El dorado map high res1024px-1599_Guyana_Hondius

Nieuwe caerte van het Wonderbaer ende Goudrjcke Landt Guiana by Jodocus Hondius (1598) shows the city of Manoa on the northeastern shore of Lake Parime, alleged location of El Dorado.


Lost treasure legends around the world share a number of features. Readers of this blog will by now be familiar with these motifs, scattered through the tales of untold wealth just waiting for some lucky and persevering seeker to gather them up. This is a handy compilation of the essential elements for the delight of sceptics and the caution of the hopeful.

There is a treasure (or desired object of some kind)

At some time, some one or ones must claim to know of the existence of a mine, cave, horde, wreck, city etc., somewhere. It is often not apparent when and how the story of the treasure originates.

There is a hero/es

One or a number of seekers, searchers, questers have been, or will be, on an intrepid journey to find the desired treasure. Think ‘Indiana Jones’.


Untold riches – or other desired object/s – in the hands of ignorant indigenous peoples are the staple of the El Dorado code. While these beliefs sustained centuries of exploration and colonisation, they are becoming less saleable in the modern world, though this does not seem to deter seekers – or producers of movies and ‘documentaries’ that fuel the delusions of seekers and their backers.

The older the better

Ancient treasures are the most popular. This seems to be because people give most credibility to allegedly authoritative sources from the distant past and because the longer the treasure has been ‘lost’, or unfound, the more intriguing it is to questers and the general public, encouraged by mass media and the internet.

The more remote the better

Distant and/or difficult to reach locations are the norm. After all, if the treasure were readily accessible it is likely that someone will already have found it.


Usually related to the remoteness of the treasure is the warning that it may be under the protection of a fierce group of indigenous people. Sometimes the indigenes are replaced with a hereditary cult or secret society of some kind whose members are charged with guarding the secret of the treasure’s location and preserving it from seekers.


Some form of documentation allegedly verifying the existence of the treasure is almost always part of the story. The most frequent and most intriguing, of course, is a map, chart or other visual representation of the treasure’s alleged location. Usually these are contradictory, absurd and, in any case, impossible to decipher.

Other forms of documentary ‘evidence’ may include ciphers, scrolls, manuscripts, sometimes books, sometimes markings on rocks.

Whatever form the documentation takes – and it may be more than one per treasure – it will be ‘old’, have a chequered history – or ‘mythtory’ – of transmission that is difficult, if not impossible, to verify.


Closely related to documents are objects of one kind or another that allegedly come from or are otherwise relate to the treasure. The standard incredibly rich ore sample has long been a favourite of fake gold mine/reef hoaxers. Other tangible ‘proofs’ might be ancient jewels or statuettes, a gold coin from a seventeenth century shipwreck and so on. The possibilities here are almost numberless.

Back Story

These elements will form part of the narrative surrounding any given treasure, though there are often a number of ancillary elements adding additional spice. Hair raising tales of what happened to previous seekers are popular. (Especially at the hands of fierce native guardians). Gruelling treks with deprivation, suffering and many deaths are frequent tropes, as are mysterious individuals or groups appearing in archives or at other relevant locations, apparently looking into things.

The ‘one that got away’ effect comes into play here. In common with fishing yarns, lost treasure legends tend to grow more astonishing and fabulous with each telling.

These overheated discourses flow through the channels of oral, digital and mass media transmission and provide continual ‘buzz’ and, for some, validation of the existence of any given treasure.

The treasure remains ‘lost’

Despite maps, artefacts and expeditions, fabled treasures remain stubbornly ‘lost’. This only stirs a continual stream of hopeful seekers, further fuelling the legend. In their turn, these seekers fail, leaving the field open to the next batch of deluded optimists with a new map or new interpretation of existing ‘sources’.

The El Dorado code validates itself and the cycle begins again.

1808 mermaid tattoo


smirnoff investigators

Investigators at the crash site; Jack Palmer second from right. NLA


It was March 1942. Japanese forces were three days away from taking Bandung on the island of Java. The predominantly Dutch European population was being evacuated to mainland north-western Australia as quickly as possible. Early in the afternoon of 3 March, a Netherlands East Indies KLM Dakota passenger plane prepared to take off with eleven anxious passengers. As the Dakota was about to taxi to the runway the airfield manager handed the pilot, Ivan Smirnoff, a sealed brown paper package, telling him to look after it. A bank would take delivery of the parcel on arrival in Australia, the airfield manager said. Ivan’s mind was on more pressing matters, so he dropped the parcel into the first-aid chest and took off straightaway for the safety of Broome. It was around 1.15 p.m.

As the plane climbed into the sky, Japanese aircraft were attacking Australian coastal communities far to the south. Unfortunately, three of the Japanese fighters returning from the raid spotted the Dakota and raked it with bullets. Passengers were wounded and Smirnoff was struck in the arms and hip. He desperately threw the plane into a steep spiralling descent, pursued closely by the fighters. As the port engine burst into flame he had to act quickly. Smirnoff turned the aircraft towards the beach, managing to bring it down more or less level and then to swing its front section into the sea, extinguishing the engine fire. One of the passengers, himself a pilot, would later recall the Russian national ‘put up the greatest show of flying anybody in the world will ever see’.


Ivan Smirnoff


And so began one of the many enduring lost treasure mysteries. Smirnoff and his passengers were strafed by Zeroes and perishing for lack of fresh water. Survival was the priority, not packages. Four died, though the survivors were eventually rescued and Smirnoff returned to his usual flying. It was only some time later in Melbourne that he became aware of the contents of the package, when he was visited by a police detective and an official of the Commonwealth Bank. They had come to collect the mysterious brown paper parcel. Smirnoff told them that the parcel was lost. ‘What was in it’, he asked.

He was told that parcel contained a cigar box filled with thousands of high-quality diamonds rescued from Amsterdam before the invading German forces arrived. The gems had been on their way via the-then Dutch East Indies to safekeeping in the vaults of the Commonwealth Bank. They were valued at the time at half a million guilders, approximately twenty million dollars in today’s money.

The official wanted to know, quite urgently, where they were.

From this point, the story clouds over like every lost treasure tale. Although the brown paper package was – probably – lost in the sea, as Smirnoff said, it was rescued from the crash site shortly after the survivors had left. A local beachcomber and lugger master named Jack Palmer and others travelling with him came across the wreckage of the Dakota. They salvaged its remaining contents and Palmer found the package, either in the plane or in the surf, and quickly discovered its alluring contents. He divided the gems up, hiding most of them beneath the sand in an aluminium container and distributing the rest among his companions, telling them to keep quiet about the find.

Palmer was on his way to Perth to enlist in the army. When he arrived there, he went to the district military commandant and told the story of the crash and his discovery of the diamonds. To prove his point, he produced two salt cellars full of small stones for the astonished officer.

By now, though, diamonds were starting to turn up in unexpected places. One was found in the fireplace of a Broome home and another in a matchbox in a train carriage. Aboriginal people were seen with them and Chinese traders offered them for sale. Others would be found after the war, including one nestling in the fork of a tree.

An army investigation led to Palmer and two of his comrades being tried in 1943. All three accused were acquitted as they had—seemingly—handed in the diamonds to the authorities. Palmer then served out the war in the army. Afterwards, he tackled a number of business ventures and appeared to be living well through the few years that were left to him.

Jack Palmer died of stomach cancer in 1950. A priest attending his deathbed is said to have asked him what he had done with the rest of the diamonds. Palmer insisted that he handed them in. Then he smiled.

There are a number of other stories stemming from the medical staff who tended the dying man. They vary in detail but all end the same way. They all state that Palmer kept a mysterious bag under his bed which he hinted might contain riches—maybe cash, maybe diamonds. The day after he died, the bag disappeared.

Smirnoff returned to Holland after the war and continued his career as a KLM pilot. He seems never to have gone home to the USSR and died on the island of Majorca in 1956 after an adventurous life that even attracted the brief attention of Hollywood in 1944.

Stories still circulate about the ‘Smirnoff diamonds’. A number of books have been written about them. As recently as 2012 a claim was made by relatives of the man who drove Smirnoff and his surviving passengers to Broome that the pilot knew the package he was carrying contained the diamonds. Whether he knew or not, only a fraction of the hoard was ever recovered. It is thought that the bulk of the cache, perhaps twenty million dollars-worth, is still missing.

Are the Smirnoff diamonds still buried in the sand along with the remains of the ill-fated Dakota? Were they found by others? Or did Jack Palmer simply take them and spend up big for the rest of his life?


The full story is in my Great Australian Journeys though, like all good lost treasure yarns, this one is still being told…







Map to Captain Kidd’s treasure

Late in 2015, a lost Nazi gold train was discovered in Poland. At least, that’s what a couple of treasure hunters told the world. Like all lost treasures, the search for this one had been going on for many years, usually without success. But many still believe in these far-fetched yarns and some even search for them. Every now and then a lost treasure is really found, providing just enough stimulus to keep all the other legends living on.

Armed with the latest techno gadgets and a map, the raiders of the lost Nazi treasure claimed to have found their prize. They were prepared to reveal its location in return for a modest percentage of the booty. Local officials apparently fell in with this nonsense and the Deputy Polish Culture Minister was widely quoted saying that they were 99 per cent sure the train was there.
Enter the spoilsport scientists from the Kracow Mining Academy. Their  techno gadgets confirmed that not only was there no hidden Nazi train of gold but there were not even any real railway tracks in this region of the Lower Silesia. Just empty tunnels.
Still, even if that one was dispelled by science, people love a lost treasure story.
Colonel PercyFawcett went to Brazil’s Matto Grosso searching for the lost city of “Z” in 1925. He has not been seen since. A Hollywood film about the Lost City of Z – co-produced by Brad Pitt and starring Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller – is currently in production and will appear in our cinemas 91 years after Fawcett disappeared.
Lost treasure tales have a number of common elements that provide them with apparent credibility.
Firstly, they are in remote or otherwise difficult to access locations. Lasseter’s Reef is said to lie somewhere in some of Australia’s most desolate emptiness. South American jungles have harboured any number of fabulous Aztec, Incan or Mayan troves. Islands are excellent, especially for pirate treasure chests
Then there will be a map. Or sometimes another document, like a letter, giving the hazy location of the loot. Harold (originally Hubert) Lasseter left a diary and a map of his fabled reef as he lay dying in 1931. Many have since used these documents in futile attempts to find the gold.
The map or document will have a murky provenance. It may come from a previous seeker of a particular rumoured treasure. It might be serendipitously “found”, preferably in an atmospheric location. Tombs are good.
Usually the person who provides the document to the treasure seeker will be conveniently dead, as in the Beale ciphers. The Beale ciphers are three papers written in code, one of which will reveal the location of treasure buried in Bedford County, Virginia. No one has yet cracked the code, although claims of success have been made.
Then there will be guardians of the lost treasure. Often these are benighted savages who will stop at nothing to prevent intrepid (white) treasure hunters getting to their fabled horde. One explanation for the disappearance of Colonel Percy Fawcett in the Amazon is that he was killed by indigenous people. Indiana Jones is often said to be based on the British explorer’s exploits though a version of the trope appears in other lost treasure tales.
Often the guardians are long departed, as in the lost Nazi gold train legend of Poland’s Lower Silesia region. This is a relatively recent variation on the ancient theme of missing millions. It springs from the same deluded human hopes for untold riches that produced the El Dorado myth and its many variations around the world.
It was believed locally that possibly three such trains stuffed with stolen gold, jewels and art were buried in a complex of tunnels under construction by the Third Reich for still-unknown purposes. The train, or trains, were then sealed in, awaiting only intrepid treasure seekers to unearth their riches. People have been looking for years but no one has succeeded in the quest.
But wait! A map was found!! Even better, the map was obtained from a man on his deathbed!!! Must be real. Let’s go. And so they did.
Even after their claims were disproved by scientists, the Polish believers
clung to their story  “because the methodological approach of the scientists was [not the same as our.”
The final feature of lost treasure yarns is the unsuccessful but tantalisingly promising attempts of earlier searchers to reach the horde.
The notion that something must be there because so many have tried before is a mainspring of the mythology that supports these persistent folk beliefs. Fawcett’s quest for the city of “Z’ feeds an ongoing interest in the mystery derived from the 2009 book on which the movie is based.
Believers still risk their lives in search of Lasseter’s Reef. The lost gold of Sacambaya still attracts optimists more than 150 years after a charlatan injected it into Bolivian fantasy. Others are still burrowing for Templar, or maybe pirate, treasures on Oak Island off Nova Scotia and any number of sunken galleons and other wrecks are still the object of fervent searches in all of the seven seas.
Every now and then one of these expeditions actually strikes gold, as in the recent rediscovery of the Spanish treasure ship off Columbia. The rarity of these finds and the sensations they produce are sufficient to stoke the fires of hope that glitter in the hearts of all treasure hunters.

It might just be that the legend is true…