Africa During ERB's Time
Tarzan Books in Luggage
Mountain Gorilla, Uganda
In retrospect, I can honestly admit that Tarzan had more to do with my pubescent development than cars or even girls. He was my companion during my formative years thanks to the 24 books written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I kept those cherished paperbacks for a lifetime, and when the opportunity arose to journey around Africa, one of the first things to cross my mind was to take Tarzan with me. Taking a year's worth of clothes and equipment along with the complete Tarzan library in a single piece of luggage, maximum weight of 44 pounds, was a challenge, but when something had to go, I figured taking only a single change of underwear was enough.
In 1885 at the Berlin Conference, Africa was partitioned as colonies among the world's European powers, referred to as the "Scramble for Africa." That is why Tarzan stories contain references to French, Germans, and Italians. Tarzan's adventures appear to be confined to Sub-Sahara Africa, where the people are ebony and the huts are made of grass, though there are plenty of swarthy, unscrupulous Arabs formulating their own evil plots.
Tarzan #1 & #2 in Travel Library
The Beasts of Tarzan, Western Sahara, April 3rd
Since Tarzan #1 is clearly the keystone of the franchise, and #2 finishes that story, I put those two special books into our group’s travel library and planned on leaving them for later so that as many people as possible got a chance to enjoy reading them.
Choosing the site to leave a book was sometimes difficult but Western Sahara ("Spanish Sahara" in ERB's time) had few options besides the gas station near where our vehicle had a flat tire just before entering the border no-man's-land. Morocco has invaded and occupied Mauritania's portion of Western Sahara, which justifiably enrages Mauritania, to the point where they retaliate by not protecting a five-mile-strip of land at the border. Vehicles drive in conveys through that lawless gauntlet of armed men, hijacked trucks, and burning cars. I shudder to consider the fate of a solitary motorist driving through that chaos. Tarzan's presence was indubitably justified.
Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Mauritania, April 6th
Mauritania ("French West Africa" in ERB's time) is one of the poorest countries in the world. No Western crops could grow in the endless sand, the primary mode of transportation is donkey cart, and mostly there is no electricity. Water is from buckets dipped in wells hand dug at the occasional oasis. As a Moslem country, early every morning there is a “call to prayer” broadcast over loudspeakers, and alcohol is not allowed. I had no money the entire time I was there, and even if I did, there was nothing to buy. Tarzan’s arch nemesis, Rykoff, is obviously Mauritanian. Walata, an ancient and renown trading city, was said to be "the best kept secret in Mauritania" by our guidebook, and we learned why – we got lost for three days traveling across sand on no roads, from which we had to dig ourselves innumerable times. Truly a "lost city" from Tarzan’s adventures. Tarzan #6's final resting place was in a silk tent on the roof of a French youth hostel in Nomakchott.
Mud Mosque in Timbuktu
Mali ("French Sudan" in ERB's time) is the country of the mythical "Timbuktu," and the way to get there is a two day trip polling up the Niger River in a hand-hewed lumber boat before reaching ancient city of mud-brick construction.
In the hidden valley of Dogon are an exotic tribe of people who have been there for centuries following the old way of life. Their arcane and mysterious religious rituals could be taken from any of ERB's most elaborate imaginings.
The Son of Tarzan, Mali, April 17th
Further into Mali we noticed that the women no longer wore burkas but instead dressed in colorful sarongs and carried heavy loads on their heads. Tarzan #4 was hid in the closet of a meager hotel room in Bamako.
Painting of Man Wresting a Lion
Though I am not a superstitious man, some coincidences are so astounding that they seem the providence of mysticism. For example, while I was reading Tarzan and the Golden Lion at a quaint little hotel called the Okay Inn in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso ("Upper Volta" in ERB's time), I was entertained by the painting of a man in a loincloth fighting a lion, with different variations on the theme in each room. I left Tarzan #7 there.
It was common for us to follow the whisper of a rumor of something mysterious and grand just awaiting our exploration. The most welcome and fabulous waterfall I have ever seen was hidden away in the desert. We were hot and dirty from days of bush-camping, then forced to hike an hour into the hills but it was all worth it to swim in the Tarzanesque cascading water cutting through solid rock and forming swirling pools of comfort against the noonday heat.
Tarzan the Untamed, Burkina Faso, May 1st
Tarzan the Terrible, Ghana, May 12th
Our tent sat on the beach, on the edge of high tide for a week while we rested at Green Turtle Resort near Takomari, Ghana ("Gold Coast" in ERB's time). The closeted bay, the white sand, and the surrounding dense jungle could easily serve as the locus of Tarzan’s origin story. I left Tarzan #8 on a table overlooking the water.
The Kumasi Market is the largest in western Africa, and retains all the old world authenticity that you would expect in such a place: flies, smells, crowding, and noise.
Elvina Castle Slave Terminus
The Portuguese established forts along the coast in the fifteenth century, which traded hands among the emerging colonial nations, and were infamous as the departure points for the slave trade. Standing in a dark, damp mass cell, the feeling of history and misery was palpable. I was feeling a tiny part of what the native captives at that time must have experienced.
Tarzan and the Golden Lion, Togo, May 22nd
I relished entry into each new country, wondering where Tarzan was going to end up? Each time we got a new visa or the passports were stamped at the border, a sense of fulfillment suffused me – another Tarzan safely deposited. We bush-camped in tents most of the time, and I would leave a Tarzan book where there was at least a slim chance that someone would find and read it, so if a motel was available, or sometimes an old mission or convent, we would rent a room for at least a night to leave a book on the nightstand or in the armoire. Some of the rooms we slept in were worse than our tent -- dirty and in desperate need of repairs. Tarzan #9 was left on the nightstand of a hotel room in Lome, Togo ("German Togoland" in ERB's time) that we did not actually stay in but hoped the next lodger could read English.
The most memorable thing in Togo was the bush meat (monkeys, dikdiks, porcupines) hanging from poles along the side of the rode for passersby to purchase. The corpses were not butchered or eviscerated, and their sight caused me a certain amount of aggravation. Tarzan would have protected the creatures in his jungle.
Tarzan and the Ant Men, Benin, May 24th
Tarzan #10 was left in a room in d’Abomey. The motel was surrounded by a tall iron wall, and the interior grounds were devoted to many elegant wood carvings. I would have been proud to have any of the beautiful and elaborate statues adorning my own home. The art of the natives is truly unique and spectacular.
Voodoo comes from Benin ("French Dahomey" in ERB’s time), and fetishes are an important part of their culture. As we viewed all of the mud-sculpted statues with multiple penises, I could not help but think of witchdoctors, smoking incantations, and perverse jungle gods. Biting bugs are in abundance, more even than in other parts of Africa, and my extremities were a mass of red splotches and welts. Benin also remembers its time as a slave exodus port, historically called "The Gate of No Return."
Everyone in Benin rides a motorcycle – there are no cars - so I rented one from a local motor-cabby to tour the village. Unfortunately, the motorcycle had no clutch, no mirrors, no horn, no lights, and as it turned out - no gas. Also, there was no one who spoke English to help us, but the villagers pointed and gestured how to buy fuel from a man selling liquefied grease in empty whiskey bottles.
Tarzan Lord of the Jungle, Nigeria, May 30th
Nigeria (colonized by the English) is unjustifiably backward. Abuja is a trophy city built with the country's vast oil wealth, most of which has otherwise been siphoned off by corrupt government officials. The city is wildly dichotomous in such a poor, unmodernized landscape. Tarzan #11 was left at the Sheraton Inn.
Zoos in Africa are abysmal affairs but the most macabre one I ever visited was in Jos. The enclosures were in disrepair, mostly all empty except for a few lonely, unkempt animals living out the remainder of their years. A sign saying "don’t stone the snake" was the only thing protecting a big python from fatal injury, and the crocodile had a substantial rock on its back. While in Uganda I met an older white man who told me he had not been in Africa for thirty years. When he heard I had been in Nigeria, he asked if I had visited the Jos zoo? He explained how his and other white families of Jos had built the zoo themselves and donated the animals. He was very proud of that memory, and asked how the zoo was now. I told him it was great.
Children Run After Us
When entering Nigeria we used an obscure and untraveled border-crossing not even shown on maps. In fact, the customs agents did not know how to properly stamp our passports. While waiting, a young man of about 20 came up to us and said, “I have never seen a white person come through here before.” We were wildly popular - hundreds of children surrounded us and chased after our vehicle as we drove away.
Tarzan and the Lost Empire, Cameroon, June 15th
Cameroon ("German Kamerun" in ERB's time) is almost mystical - not the least reason being that my wife, Gwynne, and I celebrated our 30th Wedding Anniversary in a nice hotel in Yaounde’ where we left Tarzan #12.
Native Touching Wild Hippo
Hippos never played much of a part in Tarzan's adventures but they are a big part of Africa, abundant and dominant. Some of our most memorable wildlife experiences involved hippos, one incident especially where we patted a wild hippo in the river on the head – and it seemed to enjoy it!
Giant Termite Mound
That evening, still mesmerized by our hippo experience, we bush camped late in the evening on a rocky hillside surrounded by giant termite mounds. It was getting dark so we turned the spot lights on, and a slight drizzle of rain was coming down. These ingredients sparked a rare termite swarm from all the surrounding mounds – millions upon millions of winged insects enveloped us. Eating, even breathing was impossible. We quickly took refuge in our tents for the remainder of the surreal night.
Lowland Gorilla Watching His Watchers
There just are not many places remaining where you can visit gorillas but Cameroon's Lowland Gorilla reserve lets you get face-to-face with them. Their enclosure is a section of jungle surrounded by electric wire, but the gorillas are so habituated to human community that the instant that one of the scouts high in the canopy spots you at the fence line, he calls out to the others and they all rush to see the humans. What transpires is a remarkable interaction between people on the one side of the fence being watched by gorillas on the other - they probably think we are the ones in a cage. The younger males put on quite a display, some are real hams. They pounded on their chests, stamped their feet, and tossed branches over the fence at us. There was also a family group, including a young infant. The patriarch carried around a thick piece of wood that he sat upon, feet crossed, examining everything going on around him. The infant pestered every member of the family: pulling their fur and climbing on their heads – even the bulls!
It was the rainy season, and the roads we were traveling were rutted and slippery. Several times the truck got stuck but we were experts in getting it out of the mud, except one time when it was more than we could handle. In fact, the truck was in danger of tipping over it was in such a dire situation. In desperation, I offered 2000 CFA (about $40) to a young local man to get a truck and pull us out. I thought he understood me but instead his whole village: men, boys, women with babies, grandmothers – everyone who wanted to be entertained, came to do the job. Over the course of three hours, at least a hundred people stopped to help, watch, give advice, and engage in drunken brawls. They were all swarming about: pushing, pulling, levering with long poles of bamboo, crawling under the wheels, and swinging machetes to cut back the jungle to eventually get us back on our way. It reminded me of the "boys" helping safaris in Tarzan's adventures.
Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, Gabon, July 1st
In Lope, Gabon ("French Equatorial Africa" in ERB's time), I left Tarzan #5 on a table under an outside veranda of a hotel where we were camped on the grass. A local tried to give the book back but I got them to take it by saying it was "cadeau" (gift in French – a word we heard a lot from children of the former French colonies). We were there to go to a Game Reserve but except for the elusive miniature Forest Elephants, we saw nothing else. Never-the-less, I always enjoy the drive, and the forest was beautiful.
The equator passes through Gabon. I guess it was the time of year but the heat and humidity I was expecting was not evident. In fact, it was just the weather I always imagined Tarzan experienced -- warm and mild. However, Tarzan would have vehemently disapproved of all the lumber trucks driving over the rough dirt roads loaded with old-growth jungle trees. The trucks were Chinese, driven by Chinese drivers with Chinese SUVs escorting them. The drivers of those vehicles knew what we were thinking as they passed and we scowled at each other. ERB would definitely have a new cast of enemies to write about in Africa now.
Hidden Gorilla Valley
The most marvelous discovery of the whole trip was the least expected, except by a devout Tarzan fan like me – a hidden valley of gorillas! Congo ("Brazzerville" in ERB's time) is the birthplace of Tarzan and it seemed magically apropos when we passed a small unobtrusive and unheralded sign that said "gorillas" on a lightly traveled, unpaved back road. We decided to follow a narrow dirt turnoff and see what we could find, expecting nothing. Seeing gorillas is a BIG tourist draw in Africa and all the reserves are well publicized, but no travel book nor Internet site made any mention of this place. Debris piled into our vehicle as we brushed against trees and bushes driving along the curvy, overgrown path. We passed mud-brick huts with people sitting under the shade of creaky canopies – they waved at us with somewhat surprised looks. There seemed little hope of actually finding any gorillas… And then -- a park entrance sign! Not much, mind you, just a couple bamboo huts and a pleasant young man wearing a "I’m The Dangerous Christian Infidel Osma Warned You About" t-shirt. We could hardly communicate but he got the point across that indeed there WERE gorillas and we could see them. He walked us out to a geologically fabulous promontory overlooking a valley perhaps 2000 feet below: a beautiful, lush volcanic bowl surrounded by rock cliffs and protected from the outside world by its remoteness and secretive nature – Tarzan would have been ecstatic, (in fact I gave Tarzan #13 to the ranger).
Tarzan at the Earth's Core, Congo, July 8th
Tarzan the Invincible, DRC, July 11th
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), (“Belgian Congo” in ERB’s time), is still fraught with warring factions. Its capital, Kinshasa (“Leopoldville” in ERB’s time), was a battlefield just a few years ago, but it is large, modern, and was relatively peaceful as we passed through. After a long day’s drive on rough roads, for no other reason other than curiosity of where a U.N. convoy in front of us was going, we chanced upon the Zongo Chutes, a new-seeming riverside resort. It looked as though the chairs had never been sat in, and the waitress had to ask where to get the beer. It seemed only the U.N. knew about this retreat, and, frankly, I do not know how anyone else could find out about it, let alone get there! Tarzan #14 might have been the first thing put that table.
Again, I was struck by the fast conversion of virgin jungle into asphalt by Chinese bulldozers. We might have taken this trip in the last instant before old Africa is gone – replaced by the very modernity the world would like it to achieve.
Tarzan Triumphant, Angola, July 16th
Angola ("Portuguese West Africa" in ERB’s time) has also been fraught with a civil war in this century. The remnants of Angola’s brutal conflict are everywhere: land mines warnings along the road, abandoned tanks, crashed helicopters, rusting anti-aircraft guns, and men with weapons are everywhere. "Displaced Persons" are squatting in the parks, along the roads, and in fields. It was in this environment that our vehicle broke down for a week and we had to take refuge in a vacant storage yard generously offered by some Portuguese bridge-builders. Tarzan #15 was left in convenient and clean restaurant in M'Banza Kongo.
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