indiana Jones.  Fawcett motivated Arthur Conan Doyle to write his epic fantasy-adventure tale, the Lost World and was the basis for one of its key characters: Lord Roxton.

In 1925, at the age of 58 Fawcett headed into the jungle with his son Jack and Jack’s childhood friend Raleigh, to find a mysterious Lost City called Z.  He was funded by the Rockefellers, various museums, Britain’s Royal Geographical Society and the North American Newspaper Alliance: which included the Washington Post and LA Times.   It was one of the biggest news stories of the day, and millions followed his exploits.  Then they vanished without a trace.

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Now a new PBS documentary airing on the “Secrets of the Dead” strand on April 20, 2011 sheds new light on his disappearance. “Lost in the Amazon” features modern day explorer Niall McCann searching for clues to  Fawcett’s disappearance: from ancient manuscripts found in Rio De Janeiro’s library to crossing vast distances in Brazil’s Mato Grosso and Amazon to get to the truth.

In the past, there were countless rescue missions to find him, some ill-fated...but despite several “false leads”, no evidence or bodies showed up.  The mystery continued to deepen for decades.  Was he really killed by Indian tribes deep in the Amazon? And is there a factual basis for his Lost City?  The story of his search created movies specifically about the manhunt, but the image of Fawcett, as the intrepid explorer and the lost jungle adventurer inspired movie serials of the 1930’s & 40’s which inspired George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to create Indiana Jones.

As the Producer/Director of the program, I was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery by examining Fawcett’s journals and documents back in England and then head up a modern-day expedition into Brazil’s Mato Grosso state and Amazon in search of the truth.

Interestingly I’ve known about this story all my life.  My mother helped raise Percy Fawcett’s granddaughter Rolette de Montet-Guerin in Switzerland after World War II.  I approached Rolette to help me tell the real story of her grandfather, a tale that until now has not been completely revealed. Our search through the Fawcett archives in England and in the dusty vaults of Brazil’s National Library took us on an incredible journey: combining a modern day film shoot with an epic treasure hunt.

An award winning documentary director, I’ve spent the last 10 years exploring some of the Amazon’s most far-flung places and producing television documentaries about that region’s most compelling mysteries.   Previously working with Animal Planet/Discovery Channel,  I went in pursuit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, in Venezuela to create “The Real Lost World.  My partner Sheera and I took our crew on a 2 week trek across savannah and jungle, finally climbing a 3 billion year old 9000 ft. plateau (Mt Roraima also seen in Pixar’s animated “UP” feature) and into its unexplored cave system. Next working with famed ethno-botanist National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis (ATN Editor’s note: Wade Davis served as a keynote speaker for one of the ATTA’s earliest Adventure Travel World Summit events in Seattle, Wash.), I created “Peyote to LSD: A Psychedelic Odyssey” for the History Channel.  Traveling across the Americas and into the Amazon once more,  I tackled the origins of hallucinogenic drugs and the work of another famous jungle explorer Harvard Professor Richard Evans Schultes.  Now, the Fawcett adventure not only took me on a wild ride through time and an unforgiving land, but revealed ancient jungle cities, just emerging from the jungle.  We were the first to film these fantastic earthworks in the Western Amazon: religious sites scattered across a vast city state 160 sq. miles across.

On this expedition, we brought along a  young modern day British explorer Niall McCann and new clues to solve the Fawcett mystery.  A biologist, Niall has previously rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, crossed Greenlands’ Polar ice cap and lived in the Amazon and Honduran jungles studying exotic animals.

The new clues Niall employed,  included Fawcett’s signet ring which mysteriously surfaced some 60 years later in a shop in Brazil’s lawless Mato Grosso state.  This would be much more than a routine travel film, taking us from native ritual to sacred waterfalls and hidden treasures.  Like Fawcett, we began our South American journey in Rio De Janeiro seeking out a 250 year old manuscript; this was a treasure map written by Portuguese fortune-hunters which revealed a fantastic jungle city in the Amazon: a document which Fawcett would use as a road-map.

Next we followed Fawcett to central Brazil, where he and his son Jack, and his best friend Raleigh would begin.  We incorporated coordinates from Fawcett’s own journals (most of which were coded, to throw rivals off his trail) and modern GPS we tracked Fawcett’s journey across Mato Grosso state- one and a half times the size of Texas.  At an Indian village, the last to see Fawcett alive, we learned of Fawcett’s journey throughout their territory and experienced an amazing mystical masked dance- never before filmed.

The production experienced road washouts, unfinished bridges (that had to be crossed on precarious loose boards), killer bee and caimain (alligator) attacks and more. Ultimately our sleuthing took us to a magical waterfall- sacred to the Bakairi Indians.  The falls line-up exactly with the coordinates of Fawcett’s last camp and told us we were heading in the right direction.  The falls and the mysterious writings on the cave walls found there, also seemed to match descriptions by the Portuguese Fortune Hunters...this was a true Indiana Jones adventure!  We were on our way to being the first to visit Fawcett’s last known location: Dead Horse Camp.

This is a “road” less traveled, but modern eco-tourism guides are available in Cuiaba and from the gorgeous wildlife preserve- the Pantanal, further south. So following in Fawcett’s footsteps may be available now to even inexperienced travelers. However, traveling further into the deep Amazon however requires considerable resources and expense.  Lives have been lost seeking Fawcett and while many of the dangers have been reduced, modern day bandits, disease and unreliable air travel into the Amazon still make this a challenging tour: there are no four star hotels.  This is definitely not Disneyland or a Caribbean cruise!

The search for the truth about Col Fawcett has produced some staggering revelations. In Acre state in the Western Amazon,  where Fawcett himself ventured- new lost cities of the jungle are emerging. We went there and filmed the amazing Geoglyphs- spectacular like the Nazca lines, but carved deep into the earth, covering a much vaster area:  more like Stone Henge and Europe’s Megalyths, than mere decorative lines in one specific area.

The image that everyone believed about the Amazon: a pristine jungle inhabited by primitive hunter-gatherers is coming to an end.  As Fawcett himself believed, huge populations and advanced civilizations once lived in the Amazon: they are only  now just emerging and waiting to be fully revealed.