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.
'Bom Dia, I'm Tatunca'
Until recently, Barcelos was the world capital of the ornamental fish trade, as well known in the fishkeeping world as Cognac is among brandy aficionados. In 1831, Austrian researcher Johann Natterer discovered the Symphysodon discus, or red discus, in the brackish waters around Barcelos. The species, dubbed the "king of aquarium fish," populates millions of living rooms today, usually together with the neon tetra, the most popular ornamental fish of all and also a native of the Rio Negro.
In Barcelos, the telephone booths are designed in the shape of ornamental fish, and during Carnival the population is divided into two groups, the Neons and the Discuses, who then attack one another wearing homemade fish costumes.
But now that ornamental fish are being bred on a large scale in Asia, the trade has declined by 70 percent.
Some time ago, two German aquarium lovers were arrested for bio-piracy. They had believed the assurances of their guide, a native who, to their great surprise, spoke German fluently and called himself Tatunca Nara.
At the town hall, a moldy building on the river, we learn that the "Chronicle of Akakor" triggered an entire tourism industry. In addition to fish keepers, various friends of the jungle and of Indians began coming to the area -- but not after there were reports of three deaths.
The first person to disappear was John Reed, a young American. That was in late 1980.
Swiss forestry expert Herbert Wanner vanished in 1984. His sneakers, some bones and a skull with a bullet hole in it were found a year later. It was these bones that the men on the river had spoken about.
Reed had treated the "Chronicle" as a manual for his own life. In his last communication, a letter to his parents, he wrote: "I believe in Tatunca's honesty more than ever."
The third person to go missing was Christine Heuser, a yoga instructor from Kehl am Rhein, a town in southwestern Germany. She too had devoured the "Chronicle of Akakor," and she was convinced that she had been Tatunca Nara's wife in a past life. She visited him in the summer of 1986. A photo exists depicting her swinging bare-breasted from a vine. Otherwise, there are no traces of Heuser.
Since the trade in ornamental fish has virtually ground to a halt, boat owners on the upper reaches of the Rio Negro have had to search for other work. Many serve as guides for American anglers who come to the region in search of the Oscar fish. Others sail up the Rio Negro, into the tributaries along the Colombian border, where they use their boats to smuggle packages of cocaine.
"I asked Tatunca if he killed those three. He says no." For Mamá, Tatunca's word was good enough. Mamá, a haggard man with a tattoo of a seahorse and a bandanna over his head, is greeted in Barcelos as "o Pirata." He flies a Jolly Roger on his boat and is at home in all murky waters. "Just no drugs," Mamá notes, without having been asked. When he smiles, he flashes a red ceramic tooth in the upper right-hand corner of his mouth.
Mamá says that he is Tatunca's only friend. "I told him that I wasn't interested in his stories. I just want some of the gold." According to Mamá, the two men traveled up the Rio Araçá together in November.
"To a point beyond the waterfall. There you see two cave entrances. Perhaps they were also tunnels built by the Nazis. We tried, unsuccessfully, to rappel down from above. Tatunca also started saying some really strange things." What could possibly seem strange to a pirate named Mamá? "He said: King Solomon is about to come riding out." And then? "He wanted me to kill him." But the king failed to materialize. It must have been the wrong cave opening. "Tatunca is probably sitting in his hut now. I'll take you there."
After the night's torrential rains, the dirt road to Ajuricaba is hardly negotiable. There is a snake in the middle of the road at kilometer 8, and after another two kilometers the trail ends in red, knee-high mud. If Tatunca Nara is truly sitting in his jungle hut, there is no way to reach him. "Perhaps it's better for you," says Mamá the pirate.
'Tatunca? No, He Isn't Here'
But then there is Tatunca's mother-in-law, Elfriede Katz, 88.
Her riverside house is on Estrada de Nazaré, on the outskirts of the town. As in all Jewish houses, a Mezuzah containing Hebrew verses from the Torah is nailed to the doorframe. Katz is in a good mood as she sits in a rocking chair on her veranda. "Tatunca? No, he isn't here," she says in a Bremen accent. Her parents, she explains, immigrated to Brazil shortly after she was born. Later, Katz married a piano maker whose family had fled from the Holocaust.
Katz became a soprano and sang in "La Traviata" at the opera houses of São Paulo and Porto Alegre. There was no indication that she would spend her golden years in the world capital of the ornamental fish trade, with a German-Indian man as a son-in-law, who told her that his name was Big Water Snake.
"My daughter told me that she had met a German Indian. Tatunca sent her love letters by military mail. They were stamped Top Secret. Then the two of them moved to the Rio Negro and lived among the Yanomami Indians for years, until their two children had to go to school." Katz appears to have no doubts about the origins of her son-in-law. She and her husband followed their daughter to Barcelos, where they opened a small hotel. Most of Tatunca's children ended up in Barcelos, including the three who were not supposed to return to the rainforest.
Katz notes offhandedly that Tatunca isn't in the area at the moment, but has traveled down the river to Manaus with his wife Anita. She doesn't know when he will return she says, humming Violetta's aria in her high voice: "È strano ...".
It must be terribly difficult to keep the stories going. It takes a lot to maintain a web of lies, no matter how cleverly constructed they are. Constant revisions, additions and renovations are needed. Some lies fall apart while new ones are added. All of this requires constant attention, especially when new visitors arrive, people who have to be shown around and who ask questions. Caution is needed before visitors are led into a new and possibly even more fantastically embellished story. Telling tall tales can be even more difficult than life itself.
And life has a way of choosing its own path. It stages the encounter with Tatunca Nara in accordance with its improbable laws. We finally discover him in Amazonas, a shopping center in Manaus, between Bob's Burgers and C&A clothing store. He's wearing a shopping bag. But it's him, complete with the actor's face, the hands, the leathery skin and a full head of hair. Speaking with an accent from the Franconia region of Bavaria, he says: "Bom dia, I'm Tatunca."
After all the stories, rumors and attempts to demonize the man, it feels as if we were facing some fictional Indian chief -- or perhaps Jack the Ripper. This is the story of our encounter: Photographer Johannes Arlt needed a new shirt, and Tatunca had accompanied his wife Anita to Manaus for an eye operation. The two events happened to coincide. This is the first time he has been in Manaus in six years, he says. It's the sort of coincidence that sounds like one of the stories about Tatunca.
"Let's sit down," he says. "I don't like being in the city. I prefer to be in the forest, with my Indians."
He doesn't seem to care who is sitting across from him. He isn't interested in hearing other people's stories, just his own. He talks about his days among the Yanomami Indians, when he and Anita ran an infirmary and a school. The Indians taught him how to survive in the forest, he says. And then, after sizing up his listener to discover how likely he is to believe him, he makes a detour into a labyrinth of fantasies: "I turned over the office of chief in November. The head priest had two of these three-meter-tall servants of God with him. He said the ancient fathers were returning, and that they had opened the tunnel." He talks about walls in the shape of a turtle, and a cave with the Star of David above it.
Whenever he makes these claims his wife, Anita, places a hand on his knee and says "sweetie," and he falls silent.
Perhaps it would have been better to simply allow this man to talk, the way he is talking now, in a flood of memories and fantasies, inventions, outrageous lies and detailed descriptions. Much of the "Chronicle of Akakor" was made up, he says. "Brugger wanted to write a new 'Papalagi.'"
"The Papalagi" was required reading in Germany during the hippie era. In it, an imagined Samoan chief delivers speeches critical of civilization to his people. At this point, Tatunca could dismiss the entire "Chronicle" as pure fantasy. But he doesn't. Of course, he cannot call its core statements into question because, as he says, they are true: "There are Germans among my people. Of course they didn't arrive by U-boat. The water there is too shallow for that. They had to switch to other boats first."
'Do You Want to Go to El Dorado? It's No Legend.'
We meet Tatunca again the next morning, this time without Anita, at the Manaus fish market, next to the black waters of the Rio Negro. "Do you want to go to El Dorado?" he asks. "It's no legend. I found walls like those at Machu Picchu. I can take you there." Without hesitation, he takes a pen and a pad of paper and starts drawing the path to El Dorado. It is somewhere on a plateau between the Rio Araçá and the Rio Demini.
His tales are endless and convoluted, and before long a suspicion arises: The lost city of Tatunca Nara isn't in the rainforest at all. It's along the Füllbach, a stream in Upper Franconia, in Grub am Forst, a place Günther Hauck once fled. He took himself as far away from it as possible, into the most remote tributaries of the Amazon, and into a new existence that could have nothing in common with his old life.
According to Brazilian investigative files, there was once an apparently confused German named Günther Hauck who never returned from shore leave. I psychiatrist diagnosed him as schizophrenic, and the German Embassy sent him back to Germany.
Does Tatunca know this Günther Hauck? Not personally, he says. He traveled to Germany once, he adds, and they addressed him as Günther Hauck when he was there. There was also a woman, and to avoid trouble he went to bed with her. But all of that was completely wrong, he says. "I am Tatunca. Period."
"Günther Hauck" is merely a skin that was shed long ago. As if to prove his point, Tatunca pulls out a Brazilian ID card, which identifies him as an "Indian" and contains a stamp from the Brazil agency in charge of Indian affairs. He must have been very convincing as an Indian.
If this man had simply been allowed to talk, it's likely that nothing would have happened. But his stories caught up to him. They attracted people to the region, people who wanted more than to listen to stories. They wanted to be guided up the river and to see the underground city with their own eyes and actually enter it.
Worlds that he had managed to keep apart had suddenly come together. Perhaps he felt cornered by all the admirers and treasure hunters, and by the curious. Rüdiger Nehberg was the worst of them all. He arrived with files and old photos in hand, and he wanted to know exactly who Tatunca really was. "He's schizophrenic, that Nehberg. A liar."
And then there was that yoga teacher who claimed to be his real wife.
'I Didn't Kill Those Three'
Perhaps, when all his excuses, warnings and incantations no longer worked, he decided to leave them alone with their expectations, to simply let them keep walking into thickets of poison and thorns. Without experience, a person can't survive for long in the forest, not even with the "Chronicle of Akakor" in his or her luggage.
When asked about the disappeared, Tatunca says: "I live with my conscience. I've killed many people, but I was a soldier and they were carrying weapons. I'm not innocent. But I didn't kill those three, as they've accused me of doing."
The story of what happened to John Reed and the others will likely remain a mystery. The German case against Günther Hauck, aka Tatunca Nara, has been dropped, due to the absence of the accused. This leaves nothing but suspicions.
But then there is something he says in passing at the Manaus fish market, as tilapia is being deboned at surrounding fish stalls. "My name, Tatunca, means Big Water Snake. It has a habit of only attacking its victims when there is nothing to disturb its activities far and wide."
So what's left other than the suspicion that the man is a daydreamer, an imposter and a gifted self-invented man, a person who sees the existence of his birth certificate as nothing more than a mere possibility?
One morning in Barcelos, a blue-and-white striped riverboat is docked at a pier next to the ice factory. It is carrying bales of piaçaba, a palm fiber material used to make brooms. A few Indians are dozing on the boat, until they are roused by an enormous, sunburned man and begin hoisting the bales onto the shore.
The boat's owner is Tatunca's son Seder Heldio, 36, who no longer speaks German. The town of Grub am Forst means nothing to him. But he does remember growing up among the Indians. "My father may have told you a lot of tall tales, but he is my father. None of the murder accusations have ever been proven. All that happened was that his tourist business was ruined."
And that, says Heldio, is unfair. "I saw the Indiana Jones film," says Heldio, the son of Tatunca. "It sounds a lot like my father's story about Akakor. He never got a cent for it. Maybe he concocted some of the stories. But he paid for it with his life."
Heldio also has stories to tell about Indians. His are about the Brazilian National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), which seeks to protect the indigenous people by barring them from working for wages and instead provides them with welfare checks. Heldio says that his company is in fact illegal, because he doesn't offer his employees working conditions mandated by the unions, including housing and fixed working hours. The problem, Heldio explains, is that Indians don't like sleeping in shipping containers and only come to work when there is nothing to hunt or gather. "They want to keep the Yanomami as if they were in a zoo. I give them money so they can buy things."
The son of a dreamer from Franconia, who wanted to be an Indian and not Günther Hauck, didn't become a chief himself. Instead, he works as foreman, someone who is leading an aboriginal people away from their natural state and into the monetary economy. And because his methods are fair, the Yanomami respect and perhaps even worship him. And, in his case, without the involvement of extraterrestrial beings, ancient fathers or an El Dorado.
With additional reporting by Jens Glüsing