Friday, 27 February 2015
Exploration is a dangerous game and many have paid the ultimate price for their wanderlust and curiosity. But for those who stay the course wonders and sometimes fame and riches abound. Or, at the very least, a lifetime’s supply of rousing anecdotes and tales to thrill your dinner guests. Contact with strange tribal peoples who practise dark rituals or the discovery of new and wonderful species can be the gateway to a lucrative career in after-dinner speaking, as long as those discoveries can be substantiated. But sometimes one stumbles across sights that question one’s grasp of sanity; mirages and apparitions feature large in the memories of those who venture from the path well trodden.
Thus it was that the famous explorer Colonel John Nicholas Blashford-Snell, OBE, kept secret for many years the story of the strange creature he had witnessed in his Congo expedition of the mid-seventies. Entering a clearing his party had come across a troop of perfectly familiar olive baboons, which can be found all across the central African regions. Normally the troop would have scattered but on this occasion they were otherwise engaged, chattering wildly and gathered about a single, very different individual. This outsider, which had the appearance of a mandrill but with a curiously bright yellow face, sat impassively as the throng clamoured about him.
Blashers bade his men stand still and they watched until, suddenly, the unusual specimen began chattering loudly and becoming agitated. The surrounding gang of olives suddenly became quieter and stepped back as the yellow-face individual began to take great gulps of breath, faster and faster, grunting all the while and as they all fell into stunned silence watching intently the cheek pouches began to inflate and turn red. Louder and faster it huffed and puffed until soon its whole body began to inflate and then, slowly, cheeks a bright, flaming red, it took in one last huge gulp of hot air and began to hover a few inches above the ground.
Not a murmur sounded as the super-heated, puce-faced primate floated up into the tree canopy and vanished from sight. The explorer shook his head in disbelief and quickly went for his hip flask. After a few quick swigs of medicinal brandy he could no longer be sure he had even seen what he thought he had and on his return to Blighty, though he embarked on many lecture tours and happily engaged the crowds, he kept this one episode to himself. It was not until a few years after the turn of the twenty-first century that he found himself in the company of Sir David Attenborough and they both set to reminiscing about their Congo days.
Who you laughing at, bum face?
During one of Sir David’s accounts of a Zoo Quest expedition, Blashers suddenly remembered the curious incident in the clearing and when Attenborough finished his story, the colonel tentatively told his, fully expecting to heard with derision. Preceding the anecdote with the cautionary suggestion that he may have dreamed the whole thing, he told it as he remembered it and waited for the great naturalist’s incredulous response. Instead though, David nodded enthusiastically and said that he too had seen the curious beast, including its agitated levitation act. “Blashers, old son,” he said finally, “we can count ourselves lucky to be two of the very few westerners who have ever even heard of, let alone seen, the rare ‘hot air baboon’!”