I did this because Cameroon is known as the Noah’s Ark of Africa, with over 1/2 of all African animals living here. It’s the wettest country, you see. Plus, it has an enormous number of animals found ONLY within its borders. Who better to take me on a nature walk than zoologist and humorist Gerald Durrell?
So pour an ice-cold gin and tonic and settle back in your hammock. You’re off on a 6-month’s collecting trip to the rain forests of West Africa.
And not, as Gerry says, “the white man’s Africa, with its macadam roads, its cocktail bars, its express trains roaring through a landscape denuded of its flora and fauna by the beneficial influences of civilization. We wanted to see one of those few remaining parts of the continent that had escaped this fate and remained more or less as it was when Africa was first discovered.”
In a truly “Mad dogs and Englishmen” moment, we learn that neither black nor white men enjoy snakes and other reptiles. None except Gerry, that is.
Language Bites: Among themselves, Elias and Andraia speak Bayangi. (Obviously not their real names.) To white men the Eshobians speak “Pigeon.” A curious way of talking that the white men must have begun. (I don’t get it. Why not say “It’s hot today” instead of “Sun too much”…? Perhaps it was similar to talking down to children using “baby talk”.) Anyway, as the team captures a Calabar Ground Python Gerry speaks normally to Elias, who understands perfectly:
“Elias, who was a little ahead of me, turned over a large rock and, as it rolled down the slope, he jumped back with a cry of fear.
“Masa, na snake…na bad beef…
I dropped everything and leapt up the slope to him…
“Masa, ‘e go bite you. Careful, masa, na bad beef dat…
“The snake made no move beyond flicking its tongue in and out rather rapidly. Having cut off its retreat I felt better.
“Masa, dat kind of beef get poison too much…
“Elias, shut up and go and bring me a big bag and another stick.
“Yessir, said Elias dismally, and wandered off.”
The 2nd Hunter: Of course, as with any Durrell book, the characters are well…characters!
“Andraia, I had learned, was a hypochondriac of the first order: the slightest pain or fever would drive him into the dark interior of his hut, to lie there moaning and writhing, driving his three wives into a panic lest their lord should die…”
As recorded by Gerry, the Africans believe in ju-ju, a kind of magic that sounds similar to voodoo, for it can curse you. Given his culture, Gerry of course pooh-poohs this belief. When he is told by a native to leave a sacred mountain, he refuses. But then, for one spooky day and a night everything goes wrong – from accidents to flash flooding to stalking leopards. The expedition leaves the mountain, a little more humble but none the wiser.
Bakebe, British Cameroon
In Bakebe, Gerry reconnects with his partner John, who is there to get bird specimens, also for British museums. While together in camp, Daniel, a Cameroonian staff member, falls into the crocodile pond and some 40 baby surians get out.
“In times of crisis like this, everyone, no matter what his station or job, was called upon to lend a hand. Well in the rear, upholding the Englishman’s traditional reputation for calmness, came John, in his normal slow and unhurried manner.
“By the time he arrived on the scene most of the reptiles had taken cover in the surrounding undergrowth. Peering round he could only see one or two crocodiles in sight, and so naturally wanted to know what all the shouting and fuss was for.
“I thought ALL the crocs had escaped, he said aggrievedly. That’s why I came down.
“As if in answer, five crocodiles appeared out of the grass and converged about his feet. John looked at them broodingly for a minute, unaffected by the cries of alarm from the bird staff, and then he bent down and picking one carefully up by the tail, he waved it at me.
“Here’s one, old boy,” he called.
“Don’t hold it like that, John, I called. It will turn…
“Acting as if under instructions the tiny reptile curved itself up and fastened its jaws on John’s finger. To his credit let it be said that not a sound escaped him; he shook the reptile free, not without some effort, and backed away from the battle area.
“I don’t think I will join in after all, if you don’t mind,” he said, sucking his fingers. I am supposed to be a bird man.”
5 pangolins! Not only do you get to experience a moment in history preserved in amber, the pen and ink drawings are sweet. I wish there were more of them.