2. THE VANISHING

How easily the Amazon can deceive.

It begins as barely a rivulet, this, the mightiest river in the

world, mightier than the Nile and the Ganges, mightier than the Mississippi and all the rivers in China. Over eighteen thousand feet high in the Andes, amid snow and clouds, it emerges through a rocky seam-a trickle of crystal water. Here it is indistinguishable from so many other streams coursing through the Andes, some cascading down the western face toward the Pacific, sixty miles away, others, like this one, rolling down the eastern facade on a seemingly impossible journey toward the Atlantic Ocean-a distance farther than New York City to Paris. At this altitude, the air is too cold for jungle or many predators. And yet it is in this place that the Amazon is born, nourished by melting snows and rain, and pulled by gravity over cliffs.

From its source, the river descends sharply. As it gathers speed, it is joined by hundreds of other rivulets, most of them so small they remain nameless. Seven thousand feet down, the water enters a valley with the first glimmers of green. Soon larger streams converge upon it. Churning toward the plains below, the river has three thousand more miles to go to reach the ocean. It is unstoppable. So, too, is the jungle, which, owing to equatorial heat and heavy rainfalls, gradually engulfs the riverbanks. Spreading toward the horizon, this wilderness contains the greatest variety of species in the world. And, for the first time, the river becomes recognizable-it is the Amazon.

Still, the river is not what it seems. Curling eastward, it enters an enormous region shaped like a shallow bowl, and because the Amazon rests at the bottom of this basin, nearly 40 percent of the waters from South America-from rivers as far as Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador- drain into it. And so the Amazon becomes even mightier. Three hundred feet deep in places, it no longer needs to rush, conquering at its own pace. It meanders past the Rio Negro and the Rio Madeira; past the Tapaj?s and the Xingu, two of the biggest southern tributaries; past Maraj?, an island larger than Switzerland, until finally, after traversing four thousand miles and collecting water from a thousand tributaries, the Amazon reaches its two-hundred-mile-wide mouth and gushes into the Atlantic Ocean. What began as a trickle now expels fifty-seven million gallons of water every second-a discharge sixty times that of the Nile. The Amazon’s fresh waters push so far out to sea that, in 1500, Vicente Pinz?n, a Spanish commander who had earlier accompanied Columbus, discovered the river while sailing miles off the coast of Brazil. He called it Mar Dulce, or Sweet Sea.

It is difficult to explore this region under any circumstances, but in November the onset of the rainy season renders it virtually impassable. Waves-including the fifteen-mile-an-hour monthly tidal bore known as pororoca, or “big roar”-crash against the shore. At Bel?m, the Amazon frequently rises twelve feet; at Iquitos, twenty feet; at ?bidos, thirty-five feet. The Madeira, the Amazon’s longest tributary, can swell even more, rising over sixty-five feet. After months of inundation, many of these and other rivers explode over their banks, cascading through the forest, uprooting plants and rocks, and transforming the southern basin almost into an inland sea, which it was millions of years ago. Then the sun comes out and scorches the region. The ground cracks as if from an earthquake. Swamps evaporate, leaving piranhas stranded in desiccated pools, eating one another’s flesh. Bogs turn into meadows; islands become hills.

This is how the dry season has arrived in the southern basin of the Amazon for as long as almost anyone can remember. And so it was in June of 1996, when an expedition of Brazilian scientists and adventurers headed into the jungle. They were searching for signs of Colonel Percy Fawcett, who had vanished, along with his son Jack and Raleigh Rimell, more than seventy years earlier.

The expedition was led by a forty-two-year-old Brazilian banker named James Lynch. After a reporter mentioned to him the story of Fawcett, he had read everything he could on the subject. He learned that the colonel’s disappearance in 1925 had shocked the world-“among the most celebrated vanishing acts of modern times,” as one observer called it. For five months, Fawcett had sent dispatches, which were carried through the jungle, crumpled and stained, by Indian runners and, in what seemed like a feat of magic, tapped out on telegraph machines and printed on virtually every continent; in an early example of the all-consuming modern news story, Africans, Asians, Europeans, Australians, and Americans were riveted by the same distant event. The expedition, one newspaper wrote, “captured the imagination of every child who ever dreamed of undiscovered lands.”

Then the dispatches ceased. Lynch read how Fawcett had warned that he might be out of contact for months, but a year passed, then two, and the public fascination grew. Were Fawcett and the two young men being held hostage by Indians? Had they starved to death? Were they too entranced by Z to return? Debates raged in salons and speakeasies; cables were exchanged at the highest levels of governments. Radio plays, novels (Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust is believed to have been influenced by Fawcett’s saga), poems, documentaries, movies, stamps, children’s stories, comic books, ballads, stage plays, graphic novels, and museum exhibits were devoted to the affair. In 1933 a travel writer exclaimed, “Enough legend has grown up round the subject to form a new and separate branch of folk-lore.” Fawcett had earned his place in the annals of exploration not for what he revealed about the world but for what he concealed. He had vowed to make “the great discovery of the century”- instead, he had given birth to “the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century.”

Lynch also learned, to his amazement, that scores of scientists, explorers, and adventurers had plunged into the wilderness, determined to recover the Fawcett party, alive or dead, and to return with proof of Z. In February 1955, the New York Times claimed that Fawcett’s disappearance had set off more searches “than those launched through the centuries to find the fabulous El Dorado.” Some parties were wiped out by starvation and disease, or retreated in despair; others were murdered by tribesmen. Then there were those adventurers who had gone to find Fawcett and, instead, disappeared along with him in the forests that travelers had long ago christened the “green hell.” Because so many seekers went without fanfare, there are no reliable statistics on the numbers who died. One recent estimate, however, put the total as high as a hundred.

Lynch seemed resistant to flights of fancy. A tall, slender man, with blue eyes and pale skin that burned in the sun, he worked at Chase Bank in S?o Paulo. He was married with two children. But, when he was thirty, he had become restless and began to disappear for days into the Amazon, trekking through the jungle. He soon entered several grueling adventure contests: once, he hiked for seventy-two hours without sleep and traversed a canyon by shimmying across a rope. “The idea is to drain yourself physically and mentally and see how you respond under such circumstances,” Lynch said, adding, “Some people would break, but I always found it slightly exhilarating.”

Lynch was more than an adventurer. Drawn to quests that were intellectual as well as physical, he hoped to illuminate some little-known aspect of the world, and he often spent months in the library researching a topic. He had, for instance, ventured to the source of the Amazon and had found a colony of Mennonites living in the Bolivian desert. But he had never encountered a case like that of Colonel Fawcett.

Not only had previous search parties failed to discover the party’s fate-each disappearance becoming a conundrum unto itself-but no one had unraveled what Lynch considered the biggest enigma of all: Z. Indeed, Lynch found out that unlike other lost explorers-such as Amelia Earhart, who disappeared in 1937 while trying to fly around the globe-Fawcett had made it all but impossible to trace him. He had kept his route so secret that even his wife, Nina, confessed that he had concealed crucial details from her. Lynch dug up old newspaper accounts, but they provided few tangible clues. Then he found a dog-eared copy of Exploration Fawcett, a collection of some of the explorer’s writings edited by his surviving son, Brian, and published in 1953. (Ernest Hemingway had kept a copy of the book on his shelf.) The book appeared to contain one of the few hints of the colonel’s final course, quoting Fawcett as saying, “Our route will be from Dead Horse Camp, 11°43’ south and 54°35’ west, where my horse died in 1921.” Although the coordinates were only a starting point, Lynch plugged them into his Global Positioning System. It pinpointed a spot in the southern basin of the Amazon in Mato Grosso-its name means “thick forest”-a Brazilian state bigger than France and Great Britain combined. To reach Dead Horse Camp would require traversing some of the Amazon’s most intractable jungle; it would also entail entering lands controlled by indigenous tribes, which had secluded themselves in the dense forest and fiercely guarded their territory.

The challenge seemed insurmountable. But, as Lynch pored over financial spreadsheets at work, he wondered: What if there really is a Z? What if the jungle had concealed such a place? Even today, the Brazilian government estimates that there are more than sixty Indian tribes that have never been contacted by outsiders. “These forests are… almost the only place on earth where indigenous people can survive in isolation from the rest of mankind,” John Hemming, the distinguished historian of Brazilian Indians and a former director of the Royal Geographical Society, wrote. Sydney Possuelo, who was in charge of the Brazilian department set up to protect Indian tribes, has said of these groups, “No one knows for sure who they are, where they are, how many they are, and what languages they speak.” In 2006, members of a nomadic tribe called Nukak-Mak? emerged from the Amazon in Colombia and announced that they were ready to join the modern world, though they were unaware that Colombia was a country and asked if the planes overhead were on an invisible road.

One night Lynch, unable to sleep, went into his study, which was cluttered with maps and relics from his previous expeditions. Amid his papers on Fawcett, he came across the colonel’s warning to his son: “If with all my experience we can’t make it, there’s not much hope for others.” Rather than deter Lynch, the words only compelled him. “I have to go,” he told his wife.

He soon secured a partner, Rene Delmotte, a Brazilian engineer whom he had met during an adventure competition. For months, the two men studied satellite images of the Amazon, honing their trajectory. Lynch obtained the best equipment: turbocharged jeeps with puncture-resistant tires, walkie-talkies, shortwave radios, and generators. Like Fawcett, Lynch had experience designing boats, and with a shipbuilder he constructed two twenty-five-foot aluminum vessels that would be shallow enough to pass through swamps. He also put together a medical kit that contained dozens of antidotes for snake poisons.

He chose his party with equal care. He recruited two mechanics, who could repair all the equipment, and two veteran off-road drivers. He also enlisted Dr. Daniel Mu?oz, an acclaimed forensic anthropologist who, in 1985, had helped to identify the remains of Josef Mengele, the Nazi fugitive, and who could help confirm the origins of any object they might find from Fawcett’s party: a belt buckle, a bone fragment, a bullet.

Although Fawcett had warned that large expeditions have “only one and all come to grief,” the party soon grew to include sixteen men. Still, there was one more person who wanted to go: Lynch’s sixteen-year-old son, James, Jr. Athletic and more muscular than his father, with bushy brown hair and large brown eyes, he had gone on a previous expedition and acquitted himself well. And so Lynch agreed, like Fawcett, to take his son with him.

The team assembled in Cuiab?, the capital of Mato Grosso, along the southern edge of the Amazon basin. Lynch handed out T-shirts that he had made up with a picture of footprints leading into the jungle. In England, the Daily Mail published a story about the expedition under the headline “Are We About to Solve the Enduring Mystery of Colonel Percy Fawcett?” For days, the group drove through the Amazon basin, traversing unpaved roads scarred with ruts and brambles. The forest grew thicker, and James, Jr., pressed his face against the window. Wiping steam from the glass, he could see the leafy crowns of trees unfurling overhead, before breaking apart, as shafts of sunlight poured into the forest, the yellow wings of butterflies and macaws suddenly visible. Once, he spotted a six-foot snake, half-burrowed in mud, with a deep depression between its eyes. “Jararaca” his father said. It was a pit viper, one of the most venomous snakes in the Americas. (A jararaca bite will cause a person to bleed from the eyes and become, as a biologist put it, “a corpse piece by piece.”) Lynch swerved around the snake, while the roar of the engine sent other animals, including howler monkeys, scattering into the treetops; only the mosquitoes seemed to remain, hovering over the vehicles like sentries.

After stopping several times to camp, the expedition followed the trail to a clearing along the Xingu River, where Lynch tried to get a reading on his GPS.

“What is it?” one of his colleagues asked.

Lynch stared at the coordinates on the screen. “We’re not far from where Fawcett was last seen,” he said.

A net of vines and lianas covered the trails extending from the clearing, and Lynch decided that the expedition would have to proceed by boat. He instructed several members to turn back with some of the heaviest gear; once he found a place where a bush plane could land, he would radio in the coordinates, so that the equipment could be delivered by air.

The remaining team members, including James, Jr., slipped the two boats into the water and began their journey down the Xingu. The currents carried them quickly, past spiny ferns and buriti palms, creepers and myrtles-an endless mesh that rose on either side of them. Shortly before sunset, Lynch was going around another bend, when he thought he spotted something on the distant bank. He lifted the brim of his hat. In a break amid the branches, he could see several pairs of eyes staring at him. He told his men to cut the engines; no one made a sound. As the boats drifted onto the shore, scraping against the sand, Lynch and his men leaped out. At the same time, Indians-naked, their ears pierced with dazzling macaw feathers- emerged from the forest. Eventually, a powerfully built man, his eyes encircled in black paint, stepped forward. According to some of the Indians who spoke broken Portuguese and served as translators, he was the chief of the Kuikuro tribe. Lynch told his men to get out their gifts, which included beads, candy, and matches. The chief seemed welcoming, and he granted the expedition permission to camp by the Kuikuro village and to land a propeller plane in a nearby clearing.

That night, as James, Jr., tried to sleep, he wondered if Jack Fawcett had lain in a similar spot and seen such wondrous things. The sun woke him the next morning at dawn, and he poked his head in his father’s tent. “Happy birthday, Dad,” he said. Lynch had forgotten that it was his birthday. He was forty-two years old.

Several Kuikuros invited Lynch and his son to a nearby lagoon later that day, where they bathed alongside hundred-pound turtles. Lynch heard the sound of a plane landing with the rest of his men and equipment. The expedition was finally coming together.

Moments later, a Kuikuro came running down the path, yelling in his native language. The Kuikuros rushed out of the water. “What is it?” Lynch asked in Portuguese.

“Trouble,” a Kuikuro replied.

The Indians began to run toward the village, and Lynch and his son followed, branches ricocheting in their faces. When they arrived, a member of their expedition approached them. “What’s happening?” Lynch asked.

“They’re surrounding our camp.”

Lynch could see more than two dozen Indian men, presumably from neighboring tribes, rushing toward them. They, too, had heard the sound of the arriving plane. Many wore black and red paint slashed across their naked bodies. They carried bows with six-foot arrows, antique rifles, and spears. Five of Lynch’s men darted toward the plane. The pilot was still in the cockpit, and the five jumped into the cabin, though it was designed for only four passengers. They shouted for the pilot to take off, but he didn’t seem to realize what was happening. Then he looked out the window and saw several Indians hurrying toward him, aiming their bows and arrows. As the pilot started the engine, the Indi ans grabbed onto the wings, trying to keep the plane grounded. The pilot, concerned that the plane was dangerously heavy, threw whatever he could find out the window-clothes and papers, which twirled in the propellers’ thrust. The plane rumbled down the makeshift runway, bouncing and roaring and swerving between trees. Just before the wheels lifted off, the last of the Indians let go.

Lynch watched the plane disappear, red dust from its wake swirling around him. A young Indian, whose body was covered in paint and who seemed to be leading the assault, stepped toward Lynch, waving a borduna, a four-foot-long club that warriors used to smash their enemies’ heads. He herded Lynch and the eleven remaining members of his team into small boats. “Where are you taking us?” Lynch asked.

“You are our prisoners for life,” the young man responded.

James, Jr., fingered the cross around his neck. Lynch had always believed that there was no adventure until, as he put it, “shit happens.” But this was something he had never anticipated. He had no backup plan, no experience to call upon. He didn’t even have a weapon.

He squeezed his son’s hand. “Whatever happens,” Lynch whispered, “don’t do anything unless I tell you.”

The boats turned off the major river and down a narrow stream. As they floated farther into the jungle, Lynch surveyed the surroundings-the crystal clear water filled with rainbow-colored fish, the increasingly dense thicket of vegetation. It was, he thought, the most beautiful place he had ever seen.

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