For physical environments that breed literary and cinematic insanity, there’s no beating the jungle. Unlike the Arctic or the desert, it doesn’t kill the wayward traveler off right away with hypothermia or dehydration. It’s hot and humid, full of water and disgusting stuff to eat for survival, and cannibals and malarial mosquitoes and stinging vines and all manner of stuff to torment you to the edge of your mind before noiselessly rubbing you out. Scientists rarely find fossil evidence of early humans in the jungle because remnants there have a way of disintegrating before they can be preserved. Consider the temples of Angkor Wat: Nobody knows what happened to the civilization that built them, and the encroaching jungle has been trying to strangle them and pull them down ever since.
I’ve never been to a jungle myself, mostly because I’m terrified of huge spiders and anything else that isn’t a mammal or a reptile but would feel meaty and substantial underfoot if you accidentally stepped on it. South America has spiders the size of dinner plates and they eat birds. The rainforest is teeming with arachnids and huge naked arthropods with poisonous fangs. They can keep the jungle.
I have, however, been to the movies, and you can take your pick of movies about people going nuts in the jungle. Apocalypse Now, just for starters. Or The Naked Jungle, directed by Byron Haskin and starring Charlton Heston as a South American plantation owner fighting to save his property from swarming armies of red ants. At the climax of this feverishly Technicolor 1954 movie, he destroys everything he owns.
Then there’s the undisputed heavyweight champion of jungle-bonkers movies: Aguirre, Wrath of God, directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski. Who better than Klaus Kinski to convincingly lose his mind in the rainforest, an actor so crazy anyway that he once locked himself in his bathroom and smashed everything to pebble-sized pieces in a fit of rage lasting two whole days and nights? Aguirre follows a band of Spanish treasure hunters beset by one misfortune after another as they make their way through the Peruvian jungle looking for El Dorado, the legendary city of gold once rumored to lie somewhere around the headwaters of the Amazon. By the end of the movie only Kinski is left, stark staring mad, surrounded by monkeys on a decrepit wooden raft and raving about inseminating his own daughter to forge a new Spanish empire in the jungle primordial. Tellingly, the production of Herzog’s 1972 movie was plagued by many of the same disasters its characters had to face: hunger, disease, mutiny, native insurrection, and the general sense that Herzog’s mighty experiment in method-directing hubris could only end in abject failure. At one point, Kinski attacked some of the extras with a sword. The jungle isn’t for everyone. Some folks just don’t adapt well.
Searching for El Dorado author Marc Herman, by contrast, is borderline boring in his adaptability. He keeps his wits about him at all times in the Guyanese jungle where he goes looking for the same El Dorado that eluded the 1560 Gonzalo Pizarro expedition in Herzog’s movie. Herman dutifully takes his anti-malarial pills, buys bottled water and eats sensibly. About the worst thing that happens to him in the jungle is that he buys the wrong hammock from a Los Angeles sporting goods store. For that mistake, he suffers a few sleepless nights before a Guyanese native tells him to buy a local one and sleep in it properly: sideways, not head at one end and feet at the other.
But at least Herman tells a good story. As the book’s subtitle states, he’s on the trail of the world’s largest gold rush, living among miners who scrape out a living in the world’s richest gold fields in one of its poorest countries. He befriends bands of independent miners who use toxic mercury to extract three dollars’ worth of gold a day slogging around in chest-deep muck. He visits the sites of huge international gold mines that use oversized rock tumblers called “cyclones” to powder three-ton boulders and then mix the powder with cyanide to leach out the tiny specks of gold. Herman’s travels take him deep into the heart of the rainforest, along overgrown trails where the only daylight at high noon is what makes it through a long, thin ribbon overhead where the track is paralleled by a thin opening in the canopy. At the ends of roads like these, hewn out of virgin rainforest that from the air, he says, looks like an unbroken expanse of broccoli, he encounters mining towns that paradoxically get poorer the closer they get to the source of all the wealth.
Herman encounters many paradoxes on his remarkably insanity-free journey to El Dorado—not to the mythical city with streets paved in gold, but to the gold fields that themselves gave rise to the myth—and he explores them with a keen feel for cognitive dissonance. The huge corporate mines—dealing in billions of gallons of cyanide sludge that occasionally breaks loose from the reservoirs that hold it—are nonetheless more environmentally sound than the hundreds or thousands of smaller operations scattered throughout the forest. Cyanide dissipates on exposure to sunlight and air, while the mercury that poor miners use stays in the environment forever, eventually climbing to the top of the food chain and slowly killing off entire communities. Guyana has more gold in the ground than any other country and no money to provide the most basic services.
Strangest of all is that gold—which has at some point spelled money in almost every culture—is losing its value and is now a commodity the same as wheat or soybeans. It remains to be seen what the end of perhaps the last gold rush will mean for Guyana and the rest of the world.