Fans of Gerard Durrell's beloved classic My Family and Other Animals (the inspiration for The Durrells in Corfu on Masterpiece PBS) and other accounts of his lifelong fascination with members of the animal kingdom will rejoice at The Whispering Land. The sequel to A Zoo in My Luggage, this is the story of how Durrell and his wife's zoo-building efforts at England's Jersey Zoo led them and a team of helpers on an eight-month safari in Argentina to look for South American specimens. Through windswept Patagonian shores and tropical forests in Argentina, from ocelots to penguins, fur seals to parrots, Durrell captures the landscape and its inhabitants with his signature charm and humor.
About the Author
Gerald Durrell was born in Jamshedpur, India, in 1925. A student of zoology, he founded the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust on the Channel Island of Jersey. His other books include A Zoo in My Luggage and The Whispering Land (both available from Penguin).
Read an Excerpt
The Whispering Land
By Gerald Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 Gerald Durrell
All rights reserved.
The Whispering Land
The plains of Patagonia are boundless, for thy are scarcely passable, and hence unknown; thy bear the stamp of having lasted, as they are now, for ages, and there appears no limit to their duration through future time.
CHARLES DARWIN: The Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle
We set off for the south in the pearly grey dawn light of what promised to be a perfect day. The streets were empty and echoing, and the dew-drenched parks and squares had their edges frothed with great piles of fallen blooms from the palo borracho and jacaranda trees, heaps of glittering flowers in blue, yellow and pink.
On the outskirts of the city we rounded a corner and came upon the first sign of life we had seen since we had started, a covey of dustmen indulging in their early morning ballet. This was such an extraordinary sight that we drove slowly behind them for some way in order to watch. The great dustcart rumbled down the centre of the road at a steady five miles an hour, and standing in the back, up to his knees in rubbish, stood the emptier. Four other men loped alongside the cart like wolves, darting off suddenly into dark doorways to reappear with dustbins full of trash balanced on their shoulders. They would run up alongside the cart and throw the dustbin effortlessly into the air, and the man on the cart would catch it and empty it and throw it back, all in one fluid movement. The timing of this was superb, for as the empty dustbin was hurtling downwards a full one would be sailing up. They would pass in mid air, and the full bin would be caught and emptied. Sometimes there would be four dustbins in the air at once. The whole action was performed in silence and with incredible speed.
Soon we left the edge of the city, just stirring to wakefulness, and sped out into the open countryside, golden in the rising sun. The early morning air was chilly, and Dicky had dressed for the occasion. He was wearing a long tweed overcoat and white gloves, and his dark, bland eyes and neat, butterfly-shaped moustache peered out from under a ridiculous deerstalker hat, which he wore, he explained to me, in order to 'keep the ears heated.' Sophie and Marie crouched in strange prenatal postures in the back of the Land Rover, on top of our mountainous pile of equipment, most of which, they insisted, had been packed in boxes with knife-like edges. Jacquie and I sat next to Dicky in the front seat, a map spread out across our laps, our heads nodding, as we endeavoured to work out our route. Some of the places we had to pass through were delightful: Chascomus, Dolores, Necochea, Tres Arroyos, and similar delicious names that slid enticingly off the tongue. At one point we passed through two villages, within a few miles of each other, one called 'The Dead Christian' and the other 'The Rich Indian'. Marie's explanation of this strange nomenclature was that the Indian was rich because he killed the Christian, and had stolen all his money, but attractive though this story was, I felt it could not be the right one.
For two days we sped through the typical landscape of the Pampa, flat golden grassland in which the cattle grazed knee-deep; occasional clumps of eucalyptus trees, with their bleached and peeling trunks like leprous limbs; small, neat estancias, gleaming white in the shade of huge, carunculated ombù trees, that stood massively and grimly on their enormous squat trunks. In places the neat fences that lined the road were almost obliterated under a thick cloak of convolvulus, hung with electric-blue flowers the size of saucers, and every third or fourth fence-post would have balanced upon it the strange, football-like nest of an oven-bird. It was a lush, prosperous and well-fed-looking landscape that only just escaped being monotonous. Eventually, in the evening of the third day, we lost our way, and so we pulled in to the side of the road and argued over the map. Our destination was a town called Carmen de Patagones, on the north bank of the Rio Negro. I particularly wanted to spend the night here, because it was a town that Darwin had stayed in for some time during the voyage of the Beagle, and I was interested to see how it had changed in the last hundred years. So, in spite of near-mutiny on the part of the rest of the expedition, who wanted to stop at the first suitable place we came to, we drove on. As it turned out it was all we could have done anyway, for we did not pass a single habitation until we saw gleaming ahead of us a tiny cluster of feeble lights. Within ten minutes we were driving cautiously through the cobbled streets of Carmen de Patagones, lit by pale, trembling streetlights. It was two o'clock in the morning, and every house was blank-faced and tightly shuttered. Our chances of finding anyone who could direct us to a hostelry were remote, and we certainly needed direction, for each house looked exactly like the ones on each side of it, and there was no indication as to whether it was a hotel or a private habitation. We stopped in the main square of the town and were arguing tiredly and irritably over this problem when suddenly, under one of the street lights, appeared an angel of mercy, in the shape of a tall, slim policeman clad in an immaculate uniform, his belt and boots gleaming. He saluted smartly, bowed to the female members of the party, and with old-world courtesy directed us up some side-roads to where he said we should find a hotel. We came to a great gloomy house, heavily shuttered, with a massive front door that would have done justice to a cathedral. We beat a sharp tattoo on its weather-beaten surface and waited results patiently. Ten minutes later there was still no response from the inhabitants, and so Dicky, in desperation, launched an assault on the door that would, if it had succeeded, have awakened the dead. But as he lashed out at the door it swung mysteriously open under his assault, and displayed a long, dimly-lit passageway, with doors along each side, and a marble staircase leading to the upper floors. Dead tired and extremely hungry we were in no mood to consider other people's property, so we marched into the echoing hall like an invading army. We stood there and shouted 'Holà!' until the hotel rang with our shouts, but there was no response.
'I think, Gerry, that sometime they are all deceased,' said Dicky gravely.
'Well, if they are I suggest we spread out and find ourselves some beds,' I said.
So we climbed the marble staircase and found ourselves three bedrooms, with beds made up, by the simple expedient of opening every door in sight. Eventually, having found a place to sleep, Dicky and I went downstairs to see if the hotel boasted of any sanitary arrangements. The first door we threw open in our search led us into a dim bedroom in which was an enormous double bed hung with an old-fashioned canopy. Before we could back out of the room a huge figure surged out from under the bed clothes like a surfacing whale, and waddled towards us. It turned out to be a colossal woman, clad in a flowing flannel nightie, who must have weighed somewhere in the neighbourhood of fifteen stone. She came out, blinking into the hallway, pulling on a flowing kimono of bright green covered with huge pink roses, so the effect was rather as if one of the more exotic floral displays of the Chelsea Flower Show had suddenly taken on a life of its own. Over her ample bosoms spread two long streamers of grey hair, which she flicked deftly over her shoulder as she did up her kimono, smiling at us with sleepy goodwill.
'Buenos noches,' she said politely.
'Buenos noches, señora,' we replied, not to be outdone in good manners at that hour of the morning.
'Hablo con la patrona?' inquired Dicky.
'Si, si, señor,' she said, smiling broadly, 'que queres?'
Dicky apologised for our late arrival, but la patrona waved away our apologies. Was it possible, Dicky asked, for us to have some sandwiches and coffee? Why not? Inquired la patrona. Further, said Dicky, we were in urgent need of a lavatory, and could she be so kind as to direct us to it. With great good humour she led us to a small tiled room, showed us how to pull the plug, and stood there chatting amiably while Dicky and I relieved the pangs of nature. Then she puffed and undulated her way down to the kitchen and cut us a huge pile of sandwiches and made a steaming mug of coffee. Having assured herself that there was nothing further she could do for our comfort, she waddled off to bed.
The next morning, having breakfasted, we did a rapid tour of the town. As far as I could see, apart from the introduction of electricity, it had changed very little since Darwin's day, and so we left and sped down a hill and across the wide iron bridge that spanned the rusty red waters of the Rio Negro. We rattled across the bridge from the Province of Buenos Aires to the Province of Chubut, and by that simple action of crossing a river we entered a different world.
Gone were the lush green plains of the Pampa, and in their place was a wasteland stretching away as far as the eye could see on each side of the dusty road, a uniform pelt of grey-green scrub composed of plants about three feet high, each armed with a formidable array of thorns and spikes. Nothing appeared to live in this dry scrub, for when we stopped there was no bird or insect song, only the whispering of the wind through the thorn scrub in this monochromatic Martian landscape, and the only moving thing apart from ourselves was the giant plume of dust we trailed behind the vehicle. This was terribly tiring country to drive in. The road, deeply rutted and potholed, unrolled straight ahead to the horizon, and after a few hours this monotony of scene numbed one's brain, and one would suddenly drop off to sleep, to be awoken by the vicious scrunch of the wheels as the Land Rover swerved off into the brittle scrub.
The evening before we were due to reach Deseado this happened on a stretch of road, which unfortunately, had recently been rained upon, so that the surface had turned into something resembling high-grade glue. Dicky, who had been driving for a long time, suddenly nodded off behind the wheel, and before anyone could do anything sensible, both Land Rover and trailer had skidded violently into the churned-up mud at the side of the road, and settled there snugly, wheels spinning like mad. Reluctantly we got out into the bitter chill of the evening wind, and in the dim sunset light set to work to unhitch the trailer and then push it and the Land Rover separately out of the mud. Then, our feet and hands frozen, the five of us crouched in the shelter of the Land Rover and watched the sunset, passing from hand to hand a bottle of Scotch, which I had been keeping for just such an emergency.
On every side of us the scrubland stretched away, dark and flat, so that you got the impression of being in the centre of a gigantic plate. The sky had become suffused with green as the sun sank, and then, unexpectedly, turned to a very pale powder blue. A tattered mass of clouds on the western horizon suddenly turned black, edged delicately with flame-red, and resembled a great armada of Spanish galleons waging a fierce sea-battle across the sky, drifting towards each other, turned into black silhouette by the fierce glare from their cannons. As the sun sank lower and lower the black of the clouds became shot and mottled with grey, and the sky behind them became striped with green, blue and pale red. Suddenly our fleet of galleons disappeared, and in its place was a perfect archipelago of islands strung out across the sky in what appeared to be a placid, sunset-coloured sea. The illusion was perfect: you could pick out the tiny, white rimmed coves in the rocky, indented shoreline, the occasional long, white beach; the dangerous shoal of rocks formed by a wisp of cloud at the entrance to a safe anchorage; the curiously shaped mountains inland covered with a tattered pelt of evening-dark forest. We sat there, the whisky warming our bodies, watching enraptured the geography of this archipelago unfold. We each of us chose an island which appealed to us, on which we would like to spend a holiday, and stipulated what the hotel on each of our islands would have to provide in the way of civilised amenities.
'A very, very big bath, and very deep,' said Marie.
'No, a nice hot shower and a comfortable chair,' said Sophie.
'Just a bed,' said Jacquie, 'a large feather bed.'
'A bar that serves real ice with its drinks,' I said dreamily.
Dicky was silent for a moment. Then he glanced down at his feet, thickly encrusted with rapidly drying mud.
'I must have a man to clean my feets,' he said firmly.
'Well, I doubt whether we'll get any of that at Deseado,' I said gloomily, 'but we'd better press on.'
When we drove into Deseado at ten o'clock the next morning, it became immediately obvious that we could not expect any such luxuries as feather beds, ice in the drinks, or even a man to clean our feet. It was the most extraordinarily dead-looking town I had ever been in. It resembled the set for a rather bad Hollywood cowboy film, and gave the impression that its inhabitants (two thousand, according to the guide-book) had suddenly packed up and left it alone to face the biting winds and scorching sun. The empty, rutted streets between the blank-faced houses were occasionally stirred by the wind, which produced half-hearted dust-devils, that swirled up for a moment and then collapsed tiredly to the ground. As we drove slowly into what we imagined to be the centre of the town we saw only a dog, trotting briskly about his affairs, and a child crouched in the middle of a road, absorbed in some mysterious game of childhood. Then, swinging the Land Rover round a corner, we were startled to see a man on horseback, clopping slowly along the road with the subdued air of one who is the sole survivor of a catastrophe. He pulled up and greeted us politely, but without interest, when we stopped, and directed us to the only two hotels in the place. As these turned out to be opposite each other and both equally unprepossessing from the outside, we chose one by tossing a coin and made our way inside.
In the bar we found the proprietor, who, with the air of one, who had just suffered a terrible bereavement, reluctantly admitted that he had accommodation, and led us through dim passages to three small, grubby rooms. Dicky, his deerstalker on the back of his head, stood in the centre of his room, pulling off his white gloves, surveying the sagging bed and its grey linen with a catlike fastidiousness.
'You know what, Gerry?' he said with conviction. 'This is the stinkiest hotel I ever dream.'
'I hope you never dream of a stinkier one,' I assured him.
Presently we all repaired to the bar to have a drink and await the arrival of one Captain Giri, whom I had an introduction to, a man who knew all about the penguin colonies of Puerto Deseado. We sat round a small table, sipping our drinks and watching the other inhabitants of the bar with interest. For the most part they seemed to consist of very old men, with long, sweeping moustaches, whose brown faces were seamed and stitched by the wind. They sat in small groups, crouched over their tiny tumblers of cognac or wine with a dead air, as though they were hibernating there in this dingy bar, staring hopelessly into the bottoms of their glasses, wondering when the wind would die down, and knowing it would not. Dicky, delicately smoking a cigarette, surveyed the smoke-blackened walls, the rows of dusty bottles, and the floor with its twenty-year-old layer of dirt well trodden into its surface.
'What a bar, eh?' he said to me.
'Not very convivial, is it?'
'It is so old ... it has an air of old,' he said staring about him. 'You know, Gerry, I bet it is so old that even the flies have beards.'
Then the door opened suddenly, a blast of cold air rushed into the bar, the old men looked up in a flat-eyed, reptilian manner, and through the door strode Captain Giri. He was a tall, well-built man with blond hair, a handsome, rather aesthetic face and the most vivid and candid blue eyes I had ever seen. Having introduced himself he sat down at our table and looked round at us with such friendliness and good humour in his child-like eyes that the dead atmosphere of the bar dropped away, and we suddenly found ourselves becoming alive and enthusiastic. We had a drink, and then Captain Giri produced a large roll of charts and spread them on the table, while we pored over them.
'Penguins,' said the Captain meditatively, running his forefinger over the chart. 'Now, down here is the best colony ... by far the best and biggest, but I think that that is too far for you, is it not?'
'Well, it is a bit,' I admitted. 'We didn't want to go that far south if we could avoid it. It's a question of time, really. I had hoped that there would be a reasonable colony within fairly easy reach of Deseado.'
Excerpted from The Whispering Land by Gerald Durrell. Copyright © 1973 Gerald Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Whispering LandA Word in Advance
The Customs of the Country
The Whispering Land
A Sea of Headwaiters
The Golden Swarm
The Bulbous Beasts
The Customs of the Country
A City of Bichos
Vampires and Wine
A Wagon-Load of Bichos
The Customs of the Country