Since time unremembered, our kind has sought to explore the edges of our known world, to know what lies over the next hill or stretch of sea. The spirit of exploration is strong with us, and for many the urge to venture out over the horizon to lands and places unknown has always proven to be irresistible. These brave adventurers have gone out into the far reaches of the planet with grand plans to return to us with fantastic discoveries and tales of faraway lands. They know the risks, but still are confident that they will be able to ride along the edges of discovery and come back unscathed. Yet the natural world is a mysterious, often cruel, and even hungry place. For as long as we have felt the spark to travel to the edges of the horizon, so has the spirit of exploration taken its occasional victims. In many cases, these offerings of sacrifice to the gods of new knowledge and discovery have vanished into the ether, never to return, as if the earth has simply swallowed them up. These are the cases of the courageous amongst us who have dared to penetrate into the wilds and mysteries of our world, and who our world has decided to keep for itself.
One of the most famous lost explorers is the colorful, real-life Indiana Jones figure Percy Fawcett. Starting out as a bold, adventurous surveyor and mapmaker casting light upon the shadowy, uncharted landscape of Brazil and Bolivia in South America, Fawcett became obsessed with a lost civilization supposedly lurking within the wilds, which he called “The City of Z,” and which he believed to be within the remote, unexplored Mato Grosso region of Brazil. Fawcett became ever more convinced of this city’s existence, and concocted many strange theories around it, such as the idea that it was somehow linked to the lost continent of Atlantis and populated by its survivors.
Fawcett would launch several expeditions into the jungle in 1921 in an attempt to find this mythical lost city, and these ended in failure, ultimately undone by the constant hardships, dangerous animals, and diseases plaguing this wild land. None of this deterred the intrepid, unstoppable Fawcett, who was known as a tough-as-nails adventurer who seemed to be virtually immune to anything the jungle could throw at him. Indeed, these early failures only served to further fuel his obsession with the City of Z, and he continued to recklessly pursue his goal undaunted.
In 1925, Fawcett organized a well-funded and equipped expedition in yet another push into uncharted regions of the Amazon in search of the fabled city. Joined by his son, Jack Fawcett, and his good friend and fellow explorer Raleigh Rimell, the expedition set out on April 20, 1925, from the town of Cuiabá, with Fawcett reportedly uttering the haunting words, “The forest in these solitudes is always full of voices, the soft whisperings of those who came before…” And with these almost prophetic words, the expedition thrust forth into the unknown, confident that they would find what they had come for. None of them would ever be seen or heard from again.
When the expedition did not return after the year they had claimed they would be gone, there was much cause for concern. After all, Fawcett and his crew had been funded by various scientific societies and newspapers who were all eager to follow up on his adventures and findings, and the public had been anxiously waiting to hear of their journeys. Although Fawcett had left behind specific instructions that no one was to try and find him if he happened to disappear, there were several expeditions sent into the jungle to look for him, none of which ended in success and many of which vanished without a trace themselves. A total of 13 separate expeditions would be launched to look for Fawcett and over 100 people either died or vanished from the face of the earth in this pursuit, devoured by the jungle just as their quarry had been, and yet Fawcett’s disappearance remains a profound, much talked about mystery.
There are various theories as to what became of Fawcett and company. One is that they simply succumbed to the rigors and multitude of dangers of the wilds of the Amazon, despite their funding and fancy equipment, and their seasoned, experienced leader. Another theory is that the group became hopelessly lost in the wilderness and were either killed by natives or assimilated within their tribe, an idea that has somewhat been supported by occasional alleged sightings of decidedly caucasian looking natives in the jungles of the region, which could perhaps be descendants of the lost expedition. An offshoot of this theory is that Fawcett had in fact never planned to return at all, but rather to escape civilization and live among the indigenous people, possibly even intentionally leaving behind erroneous information on his planned route in order to throw those who would look for him off his trail. Since Fawcett had mused in his writings about going off to live with the natives, and indeed he seemed rather enamored with the notion, it doesn’t seem so farfetched.
Other more far out theories claim that he actually found the mythical city that he had long vigorously sought, and had decided to live out the rest of his days there, or that he even located some portal to a subterranean mystical city deep within the bowels of the earth. In the end, no one really knows what happened to Percy Fawcett and his expedition, and it remains one of the most famous lost expeditions of all time, capturing the imagination of generations. If you are interested in reading more on the fascinating case of Percy Fawcett, I suggest you read my article on it here at Mysterious Universe, which goes into far more detail on the whole expedition and its background.
The mysterious story of Percy Fawcett is certainly not the only case of explorers vanishing into thin air, and these cases go back pretty much as far as humans have been pushing out against the known boundaries of our world. In 1500, an expedition was launched by the Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real for the purpose of mapping out the uncharted North Atlantic in an effort to find an elusive northwest passage to Asia for the Portuguese crown and to further exert the country’s power and presence in the New World territories.
Gaspar reached Greenland, but never landed for reasons that remain unclear. Mistakenly believing Greenland to be East Asia, Gaspar sailed back to Portugal to excitedly tell of his amazing findings, and in 1501 a follow up expedition was launched. This time, Gasper was joined by his older brother, Miguel Corte-Real, who was also an explorer and had helped to fund his brother’s earlier New World expedition. The three-vessel expedition managed to reach their destination, but heavy ice flows prevented them from making an approach and they ended up sailing around to what is believed to have been the eastern region of Newfoundland. Here they were able to make a landing and subsequently supposedly captured up to 60 native men, who they intended to send back to Portugal to sell as slaves. Miguel was tasked with taking two of the expedition’s ships back to Portugal with their human cargo while Gaspar intended to continue on the journey for a short time more and catch up with them later. He was never heard from again.
When Gaspar failed to return as promised, Miguel Corte-Real organized an expedition to find him in May of 1502. Three ships were sent to the North Atlantic region, where they reached Newfoundland and split up to cover more ground, deciding on a rendezvous where they would all meet up again at a designated time. Two of the ships made it back as planned, but Miguel’s ship never arrived, and it seems as if he had joined his brother in the history of great unexplained disappearances. When yet another Corte-Real brother, Vasco Añes, expressed a desire to send an expedition to find his lost siblings, he was forbidden to go by the king, who perhaps feared that it would only lead to another Corte-Real brother enigmatically vanishing off the face of the earth.
It is unknown what happened to the Corte-Real brothers, and it has been theorized that they simply sank at sea, became stranded on one of the many islands of the area, were killed by less than friendly natives, or even that they met up and decided to live there for the rest of their lives. Some evidence has been found that at least Miguel Corte-Real may have survived and lived there amongst the natives for many years. In 1918 an inscription was found carved upon a boulder in Dighton, Massachusetts, which was dated 1511 and said: “Miguel Corte-Real, by the will of God, here leader of the Indians.” If this is genuine, then it suggests that he was living there amongst the Indians for at least 9 years after his supposed disappearance.
Another vanishing, this time from the 18th century, concerns the French explorer Jean-Francois de Galaup de La Perouse, who was tasked with following in the footsteps of the great British explorer Captain James Cook to further catalogue information on the people, flora, and fauna of the Pacific Rim, including North and South America, Asia and Australasia for the French, and to assert their dominance in Pacific exploration. In August of 1785, La Pérouse headed out to round Cape Horn and venture out over the vast, then mostly uncharted expanse of the Pacific ocean along with 225 specially handpicked crew, officers, and some of the best scientists in the country, aboard two advanced refitted transport ships, the Boussole and the Astrolabe, for what was to be a 4-year scientific exploration expedition. The well-funded expedition was loaded with the best supplies available, goods to be used for trade with the native peoples they would encounter, and the most advanced, cutting edge scientific equipment that money could buy.
The highly touted expedition was extremely ambitious and at first quite successful. Their first destination was Easter Island, where they arrived on April 8, 1786, after which they continued on to Hawaii and the West Coast of the North American continent, where they would begin probing and mapping out the rugged coast of Alaska and explore some of its inlets. They then continued south to California and Mexico, before heading back out across the sea to China, Japan, and Kamchatka, Russia, much further than Cook had ever been able to journey. He also explored Korea before heading south once again to Samoa. Throughout the whole trip, the expedition made maps, carried out numerous experiments, and studied the local customs and cultures of native people, as well as collecting a wealth of specimens and samples.
The journey was not without incident. At one point 20 men were lost when their landing boats approached to close to heavy currents, and in Russia one of the officers experienced somewhat of a mental breakdown and was sent back to Paris along with a cache of maps, drawings, and scientific notes and documents. At Samoa, a landing party was viciously attacked by the natives, resulting in a great loss of life and some of the team’s top scientists, but rather than fight back, La Pérouse backed off in an effort to maintain peaceful relations with the region’s tribes.
Despite these hardships, the expedition bravely pressed on, and on January 23, 1788, arrived at Botany Bay, Australia, much to the surprise of the British, who had thought that they were the only European presence in the region. In Australia the expedition collected supplies, did minor repairs on the ships, and La Pérouse wrote up a series of letters to his superiors back in France outlining their progress thus far and stating that they were planning to arrive home in June of 1789. After this, they headed out, destined for New Caledonia. The English lookout that watched them slip over the horizon is the last time they would ever be seen. The letters and correspondence with Paris stopped, the estimated time of arrival back in France came and went, and the ships seemed to have vanished without a trace.
A follow-up expedition was sent out on September 25, 1791 to try and locate La Pérouse, headed by Rear Admiral Joseph Antoine Bruni d’Entrecasteaux. Two ships, the Recherche and Esperance, managed to reach New Caledonia, but there was no sign of the missing expedition and they eventually headed back empty handed. The mysterious disappearance made quite a stir among the public at the time, since the expedition had been considered national heroes of sorts at the time, and the story made heavy rounds in the news, as well as in songs and plays.
Many years later, in 1826, an Irish captain named Peter Dillon arrived in the Santa Cruz Islands and began to find some artifacts he believed had belonged to the La Pérouse expedition, including swords and a variety of miscellaneous tools. The natives of the island said that these had come from the nearby island of Vanikoro, where they claimed that two large foreign ships had crashed into a reef and disintegrated. A search of the area turned up wreckage, anchors, cannons, copper sheeting and a brass candlestick, all of which were declared to have come from the missing expedition, but no bodies or any sign of the crew were found. Natives did claim that some of the crew had managed to escape and make it to shore, after which they had allegedly lived for years on the remote island before constructing a small boat and sailing off, but no signs of these purported survivors could be found. Interestingly, the local natives claimed that this ragtag group had been led by their “chief,” who it was surmised could have been La Pérouse himself.
Alas, Dillon’s expedition ran out of funds and was forced to abandon the search, and the disappearance of La Pérouse and the ultimate fate of its crew remained largely a murky mystery. In 1964, wreckage was again found on the reefs of Vanikoro and it was largely agreed to be from the missing ships, corroborating Dillon’s previous claims, but it is still unknown what happened to the crew, or if all of the boats met the same fate or not.
Yet another victim of this golden age of exploration occurred in the early 1800s, with the mysterious disappearance of British mariner George Bass. Although famous for his exploration of the coast of Australia, mapping it and circumnavigating Tasmania to discover it was an island, as well as engaging in much exploration inland and study of the native flora and fauna, Bass is also rather known for his odd vanishing.
In February of 1803, Bass left the shores of Australia aboard his ship the Venus and headed to Spanish colonies in South America, likely in Chile, in order to illegally sell a load of contraband cargo that he had been unable to fetch a good price for in Sydney, although he was ostensibly going to Tahiti to pick up supplies to bring back to Australia. At the time, Spanish colonies were technically only allowed to be supplied by Spanish ships, but the heavy taxation involved had created a lucrative illegal trade industry for foreign vessels, and it was highly suspected that this was his true destination. Bass would never return or be heard from again, and in January of 1806 he was listed by the Admiralty as lost at sea.
The inexplicable vanishing of George Bass has led to a good amount of speculation. One theory is that he was captured by the Spanish during his rogue trading run and either killed outright or forced to toil away in a silver mine. Another idea was that his ship crashed upon some unknown island and he and his crew had lived the rest of their lives as castaways. Probably the most likely explanation is that they were simply swallowed up by the sea, armed and bristling with its many perils. Despite the theories and speculation, the ultimate fate of George Bass remains unknown.
Such cases of vanished explorers are not merely the realm of lost history and the long ago era of dangerous high seas adventures, and perhaps the most famous case of a modern explorer gone missing has nothing to do with ships or sea travel. Peng Jiamu was a beloved Chinese explorer and biologist who had always been fascinated by the region of Lop Nur, a 3,000 square kilometers (1,160 square miles) area of harsh desert and salt encrusted earth in northwestern China which once held the second largest saline lake in China and was an important stop off point along the famed Silk Road. Located within the forbidding Tarim Basin of the eastern Takla Makan Desert, this is one of the harshest, most desolate environments in the country, indeed the world. It is also one of the more mysterious, with the true location of the lake once unknown, earning it the nickname “wandering lake” and in the 19th century it had long drawn the attention of explorers and scientists willing to brave the punishing conditions to find the answer to this conundrum.
In 1900, Swedish explorer and geographer Sven Anders Hedin finally solved the mystery of the legendary lake’s location, but this did little to stop scientific interest in this parched, bleak place. After all, it still held a variety of mysteries, including the mysterious disappearance of Loulan, an ancient Silk Road civilization, in the third century. The punishing, unforgiving environment would over the years accrue a rather high death count as it went about killing off and vanishing explorers, to the point that the region became known as a sort of Bermuda Triangle of Asia.
Peng Jiamu too was long drawn to the region. A renowned biologist at the Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, he made an excursion into the region in the late 1950s, trudging thousands of miles through the otherworldly, lifeless terrain by car, foot, horse, and donkey. Despite the hardships involved, he was hooked. In 1980, unafraid of the area’s many hazards and ominous legends, Peng led an expedition comprised of biologists, geologists and archeologists deep into the remote desert region of Lop Nur to conduct further research. Several days into his trek, Peng one day casually left a note that mentioned to the expedition that he was going out to get water, and then proceeded to vanish without a trace.
Upon word of Peng’s disappearance, the Chinese government orchestrated a massive search and rescue operation for the missing explorer, dedicating hundreds of personnel and over a dozen aircraft to the efforts. After thoroughly scouring the landscape for any sign of Peng, the search found not a single clue as to what had happened to him. Several skeletons were found abandoned and forgotten out in these desert wastelands during the operation, but none of them turned out to be Peng. In the years since it has been suggested that he had perhaps fallen victim to shifting sands that would have essentially devoured him, or a punishing sandstorm that would have pummeled and buried him forever, perhaps even an avalanche of loose soils that had come toppling down as he tried to seek shelter from the relentless sun and whipping winds. However, to this day no trace of the missing explorer has been found and Peng remains lost in the desert, his ultimate fate perhaps destined to be forever an impenetrable unsolved mystery.
It seems that as long as our kind wishes to go forth and penetrate into the uncharted realms of the natural world, to feel along the boundaries of our understanding and risk their lives doing so, there will always be those who don’t come back. It is the risk we take, the risk we have always taken, perhaps even the risk we accept, yet the mysteries of what happened to them can be frustrating and almost taunting. What happened to these intrepid, daring souls? What did these explorers see? What did they experience before dropping out of existence? Sometimes it seems as if there is a whole chapter to history that remains buried with these vanishing pioneers, the only ones who will ever know of it the ones who have never come back. One day we may learn of the ultimate fate of these lost explorers, but the secret knowledge they have gleaned, that hidden history, will likely always remain unknown to us.