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.