Monday 19 August 2019

Irish investigative journalist leads team deep into Amazonian jungle in search of lost cities of gold in new documentary series

Curse of Akakor drops on Facebook Watch on Sunday August 11 at 9pm

Paul Connolly, Dr Martin Pepper, Megan Hine, Dr Karina Oliani, Bobby Chacon, Brennon Edwards - Curse of Akakor, Facebook Watch
Paul Connolly, Dr Martin Pepper, Megan Hine, Dr Karina Oliani, Bobby Chacon, Brennon Edwards - Curse of Akakor, Facebook Watch
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Two mythical lost cities of gold and the mysterious disappearances of three explorers who sought to find them deep in the Amazonian jungle are the subject of an investigation in a new documentary fronted by Irish investigative journalist Paul Connolly.

In Curse of Akakor, Dubliner Connolly heads up a team of six experts including former FBI agent Bobby Chacon who, in the course of a 30 year career investigated some of America's most high-profile crimes, and British survival expert Megan Hine, who has worked with Bear Grylls in some of the world's most extreme environments.

With the support of tech expert Brennon Edwards, Brazilian wilderness doctor, Dr Karina Oliani, and geologist Dr Martin Pepper, they set out with two separate tasks - to establish whether or not the lost cities of Akakor and Akahim exist, and what happened to the three adventurers who disappeared on their trail in the 1980s.

It sounds like the plot of an Indiana Jones movie, and Connolly, better known for investigating crime across the UK and Ireland for channels including TV3, Channel 5, and Netflix, says that accepting the challenge, from Aussie production company Beyond Productions, was the fastest 'yes' he had ever delivered.

"What excuse would you ever have to go to the Amazon looking for lost cities of gold?" he laughs.  "My nieces and nephews were calling me 'Indiana Connolly' as soon as I signed up.  But the reality of these things is in fact very different to what I first imagined as being proper Indiana Jones stuff."

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Connolly and Chacon were tasked with investigating the disappearances of the explorers and the other four faced the challenge of finding out if the cities had existed or if they were simply an amalgamation of myths, legends and conspiracies.

"Three adventurers disappeared in the 1980s, a chap called John Reed [in 1980], Herbert Wanner [in 1983], and Christine Heuser [in 1987].  I can't tell you what happened, but with both sides of those investigations, at the end we came far closer to the truth than anybody had gotten before.  There were more twists and turns than Johnny Foxes!"

The three explorers had ventured to the Amazon in search of the lost cities following the publication of German photojournalist Karl Brugger's book The Chronicles of Akakor which was published in 1972 and which documented the story of a man called Tatunca Nara who claimed to have been part of an ancient tribe. 

Aside from the investigations themselves Connolly's team had to navigate some of the toughest terrain on earth over the course of eight weeks.  The first episode alone sees them starting out in Peru and tackling rapids.  Some are better equipped than others for the physical challenges.

Team leader Paul Connolly will use his investigative journalism skills to unravel the Akakor mystery. The mystery begins August 11 only on Facebook Watch.

Posted by Curse of Akakor on Sunday, August 4, 2019

For Connolly, prep involved "trying to behave on the grub and stay off the pints and be a good boy" in advance of the trip.  He was also presented with a "massive tick list of things I had never seen or heard of before that I would need to stay alive while I was there."

Once on the ground, he realised just how experienced the team were in hostile environments.

"Megan is a survivalist and does a lot of work for Bear Grylls," he explains. 

"You could drop her in any part of the world, in the wilderness, with a butter knife and a spear and she'd survive for life.  Karina is a wilderness doctor and she's a remarkable human being - she's climbed Everest twice, up one side and then the other, just to show she can.  Pepper is also an experienced explorer."

When they arrived in Peru, he received a list of "all the things that could kill us - jaguars, tarantulas, every variety of snake, pirhanas in the water... Basically, I was prepared but completely unprepared! We were going through impenetrable jungle, literally the most impenetrable jungle that any expedition has in recent times."

Of course, they all made it home in one piece and Paul would do it all again "in a heartbeat", although he laughs, "Would my wife let me do it again?  Possibly not!"

One evening he had the rare opportunity to call her from a satellite phone in the deepest, darkest, most remote area of Brazil with "godforsaken howling in the background".

"At that stage I was pretty used to it but my wife said, 'What in God's name is that?'  I'm thinking, do I tell the truth or lie, but she always knows when I'm lying so I said, 'Don't panic when I tell you this but it's jaguars'.  There are jaguars everywhere and they call out to each other and that's what you go to sleep to every night, you go to sleep with tarantulas scuttling over the top of your hammock, and snakes rustling on the ground.  You go to sleep to the beautiful sound of jaguars mating and hunting."

It was an environment far removed from Paul's usual territory investigating crime.  He has lifted the lid on sham marriages and drug trafficking, arms dealing, and benefit cheats in the UK. 

"Even when I made a prison show in the Philippines I was still within areas where I was in control of my own environment.  I could either choose to put myself in a dangerous situation or I could opt out and avoid it," he says.

"The reality of the situation making Curse of Akakor, leading the team that were looking into whether the lost cities existed, and when it came to myself and Bobby spear-heading the investigation into what happened to the explorers, it was always done in the context of the environment so not only was what we were doing dangerous fundamentally at any stage that environment is hostile to human life and it could have turned around and spoilt my day!"

"Sometimes I'm accused of being overly dramatic," he laughs.

Curse of Akakor will air over ten short and snappy bite-sized episodes, perfectly suited to Facebook Watch where they will drop from 9pm in Ireland on Sunday August 11.  Simply pop on to Facebook and search for 'Curse of Akakor'.

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