Stories of the Gorilla Country - Paul du Chaillu

Return to the Coast

Mangrove swamp



I left the good villagers of Yoongoolapay, and pursued my way to the seashore. On the route we came to a high ridge, or plateau. This was the highest land I had seen between the Monda and the Muni, and it is probable that, if it had not been for the trees, I should have seen the ocean very well. Along this ridge were strewn some of the most extraordinary boulders I ever saw. These immense blocks of granite covered the ground in every direction. Several of them were between twenty and thirty feet high, and about fifty feet long.

Near the largest of these granite masses a huge rock rose some forty or fifty feet out of the ground. I saw an opening in the solid rock leading to a fine large cavern. It had, no doubt, been made by the bands of man; it was not of natural formation, for the entrance had evidently been cut out of the solid rock by human beings; and now it was much used by the natives as a house to stop in overnight when they were traveling to and fro. Its vast opening admits such a flood of sunlight and air that it is not likely to be used as a lair for wild beasts. We saw the remains of several fires inside, but I am bound to say we also saw the tracks of leopards and other dangerous beasts on the outside, for which reason I did not care to sleep there.

While exploring the cavern I thought several times I heard a trickling, which was almost like the noise of rain, and which I had not noticed before, probably on account of the great shouting of my men. But when we got out I was surprised to find not a cloud in the sky. Turning for an explanation to Alapay, he led me along a path, and as we went forward the trickling noise gradually grew into the sound of rushing waters. Presently we came to the edge of a steep declivity, and here I saw before and around me a most charming landscape, the center of which was a most beautiful waterfall. A little stream, which meandered along the slope of the plateau, and which had hitherto escaped our view, had here worn its way through a vast granite block which barred its course. Rushing through the narrow and almost circular hole in this block, it fell in one silvery leap perpendicularly forty or fifty feet. The lower level of the stream ran along between high, steep banks covered with treed, the right bank being quite abrupt. It was a miniature Niagara. Clear, sparkling, and pure as it could be, the water rushed down to its pebbly bed—a sight so charming that I sat down for some time and feasted my eyes upon it.

I then determined to have a view from below. After some difficult climbing we got to the bottom, and there beheld, under the fall, a large hole in the perpendicular face of the rock, which evidently formed the mouth of a cavern. The opening of the cavern was partly hidden by the waterfall, and was cut through solid rock. Between the opening and the waterfall there were a few feet of clear space, so that by going sideways one could make good his entrance into the cavern without receiving a shower-bath.

I determined to enter this cavern; but, before venturing, I went first and tried to get a peep at the inside. It was so dark that I could see nothing, so it was not very inviting. We lit torches; I took my revolver and gun, and accompanied by two men, who also were armed with guns, we entered. How dark it was! Once inside, we excited the astonishment of a vast number of huge vampire bats. There were thousands and thousands of them. They came and fluttered around our lights, threatening each moment to leave us in darkness, and the motion of their wings filled the cavern with a dull thunderous or booming roar. It really looked an awful place, and the dim light of our torches gave to every shadow a fantastic form.

The cavern was rather rough inside. When we had advanced about one hundred yards we came to a stream, or puddle of water, extending entirely across the floor, and barring our way. My men, who had gone thus far under protest, now desired to return, and urged me not to go into the water. It might be very deep; it might be full of horrible water snakes; all sorts of wild beasts might be beyond, and land snakes also. At the word snake I hesitated, for I confess to a great dread of serpents in the dark or in a confined place, where a snake is likely to get the advantage of a man. A cold shudder ran through me at the thought that, once in the water, many snakes might come and swim round me, and perhaps twist themselves round me as they do around the branches of trees; so I paused and reflected.

While peering into the darkness beyond I thought I saw two eyes, like bright sparks or coals of fire, gleaming savagely at us. Could it be a leopard, or what? Without thinking of the consequences, I leveled my gun at the shining objects, and fired. The report for a moment deafened us. Then came a redoubled rush of the great hideous bats. It seemed to me that millions of these animals suddenly launched out upon us from all parts of the surrounding gloom. Some of these got caught in my clothes. Our torches were extinguished in an instant, and, panic-stricken, we all made for the cavern's mouth. I had visions of enraged snakes springing after and trying to catch me. We were all glad to reach daylight once more, and nothing could have induced us to try the darkness again. I confess that, though I think it takes a good deal to frighten me, I did not at all relish remaining there in entire darkness.

The scene outside was as charming as that within was hideous. I stood a long time looking at one of the most beautiful landscapes I ever beheld in Africa. It was certainly not grand, but extremely pretty. Before me, the little stream, whose fall over the cliff filled the forest with a gentle murmur, resembling very much, as I have said, when far enough off, the pattering of a shower of rain, ran along between steep banks, the trees of which seemed to meet above it. Away down the valley we could see its course, traced like a silver line over the plain, till it was lost to our sight in a denser part of the forest.

I have often thought of these caverns since I saw them, and I have regretted that I did not pay more attention to them. If I had made my camp in the vicinity, and explored them, and dug in them for days, I think that I should have been amply rewarded for the trouble. At that time I did not feel greatly interested in the subject. I had not read the works of M. Boucher de Perthes and others, or heard that the bones of animals now extinct had been discovered in caverns in several parts of Europe, and that implements made of flint, such as axes, sharp-pointed arrows, etc., etc., had been found in such places. If I had excavated I might perhaps have found the remains of charcoal fires, or other things, to prove that these caverns had been made by men who lived in Africa long before the negro. I feel certain these caverns must have been human habitations. I do not see how they could have been made except by the hand of man.

On my last journey I thought once or twice of going to them from the Fernand-Vaz, to explore and dig in them. I thought I might be rewarded for my labor by discovering the bones of unknown beasts, or of some mains of primitive men.

These caverns are fortunately not far away from the sea—I should think not more than ten or fifteen miles—and are situated between the Muni and the Monda Rivers. Any one desiring to explore them would easily find the way to them. The cavern under the waterfall would be extremely interesting to explore.

The valley itself was a pleasant wooded plain, which, it seemed, the hand of man had not yet disturbed, and whence the song of birds, the chatter of monkeys, and the hum of insects came up to us, now and then, in a confusion of sounds very pleasant to the ear.

But I could not loiter long over this scene, being anxious to reach the sea-shore. After we set off again we found ourselves continually crossing or following elephant tracks, so we walked very cautiously, expecting every moment to find ourselves face to face with a herd.

By-and-by the country became quite flat, the elephant tracks ceased, and presently, as we neared a stream, we came to a mangrove swamp. It was almost like seeing an old friend, or, I may say, an old enemy, for the remembrances of mosquitoes, tedious navigation, and malaria, which the mangrove-tree brought to my mind, were by no means pleasant. It is not very pleasant to be laid up with African fever, I assure you.

From a mangrove-tree to a mangrove swamp and forest is but a step. They never stand alone. Presently we stood once more on the banks of the little stream, whose clear, pellucid water had so charmed me a little farther up the country. Now it was only a swamp—a mangrove swamp. Its bed, no longer narrow, was spread over a flat of a mile, and the now muddy water meandered slowly through an immense growth of mangroves, whose roots extended entirely across, and met in the middle, where they rose out of the mire and water like the folds of some vast serpent.

It was high tide. There was not a canoe to be had. To sleep on this side, among the mangroves, was to be eaten up by the mosquitoes, which bite much harder than those of America, for they can pierce through your trowsers and drawers. This was not a very pleasant anticipation, but there seemed to be no alternative, and I had already made up my mind that I should not be able to go to sleep. But my men were not troubled at all with unpleasant anticipations. We were to cross over, quite easily too, they said, on the roots which projected above the water, and which lay from two to three feet apart, at irregular distances.

It seemed a desperate venture, but they set out jumping like monkeys from place to place, and I followed, expecting every moment to fall in between the roots in the mud, there to be attacked perhaps by some noxious reptile whose rest my fall would disturb. I had to take off my shoes, whose thick soles made me more likely to slip. I gave all may baggage, and guns, and pistols to the men, and then commenced a journey, the like of which I hope never to take again. We were an hour in getting across—an hour of continual jumps and hops, and holding on. In the midst of it all, a man behind me flopped into the mud, calling out "Omemba!" in a frightful voice.

Now omemba  means snake. The poor follow had put his hands on an enormous black snake, and, feeling its cold, slimy scales, he let go his hold and fell. All hands immediately began to run faster than before, both on the right and the left. There was a general panic, and every one began to shout and make all kinds of noises to frighten the serpent. The poor animal also got badly scared, and began to crawl away among the branches as fast as he could. Unfortunately, his fright led him directly toward me, and a general panic ensued. Every body ran as fast as he could to get out of danger. Another man fell into the mud below, and added his cries to the general tumult. Two or three times I was on the point of getting a mud bath myself, but I luckily escaped. My feet were badly cut and bruised, but at last we were safe across, and I breathed freely once more, as soon after I saw the deep blue sea.