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.”