When I was in England, I tried to track down Fawcett’s descendants, who, perhaps, could tell me more about the explorer and his route to Z. Fawcett’s wife and children had died long ago, but in Cardiff, Wales, I located one of his grandchildren, Rolette de Montet-Guerin, whose mother was Fawcett’s only daughter, Joan. She lived in a single-story house, with stucco walls and wood frame windows-an unassuming place that seemed somehow at odds with all the fanfare that had once surrounded her family. She was a petite, energetic woman in her fifties, with short black hair and glasses, who referred affectionately to her grandfather by his initials, PHF. (“That’s what my mum and everyone in the family always called him.”) Fawcett’s wife and children, after years of being hounded by reporters, had retreated from the public eye, but Rolette welcomed me into the kitchen. As I told her about my plans to trace Fawcett’s route, she said, “You don’t look much like an explorer.”
“Well, you best be well fed for the jungle.”
She started to open cupboards, taking out pots and pans, and turned on the gas stove. The kitchen table was soon laden with bowls of risotto, steamed vegetables, homemade bread, and hot apple crumb cake. “It’s all vegetarian,” she said. “PHF believed it gave you greater stamina. Plus, he never liked to kill animals unless he had to.”
As we sat down to eat, Rolette’s twenty-three-year-old daughter, Is-abelle, appeared. She had shorter hair than her mother’s and eyes that held some of her great-grandfather’s intensity. She was a pilot for British Airways. “I envy my great-grandfather, really,” Isabelle said. “In his day, you could still go marching off and discover some hidden part of the world. Now where can you go?”
Rolette placed an antique silver chalice in the center of the table. “I brought that out especially for you,” she said. “It was PHF’s christening cup.”
I held it up to the light. On one side were engraved flowers and buds, on the other was inscribed the number 1867, the year Fawcett was born.
After we ate and chatted for a while, I asked her something I had long pondered-whether, in determining my route, I should rely, like so many other parties, on the coordinates for Dead Horse Camp cited in
“Well, you must be careful with those,” Rolette said.
“What do you mean?”
“PHF wrote them to throw people off the trail. They were a blind.”
The news both astounded and unsettled me: if true, it meant that many people had headed, possibly fatally, in the wrong direction. When I asked why Brian Fawcett, who had edited
“Yes. If it’s possible.”
“I want to show you something.”
She led me into a back room and opened a large wooden trunk. Inside were several leather-bound books. Their covers were worn and tattered, their bindings breaking apart. Some were held together only by strings, tied in bows.
“What are they?” I asked.
“PHF’s diaries and logbooks.” She handed them to me. “You can look through them, but you must guard them carefully.”
I opened one of them, marked 1909. The cover left a black stain on my fingertips-a mixture, I imagined, of Victorian dust and jungle mud. The pages almost fell out when I turned them, and I held them gingerly between my index finger and thumb. Recognizing Fawcett’s microscopic handwriting, I felt a strange sensation. Here was something that Fawcett had also held, something that contained his most private thoughts and that few had ever seen. The writer Janet Malcolm once compared a biographer to a “professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.”
I sat down on the couch in the living room. There was a book for almost every year from 1906 (his first expedition) to 1921 (his penultimate trip); he had obviously carried a diary on each of his expeditions, jotting down observations. Many of them were replete with maps and surveying calculations. On the inside covers were the poems he had copied down in order to read in the jungle when he was alone and desperate. One seemed meant for Nina:
Oh love, my love! Have all your will—
I am yours to the end.
Fawcett had also scribbled down lines from Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s “Solitude”:
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a long and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.
Many of the diaries were filled with the mundane, from someone with no expectation of history: “9 July… Sleepless night… Much rain and wet through by midday… 11 July… Heavy rain from midnight. Reached [camp] on trail, caught fish… 17 July… swimming across for balsa.” Then, suddenly, a casual remark revealed the harrowing nature of his existence: “Feel very bad… Took 1 [vial] of morphine last night to rest from foot pain. It produced a violent stomachache and had to put finger down throat to relieve.”
A loud noise sounded in the other room and I looked up. It was Is-abelle playing a video game on the computer. I picked up another of the books. It had a lock to protect the contents. “That’s his ‘Treasure Book,’” Rolette said. The lock was unfastened, and inside were stories Fawcett had collected of buried treasures, like Galla-pita-Galla, and maps of their suspected locations: “In that cave is a treasure, the existence of which is known to me and to me alone.”
In later diaries, as he developed his case for Z, Fawcett made more archaeological notations. There were drawings of strange hieroglyphics. The Botocudo Indians, now virtually extinct, had told him a legend of a city “enormously rich in gold-so much so as to blaze like fire.” Fawcett added, “It is just conceivable this may be Z.” As he seemed to be nearing his goal, he became more secretive. In the 1921 log, he outlined a “code” he had apparently devised, with his wife, to send messages:
78804 Kratzbank = Discoveries much as described
78806 Kratzfuss = Rich, important and wonderful
78808 Kratzka = Cities located—future now secure
Poring through the log, I noticed a word on the margins of one page: “DEAD.” I looked at it more closely and saw two other words alongside it. They spelled out “DEAD HORSE CAMP.” Underneath them were coordinates, and I quickly flipped through my notebook where I had scribbled down the position of the camp from
For hours, I went through the diaries, taking notes. I thought there was nothing left to glean, when Rolette appeared and said that she wanted to show me one more item. She vanished into the back room, and I could hear her rummaging through drawers and cabinets, muttering to herself. After several minutes, she emerged with a photograph from a book. “I don’t know where I put it,” she said. “But I can at least show you a picture of it.”
It was a photograph of Fawcett’s gold signet ring, which was engraved with the family motto,
She said that she had been desperate to learn more and had once shown the ring to a psychic.
“Did you learn anything?” I asked.
She looked down at the picture, then up at me. “It had been bathed in blood.”