The Ordinary Jungle

A not-so-awed explorer who was unafraid to say so

In April 1925, a fifty-seven-year-old British explorer named Percy Harrison Fawcett trooped into the Brazilian jungle for the last time. Fawcett had spent much of his adult life under mosquito netting there, and he had become convinced that the region held the remnants of a great lost city—the stronghold of a vanished civilization. Hobbled by age and by poverty, he nonetheless convinced his financial backers to give him one last chance to prove his claims. Equipped with little except a reputation as the man whom the jungle could not kill, Colonel Fawcett and two younger companions set off on a path that would lead them deep inside the remote and rugged region known as Mato Grosso. The party was never heard from again.

Over the next several years, the world press speculated wildly on Fawcett’s fate. He had been murdered by hostile Indians; he was being held prisoner; he had lost his mind and gone native; he had been made into a god. Seven years after the explorer’s disappearance, a young British journalist set out to find him.

Peter Fleming wasn’t the first to go looking for Fawcett, but he was almost certainly the least prepared. A twenty-five-year-old literary editor at the Spectator, recently graduated from Oxford, he was a man of the pen, not the machete. He had a taste for adventure, as young men do, but had indulged it sparingly, and had little experience with map-making, Portuguese-speaking, piranha-avoiding, or any other skill that might prove useful in the jungle. His companions—wealthy sons of Eton, men of good breeding and bad judgment—were similarly young and green. “There are, I suppose, expeditions and expeditions,” wrote Fleming, and “it looked as if ours was not going to qualify for either category.”

Of the expedition, the best that can be said is that nobody died. Fleming and his cohort were slowed at the first when they arrived in the middle of a revolution, and slowed later on by argument and insurrection. Their cartographic ambitions were thwarted when they ditched their surveying equipment, finding it too heavy to carry. They found neither the lost colonel nor his lost city, although they did encounter assorted missionaries, Dutchmen, and “young men of good birth from São Paulo.” As Fleming put it: “Beyond the completion of a 3,000-mile journey, mostly under amusing conditions, through a little-known part of the world, and the discovery of one new tributary to a tributary to a tributary of the Amazon, nothing of importance was achieved.”

It did, however, produce Brazilian Adventure, Fleming’s enduring account of the misbegotten journey, which made it all worthwhile. A best-seller upon its initial appearance, the book stayed in print for decades on the strength of Fleming’s pungent wit and observational powers.

Almost eighty years later, the book is nearly forgotten, and Fleming’s reputation has been eclipsed by that of his brother, Ian, the creator of James Bond. In David Grann’s recent The Lost City of Z, which introduced the Fawcett story to a new generation, Fleming merits only one direct mention. But in its day, Brazilian Adventure was hugely influential. With a journalist’s eye and an ironist’s heart, Fleming wrote plainly and honestly about his misadventures, his unprecedented candor and self-deprecation reinvigorating a literary genre that too often trafficked in banality, fatuity, and romantic bombast.

“Truth is a perishable commodity; considerable care must be exercised in shipping it across the world,” wrote Fleming. The first truly modern travelers’ narrative, Brazilian Adventure treated the hazards of the jungle as a matter for comedy rather than terror, and suggested that the strangest things about faraway, desperate lands were often the men who rushed over to explore them.

To call Peter Fleming an unlikely adventurer is to misunderstand the era in which he was raised. Indeed, for that era, he was as likely an adventurer as anyone else. Born to wealthy parents in 1907, Fleming grew up in the sort of bourgeois mercantile comfort that he would spend much of his life actively escaping. At Eton and Oxford, he won fame writing for student publications and acting in amateur theatricals. (His biographer, Duff Hart-Davis, mentions an unconvincing Iago, for which Fleming employed a bizarre staccato cadence straight out of a pulp detective movie.) In the fall of 1929, his mother commandeered him into a Wall Street position. Fleming sailed for New York, arriving just in time for the collapse of the markets and the rise of the hobo-based economy. Things just got worse after this inauspicious start, and he returned to England the next year, cheerfully leaving business behind forever.

After a brief idle spell, Fleming found work at the Spectator. At the time, the long-lived weekly magazine was known for its sterling reputation, but not for its editorial energy. The job turned out to be an awkward fit. Hart-Davis writes that Fleming “began producing articles of such incisive wit and cynicism that the older hands on the paper became seriously alarmed.” His bosses were perhaps relieved when Fleming informed them that he had been selected as an honorary secretary for a British trade mission to China, and would require a four-month leave of absence. He returned to England the next year and resumed his blithe assault on the Spectator’s masthead, inventing a contributor named “Walter B. Tizzard” and using the name to sign a series of opinionated reviews. But the China trip made him hunger for more adventurous pastimes.

And so he devoured a notice in the Times of London in April 1932, promising adventure and amusement in the wilds of Brazil. “It is easy to attract public attention to any exploit which is at once highly improbable and absolutely useless,” wrote Fleming. The advertisement, which ran in the paper’s “Agony Column” devoted to missing relatives and friends, seemed to fall into both categories: “Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June, to explore rivers Central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Fawcett; abundance game, big and small; exceptional fishing; room two more guns; highest references expected and given.”

Fleming felt that the ad had “the right improbable ring to it.” Today, its clipped and credulous pomposity reads as an artifact of the golden age of dilettante exploration. Adventure travel, of course, has always been a romantic’s pursuit. Yet such romantics were unusually thick on the ground during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Weaned on the melodramatic novels of H. Rider Haggard, flush with the free time and money granted to those on the right side of the industrial age, these men trekked across the lesser-known continents, hoisting the standards of geography, and ethnology, and science, however loosely defined.

“Nowadays, being an explorer is a trade, which consists not, as one might think, in discovering hitherto unknown facts after years of study, but in covering a great many miles and assembling lantern-slides or motion pictures, preferably in colour, so as to fill a hall with an audience for several days in succession,” lamented the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who would himself visit Mato Grosso a few years after Fleming. Such explorers did win significant fame, bestowed indiscriminately by a pre-mass-media public eager for exotica. Their travels were lauded—and often financed—by the press, which knew that danger porn sold newspapers. Their findings, most of the time, were of very little practical use.

Even so, these travelers were generally quite serious about their own ambitions, as if their efforts to map some irrelevant river put them in the same class as Pizarro or Cortés. The books that resulted from their South American travels were cut from the same dull cloth. In 1913, having failed to win the presidency as the candidate of the Bull Moose Party, an aged and remarkably ill-prepared Theodore Roosevelt set out on a Brazilian expedition. His book, Through the Brazilian Wilderness, explained how he had plumbed the darkest interior, inspired the government to spruce up the Rio da Dúvida with a new name (Rio Roosevelt), and faced down the deadly piranha: “The rabid, furious snaps drive the teeth through flesh and bone. The head with its short muzzle, staring malignant eyes, and gaping, cruelly armed jaws, is the embodiment of evil ferocity; and the actions of the fish exactly match its looks.” (“All one can say,” writes John Ure in Trespassers on the Amazon, “is that his companions did not begrudge him his final fling.”)

Roosevelt was preceded by the flamboyant writer and explorer Henry Savage Landor, who, according to David Grann, roamed the Brazilian interior “dressed as if he were heading off to a luncheon in Piccadilly Circus.” Landor’s own Across Unknown South America combines a bluff and imperious tone with the narrative verve of a shipping manifest. When not describing the scenery in slide-show fashion or endlessly marking the changes in elevation, the author complains of the country’s inadequate accommodations and the “contemptible imbeciles” with whom he was forced to travel. Landor’s men “mutinied and nearly shot him,” writes Grann; any of us would have done the same.

Most relevant to Fleming’s ambitions was G. M. Dyott, an Englishman who, in 1928, led a widely publicized expedition to find the vanished Colonel Fawcett. Man Hunting in the Jungle, his account of the trip, is written from the perspective of someone who very much wants you to know how much he suffered while in transit. Dyott sets the tone with the frontispiece, a ominous photograph of tangled vines captioned, “The Jungle greets you with a Hangman’s Noose.” He takes enormous pleasure in listing the hazards that he faced, noting early on that “some jungle malady may grip your flabby body from within and snuff out life quicker than the wind disposes of a lighted candle.” It is tedious stuff, and the reader occasionally wishes that Dyott’s prediction had come true.

Peter Fleming was not at all this sort of person. But he was greatly amused by those who were. And so he signed onto the expedition as a special correspondent for the Times. After securing a book contract and recruiting a companion—a lanky surveyor and Oxford grad named Roger Pettiward, who would later find fame as a cartoonist under the pseudonym Paul Crum—Fleming left his job at the Spectator (“the act of a madman,” he put it) and headed for Brazil with high spirits and low expectations.

The party sailed in the late spring of 1932, toting shotguns, revolvers, tear-gas bombs, a bull mastiff named Boris, a gramophone, the organizer’s father, the organizer’s father’s chauffeur, and several obsolete maps. At first, finding Fawcett was a secondary goal of the expedition. In fact, most members of Fleming’s party were under the impression that they were on a simple hunting trip. But after docking in Rio, Fleming insisted everyone sign a “gentleman’s agreement” asserting that their primary objective was to locate the missing colonel, to which his fellows uneasily assented. (“We shared a working knowledge of firearms, and a more or less keen interest in the habits of wild animals and birds: but by no stretch of the imagination could ours be considered a scientific expedition,” wrote organizer Robert Churchward in his apologetic account of the journey, Wilderness of Fools.)

Fleming and his companions reached São Paulo just as a revolution was breaking out in Brazil—which, characteristically, they did not notice. As the author recounts:

When we got back to our hotel, they told us there had been a revolution. . . . None of us had had any previous experience of revolutions; but from all we had heard of them, to be in the middle of one and not to know anything about it until eighteen hours after it had started seemed to argue a certain want of perspicacity.

The expedition soon met up with its Brazil-based guide, a limping and blustery Australian with a fierce hatred of the press. Major Pingle, as Fleming dubbed him, is an enduring comic creation. Unaware that the expedition members had a real interest in tracking Colonel Fawcett, and unwilling to help them do so when he realized their intentions, Major Pingle led Fleming and his party a short ways into the jungle before announcing that he would go no further, ostensibly for reasons of safety.

Fleming would have none of it. Determined to bring a good story back for the Times, he and a few other men broke off from the group and marched toward the area where they had reason to believe that Fawcett was last seen. They found nothing. Then, running out of food and fearing the start of the rainy season, they turned back and rejoined the rest of the party. Pingle, furious at their earlier defection, gave them a mere ten pounds to fund their thousand-mile trip back to Bélem, on the banks of the Amazon estuary.

The rest of the book concerns Fleming’s efforts to race Pingle back to civilization, both out of spite and in order to prevent the bilious guide from giving a misleading account of events. They beat him by mere hours, and, after a stop to see the British consul to negotiate a détente, Fleming and company returned to England, none the worse (or wiser) for the wear. An elaborately nonchalant telegram he sent his friend Rupert Hart-Davis before boarding the ship sums it all up: “back twentyseventh . . . fierce fun abounding health stark melodrama no mail money luggage or regrets.”

Even though nothing much happened to Peter Fleming in Brazil, he still enjoyed himself thoroughly. He made lots of undergraduate jokes, picked up some Portuguese, got a little bit better at rowing, climbed some trees. He met some savages, who weren’t very savage, and dodged snakes, fish, and insects, which were annoyances rather than nemeses. All in all, the terrors of the jungle were fairly benign, and the genius of Brazilian Adventure is that Fleming made no attempt to hide this.

As a result, the book seems entirely real, even in its silliest moments. Fleming himself called Brazilian Adventure “probably the most veracious travel book ever written; and it is certainly the least instructive.” At no point does the reader sense that Fleming is exaggerating his adventures for dramatic effect, or dwelling too long on the dangers that he faced. (Instead, he occasionally goes too far in the other direction.) “There is little awe left current in the world, and little of that little is well bestowed,” he writes. Fleming seems determined to save his awe for those things that really deserve it.

Compared to other South American travelogues of the era, Brazilian Adventure is most notable for what Fleming soft-pedaled or omitted. He made no great ado about alligators: “The alligator—at any rate the alligator of Central Brazil—is a fraud. . . . If he is not a fool and a coward, he might just as well be, so assiduously hidden are his cunning and his courage.” Unlike Roosevelt, he paid little heed to piranhas, who “might have been poultry for all the harm we took walking among them.” Unlike Landor, he brushed off the region’s swarming insects: “It is, of course, damaging to one’s self-respect to find oneself dotted with insects against whom popular prejudice is so strong that I begin to wonder whether I should ever have mentioned them at all. But one’s self-respect was the only thing that suffered, for they caused no pain or irritation.” And unlike almost everyone who had come before him, he concluded that the journey’s strains actually made for a fundamentally pleasant experience.

Musing over why his experience of Brazil was different from that of his predecessors, he notes: “If a country contains regions very remote and almost unknown, everyone conspires to paint them in the most lurid colours possible, for two very good reasons: the few men who have been to them naturally want to make a good story out of their experiences, and the many inhabitants of the country who might have been to them like to have a good excuse for not having done so.” It takes a tremendously confident writer to do this, to trust that you can make a good story out of your experiences without resorting to embellishment. Fleming saw no reason to elevate natural phenomena to grandiose proportions; it was a failed and embarrassing tactic employed by the Pingles of the world, a style wholly unsuited for the modern age. And even during the trip itself, he made frequent mockery of such manly fustian by conversing in an exaggerated explorer’s patois. Water was always “The Precious Fluid.” A pistol shot was “the well-known bark of a Mauser.” (Churchward’s book indicates just how annoying this must have been to the other travelers.) By rendering ridiculous the standard clichés, Fleming allowed himself to slip the constraints of lantern-slide journalism and write about what actually happened.

There are things that are bad about Brazilian Adventure. Fleming is an undisciplined narrator, prone to observational excursions that sap the story’s momentum. The author’s casual racism, though wholly a product of its time, will nonetheless unnerve the modern reader. All in all, it reads very much like what it is: a first book, written in two months and from all appearances not heavily edited.

It is also enormously funny, so that you quickly forgive its flaws. Other British travel narratives of the time (and some earlier ones, such as Captain Marryat’s Diary in America) are funny, too. Yet their humor is principally derived from descriptions of the stupidity of the natives and the inadequacy of the country in which the author traveled. To be sure, Fleming does some of that in Brazilian Adventure: he takes much glee in the antics of a drunken and cowardly river pilot whom they engaged to guide them back to Bélem. Still, the book’s humor primarily derives from the expedition’s haplessness, and the author and his party are almost always the butt of the joke. The pilot may have been drunk and stupid, but without him the Englishmen would have been unable to find their way home.

The success of Brazilian Adventure set Fleming on a career as an international journalist and travel writer. In 1934, he would publish One’s Company, an account of his travels to China; News from Tartary, another book of his Asian travels, followed in 1936. He wrote reams of correspondence for the Times and other journals, and he turned to history later in life. But Brazilian Adventure, though his first book, remains his best. In it, he took a genre that was often stultifying and pedantic and infused it with grace and comedic understatement.

After Fleming came a flurry of better-written travel books. Evelyn Waugh, who gave Brazilian Adventure a positive if qualified review in the Spectator (“Mr. Fleming has a really exciting story to tell, but he almost spoils it by going to the extreme limits of deprecation in his anxiety to avoid the pretentious”), would soon publish his humorous account of his travels in Ethiopia. Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana would follow, too, as would Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps and numerous other first-class works.

The critic Paul Fussell once described the 1920s and 1930s as a time when “a generation of bright young travelers set off from the British Isles to register anew, with all the cockiness of youth, the oddity and exoticism of the world outside.” In his day, Fleming was the most prominent and most influential of this pack. By propelling travel writing out of the dregs of romanticism and landing it firmly in the modern era, he offered a new way to approach the wider world. Brazilian Adventure should be relished for its drollery and anticlimactic charm. But it is also a document of the time when the era of exploration slid into the era of irony; when the world became smaller and somewhat less new, and bemusement—not amazement—became the standard way to meet it.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.