The legendary libation was allegedly devised by an 18th-century alchemist/adventurer named Marquis Ferdinand D’Etatis, the very same ‘Mad Marquis’ who led the famous grog mutiny on the British prison ship HMS Lavenham while it was anchored off Brazil’s coast.
After setting the ship aflame and swimming to shore, the marquis enlisted with a Portuguese trading company and struck out upriver to trade the company’s trinkets for alligator skins.
His trade route was supposed to take him several hundred miles down the Amazon, then another hundred miles up a large tributary called the Rio Negro. About halfway to the Rio Negro, however, D’Etatis insisted the trading party turn up a different river. His Portuguese partner objected, saying the marquis’ calculations were way off. As riposte, D’Etatis put his partner ashore at gunpoint, then headed up what was actually Rio Nhamunda.
It was long thought that the marquis was merely bad at reading a map. New evidence, however, has come to light, suggesting he knew exactly where he was going. In a 1997 biography of the D’Etatis, writer Johann Richter points out that the marquis was obsessed with the accounts of Gaspar Carvajal, the Franciscan friar who accompanied Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana up the Amazon in 1541. At the mouth of the Rio Nhamunda, the friar wrote, a group of tall, fair-skinned warrior women led a vicious attack on the Spanish party, nearly killing the lot of them. After beating back the attack, the Spaniards interrogated several captives and learned the women belonged to a warlike all-female tribe which controlled much of the Rio Nhamunda basin and were said to possess a culture much more advanced than the locals.
At the mouth of the Rio Nhamunda, the friar wrote, a group of tall, fair-skinned warrior women led a vicious attack on the Spanish party, nearly killing the lot of them. After beating back the attack, the Spaniards interrogated several captives and learned the women belonged to a warlike all-female tribe which controlled much of the Rio Nhamunda basin and were said to possess a culture much more advanced than the locals.
The friar called them Amazons, after the fabled female warriors of Greek mythology, and the Amazon River was named for them. Fearful of another attack, the Spanish party didn’t pursue their attackers up the Nhamunda, and for the next five centuries, latter-day explorers sought out but seldom detected evidence of the mysterious clan.
It isn’t known if the marquis made contact with the legendary warriors, but it wasn’t long before he became a legend of his own. According to Hugh Passis’ 1956 book In Search of the Mad Marquis, D’Etatis paddled far upriver and settled with Guacara tribesman who viewed his ever-expanding insanity as a sign he was in touch with very powerful spirits, and it wasn’t long before he married both daughters of the cannibal king. He subsequently went completely native, dedicating his time to the dark art of alchemy (while a young man in France he had studied under master alchemist Charles Mon). The marquis taught the natives how to distil liquor and the natives introduced the Frenchman to native roots and berries with psychoactive properties.
From this melding of Western distillation and native fauna, the marquis is said to have assembled the coctel perfecto, a tipple so toothsome it is supposed to have swayed from God a century’s worth of Franciscan missionaries sent upriver to convert the heathen cannibals. To this day, none have returned. And neither did the brave drunkards of the Oxford Men’s Tippling Club.
Or so it was thought.
I should have been on that expedition. Though a freshman member of the OMTC, I was well in the running for a spot on the crew, when, by chance, I fell from a third-story window during the qualifying drinking contest. It was also by chance that I located the only member of the expedition to return.
Dr. Donald Hanson, the youngest member of the OMTC Eight, did not surface in a dim Brazilian dive, as romance would dictate. I found him behind the Dean’s desk at the St. Helanus Seminary, a modest but acclaimed Jesuit school in Dorchester, England. A mutual, not to mention astonished Oxford classmate of ours ran into Hanson at a religious seminar in Rheims, France, and eventually, the news traveled back to me. I say astonished because we all thought he was dead, or at the very least, living in the jungles of Brazil.
It turns out Hanson is now a Jesuit priest and, like his 15th-century compatriot Friar Gaspar Carvajal, Hanson returned from the Amazon with a strange tale to tell.
A Century-Old Clue
The notion of penetrating the Matto Grasso in hopes of finding the perfect cocktail was put forth by an Oxford student of languages and OMTC member Thomas McManus. A young but knowledgeable collector of rare texts, he’d stumbled across a 19th Century religious tract slandering a rogue marquis named Ferdinand D’Etatis. Written by a French bishop, it condemned the marquis as a devoutly evil man, who, amongst his many other sins, delved into alchemy, practiced occultism and traveled halfway across the globe just to concoct an alcoholic drink so unholy and delicious it could sway even the most devout servant of God from his master.
McManus was more than a little intrigued. He immediately called an emergency session of the OMTC at an off-campus pub (the clubhouse was running short on gin) and breathlessly revealed his find.
A resolution to focus all of the club’s energies on discovering the truth behind the tale was put to vote and passed unanimously. Spiritus supra omnia (Alcohol above all) was the club’s motto, after all, and the prime directive of their charter was to “discover with any and all possible means the finest libations known to man, and drink them.” Since those words were inscribed in 1878 by the club’s founder, Sir William Hancock Haley, members of the OMTC had ventured far and wide, carrying out the commandment with a near fanatical dedication to duty, and now, in a century old text, was a blinking arrow pointing at not only one of the “finest libations”, but perhaps the Holy Grail of cocktails itself. In their hearts and minds, they had no choice but to go.
They might not have been the most qualified team to take a trip into the steaming jungles of Brazil, but they were certainly the most willing. From the forty-nine active members of the group an expedition team of eight was selected by the OMTC Supreme Council. All five members of the council claimed a slot, McManus was given a place because he had discovered the clue, and the last two positions were decided by an impromptu drinking contest. Late the next morning only two were left standing: Thomas Hanson and George Atlee. In theory it was a well-rounded team: Club President Jack Corbett, the eldest of the group, had served eight years in the elite 1st Paras before enrolling at Oxford; Peter Archer was a bright student of anthropology; McManus spoke three languages fluently; Clive Brooke studied botany; Daniel Brennan and Steve Cohen were both working toward advanced degrees in chemistry. Even Atlee brought something to the table; he’d won his scholarship to Oxford by proving a brilliant grasp of mechanical engineering. Hanson, a student of English Literature, for lack of a more useful position, was appointed the official chronicler of the expedition.
Preparing for Perdition
It took the club four months to rally the necessary funds, and it was no mean task. The student’s families refused to contribute to what they thought at best an excuse to duck their studies and, at worst, outright madness. They managed to raise some funds from OMTC alumni, but the majority of the budget was finally delivered by Corbett’s uncle, a wealthy businessman who’d been something of an adventurer in his own youth.
“We were drinking in the clubhouse, despairing over our lack of financial support,” Hanson remembers. “And Corbett walked in with his uncle. It turned out he’d been a member of the club in the 50’s and we spent the night drinking and listening to all his old adventures. We ended up passing out at the table. In the morning, he was gone and a check for 50 thousand pounds was sitting on the table.”
It was decided that Corbett and Atlee would take leave of their studies and fly ahead to arrange river transportation and logistics. Without anyone saying so, ex-paratrooper Corbett had become the de facto leader of the expedition. Tall, blond and muscular, he cut a dashing figure and was nicknamed “Doc” because of his striking resemblance to the pulp magazine hero Doc Savage. Atlee went with him because they would need a boat to make the river trek and, since they couldn’t afford a new one, he would have to use his mechanical expertise to ensure a used craft would make the trip. The rest of the team would join them a month later when the semester ended.
“It was the longest month of my life,” Hanson recalls. “We were mad with the sheer romance of it. Suddenly we were elevated from a gray world of dull books and droning professors and thrust into a vibrant, technicolor world teeming with danger and adventure. We thought we were the luckiest — and noblest — men in the world.”
Rendezvous in the Land of Pinga and Prostitutes
Hanson and the others caught up with Corbett and Atlee in Macapa, situated on the banks of the Amazon one hundred miles inland from the Pacific. The two scouts had accomplished a great deal in a month: they’d located a native guide who spoke many of the tribal languages of the Amazonian basin, in addition to English and Portuguese; purchased the bulk of the necessary supplies; and, the greatest coup of all, they’d gotten hold of an excellent means of transportation: a WWII-era PT boat acquired from the Argentinean Navy by way of a Brazilian surplus company. It came complete with a rusted hunk of metal that had once been a dual-barrel .50 caliber Browning machine gun. The surplus house had assured them the gun didn’t work but, after removing decades of rust, replacing the firing pin and a thorough grease job, Atlee had managed to get the weapon in reasonable working order. Which meant it jammed every ten rounds or so.
“It was terrifically loud,” Hanson says, “and the way we figured it, if ten rounds from that beast didn’t send the enemy running, we were done for anyway.”
Corbett had already painted HMS Legless Lilly on the bow of the boat (after a celebrated Oxford Village barmaid) and attached the OMTC flag to the yard arm, but Atlee estimated he needed another couple of days with a local mechanic to get the ship’s engine up to par.
The team decided they would spend the meantime investigating the bars of Macapa. Corbett had already done a fair amount of reconnaissance and introduced his team to the local hooch, especially pinga (also called cachaca), a high-octane Brazilian liquor distilled from sugar cane. The lads found this sharp-tasting cousin of rum an excellent solution to the tropical heat and went “pinga-ponging” from the moment they got up to the moment they fell down to sleep. In between they found time to attend to Macapa’s vast legion of prostitutes.
“Half the lads were engaged, or at least sworn to birds back home,” Hanson says, “but you have to understand our mindset. We felt — no, we knew we very special men. We were about to commit mind, body, and soul to a heroic duty and thus felt we had the right to behave as badly as we wished. We were as conquering heroes, except we had yet to conquer anything, save for a number of brothels and bars.”
It was at one of the latter that they met the final member of their expedition: Pierre Bacher, a French expatriate with no identifiable means of support and a strange way of talking.
“We were discussing our grand mission in some awful riverfront pub — we would speak quite loudly, you understand, we were that full of ourselves — and Bacher overheard and gravitated over. We imagined he was a drug dealer of some sort and we tried to wave him off, but he started talking about Marquis Ferdinand D’Etatis. What also got our attention was the way he talked: He would walk toward you speaking very quickly, waving his arms about, then would turn around suddenly and screech over his shoulder at you as he walked away, looking as if he thought you were about to plunge a knife in his back. Then he would turn back around and repeat. We thought he was mad and we took right to him. Up until then we’d thought people like that only existed in books.”
Over countless rounds of caipirinhas (pinga with mashed lime wedges and sugar), Bacher revealed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Mad Marquis and his travels, he even claimed to be researching a book about D’Etatis’ mystical beliefs. To the Tippler’s it seemed Jungian synchronicity in action, a nod of blessing from the gods. Corbett asked Bacher to accompany them, and the Frenchman immediately agreed.
“We knew from the start he was a bit off,” Hanson recalls. “We just didn’t realize how much. He had this mangy black beard and looked like a younger Rasputin. He was probably a con man of some sort, but when you’re standing on the brink of a great inky unknown — and about to plunge in — you grab hold of anyone who claims to have a candle, however suspect.”
On the eighth of May, Atlee declared the boat reasonably safe, and the team spent one final day making it suitable for an expedition by the Oxford Men’s Tippling Club: they converted the aft cabin into a bar. It may not have been as polished or spacious as the HMS Queen Mary’s lounge, but was nearly as well stocked.
“If someone had examined our manifest, they would have thought we were in the liquor import-export business,” Hanson confesses. “Or bootleggers.”
Indeed someone would have. Though they were well stocked with canned foods, local fruit, water, diesel fuel, insect repellent, three .12 gauge shotguns, four revolvers, fishing gear, hammocks, flashlights, cigarettes, coffee, and tea, the bulk of their storage space was consigned to a liquor store’s worth of booze: Six cases of Tanqueray Gin, three cases of Bacardi Rum, three cases of Smirnoff Vodka, four cases each of assorted scotches and whiskeys, one case each of Armagnac Brandy and Jose Cuervo Tequila, five cases of pinga (including a case of a wickedly powerful moonshine version), plus an assortment of personal bottles. Which didn’t leave much room for mixers, beer, wine and the requisite celebratory champagne. They were forced to stack half their inventory on the Legless Lilly’s deck and cover it with tarps.
“We planned on picking up more local booze on the way,” Hanson says. “We were very open-minded about what we drank. We had to be, it’s in the OMTC charter, something in order of: ‘If you see a stranger drink a strange drink and he doesn’t immediately fall over dead, it is your duty to have a taste.’ I remember watching our guide, Ernesto, and the native mechanic watching us cart the stuff on board. Ernesto seemed quite excited, but the mechanic was aghast. If we weren’t paying him so well I think he would have jumped ship immediately.”
They christened the Legless Lilly with a bottle of champagne, then went on the town to pre-celebrate and bid farewell to prostitutes they’d built temporal relationships with. At four in the morning, they returned to spend their first night on the ship.
“It was cramped to say the least,” Hanson says. “We hung our hammocks where we could and I remember blurrily gazing about at all the liquor and beer stacked to the ceiling around me and passing out with the most comfortable feeling the world, even though I was thousands of miles from home and country.”
Bar Hopping Down the Amazon
On May 9th, 1977, at the crack of dawn, the Oxford Men’s Tippling Club set out to discover the ultimate libation known to man. Corbett was the only member of the club to witness the departure: the rest of team refused to get up. At least not until the Legless Lilly got up to speed and began “bouncing the crest.”
“It was like waking up in Hades,” Hanson explains. “The swinging hammocks smashed us into walls and boxes of liquor and, except for Doc (Corbett), who had a good laugh, we all gave it up over the rails. I was deathly ill. It was a hell of a start.”
It wasn’t long before an even greater calamity than sea sickness set upon them.
“We decided we’d have some gimlets to ease our stomachs,” Hanson recalls, “then discovered we’d forgotten a very important ingredient: ice. And we had no way of making any. There was a small refrigerator on board, but it didn’t have a freezer compartment. A terrible oversight. If a giant octopus had risen up from the deep and crushed our hull to bits we’d have felt no more devastated.”
In true OMTC fashion, the lads rose to the occasion. They decided they would chill bottles of liquor, beer and mixer in the refrigerator then drink their cocktails and brews quickly before the equatorial heat could warm them. In the meantime, while the booze chilled, they would make due with warm Guinness and single malt scotch. Hanson, as the least valuable member of the team, was appointed the “Colonel of Cool.” Which meant he was responsible for rotating fresh bottles of liquor into the fridge as space was made available. It turned out to be a full-time job.
“From the start we drank as if it were our last day on earth,” Hanson says. “It seemed our privilege, our duty even. We all knew how to handle ourselves on the piss. We made a rule that whoever was on lookout or wheel duty could have only one drink an hour, but the rest of the crew drank as much as they wished. Which was a lot. It was our only protection from the beastly heat and insects.”
Though the PT boat’s trio of 1500 horsepower Higgins engines were well past their prime, the Legless Lilly managed a respectable cruising speed of twenty knots. The team lounged on the stacked cases of beer and wine like happy seals, listening to McManus read from Friar Gaspar Carvajal’s accounts of his own party’s voyage up the Amazon. Though the river was now fully explored and rife with modern boats, the men felt a powerful affinity to the courageous and fanatical 16th Century explorers. While Francisco de Orellana was seeking the golden city of El Dorado, the OMTC Eight felt they were pursuing no less valuable a treasure. They mused how the fabled cocktail would taste; they suspected it got you wildly drunk without the punishment of a hangover; they surmised the psychoactive herbs would allow you to remain clear and witty, even while teetering on the brink of alcohol oblivion. And once they discovered the chemical secret of its nature, surely they would become the richest men in the world, honored and respected by drunks for the rest of time.
Bacher, who proved to be an accomplished imbiber himself, reveled them with tales of the Amazonian women. He personally suspected the marquis had not fallen in with cannibals at all, but rather shacked up with the bellicose tribe of females. The crew scoffed and threw beer cans at him, prompting Bacher to produce a book describing the accounts of an Irish adventurer named Bernard O’Brien, who made contact and consorted with the Amazons in 1620. O’Brien said they lived in grand homes of gold and silver, and routinely captured males from the local tribes to breed with, so as to propagate their line. Female children were raised as warriors, male children were either returned to the tribesmen or strangled. He then brought out a much more recent account, a book called The Lure of the Amazon, published in 1959 by Brazilian explorer Eduardo Barros Prado. Prado swore he’d landed a pontoon plane on the Lake of the Mirror of the Moon, “at the foot of some hills, lying parallel to the course of the Nhamunda.” The Amazons living on the shores of the lake got him loaded on a “fiery” love potion, and he spent a couple of days just hanging out, studying their habits and fending off their lusty advances.
“We took the piss out of him,” Hanson says. “But I think, inside, each of us was all the more excited. It added that much more to the dream. I mean, looking for the Holy Grail of alcohol is tremendous to begin with, but throw in voluptuous Amazon women who demanded sex with no attachments and it starts seeming like a version of paradise even Hugh Hefner couldn’t dream up. And the whole fiery love potion thing, that had to be the cocktail we were searching for. Doc joked that he should have brought a better brand of cologne along, but, womanizer that he was, he may have been serious.
“It was a heady time, and the first few days flew by,” Hanson remembers. “We had to stay drunk just so we wouldn’t go mad with joy and impatience. We wished we’d have hired a plane and parachuted directly into the middle of the Amazons’ village.”
Though it may have seemed to the team they were creeping along like a crippled sloth, they were actually making decent speed. It took them just three days to cover the five hundred kilometers to Santarem. They could have made it in half that time, but they felt it necessary to make stops to investigate interesting-looking river bars for information and to buy ice.
“We started the habit of taking the boat’s steering wheel with us, so no one would steal the Lilly,” Hanson recalls. “We called the wheel the “Key to Success.” We’d race the first round of pints and whoever came in last had to lug it around like a fucking albatross.”
They went ashore in Santarem to replenish their fuel, buy a refrigerator with a large freezer compartment, and spend the night probing the city for rumors of D’Etatis and the Amazons. After being rewarded with confessions of ignorance and outright lies for the drinks they bought the locals, they finally hit gold. In a dank fisherman’s bar, they came across a pair of elderly Satere-Maue Indians who told them of a lake up the Nhamunda River where the Amazons were reputed to have lived. The fishermen claimed ancient pottery and drinking vessels were routinely found near the lake, not to mention many muiraquitiis: green, jade-like stones carved in the form of animals and worn around the neck like an amulet. Bacher became very excited at their mention, saying that the Amazons gave them to men as a reward for breeding with them. The locals agreed, adding that the raw stone could only be found at the bottom of the lake, which they called the Lake of the Mirror of the Moon.
“That struck us dead,” Hanson says. “The puzzle was falling together in our laps. We begged them to tell us where the lake was, but they refused until we bought them a half dozen more rounds.”
The natives said the lake was a mere hundred kilometers up the Nhamunda River, at the foot of a flat-topped mountain. Ernesto spoke at length with the men and three rounds later was sure he could find it.
The men returned to the boat and, instead of passing out, lay in their hammocks and whispered as excitedly as children on Xmas Eve. It all seemed too easy. They had thought it would be a fiercesome struggle, chasing rumors through endless jungles and swamps, and here they were, with the treasure map in their pocket and a humming refrigerator resolutely creating ice for their morning cocktails.
Though few of them invested in much sleep, this time they all got up when they set out for the mouth of the Nhamunda, just a day’s travel away. Seven in the morning found the lot of them perched upon their steadily eroding mountain of beer and wine, willing the boat to move faster. From behind poorly constructed facades of skepticism, they goaded Bacher into telling them more stories about the nymphomaniac war harlots who rewarded their lovers with precious stones and possessed a violent disdain for child support.
Pacing the deck like Ahab, Bacher gave them all they wanted, revealing that the Amazons were generally described as quite tall, with long blond hair and blue eyes — and were described as such by the natives long before they’d laid eyes on European explorers. Some radical historians, Bacher said, believed the tribe was descended from seafaring Scythian Amazons fleeing the encroachment of imperial Greece. He said a few early Spanish explorers who were lucky enough to encounter the Amazons and survive claimed some of them cut off one of their breasts, to facilitate their bowmanship.
“That put us off a bit — that’s how much we’d bought into the fantasy,” Hanson said. “Then one of the lads, I think it was Brooke, said, ‘That’s all right, my girlfriend doesn’t have any tits. She’s flat as a board.’ We had a laugh and mentally forgave the Amazon’s their strange habits.”
Bacher also spoke of local legends about the pink dolphins that raced along with the boat, botos as the natives called them. The lusty and apparently quite open-minded Amazons had mated with the botos at some point and their offspring crawled on shore at night, assumed the form of men, then seduced women into having sex with them. Once a woman went boto, the local legends had it, she never went back, and her offspring were sometimes speckled and deranged monsters who, just moments after springing from the womb, were capable of creeping off into the jungle to live solitary and evil lives.
“To hear me say it now, it all seems patently ridiculous,” Hanson says. “But at the time, with all the drinking and being immersed in a strange world, it had a powerful effect.”
With a steady supply of ice and all the booze they needed, the expedition eschewed visiting any more local bars, pushing on until they reached the mouth of the Nhamunda. They stopped the boat in its delta and stared up its inky black length, crowded by looming vegetation.
The Nhamunda River snakes and winds for four hundred miles into dense jungle and — because there is no abundance of precious metals, rubber or commercial hardwoods — is virtually uninhabited. Two small towns — Terra Santa and Faro — eke out a squalid existence on the river’s lower reaches, and the only way to reach them is by boat; no airfields or roads connect them to the civilized world. Beyond Faro there is nothing but tribal villages, wild animals and, perhaps, Amazon warriors and the Holy Grail of cocktails.
Standing there aboard the creaking boat under a new moon, staring up the black Nhamunda, eagerness shriveled into trepidation. It was akin to turning off a bustling well-lit highway and onto a sinister-looking backwoods dirt road that led to only God and the devil knew where.
“We just stood there, terrified,” Hanson recalls. “I don’t think anyone said a word for two minutes. I was about to suggest we anchor for the night and start up in the morning when Doc said, ‘All right then, let’s see about those tall, one-titted barmaids.’ And up the river we went.”
Up the Nhamunda
They would continue upriver until they reached the first town, Terra Santa, Corbett told them. Perhaps he understood that they had to at least take a bite of the black mystery before them, before they had a chance, in the rational light of day, to talk themselves out of it.
The Nhamunda is much narrower than the Amazon and they drastically reduced their speed to ensure they didn’t rip open their hull on a submerged rock. The team sat quietly on the deck, smoking and drinking, listening at the acoustic chaos of the jungle.
“We hadn’t gone up a hundred meters and the jungle started to howl,” Hanson says. “Howler monkeys screamed like they were being murdered, strange birds shrieked, creatures we couldn’t imagine roared and hissed, insects buzzed and whined, and the frogs — it sounded like there was a million of them crouched out there, incessantly bleating some terrible song.”
Bats of all sizes dove at the boat, unseen creatures splashed in the water around them, and the further they went, the closer the jungle seemed to lean in upon them. Suddenly their 48-ton war boat seemed a child’s toy riding the back of a huge black snake which carried them deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit of, they could sense it right to their core, evil.
“I thought it was just me, but I looked around and the rest seemed just as aghast. With Corbett you couldn’t tell, he just stood at the wheel, staring straight ahead, his blond hair like a halo in the moonlight. If he hadn’t been there, we’d probably have been back at a riverfront bar, wondering just what the hell we were doing so far from home.”
Even Bacher seemed affected. He crept slowly around the deck, muttering darkly and occasionally lashing out at a diving bat with his hand-carved ju-ju stick.
The river spread into a broad black water lake and on its shore crouched Terra Santa. The town was dark and silent and the team felt uncomfortable making a stir. Half of the team crept down to their hammocks to try to sleep, the others sat on the deck, smoking, drinking, waiting.
“When the sun rose everything changed,” Hanson says. “Suddenly everything was bright and clean, and the jungle wasn’t evil anymore, it was picturesque.”
After a couple rounds of healthful fruit cocktails, a couple of the lads threw out some fishing lines and began pulling in piranha, which were immediately fried up in bacon fat. It wasn’t the best-tasting fish in the world, but it lifted the men’s spirits. They lifted even more when, by sheer luck or natural instinct, they discovered they had docked directly in front of one of the town’s few bars.
The proprietor, a sloe-eyed mestizo named Julio, set them up with local nut liqueurs and moonshine pinga, and the OMTC introduced him to a bottle of Glenfiddich Scotch. The bartender told them the Lake of the Mirror of the Moon was only twenty miles upstream, just above the town of Faro.
“We were jubilant,” Hanson remembers. “Drinking in that weird little bar, just miles away from our objective.”
After a few jolts of single malt, Julio added more mystery to the adventure. He related that in the 1930s a strange German family, the Rossys, had set up a lumber mill near the lake. The family employed many of the natives in Faro, but none were allowed near the lake where there were strange goings-on. During World War II, German soldiers visited the Rossys, leaving a shortwave radio, a boat, and crates of equipment. Native fishermen claimed to have sighted a Nazi U-Boat in the Amazon near the mouth of the Nhamunda and for a while Germans were moving up and down the river, apparently looking for something. When the war was over the Germans disappeared and the Rossys moved on shortly thereafter.
“That was something,” Hanson says. “We immediately speculated that the Nazis were looking for the Amazons or the perfect cocktail itself. Hitler was a big fan of the occult, we figured the Nazis were members of his Paranormal Division, checking out the rumors. Hitler didn’t drink himself, but possessing the ultimate cocktail would have done wonders for the morale of his troops. It was all speculation of course, but it made the whole adventure that much more mysterious and strange.”
There was no fuel to be had, but Julio assured them they could buy as much as they wanted in Faro. He warned the team, however, that Faro was a licentious town, full of drunks, harlots, and pickpockets.
Properly fortified with liquor and new information, the HMS Legless Lilly set out for Faro.
Two hours later they discovered the best bar in Faro was a barge docked on the banks of the town, where they parlayed for fuel and pinga with the irascible owner, Antonio. He seemed surly until Corbett presented him with a gift of three bottles of Tanqueray Gin, which Antonio promptly served to the men, charging them a premium price for each glass. He traded them four hundred liters of fuel and straw hats for two cases of European liquor and introduced them to a drunk Hixkaryana Indian named Pau Rosa (named for a local tree, apparently because he was often as stiff as his namesake) who would guide them to Lake of the Mirror of the Moon in exchange for a bottle of rum.
At one in the afternoon they set out upriver and an hour later they went ashore. They left the native mechanic and a disgruntled Atlee on board and, armed with shotguns, revolvers and machetes, set out on foot into the jungle for the lake.
After hacking through two miles of dense undergrowth, they breached a clearing at the foot of a flat-topped mountain. In the center of the clearing was a small dirty lake.
“It was all very disappointing,” Hanson recalls. “We were expecting some pristine lake blazing like a mirror, but instead it was a leaf-infested pond. Pau Rosa settled down to drink his rum and the team wandered around the shore, looking for clues. First they thought they’d been misled, that it wasn’t the right lake at all, but Pau Rosa assured them it was. He also told them the Amazons didn’t actually live near the lake. They would come down the valley and stop at the lake to check their appearances before rendezvousing with local tribesmen for breeding. At night, he told them, the black water of the lake reflected as a mirror. When asked about the Rossy compound, he said it had burned down years ago.
“We stood there a moment, then Corbett says, ‘So what we have here is a bloody dressing room.’ We were philosophical about it. It had been too easy, after all. Bacher wanted to dive into the lake and search beneath the surface and we encouraged him to do so. He got about knee deep then changed his mind.”
The expedition marched back to the ship and discussed their options over lunch. “No one was for turning back,” Hanson says. “We had to continue upriver. Some of the boys wanted to head back to Faro to spend the day, looking for more clues in the bars, but Corbett squashed the idea. There was no vote called, he just said ‘We’re off then,’ and off we went.”
They left Pau Rosa to his rum and motored upriver.
The river narrowed to a narrow black corridor, about eighty feet wide, cutting through forty-foot high walls of dense vegetation and a bunker mentality began to sink in. With the last civilized outpost behind them and the jungle slowly closing in on a narrowing river, the team drew within itself. Conversations become stilted and whispered, the drinks were poured stronger, they removed the tarps disguising the twin Brownings and walked the deck with revolvers in their belts.
“We didn’t know what to expect: Amazon warriors, cannibal natives, the mestizo descendants of Nazi explorers, who knew? It was starting to feel like a military excursion into enemy territory. We were coming to steal something very valuable, after all, and surely we would have to fight to get it.”
First they would have to fight geography. As the sky darkened, a growing roar of water began to drown out the jungle chorus, and, turning a tight bend, they stopped the boat in the face of a ten-foot high waterfall. Beyond the waterfall were the first rapids of the Nhamunda.
They were thunderstruck. They had traveled so far, planned so well, and now a short wall of water thwarted them. On the right bank, at the foot of the waterfall, sprawled a native encampment of fishermen. They motored the Legless Lilly to the fisherman’s makeshift dock and the natives rushed toward them shouting and whistling.
“Cohen was manning the machine gun and I think he was about an ounce of trigger pressure away from letting them have it,” Hanson says. “But Ernesto started shouting back at them, trying to figure out their tongue and finally the chief came forward speaking Portuguese. He was a short fat man with a scar on the face that made him appear to be smiling wickedly all the time.”
The chief’s claimed his name was Michael, and he’d learned Portuguese from a Catholic missionary who had spent a winter with the tribe before giving them up as incorrigible heathens.
“Michael claimed he was a white man,” Hanson says, “even though he was very dark and looked like everyone else in the tribe. He’d probably lifted his name from the missionary. We joined him in his hut, presenting him with a bottle of Bacardi Rum. Which the chief liked very much.
“He had a very odd drinking ritual,” Hanson continues. “He would have a shot, jump up and let loose a high-pitched shriek, then dash out of the hut and run into the jungle. He’d creep back a few moments later with a strange, shy grin, sit back down, talk a little, have another shot and do it all over again. It was all very disconcerting.”
In between jaunts into the jungle, Michael informed them that, aside from the missionary, the OMTC expedition were the first Westerners to visit the region since the 1960’s, when two German botanists looking for some manner of flower had passed through. They’d bought a canoe from the tribe and disappeared into the rapids, never to return. Before then, missionaries had ventured upriver and Michael’s father, also a chief, said they too had never come back.
“We were very interested as to why they never came back,” Hanson said, “and the chief did something very strange. First he shrugged, then he made a drinking motion, then he pretended to chew on his arm.”
The chief also knew about the Amazons, whom he called the Madres de la Rio. He said they lived in a village called Xurutahumu and their queen, who was immortal, was called Conduri. In his father’s time, he claimed, the women would sneak into native villages to steal female children. Later they would send baskets of gifts floating down the river as payment for their captives.
By this time other male members of the tribe were squeezing into the hut, interested in trying some of the outsider’s liquor. The chief jealously refused to let the team give them any, demanding they repair to the Legless Lilly where they could talk in peace.
Settled in the Lilly’s bar, the chief said he would trade canoes for liquor and would personally guard their boat —and booze — while they were gone.
“He was very drunk by then,” Hanson says. “He wanted to try every possible type of liquor, and he especially liked the gin.”
The idea of continuing upriver without the Lilly and its horde of liquor didn’t appeal to most of the team. They also felt uneasy about leaving the liquor with the chief. We were in a pox until Atlee suggested he could devise a ramp that, if we hit it with enough speed, would allow us to climb the waterfall.
“We were all quite drunk by then and it seemed a smashing idea,” Hanson recalls. “Michael wasn’t so excited. He tried to frighten us. When we told him the name of our boat he became very disturbed. Michael claimed the name of a legless woman would offend the Amazons and they would kill us immediately. We tried to explain the name meant drunk rather than amputated, but he wouldn’t listen.”
The next morning the team dragged trees from the jungle and began erecting the ramp. The chief refused to let his followers help and it took the team three days to erect the ramp. At night they took turns standing guard, fearful the chief would attempt to sabotage their work.
There were other problems. The tight bend before the waterfall wouldn’t allow them to get up too much speed and the rapids above the waterfall threatened to drag them back over if they didn’t clear the ramp with enough speed. Atlee insisted they remove as much weight as possible from the boat, which meant putting the stores of beer and liquor ashore.
It was decided Corbett would pilot the boat and the rest would guard the booze. But first they had to extricate the chief from the Lilly’s bar. They told him he was in great danger, but he didn’t care. “We had to literally pry his fingers off the bar,” Hanson says. “He made an awful ruckus and when we dumped him onshore he became extremely bitter.”
The chief disappeared into the camp to sulk and the crew gathered on the bank to anxiously wait for the Lilly to make its run. They didn’t have to wait long.
“There was a terrible roar, and the Lilly came barreling around the bend at full throttle,” Hanson remembers. “Corbett gripped the wheel like he was wrestling Satan himself. Even from that distance, he looked utterly mad. He hit the ramp dead on and it was incredible. The Lilly struck the timber with a heart-stopping crack!, shot up the ramp, then struggled over the crest of the waterfall. Then it spun sideways and it looked as if was going to come back over.”
But it didn’t. Corbett managed to straighten the Lilly out and plow ahead. He put to shore fifty meters upriver then fired a triumphant burst from the Browning. Hanson and the others let out a cheer and turned around to start carrying their hooch upstream to Lilly.
The only thing was, when they turned around they found half their inventory missing. And so were Michael and his tribe.
“While we were watching the Lilly make the leap,” Hanson surmises, “man, woman and child must have crept up, grabbed as much as they could carry, then just disappeared into the jungle. We were devastated.”
The men began hauling what was left to the Lilly and Corbett went berserk when he heard the news. He took Ernesto and McManus with him into the jungle with shotguns to find the bandits, but they had made good their escape. Insane with rage, he confiscated two of the tribe’s canoes, shot holes in the rest, then set fire to the chief’s hut.
“He was out of his mind with rage, and we’d never seen that side of him. He wanted to raze the entire village but we literally had to pin him down until he cooled off. He swore he would deal with them on the way back.”
There were other problems. The collision with the ramp had started a slow leak in the hull and a hand bilge had to be used almost continuously. The rudder was bent and the Lilly took to straying toward the right bank.
Even more disconcerting was the fact that all their booze could now fit in the cabins below, leaving them with disturbingly clear decks.
“It was depressing at first, but we consoled ourselves with the idea that once we discovered the ultimate cocktail we wouldn’t want the stuff anyway,” Hanson says.
After fighting up the rapids, the men settled into a dark mood. The waterfall seemed a Rubicon of sorts, a barrier between the world they knew and one they had no understanding of at all.
“We started getting into the tequila, and that made things worse,” Hanson remembers. “Everyone was ill-tempered and short-fused.”
Their troubles were just beginning. When they anchored at nightfall they discovered their second-hand refrigerator was no longer producing ice. Atlee tried to repair it, but discovered the condenser had ruptured and the Freon had leaked out, rendering it useless.
“Half the team wanted to throw it overboard and machine gun into bits,” Hanson says. “The other half wanted to machine gun the chap who’d sold it to us. It was a terrific blow to morale.”
What’s worse, Corbett, who had now carried a shotgun slung over his shoulder, decreed they would ration the liquor. Which made some members uneasy, since there was still quite a bit left.
“It made us realize we were in for a very long haul,” Hanson said. “Corbett didn’t joke around with us anymore, he’d stand in the bridge with Bacher, staring ahead at something very, very far away.”
Two days later and they’d yet to see a single human face. They would occasionally see an abandoned hut alongside the river, but, upon investigation, they appeared to have been abandoned decades before.
So, drinking warm liquor, forced to ration their booze intake, and adrift in a strange and dangerous world, the team continued upstream. Then Bacher disappeared.
“He’d been acting stranger and stranger, then, one morning, we woke up and he was gone.”
So were a canoe, a shotgun and three cases of liquor. Two days further upriver and Atlee quietly announced they had reached the halfway point of return, meaning that if they turned around right then they would have just enough fuel to get back to Faro.
We decided to call a vote,” Hanson says, “but before we could call it Corbett jumped down from the bridge and said there would be no vote. McManus stood up and said he was right, but the rest of us were starting to feel like hostages.”
Whispers of mutiny began to make their rounds. Talk of slipping off in the remaining canoe was whispered below deck. Hordes of wasps attacked the crew. Brooke went hysterical, claiming to have seen Bacher’s face staring at them from the jungle, and had to be treated with a bottle of gin. The food was running short and Atlee and Brooke came down with dysentery. The team was falling apart.
Then, five days upriver, Hanson compound fractured his leg while climbing a tree to gather fruit.
“The only one with any medical experience to speak of was Corbett, and that was basic knowledge from the military. He tried to set it, but it was broken in three places. My shinbone was sticking out of the flesh and I knew I’d get gangrene.”
Brooke, Cohen and Archer demanded they head back, but were browbeaten into silence by fiery speeches from Corbett and McManus. It was decided that Hanson and the ship’s mechanic would paddle back to Faro in the canoe. After getting medical attention, he was to wait for the return of the expedition in Faro. He was given a little food and six bottles of rum to control the pain.
Hanson remembers being set into the canoe and the mechanic pushing off from the Lilly. He remembers the distraught faces of Cohen and Brooke, and the cold, somehow betrayed stare of Corbett. He watched them disappear upriver and they watched him drift back toward civilization.
It took them a week to reach Faro and Hanson remembers little of it.
“I was in a fever delirium,” he recalls. “The rum helped fight the pain but didn’t help my memory.”
From Faro Hanson was transported to a hospital in Santarem. They saved his leg but he walks with a limp to this day. After waiting for three fruitless months in Faro, he contacted the British Embassy. After first refusing to believe his tale, three different aircraft were dispatched to search for the Legless Lilly. Though they followed the river up its entire length, it was never sighted. Hanson remained in Brazil for the next five years, ashamed of returning home, hoping some word would reach him about his lost comrades. News that never came.
* * *
Upon their disappearance, I am ashamed to say, the halls of Oxford sang with a cruel whipsong against the collective reputation OMTC Eight, calling them foolhardy drunkards, naive idealists and much, much worse. Some chose to believe the daring adventurers were killed by natives, others found the light of truth in the notion the chaps spent more time manning the bar than the bridge and subsequently scuttled their craft on one the river’s legion of jagged rocks. Regardless, the OMTC’s charter and clubhouse were revoked by Oxford College and the club was forced to disband (an underground chapter still exists, I’m told.)
There rests on the grounds of the Oxford Village Cemetery a small granite monument to the OMTC Eight. On its face is engraved a reproduction of the expedition flag above the OMTC’s motto, “Alcohol Above All.” Beneath the heavy stone are buried eight bottles of Pimm’s No. 7.
“In retrospect, we were naive fools,” Hanson says. “We’d read too much Sir Burton and Conrad, we thought it romantic to sally forth off on some damn fool adventure.”
I have to respectfully disagree with the soul survivor of the OMTC Eight. Mock me as a sherry-eyed idealist, but I prefer to believe the seven Tippler’s found their way to the Lost Tribe of the Mad Marquis and his Holy Grail of cocktails. In my mind’s eye I can see them triumphantly grounding their boat against the sandy shore and rechristening it Legless Lilly’s Pub, where they, even now, are tipping back with the mestizo descendants of missionaries and the Mad Marquis, tipples whose taste and quality we ‘civilized men’ can only fitfully dream of.
A toast to you, lads: “Alcohol Above All!”