Five Famous Explorers Who Didn’t Come Back

The whole point of being an intrepid explorer is to revel in the fame and fortune when you return home and eventually slink off into retirement with your own show on the Travel Channel. Well, that would be why I’d do it, anyway…

Unfortunately, some discoverers never got to enjoy the easy life after they took one journey too far and never returned. From disappearing planes over the Atlantic to overturned canoes in New Guinea, here’s a look at five famous explorers who disappeared off the face of the earth – and the most ridiculous conspiracy theories surrounding their disappearances.


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Amelia Earhardt
How did she get lost?
Attempting a flight around the world in 1937.

Amelia Earhardt was the David Beckham of early flight. There’s little mystery as to why Earhardt was the darling of the American media; as a best-selling author, lecturer at Purdue University and the public face of several high-profile companies, she was the most recognisable woman in America. But it was in the air where the Kansas-born pilot excelled, holding several records for solo flights across the US and Atlantic. In 1937, during an attempt to fly around the globe – and with just 7,000km remaining – Earhardt’s plane disappeared from the radar as it approached tiny Howland Island in the Pacific. Despite the most costly search and rescue attempt in US history, no evidence of the plane, Earhardt or her navigator, Tom Noonan, was ever found.

The ridiculous conspiracy theory There is a notion that Earhardt was spying on the Japanese from above for the US government and was captured and executed on the island of Saipan. The Japanese realised they would be in trouble if the recognisable Lockheed aircraft was found in their possession, so they pulled it apart and dumped it in the ocean.

Percival Fawcett
How did he get lost?
Searching for the legendary town of El Dorado in the 1920s.

Maybe it’s just an Indiana Jones image I can’t shake, but during the 1920s, it seems every explorer was obsessed with ancient cultures and their hidden treasure. Carter and Herbert’s unearthing of Tutankhamun’s tomb was the big discovery of the decade but there was another destination that captivated the booty-hungry explorer: El Dorado, or the city of gold. Englishman Percival Fawcett became an explorer late in life – he was 38 on his first South American expedition – but he soon began formulating the idea that there was an ancient city of gold in the Brazilian jungle (Fawcett called it ‘The Lost City of Z’ but in all likelihood he was thinking of the legendary El Dorado). In 1925, Fawcett set off with a party of explorers – including his son Jack – to try to find ‘Z’, leaving instructions that no search party was to be sent if they didn’t return. He didn’t.

The ridiculous conspiracy theory Fawcett and his party were last heard of going into uncharted territory in the south-east Amazon and one theory is that the gifts his party were going to give to local tribes to assure safe passage were lost and that they were killed for trespassing. No remains were found due to the fact that Fawcett, because of his age, was said to be given a proper burial.

Ludwig Leichardt
How did he get lost?
In the mid-1800s, he disappeared on an exploratory trip from Queensland to Western Australia.

Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichardt was one of Australia’s most significant explorers and is most famous for his 5,000km jaunt from Moreton Bay in Queensland to Port Essington, 300km north of Darwin, in 1845. He won awards from the Paris Geographical Society and the Royal Geographical Society for his work on the expedition but his real ambition was to travel west from Queensland all the way to Western Australia. After turning back two years earlier due to illness, Leichardt and his party set off in 1848 but after being seen near Darling Downs, he was never heard from again. Several search parties were sent out but only a few trees with ‘L’ scratched into them were discovered.

The ridiculous conspiracy theory How far Leichardt travelled is subject to much debate, especially when a shotgun with his nameplate was found in a boab tree just inside the Western Australia border in 1900. However, one legend posited by a station manager in the Darling Downs said Leichardt’s group was surrounded and killed by a large group of Aborigines, who then traded his possessions with other tribes across the country.

Michael Rockefeller
How did he get lost?
Failed to make it to shore after his boat overturned on an expedition in New Guinea.

Not all rich, trust fund kids are spoilt layabouts or international playboys. Youngest son of New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Michael had a bit of an adventurous streak. He served in the army and then went on an archaeological expedition to Netherlands New Guinea to study the Asmat tribe. In 1961, while three miles from shore in a canoe, Rockefeller and colleague Rene Wassing were forced into the water when their boat began to sink. Rockefeller told Wassing he was going to swim back to shore but he was never found and it was assumed he either drowned or was eaten by crocs.

The ridiculous conspiracy theory As you might imagine for someone rich and famous, there are many theories as to Rockefeller’s demise. One story had Rockefeller making it to shore but being killed by the Asmat, in an act of revenge over a previous attack on their tribe by the Dutch. Rumour has it a private investigator sent by the Rockefeller family to find definitive proof of their son’s death returned with three skulls found in the possession of the tribe, but the family have never confirmed this took place or if they were Michael’s remains.

Alexander Selkirk
How did he get lost? Dumped on a desert island after having a fight with his ship’s captain.

This one is technically cheating as Alexander Selkirk made it home alive, but the Scotsman deserves inclusion as his disappearing act is arguably the most famous of all ‘lost when travelling’ tales. Selkirk was a sailor whose travels took him to South America and it was during his time as a crew member of the Cinque Ports under Captain Thomas Stradling in 1704 that he came a cropper. He complained about the seaworthiness of his boat and said he would rather be left on the small island the ship was passing at the time than continue sailing. Stradling obliged, dropping him off on the Juan Fernandez Island with all his personal effects (and ignoring Selkirk’s pleas to let him back on when he changed his mind). It was there he lived as a castaway for more than four years, foraging for foods and making clothes, tools and shelter from the materials he found on the island. He was eventually rescued by the British ship Duke, where he was quickly dubbed ‘The governor of the island.’ After more than eight years away, Selkirk finally returned to England in 1711, where his story caused a sensation. Not only were several articles written about his adventures, but Selkirk is said to be the inspiration behind Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

The ridiculous conspiracy theory Selkirk was auditioning for a part in a new play called Cast Away about a sailor who became shipwrecked on an island while delivering mail. To get into the part he immersed himself in the character for several years, even bringing with him a small ball called ‘Wilson’ to talk to. Or am I getting him confused with someone else…?

One Comment for "Five Famous Explorers Who Didn’t Come Back"

Todd Dulaney says on September 19th, 2013 at 8:48 am:

Your missing a very important lost explorer.. Richard Halliburton (sp?) he was said to have been eaten by Cannibals


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