Edward D. Malone, an eager young reporter for the London Daily Gazette, seeks adventure, in order to win the respect and the love of his girlfriend Gladys. This quest has led him to interview Professor George E. Challenger, a bellicose zoologist with a colossal ego and a temper to match, as apt to break skulls as he is to measure their cephalic indices. Challenger has recently returned from a trip to the Amazon where he claims to have discovered a plateau in the jungle where creatures of the prehistoric past have survived to the modern day.
At a meeting of London's Zoological Institute, Challengers faces down his critics, who call him a fraud, and challenges the Institute to mount a new expedition to test his claims. A call goes out for volunteers, and Malone answers. This is his chance.
Malone is not the only volunteer from the audience. A tall, ginger-haired man identifying himself as Lord John Roxton also accepts the Call to Adventure. Lord Roxton is a well-known hunter and sportsman who has traveled extensively in South America and will make a fine addition to the expedition.
After the meeting breaks up, Roxton invites Malone to come to his place for a chat. "We are to be companions -- what?" He asks Malone for help with a little problem. A friend of his named Ballinger, who lives in a suite upstairs from his own, is suffering from the DTs after a massive drinking binge. The friend is holed up in his rooms with a pistol and threatens to shoot anyone who comes in. Needless to say, the service staff is declining to intervene. Roxton reckons that if the two of them rush the guy together, they might be able to subdue and restrain him before he can plug anybody.
All things considered, Malone would rather not charge a drunken maniac with a gun; but then neither does he want to look a coward. So he steels his nerve. "Talking won't make it any better," he says rising from his seat. "Come on."
Roxton laughs and pats him on the back.
"I saw after Jack Ballinger myself this mornin'. He blew a hole in the skirt of my kimono, bless his shaky old hand, but I got a jacket on him, and he's to be all right in a week. I say young fellah, I hope you don't mind -- what? You see, between you an' me close-tiled, I look on this South American business as a mighty serious thing, and if I have a pal with me I want a man I can bank on. So I sized you down, and I'm bound to say that you came well out of it."The two men sit down and chat a bit. Malone tells him about his earlier interview with Challenger, and Roxton tells him he believes the Professor's story to be quite plausible. He has traveled through the Amazon basin himself and has an appreciation for how truly unknown most of it is. Roxton shows off his collection of rifles and talks bit about his own experiences in South America. He has a deep, intense love for South America and never tires of expressing its wonders.
"Now here's a useful tool -- .470, telescopic sight, double ejector, point-blank up to three fifty. That's the rifle I used against the Peruvian slave-drivers three years ago. I was the flail of the Lord up in those parts, I may tell you, though you won't find it in any Blue-book. There are times, young fellah, when every one of us must make a stand for human right and justice, or you never feel clean again."Although Malone never says so -- it never seems to occur to him -- the reader can't help but note that Roxton is exactly the kind of man Gladys would swoon over. Luckily, Roxton and Gladys never meet.
Malone reports back to McArdle, his editor, who is so pleased with the expedition that he calls the Gazette's publisher to get authorization for the paper's backing. And about this point Malone addresses the reader and explains that this has all been preface, and that the remainder of their adventures shall be told through dispatches, sent back to England as opportunity presents itself. The story originally appeared in magazine serial form, making this narrative device particularly effective.
A couple days later Malone, Roxton, and Professor Summerlee who is the Zoological Institute's official representative, embark on a steamer for South America. Challenger meets them at the dock and gives them a sealed envelope containing the plateau's exact location. He instructs them not to open the envelope until they reach the town of Manaos and not until the time and date written on the envelope.
He then bids the three farewell. "You have done something to mitigate my feelings for the loathsome profession to which you unhappily belong," he tells Malone; and compliments Lord Roxton on the splendid hunting field which awaits him. As for Summerlee, he says "If you are still capable of self-improvement, of which I am frankly unconvinced, you will surely return to London a wiser man."
The voyage to South America and up the lower reaches of the Amazon occurs with little incident. Here Malone describes his fellow travelers in more detail. Professor Summerlee is a thin, gaunt man with an acidic wit of which we received a taste in his verbal fencing with Challenger at the Zoological meeting. Although Roxton worried that the man might need baby-sitting, Summerlee has field experience, having served on scientific expeditions to New Guinea. Lord Roxton, we have already met; but when the party arrives in Brazil, we learn that he has quite a reputation among the natives for having broken a network of slavers who provided forced labor for the rubber plantations of the upper tributaries. Roxton also speaks the blend of Portugese and native dialects commonly spoken in the region.
The party also hires additional servants for the party: three Mojo Indians, a couple of Spanish half-breeds and a large black named Zambo, whom Malone describes as "a black Hercules, as willing as a horse, and about as intelligent." That Malone evidently regards this as a compliment speaks volumes about Victorian attitudes towards race.
Eventually the party reaches Manaos, and on July 15th they gather in their hotel veranda to open the envelope with Challenger's instructions. The hour of Noon approaches. Despite Summerlee's grumbles, Roxton insists on waiting until the specified hour. "We must play the game accordin' to rules," he says placing his watch upon the table. On the hour, Roxton takes his penknife and opens the envelope.
The paper inside is blank.
At this moment, Challenger himself barges in. He gruffly apologizes, at least as far as he is able, for arriving at the last minute. He always intended to guide the expedition there personally, and arranged the drama with the envelope so that he wouldn't be forced to share a steamship with the rest of the group, whose company he finds odious. Here we have a rare point of agreement between him and Summerlee.
They continue up the tributaries of the Amazon, now with Challenger as guide; first by steamboat until the river becomes unavigatbale; then by canoe through the denser canopied forest. The sound of Indian drums follow them through much of this part of the journey. "Yes, sir, war drums," says Gomez, one of the half-breed porters. "They watch us every mile of the way; kill us if they can." Malone finds this unnerving, and in his imagination he hears the drumbeats repeating "We will kill you if we can. We will kill you if we can."
They leave the drumbeats behind, however, as they enter Curupuri territory. The "Currupuri" is some sort of spirit of the woods, feared by the Indians. Now the party has left their canoes behind and continue on foot. One day they catch a glimpse of a large winged creature flying over the treetops in the distance.
"Did you see it!' Challenger cries. It is a pterodactyl, he says. Summerlee disagrees. "It was a stork if ever I saw one," he insists. But even Summerlee becomes more subdued when soon afterwards they cross another ridge and sight the great plateau which Challenger has named Maple White Land.
The plateau ranges from five hundred to a thousand feet in height, and its sides are too sheer to climb. Challenger believes that Maple White, the American who first found the plateau, must of discovered some way up, because of the stegosaurus he drew in his sketchbook. The party agrees to circumnavigate the plateau and see if they can find any means of ascent.
They find the remnants of one of Maple White's campsites, which is encouraging. Then they find a less encouraging site: a human skeleton in a bamboo grove which seems to have a tall bamboo stalk growing through it's shattered ribcage. From the skeleton's effects, Challenger identifies it as James Clover, a companion of Maple White's. Roxton guesses that the man fell off the top of the plateau and became impaled on the bamboo. But how did he come to fall?
Further along, they find markings on the cliff face, evidently left by Maple White, which leads them to a cave, high up on the side of the cliff. This is evidently the route by which Maple White reached the top of the plateau, but going up the passageway, they find that a cave-in has blocked the way. Exiting the cave, a large rock falls from above, narrowly missing them. Gomez and the other half-breed claim that it fell from the edge of the plateau.
So far they have not seen any definitive proof of prehistoric life, until one evening when pterodactyl swoops down and steals the wild pig they were roasting for dinner. Summerlee is forced to concede that he was wrong and makes a quite handsome apology; which Challenger accepts with uncharacteristic grace. Summerlee does not stop making sarcastic comments when Challenger's pomposity warrants it, but from this point on the two men become -- if not exactly friends, then at least no longer enemies.
Finally, they complete their circumnavigation and return to where they started, near a tall pinnacle of rock right next to the plateau. Here, Challenger gets an idea. Although the plateau is impossible to climb, the spire is less precipitous. Challenger was only able to climb part-way up the spire during his first visit because he didn't have any climbing gear with him. This time, he does. The spire of rock has a tall beech tree growing on its summit, taller than the distance between the rock and the top of the plateau. All they have to do is climb to the top and have Malone chop the tree down and they have a bridge.
The plan works splendidly; but Roxton cautions Challenger before allowing the latter-day Columbus to set foot in his New World. "We all have our professions, and soldierin' is mine. We are, accordin' to my ideas, invadin' a new country, which may or may not be chock-full of enemies of sorts." He has the party assemble all their rifles so that someone can be covering them as they cross over one-by-one; and a good amount of provisions in case they might need to remain some time.
No sooner have the four explorers set foot in Maple White Land, however, then they their first catastrophe. They hear a crashing sound behind them, and see that the tree which they had used as a bridge has fallen away. Gomez, the half-breed whom they had left on the pinnacle laughs and shouts at them.
"Lord Roxton! ... Lord John Roxton! ... We nearly killed you with a stone at the cave," he cried; "but this is better. It is slower and more terrible. Your bones will whiten up there, and none will know where you lie or come to cover them. As you lie dying, think of Lopez, whom you shot five years ago on the Putomayo River. I am his brother, and, come what will I will die happy now, for his memory has been avenged."And die he does. Taking the time to taunt them gives Roxton the opportunity to ready his own rifle and shoot the fleeing traitor. Zambo kills the other half-breed, but without the tree-bridge is unable to cross over to the plateau or to help the expedition back.
The Challenger Expedition is trapped.
NEXT: The Glade of the Iguanadons; the Pterodactyl Rookery; the Siege of Fort Challenger and more! "For Once I Was the Hero"