SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – Leading a fairly sedentary lifestyle I’m very fond of reading biographies of explorers who have traveled the world over in search of fame and adventure, men like Sir Edmund Hillary who was the first to successfully climb Mt. Everest and return, Adm. Richard E. Byrd who lived alone in the Antarctic for five winter months, Sir Richard Burton who was the first European to visit Mecca and return to tell about it, Henry Stanley who went into the wilds of Africa in search of the lost Dr. David Livingstone, Thor Heyerdahl who sailed a raft alone across the Pacific from South America to the Polynesian islands, or even Percy Fawcett who ventured into the Amazon in search of the lost city of Z. Their exploits and hardships were almost beyond belief, and adding to that list of illustrious adventurers is someone whose daring I just read about, the little known but just as courageous Major Reginald Abrille who spent two years searching for the Turquoise Tonto in the Andes.
Abrille began his career as a soldier of fortune, first serving with the British Army in India and then joining Kitchener in his 1898 fight against the Mahdi in the Sudan. Being wounded several times, most seriously in the thigh which forced his retirement from military service, he returned to his ancestral home in Devonshire where he spent much of his time studying ornithology during his long convalescence, an interest he acquired while in North Africa. During his research he came across a bird of legend known as the Turquoise Tonto, an ancient relative of the condor with a supposed wingspan of 30 feet. The more he read about the bird, the more he became convinced that it not only was real but that it still existed, and though left with a limp that would severely impair a lesser man, Abrille assembled a team of die-hards to venture into the high peaks of the Peruvian Altiplano plateau in search of his quarry.
Getting funds from the Royal Geographic Society he attracted a group of eager participants from Britain; a medical doctor, a botanist adept in photography, and two experienced Alpine climbers, one of whom was also a cartographer. Once in Peru, Abrille hired porters and a guide only to have half of the cargo carriers desert when the team was attacked by primitive headhunters who thought they were Spanish Conquistadors coming back to enslave them. During the assault the doctor was hit by a poison dart and quickly died. Shortly thereafter the botanist contracted Yellow Fever while trekking through the jungle and had to be left behind, never again to be seen. Undaunted, the Major and his severely depleted crew continued into the mountains where, during a particularly difficult traverse across a glacier, one of the expert climbers fell into a crevasse and disappeared. Thoroughly obsessed, the remaining two men with just the guide and a few porters continued on until reaching the supposed nesting area of the Tonto.
After several weeks of fruitless searching, the two Europeans went out one morning alone, and when the Alpine climber who was leading the way cautiously edged around a crag he came in direct contact with a Tonto nest, only to be scooped up by the giant bird and fed to its ravenous chicks. Abrille flattened himself against the cliff face hoping to go unnoticed, staring in horror as his companion was pecked and torn apart. The stories of the enormous bird were true, but its discovery sadly proved fatal.
In agony and shock, Abrille amazingly managed to crawl back to his guide who then practically carried him off the mountain and down to civilization, where he was able to radio a colleague in England about his misfortune-tainted success. Regrettably the camera equipment and film had all been lost during the journey, and when Abrille returned home his exploits were met with derision and disbelief. He tragically died a broken man in body as well as in spirit, since his claim of sighting the Tonto could not be substantiated. While others have unsuccessfully tried to duplicate his effort, Abrille’s story still stands as a testament to human courage and the unquenchable search for knowledge. Though a failure in Britain, Peruvians regard him as a hero, and this Tuesday is called El Tonto del Abrille Day in his honor.