In 1950, Gerald Durrell set off for British Guiana (now Guyana) to collect native wildlife and bring it back to his Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust on the island of Jersey in the English Channel.
On his journey, Durrell experienced all kinds of adventures: some amusing, some thrilling, and some extremely irritating. He traveled up the Essequibo River into the lush tropical forests and trekked across a landscape teeming with life and color. He encountered the sakiwinki monkey and the sloth with curiously green fur, heard the horrifying sounds of rampaging piranhas, and learned how to lasso a galloping anteater. He even met an ill-tempered anaconda and an overly affectionate bird.
This remarkable memoir will take you into a wild place in another time, accompanied by the highly entertaining naturalist whose writings inspired popular Masterpiece series The Durrells in Corfu.
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.
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Three Singles to Adventure
By Gerald Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1954 Gerald Durrell
All rights reserved.
Snakes and Sakiwinkis
It says much for Ivan's abilities as an organizer that by tea-time on the day of our arrival we were installed in a house of our own on the main street of Adventure.
Our abode was a tiny wooden shack, worm-eaten, ant-eaten, and only maintaining an upright position with a manifest effort. It was, like all the houses in Guiana, built upon wooden piles, and the interior consisted of three rooms, one to sleep and eat in, one to cook in, and one to keep the animals in. It was set well back from the road and separated from it by a wide, water-filled ditch spanned by a dilapidated wooden bridge. A short flight of steep wooden steps, ending in a small square balcony, led up to the front door. At the back a similar flight of steps led up to the kitchen.
That evening Ivan was in the kitchen performing strange rites that were producing a mouth-watering smell of curry, and Bob was in the sleeping quarters manfully trying to tie up three hammocks in a space that was scarcely big enough to hold one. I was sitting outside in the twilight on the top of the rickety wooden steps, books and pictures strewn about me, holding a conference with the local hunters that Ivan had summoned. This preliminary talk with the local inhabitants is a very important part of collecting: by showing them pictures of various animals you want you can learn much about the local fauna, and whether a certain species is rare or common. It also gives you the chance to state the prices you are willing to pay, and then both you and the hunters know where you are. The hunters of Adventure turned out to be a strange and interesting assortment: there were two large negroes, a short, fat Chinaman with the traditional expressionless face, seven or eight slim East Indians with fierce brown eyes and tangled mops of long jetblack hair, and a host of half-castes of varying shades and sizes. The fact that I had not been in the country long enough to get the hang of the local names was proving something of an obstacle.
'Ivan, there's a fellow here who says he can get me a pimpla hog,' I would shout, above Bob's muttered profanity among the hammocks and the sizzle of curry. 'What is a pimpla hog, a sort of wild pig?'
'No, sir,' Ivan would shout back, 'a pimpla hog's a porcupine.'
'And what's a kigihee?'
'It's a sort of small animal with a long nose, sir.'
'You mean like a mongoose?'
'No, sir, bigger than mongoose, with a very long nose and rings round his tail. He walks with his tail in the air.'
'Urrugh!' came a chorus of affirmation from the hunters around me.
'You don't mean a coatimundi, do you?' I would inquire, after due thought.
'Yes, sir, that is the name,' Ivan would shout.
And so it went on for two hours. Then Ivan told us that food was ready, and so we dispersed the hunters and went inside. By the light of the small hurricane lamp the living-room looked as though someone had tried, not very successfully, to erect a circus marquee. Ropes and cords festooned the room like a giant spider's web; Bob stood forlornly in the centre of the mess, a hammer in one hand, surveying the tangle of hammocks.
'I don't seem to get the hang of these things,' he said moodily when he saw me.
'Look, here's the mosquito net for my hammock, but I'm damned if I see how I'm going to get it on.'
'Well, I'm not very sure, but I think it goes over the hammock before you hang it up,' I said helpfully.
Leaving Bob to puzzle it out, I went into the kitchen to help Ivan dish out.
We had cleared the table of some of its overhanging undergrowth of hammock ropes and demolished an excellent curry when Mr Cordai arrived. There was a loud knock at the door, a hoarse voice called out 'Good night, good night, good night,' and Mr Cordai staggered in. He was a half-caste with the East Indian blood predominating, a tiny, shrivelled little man with a face like a dyspeptic monkey and legs as bowed as bananas. It became noticeable almost at once that he was very drunk. He lurched over into the circle of lamplight and grinned foolishly at us, enveloping us in a blast of rum-laden breath.
'This is Mr Cordai, sir,' said Ivan, in his cultured voice, looking distinctly embarrassed. 'He is a very good hunter.'
'Yes,' agreed Mr Cordai, seizing my hand and wringing it fervently. 'Good night, Chief, good night.'
I had learned, by trial and error in Georgetown, that 'good night' was used as a greeting any time after the sun had gone down, and it was a trifle confusing until you got used to it. Mr Cordai needed little encouragement to sit down and join us in a glass of rum. He stayed for an hour, talking volubly, if not always accurately, about all the animals he had caught in the past and all the animals he was going to catch in the future. Tactfully I led the subject round to a large lake that lay a few miles from Adventure. Both Bob and I were anxious to visit this lake, to see an Amerindian village that was near it and to see what fauna had congregated round its shores. Mr Cordai said he knew the lake well. It appeared that he had fought to the death with several snakes of astonishing dimensions in the forest around it and had swum across it on more than one occasion pursued by enraged animals that he had tried to capture. My faith in Mr Cordai was by now diminishing rapidly. After another glass of rum we arranged that he should call for us the next morning and lead us to the lake. He said it would be a good idea to start about six, as we would get the worst of the walk over before the sun got too hot. So, breathing promises of the various animals we were to capture on the morrow, Mr Cordai took his leave of us and wandered uncertainly out into the night.
We were up at five the next morning, bustling about getting ready for our trip to the lake. At half past seven Ivan made some more tea and sent a small boy in search of our trusty guide. At eight the small boy returned and said that Mr Cordai had not returned home last night, and his wife was as anxious as we were to find out where he had got to, though doubtless for different reasons. At ten it became apparent that Mr Cordai had forgotten our appointment, and so we decided to have a walk round Adventure and see what animals we could find for ourselves.
We crossed the road and made our way through the trees. Soon we came out on to a sandy beach, and before us stretched the Atlantic. I presumed the water would be salt, but I found that we were too close to the mouth of the Essequibo river: the water was fresh, discoloured with yellow mud and shredded leaves brought down from the interior. The sand-dunes behind this beach were overgrown with large, straggling bushes and clumps of gnarled trees. These harboured a varied array of reptile life; crawling among the branches of the bushes were great numbers of anolis; small, slim, largeeyed lizards, with thin, delicate toes. They were inoffensive and rather helpless creatures; they just scrambled wildly about the bushes and were very easy to capture. The stunted trees were thickly overgrown with long strands of Spanish moss hanging down like big clumps of grey hair, a hundred elderly wigs strung among the leaves. Between them grew numerous epiphytes and orchids, attached to the rough bark at wild angles, clinging on with their tiny roots. Among all this undergrowth we found a number of tree frogs, delicately patterned with a filigree of ash grey on a dark-green background, a colour scheme that fitted in beautifully with the moss and the orchid leaves.
Across the sand around us scuttled numbers of amevas, like great green rockets, most of them nearly twelve inches long. For some reason Bob decided that his life would not be complete until he had captured some of these glittering lizards, and so he set off in pursuit of one, uttering wild cries and endeavouring to throw his hat over it. As he disappeared from view I decided that he was employing the wrong technique. I spotted a large ameva basking on the sand some distance away, and I decided to try my own method of capture. I fastened a bit of fine twine to the handle of the butterfly net and made a slip-knot at one end. Then I approached my quarry with extreme caution, while he lay on the hot sand and watched my approach with bright, suspicious eyes. Slowly I dangled my noose until it was just in front of his head. Then I tried to slide it over, but my efforts were thwarted by the grass stalks which kept getting hitched up in the twine. The ameva watched the noose curiously as it trailed back and forth in front of him; he obviously did not connect it with me. In my efforts to get the noose over his head, however, I moved too close, and the lizard shot off across the sand and dived under a large bush.
Just as I was cursing my bad luck and looking round for a fresh victim I heard Bob calling me frantically from among the bushes. I found him crouched on all fours in front of a tangle of undergrowth.
'What's the matter?'
'Shhhhh! Look here, under this bush ... a huge teguxin.'
I lay down on the sand and peered under the bush; there among the roots lay a great fat lizard about three feet long. Its heavy body was thickly patterned with black and bright-red scales, with a scattering of golden ones on its black tail. It had a wide and obviously capable mouth, and it kept flicking its thick black tongue in and out as it watched us with glittering golden eyes.
'We'd better do something,' I suggested. 'He looks as though he's going to try and run for it.'
'You stay here,' said Bob. 'I'll go round and try to cut off his retreat, if I can.'
He crawled off across the sand, while I lay and watched the lizard. This was the first of many demonstrations I was to have of the tegu's intelligence; craning his neck and twisting his head round, the reptile watched Bob's efforts at circumnavigation with a slightly scornful expression. He waited until my companion had almost reached the far side of the bush, and then he shot off across the sand at great speed, leaving a cloud of dust behind him. Bob leapt to his feet and tore after him, and then flung himself in a peculiar flying tackle just as the tegu gained the sanctuary of another bush and dived underneath. Bob sat up, spitting sand, and peered round to see where the reptile had gone. Just as I arrived on the scene the tegu appeared on the far side of the bush and started to walk cautiously towards me. I stood quite still, and the reptile, obviously under the impression that I was a sort of decayed tree trunk, walked to within a few feet of me. When he was near enough I emulated Bob's flying tackle, landing with a thump on the sand, one hand firmly grasping the reptile's neck. His immediate reaction was to curl himself up like a hoop and attempt to bite my hand, and he did this so suddenly that he nearly broke my grip. I would never have believed there was so much strength in such a small creature. Finding that he could not break my grip, he brought up his hind legs, armed with great claws, and tried to tear all the flesh off my hand at the same time lashing about wildly with his tail. It took Bob and me about ten minutes to subdue him and get him into a sack, by which time we were both scratched and bleeding and the wretched beast had lashed me across the face with his tail, which made my eyes water copiously.
It was not until some time afterwards that we realized how lucky we had been to capture this teguxin, for of all the Guiana lizards they are the bravest and most intelligent, and usually they are far too wily to be caught by normal methods. In captivity a few become quite tame and allow you to handle them but most of them remain savage and untrustworthy. Most lizards only bite or attack you if you have got them cornered or if you are trying to pick them up, but the tegus did not need this excuse. They would hurl themselves at you for no reason at all. Later on, in Georgetown, we had twenty or so tegus confined in a large box with a wire front. I went one day to give them fresh water and found them all lying at one end of the cage in a pile, their eyes closed, apparently asleep. I had opened the door of the cage and was just reaching inside for the water-pot when one of the tegus opened his eyes and saw me. Without a moment's hesitation he launched himself, open-mouthed, down the length of the cage and grabbed me by the thumb, hanging on like a bulldog. The noise I made trying to get him off aroused the others, and they also came dashing down to help their comrade. I was forced to remove my hand from the cage, with the tegu still hanging on to it, and to slam the door against the angry horde. Only then could I concentrate on getting the reptile to release my thumb. I have never known any other lizards be so fierce for so little reason. We found that when we put freshly caught tegus in a wire-fronted cage we had to hang sacking over the front, for otherwise if you went near them the lizards would attack the wire, biting and scratching in an effort to get at you.
After being so successful with the tegu, we had another attempt at capturing some of the amevas, using the noose method that I had tried before. With much patience, and many failures, we succeeded in catching six of these lovely reptiles. Their coloration was a mixture of bright grass green, yellow, and black, and they seemed to glow like polished carvings. We had to handle them very carefully for fear they would shed their beautiful long tails, which they do on the slightest provocation. When they were safely packed away in cloth bags we made our way back to our little hut to have a meal and to see if our noble hunter, Mr Cordai, had turned up.
Cordai was nowhere to be seen, but sitting on the front steps was a young East Indian, and at his feet lay a large sack. On close inspection this sack was seen to move.
'What have you got there?' I asked, peering at it hopefully.
'Cumoodi, Chief,' said the boy, grinning, 'big water cumoodi.'
'What's a water cumoodi?' I asked Ivan, who had just appeared out of the kitchen.
'It's a big snake, sir, like a boa, but it lives in water.'
I approached the sack and lifted it up. It was quite heavy, and as I lifted it there came a loud and angry hissing from inside. I undid the mouth and looked in: down in the depths was coiled a large, glistening, and angry anaconda, the aquatic constricting snake about which so many exciting (but probably untrue) stories have been written.
'Look, Bob,' I said, thinking my companion would share my pleasure at this new addition, 'it's an anaconda. It seems to be quite a nice specimen.'
'Um,' said Bob unenthusiastically, 'I should do the sack up again, if I were you.'
For some reason the hunters in Guiana liked to be paid by the foot for any boas or anacondas they caught, and this entailed taking the snake out and measuring it, regardless of what sort of temper it was in. This particular anaconda was in a very bad temper. I did not learn until later that it is very unusual to find an anaconda in anything else but a bad temper; however, at the time I was unaware of this ugly side of their characters. As I was used to handling the more tractable African pythons, I simply plunged my arm into the sack and endeavoured to grasp the snake round the neck. He struck at me viciously but, luckily, missed, while Ivan, the East Indian, and Bob all stared at me as though I was mad.
'Look out, sir, he's a very bad snake,' said Ivan.
'He will bite you, Chief,' squeaked the East Indian.
'You'll get blood poisoning,' said Bob.
But their warnings came too late, for at the second attempt I had grabbed the reptile round the neck and pulled him out of the sack, hissing and squirming. Measured by his owner, he came to five feet six inches, quite a modest length for an anaconda. They have been known to grow to twenty-five feet in length. After paying the East Indian the required sum per foot, Bob and I wrestled with the snake and forced him into one of the heavy sacks we had brought with us for this purpose. Then I doused the sack with a couple of buckets of water and placed it in the room that housed our other specimens.
Some time later I went down the road to the only shop in Adventure to buy some nails, and on returning I was intrigued to see Bob standing on top of the wooden steps leading to the kitchen, clutching a branch in one hand and with a fixed expression on his face. He looked not unlike Horatio at the bridge. I could hear Ivan yelping and muttering to himself inside the house.
'What's going on?' I called cheerfully.
Bob gave me a look of despair.
'Your anaconda's escaped,' he said.
'Escaped? But how could it?'
'I don't know how, but it has. It's taken up residence in the kitchen. It seems to like it there.'
I climbed up the steps and looked through the kitchen door: the snake was lying coiled up near the stove, and an overturned pot in the middle of the floor indicated that Ivan had left in a hurry. On seeing me the anaconda hissed vigorously and struck in my direction, but as it was a good six feet away the result was abortive. Ivan, wearing his worried expression, poked his head through the door leading into the living-room.
Excerpted from Three Singles to Adventure 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
- A Word in Advance
- 1 Snakes and Sakiwinkis
- 2 Red Howlers and Rats
- 3 The Monstrous Animal and Sloth Songs
- 4 Big Fish and Turtle Eggs
- 5 After the Anteater
- 6 Capybara and Cayman
- 7 Crab Dogs and Carpenter Birds
- 8 The Toad with Pockets
- 9 Pimpla Hog and Tank ’e God
- A Biography of Gerald Durrell
- A Message from Durrell Wildlife