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This earlier post is now updated to reflect the recent release of a film, The Lost City of Z, based on Grann’s book of the same name. Both tell the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett who went into the Amazon in 1925 with his son looking for an ancient lost city. They both disappeared. For decades, explorers and scientists have tried to find evidence of his party and the Lost City of Z. Since then, perhaps another hundred people have died or disappeared searching for Fawcett.

I read David Grann’s The Lost City of Z in 2010 and halfway through it I realized what attracted me to it. It takes me back to a book of my youth – The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – which was a novel I loved as a kid.  I probably read the Classics Illustrated Comic version before I actually read the book, as that was the case with many books from Treasure Island to Hamlet.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is much better known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Even if you have never read any of his fiction, you probably know a few of his stories and characters because, according to the Internet Movie Database (love that site) there are at least 215 films based on his writing.

I took out my old comic book version and also my paperback of the novel and rediscovered Doyle’s little introductory verse:

I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
Or the man who’s half a boy.

There was another book titled The Lost World which was Michael Crichton’s sequel to Jurassic Park, but I have nothing to say about that book. To me, The Lost World is the one published in 1912 and it is the fictional story of an expedition to a place in the Amazon where prehistoric animals still survive. (Hmmm, did Mr. Crichton get inspiration for Jurassic Park from it?)  The book introduced the character Professor Challenger who appears in other books by Doyle.

Exploration and lost worlds captured the fancy of the public and authors in the early part of the 20th century. In 1916, Edgar Rice Burroughs (who is better known for his Tarzan and science-fiction stories) published The Land that Time Forgot, which was his version of a lost world story. In that  rather ridiculous tale, sailors  from a German U-Boat discover a world of dinosaurs and ape-men in Antarctica.

I read all of them. I didn’t really pay attention back then to the chronology of publication. If I had noted dates, I would have realized that another one of my childhood author heroes, Jules Verne, had introduced the whole prehistoric-animals-in-the-present-day adventure story with his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth which was published back in 1864. Those explorers find a prehistoric world of people and dinosaurs inside the Earth.

By the way, you can read The Lost World as an “e-book” free online at Project Gutenberg – if you can handle reading on a screen. I can’t.


Now, to get back to where this post started, the setting for The Lost World is was probably inspired by reports about British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett’s expedition to Venezuela and Brazil, in a mountain region called Mount Roraima.

The modern-day non-fiction book, The Lost City of Z , tells the tale of Fawcett who launched his final expedition in 1925 into the Amazon.

His goal was to find the fabled lost city of El Dorado, the “City of Gold.” El Dorado has captured the imaginations of kids, armchair explorers and real anthropologists, adventurers, and scientists for about 400 years – even though there really has never been evidence that it ever existed. That hasn’t stopped hundreds of expeditions from going out looking for it.

Fawcett was financed by the Royal Geographical Society in London.  It humbles me to think that at age 57 he headed out again because he really believed in El Dorado, which he called the City of Z .

He set out with only his 21-year-old son Jack and one of Jack’s friends. He wanted to travel light and fast, eat off the land, and not harass the natives. They vanished in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil.  Subsequent attempts to find Fawcett and the city have failed.

What happened to Fawcett? David Grann thinks he knows. The author is not an adventurer, but he ended up in the jungles of the Amazon to try to find an answer.

Fawcett’s expeditions inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of a lost world. Grann wrote an earlier book, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession.

I’m not ready for any Amazon adventures, so I’m happy to follow Grann’s digging through Fawcett’s old diaries and logs for clues and doing my own armchair adventuring.

I liked that the book also deals with how in the past 40 years in Brazil alone, the Amazon has lost some two hundred and seventy thousand square miles of its original forest cover. That’s an area bigger than France. Tribes are being threatened with extinction. Many animals and plants, some we never even knew existed, are also vanishing.

Much has been lost in those jungles.

More Reading
Vanished!: Explorers Forever Lost     

The Lost City


Here is an odd, and kind of Romantic with a capital R, tale. A homemade houseboat washed up this month on an Irish beach. It look well-traveled, but in good shape. No one was on board.

The local coast guard boards it and finds a note.


“I, Rick Small, donate this structure to a homeless youth to give them a better life that Newfoundlanders choose not to do! No rent, no mortgage, no hydro”.

Rick Small is an “environmentalist/eco-adventurer” from Thunder Bay, Canada, which would suggest that this houseboat survived a 1,900 mile, two month journey across the Atlantic. It had been sighted in September off Newfoundland.

Rick Small had previously gained attention with a three-wheeled bike fitted with solar panels, which powered him across 7,000 km of Canada.

The boat still contained some of Small’s personal items. It is equipped with an electric motor powered by the solar panels, and only a piece of plywood bolted to a PVC pipe for steering.



Photos: Ballyglass Coast Guard, County Mayo, Ireland


I have been doing some armchair adventuring that sent me back into my past.  As a boy, I read the Classic Illustrated comic book version of  Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and imagined myself a castaway on some island.

It is an old tale, first published in 1719. At that time (and I suspect still today) many readers and non-readers took the adventures of Robinson Crusoe to be a true story of a real person and an actual adventure. The title for that first edition, in the style of the time, was The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.

I don’t think many people today are reading Robinson Crusoe but they may be familiar with the story or name – even if only because in the theme to Gilligan’s Island they sing “Like Robinson Crusoe, it’s primitive as can be.”

It is structured as an autobiography of Robinson (birth name Kreutznaer) and his time as a castaway for thirty years on a remote tropical island near Trinidad. Before he is rescued, he encounters cannibals, captives, and mutineers. Exciting stuff for a 10-year-old boy to encounter curled up in an armchair while eating some beef jerky for additional castaway effect.


Map of Robinson Crusoe’s island, 1720

I liked that even in the comic book version, it read like a journal. He builds a shelter and makes clothes and eventually befriends a native islander who he names Friday. Eventually, I saw a movie version of the story, but when I was reading the comic back in 1962, I also saw a cleaned-up, family film version of island survival called In Search Of The Castaways. No one should want to be stuck on some deserted island, but. of course, I did. As an adult, it all came back to me with the Tom Hanks’ film Castaway.

It wasn’t until I was an English major in college that I learned that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was regarded by many to be the first novel in English. I read it for a class and it was a serious reading. James Joyce noted that the true symbol of the British conquest is Robinson Crusoe: “He is the true prototype of the British colonist. … The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.” The interpretation in that classroom was that Crusoe tried to impose his society on the island via agriculture and his politics of being “king of the island” and by redeeming the savages, especially Friday, with his European ways. (Even though Defoe simultaneously criticizes the Spanish conquest of South America.)

I discovered in writing this that Daniel Defoe wrote over 250 books on economics, history, biography and crime, although we still know him best for the fiction, especially Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and Roxana.

swiss familly robinson

As an English major and teacher, I should say that Defoe’s books had a big impact on me, but honestly as a kid at that time the book that had a greater grip on me was The Swiss Family Robinson (1812) which had to have been influences by Defoe. It is another story I first encountered as a Classics Illustrated Comic but that I went on to read after in book form. (That was true of many of those comics for me.)

I recall that the book seemed to have a like of moralizing about the author’s, Johann David Wyss, beliefs about Christian faith, family values, and the virtues of self-reliance. I was more into the fishing, boat-building, guns and general camping-in-the-woods stuff that sounded like a lot of fun. And their treehouse. I loved that. I still dream of having a treehouse one day. And I still love islands.

The story has had many versions in comics, books and on television and in films. Again, I don’t know that kids are reading books like The Swiss Family Robinson these days. the style and vocabulary is tough, even if the general plot is appealing.  The Disney film version was the one I saw as a kid and I haven’t seen it since, so I don’t know how dated it might seem to a kid today.


All of this revisiting of my youthful armchair adventuring was inspired by seeing that August 7 is the anniversary of Thor Heyerdahl’s raft Kon-Tiki landing in French Polynesia back in 1947. The book Kon-Tiki was one I read was I was a young teen for a school book report. This true adventure is about a journey of 4300 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean by raft.

Thor Heyerdahl suspected that the South Sea Islands had been settled by an ancient race from thousands of miles to the east who traveled by rafts. Those people had been led on their ancient journey by a mythical Incan god named Kon-Tiki who walked the ocean.

He decided to prove his theory by duplicating the legendary voyage and on April 28, 1947, Heyerdahl and five other adventurers sailed from Peru on a balsa log raft. Balsa – like those little airplanes I had been buying and building all throughout my childhood.

They travels for three months on the open sea and hit storms, whales, sharks and everything you would expect. Finally, they sighted land. They had come to the Polynesian island of Puka Puka and took this as proof that early South Americans could have traveled across the Pacific and settled in the Polynesian Islands.

Of course, Heyerdahl and his crew of five had a radio, navigational equipment, watches and other modern conveniences and safety equipment, but the raft itself was made entirely of pre-Columbian materials. The crude craft was balsa logs lashed together with hemp ropes with gaps for the water to drain out. It had a bamboo cabin with a roof of banana leaves. The mast was made of planks of mangrove, and it held a square sail. It was a replica of the rafts that native Peruvians were using at the time of the first European contact in the early 1500s. Heyerdahl named it Kon-Tiki.

I read the book, The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas, that was published in 1948, and I saw a documentary film about the journey. It may have been the one Heyerdahl made when the book was released. I searched for it online and there are several film versions of the story including a dramatic movie based on the book.

I came across a few clips from the 1947 Heyerdahl documentary including this one that shows their encounter with the worlds biggest fish, the whaleshark.

I’m sure when I was 15, this would have had an exciting Moby-Dick adventure quality to it, but now I view it and wonder if they were in any danger and if there was any reason to attack the whaleshark other than to get some action footage.

Almost all my adventuring these days is of the armchair variety, and my take on survival and “helping the natives” has certainly gone in a very different direction from the ideas I had as a kid curled up with a blanket in a chair reading.

wikiwhaling1“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”

I’m time traveling in my head and thinking about Herman Melville again.

I have imagined him at his interesting little writing desk. Today I am seeing this day 174 years ago as Melville, age 21, sets sail aboard the whaling vessel Acushnet from the port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, bound for the Pacific Ocean.

He had no experience as a whaler, and not much experience at sea. He had sailed to and from Liverpool, England as a cabin boy on a merchant ship, but he loved it.

Whaling is now a rightfully despised business, but then it was still big business as whale oil from blubber was the most widely available fuel for artificial lights, powering household lamps, streetlights, and even lighthouses. It was also one of the most popular lubricants, used in factory machines, sewing machines, and clocks.

Melville’s seafaring career certainly provided him inspiration for a shelf of books, most being written before Moby-Dick and those earlier ones (fiction and non-fiction) being more successful in his lifetime than his masterwork.

By June 1841, the Acushnet‘s boatsteerer jumped ship and was replaced by Melville. They arrived in Nuka Hiva, Marquesas and he was quite dissatisfied with French imperialism there.  We don’t often think about economics in reading a book like Moby-Dick, but the economic recession caused tension on the Acushnet and on July 9th, 1842, Melville and shipmate Richard Greene (who is the character Toby in Typee) decided to desert the Acushnet. They were soon captured by cannibals (the Taipis) but escaped in August.

Melville quickly signed on to the Australian ship, Lucy Ann. Further adding good experiences for his firts books, Melville aligns himself with the rest of the mutinous crew. They mutiny fails and he spends a month jailed in Tahiti.  for mutiny

In November 1842, he sets sail for a 4-month voyage on the Nantucket whaler, Charles and Henry, and again became boatsteerer. The following February, he sails to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and finds the islands colonized by British. In Honolulu, Melville joins frigate USS United States as a seaman and then finally returns to Massachusetts on board the USS United States.

Melville learned the ins and outs of whaling during his years at sea. In his role, he was not directly involved (though he writes that he helped) with harpooning the whales, harvesting them, and the processing their oil aboard the ship.

One thing we know is that he heard many tales from his fellow whalers. The story that gets the most attention in Melville study is of a legendary white sperm whale called Mocha Dick.

Knickerbocker Magazine described the whale in 1939: as a”renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature, … he was white as wool … Numerous boats are known to have been shattered by his immense flukes, or ground to pieces in the crush of his powerful jaws.”

Melville also met the son of Owen Chase, who had survived a whale attack on the Essex 21 years earlier, and he read Chase’s account which was source material for Moby-Dick.

There are many ways to read Moby-Dick, which is why I have been able to reread it more than a few times. It’s not my favorite novel, but it is a touchstone novel. Some readers get frustrated with the inter-chapters about whales and whaling. You could skip them and read the main story. It’s a different book, of course, but another experience. You could read just the inter-chapters.

In a review written by John McCurria, he reads the novel as a geopolitical representation of British imperialism through the practice of whaling. He writes, “Aboard the ship named after an exterminated Native American tribe [also a river and city in Massachusetts] are 30 men of African, European, Native American, Pacific Island and Asian descent, equal to the number of states in the federal union. All were enslaved under Ahab’s proclaimed quest for freedom registered in his mad obsession with whiteness”

This view of Ahab as a slaveholder to all of the men on board the vessel, and symbolic of Native American genocide, transatlantic slave labor, and cultural imperialism is pretty radical. I’m not convinced that Melville intended that as the main point of the book, but he was quite troubled by the imperialism he found on the islands he visited, and unhappy enough with shipboard politics to join a mutiny.

I had a much more Romantic view of setting sail when I read Melville in high school and college. I now take a much more Realistic, old-man view of the journeys.

I discovered this past week that I could buy Melville’s complete works with analysis and historical background for the Kindle of $1.99. I still prefer books on paper to a screen, but I don’t own all of Melville’s books any more, so I made the purchase. (By the way, you don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle books. I use my iPad with the Kindle app and you can use other devices or even your computer.)

I plan to spend some winter hours reading the books I didn’t attempt or couldn’t handle in my youth. For example, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, a novel, his seventh book, published in 1852. It is not about the sea but rather Gothic. It was his follow-up to Moby-Dick, which was not well received,  and probably an attempt to go in another direction. it is described as a psychological, sexual, tale about family tensions between Pierre, his widowed mother, his cousin Lucy and his fiancée Isabel who (spoiler alert)  is revealed to be his half-sister. Talk about setting sail in a new direction.

Sadly, Pierre was a critical and financial disaster. It was condemned for its morals and its style. After this, Melville the only novels he would are Israel Potter (unread by me) and the experimental novel, The Confidence-Man, which I was assigned to read in college and really enjoyed. I wonder how it would fare on a rereading.

Luckily, he did continue to write poetry and stories, including the wonderful “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno,” But the end of Melville’s life seems so sad to me.

His writing didn’t pay bills and didn’t get a good reception. In 1866,  Melville’s wife and her relatives used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York. That must have been humbling, but it was a adequately-paying appointment. He held that post for 19 years and won the reputation of being the only honest employee in a notoriously corrupt institution.

In 1867 his oldest son Malcolm shot himself, perhaps accidentally, and died at home. Melville suffered from alcoholism and depression. His wife managed to wean him off alcohol and his depression improved, but recurred after the death of his second son.

Melville devoted years to “his autumnal masterpiece” an 18,000-line epic poem (among the longest single poems in American literature) entitled “Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage” which was inspired by his 1856 trip to the Holy Land. Like Melville, he travels to Jerusalem to renew his faith. One of the central characters, Rolfe, is similar to Melville in his younger days, a seeker and adventurer. Scholars also agree that the reclusive Vine is based on Hawthorne, a friend and fellow writer who had died twelve years before. It was only published because his uncle left a bequest to pay for the publication. It is about a student’s spiritual pilgrimage and was obscure in his own time and still today. The initial printing was only 350 copies, but unsold copies were burned because Melville was unable to afford to buy them at cost. The critic Lewis Mumford found a copy of the poem in the New York Public Library in 1925 “with its pages uncut”—in other words, it had sat there unread for 50 years.

I have visited the Custom House in NYC where Melville worked and seen his grave in the Bronx, NY on my own Melville pilgrimages.

Like Billy Pilgrim, I have come to believe that there is no such thing as time. What has happened and what will happen is part of an all-encompassing present. I can “time travel” (the simplest term for it) but not actually travel from one time to another. It is a matter of being aware at different points in the continuing motion of it. My awareness moves, especially to different points in my lifetime, as it is continuously happening. Quite Tralfamadorian.

So it goes.

“Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Me thinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me.” Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”

“I try all things, I achieve what I can.”  Moby-Dick; or, The Whale


New York Times obituary notice, 29 September 1891, which misspelled Melville’s then-unpopular masterpiece as Mobie Dick.

Sailing across any ocean is one of the fantasy adventures I had as a kid.  I recall reading Kon-Tiki when I was about 11 years old.  It is the story of a raft used by Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl in his 1947 expedition across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands.

the Kon-Tiki raft

Heyerdahl believed that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times and aimed to prove it with a voyage. Using only the materials and technologies available to those people at that historical time, he went to Peru and built a raft of balsa logs and other native materials in an indigenous style as recorded in illustrations by Spanish conquistadores.

Heyerdahl and five companions sailed the raft for 101 days over 4,300 miles across the Pacific Ocean before smashing into a reef at Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands on August 7, 1947. The crew made successful landfall and all returned safely.

But this past week, I read on the Mail Online about an explorer who crossed the Pacific in boat made from recycled plastic bottles.

The 60 foot catamaran, built almost entirely with waste material, survived giant swells and storms to complete the 9,000-mile voyage from California to Australia.

The boat is called Plastiki (for plastic Kon Tiki) is made from 12,500 reclaimed soda bottles that are built into the hulls. Parts of the boat are held together with a new glue made out of cashew nuts and sugar. An old aluminum water pipe became the mast, and more recycled plastic was used to weave the sail cloth.

Solar panels, a wind turbine and bicycle generators provide electricity for the six crew members. There is even a miniature greenhouse on the cramped deck to grow food, and a compost toilet below.

hulls of the Plastiki

Environmentalist David de Rothschild is the designer and sailor. He wanted it to be as green as possible and recruited a team of engineers and marine architects to help built it.

De Rothschild wanted to make the point that he was using the same material that is the scourge of global marine pollution – the plastic of food and drink packaging.

Plastiki sailed through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that I wrote about here last year. That patch has an estimated 100 million tons of plastic in an area twice the size of France. It takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to degrade. Even then, like other plastics, it will remain in the environment. One of the concerns about ocean pollution is that tiny particles of plastic float around the surface where they are ingested by fish and marine life.

Plastic makes up to 80 per cent of all marine pollution and at least a million seabirds and 100,000 mammals are killed every year by eating plastic or getting caught up in it.

Perhaps, Plastiki demonstrates that trash can be regarded as a valuable resource for reuse instead of being dumpes as a pollutant.

Summer is over. School is back in session. The time is over for adventures, right?



Of course not – people are headed for the Amazon and the Himalayas, and are hiking the Dolomite’s, kayaking, rafting, mountaineering, diving off a tropical island and climbing a glacier.

I’m not doing any of those things in the next few months.

My only shot at those adventures right now is vicariously. Some of those will probably be inspired by the recent arrival in my mailbox of the 2010 NOLS catalog. That’s the National Outdoor Leadership School founded in 1965 by mountaineer Paul Petzold.

Maybe even better for us armchair adventurers are their virtual catalog and online videos. Ah yes, backpacking through the Brooks Range north of the Arctic Circle. Warming up with some sea kayaking in sunny Baja, Mexico.

Of course, NOLS wants me to take a course, not just look at the photos. I would love to go to North America’s highest peak, Denali, or to the Southeast Alaska archipelago.

Alas, my own adventures will be closer to home. Not so far from Paradelle. But there are woods and rivers here, and the ocean is not so far away. And there are books and a fireplace and a hot drink quite nearby.

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