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Africa - giraffes

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.


What a fab review, on so many levels! I have very fond memories of Gerald Durrell books, for one thing - I'm fairly sure I've read this one, but can't remember it specifically of course... I agree that Durrell came across as very respectful of the native people who knew their animals, in all his books. Good plan to read more of his books... *vbg*

I love the beginning of your Travel the World challenge too - your post has tempted me even more to do it now, too... *g* All those maps, and a bit of history each time too, and the stories... *vbg* Hmmn, maybe I wouldn't pick a continent though, just see how many countries I can visit... though I have just bought a book that's set in Africa, so... Still, I have one or two others to read first, so I'll think about it! *g*
Yes, like you I read a few in my teens but the only titles I remember specifically are A Zoo in My Luggage and Beasts in My Belfry but I remember nothing about the content. To tell the truth I have about half a dozen nice copies of his books and would quite like to get them all.

I had fun doing this post and plan to do all the countries like this. I even found a couple of nice shots of S.Africa and The Nile on Pinterest, taken from the International Space Station, which I plan to use. *g*

The nice thing about this challenge is that you can do excatly what you like. I wondered if maybe I should have done a north to south journey - Egypt to South Africa - rather than *all* of the countries as it is a huge undertaking. But we'll see... likely as not it'll take me two years rather than one. And I really want to do it to increase my knowledge, you know?