Saturday Snippet: The trials and tribulations of collecting pythons


The late Gerald Durrell, whom we’ve met in these pages before, was a British naturalist, animal collector and zoo-keeper who did more for the conservation and preservation of wildlife around the world than almost anyone else of his era.

He wrote many books about his experiences, which have become beloved of readers for a couple of generations now (I grew up on a steady diet of them).  One of them described his second visit to Bafut in what was then British Cameroon (today divided between Nigeria and the Republic of Cameroon).  It was titled “A Zoo In My Luggage“.

We’ve already used one excerpt from that book in a previous Saturday Snippet;  and I used an (side-splittingly funny) tale from an earlier book, “The Bafut Beagles“, about his first visit to Bafut, in a Saturday Snippet a couple of years ago.

Here’s Durrell’s account of trying to collect a massive python from a West African cave.

I sent messages to all my old contacts among the local hunters, gathered them together and told them the sort of creatures we were after. Then we sat back and awaited results. They were some time in coming. Then, early one afternoon, a local hunter called Agustine appeared, padding down the drive, wearing a scarlet-and-blue sarong and looking, as always, like a neat, eager, Mongolian shopwalker. He was accompanied by one of the largest West Africans I have ever seen, a great, scowling man who must have been at least six feet tall, and whose skin – in contrast to Agustine’s golden bronze shade – was a deep soot black. He clumped along beside Agustine on such enormous feet that at first I thought he was suffering from elephantiasis. They stopped at the verandah steps, and while Agustine beamed cheerily, his companion glared at us in a preoccupied manner, as though endeavouring to assess our net weight for culinary purposes.

‘Good morning, sah,’ said Agustine, giving a twist to his highly-coloured sarong to anchor it more firmly round his slim hips.

‘Good morning, sah,’ intoned the giant, his voice sounding like the distant rumble of thunder.

‘Good morning … you bring beef?’ I inquired hopefully, though they did not appear to be carrying any animals.

‘No, sah,’ said Agustine sorrowfully, ‘we no get beef. I come to ask Masa if Masa go borrow us some rope.’

‘Rope? What do you want rope for?’

‘We done find some big boa, sah, for bush. But we no fit catch um if we no get rope, sah.’

Bob, whose speciality was reptiles, sat up with a jerk. ‘Boa?’ he said excitedly. ‘What does he mean … boa?’

‘They mean a python,’ I explained. One of the most confusing things about pidgin English, from the naturalist’s point of view, was the number of wrong names used for various animals. Pythons were boas, leopards were tigers and so on. Bob’s eyes gleamed with a fanatical light. Ever since we had boarded the ship at Southampton his conversation had been almost entirely confined to pythons, and I knew that he would not be really happy until he had added one of these reptiles to the collection.

‘Where is it?’ he asked, his voice quivering with ill-concealed eagerness.

‘’E dere dere for bush,’ said Agustine, waving a vague arm that embraced approximately five hundred square miles of forest. ‘’E dere dere for some hole inside ground.’

‘Na big one?’ I asked.

‘Wah! Big?’ exclaimed Agustine. ‘’E big too much.’

‘’E big like dis,’ said the giant, slapping his thigh which was about the size of a side of beef.

‘We walka for bush since morning time, sah,’ explained Agustine. ‘Den we see dis boa. We run quick-quick, but we no catch lucky. Dat snake get power too much. ’E done run for some hole for ground and we no get rope so we no fit catch um.’

‘You done leave some man for watch dis hole,’ I asked, ‘so dis boa no go run for bush?’

‘Yes, sah, we done lef’ two men for dere.’

I turned to Bob. ‘Well, here’s your chance: a genuine wild python holed up in a cave. Shall we go and have a shot at it?’

‘God, yes! Let’s go and get it right away,’ exclaimed Bob.

I turned to Agustine. ‘We go come look dis snake, Agustine, eh?’

‘Yes, sah.’

‘You go wait small time and we go come. First we get rope and catch net.’

While Bob hurried out to our pile of equipment to fetch rope and nets, I filled a couple of bottles with water and rounded up Ben, our animal boy, who was squatting outside the back door, flirting with a damsel of voluptuous charms.

‘Ben, leave that unfortunate young woman alone and get ready. We’re going for bush to catch a boa.’

‘Yes, sah,’ said Ben, reluctantly leaving his girl friend. ‘Which side dis boa, sah?’

‘Agustine say it’s in a hole for ground. That’s why I want you. If this hole is so small that Mr Golding and I no fit pass you will have to go for inside and catch the boa.’

‘Me, sah?’ said Ben.

‘Yes, you. All alone.’

‘All right,’ he said, grinning philosophically. ‘I no de fear, sah.’

‘You lie,’ I said. ‘You know you de fear too much.’

‘I no de fear, for true, sah,’ said Ben in a dignified manner. ‘I never tell Masa how I done kill bush-cow?’

‘Yes, you told me twice, and I still don’t believe you. Now, go to Mr Golding and get the ropes and catch nets. Hurry.’

. . .

The path lay at first through some old native farmland, where the giant trees had been felled and now lay rotting across the ground. Between these trunks a crop of cassava had been grown and harvested, and the ground allowed to lie fallow, so that the low growth of the forest – thorn bushes, convolvulus and other tangles – had swept into the clearing and covered everything with a cloak. There was always plenty of life to be seen in these abandoned farms, and as we pushed through the intricate web of undergrowth there were birds all around us. Beautiful little flycatchers hovered in the air, showing up powder-blue against the greenery; in the dim recesses of convolvulus-covered tree stumps robin-chats hopped perkily in search of grasshoppers, and looked startlingly like English robins; a pied crow flew up from the ground ahead and flapped heavily away, crying a harsh warning; in a thicket of thorn bushes, covered with pink flowers among which zoomed big blue bees, a kurrichane thrush treated us to a waterfall of sweet song. The path wound its way through this moist, hot, waist-high undergrowth for some time, and then quite abruptly the undergrowth ended and the path led us out on to a golden grassfield, rippling with the heat haze.

Attractive though they were to look at, these grassfields were far from comfortable to walk across. The grass was tough and spiky, growing in tussocks carefully placed to trip the unwary traveller. In places, where sheets of grey rocks were exposed to the sun, the surface, sprinkled with a million tiny mica chips, sparkled and flashed in your eyes. The sun beat down upon your neck, and its reflections rebounded off the glittering surface of the rock and hit you in the face with the impact of a blast furnace. We plodded across this sun-drenched expanse, the sweat pouring off us.

‘I hope this damned reptile’s had the sense to go to ground where there’s some shade,’ I said to Bob. ‘You could fry an egg on these rocks.’

Agustine, who had been padding eagerly ahead, his sarong turning from scarlet to wine-red as it absorbed the sweat from his body, turned and grinned at me, his face freckled with a mass of sweat-drops.

‘Masa hot?’ he inquired anxiously.

‘Yes, hot too much,’ I answered, ‘’e far now dis place?’

‘No, sah,’ he said pointing ahead, ‘’e dere dere … Masa never see dis man I done leave for watch?’

I followed his pointing finger and in the distance I could see an area where the rocks had been pushed up and rumpled, like bedclothes, by some ancient volcanic upheaval, so that they formed a miniature cliff running diagonally across the grassfield. On top of this I could see the figures of two more hunters, squatting patiently in the sun. When they saw us they rose to their feet and waved ferocious-looking spears in greeting.

‘’E dere dere for hole?’ yelled Agustine anxiously.

‘’E dere dere,’ they called back.

When we reached the base of the small cliff I could quite see why the python had chosen this spot to stand at bay. The rock face had been split into a series of shallow caves, worn smooth by wind and water, each communicating with the other, and the whole series sloping slightly upwards into the cliff, so that anything that lived in them would be in no danger of getting drowned in the rainy season. The mouth of each cave was about eight feet across and three feet high, which gave a snake, but not much else, room for manoeuvring. The hunters had very thoughtfully set fire to all the grass in the vicinity, in an effort to smoke the reptile out. The snake had been unaffected by this, but now we had to work in a thick layer of charcoal and feathery ash up to our ankles.

Bob and I got down on our stomachs and, shoulder to shoulder, wormed our way into the mouth of the cave to try and spot the python and map out a plan of campaign. We soon found that the cave narrowed within three or four feet of the entrance so that there was only room for one person, lying as flat as he could. After the glare of the sunshine outside, the cave seemed twice as dark as it was, and we could not see a thing. The only indication that a snake was there at all was a loud peevish hissing every time we moved. We called loudly for a torch, and when this had been unpacked and handed to us we directed its beam up the narrow passage.

Eight feet ahead of us the passage ended in a circular depression in the rock, and in this the python lay coiled, shining in the torchlight as if freshly polished. It was about fifteen feet long as far as we could judge, and so fat that we pardoned Gargantua for comparing its girth with his enormous thigh. It was also in an extremely bad temper. The longer the torch beam played on it the more prolonged and shrill did its hisses become, until they rose to an eerie shriek. We crawled out into the sunlight again and sat up, both of us almost the same colour as our hunters because of the thick layer of dark ash adhering to our sweaty bodies.

‘The thing is to get a noose round its neck, and then we can all pull like hell and drag it out,’ said Bob.

‘Yes, but the job’s going to be to get the noose round its neck. I don’t fancy being wedged in that passage if it decided to come down it after one. There’s no room to manoeuvre, and there’s no room for anyone to help you if you do get entangled with it.’

‘Yes, that’s a point,’ Bob admitted.

‘There’s only one thing to do,’ I said. ‘Agustine, go quick-quick and cut one fork-stick for me … big one … you hear?’

‘Yes, sah,’ said Agustine, and whipping out his broad-bladed machete he trotted off towards the forest’s edge some three hundred yards away.

‘Remember,’ I warned Bob, ‘if we do succeed in yanking it out into the open, you can’t rely on the hunters. Everyone in the Cameroons is convinced that a python is poisonous; not only do they think its bite is deadly, but they also think it can poison you with the spurs under the tail. So if we do get it out it’s no good grabbing the head and expecting them to hang on to the tail. You’ll have to grab one end while I grab the other, and we’ll just have to hope to heaven that they co-operate in the middle.

‘That’s a jolly thought,’ said Bob, sucking his teeth meditatively.

Presently Agustine returned, carrying a long, straight sapling with a fork at one end. On to this forked end I fastened a slip knot with some fine cord which, the manufacturers had assured me, would stand a strain of three hundredweight. Then I unravelled fifty feet or so of the cord, and handed the rest of the coil to Agustine.

‘Now I go for inside, I go try put dis rope for ’e neck, eh? If I go catch ’e neck I go holla, and then all dis hunter man go pull one time. You hear?’

‘I hear, sah.’

‘Now if I should pull,’ I said, as I lowered myself delicately into the carpet of ash, ‘for heaven’s sake don’t let them pull too hard … I don’t want the damn thing pulled on top of me.’

I wriggled slowly up the cave, carrying the sapling and cord with me, the torch in my mouth. The python hissed with undiminished ferocity. Then came the delicate job of trying to push the sapling ahead of me so that I could get the dangling noose over the snake’s head. I found this impossible with the torch in my mouth, for at the slightest movement the beam swept everywhere but on to the point required. I put the torch on the ground, propped it up on some rocks with the beam playing on the snake and then, with infinite care, I edged the sapling up the cave towards the reptile. The python had, of course, coiled itself into a tight knot, with the head lying in the centre of coils, so when I had got the sapling into position I had to force the snake to show its head. The only way of doing this was to prod the creature vigorously with the end of the sapling.

After the first prod the shining coils seemed to swell with rage, and there came echoing down the cave a hiss so shrill and so charged with malignancy that I almost dropped the sapling. Grasping the wood more firmly in my sweaty hand I prodded again, and was treated to another shrill exhalation of breath. Five times I prodded before my efforts were rewarded. The python’s head appeared suddenly over the top of the coils, and swept towards the end of the sapling, the mouth wide open and gleaming pinkly in the torchlight. But the movement was so sudden that I had no chance to get the noose over its head. The snake struck three times, and each time I made ineffectual attempts to noose it. My chief difficulty was that I could not get close enough; I was working at the full stretch of my arm, and this, combined with the weight of the sapling, made my movements very clumsy. At last, dripping with sweat, my arms aching, I crawled out into the sunlight.

‘It’s no good,’ I said to Bob. ‘It keeps its head buried in its coils and only pops it out to strike … you don’t get a real chance to noose it.’

‘Let me have a go,’ he said eagerly.

He seized the sapling and crawled into the cave. There was a long pause during which we could only see his large feet scrabbling and scraping for a foothold in the cave entrance. Presently he reappeared, cursing fluently.

‘It’s no good,’ he said. ‘We’ll never get it with this.’

‘If they get us a forked stick like a shepherd’s crook do you think you could get hold of a coil and pull it out?’ I inquired.

‘I think so,’ said Bob, ‘or at any rate I could probably make it uncoil so we can get a chance at the head.’

So Agustine was once more dispatched to the forest with minute instructions as to the sort of stick we needed, and he soon returned with a twenty-foot branch at one end of which was a fish-hook-like projection.

‘If you could crawl in with me and shine the torch over my shoulder, it would help,’ said Bob. ‘If I put it on the ground, I knock it over every time I move.’

So we crawled into the cave together and lay there, wedged shoulder to shoulder. While I shone the torch down the tunnel, Bob slowly edged his gigantic crook towards the snake. Slowly, so as not to disturb the snake unnecessarily, he edged the hook over the top coil of the mound, settled it in place, shuffled his body into a more comfortable position and then hauled with all his strength.

The results were immediate and confusing. To our surprise the entire bulk of the snake – after a momentary resistance – slid down the cave towards us. Exhilarated, Bob shuffled backwards (thus wedging us both more tightly in the tunnel) and hauled again. The snake slid still nearer and then started to unravel. Bob hauled again, and the snake uncoiled still farther; its head and neck appeared out of the tangle and struck at us. Wedged like a couple of outsize sardines in an undersized can we had no room to move except backwards, and so we slid backwards on our stomachs as rapidly as we could. At last, to our relief, we reached a slight widening in the passage, and this allowed us more room to manoeuvre. Bob laid hold of the sapling and pulled at it grimly. He reminded me of a lanky and earnest blackbird tugging an outsize worm from its hole. The snake slid into view, hissing madly, its coils shuddering with muscular contraction as it tried to free itself of the hook round its body. Another good heave, I calculated, and Bob would have it at the mouth of the cave. I crawled out rapidly.

‘Bring dat rope,’ I roared to the hunters, ‘quick … quick … rope.’

They leapt to obey as Bob appeared at the cave mouth, scrambled to his feet and stepped back for the final jerk that would drag the snake out into the open where we could fall on it. But, as he stepped back, he put his foot on a loose rock which twisted under him, and he fell flat on his back. The sapling was jerked from his hands, the snake gave a mighty heave that freed its body from the hook, and, with the smooth fluidity of water soaking into blotting-paper it slid into a crack in the cave wall that did not look as though it could accommodate a mouse. As the last four feet of its length were disappearing into the bowels of the earth, Bob and I fell on it and hung on like grim death. We could feel the rippling of the powerful muscles as the snake, buried deep in the rocky cleft, struggled to break our grip on its tail. Slowly, inch by inch, the smooth scales slipped through our sweaty hands, and then, suddenly, the snake was gone. From somewhere deep in the rocks came a triumphant hiss.

Covered with ash and charcoal smears, our arms and legs scraped raw, our clothes black with sweat, Bob and I sat and glared at each other, panting for breath. We were past speech.

‘Ah, ’e done run, Masa,’ pointed out Agustine, who seemed to have a genius for underlining the obvious.

‘Dat snake ’e get power too much,’ observed Gargantua moodily.

‘No man fit hold dat snake for inside hole,’ said Agustine, attempting to comfort us.

‘’E get plenty, plenty power,’ intoned Gargantua again, ‘’e get power pass man.’

In silence I handed round the cigarettes and we squatted in the carpet of ash and smoked.

‘Well,’ I said at last, philosophically, ‘we did the best we could. Let’s hope for better luck next time.’

Bob, however, refused to be comforted. To have had the python of his dreams so close to capture and then to lose it was almost almost more than he could bear. He prowled around, muttering savagely to himself, as we packed up the nets and ropes, and then followed us moodily as we set off homewards.

The sun was now low in the sky, and by the time we had crossed the grassfield and entered the abandoned farmland a greenish twilight had settled on the world. Everywhere in the moist undergrowth giant glow-worms gleamed and shuddered like sapphires, and through the warm air fireflies drifted, pulsating briefly like pink pearls against the dark undergrowth. The air was full of the evening scents, wood smoke, damp earth, the sweet smell of blossom already wet with dew. An owl called in an ancient, trembling voice, and another answered it.

The river was like a moving sheet of bronze in the twilight as we scrunched our way across the milk-white sandbank. The old man and the boy were curled up asleep in the bows of the canoe. They awoke, and in silence paddled us down the dark river. On the hill top, high above us, we could see the lamps of the house shining out, and faintly, as a background to the swish and gurgle of our paddles, we could hear the gramophone playing. A drift of small white moths enveloped the canoe as it headed towards the bank. The moon, very fragile and weak, was edging its way up through the filigree of the forest behind us, and once more the owls called, sadly, longingly, in the gloom of the trees.

Having meandered around that part of the world once in a while, I can attest to the searing heat and humidity of West Africa (it’s near the equator).  It can be so humid that, if one exerts oneself and is panting for breath, it feels almost like trying to breathe water.  Definitely not my favorite sensation!



  1. I am delighted at these. I too grew up reading Durrell, although sadly I've never gotten to experience anything like his settings in person. But I do love the humor and descriptions.

  2. Good practice for interpreting pidgin is simply to read the daily news at this site:

    Don in Oregon

  3. Still remember standing in my rooms o the 10th floor and opening the windows to the storm and the instant feel of 100% humidity as it rolled in in Bahrain. Everybody used to tell me it was a desert but dry heat. Ha!

  4. ►Unknown
    tried to post the site on FB with a comment. it seems that FB went into non-working, "have a problem" when I tried to post it.
    Then again, I just came off my third thirty-day suspension; they just may be getting tired of me calling them "Bangladeshi wienies."

  5. Watch "Durrells in Corfu", series on Netflix, (I think), amazing family. I was able to visit Corfu when I was stationed at San Vito dei Normanii AS, near Brindisi, Italy, in 1970-71. Traveled there on the car ferry out of Brindisi to Corfu. Beautiful place, especially Glyfada Beach. It has changed tremendously since then, inundated with condos and hotels. I read about the careers of the Durrells following their stay in Corfu, quite amazing, especially Gerald.

  6. "My Family and Other Animals" was one of my favourite childhood books. Never read this one, tho. As an adult, I can better appreciate Durrell's writing: man, he could write! And tell a good story. (Or are they the same thing?)

  7. A couple of dramatizations were made of "My Family and Other Animals". The one with Brian Blessed was good, I recall. Probably have to unearth a DVD if you want to watch it, tho.

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