Stories of the Gorilla Country - Paul du Chaillu

Dry Season on the Fernand-Vaz

storks, pelicans, marabouts



One fine day, as I was quietly seated in my bamboo house, reading over, for the fiftieth time, the letters of the dear friends who had not forgotten me, and were so kind as to remember me in my wandering life in Africa, my attention was suddenly drawn away by the singing of numerous voices coming down the river. Soon afterward there stood before me, accompanied by Ranpano, a tall, venerable-looking, and slender negro of noble but savage bearing; he was evidently, I thought, a chief; there was something commanding about his countenance. He was not very dark. The people who came with him showed him great respect. This tall negro was Quengueza, the great king of the Rembo, and the sovereign of the whole upriver country of the Rembo and Ovenga, the head waters of the Fernand-Vaz.

He came down in considerable state in three canoes, with three of his favorite wives, and about one hundred and thirty men.

My little black boy, Macondai, brought him a chair, and after he had seated himself I saluted him, according to the usual custom, by saying "Mbolo." After a few seconds he said "Ai." Then he paused a little while, and said "Mbolo," to which I replied "Ai." This is the usual mode of salutation in the Commi country, the host beginning first.

He looked at me and seemed very much astonished. He said he expected to see a tall and stout man. He had heard of me as a great hunter. He was now convinced, he said, that I must have a brave heart to hunt as I did.

Fortunately, Quengueza and I could talk together, the Commi being his native language.

He told me there were plenty of gorillas and nshiegos  in his country, and that, if I would come, I should have liberty and protection to hunt and do what I pleased. No one would hurt my people, or Ranpano's people, or myself, or any body, added he, with emphasis, that should come with me.

I liked the old king at first sight, but I little guessed then that he would afterward become so fond of me, and that I should love him so much. Yes, I shall remember my good friend Quengueza as long as I live. Though he is a poor heathen, his heart was full of love for me, and he possessed many manly and noble qualities.

I was so much pleased with King Quengueza's visit that I sent the kind-hearted old fellow off with his canoes full of presents of iron bars, brass rods, chests, etc.; and I gave him goods on trust with which to buy me ebony. He promised me great sport, and an introduction to some tribes of whom these Commi men of the sea-shore knew nothing.

To do him greater honor, my people fired a salute as he started off, with which he was highly delighted, as an African is sure to be with noise. He did not go before making me promise to come and see him as soon as the rainy season arrived.

The dry season was now setting in. It was the first I had spent in the Commi country, and I devoted the whole month of July to exploring the country along the sea-shore, between the Fernand-Vaz and the sea.

There was quite a change. The birds, which were so abundant during the rainy season, had taken their leave; and other birds, in immense numbers, flocked in to feed on the fish, which now leave the sea-shore and the bars of the river's mouth, and ascend the river to spawn. Fish, particularly mullet, were so abundant in the river that two or three times, when I took my evening airing on the water in a flat upper-river canoe, enough mullet would leap into the boat to furnish me a breakfast the next day. The quantity of fish in the shallow water was prodigious.

The breakers on the shore, never very light, were now frightful to see. The coast was rendered inaccessible by them even to the natives, and the surf increased to such a degree, even at the mouth of the river, that it was difficult, and often impossible, to enter with a canoe. Strong winds from the south prevailed, and, though the sky was constantly overcast, not a drop of rain fell. The thermometer fell sometimes early in the morning to 64° of Fahrenheit, and I suffered from cold, as did also the poor natives. The grass on the prairie was dried up or burnt over; the ponds were dried up; only the woods kept their resplendent green.

I was often left alone in that great prairie with my cook and my little boy Macondai, and a dear little boy he was. I felt perfectly safe among the good Commi. I always had tried to do right with them, and I had reaped my reward. They loved me, and any one who should have tried to injure me would have no doubt been put to death or exiled from the country. I shall always remember my little village of Washington and the good Commi people. When perchance I got a chill, the whole village was in distress. No one was allowed to talk loud, and every one would call during the day, and sit by me with a sad face for hours without saying a word, and, when they went away, they all expressed their sorrow to see me ill. The kind women would bring me wild fruits, or cold water from the spring, in which to bathe my burning and aching head; and sometimes tears would drop from their eyes and run down their kind black faces.

At this season the negroes leave their villages and work on their plantations. The women gathered the crop of ground-nuts which had been planted the preceding rainy season, while the men cut down the trees for the plantations of the coming year, or built canoes, or idled about, or went fishing. Some of their farms are necessarily at some distance off. The sandy prairie is not fit to cultivate, being, in fact, only a deposit of the sea, which must have taken an incalculable period of time to form.

Birds flocked in immense numbers on the prairies, whither they come to hatch their young; especially later in the season, when the ugly marabouts, from whose tails our ladies get the splendid feathers for their bonnets, were there in thousands; and I can assure you they were not very easy to approach. I believe the marabout is the ugliest bird I ever saw, and one would never dream that their beautiful feathers are found only under the tail, and can hardly be seen when the bird is alive.

Pelicans waded on the river banks all day in prodigious swarms, and gulped down the luckless fish which came in their way. I loved to see them swimming about in grave silence, and every now and then grabbing up a poor fish with their enormous long and powerful bills. If not hungry, they left the fish in their huge pouches, till sometimes three or four pounds of reserved food awaited the coming of their appetite. This pouch, you see, performed the office of a pocket, where boys, when not hungry, keep their apples in reserve.

On the sandy islands were seen now and then flocks of the Ibis religiosa, the sacred Ibis of the Egyptians. They looked exactly like those that are found mummified, and which have been preserved several thousand years. They are very curious-looking birds; the head and neck have no feathers. I have tried to find their nests, but never succeeded.

Ducks of various kinds built their nests in every creek and on every new islet that appeared with the receding waters. Some of them were of beautiful plumage.

Cranes, too, and numerous other water-fowls flocked in, and every day brought with it new birds. They came, by some strange instinct, from far-distant lands, to feed upon the vast shoals of fish which literally filled the river. I wondered if many of these birds had come from the Nile, the Niger, the Zambesi—from the interior of Africa where no one had ever penetrated, and from the vast plains of South Africa. What great travelers some of these birds must be! I envied them, and often wished I could fly away, supported by their wings. What countries I should have seen!—what curious people I should have looked at!—and how many novel things I should have found to recount to you.

Along the trees bordering the river, sometimes perched on their highest branches, sometimes hidden in the midst of them, I could see that most beautiful eagle, the Gypohierax angolensis, called coungou  by the natives. This eagle is of a white and black color. He often watches over the water. How quickly his keen eyes can see through it! and with what rapidity he darts at his prey! Then, seizing it in his powerful talons, which sink deep into it, he rises into the air, and goes where he can devour it undisturbed. These eagles attack large fish. They generally make them blind, and then gradually succeed in getting them ashore, though it is hard work for them. They have a luxurious time on the Fernand-Vaz River during the dry season, and are very numerous. They build their nests on the tops of the highest trees, and come back to them every year. These nests are exactly like those you have seen, only larger. They keep very busy when their young begin to eat. The male and female are then continually fishing. Strange to say, they are very fond of the palm-oil nuts. In the season when these are ripe, they are continually seen among the palm-trees.

No wonder these eagles grab fish so easily, they have such claws! One day, as one passed over my head, I shot him, and, thinking that he was quite dead, I took him up, when suddenly, in the last struggle for life, his talons got into my hands. I could have dropped down from pain. Nothing could have taken the claws away; one of them went clear through my hand, and I shall probably keep the mark of it all my life.

On the sea-shore I sometimes caught a bird called the Sulu capensis, which had been driven ashore by the treacherous waves to which it had trusted itself, and could not, for some mysterious reason, get away again.

Finally, every sand-bar was covered with gulls, whose shrill screams were heard from morning till night, as they flew about greedily after their finny prey.

It was a splendid opportunity for sportsmen, and I thought of some of my friends. As for myself, I took more delight in studying the habits of the birds than in killing them, and I assure you I had a very delightful time. I love dearly the dry season in Africa. I am sure you would have enjoyed it quite as much as I did, if you had been there with me.