Dream assignment or nightmare? An editor from National Geographic asked journalist Scott Wallace to join an expedition into the deepest wilds of the Amazon jungle to find the mysterious "People of the Arrow," a tribe never contacted by the outside world. The expedition was to gather information about the tribe without actually meeting it. The magazine wanted an article about its leader, a charismatic defender of indigenous tribes. Was Wallace up for the job?
He was, and while the experience was pretty much a nightmare, it's a blessing for readers of Wallace's fascinating book, "The Unconquered." Wallace joined a group of natives and whites who hacked their way through a jungle so thick it blotted out the sun. It was tough and dangerous going.
"Vines yanked my hat off. Thorns ripped at my sleeves," Wallace writes. "Stands of bamboo encased in three-inch spikes threatened to impale an eyeball in a moment of carelessness."
Oh, but there was more for him to ponder during the three-month journey. Swarms of vicious fire ants on the ground and on tree branches. Bullet ants whose sting can send an adult into shock. Huge anacondas. Jaguars. Alligatorlike caimans lurking in the night, their eyes glowing like red coals when a spotlight caught them. Not to mention poison-tipped arrows that might greet the explorers.
Leading the expedition was Sydney Possuelo, at the time an official of the Brazilian agency in charge of protecting Indians. Wallace found him to be a hero to Indians they encountered but often a moody enigma to the people he led. Wallace tells us human stories of the expedition, men persevering as individuals and as a group despite disease and hardship.
Yet Wallace also describes scenes of stunning natural beauty and eye-opening encounters with native tribes. As his expedition draws to a close, successful in its mission, he almost begins to sound nostalgic. It was so unlike his life in Manhattan, he realizes, that his experiences would soon seem unreal.
Lucky for us, he wrote them down.