On a sweltering afternoon last Saturday, 130 people gathered in the oak-panelled surrounds of Philadelphia’s Union League Club for The Adventurists Afternoon Tea with a true legend of adventure. Word had got out that the speaker, Charles Brewer-Carias, was rather splendid, and people had travelled from as far afield as Minnesota, Delaware and New York to hear him. And my, did he not disappoint.
Speaking for the first ever time outside his native Venezuela, Charles, a septuagenarian naturalist and explorer, is a man of multiple talents and incarnations. One time national swimming champion, former Venezuelan Minister of Youth, author of 11 books, acclaimed photographer, naturalist and explorer are just a few of the things on his CV. Moreover, he is a veteran of over 250 expeditions and would put even the most prolific of Victorian explorers to shame. Caves, scorpions, sunken fleets, biospeleothems, frogs….. his long list of discoveries is so impressive it almost beggars belief. He seems like an anachronism; a throwback to the age of Von Humboldt, Waterton, Stanley, Kingsley and other Victorian men and women who poked around the far corners of the earth in drawing-room dress. People like this simply don’t exist anymore.
Dressed in jungle-ready khaki Charles smoothed and tweaked his magnificent moustache and took to the stage in an atmosphere of palpable anticipation. Listening to him talk was like being transported back to the Royal Geographical Society circa 1859, hearing Darwin expound his discoveries in the Galapagos. It felt surreal, in this age when the world has long been mapped, explored and proselytised, to be sitting listening to someone talking about multiple new discoveries. When Charles had written to The Adventurists a few months earlier that he ‘‘would give a talk that would make people choke on their tea’, he wasn’t far wrong.
Although this real-life Indiana Jones has discovered, and had named after him, a whole host of flora and fauna, it’s perhaps his recent discovery of the largest quartzite cave complex in the world that is the most impressive. In 2004, Charles spotted an unusual looking hole in a tepui (flat topped mountain) whilst in a helicopter flying over Venezuela’s Guyana Highlands. The pilot dismissed Charles’ sighting as irrelevant and refused to land. But Charles’ intuition was right. On returning several months later he found that the small hole was infact the entrance to a 23 km network of underground caves. Inside the caves, Charles and his team found several new species of fauna, including a giant, water-dwelling carnivorous cricket and a bizarre amphibious scorpion. Even more extraordinary was the discovery of what Charles has named biospeleothems; living silica organisms that have been dated to over a million years old, making them the oldest known living organisms on earth.
As if this wasn’t jaw-dropping enough, Charles then went on to discuss his theory about the fabled golden city of El Dorado. The city, first written about by Sir Walter Raleigh in his 1596 tome Discoverie, has long been a magnet for explorers, myth-makers and treasure hunters. Generally dismissed today as no more than a fanciful legend, Charles claims to know of this city’s whereabouts, stating it to be the old Royal Inca stronghold of Manoa. Since the site is located deep in the jungle in a region well known for guerrilla soldiers and cocaine processing laboratories, any expeditions there are currently impossible. But one day, Charles says, either he or his son will find it.
Charles’ talk was mind-bendingly fascinating, and he left the stage to rousing applause and looks of wonderment. The assembled crowd were quite literally gobsmacked, and surrounded Charles, wide-eyed and clamouring for questions, until the end of the evening. Suffice to say, he now has a whole legion of new fans and a long list of people eager to partake in his next expedition, including me, if I can stomach the tarantula-filled Guyana Highlands.