Stories of the Gorilla Country - Paul du Chaillu

Fishing—But Not Bathing!

turtle hunting



Our camp presented a very picturesque appearance, and was very unlike the one described a little while ago, and of which I gave you a picture. Here each man had built for himself a cosy shade with mats, which, by the way, are very beautiful. These mats are about five or six feet in length and three feet wide. We made our walls of them, so that we were sheltered from the wind. Our houses looked very much like large boxes.

As usual, the first day was occupied in making every thing comfortable and in collecting fire-wood, which it was not so easy a matter to find, for the shrubs did not furnish much, and we had to go far to get it; afterward it was made the business of the children to gather brush-wood for the fires, and the poor children had hard work too.

We built large oralas, or frames, on which to dry the fish when salted, or to smoke it by lighting a fire beneath, in which case the oralas were built higher.

Some had brought with them large copper dishes, called Neptune, which look like gigantic plates, in which they were to boil down salt water to get supplies of salt for salting the fish, and to take home with them. Some of the women were all day making salt; when made, it was packed securely in baskets, and placed near the fire to keep it dry.

Every day we had some new kind of fish to eat or to salt down.

As for myself, as I have said, I had brought along an immense shark-hook and a stout rope. The hook was attached to a strong chain two feet long, so that the teeth of the sharks could not cut the line if they should swallow the piece of meat or the large fish put on the hook for a bait.

There were so many sharks swarming in the waters about the cape that they were often almost washed upon the beach by the waves. I never saw such an immense number. The Chinese, who eat sharks' fins, would find enough here to glut the Canton market. In truth, I sometimes trembled when in a canoe at the idea that it might upset, for if that had happened, in a short time I should have been seized by a dozen hungry sharks, been dragged to the bottom of the sea, and there been devoured. These sharks are certainly the lions and tigers of the water: they show no mercy. The very sight of them is horrible, for you can not help thinking and saying to yourself, "I wonder how many people this shark has eaten!" There is a superstition among sailors that whenever there is a sick person aboard the sharks will follow the ship, watching for the corpse to be thrown overboard.

I confess I felt a hatred for shark, and while at Cape Lopez I killed as many of them as I could. Almost every day you could have seen me in a canoe near the shore, throwing my shark-hook into the sea, and after a while making for the beach, and calling all the men together to pull with all our might, and draw in my victim. One day I took a blue-skin shark. He was a tremendous fellow. I thought we should never be able to haul him ashore, or that the line would part. It took us an hour before we saw him safely on the beach. Now and then I thought he would get the better of us, and that we should have to let the line go, or be pulled into the water. At last he came right up on the beach, and a great shout of victory welcomed him. Aboko was ready for him, and with a powerful axe he gave him a tremendous blow that cut off his tail. Then we smashed his head, and cut his body into several pieces, which quivered to and fro for some time. In his stomach we found a great number of fish. If I remember correctly, he had six or seven rows of teeth, and such ugly teeth! I pity the poor man whose leg should unfortunately get caught between them.

Hardly a day passed that I did not catch some sharks, and then for a bait I used to put on my hook a piece of their own flesh, which, like the Cannibals, they ate apparently without any remorse.

There is another species of shark, of a gray, leaden color, which is shorter and thicker than the blue-skin shark; it has a broader head, and a much wider mouth, and is far more voracious. This species is the most common. It will attack a man in shallow water. I remember a poor boy who was going to his canoe, where the water was not up to his knees, when suddenly, just as he was going to get in, he was seized by his leg and dragged into the water by one of these terrible sharks, which had probably been for some time swimming along the beach watching for prey. In that country it is dangerous to bathe in the sea, and I did not attempt to do so. So much for the sharks.

Every day, on the muddy banks near the mouth of the Fetich River, we hauled in with our nets a great quantity of mullets and other fish. These were split open, cleaned, salted, dried, and smoked, and then packed away in baskets.

Sometimes, early in the morning, we went out to turn turtles. To do this we had to start before daylight. They come on the beach to lay their eggs in the sand, which the sea does not reach. There the heat of the sun hatches them out. I have sometimes spied these turtles early in the morning coming out of the water and ascending the beach in a clumsy way, until they reached the dry spot where they wished to lay their eggs. After laying them, they manage to cover them with sand. I should have liked very much to see the young ones come out of their eggs. How funny the little wee turtles must look! But I have never been so fortunate.

One day we caught a turtle which had only three legs; the fourth had been bitten off, no doubt by a hungry shark. The wound had got well, and must have been made long before we caught the turtle.

Would you like to know how we captured turtles?

As soon as they see people coming toward them they generally make for the water. Then we rush with all speed upon the unwieldy turtle, and with one jerk roll it over on its back, where it lies, vainly struggling to recover its legs. Then we kill it.

Hundreds of eggs were sometimes found in one turtle. I was very fond of them when found in the body, otherwise I did not like them. They made splendid omelets.

The turtles look very curious when they lie fast asleep on the water. At such times I am told that, with great care, they may be approached and captured.

Besides fishing, we had hunting also. South of the cape was a dense forest, in which might be found most of the animals that live in African woods. Several times we saw elephants on the beach, but we shot none. I killed a great number of sea-fowls, which fly about there in such flocks as almost to darken the air. They collect in this way in order to feed on the fish which are so plentiful.

One evening, as Aboko, Niamkala, and I were returning from a fruitless hunt in the woods, we fell in with larger game. Passing along the edge of the forest, we were suddenly startled by a deep growl. Looking quickly about, we perceived an immense male leopard just crouching for a spring upon our party. Fortunately our guns were loaded with ball. No doubt we had come upon the animal unawares. In a flash we all three fired into the beast, for there was no time to be lost. He was already upon the spring, and our shot met him as he rose. He fell dead and quivering almost within a foot of Aboko, who may be said to have had a very narrow escape, for the leopard had singled him out as his prey. He was all immense animal, and his skin, which I preserved as a trophy, is most beautifully shaded and spotted; in fact, there is scarcely a more beautiful animal than the African leopard.

At the mouth of the Nazareth the savage sawfish is found. It is, no doubt, one of the most formidable, and the most terrible of the animals that live in the water.

I was quietly paddling in a little canoe when my attention was drawn to a great splashing of water a little way off. I saw at once it was a deadly combat between two animals. All round the water was white with foam. The cause of this could not be two hippopotami fighting, for in that case I should have seen them.

I approached cautiously, having first made my two rifles ready in case of an emergency. At last I came near enough to see an enormous sawfish attacking a large shark It was a fearful combat; both fought with desperation. Bat what could the shark do against the powerful saw of his antagonist?

At last they came too near my canoe. I moved off lest they might attack my canoe, for they would have made short work of my small frail boat, and a single blow of the sawfish would have disabled me. Each tooth of the saw must have been two inches long, and there were, I should say, forty on each side; the saw was about five feet long. In the end, the sawfish, more active than the shark, gave him a terrible blow, making his teeth go right through the flesh of the shark Several such blows were quickly delivered, and all became still, the foam ceased, and the water resumed its accustomed stillness I paddled toward the scene, when suddenly I saw at the bottom of the river what I recognized to be a great shark it was dead, and lay on its back, showing its belly. The body was frightfully lacerated.

The sawfish had killed its antagonist, and left the field of battle, and only the blood of the shark stained the water.

In the Bay of Cape Lopez, in the month of July, I could see whales playing about in every direction, and sending water high into the air.

They come at that time of the year with their young; and the water of the bay being very quiet, they enjoy there the sea, and the young whales get strong before they go into the broad ocean. Very pretty it looks to see them swimming by the side of their big mothers.

Year after year the whales came, always in July; but one year the whalers found them out, and made war upon them; and now, when July comes, they are no more to be seen, for the whale is very intelligent, and knows well the places where he is not safe; so they look out for some other unfrequented bay wherein to play and train their young.

Besides the whale, all the year round can be seen what the sailor commonly calls the bottle-nose, an enormous fish, not so big as a whale, but nevertheless of great size. It is of the whale family.