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Adventures on the Amazon : After Years of Silence, Explorer Loren McIntyre Recounts His Harrowing Journey to Reach the River's Source

November 08, 1991|GARRY ABRAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lost in the Amazon rain forest, Loren McIntyre stumbled into a clearing. Probably carved as a helicopter pad for an oil-exploration team, the rare opening might mean the explorer's salvation. Sunlight poured down, boiling the humid air. A double column of ants marched back and forth across the beckoning space. McIntyre followed the ants.

At one end of the column he found a conical anthill. At the other he found the remains of four bodies. An arrow still protruded from the chest cavity of one. The ants had devoured just about everything, except for jacket zippers, a baseball cap and, of course, the bones. A rusting chain saw lay nearby.

This horrifying discovery occurred a long time ago, in 1969. But the incident--a brief moment in a far larger adventure--is only now coming to light because a persistent writer cornered McIntyre on an Amazon riverboat in 1987.

The fruit of that encounter--"Amazon Beaming"--has finally been published by Petru Popescu, Romanian writer who lives in Los Angeles. The book's some 450 pages recount two high points in McIntyre's South American sojourns: His capture by an "uncontacted" Indian tribe and his discovery of the source of the Amazon River, an accomplishment claimed by many. It was during the first adventure that McIntyre made his grisly discovery in the wilderness clearing.

Popescu, a self-declared "exploration junkie," novelist and screenwriter, hopes the book will help elevate Seattle-born McIntyre from relative obscurity into the ranks of two of his own heroes, African explorers Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke, who together sought the source of the Nile in the 19th Century.

After reading "Amazon Beaming" some might wonder why McIntyre isn't famous already. Avid readers of National Geographic will recognize him as the photographer-author of many of its South America articles. But until now, the life story of the energetic 74-year-old has been largely unknown because nobody made him tell it.

"He is always in the bush," Popescu says. "He doesn't have time to sit down and write."

Recently, McIntyre and Popescu have been traveling together to lecture on "Amazon Beaming," a joint effort containing several chapters of McIntyre's "notes" on his capture by Mayoruna Indians and the three-man expedition he led in 1971 to the Peruvian mountain lake that is the source of the Amazon. McIntyre, a former Navy officer who fell under the spell of the Amazon while still in his teens, also has simultaneously published a coffee-table book of his South American photographs, "Amazonia."

At first glance, McIntyre and Popescu make an odd couple--the voluble 46-year-old Romanian and the more self-effacing, matter-of-fact McIntyre. Indeed, their relationship at first was distant. Popescu recalls writing letters to McIntyre and firing them off in the general direction of South America, hoping they would find him at a river outpost or some other remote spot.

McIntyre admits to a "certain reluctance which I didn't overcome for two years" regarding Popescu's book.

On the other hand, Popescu, author of several novels and the screenplay for the movie "The Last Wave," says he became fascinated with McIntyre the first time he saw him in Manaus, an Amazon river city in Brazil.

Popescu and his wife had gone to South America so he could find material for a book, probably a novel. One night in the Manaus opera house, Popescu saw a camera-toting man dressed in khakis "scaling the wall to get into the box of the governor, which was locked. . . . I asked: 'Who is that?' and someone said: 'This is Capt. McIntyre.' I said: 'Who the hell is Capt. McIntyre?' " (At the time, McIntyre was photographing for a magazine assignment.)

When Popescu was told he had tripped across the discoverer of the source of the Amazon, lights went on in his brain. Learning that McIntyre was to lecture on a cruise ship plying the river, Popescu and his wife booked themselves aboard. And then he waylaid McIntyre.

"I hit him then with this idea," Popescu recalls. "I said: 'If you don't write this (your adventures), you have to find a writer to write this.' "

McIntyre's initial reluctance sprang from a core experience, his strange, almost inexplicable months of captivity with the wandering Mayoruna, a tribe that had never been contacted by civilizados . The elusive tribe lived far up an Amazon tributary, hidden under the forest, glimpsed only rarely by missionaries and other travelers.

In 1969, McIntyre went looking for the Mayoruna, following reports by a bush pilot of a clearing in the forest that might indicate a Mayoruna village. Landed by float plane on the Javari River that marks the border between Brazil and Peru, McIntyre made camp on the riverbank. He was supposed to be picked up in three days.

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