The Unknown Country

RM coverRaymond Maufrais (1926-50) was a French paratrooper, journalist and explorer. In September 1949 he attempted to travel solo from French Guyana to Brazil. His route would take him through the densely forested and sparsely populated Tumuk Humak mountain range. In February 1950 his notes and equipment were found in a hut by the River Tompok. Final entries show that the exhausted Maufrais intended to swim to the nearest habitation – a distance of some 70 km. His body was never found. His father Edgar journeyed to Guyana in 1952 and spent many years in South America, publishing an account of his search for his son – whose fate has never been determined – in 1956.)

Thursday, 12th January [from the penultimate entry]

For a month now I’ve lived in the virgin forest, living entirely on what it provides and working hard meanwhile. And I’m nothing unusual, physically; I’m the average Frenchman – if that – the average European with his habits, his tastes, his modest scale of life – and his misadventures during the last twenty years. So that I’ve given the lie to those who asserted after their third round of punch that Guiana is “death to the European. He can’t exist in it without taking every possible precaution, keeping to a fixed diet, and avoiding physical effort. Hunting, for instance. You’ve got to go slow with your hunting; if you don’t, it’ll wear you to a shred. Kill you, in the end, it will”.

But Guiana is an unknown country. It’s not Guiana that kills the European, and it’s not hard, physical work, either. It’s the European who kills himself; and, as he needs an excuse, he pins the crime on Guiana.

Continue reading

The Auroras and other doubtful islands

Another chapter from this fascinating forgotten work Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts (Allan, London 1928) by R.T. Gould. The Aurora Islands group of three phantom islands was first reported in 1762 by the Spanish merchant ship Aurora while sailing from Lima to Cádiz. They are referred to in an episode in Edgar Allan Poe's novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, where Pym and his crewmates search for but fail to find them. Gould was  an admirer of the 'divine Edgar' - whom he calls ' one of the greatest and most unfortunate of all writers... the only world-figure of American literature.' The islands were last reportedly sighted in 1856, but continued to appear on maps of the South Atlantic until the 1870s.

Aurora Islands on a map circa 1800 (far left)

   At the beginning of last century the existence of the three Aurora islands, lying to the south-eastward of the Falklands, was as little doubted as that of Australia. Originally discovered by the Aurora in 1762, they were reported again by the Princess, Captain Manuel de Oyarvido, in 1790, and by other vessels at various dates, while in 1794 the Spanish surveying-vessel Atrevida surveyed and charted (so she imagined) all three islands, as well as determining their position by astronomical observations. Lying in the track of sailing vessels bound round Cape Horn, they were, of course, much too important to omit from even small-scale charts; consequently every chart-maker who valued his reputation and his sales proceeded to embellish his charts of the South Atlantic with a "new and correct delineation" of the group, frequently adding the track of the Atrevida in their vicinity–presumably as "corroborative detail" in the Pooh-Bah style, although that vessel's narrative was neither bald nor unconvincing.

Continue reading