He Looked Like a Tapir

I’ve been reading The Lost City of Z, David Grann’s attempt to discover the fate of the British explorer ‘Colonel’ Percy Fawcett who disappeared in the Amazon in 1925.

This is a well-written but, in many ways, very conventional, footsteps book, in which the author casts himself as an effete, impractical couch potato (‘I am not a traveller’) opposite Fawcett’s almost superhuman determination and physical prowess.

As the book tacks between the reconstruction of Fawcett’s consecutive explorations of Amazonia and Grann’s present-day trip, we also get a corresponding contrast between the untamed wilderness of the 1920s (where the most advanced technology available to explorers as they hacked their way through pathless forest were primitive radios) and the increasingly deforested Amazon that can be crossed in all-terrain vehicles and motor boats, where tiny villages are now substantial towns that even have modest skyscapers, and where locals learn about their ancestral traditions by watching government-funded documentaries in outdoor cinemas.

The contrast between Fawcett and Grann is reinforced by a sense of the political changes that have taken place between them, changes that make imperialist adventures less acceptable to us today. And even if Fawcett is praised for his relatively peaceful attitude towards the native Amazonians (he strongly disapproves of strong-arm tactics, even in self-defence, employed by other explorers), the book would give us enough evidence to condemn Fawcett in a hypothetical court set up to establish the guilt of travel writers for whom ‘other cultures’ are no more than a stage on which they act out their own fantasies, choreograph their own mythologies.

But Grann does not set out to judge Fawcett. Indeed, there is a strong sense of affinity between them, marked perhaps most obviously by the parallels between them as fathers who leave a wife and young child behind as they head off to the unknown. On the very first page of his book, Grann explains that he ‘left behind my wife and one-year-old son’, echoing Fawcett’s own decision to join an expedition in 1906, even as he thought of ‘his wife, Nina, who was pregnant again, and his son Jack’. Grann refers to Fawcett as being ‘as neglectful of his family and children as his parents had been of him’ and perhaps – as a metaphorical great grandchild – Grann’s own willingness to desert his nearest and dearest is merely a generational echo. After all, isn’t there always something a bit Oedipal about footsteps travel, a wish to out-do or supplant one’s forebears? (As there is, of course, about book reviews).

So Grann shows some reluctance to criticise Fawcett directly, although he does acknowledge that others have poured scorn on his apparently delusional obsession with a pre-Columbian El Dorado (or ‘City of Z’), whose ruins he is determined to discover, and his fascination with the occult. Certainly Grann makes no serious effort to consider how Fawcett’s mission must have seemed to the native Amazonians who – both in the reconstruction of Fawcett’s gung-ho expeditions and in Grann’s own, post-colonial, duplication of them – tend to be depicted as people who either help or hinder the quest, without much indication of what they themselves might have thought about it or why they responded to him the way they did.

But there are moments in the book where a ‘native point of view’ peeps out between the lines of the Indiana Jones narrative. In one village Grann meets an old woman who remembers

when the three outsiders [Fawcett, his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimmell] came to stay in our village. I remember them because I had never seen people so white and with such long beards. My mother said, ‘Look, the Christians are here!’ … We didn’t know who they were, but we knew they must be important because they slept in the school … I remember that they were tall, so tall. And one of them carried a funny pack. He looked like a tapir.

Just before Grann leaves she recalls other people coming from far away to look for them. ‘What is it that these white people did?’ she asked. ‘Why is it so important for their tribe to find them?’

The question is left unanswered.

Grann is told of the whereabouts of Fawcett’s remains, and he is invited to Canarana, a small frontier town to meet the chief of the Kalapalos in order to retrieve them. The Kalapalos ask him if he is a relative, possibly anxious that Grann has come to avenge Fawcett’s death – and in some ways they are nearer the mark that perhaps Grann would be willing to admit. But they also ask for $5000. Grann says he doesn’t have ‘that kind of money’.

One of the Kalapalos stepped toward me and said, ‘The spirits told me that you were coming and that you are rich.’ Another Kalapalo added, ‘I’ve seen pictures of your cities. You have too many cars. You should give us a car’.

The negotiations become heated and Grann feels intimidated. They break off and two hours later his guide Paolo reports he has secured a compromise. Grann will be taken into the Xingu National Park if he pays ‘for transportation and several hundred dollars’ worth of supplies’.

Cordiality breaks out and next day they depart in a more powerful vehicle. Their driver wishes them well: ‘I hope you find this Y you are looking for’. Presumably he means Z – although this apparent confusion unexpectedly recalls the carved letter Y’s reportedly left by Fawcett according to a rescue party led by George Dyott in 1927.

But the narrator does admit that his quest seems ‘trivial’ when he learns of plans to build a dam, which has created tension between different ‘tribes’ over the money offered to appease them.

Nevertheless the quest continues. As they head upriver to the place where the bones were discovered, Grann is told ‘there are many things about the Englishmen that only Kalapalo people know’. And one of them, it would appear, is that the remains were not of Fawcett after all. But the Kalapalo do have an oral tradition that tells of three white men (one old, two young) who passed that way long ago, heading off to hostile territory and never coming back.

Grann never ascertains how the trio met their end. But in the closing pages he turns to consider Fawcett’s determination to prove the existence of an ancient Amazonian civilization. He plans his book, so it climaxes with his arrival in the Kuikoro settlement in the Xingu where the archaeologist Michael Heckenberger has spent the last thirteen years – ‘on and off’, and had ‘been adopted by the Kuikoro chief and had his own hut in the village.’

Of course Heckenburger knows of Fawcett and, it turns out, he has made a series of momentous discoveries that suggest that Fawcett’s hunch was actually correct. And Grann is shown the traces (a moat, shards of pottery, embankments) of what must once have been a substantial, economically-advanced society.

But this – in the final chapter, entitled, simply, ‘Z’ – is a rather disappointing finale. For, as he admits, Heckenberger is one of a number of archaeologists and anthropologists who have revised traditional scepticism regarding the pre-Columbian Amazon. There is in fact a body of published research that confirms that something like ‘Z’ did – in fact – really exist.

Grann hardly needed to go to South America at all. For what he discovers was available in his local library all along. By the end of the book I was thinking that the story of Heckenberger’s thirteen years actually sounded more interesting than Fawcett’s. He also has the advantage of being alive.

Beware of Crocodiles

Epic journeys don’t necessarily involve epic distances. The journey at the heart of Roger Hutchinson’s Calum’s Road is just one and three quarter miles.

Calum MacLeod lived on the island of Raasay in the Scottish Hebrides, where he worked as a crofter, lighthouse keeper, postman. But his village was nearly two miles from the end of the road.

Frustrated at the lack of commitment on the part of Inverness County Council, despite the repeated appeals from the community, he decided, around 1964, to extend the highway himself. Virtually single-handedly, over more than ten years, ‘with the aid of a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow and a road-making manual which cost him three shillings’, he widened the track which wound its way round the hillside, above the sea-cliffs, and in and out of deep glens, laying the foundations for a rough thoroughfare until that final moment when he could drive his Land Rover all the way to his door.

Finally, after another long wait, the road became what he called an Autobahn, when in 1982 the council belatedly made amends and surfaced it in tarmac.

If conventional travel books should be first-person narratives, then this is not a conventional travel book. After all, most journeys never make their way into print. And those that do often only find a readership through the offices of a historian or biographer, roles that Hutchinson plays well here.

He has plenty of material to draw on. As news of MacLeod’s astonishing project spread, it featured in guidebooks, radio and TV programmes, and art exhibitions. Capercaillie even wrote a song about it (you can hear it in the background of the video above). As be became something of a celebrity, McLeod talked to many outsiders. And as a prolific writer of letters to the newspapers, he left a substantial record relating to his struggle.

Hutchinson could have turned the story into a novel. And maybe fictionalizing it would have given us a keener sense of the day-to-day experience of building the road, and brought us closer to the people it was designed to serve. But Hutchinson chooses to tell a wider-ranging account that takes us back to the Clearances of the 1820s. And makes of Calum a heroic figure who stands for all those who took a stand against the powers that be, which in the twentieth century helped to depopulate the Highlands and Islands as the rapacious landlords had done in the nineteenth.

As schools and post offices were allowed to close, and transport links failed to materialise, the road became a monument not to the past, but to a possible future, whose keynote is active regeneration rather than passive neglect, justified cynically by the dwindling numbers of residents caused largely by that neglect in the first place.

Hutchinson does not sentimentalize his protagonist. He does not spare us some of the less attractive strands to his ideology. MacLeod’s antipathy to the 1960s establishment is intensified by his hostility to the liberalisation of laws regarding homosexuality, abortion and capital punishment. He wrote a ballad about his achievements that talked of himself ‘working like a nigger’, a phrase that may give us pause, though Hutchinson passes over it without comment.

But the most unexpected passage in the book concerns a letter MacLeod wrote to the Stornoway Gazette in 1970. He refers to a history of Egypt on his desk and comments:

There is reference to allegations of transactions with crocodiles. I fully believe that were these reptiles common to our riverbanks, Socialists in their apathy to crime or evils would not ban this abomination, but would gladly seize the opportunity to licence and tax as harmless amusement.

In a surprisingly long footnote, Hutchinson explains that the book was probably a translation of Description de l’Egypte, the monumental Napoleonic survey that was originally published between 1809 and 1828. Apparently it included claims that ‘Egyptian fellahin had congress with crocodiles as part of divine worship’, claims later given credence by the explorer Richard Burton. But it was all nonsense.

According to a ‘modern veterinarian’ he does not identify, Hutchinson tells us that the activity observed must have been attempts to determine the sex of the reptile, an activity that involved adopting a position that was evidently open to misinterpretation.

It is clear from Calum’s Road that MacLeod travelled quite widely in Scotland; and he was certainly very well-read. But travel doesn’t always broaden the mind. And travel books – like the Description de l’Egypte – perhaps even less so.

But building a road with your bare hands. You can’t argue with that.