Not every trip goes the way we plan, as anyone who has ever taken a family vacation can attest. Hopefully, though, none of us have ever embarked upon a family vacation as treacherous as these 7 doomed expeditions, which set out with the highest of hopes, only to end in disaster. Some were lost altogether, vanishing into the sea or the snow or the (literal) sands of time, while others boasted a few survivors, even while the expedition itself fell far short of its goals.
The Lost Army of Cambyses
In 524 BCE, Cambyses II of the First Persian Empire sent an army of 50,000 troops into the Egyptian desert near Luxor. Their goal? Find and destroy the Oracle of Ammon, believed to be at the Siwa Oasis more than 600 miles away. By all accounts, they never made it. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, “A wind arose from the south, strong and deadly, bringing with it vast columns of whirling sand, which entirely covered up the troops and caused them wholly to disappear.”
For a long time, Herodotus’ account was our only record of the lost army, but in 2009 a pair of Italian brothers discovered a mass grave containing hundreds of bleached bones, suggesting that the ill-fated force had, in fact, met their end in the desert sands.
The Abubakari Expedition
c. 1311 CE
Most of the time, when an expedition is lost, the people who vanish are explorers, sailors, or adventurers by trade. Not in the case of the voyage of Mansa Abubakari II, a ruler of the Mali Empire. According to an account by Abubakari’s successor, he vanished during an expedition to “discover the furthest limit of the Atlantic Ocean.” To this end, the ruler outfitted some 2,000 ships, “1,000 for himself and the men whom he took with him and 1,000 for water and provisions.” Then he set sail and was never heard from again. Unfortunately, we have no information about what became of the vast fleet, and nothing but his successor’s own account to indicate that it ever sailed at all.
The Corte-Real Expeditions
1501 - 1502
The search for the Northwest Passage drove many European sailors and explorers who sought to discover and profit from a trade route to Asia. That quest led to more than a few tragic expeditions, but few can be considered as unlucky as the one undertaken by Gaspar Corte-Real in 1501. The Portuguese explorer’s mission ended in failure, and he and his ship never made it back. That in itself, isn’t so unusual, but in 1502, his brother Miguel Corte-Real embarked upon the same mission, intent upon rescuing his brother.
Three more ships set sail and, once again, two returned—but not the one carrying Miguel Corte-Real. The next year, a third expedition was launched by the last remaining Corte-Real brother. This time, two ships were sent, but King Manuel I refused to allow Vasco Corte-Real to accompany them—which, given the fate of the others, is understandable. This time, both ships returned. Of his two brothers, however, no trace was ever found.
Franklin’s Lost Expedition
The lure of the Northwest Passage also spelled doom for perhaps the most notorious of all lost expeditions. In 1845, Sir John Franklin’s expedition departed England aboard two ominously named ships: the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror. Neither ever reached their destination. The ships became locked in the ice in Victoria Strait, near King William Island, for more than a year. All of the men on board eventually perished, including Franklin himself.
Their ordeal inspired endless speculation and countless stories, including Dan Simmons’ 2007 novel The Terror, which was adapted into an AMC television series in 2018. In 2014 and 2016, searches found the wrecks of both ships, which have now become protected National Historic Sites.
The Terra Nova Expedition
If you’re going to be a doomed explorer, there are worse names to have than Captain Robert Falcon Scott. When your voyage to be the first to reach the South Pole ends in tragedy, at least there will be a cool name for everyone to remember. In all seriousness, though, if anything can challenge the search for the Northwest Passage for number of ill-fated expeditions, it might just be the race to be the first to reach the South Pole.
While Scott’s expedition—which was officially named for its supply ship—was perhaps the most tragic, it was by no means the only one to suffer serious setbacks. However, the Terra Nova Expedition at least has the distinction of having reached its goal. Scott and his four companions reached the pole in January of 1912, just 34 days after a rival team, led by Roald Amundsen, had beaten them to the prize. Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of their bad luck, and all five members of the expedition perished on the return trip.
The Lost City of Z
Say what you will about Percy Fawcett, he was a man with a mission. Through the course of more than seven expeditions to South America, he developed a theory that the vast Amazon Rainforest was home to the ruins of a lost city, which he called “Z.” This theory drove many of his explorations, and was the impetus for his last, fatal expedition. With only his son, Jack, and Jack’s longtime friend, Fawcett set off into the Amazon jungle for the umpteenth time, searching for the city he believed in so fervently.
He never returned. His last communication with the outside world was a letter written to his wife in May of 1925, which said that the expedition was getting ready to cross a tributary of the Amazon River, and that he was optimistic. Two years later, the expedition was declared lost. The fate of Fawcett and his two companions remains a mystery to this day.
Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight
Pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart made history, set records, and achieved lasting fame, but there was always “one flight which [she] most wanted to attempt,” as she put it, “a circumnavigation of the globe as near its waistline as could be.” The ambitious flight would have been the longest ever completed at the time—had she ever arrived at her destination. Instead, she and her copilot and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared on their way from New Guinea to Howland Island, an uninhabited coral island midway between Honolulu and Australia. Neither pilot, nor the special Lockheed Electra 10E that had been built for the expedition and which Earhart called her “flying laboratory", has ever been found.