The first thing I found intriguing, about Commander Attilio Gatti, was the fact that his Wikipedia entry quoted a birth date (1896) but not a date of death.
Who knows, I thought – maybe during his African expeditions, he discovered some strange ritual, same weird fountain of youth, maybe the eternal flame of Ayesha, and he’s still alive somewhere, approaching his 120th birthday.
Attilio Gatti was very active between the 1930s and the 1940s, but seems to have faded from the public’s memory since the 1970s, when his many popular books went out of print and became highly priced collectors’ items1.
Gatti had been an officer in the Italian Cavalry during the Great War, and afterwards he had devoted his energies to the exploration of the Dark Continent.
With mixed luck, so to speak.
But the best part of commander Gatti’s story – as far as I’ve been able to patch it together – begins in the 1930s, when he arrived in America without a penny, suffering from the aftermath of what was called blackwater fever and knowing only 28 words in English2.
His latest African expedition – the seventh – had been a disaster.
He started writing books about his African adventures – I found a partial list of sixteen titles, plus one written with his wife Ellen.
And he made a small fortune.
He described his encounters with the pygmies and the Watusi, his visit to the cave of Kawena known as the Cave of Agonising Death, and a lot of jungle color and flora, and fauna.
But most of all, the American public was captivated by commander Gatti’s Jungle Yachts.
Built by International Trucks to Gatti’s precise specifications, the two mobile homes/trucks/yachts were supposed to bring together the practical ruggedness of all-terrain vehicles with “all the luxuries of the explorer’s Park Avenue penthouse”.
The vehicles even got some coverage from the Italian Istituto Luce – in this short piece from the month of may, 1938 (note: the audio is not the original, but the text is)
The newsreel text goes like this:
Success of Italian explorers abroad. All New Yorkers admired these luxury, streamlined trucks as they crossed the town on their way to the port for shipment. They are part of the equipment for the Tenth African expedition of well-known explorer Attilio Gatti. They are, as you can see, true mobile palaces, equipped with all the luxuries of modern living, even including an air conditioning system; they are fit for the 18 months adventure through the African jungle of Belgian Congo, where under the auspices of the Belgian government, of the University of South Africa, of the Zoological societies of Rome and Antwerp, Gatti and his wife will study itineraries for the colonial development of the Congo and will collect a wide selection of the fauna of that immense, mysterious country. Italian film operators have joined this lavishly equipped expedition, and they will certainly bring back a lot of interesting documentary material.
So, there was not just the spirit of adventure, animating Gatti’s expedition – but also a solid colonial interest.
Gatti produced documentary films of his later expeditions, the last of which (his eleventh) took him to the Mountains of the Moon in 1947-48. His expedition not only featured his land yachts, but also a Hummingbird helicopter.
A man with an eye for hi-tech and product-placement, Gatti also had a special camera developed by Leica for his field trips – the prototype was auctioned a few years back.
After his expedition in the Mountains of the Moon, apparently he was content with his life as a writer – and slowly faded from the public’s memory.
And still his Wikipedia page does not list a date of death…3