by Samuel White Baker
Wild Denizens of Forest and Lake - Destroyers of Reptiles - The Tree Duck - The Mysteries of Night in the Forest - The Devil-Bird - The Iguanodon in Miniature - Outrigger Canoes - The Last Glimpse of Ceylon - A Glance at Old Times.
One of the most interesting objects to a tourist in Ceylon is a secluded lake or tank in those jungle districts which are seldom disturbed by the white man. There is something peculiarly striking in the wonderful number of living creatures which exist upon the productions of the water. Birds of infinite variety and countless numbers - fish in myriads - reptiles and crocodiles -animals that feed upon the luxuriant vegetation of the shores - insects which sparkle in the sunshine in every gaudy hue; all these congregate in the neighborhood of these remote solitudes, and people the lakes with an incalculable host of living beings.
In such a scene there is scope for much delightful study of the habits and natures of wild animals, where they can be seen enjoying their freedom unrestrained by the fear of man.
Often have I passed a quiet hour on a calm evening when the sun has sunk low on the horizon, and lie cool breeze has stolen across the water, refreshing all animal life. Here, concealed beneath the shade of some large tree I have watched the masses of living things quite unconscious of such scrutiny. In one spot the tiny squirrel nibbling the buds on a giant limb of the tree above me, while on the opposite shore a majestic bull elephant has commenced his evening bath, showering the water above his head and trumpeting his loud call to the distant herd. Far away in the dense jungles the ringing sound is heard, as the answering females return the salute and slowly approach the place of rendezvous. One by one their dark forms emerge from the thorny coverts and loom large upon the green but distant shores, and they increase their pace when they view the coveted water, and belly-deep enjoy their evening draught.
The graceful axis in dense herds quit the screening jungle and also seek the plain. The short, shrill barks of answering bucks sound clearly across the surface of the lake, and indistinct specks begin to appear on the edge of the more distant forests. Now black patches are clotted about the plain; now larger objects, some single and some in herds, make toward the water. The telescope distinguishes the vast herds of hogs busy in upturning the soil in search of roots, and the ungainly buffaloes, some in herds and others single bulls, all gathering at the hour of sunset toward the water. Peacocks spread their gaudy plumage to the cool evening air as they strut over the green plain; the giant crane stands statue-like among the shallows; the pelican floats like a ball of snow upon the dark water; and ducks and waterfowl of all kinds splash, and dive, and scream in a confused noise, the volume of which explains their countless numbers.
Foremost among the waterfowl for beauty is the water-pheasant. He is generally seen standing upon the broad leaf of a lotus, pecking at the ripe seeds and continually uttering his plaintive cry, like the very distant note of a hound. This bird is most beautifully formed, and his peculiarity of color is well adapted to his shape. He is something like a cock pheasant in build and mode of carriage, but he does not exceed the size of a pigeon. His color is white, with a fine brown tinsel glittering head and long tail; the wings of the cock bird are likewise ornamented with similar brown tinsel feathers. These birds are delicious eating, but I seldom fire at them, as they are generally among the lotus plants in such deep water that I dare not venture to get them on account of crocodiles. The lotus seeds, which they devour greedily, are a very good substitute for filberts, and are slightly narcotic.
The endless variety of the crane is very interesting upon these lonely shores. From the giant crane, who stands nearly six feet high, down to the smallest species of paddy bird, there is a numerous gradation. Among these the gaunt adjutant stands conspicuous as he stalks with measured steps through the high rushes, now plunging his immense bill into the tangled sedges, then triumphantly throwing back his head with a large snake writhing helplessly in his horny beak; open fly the shear-like hinges of his bill - one or two sharp jerks and down goes one half of an incredibly large snake; another jerk and a convulsive struggle of the snake; one more jerk - snap, snap goes the bill and the snake has disappeared, while the adjutant again stalks quietly on, as though nothing had happened. Down goes his bill, presently, with a sudden start, and again his head is thrown back; but this time it is the work of a moment, as it is only an iguana, which not being above eighteen inches long, is easy swallowing.
A great number of the crane species are destroyers of snakes, which in a country so infested with vermin as Ceylon renders them especially valuable. Peacocks likewise wage perpetual war with all kinds of reptiles, and Nature has wisely arranged that where these nuisances most abound there is a corresponding provision for their destruction.
Snipes, of course, abound in their season around the margin of the lakes; but the most delicious birds for the table are the teal and ducks, of which there are four varieties. The largest duck is nearly the size of a wild goose, and has a red, fatty protuberance about the beak very similar to a muscovy. The teal are the fattest and most delicious birds that I have ever tasted. Cooked in Soyer's magic stove, with a little butter, cayenne pepper, a squeeze of lime juice, a pinch of salt, and a spoonful of Lea and Perrins' Worcester sauce (which, by the by, is the best in the world for a hot climate), and there is no bird like a Ceylon teal. They are very numerous, and I have seen them in flocks of some thousands on the salt-water lakes on the eastern coast, where they are seldom or ever disturbed. Nevertheless, they are tolerably wary, which, of course, increases the sport of shooting them. I have often thought what a paradise these lakes would have made for the veteran Colonel Hawker with his punt gun. He might have paddled about and blazed away to his heart's content.
There is one kind of duck that would undoubtedly have astonished him, and which would have slightly bothered the punt gun for an elevation: this is the tree duck, which flies about and perches in the branches of the lofty trees like any nightingale. This has an absurd effect, as a duck looks entirely out of place in such a situation. I have seen a whole cluster of them sitting on one branch, and when I first observed them I killed three at one shot to make it a matter of certainty.
It is a handsome light brown bird, about the size of an English widgeon, but there is no peculiar formation in the feet to enable them to cling to a bough; they are bona fide ducks with the common flat web foot.
A very beautiful species of bald-pated coot, called by the natives keetoolle, is also an inhabitant of the lakes. This bird is of a bright blue color with a brilliant pink horny head. He is a slow flyer, being as bulky as a common fowl and short in his proportion of wing.
It is impossible to convey a correct idea of the number and variety of birds in these localities, and I will not trouble the reader by a description which would be very laborious to all parties; but to those who delight in ornithological studies there is a wild field which would doubtless supply many new specimens.
I know nothing more interesting than the acquaintance with all the wild denizens of mountain and plain, lake and river. There is always something fresh to learn, something new to admire, in the boundless works of creation. There is a charm in every sound in Nature where the voice of man is seldom heard to disturb her works. Every note gladdens the ear in the stillness of solitude, when night has overshadowed the earth, and all sleep but the wild animals of the forest. Then I have often risen from my bed, when the tortures of mosquitoes have banished all ideas of rest, and have silently wandered from the tent to listen in the solemn quiet of night.
I have seen the tired coolies stretched round the smouldering fires sound asleep after their day's march, wrapped in their white clothes, like so many corpses laid upon the ground. The flickering logs on the great pile of embers crackling and sinking as they consume; now falling suddenly and throwing up a shower of sparks, then resting again in a dull red heat, casting a silvery moonlike glare upon the foliage of the spreading trees above. A little farther on, and the horses standing sleepily at their tethers, their heads drooping in a doze. Beyond them, and all is darkness and wilderness. No human dwelling or being beyond the little encampment I have quitted; the dark lake reflecting the stars like a mirror, and the thin crescent moon giving a pale and indistinct glare which just makes night visible.
It is a lovely hour then to wander forth and wait for wild sounds. All is still except the tiny hum of the mosquitoes. Then the low chuckling note of the night hawk sounds soft and melancholy in the distance; and again all is still, save the heavy and impatient stamp of a horse as the mosquitoes irritate him by their bites. Quiet again for a few seconds, when presently the loud alarm of the plover rings over the plain - "Did he do it?" - the bird's harsh cry speaks these words as plainly as a human being. This alarm is a certain warning that some beast is stalking abroad which has disturbed it from its roost, but presciently it is again hushed.
The loud hoarse bark of an elk now unexpectedly startles the ear; presently it is replied to by another, and once more the plover shrieks "Did he do it?" and a peacock waking on his roost gives one loud scream and sleeps again.
The heavy and regular splashing of water now marks the measured tread of a single elephant as he roars out into the cooled lake, and you can hear the more gentle falling of water as he spouts a shower over his body. Hark at the deep guttural sigh of pleasure that travels over the lake like a moan of the wind! -what giant lungs to heave such a breath; but hark again! There was a fine trumpet! as clear as any bugle note blown by a hundred breaths it rung through the still air. How beautiful! There, the note is answered; not by so fine a tone, but by discordant screams and roars from the opposite side, and the louder splashing tells that the herd is closing up to the old bull. Like distant thunder a deep roar growls across the lake as the old monarch mutters to himself in angry impatience.
Then the long, tremulous hoot of the owl disturbs the night, mingled with the harsh cries of flights of waterfowl, which doubtless the elephants have disturbed while bathing.
Once more all sounds sink to rest for a few minutes, until the low, grating roar of a leopard nearer home warns the horses of their danger and wakes up the sleeping horsekeeper, who piles fresh wood upon the fires, and the bright blaze shoots up among the trees and throws a dull, ruddy glow across the surface of the water. And morning comes at length, ushered in, before night has yet departed, by the strong, shrill cry of the great fish-eagle, as he sits on the topmost bough of some forest tree and at measured periods repeats his quivering and unearthly yell like an evil spirit calling. But hark at that dull, low note of indescribable pain and suffering! long and heavy it swells and dies away. It is the devil-bird; and whoever sees that bird must surely die soon after, according to Cingalese superstition.
A more cheering sound charms the ear as the gray tint of morning makes the stars grow pale; clear, rich, notes, now prolonged and full, now plaintive and low, set the example to other singing birds, as the bulbul, first to awake, proclaims the morning. Wild, jungle-like songs the birds indulge in; not like our steady thrushes of Old England, but charming in their quaintness. The jungle partridge now wakes up, and with his loud cry subdues all other sounds, until the numerous peacocks, perched on the high trees around the lake, commence their discordant yells, which master everything.
The name for the devil-bird is "gualama," and so impressed are the natives with the belief that a sight of it is equivalent to a call to the nether world that they frequently die from sheer fright and nervousness. A case of this happened to a servant of a friend of mine. He chanced to see the creature sitting on a bough, and he was from that moment so satisfied of his inevitable fate that he refused all food, and fretted and died, as, of course, any one else must do, if starved, whether he saw the devil-bird or not.
Although I have heard the curious, mournful cry of this creature nearly every night, I have never seen one; this is easily accounted for, as, being a night-bird, it remains concealed in the jungle during the day. In so densely wooded a country as Ceylon it is not to be wondered at that owls, and all other birds of similar habit are so rarely met with. Even woodcocks are rarely noticed; so seldom, indeed, that I have never seen more than two during my residence in the island.
From the same cause many interesting animals pass unobserved, although they are very numerous. The porcupine, although as common as the hedge-hog in England, is very seldom seen. Likewise the manis, or great scaled ant-eater, who retires to his hole before break of day, is never met with by daylight. Indeed, I have had some trouble in persuading many persons in Ceylon that such an animal exists in the country.
In the same manner the larger kinds of serpents conceal themselves by day and wander forth at night, like all other reptiles except the smaller species of lizard, of which we have in Ceylon an immense variety, from the crocodile himself down to the little house-lizard.
Of this tribe the "cabra goya" and the "iguana" grow to a large size; the former I have killed as long as eight or nine feet, but the latter seldom exceeds four. I have often intended to eat one, as the natives consider them a great delicacy, but I have never been quite hungry enough to make the trial whenever one was at hand. The "cabra goya" is a horrid brute, and is not considered eatable even by the Cingalese.
One curious species of lizard exists in Ceylon; it is little brown species with a peculiarly rough skin and a serrated spine. A long horn projects from the snout, and it is a fac-simile in miniature of the antediluvian monster, the "iguanodon," who was about a hundred feet long and twelve feet thick - an awkward creature to meet in a narrow road. However, the crocodiles of modern times are awkward enough for the present day, and sometimes grow to the immense length of twenty two feet.
It has frequently surprised me that they do not upset the small canoes in which the natives paddle about the lakes and rivers. These are formed in the simplest manner, of very rude materials, by hollowing out a small log of wood and attaching an outrigger. Some of these are so small that the gunwale is close to the water's edge when containing only one person.
Even the large sea-canoes are constructed on a similar principle; but they are really very wonderful boats for both speed and safety.
A simple log of about thirty feet in length is hollowed out. This is tapered off at either end, so as to form a kind of prow. The cylindrical shape of the log is preserved as much as possible in the process of hollowing, so that no more than a section of one fourth of the circle is pared away upon the upper side.
Upon the edges of this aperture the top sides of the canoe are formed by simple planks, which are merely sewn upon the main body of the log parallel to each other, and slightly inclining outward, so as to admit the legs of persons sitting on the canoe.
A vessel of this kind would of course capsize immediately, as the top weight of the upper works would overturn the flute-like body upon which they rested. This is prevented by an outrigger, which is formed of elastic rods of tough wood, which, being firmly bound together, project at right angles from the upper works. At the extremity of these two rods, there is a tapering log of light wood, which very much resembles the bottom log of the canoe in miniature. This, floating on the water, balances the canoe in an upright position; it cannot be upset until some force is exerted upon the mast of the canoe which is either sufficient to lift the outrigger out of the water, or on the other hand to sink it altogether; either accident being prevented by the great leverage required. Thus, when a heavy breeze sends the little vessel flying like a swallow over the waves, and the outrigger to windward shows symptoms of lifting, a man rims out upon the connecting rod, and, squatting upon the outrigger, adds his weight to the leverage. Two long bamboos, spreading like a letter V from the bottom of the canoe, form the masts, and support a single square sail, which is immensely large in proportion to the size and weight of the vessel.
The motion of these canoes under a stiff breeze is most delightful; there is a total absence of rolling, which is prevented by the outrigger, and the steadiness of their course under a press of sail is very remarkable. I have been in these boats in a considerable surf, which they fly through like a fish; and if the beach is sandy and the inclination favorable, their own impetus will carry them high and dry.
Sewing the portions of a boat together appears ill adapted to purposes of strength; but all the Cingalese vessels are constructed upon this principle: the two edges of the planks being brought together, a strip of the areca palm stern is laid over the joints, and holes being drilled upon each plank, the sewing is drawn tightly over the lath of palm, which being thickly smeared with a kind of pitch, keeps the seams perfectly water-tight. The native dhonies, which are vessels of a hundred and fifty tons, are all fastened in this simple and apparently fragile manner; nevertheless they are excellent sea-boats, and ride in safety through many a gale of wind. The first moving object which met my view on arrival within sight of Ceylon was an outrigger canoe, which shot past our vessels as if we had been at anchor.
The last object that my eyes rested on, as the cocoa-nut trees of Ceylon faded from sight, was again the native canoe which took the last farewell lines to those who were left behind. Upon this I gazed till it became a gray speck upon the horizon and the green shores of the Eastern paradise faded from my eyes for ever.
How little did I imagine, when these pages were commenced in Ceylon, that their conclusion would be written in England!
An unfortunate shooting trip to one of the most unhealthy parts of the country killed my old horse "Jack," one coolie, and very nearly extinguished me rendering it imperative that I should seek a change of climate in England. And what a dream-like change it is! - past events appear unreal, and the last few years seem to have escaped from the connecting chain of former life. Scarcely can I believe in the bygone days of glorious freedom, when I wandered through that beautiful country, unfettered by the laws or customs of conventional life.
The white cliffs of Old England rose hazily on the horizon, and greeted many anxious eyes as the vessel rushed proudly on with her decks thronged with a living freight, all happy as children in the thoughts of home. The sun shone brightly and gave a warm welcome on our arrival; and as the steamer moored alongside the quay, an hour sufficed to scatter the host of passengers who had so closely dwelt together, as completely as the audience of a theatre when the curtain falls. That act of life is past - "exeunt omnes," and a new scene commences. We are in England.
A sudden change necessarily induces a comparison, and I imagine there are few who have dwelt much among the Tropics who do not acquire a distaste for the English climate, and look back with lingering hopes to the verdant shores they have left so far behind. The recollection of absent years, which seem to have been the summer of life, makes the chill of the present feel doubly cold, and our thoughts still cling to the past, while we strive against the belief that we never can recall those days again.
How, as my thoughts wander back to former scenes every mountain and valley reappears in the magic glass of memory! Every rock and dell, every old twisted stem, every dark ravine and wooded cliff, the distant outlines of the well-known hills, the jungle-paths known to my eye alone, and the far, still spots where I have often sat in solitude and pondered over the events of life, and conjured up the faces of those so far away, doubtful if we should ever meet again. Thus even now I picture to myself the past; and so vivid is the scene that I can almost hear the fancied roar of the old waterfalls, and see the shadowy tints which the evening sun throws upon the tree-tops. My old home rises before me like a dissolving view, and I can see the very spot where it was my delight to live, where a warm welcome awaited every friend. And lastly, the faces of those friends seem clear before me, and bring back the associations of old times. Those who have shared in common many of these scenes I trust to meet again, and look back upon the events of former days as landscapes on the road of life that we have viewed together.
For me Ceylon has always had a charm, and I shall ever retain a vivid interest in the colony.
I trust that a new and more prosperous era has now commenced, and that Ceylon, having shaken off the incubus of mismanagement, may, under the rule of a vigorous and enterprising governor, arrive at that prosperity to which she is entitled by her capabilities.
The governor recently appointed (Sir H. Ward,) has a task before him which his well-known energy will doubtless enable him to perform.