25 February 2012

Missing Man - Colonel P.H. Fawcett

A year or two ago, whilst I was in Madrid, I bought a copy of Exploration Fawcett (1953). The story of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett (born 1867) has fascinated many people since the explorer’s disappearance somewhere in the Brazilian jungle in 1925.

Fawcett spent a large part of his life pursuing legends, and, in so doing, he eventually became a legend himself. Many writers have made much of the “mystery” of his disappearance, fuelled not least by Fawcett’s famously secretive and obsessive nature, as well as his mystical and theosophical leanings. Colonel Fawcett, a personal friend of the writer H. Rider Haggard, seems to have been the embodiment of the Victorian ideal of the gentleman-explorer-adventurer-hero, an upright and moral man, unbowed by hardship, toiling with single-minded determination towards his ultimate goal – death or glory!

The stuff of King Solomon’s Mines to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Fawcett’s story is the real thing and consequently never seems to stray far from the popular imagination. Many people have obsessed over discovering Fawcett’s fate in the way that he obsessed over finding his lost city of “Z.” Perhaps because the story is an open ended one people continue to be drawn to wonder and speculate about what fate might have ultimately befallen the lost explorer. His search for “Z” has transmuted into our search for him. As he explored one of the last blank spaces on the map, so too, he has become an enduring blank space himself.

Fawcett was convinced that somewhere in the dense jungles of the Amazon there existed the ruins of an advanced civilisation. The chronicles of the Spanish Conquistadors had made mention of the myths of El Dorado, a fabled city of vast cultural wealth and riches, and some Spanish chroniclers had even claimed to have passed through such a place in the Amazon. Hiram Bingham’s (re-)discovery of a lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu, in Peru in 1911 – a vast and complex network of stone buildings of staggering architectural beauty and achievement perched atop a majestic and imposing mountain height – seemed to indicate that there was still much to be discovered concerning the pre-Columbian period of South America’s history.

Yet the idea of a lost civilisation having once resided in the dense and inhospitable jungles of the Amazon seemed to stretch such fancies a little too far for many contemporary (and later) archaeologists, but Fawcett was not to be swayed. He was convinced he had found incontrovertible evidence which pointed to this fanciful notion being founded upon real facts, and he was determined to find and reveal the truth of the existence of “Z.” However, in the face of stiff competition from rival expeditions, particularly those of Dr Alexander Hamilton Rice (1875-1956), Fawcett grew increasingly secretive in his quest; and after serving in the First World War and witnessing the horrors there, like many veterans, he became increasingly eccentric and cranky. He turned to spiritualism which seemed not only to sustain, but also to fuel the zeal of his search all the more. This spiritualism some have seen as diluting (or, perhaps, polluting) his previously rigorous scientific ardour. Whichever the case may be he remained undeterred from his goal and finally set out with his eldest son, Jack, and Jack’s best friend, Raleigh Rimmel, on a three man trek into the unknown, never to return.
On a trip to Mexico this month I read David Grann’s The Lost City of Z (2009). This is a masterful retelling of Fawcett’s tale along with the sagas of all the would-be rescuer-adventurers who in the subsequent years have either gone in search of Fawcett, or at least in search of answers regarding his fate. Grann himself follows in Fawcett’s footsteps. From the archives of the Royal Geographical Society (of which Fawcett was a holder of the Founder’s Medal), and the papers, log-books, letters, and diaries still retained by Fawcett’s family, to the very jungle of the Mato Grosso region of Brazil itself, where Fawcett was last seen alive. It is a fascinating tale well told. Grann is a reporter for the New Yorker, more a modern man of our times rather than a model of the modern Victorian explorer, he guides us with him on his search in an engaging and entertaining journey both into history and into the modern day Brazilian National Park, where “uncontacted” tribes people continue to live to this day. In his search for Fawcett he uncovers the false leads and mistaken conclusions of previous Fawcett-seekers, and, ironically, whilst he fails to find conclusive evidence of what really happened to Fawcett, Grann may well have stumbled upon the very thing which Fawcett was himself in search of – “Z.”

Grann meets the anthropologist Michael Heckenberger in a remote Xingu village. Heckenberger has been one of the scholars pioneering the archaeological research of the Amazon region, and he has very recently uncovered remains which have caused academics to reconsider past assumptions about the area and the cultures which have inhabited this part of the Americas. Perhaps Fawcett was not quite so deluded after all. The windmills the famous Don Quixote of the Mato Grosso spent so long in seeking seem now to have been a very real possibility. Perhaps for too long, because of wonders such as Machu Picchu or indeed the numerous Mayan ruins of the Yucatan, first explored and documented by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in the 1839 and 1841, people have always assumed Fawcett was seeking a towering stone metropolis with streets paved with gold, when perhaps the reality – which Fawcett may well have been partly aware of – was more along the lines of vast, wooden palisaded compounds surrounded by monumental ditches and moats, connected by precisely laid networks of roads and causeways, accurately configured along precise geometries. A city built of such perishable organics and clays would vanish just as easily as the mortal clay of an individual man, but, so too it seems that traces of the indomitable will always remain – perhaps one day, when the history of this region – the history of “Z” – is more fully known, we may also finally know the real fate of Colonel Fawcett and his two companions.

For more information on these lost Amazon cities see the following article by Michael Heckenberger (2009):

5 February 2012

The Star Ferry - Hong Kong

This New Year began for me with a trip to one of my favourite cities, Hong Kong.

Hong Kong currently bills itself as “Asia’s World City” and it is certainly a very diverse and cosmopolitan place. Hong Kong is famously a very densely populated city, but it’s also relatively easy to escape from the bustling streets to the much quieter atmosphere of the outlying islands or the hills of the New Territories. Amidst the tightly crowded skyscrapers and modern buildings amongst the streets and back-alleys it’s also possible to find traces of old Hong Kong – solid colonial era buildings and smoky, antique Chinese temples. One of my most favourite things in Hong Kong is the Star Ferry.

The Star Ferry now plies only two routes across the shimmering turquoise waters of Victoria Harbour. From Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon side, to Wan Chai and Central, Hong Kong island side (when I first visited Hong Kong several years ago it then plied four routes, but the routes to Hung Hom ceased last year). 

These quaint little boats, painted green and white, are quietly iconic. They are such a part of the fabric of Hong Kong that it would be hard to imagine the place without them. They are rather like a maritime version of London’s old red Routemaster buses.

Before the first regular ferry service people had always crossed the harbour strait in small sampans, but in 1870 a twin-screw wooden hulled boat from England, owned by a man named Grant Smith, began to ferry people from one side to the other. However, it wasn’t until 1888 that a regular scheduled service was set up. 

The “Kowloon Ferry Company” was founded by a Parsee merchant, a former cook, opium trader, and later hotel entrepreneur, named Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala, who bought Smith’s boat. He later acquired two steam boats, named the Morning Star and the Evening Star. Within ten years the popularity of the service meant he was able to expand his fleet to four steam boats, the two new vessels being the Rising Star and the Guiding Star. Each boat could take up to one hundred passengers.  A local newspaper reported in 1888 that the ferry ran at all hours between Pedders Wharf and Tsim Sha Tsui on a 40 minute to one hour trip. On Mondays and Fridays, the service halted for the boat’s coaling. The first four boats were each single deck vessels, later the company would begin to run boats with two decks like those still in service today. The company was incorporated in 1898, becoming the “Star Ferry Company,” and was sold in the same year, just before Dorabjee’s retirement to India. It is said that the company name was inspired by the opening lines of Dorabjee’s favourite poem:

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar, 
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Today’s twin piers at Tsim Sha Tsui were built in the early 1950s. The present piers at Central were recently relocated due to foreshore reclamation work; the new fourth-generation building was modelled after the second-generation one which served the route a hundred years ago. 

Many of the boats currently in service in the Star Ferry fleet also date back to the 1950s, although a couple were built as recently as the late 1980s. The boats have a charm of their own which is hard to describe, it’s better to experience it first hand. They seem quaintly old fashioned in many ways, but they are still very much a functioning part of modern Hong Kong’s public transport system. The company does run a harbour tour route, but the ferry service itself is by no means a mere tourist attraction, albeit that most of the current guidebooks list the ferries as a ‘must see’ element of a stay in Hong Kong. The Star Ferry certainly is the pleasantest way to cross from the mainland to the island or back again. It provides a picturesque view no matter what time of the day or night one chooses to cross. And the harbour itself is always so dynamic that there is always something to see – the graceful arc of a sea kite gliding on the wing and occasionally dropping to the water in the act of fishing, or a sampan precariously bobbing about like a popped champagne cork, looking as though it’s about to get clobbered by the ferry itself as it steams purposefully ahead across the strait, only to have the danger reversed moments later as one sees a giant cruise liner or heavily laden coaster bearing down on the ferry from the other side. 

Each crossing is a lively affair with the boat usually packed to the gunwales with passengers on both decks. The upper deck (slightly more expensive) is somewhat more genteel and offers better shelter fore and aft; the lower deck (slightly less expensive) is liable to a bit more noise and pungent diesel smells from the open doors of the roaring engine rooms below, but neither is particularly costly at either HK$2.50-HK$3.00 one way (roughly equivalent to 25 or 30 pence at present in the UK). The benches on each deck still look wonderfully Edwardian and are eminently functional with the back piece easily being tilted manually one way or the other depending on the direction of travel.

The crossing feels like a timeless part of Hong Kong’s existence. One sits on the boat or stands by the rail looking out at the restless, ever-changing face of the city on either side of the harbour. That timelessness is well caught in the opening pages of Richard Mason’s classic Hong Kong novel, The World of Suzie Wong (1957):

“The ferryboat came churning alongside and the crowd moved forward. We jostled together up the gangplank and chose one of the slatted bench-seats on the covered top-deck. The ferries were Chinese owned and run, and very efficient, and we had hardly sat down before the water was churning again, the engines rumbling, the boat palpitating – and we were moving off busily past the Kowloon wharves, past anchored merchant-ships, past great clusters of junks. Ahead, on the island across the channel, was Hong Kong, squeezed into a coastal strip a few hundred yards wide, with the miniature skyscrapers in the centre and on either side the long waterfront, stretching for miles, wedged with sampans and junks; behind rose the steep escarpment of the Peak, shedding the town and the lower social orders as it climbed, until at the higher altitudes there remained only a sprinkling of white bungalows and luxury flats inhabited by the elite.”

All that has changed in this description today would be that the skyscrapers are no longer miniature, but rank as some of the tallest in the world, and – sadly – there are no more picturesque looking junks beyond one or two occasional tourist curiosities. There are still plenty of sampans though.

I took these accompanying pictures on a crossing from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central shortly before the Chinese New Year celebrations last month. The first photo shows the Day Star, built in 1964; and the second picture shows the Meridian Star, built in 1958, moored alongside the Tsim Sha Tsui pier. The remaining photos are all of the Northern Star, built in 1959. Each has the capacity to seat 576 people.