Travel to the wilds of Cameroon with the conservationist whose work inspired Masterpiece production The Durrells in Corfu on public television.
In 1949, Gerald Durrell embarks with fellow zoologist Kenneth Smith on an expedition to collect rare animals in the British Cameroons in West Central Africa. There, he meets the Nero-like local ruler, the Fon of Bafut, who likes a man who can hold his liquor—will Durrell be able to get on his good side?
In this unique memoir, set off on a journey with the famed British naturalist’s group of hunters and his pack of motley hunting dogs as they encounter an array of exotic creatures, including flying mice, booming squirrels, a frog with a mysterious coat of hair, and teacup-size monkeys; and witness the joys and problems of collecting, keeping, and transporting wild animals from Africa to England.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Gerald Durrell including rare photos from the author’s estate.
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About the Author
Gerald Durrell (1925–1995) was a British naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist, author, and television presenter. He is the author of the memoirs My Family and Other Animals; Birds, Beasts and Relatives; A Zoo in My Luggage; The Whispering Lands; and The Garden of the Gods; and more than twenty-five nature books. A student of zoology, he founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust on the Channel Island of Jersey.
Read an Excerpt
The Bafut Beagles
By Gerald Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1954 Gerald Durrell
All rights reserved.
Toads and Dancing Monkeys
Most West African lorries are not in what one would call the first flush of youth, and I had learnt by bitter experience not to expect anything very much of them. But the lorry that arrived to take me up to the mountains was worse than anything I had seen before: it tottered on the borders of senile decay. It stood there on buckled wheels, wheezing and gasping with exhaustion from having to climb up the gentle slope to the camp, and I consigned myself and my loads to it with some trepidation. The driver, who was a cheerful fellow, pointed out that he would require my assistance in two very necessary operations: first, I had to keep the hand brake pressed down when travelling downhill, for unless it was held thus almost level with the floor it sullenly refused to function. Secondly, I had to keep a stern eye on the clutch, a wilful piece of mechanism, that seized every chance to leap out of its socket with a noise like a strangling leopard. As it was obvious that not even a West African lorry driver could be successful in driving while crouched under the dashboard in a pre-natal position, I had to take over control of these instruments if I valued my life. So, while I ducked at intervals to put on the brake, amid the rich smell of burning rubber, our noble lorry jerked its way towards the mountains at a steady twenty miles per hour; sometimes, when a downward slope favoured it, it threw caution to the winds and careered along in a madcap fashion at twenty-five.
For the first thirty miles the red earth road wound its way through the lowland forest, the giant trees standing in solid ranks alongside and their branches entwined in an archway of leaves above us. Flocks of hornbills flapped across the road, honking like the ghosts of ancient taxis, and on the banks, draped decoratively in the patches of sunlight, the agama lizards lay, blushing into sunset colouring with excitement and nodding their heads furiously. Slowly and almost imperceptibly the road started to climb upwards, looping its way in languid curves round the forested hills. In the back of the lorry the boys lifted up their voices in song:
Home again, home again,
When shall I see ma home?
When shall I see ma mammy?
I'll never forget ma home ...
The driver hummed the refrain softly to himself, glancing at me to see if I would object. To his surprise I joined in, and so while the lorry rolled onwards trailing a swirling tail of red dust behind it, the boys in the back maintained the chorus while the driver and I harmonized and sang complicated twiddly bits, and the driver played a staccato accompaniment on the horn.
Breaks in the forest became more frequent the higher we climbed, and presently a new type of undergrowth began to appear: massive tree-ferns standing in conspiratorial groups at the roadside on their thick, squat, and hairy trunks, the fronds of leaves sprouting from the tops like delicate green fountains. These ferns were the guardians of a new world, for suddenly, as though the hills had shrugged themselves free of a cloak, the forest disappeared. It lay behind us in the valley, a thick pelt of green undulating away into the heat-shimmered distance, while above us the hillside rose majestically, covered in a coat of rippling, waist-high grass, bleached golden by the sun. The lorry crept higher and higher, the engine gasping and shuddering with this unaccustomed activity. I began to think that we should have to push the wretched thing up the last two or three hundred feet, but to everyone's surprise we made it, and the lorry crept on to the brow of the hill, trembling with fatigue, spouting steam from its radiator like a dying whale. We crawled to a standstill and the driver switched off the engine.
'We go wait small-time, engine get hot,' he explained, pointing to the forequarters of the lorry, which were by now completely invisible under a cloud of steam. Thankfully I descended from the red-hot inside of the cab and strolled down to where the road dipped into the next valley. From this vantage point I could see the country we had travelled through and the country we were about to enter.
Behind lay the vast green forest, looking from this distance as tight and impenetrable as lambs' wool; only on the hilltops was there any apparent break in the smooth surface of those millions of leaves, for against the sky the trees were silhouetted in a tattered fringe. Ahead of us lay a world so different that it seemed incredible that the two should be found side by side. There was no gradual merging: behind lay the forest of huge trees, each clad in its robe of polished leaves, glittering like green and gigantic pearly kings; ahead, to the furthermost dim blue horizon, lay range after range of hills, merging and folding into one another like great frozen waves, tilting their faces to the sun, covered from valley to crest with a rippling fur of golden-green grass that paled or darkened as the wind curved and smoothed it. Behind us the forest was decked out in the most vivid of greens and scarlets – harsh and intense colours. Before us, in this strange mountain world of grass, the colours were soft and delicate – fawns, pale greens, warm browns, and golds. The smoothly crumpled hills covered with this pastel-tinted grass could have been an English scene: the downland country of the south on a larger scale. The illusion was spoilt, however, by the sun, which shone fiercely and steadily in a completely un-English manner.
From then onwards the road resembled a switchback, and we rattled and squeaked our way down into valleys, and coughed and grunted our way up the steep hillsides. We had paused on one hilltop to let the engine cool again, and I noticed in the valley ahead a village, looking at that distance like an irregular patch of black toadstools against the green. When the engine was switched off, the silence descended like a blanket; all we could hear was the soft hiss of the grass moved by the wind and, from the village far below us, the barking of a dog and the crowing of a cockerel, the sounds tiny and remote but clear as a bell. Through my field-glasses I could see that there was some activity going on in the village: crowds of people milled round the huts, and I could see the flash of machetes and spears, and the occasional glint of a gaudy sarong.
'Na whatee dat palaver for dat place?' I asked the driver.
He peered down the hill, screwing up his eyes, and then turned to me, grinning delightedly.
'Na market, sah,' he explained, and then, hopefully. 'Masa want to stop for dat place?'
'You tink sometime we go find beef for sale dere?'
'For true, sah!'
'You lie, bushman,' I said in mock anger. 'You want to stop for dis place so you go find corn beer. No be so?'
'Eh! Na so, sah,' admitted the driver, smiling, 'but sometimes Masa go find beef there also.'
'All right, we go stop small time.'
'Yes, sah,' said the driver eagerly, and sent the lorry hurtling down the slope towards the village.
The big huts, with their conical thatched roofs, were grouped neatly round a small square which was shaded with groups of young eucalyptus trees. In this square was the market; in the patchwork of light and shadow under the slim trees the traders had spread their wares on the ground, each on his own little patch, and around them thronged the villagers in a gesticulating, chattering, arguing wedge. The wares offered for sale were astonishing in their variety and, sometimes, in their incongruity. There were freshwater catfish, dried by wood smoke and spitted on short sticks. These are unpleasant-looking fish when alive, but when dried and shrivelled and blackened by the smoking they looked like some fiendish little juju dolls, twisted into strange contortions by a revolting dance. There were great bales of cloth, some of it the highly coloured prints so beloved of the African, imported from England; more tasteful was the locally woven cloth, thick and soft. Among these patches of highly coloured cloth were an odd assortment of eggs, chickens in bamboo baskets, green peppers, cabbages, potatoes, sugar-cane, great gory hunks of meat, giant Cane Rats, neatly gutted and hung on strings, earthenware pots and cane baskets, eroco-wood chairs, needles, gunpowder, corn beer, gin-traps, mangoes, pawpaws, enemas, lemons, native shoes, lovely raffia-work bags, nails, flints, carbide and cascara, spades and leopard skins, plimsolls, trilbys, calabashes full of palm wine, and old kerosene tins full of palm and groundnut oil.
The inhabitants of the market were as varied and as curious as the wares offered for sale: there were Hausa men clad in their brilliant white robes and little white skull-caps; local chieftains in multi-coloured robes and richly embroidered caps with tassels; there were the pagans from distant mountain villages, wearing nothing but a scrap of dirty leather round the loins, their teeth filed to points, their faces tattooed. For them this represented a teeming metropolis, and the market was perhaps the high spot of the year's amusements. They argued fiercely, waving their arms, pushing each other, their dark eyes shining with delight, over such things as cocoa yams or Cane Rats; or else they stood in little groups gazing with hopeless longing at the toppling piles of multi-coloured cloth, milling round from one vantage point to another, in order to get the best views of these unobtainable luxuries.
My staff and the lorry driver disappeared into this pungent, swirling crowd like ants into a treacle tin, and I was left to wander round by myself. After a time I decided to try to take some photographs of the pagan tribesmen, so I set up the camera and started to focus it. Immediately, pandemonium broke loose; the tribesmen with one accord dropped their goods and chattels and fled for the nearest shelter, screaming wildly. Rather bewildered by this, for the average African is generally only too pleased to have his photograph taken, I turned to a Hausa standing close by and asked him what was the matter. The explanation was interesting: apparently the pagans knew what a camera was, and knew that it produced pictures of the people it was pointed at. But they were firmly convinced that with each photograph taken the photographer gained a small portion of his subject's soul, and if he took many photographs he would gain complete control over the person in question. This is a good example of witchcraft being brought up to date; in the old days if you obtained some of your victim's hair or toe-nails you had great power over him; nowadays if you get a photograph it apparently acts just as well. However, in spite of the reluctance on the parts of my subjects, I did manage to get a few shots of them, by the simple method of standing sideways on, looking in the opposite direction, and taking the photographs from under my arm.
It was not long before I discovered something that drove all thoughts of photography and witchcraft out of my head. In one of the dark little stalls that lined the square I caught a flash of reddish fur, and, moving over to investigate, I found the most delightful monkey on the end of a long string, squatting in the dust and uttering loud and penetrating 'prroup' noises. She had light ginger-coloured fur, a white shirt-front, and a mournful black face, and the strange noises she was making sounded like a cross between a bird cry and the friendly greetings of a cat. She sat and watched me very intently for a few seconds, and then she got up suddenly and started to dance. First she rose on her hind legs and jumped up and down vigorously, holding her long arms wide apart, as though she were going to clasp me to her bosom. Then she got down on all fours and started to bounce like a ball, all four feet leaving the ground, her jumps getting higher and higher the more excited she became. Then she stopped and had a short rest before starting on the next part of the dance; this consisted of standing on all fours, keeping her hindquarters quite still, while she flung her forequarters from side to side like a pendulum.
Having demonstrated the outline, she then showed me what could be done by a really experienced dancing monkey, and she twirled and leapt and bounced until I felt quite dizzy. I had been attracted to her from the first, but this wild dervish dance was irresistible, and I felt that I simply had to buy her. I paid her owner twice what she was worth and carried her off triumphantly. I bought her a bunch of bananas at one of the stalls, and she was so overcome by my generosity that she repaid me by wetting all down the front of my shirt. I rounded up the staff and the driver, all breathing corn beer, and we climbed into the lorry and continued our journey. The monkey sat on my knee, stuffing her mouth with bananas and uttering little cries of excitement and pleasure as she watched the scenery out of the window. In view of her accomplishment, I decided to call her Pavlova, and Pavlova the Patas monkey she became forthwith.
We drove on for some hours, and by the time we were nearing our destination the valleys were washed with deep purple shadows and the sun was sinking leisurely into a thousand scarlet-and-green feathers of cloud behind the highest range of western hills.
We knew when we reached Bafut, for there the road ended. On our left lay an enormous dusty courtyard surrounded by a high red brick wall. Behind this was a great assembly of circular huts with high thatched roofs, clustered round a small, neat villa. But all these structures were dominated and dwarfed by an edifice that looked like an old-fashioned bee-hive, magnified a thousand times. It was a huge circular hut, with a massive domed roof of thatch, black and mysterious with age. On the opposite side of the road the ground rose steeply, and a wide flight of some seventy steps curved upwards to another large villa, shoe-box shaped, its upper and lower storeys completely surrounded by wide verandas, the pillars of which were hung with bougainvillaea and other creepers in great profusion. This, I realized, was to be my home for the next few months.
As I got stiffly out of the lorry, an arched doorway in the far wall of the large courtyard opened and a small procession made its way across to where I stood. It consisted of a group of men, most of them elderly, clad in flowing multi-coloured robes that swished as they moved; on their heads they wore little skull-caps which were thickly embroidered in a riot of coloured wools. In the midst of this group walked a tall, slim man with a lively and humorous face. He was dressed in a plain white robe, and his skull-cap was innocent of decoration, yet, in spite of this lack of colour, I at once singled him out as the only one of any importance in the little cavalcade, so regal was his manner. He was the Fon of Bafut, ruler of the great grassland kingdom we had been travelling through and its immense population of black subjects. He was enormously wealthy, and he ruled his kingdom, I knew, with an intelligent, if slightly despotic, cunning. He stopped in front of me, smiling gently, and extended a large and slender hand.
'Welcome,' he said.
It was not until later that I learnt he could speak pidgin English as well as any of his subjects, but for some reason he was shy of his accomplishment, so we talked through an interpreter who stood, bent deferentially, translating my speech of welcome through his cupped hands. The Fon listened politely while my speech was translated, and then he waved one huge hand at the villa on top of the slope above us.
'Foine!' he said, grinning.
We shook hands again, then he walked back across the courtyard with his councillors and disappeared through the arched doorway, leaving me to install myself in his 'foine' house.
Some two hours later, when I had bathed and eaten, a messenger arrived and informed me that the Fon would like to visit me for a chat if I had sufficiently 'calmed' myself after my journey. I sent back a reply to the effect that I was quite calmed and that I would be delighted to receive a visit from the Fon; then I got out the whisky and awaited his coming. Presently he arrived, accompanied by his small retinue, and we sat on the veranda in the lamplight and talked. I drank his health in whisky and water, and he drank mine in neat whisky. We talked, at first, through an interpreter, but as the level of the whisky fell the Fon started to speak pidgin English. For two hours I was fully occupied in explaining my mission in his country: I brought out books and photographs of the animals I wanted, I drew them on bits of paper and made noises like them when all else failed, and all the time the Fon's glass was being replenished with frightening regularity.
Excerpted from The Bafut Beagles by Gerald Durrell. Copyright © 1954 Gerald Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIN WHICH WE DONE COME,
1 TOADS AND DANCING MONKEYS,
2 THE BAFUT BEAGLES,
3 THE SQUIRREL THAT BOOMS,
4 THE KING AND THE CONGA,
5 HUNT FOR THE HAIRY FROGS,
6 SNAKES AND SHILLINGS,
7 THE QUE-FONG-GOO,
8 THE TYPHLOPS IN DISGUISE,
9 THE FON AND THE GOLDEN CAT,
10 ZOO UNDER CANVAS,
11 THE FOREST OF FLYING MICE,
12 A WILDERNESS OF MONKEYS,
IN WHICH WE WALKA GOOD,
A BIOGRAPHY OF GERALD DURRELL,
A MESSAGE FROM DURRELL WILDLIFE,