Sunday 20 July 2014

The Overloaded Ark

Well now, I've read my first book for my new challenge, the Travel the World in Books challenge, which is to read a book from every country in Africa. I've given myself a year to do this but realistically I can see it taking two. But we shall see. Whatever happens it should be an interesting journey.

Anyway, my first book is The Overloaded Ark by Gerald Durrell and the country it covers is the Cameroons.

Gerald Durrell was well known collector of animals for zoos back in the 1950s to around the 1980s. His exploits were often on TV and I can remember watching them as kid. He eventually opened his own zoo on the island of Jersey, specialising in breeding and conserving rare and endangered animals. The Overloaded Ark is one of his earliest excursions, if not the first, the book being written in 1953.

The author travelled with John Yealland who specialised in birds while Gerald's interest lay with reptiles and mammals. They had a list from various zoos of the kind of thing they wanted but no funding from said zoos. They were heading for the Cameroons,partly because it had particularly interesting animals and birds, but also it was very much less modern and spoilt than many other parts of the continent.

The country occupies what I think of as the bend in the west coast of Africa as it turns the corner towards Nigeria.

I would say it's not a very well known country, even now. I had some idea where of it was but could not pinpoint it precisely until I saw a map. It was originally split into two - British Cameroons and French Cameroons - but gained its independence in 1961, part of the British territory deciding to join Nigeria I gather. Durrell of course, in the fifties, was in British Cameroons and was focussing his efforts in the rainforests surrounding the Cross river.

He stresses how difficult the life of an animal collector is. Not that you're in danger really from hostile tribes or savage animals but that any trouble you get into is often of your own making and that the assistance of the local native population is imperative. The book describes in detail the help he gets from the locals, but they didn't often understand that he needed animals brought to him that were in good condition, not wounded from being roughly captured. Durrell writes in a very self-deprecating manner, stressing how ill equiped the white man is to deal with conditions in the forest, even though he might, at first, think otherwise.

Durrell and Yealland part company for the first half of the book, concentrating their efforts in different areas. The book really came alive for me in the second half when they're back together in the area of a mountain called N'da Ali. The interactions between the two are often very funny and Durrell's written descriptions of the forest and mountains become stunning. This is very much a strength of the author's writing I feel, he's so good at it that you feel yourself 'there'.

I would stress that the book is very much of its time. Durrell was very precise about the pidgin English the natives spoke and whether you would see that in a similar book these days is questionable. I don't think for a minute he was trying to be derogatory because he had huge respect for the abilities of the natives, but some might see it that way. I just saw it as an honest account of his experiences and a history lesson in how things have changed.

All in all, a good start to my challenge. I feel I've learnt a bit about the Cameroons... I didn't know there was rainforest there for instance, or anything about the kind of animals that live there. Nor did I even really know where exactly the country is and now I do. And the best thing is that I really enjoyed the book. Durrell was a superb writer whose books I read when I was much younger. I plan to dig out a few more if I possibly can as they're beautifully written and beautifully illustrated too.

The Overloaded Ark is also my book 26 for Bev's Mount Tbr challenge.



BooksPlease said...

You've made a great start! I read My Family and Other Animals when I was at school and remember it was very entertaining about his childhood on Corfu.

You're going to be know so much about Africa soon! I'm still thinking about doing something similar but as I want to concentrate on reading from my TBRs it's proving a bit difficult.

Jeane said...

I'm very fond of Gerald Durrell's books- and he wrote so many, and I've read so few of them! I just ordered four more from book mooch so I hope to read more soon.

Meytal Radzinski said...

This sounds like an interesting outsider's account, and also from the actual nature side of things. I'm curious though (and this is absolutely not meant in a judgmental or snarky way!) if you plan to mostly read books about Africa as opposed to books from Africa. As you say yourself, there's a problematic angle of Durrell very much being a product of his time, and very much of his background as well. How do you think this influences your impression of the country? And how may it ultimately influence your African "travels"? I often find myself struggling with two opposing sides when I read books from problematic perspectives, I'm curious to know how other readers deal with it...

Cath said...

Margaret: Well it's a start at any rate. LOL I read My Family just a few years ago and thought it was magical.

Part of the reason for doing this is to increase my knowledge, even if only a little bit.

Jeane: I had realised how many he wrote until I checked FantasticFiction. You wouldn't have thought he'd have had the time.

Bibliobio: I'm hoping... 'planning'... to read all kinds of books, so yes there will be books 'from' Africa as well as about. Modern as well as historical. In fact I fully realise that the best thing to do would be to read several books about each country to get a proper perspective. Whether that'll happen is hard to say but I hope so eventually.

Realistically, all this book has provided me with is a snapshot of a country within a limited time-frame and from a certain pov. I got a good idea of the landscape, the flora and the fauna and an idea of how native populations were treated in the 1950s. No way is this modern-day Cameroons but then I didn't expect it to be and was aware going into it that the perspective would be of a certain kind. My late father-in-law was in Rhodesia as a young man (1930s) and talked about his experiences in very much the same manner as Durrell. I don't tend to struggle with it, to be honest. I don't always like what I'm reading but it is what it is, it happened, and I find it all very interesting to read about.