El Dorado in the Amazon A Deluded German and Three Dead Bodies
A German man claims to be an Indian chief in the Amazon rainforest. His tales of El Dorado even impressed Steven Spielberg and Jacques Cousteau. His tales would be harmless if there weren't three unsolved deaths connected to his fantasy world.
In the late 1960s, a man turned up in the Brazilian state of Acre, deep in the Amazon region. He was wearing a loincloth and a feather, carried a bow and claimed he was Tatunca Nara, chief of the Ugha Mongulala. No one had ever heard of an Indian tribe with that name. In addition, the man bore no resemblance whatsoever to an Indian. He was white and spoke with a strong French accent.
He said he had inherited the accent from his mother, explaining that she was a German nun who had been taken by the Indians. His people, he said, lived in an underground city called Akakor, and that German was one of the languages spoken there -- a byproduct of the offspring of 2,000 Nazi soldiers who had once traveled up the Amazon in U-boats.
His story would have raised eyebrows anywhere else. But outlandish stories are not uncommon in the Amazon region, so no one paid much attention to Tatunca Nara. Otherwise, he made a friendly impression, and nothing much would have come of his appearance if it hadn't come to the attention of Karl Brugger, a correspondent with Germany's ARD television network at the time. He visited Tatunca Nara in Manaus and recorded his story on 12 audiotapes. Brugger called it: "The most unusual story I have ever heard." It was a tale of extraterrestrial visitors, secret rites of the "ancient fathers" and incursions of the "white barbarians," all described copiously and in great detail, and without interruption "from the year zero to the present."
Even more surprising was the fact that Brugger's book, "The Chronicle of Akakor," enjoyed a certain level of success. In New Age circles, Tatunca's stories were studied as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. They included lines like, "Five empty days at the end of the year are dedicated to worshipping our gods."
Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau hired Tatunca as a guide when he explored the region with his boat, the Calypso, in 1983. The 2008 adventure film "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is about a sunken city in the Amazon called Akator, and an Indian tribe called the Ugha Mogulala. The action figure for the film is dressed in a loincloth and a feather.
Does the original exist? Is Tatunca alive? This reporter recently traveled to Brazil in an effort to find the legendary man.
The Almirante Azevedo II, a river steamer, has been traveling up and down the Rio Negro for more than 30 years. The trip upstream from Manaus to Barcelos takes 35 hours, a journey through black waters turned acidic by decaying vegetation. It is the rainy season and the rainforests are flooded, transforming the Rio Negro into a vast, watery network of tributaries and putrid swamps.
Raimundo Azevedo, the captain, is squatting next to a stack of tires on the lower deck, having his back massaged by a physical therapist who came on board at some point. When asked about Tatunca, he says, "The Indian from Germany? Of course I know him. Everyone on the river knows him. Of course he's still alive -- as long as no one shot him last week."
The Almirante Azevedo II has traveled through the inky black night, in a bubble consisting of the sounds of water rushing past and the numbing chug of its diesel engine, sounds reflected by the wall of rampant, tangled vegetation along the riverbank. Captain Azevedo puts on a shirt and hauls himself up the stairs to the upper deck to play cards.
The few dozen passengers are lying in their hammocks, packed together like sausages in a smokehouse. A Pentecostal Christian crosses himself and prays, while the boy next to him is engrossed in pictures of vaginas on his mobile phone. It seems each person has a different way of starting out the day. The captain, who has heard about Tatunca's jungle fortress, says: "No one dares go there, because he has installed booby traps and attached guns to trees. No one knows what he is hiding there." An occasional shrieking noise can be heard as the boat slides past the shore.
"There was a German who wrote a book about Tatunca," says the captain. "He even had a turtle tattooed over his heart, just like Tatunca. They killed him in Rio."
"The bullet went straight into the turtle," adds Lucio, a fat taxi driver with a piece of his elbow sticking out of his wrist, the result of a motorcycle accident.
"But that wasn't Tatunca."
The riverboat creeps up the river, pushing its way through prehistoric organic matter, and the longer it evades drifting tree trunks and floating islands, the more the group discusses rumors about this German living upstream -- and the more sinister they become.
Some bones were found seven years ago, says Lucio. "Long bones. It was no Amazonian. Probably a German." Tatunca killed him, says Lucio, to gain access to his money and his wife. "That's what people say. But Tatunca says it wasn't him."
"Maybe not. They say he's on the run from the police in his country," says the captain. By now, Tatunca must be well into his seventies. And yet, the captain notes, he is still strong and fit. "He hates gringos," says another man. He pauses for a moment, looks at the others, and says: "You're gringos."
The shore glides by, empty and yet promising. A shadow occasionally slips out of the water, one of the pink dolphins native to the Rio Negro, which are said to go on land at night and impregnate women.
German adventurer Rüdiger Nehberg also encountered this white Indian, Tatunca Nara, during an expedition among the Yanomami Indians. The two men hated each other at first sight and accused each other of lying, murder and delusion. Their mutual animosity apparently persists to this day. "Tatunca wants to personally drown me in the Rio Negro," Nehberg wrote in an email in May.
Murders and Disappearances
The animosity stems from the fact that Nehberg published a book in 1991 titled "The Self-Made Chief." In it, he revealed that Tatunca Nara's real name is Hansi Richard Günther Hauck, and that he was born in Grub am Forst, a town near Coburg in Bavaria and not on the Rio Negro, in 1941. According to Nehberg, Hauck, who had read a lot of "Tarzan" books as a young boy, abandoned his wife and children in 1966, took a job on board the freighter Dorthe Oldendorff and eventually disappeared in Brazil. Former friends said that, as a child, Hauck once claimed to have witnessed the landing of extraterrestrial beings.
This would all be harmless if there weren't three deaths that remain unexplained to this day, deaths that occurred along the upper reaches of the Rio Negro. All three victims had been drawn to the region after reading "The Chronicle of Akakor," and had asked a certain Tatunca Nara to lead them to the sunken city. And, according to witnesses, he had made the same promise to all three: "I will show you Akakor."
The German Federal Criminal Police Office launched an investigation into the suspected murder and disappearance of three individuals "against German citizen Günther Hauck, who lives in Brazil, under a false identity." But the investigation came to nothing.
After 35 hours of painfully slow-moving travel, Barcelos appears on the left bank like a prophecy some 500 kilometers (312 miles) upstream from Manaus. There are 30 Evangelical churches in this town of 15,000 residents, some of whom drive around proclaiming salvation into the motionless, dusty air from sound systems mounted onto their pickup trucks: "God does not deny you any miracles!" It is the religion of the up-and-coming, those who prefer to believe in the future and not the hereafter.
The Lure of the Amazon
The Amazon and its tributaries have always held an attraction for people disgusted with the ordinary, fortune hunters and gold prospectors -- among them German actor Klaus Kinski, 19th century geographer Alexander von Humboldt, a Nazi explorer named Otto Schulz-Kampfhenkel and countless rescuers of the rainforest. The most recent incarnation of Amazon adventurer is a gaunt Texan with watery eyes, whose friends call him "The Amazing Faltermann," and who is just pushing his bicycle past the Café Regional.
At 20, Patrick Faltermann left his parents' house in the deeply conservative US Bible Belt, boarded a freighter to Belém, a city on the Amazon, and traded his laptop for a kayak. Then he began paddling up the river. He did it the old-fashioned way, as he puts it, without GPS, against the current and with little more than Teddy Roosevelt's "Through the Brazilian Wilderness" in his luggage. It was a journey of lonely, dark nights, razor grass, poison spitting spiders and being lost for days. Now, four years later, Faltermann has traveled 4,500 kilometers and says: "I met Tatunca four weeks ago. He must be in his mid-70s, but he's tougher than I am. People seem to be afraid of him, right?"
Tatunca has booby-trapped his hut in the rainforest with dynamite, says Faltermann. "He has friends in the military. That's helpful, because lots of people would like to shoot him dead. He apparently told a girl he was her father and that she had to come with him, in his boat. The man is incredible."
A cool breeze occasionally drifts over from the river on this hot day. Faltermann opens another can of Skol beer, waits until a flatbed truck thunders by and says: "His stories sound like a whole lot of bullshit. And his Portuguese is lousier than mine. It's like a big ego trip. But he knows the area better than anyone else. And he's on to something in the Indian region, up on the Rio Araçá."
On to something? "El Dorado. It's supposed to be up by the two mountain peaks, above the waterfall. Tatunca is the only one who's been there so far." To the people of Barcelos, "El Dorado" seems to be a place just like any other.
- Part 1: A Deluded German and Three Dead Bodies
- Part 2: 'Bom Dia, I'm Tatunca'
- Part 3: 'Do You Want to Go to El Dorado? It's No Legend.'