It all started with a dusty old book we found on a shelf of the great Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon. The River’s Ran East, written in 1952, recounts the incredible adventure of legendary explorer and OSS agent, Leonard Clark. Clark recounts the tale of having received a tattered and incomplete 500-year-old map from a friend in Lima that had been passed down through generations from the sole survivor of a jungle massacre in the early 1500s. In the River’s Ran East, Clark describes how he uses this map to discover 7 legendary cities of gold deep in the often-hostile, inhospitable, and treacherous Peruvian Amazon. Clark set out from Lima with $1000 in his pocket and encountered lethal snakes, jaguars, boiling rapids, brutal Campa slave traders, and Awajun headhunters. Nine months later, when he emerged from the jungle over the high Andes, he was leading a mule with $16,000 in gold dust strapped to it’s back.
What an amazing story! This was an adventure like no other, almost unbelievable. If Clark was telling the truth, this would mean that not only had El Dorado been discovered, but also that the Spanish were exploiting it 500 years ago. My friend and I scoured the Internet and investigated library archives to learn more. We searched high and low for news about this journey. We found…….nothing. Nothing other than news that Leonard Clark died 4 May 1957 in Venezuela, at age 50. He was on a mining expedition, when he and 2 other men drowned in the Caroni River near La Ceiba Falls, and it appears they may have gone over some falls. He and the two other men were last seen alive in the evening in a small aluminum outboard motorboat. Also drowned were Richard Machlin, the 34 year old geologist, and their Venezuelan pilot. Their bodies were recovered several miles downstream, and they were all buried at the mining camp of Lajota, 6 miles north of San Pedro. (The newspapers reported he was buried at the “cemetery of San Pedro de Las Bocas, a small government post on the edge of the jungle”.)
We contacted Clark’s family, and found 3 surviving members. Asking them who had researched this bit of history, they answered: “No one.” We contacted the publisher of his book with the same question. The answer: “No one.” So there was only one thing left to do…Go deep into the Peruvian Amazon and see for ourselves. Relying on maps from the Peruvian government, contacts deep in Aguarunas territory, and collective explorer skills, we left September, 2013. Flying to Lima, we headed over the high Andes and down into Bagua Chica, a remote jungle frontier town. From there, we found local transport to Santa Maria de Nieva, and hired canoes to make our way along the Maranon River in search of Clark’s legacy. Similar in a way to Clark’s journey, we encountered lethal snakes, a long and arduous journey, and lethal critters as we sought to experience the place names Clark describes in his book and to confirm his discovery.
To find out what we found, stay tuned for more!