MARY Wilson is a star in her own right.

The larger-than-life Sandy Beach resident, who has just celebrated her 60th wedding anniversary with husband Bob, is a poster woman for those in their 80s and those who hope to be.

A multi-talented artist and a party girl who likes her champagne, Mary also heads for the beach every morning.

Her interests stretch from glider flying and lapidary to glass blowing and growing orchids.

But this month, Mary is in the Hollywood limelight thanks to her late father - British soldier, athlete, explorer and World War I veteran, Sergeant Major Henry Costin.

And Costin is in the limelight because of his travels through the dripping jungles, dizzying mountains, mysterious ruins and serpentine rivers of South America with the adventurer and explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett.

Fawcett's disappearance while searching the Amazon jungle for a lost civilisation has fired imaginations for 90 years and inspired books, plays and even video games.

Costin voiced his disgust at the exaggeration and misrepresentation of Fawcett's travels in letters to his daughter.

Lieutenant Colonel Fawcett has been credited as one of the inspirations for the movie character Indiana Jones, brought to life in a succession of hit movies by actor Harrison Ford.

Now both Fawcett and Costin feature in another Hollywood epic, The Lost City of Z, which arrives in Coffs Coast and Clarence cinemas this week.

This film is a lot closer to history.

Costin and Fawcett: Henry Costin, left and Percy Fawcett with an ancient statue at Tihuanaco.
Costin and Fawcett: Henry Costin, left and Percy Fawcett with an ancient statue at Tihuanaco.

Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by David Grann, the film combines elements from Fawcett's seven South American expeditions.

On three of those he was accompanied by Mary Wilson's father.

Mary said the Bolivian government had bought her career-soldier father out of the British Army as a marksman to feed the surveyor and his party as they surveyed disputed national boundaries. The rocketing price of rubber had made South American boundaries a hot-button topic by 1906, when Fawcett began his work.

Mary said her father did not join Fawcett's last, fatal adventure in 1925 because he disliked Fawcett's eldest son Jack, but Fawcett also mentions in his journal that Costin, who he regarded highly, had "married and settled down" by the time he left England to search for 'Z' so he did not feel he should take him.

"My mother gave me the last letter Fawcett wrote to dad, saying how sorry he was that dad was not coming along," Mary said.

Costin was one of Fawcett's most trusted companions.

Fawcett described him as "one of the only assistants I could ever call completely reliable and fully adaptable, and never have I wished for better company".

Wiry and athletic, with gymnastic skills which extended to the trapeze, Costin was able to save himself from a thousand foot precipice after slipping by catching his mule's stirrup and hauling himself back up on to the trail.

Level-headed as well as inventive, resourceful and tough, Mary said her father trusted nobody and never let any natives handle his firearms, a stance vindicated when Fawcett had his rifle and pistol, pistol and ammunition stolen by friendly but light-fingered tribesmen.

Henry Costin with jungle natives in front of a maxubi maloca (communal hut).
Henry Costin with jungle natives in front of a maxubi maloca (communal hut).

Fawcett's respect for the native people he encountered was credited with his success in traversing and surveying remote areas where others had died.

"One of my dad's jobs was to dish out food when they were on starvation rations, because he was known as a very fair man," Mary said.,

"They sometimes starved for six weeks - the Amazon was flooded; the boat had overturned, there were no animals.

"Dad fed them by fishing and shooting wild turkeys and monkeys out of the trees.

"The turkeys were quite big but had very small heads and they roosted very high up. Once when he came back with three or four, the others said he couldn't miss such big birds,

"Dad showed them that they were all shot only through the head."

"Many times on the rivers they had to take everything everything out of their boats and carry it round the rocks.

When Mary was at boarding school in England her father wrote her letters telling her about his old adventures.

She cherishes those letters alongside photographs of him posing with Fawcett and ancient statues at Tihuanaco; with a crowd of naked Indians outside a giant maxubi maloca (communal hut) and proudly holding several impressive fish pulled from a South American river, perhaps the Matto Gosso or Amazon.

In her bookshelf is a signed copy of Exploration Fawcett, compiled by Fawcett's younger son Brian from the explorer's surviving notes and diaries.

"The book gives you a very good idea of the privations they suffered," Mary said.

"Dad was bitten by vampire bats and there were these maggots that used to drill into them, At night they would have to burn them out."

At the close of WWI, returned soldier Costin supported his young family by becoming a decorator, so well-known for his skill in marbling and other decorative finishes that he worked in royal palaces, including the bedroom of the young Princess Elizabeth.

"It was all the rage to have wood look like marble," Mary explained.

"He made a fireplace in 'lapis lazuli' for Winston Churchill's brother and Fortnum and Mason couldn't get enough of his 'marble' tables.

"Mummy had to stop taking orders.

"His pine woodgrain design was turned into wallpaper strips by Sanderson wallpapers.

"He ground all his own colours and mixed his own paints"

At home Mary said her father's inventiveness even surfaced in the fowl yard, where he invented a device to prevent hens from eating their eggs and a special cage to stop roosters from crowing.

In her cabinet is a tiny jewellery box Henry Costin made as a gift for her mother while serving on the front line of the war in the Middle East.

Made from the polished shell of a tiny tortoise, the box has hinges and a clasp made from spent Turkish ammunition shells and telegraph wire and buttons cut from the uniform of a dead Bulgarian.

Inside the box is still the letter from 'Harry' to her mother Annie, apologising for his 'rough' work .

"I hope they reach you, Sweetie," he wrote. "For I've very few souvenirs to show for three years of war."

Costin is played in the new film by Robert Pattinson and Percy Fawcett by Charlie Hunnam.

Mary and her family will be guests at a special local preview screening of the Lost City of Z.

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