All entries for Sunday 06 January 2008

January 06, 2008

Zoo Quest for a Dragon by David Attenborough – review

5 out of 5 stars
Three reasons to read this book: 1. it is a great adventure, written well and full of interesting people, places and animals; 2. it documents formative moments in natural history television, providing a fascinating insight into the character of Attenborough and his work; 3. the Indonesia of 1956 (including Bali, Komodo, and Papua New Guinea) was an extraordinary world, now sadly much disappeared.

Think of David Attenborough as we know him today: the calm and expert voice; a tall, up-right stance, firmly at home in any environment, in any climate; god-like access to spectacular visions of all of the world’s wildife, no matter how rare or remote. Now strip away half a century and almost all supporting technologies. What remains? A primitive movie camera, a mission to collect interesting species for the London Zoo, his friend the pioneering cameraman Charles Lagus; and an as yet un-proven theory that watchable TV could be produced in this way.

Lost at sea, with only a sketch map to guide them, and razor-sharp coral below…

The ship rocked and staggered so violently that it was all we could do to keep on our feet on the wildly tilting deck. As we desperately thrust our poles on to the reef, the racing water almost tore them from our grasp. We fought with all our strength until at last, driven by the gale, our tiny ship struggled out of the grip of the whirlpool and into deeper water…To retreat was impossible for the wind was blowing directly behind us and to go back we should have had to take the suicidal course of furling our sails and abandoning ourselves to the tidal race. We were irrevocably committed to going on. Within seconds, the ship reared and plunged as the next eddy sucked at her bows.

Some simple advice, in case you ever should need to sail across to the island of Komodo:

  • hire a sea-worthy boat;
  • make sure that the captain and crew know how to sail it;
  • ensure that the captain knows the way to Komodo, or at the very least, can read a map;
  • a shared language might help to avoid some of the more disastrous misunderstandings.

There simply were no professionals in 1956. Risks just had to be taken.

Zoo Quest for a Dragon is the story of two young adventurers making it up as they went along. It is the best type of adventure story, written with honesty and humour, and accounting for all of the mistakes as well as the remarkable successes. Attenborough’s attempts at speaking pidgin, often remarkably accurate but sometimes amusingly erroneous, capture the spirit of the expedition. Most people will have seen at least some small elements of the footage that they created whilst in Indonesia. Dragons and orang-utans. Some of the most memorable images from the history of wildlife broadcasting. My copy, a Companion Book Club special from 1959, contains photos, maps and an additional gem: Quest for the Paradise Birds, describing their march across Papua New Guinea. Travelling with large groups of porters in the style of the great Victorian explorers, they encountered not only the amazing dance of the birds of paradise, but also the soon to disappear rituals of the tribes, including pygmies and cannibals (one photo depicts a particularly gruesome necklace made of human fingers).

Many fascinating strands are brought together in this book, in a way that would be unlikely in modern natural history television. Most importantly, it presents the people of Indonesia as part of the environment (although tensions between the two are highlighted). And therein is the real surprise. In describing the many rituals and celebrations of the people encountered, Attenborough proves to be as great an observer of people as he is of animals.

Then, as evening fell, the mood changed again. The music of the gamelan became fierce and full of foreboding, and down the steps from the temple rushed the barong, one of the most powerful and terrible of the spirits of Bali. He was a huge four-legged monster. His body was covered with white shaggy hair hung with gilded leather trappings on which were sewn innumerable flashing mirrors. He had a long golden tail which arched far behind him, decorated with sacred cloths and a tinkling bell. His head was a huge bulbous-eyed mask with savage overlapping tusks and beneath his jaws hung the most magical attribute, a long beard of human hair.

The BBC may soon be making some of the Zoo Quest television programmes available through its online archives project. It will be interesting to see if the Attenborough of this book is all that different to the Attenborough in front of the screen. For now, a short clip is online (Real Player):