Braving Jungle Perils to Seek the Lost World (Sep, 1929)
This is a weirdly disjointed tale of
William Beebe’s Dr. S. H. Williams attempt to find a “lost world” full of dinosaurs in what is now Guyana. Beebe makes constant reference to his guide/pack mule as “my black” or “my faithful black” yet never mentions the man’s name. He also gets quite upset with his Indian guides because they were only willing to travel with him a certain distance from their homes. Obviously this meant that he was really close to finding his “lost world” and they, being the cowardly savages that they were, refused to get any closer for fear of dinosaur attack. After all, how could they abandon him after he’d so generously provided them with colored beads and calico?
Then there is this:
“Well, the little boat was chug-chugging merrily along when all of a sudden a chicken which we were keeping on board for future reference seemed to experience an unguarded moment. For with a tremendous swishing of feathers it flew overboard.”
Keeping a chicken for “future reference”? Is that a euphemism for “future consumption”? Or did he periodically examine it just to affirm that yup, it’s still a chicken?
Update: I read the intro to this completely wrong. The explorer was Dr. S. H. Williams not William Beebe. Sorry for the mix-up.
Braving Jungle Perils to Seek the Lost World
By JAMES NEVIN MILLER
In the heart of the British Guiana jungle there rises a huge plateau upon which, legend has it, there exists today scores of prehistoric reptilian monsters. The story here presented is that of a scientist’s thrilling search for the lost plateau.
A STRANGE story about yellow Indians; mice that look like kangaroos; eels able to give a man a substantial electric shock; armies of ants that number millions and march in regular formation for over six hours continuously while driving all animal life before them; rivers chock-full of weird-looking parasites; and waterfalls at least five times higher than our own spectacular Niagara, is told by Dr. S. H. Williams, naturalist of the University of Pittsburgh.
The well known explorer, friend and one-time co-worker with William Beebe, internationally famous scientist, has recently returned to this country after a five months’ search, into the heart of the British Guiana jungles, for the “Lost World,” a legendary plateau of gigantic proportions which natives have heralded as the regular haunt of animals whose appearance and habits are said to be surprisingly like the great prehistoric beasts that roamed the ancient world.
It was only a few years ago that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book of the same name and subject was hailed as a highly imaginative piece of work, but far afield from legitimate science. But despite this fact, Dr. Williams, himself a conservative scientist, decided that there must be some measure of truth in the native legends he had heard so frequently during previous trips in the general region. So with only a couple of incomplete maps and a compass to guide him, besides a native black, unfamiliar with the interior, to carry his provisions, the explorer set out from Georgetown on the coast of British Guiana, on a perilous journey the like of which probably has never been attempted beforeâ€”so far, at least, as that thickly forested territory is concerned.
Strictly speaking, Dr. Williams failed in his quest, for he did not actually set foot in the “Lost World”. But he is convinced that he came within only about 15 miles of its exteriorâ€”near enough to catch a glimpse of it from the top of a high hillâ€”and in all events considerably nearer than any other white man had ever been. Whereupon, stricken with malaria, almost entirely out of food, and covered from head to foot with thousands of itch-provoking insects, he was forced to turn back.
Propped up on a couch in his Pittsburgh home, suffering from a recurrent attack of that self-same malaria, Dr. Williams tells the story of his unique search: “In preparing for my trip, which was primarily concerned with finding, if possible, some new forms of insect and animal life, I quite naturally chose Georgetown, a well settled coastal town, as my starting point. A faithful black, who had accompanied me as provision carrier in the past, made his home there, and I chose to remain a week, gathering together what few maps were available, as well as making mental notes of the legendary gossip about the ‘Lost World.’ “My plan was to go first of all to Kartabo in the Bartica district of British Guiana. Three mighty rivers flow through the district. Of these the Essequibo is the largest, with a width of nearly four miles at Bartica. The river’s largest tributary is the Mazaruni, which runs over a circuitous path from the west to join the Eseequibo near Bartica. Six miles above this point the Mazaruni receives the waters from the treacherous and mysterious Cuyuni River which has its origin somewhere in the Venezuelan forests and flows from the northwest.
“At the junction of the Mazaruni and Cuyuni rivers, situated on the southern shore of the latter and surrounded on three sides by the jungle, stands the tropical research station established in 1916 by Wil- liam Beebe under the auspices of the New York Zoological Society.
“To reach this station at Kartabo I had to spend about a day and a half in a government steamboat, a most delightful ride through the thickening primeval forests. Once arrived here I naturally stayed a few hours so as to renew acquaintances and brush up on preparations for the forthcoming plunge into the more remote parts of the jungle.
“As for the rest of the five months’ trip â€”of course I can merely hit the high spots at this time since there are so many names of river points that are extremely hard to pronounce, let alone spell. However, I did have a quaint ride on an excellently conducted little railroad owned by the Aluminum Company of America, and throughout the semi-civilized river ports for some few miles I had the good luck to travel on boats owned by the same organization.
“In passing, I’d like to mention a striking occurrence that took place while I was riding in a borrowed launch near a place called Potaro Landing, which has been de- scribed as on a sort of Nile River in the midst of very dense forest. Well, the little boat was chug-chugging merrily along when all of a sudden a chicken which we were keeping on board for future reference seemed to experience an unguarded moment. For with a tremendous swishing of feathers it flew overboard. Quick as a flash up popped a hungry head from the waters below us and I could distinctly see the peculiar nose of what the natives call a ‘caimen,’ a nose not quite so pointed as that of a true crocodile nor yet as blunt as an alligator’s.
“All this time, of courseâ€”and I was now on my third day out of Georgetownâ€”my travelling maneuvers, aside from the few mile trip by railroad, were by no means confined to waterways. Every now and again I would have to take good-sized portages through the dense brush. Although up till now I had experienced no great difficulty in finding my way about due to the fact that the white folks, mostly Englishmen engaged in commercial enterprises concerning the finding of gold and diamonds, were on hand here and there.
“However, one more sizable portageâ€” this time to a place called Kangaruma, and I soon sensed the fact that I must be just about on the last outpost of a feeble civilization. Nary a white person was now to be seen, merely a typical African village, sparsely settled and with thatched structures of a crude sort.
“Here, too, were exceedingly primitive natives. Not black folks with fuzzy hair, as * many people seem to think ought to occupy such a jungle region. But honest-to-goodness Indians, though yellow skinned rather than red, carrying bows and arrows and travelling about, where natural waterways permitted, in crude canoes built ordinarily out of solid logs.
“These yellow fellows had numerous curious habits, perhaps the strangest of all relating to tattooing. Not only would both men and women mark up their bodies, by means of extremely sharp stones, into beautifully worked out patterns, but they would carve parts of their faces as well.
“Another weird habit of the Indians was their wide use of blow guns through which they shot arrows dipped in an intensely violent poison which they call ‘curare.’ Oftentimes I have seen the plant from which hey claim to derive this death-dealing potionâ€”a tall growth about the size of a lilac bushâ€”but to this day I must confess myself at a loss as to just how the poison is prepared. Still another effective poison is made from a species of toad which grows extremely large. Known as the ‘buffo marinus,’ the creature is supposed to be roasted thoroughly, then ground up and applied to the tip of the arrows.
“Since I do not know the language of the yellow Indians, nor did my faithful black, since he was from the coastal districtâ€”you may well ask, how did I make myself known without unduly antagonizing them? My answer is that there is a universal language of trinkets that practically every primitive race, if approached with reasonable gentleness, is able to understand. With me I had taken care to bring sundry bright-colored beads and bits of calico, and by their careful use was able to persuade a good many of the Indians to transport myself and my black via the canoe method to otherwise inaccessible places.
“But even with these jungle experts at my command, no one need suppose that I was therefore able to keep from getting lost. The fact is, that though I told the Indians, after consultation of my compass, what I believed was the general direction of the ‘Lost World,’ I had no measure of assurance that I was headed right because my maps on the region proved to be hopelessly incomplete; and furthermore, because, no matter how thorough might be the native’s knowledge of the natural contours, it was inevitable that they would tend to swerve somewhat afield from any prescribed course. Permit me to point out that in jungle-land, Mother Nature’s presumably permanent plans are prone to change almost overnight. For example, one day the rivers might be extremely low and yet the very next day, following a heavy fall of rain, assume such a great height as to be totally unrecognizableâ€”at least for a while. “Yet treacherous guides though they were at times, the streams were after all my most dependable means of transportation in the long run, as was conclusively demonstrated on those frequent occasions when we had to abandon boats and literally chop our way through the thickest kind of vegetation. No wonder that there were times, particularly during the latter stages of the inland trip, when I became so completely lost in the jungle labyrinths that after perhaps a full day’s travel I found myself surveying, with the utmost disgust, the familiar scenery of a region I had earlier traversed.
Untrustworthy Guides “Still another unsatisfactory condition existed in the peculiar habit of the various Indians we met, of expressing a willingness to go so far from their native haunts and not a jot further. Three or so of them, let us say, would be transporting my black and myself through a good-sized body of water, when entirely without warning, they would paddle to shore, motion us to step out, and leave the vicinity instantly, notwithstanding the thickness of the forest.
“By and by I began to realize that such action was probably due to our ever-increasing nearness to the region of the ‘Lost World,’ where all manner of supernatural spirits of evil practises were supposed to dwell. In any case, the more we plunged into the woods, the less frequently did we see the yellow Indians, and in consequence our journey was necessarily far slower than it had been in its earlier stages, for we could no more depend upon canoe transportation.
“However, our very last inland trip under Indian guidance was very much worth while. For some few miles we had been trudging along, our ears fairly glowing with the sound of water which must be falling from a great height, when all at once we came upon boulders of massive size. After camping in the vicinity for a couple of days we met a half dozen Indians, and persuaded them to lead us in the direction of what must be a good-sized waterfall.
“Very soon we found smaller cascades in the midst of very picturesque scenery. This was after we had been travelling via canoe for three-fourths of a day following a series of rough-going portages. A couple of hours more and our two canoes could go no further for we had struck a series of large pools and swirling rapids. So there was nothing to do but tie up our boats and once again fight our way through the brush.
“After a solid day of this my astonished eyes were given the treat of a life-time. Amid an almost deafening splash of waters I could see towering above me the mighty waterfalls dubbed ‘Kaieteur’ by the natives and stretching easily five times as high as our own spectacular Niagara.
“Not content to view this masterpiece of nature from below, I persuaded the Indians to lead me to its summit. Three days arduous travel brought success. Here indeed was the world’s great jumping-off place. It afforded a magnificent view of a giant plateau possibly 15 miles away that stretched in many directions from a height that must have been at least several thousand feet.
“The conviction came to me that the plateau must be indeed the ‘Lost World,’ and the Indians, via sign language, showed me that they held the same belief. So that once we had descended to the ground, I persuaded them, despite their obvious fear of going further, to guide me. But after about three more days travel through a rough table-land their superstitions got the better of them and they left me.
“This was rather a pretty pickle for me. My black seemed frightened to the marrow, but since he knew not a thing about the region, he simply had to stick by me. I had been suffering from malarial attacks for some few days and my entire body was covered with thousands of little bugs and mites. I should have mentioned earlier that immediately a man sets foot into the British Guiana jungles he becomes parasitized, which means a continual itching for him as long as he remains.
“Besides my rather shaky health, my food was getting low, so there was nothing to do but turn backâ€”turn back within only 15 miles of my goal! And somehow or other, utilizing the same general methods of the ingoing trip, I contrived to get back to Georgetown, though my health has been none too satisfactory ever since. Even today I experience recurrent attacks of that selfsame malaria.”
Dr. Williams wants to explode some absurd fairy-book ideas about jungle conditions â€”particularly the one to the effect that normally a great many wild creatures are visible to the casual observer. “Sometimes,” says he, “the explorer can go as many as 60 days without seeing a solitary living creature, the reason being that most jungle dwellers live in the so-called jungle-roof, that extremely thick growth of foliage, plants and trees that oftentimes is able to prevent rain from hitting the ground for three days.
“However, the trained observer can see many queer creatures if he is willing to spend the time to look for them. For instance, if he spends a half hour’s research near the British Guiana rivers he may note the torpedo eel, growing sometimes three feet long and which if stepped on will actually give a man an electric shock.
“Even the simple act of putting a glass into a jungle river may reveal thousands of fantastic-looking parasites, eels, worms, or what have you? The experienced ‘jungaleer’ will therefore take great care to sterilize by means of powerful disinfectants, the water he drinks, or he may swallow tiny parasites that are the cause of serious liver ailments.”