THE OVERLOADED ARK

This was Gerald Durrells first book, written in 1953, recounting his experiences animal collecting for Zoos, in the Cameroons Central West Africa, borne out of finding himself in dire financial straits from the cost of his expeditions.

Such animal collecting expeditions, to fill Zoos with creatures just for the sake of amusing the public, would not, of course, be acceptable now, with hindsight, half a century on.

To his eternal credit Gerald Durrell was an early and zealous convert  to collecting wild creatures from the wild (for captive breeding and hopefully reintroduction) only when everything else had failed and there was no other alternative to save a species which would otherwise, very likely, be doomed.

Having said this, do not be put off by the animal collecting background, as "The Overloaded Ark" contains some of Gerald Durrells best writing outside of  "My Family and Other Animals" and is a wonderful read even now. Right from the start Gerald Durrell instinctively had the knack of writing entertaining literature. The book is humorous but with a serious side - the extract below gives a good idea of the books lighter side and how some, at least, of the animal collecting was done.

Beef and The Bringers of Beef

One morning, bright and early, I was shaving outside the tent, when a large and scowling man made his appearance carrying a palm-leaf bag on his back. He strode forward, dumped the bag at my feet, and stood back glowering silently at me. I called Pious, who was in the kitchen, supervising the cooking of breakfast.

"Pious, what has this man brought?"

"Na what kind of beef you got dere?" Pious asked the man.

"Water-beef."

"He say it water-beef, sah," said Pious.

"What's a water-beef? Have a look, Pious, while I finish shaving."

Pious approached the bag and carefully cut the string around its mouth. He peered inside.

"Crocodile, sah. It very big one, " he said, "but I tink it dead!"

"Is it moving?" I inquired.

"No, sah, it no move at all," said Pious, and proceeded to shake four and a half feet of crocodile out on to the ground. It lay there limp as it is possible for a crocodile to be, with its eyes closed.

"It dead, sah," said Pious, and then he turned to the man.

"Why you bring dead beef, eh? Why you no take good care no wound um, eh? You tink sometime Masa go be foolish an' he go pay you money for dead beef? "

"Water-beef no be dead," said the hunter.

"No be dead, eh?" asked Pious in wrath. "Na whatee dis, eh?" He flicked the crocodile with the bag: it opened both eyes, and suddenly came to life with unbelievable speed. It fled through Pious's legs, making him leap in the air with a wild yelp of fright, dashed past the hunter, who made an ineffectual grab at it, and scuttled off across the compound towards the kitchen. Pious, the hunter, and myself gave chase. The crocodile, seeing us rapidly closing in on him, decided that to waste time going round the kitchen would be asking for trouble, so he went through the palm-leaf wall. The cook and his helpers could not have been more surprised. When we entered the kitchen the crocodile was half through the opposite wall, and he had left havoc behind him. The cook's helper had dropped the frying-pan with the breakfast in it all over the floor. The cook, who had been sitting on an empty kerosene tin, overbalanced into a basket containing eggs and some very ripe and soft pawpaw, and in his efforts to regain his feet and vacate the kitchen he had kicked over a large pot of cold curry. The crocodile was now heading for forest proper, with bits of curry and wood ash adhering to his scaly back. Taking off my dressing-gown I launched myself in a flying tackle, throwing the gown over his head, and then winding it round so tight that he could not bite. I was only just in time, for in another few yards he would have reached the thick undergrowth at the edge of the camp. Sitting in the dust, clutching the crocodile to my bosom, I bargained with the man. At last we agreed to a price. and the crocodile was placed in the small pond I had built for these reptiles. However he refused to let go of my dressing-gown, of which he had got a good mouthful, and so I was forced to leave it in the pond with him until such time as he let it go. It was never quite the same again after its sojourn in the crocodile pool. 

THE OVERLOADED ARK © Gerald Durrell 1953

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