In the Creek of Snakes
A creek infested by snakes.—Snake in the boat.—An ugly visitor.
It is intensely hot. We are at the end of the month of March, and the rays of the sun are pouring upon us with a power which is terrific. Every two or three minutes I dip my umbrella into the water, for after this lapse of time it is perfectly dry; green leaves and a wet handkerchief are in my Panama hat which now and then I also dip into the water of the stream.
You will ask me in what kind of country I find myself in such a plight. I am in a very complicated network of creeks, swamps, dense forest, and overflowed lands, forming a delta, which in the work I published in 1861 I named the Delta of the Ogobai. For several days I have been here in a canoe exploring the country by water. What a lonely place! We have not seen a single village, we have met not a single human being; it is a complete desolation, and on the day in question it seemed more desolate than usual. The creek we had got into was narrow, and on both sides there was an interminable forest of palms, that kind which yields bitter nuts to eat; these grow to the water's-edge and many of their graceful branches are bathed in the stream.
The current was strong, and evidently a tremendous quantity of fresh water coming from the interior was carried by it into the sea.
The atmosphere was hazy, and, as is generally the case in those equatorial regions, I could see the vapor arising and quivering as it ascended.
At last we entered a narrow creek, where the current was not so strong. We had hardly proceeded two or three miles when snakes became quite abundant in the water. We were in the Creek of Snakes. I do not know what else to call it.
What a horrid sight! They were of all colors and sizes: some were small and slender, others short and thick. One peculiar kind struck me at once as one that I had never seen before. It swam not far from our canoe, and appeared to be of a bright orange-yellow color. I am sure it was a very venomous one, one whose bite would kill a man in less than five minutes, for the head was very triangular. Then came a large black one with a yellow stripe on the belly; it appeared to me to be ten feet long; the black shone as if it had been oiled. This fellow I also knew to be very poisonous; so when he raised his head above the water I sent a load of small shot into it, literally crushing it to pieces. Then we went immediately at him, and with a few strokes of the paddles we finished him up. I was going to make off, when two of the slaves who were of our party said we must put it in our canoe, and that they should eat the fellow in the evening. This created a great laugh from my Commi boys, and after making sure that the loathsome creature was dead we fished him out of the water. There was at first a jumping about of the men which I was afraid would upset the canoe, in which case we would have been in a pretty fix, swimming about in a stream filled with snakes. At last order was restored; the snake was cut into several pieces, which continued to move and almost appeared like several separate snakes The pieces were put in a basket, and the eyes of my Apingis began to shine with delight, and it made their mouths water, they said, to think of the nice meal they were going to have in the evening.
Just at this moment I spied one of these black snakes trying to get into our canoe by the bow. I made a tremendous leap, as if I had been bitten by a scorpion, the sight was so sudden. I took my gun, loaded with small shot—the best load to kill serpents with—and fired, cutting the saucy fellow in two; then we paddled on, leaving master snake to take care of himself, knowing that his case had been settled.
I really believe all the snakes of the country had come to bathe in this creek on that day, and I did not wonder at it, it was so hot and sultry. I had often met with snakes in the river before, but never in such great numbers and of so many different species. In little more than one hour and a half I must have seen two hundred of them. I had never seen such a sight before and never have since.
Snakes are nasty things! I do not like them at all. They will never be my pets. But there is a country in the Bight of Benin where snakes can not be killed, under penalty of death.
The sun began to go down, and as we paddled along we looked for a dry place on the shore where we might spend the night. The snakes had disappeared, and none were to be seen in the water. Of that circumstance I was very glad.
To find a dry place was not an easy matter, for the land was low, swampy, and overflowed. The prospect of sleeping in the canoe and of being eaten up by mosquitoes was not very cheering to my spirits. But the men knew a place where all the year round there was a dry spot, and where they often stopped when fishing; but we must pull very hard in order to reach there before dark. As none of us wished to sleep in the canoe, the fellows paddled as hard as they could, and by half-past five o'clock we reached the place.
It was sunset at six o'clock, so that we had plenty of time to fix our camp.
The place was dreary enough and not very safe, to judge from the foot-prints of wild beasts that had come prowling about there, among which I could see distinctly the tracks of what must have been an enormous leopard. Happily we had plenty of fire-wood in our canoe.
The spot where we were to spend the night was miserable: the ground was damp, and it was also dirty, for there were bones of fishes and wild animals, the skins of plantains scattered all over, and the remains of extinguished fires. The whole country seemed to be nothing but bog land.
The first thing we did was to attend to our mosquito-nets.We cut the large branches of the palm and stuck four of them into the ground to hang our nets upon. How to sleep? this was the next great question. I did not like the idea of sleeping on the bare ground in a country where snakes were abundant. But what was to be done? It was getting late, so reluctantly I cut the leaves of the palm, put them thick one upon the other, and then laid my mat over the whole; my men did the same; the fires were lighted—about which we had some trouble, for my matches were wet. During the day, it being so warm, I had been afraid to carry them in my pocket or put them in a place where the sun shone, for fear that they would light of themselves. I had therefore placed them under the seat, and they had dropped down to the bottom of the canoe. So we had to use our flints and tinder.
When night came our fires were blazing, and the sight of our camp was curious in the extreme. I was quietly lying between two immense fires, which almost surrounded me, for I had a lively fear of the snakes and I did not like the idea of one coming round me at night. It is strange how it is possible to enjoy a fire in the woods in this damp and warm climate.
My men killed one of the three fowls I had with me; others took off the skins from the plantains, while the rest were preparing to boil the dry fish which we had in great abundance, for before entering the Delta of the Ogobai we had gone on a fishing excursion.
Our cooking implements consisted of a kettle for boiling the plantains, which, by the way, was getting to be much worn out, and my men were beginning to look forward to the time when it should be broken so that I would give it to them to make bracelets of; and two cooking-pots, one especially for my use and the other for the use of the men; I also had a frying-pan, but nothing had been fried in it since I had it, for want of lard or oil. Our entire cooking operations consisted of boiling or roasting over a charcoal fire.
The two poor fellows with the snake had no pot to cook it in, my Commi men objecting strongly to have any thing of the kind cooked in such a vessel. The Apingis were much downhearted, for they had anticipated much pleasure from their snake-broth, the snake being, they said, very fat, They had on hand a little salt and a little Cayenne pepper. It would have tasted so good! So they had to be satisfied with roasting the snake over the fire.
After our meal I opened my chest to get some tobacco. This of course "brought down the house," and they seemed perfectly happy after their hard day's work, for the poor fellows had worked very hard.
They seated themselves round the fires, smoked their pipes, and gradually one by one fell asleep. It was a fortunate thing we had musquito-nets, for I could hear these insects buzzing about in such a manner that one might have almost thought a band of music was playing in the neighborhood.
At length I wrapped myself well in my blanket and went to sleep. But lo! in the middle of the night I was awakened by the cackling of one of the fowls, which was tied by the leg to a stick we had put on the ground. I popped my head out of my musquito-net, when I beheld by the glow of the fire an enormous python (or snake), a tremendous big fellow, who had just come out of the water and was about to gobble up one of the two fowls, and would have swallowed both of them if it had had time to do so. No others were aroused by the noise the fowls made, so I quietly took my gun that laid alongside of me, and sent two loads into the python, which settled him.
My men jumped up in alarm, seized their guns, and looked as warlike as possible. They thought we were attacked unawares by some Oroungou fellows, and set up a wild yell of defiance, which was responded to by a most hearty laugh on my part. In the mean time the defeated boa had moved about in the midst of us and sent all the fellows off, just as they were asking, "Who has been killed by that gun?" and I shouted in reply, "This enormous snake."
My two Apingi fellows' eyes brightened as they thought of the good food they were going to have, and said—"Ali! Ah! if we had only known we should have brought a cooking-pot of our own; we would have had such nice snake-broth all the time!" This snake measured almost sixteen feet in length, and would have kept the fellows in broth for a long while.
We went to sleep again, leaving the two Apingis busily engaged in cutting the boa into small pieces and in roasting some of it over the fire.
The next morning when I awoke the sun was bright; a kind of vapor was rising from the waters of the Delta of the Ogobai, and all Nature was still. I could not hear the song of a single bird or the chatter of a single monkey; now and then a fishing-eagle passed over our heads, and the whole scene presented was one of desolation.
We cooked our breakfast, and immediately after our meal we again set out and soon entered a very narrow creek—so narrow in some places that the trees on the two banks were so close together that we had trouble in passing through with our canoe; in one place I thought it would be utterly impossible.
At last we emerged into the waters of the Npouloulay and soon after found ourselves on the broad and placid waters of the Fernand Vaz, coming in sight of my settlement at Washington.
A thrill of joy filled my heart when I saw my little settlement, for I was tired and worn out, and I needed a little rest—a little comfort in a plain way. I wanted to see my plantation, to see how it had grown since we parted, and if my stock of fowls had increased by new broods, or I could get a little milk from my goats. Then I wanted to see good King Ranpano and his brother Rinkimongani and all the good folks of Biagano. They were there on the shore ready to receive me. They were honest, straightforward people.