All that glisters is not gold

THE CREATURE IN THE MAP: In Search of El Dorado Charles Nicholl Cape pounds 18.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
These days, travel writers can supplement their earnings by taking a film-crew on their journeys, willingly submitting to the intrusive camera and the grumbling of the sound-recordist when a parakeet squawks at the moment an Andean medicine man reveals the meaning of life. The unique intimacy of travel is crowded out by clumping film technicians. Everything becomes hideously literal, smoothed out by the glassy eye of the camera.

It is sad to see the talented Charles Nicholl succumb to the gleam of gold in his quest for El Dorado; in this case, Channel Four gold. Whereas Colin Thubron allowed a film crew to travel with him only on a preliminary expedition to central Asia, Nicholl takes one with him on his actual entrada down the Orinoco in the wake of Sir Walter Ralegh's abortive 1595 expedition to find the fabled lost city. One could never imagine the sensitive and supremely solitary Thubron putting up with cameras for long.

Nicholl's El Dorado documentary was actually shown some time ago. It was the usual Heart-of-Darkness scenario: wobbly gringos in little canoes on an ugly river thrashing upstream to the sound of Pan-pipes. Yet something was wrong. It wasn't like following in the footsteps of, say, Robert Byron to see whether the minarets of obscure mosques still stand on forgotten plains. For there were no Ralegh-related landmarks to be found, no points of reference. Ral-egh's route was not accurately recorded and it was through a changing river system many centuries ago. It's almost as if Nicholl hadn't grasped the main significance of Ralegh's trip; that it was an abject failure. Why re-create a voyage up a blank river to a non-destination that might have been anywhere in South America?

In fact Nicholl's Orinoco journey is irrelevant to his book, since it doesn't add one hard fact or useful detail. It is irritating when he breaks off from his more forensic historical reconstruction and recontinues his lacklustre saga. Why did he go down the river at all? He didn't hang around the pubs of Deptford for weeks when researching his book on Marlowe, did he?

The more he pumps up the motives of Sir Walter Ralegh to metaphysical heights (he was on an alchemical quest for Dr Dee; he was looking for the Forest of Arden for the Virgin Queen), the more he makes his own trip look silly. Who cares about German expats in their twilight years and lecherous local hermits? Does he think these characters intrinsically interesting simply because he met them on the journey?

The moment Nicholl parts company with poor, bedraggled Sir Walter, the game is up. When Ralegh came to the end of the navigable river, 400 miles from the delta (no insight is offered into this moment of despair), Nicholl at the same point simply hires a light aircraft and flies to the exact spot 150 miles south where Ralegh thought El Dorado stood - the site of Auyan Tepuy or "Devil's mountain", where a deranged Latvian lives, hallucinating Inca magic and plesiosaurs.

At this point Nicholl abruptly relinquishes the grail/quest motif and plunges into the life story of an obscure and not especially interesting Thirties aviator, Jimmy Angel. It's something of a shock when Nicholl suddenly announces: "It was really Jimmy Angel, as much as Ralegh himself, who drew me into this journey''. The gear- change from Elizabethan courtier to seedy extra in a Spielberg film is excruciatingly misconceived.

One can instead take pleasure from Nicholl's able reconstruction of the seafarer's life and his use of new source material (like the journal of Francis Sparry, a young member of Ralegh 's crew, left behind with the Orinoco natives and later captured by the Spanish). Nicholl may be at times fanciful; he labours the sexual imagery of Ralegh's quest and he thinks that Ralegh's drawing of the lake on which El Dorado stands looks like an insect - hence "the creature in the map''. Yet his Ralegh is quite distinct from the cape-throwing cove of legend; an altogether more complex and remarkable character. He was an alchemist who used the most modern methods of navigation, a soldier who could concoct complex herbal remedies used by royalty 50 years after his death. Nicholl's Ralegh is more dreamer than despoiler. All he had to show for his 1595 trip was four tons of earth and some fool's gold. The ruin of the native peoples, however, was well under way in the perilous rush for gold and timber.

It's a long way from the chaste Arcadia of gold and noble savages that the Queen's favourite dreamed about. El Dorado was for Walter Ralegh and Lope de Aguirre (the Spanish-Basque mutineer immortalised in the Herzog film) a dangerous piece of theatre in which greed and treachery were always a component.

Nicholl may well try to put a gorgeous Spenserian gloss on the proceedings, and turn Ralegh's trip into a decorous Elizabethan masque; but there's no getting round the fact that an encounter with the inhabitants of El Dorado would have led to their impoverishment or death at the hands of the British. Ralegh was there to steal gold. He may have been a mystagogue in more prosperous days, but his trip to El Dorado was the action of a desperate man; and unlike his later admirer, he had no film crew to help offset his costs.