Stories of the Gorilla Country - Paul du Chaillu

Journey Through the Wilderness

tree snake



Before we renewed our journey, the natives had done all they could to gather provisions; but the result was poor enough. By going to distant villages they had succeeded in getting a few bunches of plantain.

Mcomo, Mbéné's brother, backed out. He said he was not going into the Cannibal country to be eaten up. But I must tell you that Mbéné had some friends among the Cannibals. And he sent with me two of his sons, called Miengai and Makinda, together with twelve good hunters, and six women who were the wives of some of the men. The women carried the provisions, etc.

I took seventy pounds of shot and bullets, nineteen pounds of powder, ten pounds of arsenic for preserving the birds and animals I should kill, for I knew I should probably succeed in getting some new specimens.

When all was arranged, when every body had taken leave of all his friends, for this was a very great journey, and they came back half a dozen times to take leave over again, or say something they had forgotten, when all the shouting and quarreling about who should carry the smallest load was over, we at last got away.

We had left the camp of Mbéné behind us at a distance of about five miles when we came to the banks of a little river called the Noonday, a clear and beautiful stream. I was ahead of the party with Miengai, and was waiting for the others to come up before crossing. As we stood on the bank I spied a fish swimming along. Immediately the thought came into my mind, "How nicely that fish would taste if I could get it and boil it in a pot over the fire!" I fired a charge of small shot into it; but no sooner had I pulled the trigger than I heard a tremendous crash on the opposite bank, about six or seven yards off. Small trees were torn down violently, and then we heard the shrill trumpetings of a party of frightened elephants. They were probably sleeping or standing in a dead silence on the opposite bank in the jungle. I was sorry I had fired, for after crossing the stream we might have killed an elephant. Poor Miengai was terribly vexed. "I am sure," said he, "they had big tusks of ivory."

Our party, as soon as they heard the gun, came up in haste, and asked what was the matter. When they heard the story, they began to lament our not killing an elephant, for then we should have had meat enough for the whole journey; and they shouted with one accord, "Elephant meat is so good!"

This exclamation made me wonder how an elephant steak would taste.

On we went, and got fairly into the mountainous country. The hills became steeper as we advanced. How tired I felt; for the diet at Mbéné's camp had not strengthened me. These Mbondemos had a great advantage over me. They used their bare feet, almost as deftly as monkeys, and hence got their foothold more easily than I.

Miengai and I were in advance. All at once he made me a sign to keep very still. I thought he had discovered a herd of elephants, or seen the traces of an enormous leopard. He cocked his gun; I cocked mine; the other men did the same; and there we stood, in perfect silence, for at least five minutes. Suddenly Miengai sent a "hurrah" echoing through the forest. It was immediately answered by shouts from many voices not very far off, but whose owners were hidden from us by huge rocks and trees. Miengai replied with the fierce shout of the Mbondemo warriors, and was again answered. Thinking we were going to have a general fight, I looked carefully after my powder-flask and my bullets, and found they were all right.

Going a little farther on we came in sight of the encampment of a large party, who proved to be some of Mbéné's people just returning from a trading expedition to the interior. Two men of this camp offered to go with us. Their names were Ngolai and Yeava. We consented to take them.

What a journey it was! Nothing but thick woods to struggle through, hills to climb, rivers to cross, and nearly all the time it rained; in fact, I was wet from morning to night. How glad I was when, in the evening, we had made our camp, and built great fires! For my part, I had three fires lit about my bed of leaves; and in the evening I always hung up my clothes to dry, so as to have them ready for the next day.

One morning my men came to tell me they were tired, and would not go a step farther unless I gave them more cloth.

They seemed in earnest; and I began to question myself whether they meant to plunder me or to leave me in these mountains? To be left thus alone would have been almost certain death. To give them what they asked was to show them I was afraid of them. If they knew I was afraid of them I did not know what they might next do. So I determined to put on a bold front. Taking my two revolvers in my hand, I said, "I will not give you any more cloth. I will not let you leave me, because your father Mbéné has given you to me to accompany me to the Fan tribe. You must therefore go with me, or" (here I motioned with my pistols) "there will be war between us. But," said I, "this is a very hard road, and at the end of the journey I will give you something more."

This satisfied them, and we again resumed our journey. Up, and up, and up we struggled, and now we began to meet with immense boulders. Not the scream of a bird, or the shrill cry of a monkey, broke the stillness of the dark solitude. Nothing was heard but the panting breaths of our party as we ascended the hills.

At last we came to an immense mountain torrent, which rushed down the hill side with fearful force, and was white with foam. Its course was full of huge granite boulders, which lay about as though the Titans had been playing at skittles in that country. Against these the angry waters dashed as if they would carry all before them, and, breaking, threw the milky spray up to the very tree-tops. As I looked up the torrent seemed to pour its foaming waters directly down upon us.

This was the head of the Ntambounay River which I had ascended in a canoe, and on the banks of which I came near being murdered in the Shekiani village. What a change had taken place in it! Here a canoe would be dashed into a hundred pieces against the rocks.

I was so thirsty and tired that I went to the river bank, and drank a few handfuls of the pure, clean cold water.

After resting a little while, we continued our course till we reached the top of a very high mountain, whence I could see all the country round How wild and desolate it looked! Nothing but forest and mountains stretching away as far as the eye could reach.

I was sitting under a very large tree, when, suddenly looking up, I saw an immense serpent coiled upon the branch of a tree just above me; and I really could not tell whether he was not about to spring upon me and entangle me in his huge folds. You may well believe that I very quickly "stood from under." I rushed out, and, taking good aim with my gun, I shot my black friend in the head. He let go his hold, tumbled down with great force, and after writhing convulsively for a time, he lay before me dead. He measured thirteen feet in length, and his ugly fangs proved that he was venomous.

My men cut off the head of the snake, and divided the body into as many pieces as there were people. Then they lighted a fire, and roasted and ate it on the spot. They offered me a piece; but, though very hungry, I declined. When the snake was eaten I was the only individual of the company that had an empty stomach; I could not help reflecting on the disadvantage it is sometimes to have been born and bred in a civilized country, where snakes are not accounted good eating.

We now began to look about the ruins of the village near which we sat. A degenerate kind of sugar-cane was growing on the very spot where the houses had formerly stood. I made haste to pluck some of this, and chew it for the little sweetness it had. While thus engaged my men perceived what instantly threw us all into the greatest excitement. Here and there the cane was beaten down or torn up by the roots, and lying about were fragments which had evidently been chewed. There were also footprints to be seen, which looked almost like those of human beings. What could this mean? My men looked at each other in silence, and muttered "Nguyla!" (Gorillas!)

It was the first time I had seen the footprints of these wild men of the woods, and I can not tell you how I felt. Here was I now, it seemed, on the point of meeting, face to face, that monster, of whose ferocity, strength, and cunning the natives had told me so much, and which no white man before had hunted. My heart beat till I feared its loud pulsations would alarm the gorilla. I wondered how they looked. I thought of what Hanno the Carthaginian navigator said about the wild hairy men he had met on the West Coast of Africa more than two thousand years ago.

By the tracks it was easy to know that there must have been several gorillas in company. We prepared at once to follow them.

The women were terrified. They thought their end had come; that the gorilla would be soon upon them; so, before starting in search of the monster, we left two or three men to take care of them and reassure them. Then the rest of us looked once more carefully at our guns; for the gorilla gives you no time to reload, and woe to him whom he attacks! We were fortunately armed to the teeth.

My men were remarkably silent, for they were going on an expedition of more than usual risk; for the male gorilla is literally the king of the forest—the king of the equatorial regions. He and the crested lion of Mount Atlas are the two fiercest and strongest beasts of that continent. The lion of South Africa can not be compared with either for strength or courage.

As we left the camp, the men and women left behind crowded together, with fear written on their faces. Miengai, Ngolai, and Makinda set out for the hunt in one party; myself and Yeava formed another. We determined to keep near each other, so that in ease of trouble, or in a great emergency, we might be at hand to help one another. For the rest, silence and a sure aim were the only cautions to be given.

As we followed the footprints, we could easily see that there were four or five of them, though none appeared very large. We saw where the gorillas had run along on all fours, which is their usual mode of progression. We could perceive also where, from time to time, they had seated themselves to chew the canes they had borne off. The chase began to be very exciting.

We had agreed to return to the women and their guards, and consult about what was to be done, after we had discovered the probable course of the gorilla, and this was now done. To make sure of not alarming our prey, we moved the whole party forward a little way, to some leafy huts, built by passing traders, and which served us for shelter and concealment. Here we bestowed the women, whose lively fear of the terrible gorilla arises from various stories current among the tribes of women having been carried off into the woods by the fierce animal. Then we prepared once more to set out on our chase, this time hopeful to get a shot.

Looking once more to our guns, we started off. I confess that I was never more excited in my life. For years I had heard of the terrible roar of the gorilla, of its vast strength, of its fierce courage when only wounded. I knew that we were about to pit ourselves against an animal which even the enormously large leopards of the mountains fear, which the elephants let alone, and which perhaps has driven away the lion out of this territory; for the "king of beasts," so numerous elsewhere in Africa, is not met with in the land of the gorilla.

We descended a hill, crossed a stream on a fallen log, crept under the trees, and presently approached some huge boulders of granite. In the stream we had crossed we could see plainly signs that the animals had just crossed it, for the water was still disturbed. Our eyes wandered every where to get a glimpse of our prey, Alongside of the granite blocks lay an immense dead tree, and about this the gorillas were likely to be.

Our approach was very cautious; I wish you could have seen us. We were divided into two parties. Makinda led one, and I the other. We were to surround the granite block, behind which Makinda supposed the gorillas to be hiding. With guns cocked and ready, we advanced through the dense wood, which cast a gloom, even in midday, over the whole scene. I looked at my men, and saw that they were even more excited than myself.

Slowly we pressed on through the dense bush fearing almost to breathe, for fear of alarming the beasts. Makinda was to go to the right of the rock, while I took the left. Unfortunately, he and his party circled it at too great a distance. The watchful animals saw him. Suddenly I was startled by a strange, discordant, half human, devilish cry, and beheld four young and half-grown gorillas running toward the deep forest. I was not ready. We fired, but hit nothing. Then we rushed on in pursuit; but they knew the woods better than we. Once I caught a glimpse of one of the animals again; but an intervening tree spoiled my mark, and I did not fire. We pursued them till we were exhausted, but in vain. The alert beasts made good their escape. When we could pursue no more we returned slowly to our camp, where the women were anxiously expecting us.

I protest I felt almost like a murderer when I saw the gorilla this first time. As they ran on their hind legs, with their beads down, their bodies inclined forward, their whole appearance was that of hairy men running for their lives. Add to all this their cry, so awful, yet with something human in its discordance, and you will cease to wonder that the natives have the wildest superstitions about the "wild men of the woods."

In our absence the women had made large fires, and prepared the camp. I changed my clothes, which had become drenched by the frequent torrents and puddles we ran through in our eager pursuit. Then we sat down to our supper, which had been cooked in the mean time. I noticed that all my plantains were gone—eaten up. What was to become of us in the great forest? I had only two or three biscuits, which I kept in case of actual starvation or sickness.

As we lay by the fire in the evening before going to sleep, the adventure of the day was talked over to those who had not gone with us, and, of course, there followed some curious stories of the gorillas. I listened in silence.

One of the men told a story of two Mbondemo women who were walking together through the woods, when suddenly an immense gorilla stepped into the path, and, clutching one of the women, bore her off in spite of the screams and struggles of both. The other woman returned to the village much frightened, and told the story. Of course her companion was given up for lost. Great was the surprise when, a few days afterward, she returned to her home.

"Yes," said one of the men, "that was a gorilla inhabited by a spirit." This explanation was received by a general grunt of approval.

One of the men told how, some years ago, a party of gorillas were found in a cane-field tying up the sugar-cane in regular bundles preparatory to carrying it away. The natives attacked them, but were routed, and several killed, while others were carried off prisoners by the gorillas; but in a few days they returned home, not uninjured indeed, for the nails of their fingers and toes had been torn of by their captors.

Then several people spoke up, and mentioned names of dead men whose spirits were known to be dwelling in gorillas.

Finally came the story that is current among all the tribes who are acquainted with the habits of the gorilla, that this animal will hide himself in the lower branches of a tree, and there lie in wait for people who go to and fro. When one passes sufficiently near, the gorilla grasps the luckless fellow with his powerful feet, which he uses like giants' hands, and, drawing the man up into the tree, In quietly chokes him there.

Hunger and starvation began to tell upon us severely. When we started I did not calculate on meeting with gorillas. I had eaten all my sea-bread. There was not a particle of food among us, and no settlement near us. I began to feel anxious for fear that we should die. Berries were scarce, and nuts were hardly to be found. The forest seemed deserted. There was not even a bird to kill. To make matters worse, we had been misled. We were lost—lost in the great forest!—and we failed to reach a certain settlement where we had expected to arrive.

Traveling on an empty stomach is too exhausting to be very long endured. The third day I awoke feeble, but found that one of the men had killed a monkey. This animal, roughly roasted on the coals, tasted delicious. How I wished we had ten monkeys to eat! But how glad and grateful we were for that single one.

Presently Makinda, looking up, discovered a bee-hive. He smoked the bees out, and I divided the honey. There might have been a fight over this sweet booty had I not interposed and distributed it in equal shares. Serving myself with a portion not bigger than I gave the rest, I at once sat down, and devoured honey, wax, dead bees, worms, dirt, and all, I was so hungry. I was only sorry we had not more.

I had really a hard time getting through the old elephant tracks, which were the best roads through the jungle. The men seemed to have lost their way. We saw no animal but found several gorillas' tracks.

At last my men began to talk more cheerfully; they knew where they were; and, soon after, I saw the broad leaves of the plantain, the forerunner of an African town. But, alas I as we approached we saw no one coming to meet us; and when we reached the place we found only a deserted village. But even for this how thankful I was! Since I left Dayoko I had experienced nothing but hunger and starvation; and these were the first human habitations we had met.

Presently, however, some Mbicho people made their appearance. They were relatives of Mbéné and their village was close by. They gave us some plantains, but no fowls. I wished very much to get a fowl. I felt gouamba  (which means hunger) for meat, and knew that a good warm fowl broth would have done me a great deal of good. We spent the evening in the houses, drying and warming ourselves. It was much better than the forest, even if it was only a deserted town.

I asked if we should ever reach the Cannibal country, and found that, with the exception of the Mbicho village near at hand, we were already surrounded on three sides by Fan villages.

I was too tired to rest. Besides, I was getting deep into the interior of Africa, and was in the neighborhood of the Fans, the most warlike tribe that inhabited the country. So I barricaded my hut, got my ammunition ready, saw that my guns were all right, and then lay awake for a long time before I could go to sleep.