Unfortunately there was little to be seen. A few small honey-sucking birds fluttered about the lavender willowherb and we frequendy saw a species rather smaller than a lark, black in colour and with a tail which looked like a single feather at the end of an eighteen-inch-long hair. It was difficult to understand as we watched it threading in and out the thick j ungle foliage, how its evolution could have been assisted by this unhandy appendage. Once only we saw a hornbill, sombrely splendid in black and yellow, launch itself from a tree top and go swooping through a glade in a dashing, easy flight. On the wing there was nothing incongruous about its immense bill.
We were about five miles from Dak-Song when we had a very bad moment. For hours under the sun’s nearly vertical rays the jungle had become tamed and silent. Plodding through the red, shadeless dust, we were dirty and sweat-soaked. Suery’s shirt was spattered with brown bloodstains. I had a bad thirst but still not bad enough to risk a drink out of a stream. Just ahead the track turned sharply to the left to avoid a small, low hill that was very densely wooded. From this as we approached there suddenly came a huge, shattering, calamitous sound. It seemed in some way incongruous, improper to this tranquil atmosphere of an overgrown corner of an English wood on an afternoon in a heat-wave. I judged the sound to be produced by two tigers quarrelling, perhaps, over a kill. The snarling intake of breath followed by the furious, coughing roars was unmistakable. Suery looked as if he wanted to pretend that he had heard nothing. That was half the trouble, there was something ridiculous, as well as alarming, about the situation. Either of us alone might have retreated up the road as quickly as we could, but together we were obliged to go on. It would have been no more seemly to show alarm than at the casual approach of a bull while crossing a field in either of our native lands. As we strode on I began to calculate the number of steps (thirty) that it would take us to reach the point of maximum danger and the number (two hundred) before we could start to breathe easily again.
But now a distressing complication awaited us. We reached the corner and turned left, but the track instead of going on straight ahead, curved immediately to the right. The chilling sounds broke out again, very close now, and it was quite evident that my two hundred yards, instead of taking us to safety would be fully employed in skirting the base of the hillock and that during that time we should be at roughly an even distance from the tigers. And this was how it turned out. We walked on round the hairpin bend expecting at every moment to see the animals come bounding down into the road in front of us. Every few seconds there was another outburst of roars. Our preoccupied silence was the only indication that we realised that anything unusual was happening. Glancing from side to side for a possible way of escape, I confirmed what I already knew, that the trees were as un-climbable as the columns of a Gothic cathedral. Perhaps half a mile further on Suery broke the silence. ‘They never attack in daytime,’ he said.
This, it seemed, was one of the accepted fallacies of bush-life in Indo¬china. The republican guard at Dak-Song when we arrived said the same thing. ‘I hardly ever drive along the track without seeing one. Shot some beauties. They never attack you in daylight. Rarely attack human beings at all.’
The latter assertion is probably correct but I was only allowed two days in which to delude myself with the former. At Ban Methuot one of the first French officials I met had been mauled by a tiger while coming out of his garden in the town at midday. The tiger was probably old and decrepit as it only ripped up the man’s thigh in a desultory fashion before making off down the main street in the direction of the municipal offices and the church.
Dak-Song was a sun-scorched forest-clearing; a few Polynesian huts, and a pile-raised long-house used by Mo’i conscripts as a barracks. A strange face in such a place is an extraordinary event and Mo’i children ran screaming to their parents at our approach. The republican guards in charge of the post lived dismally in the huts. There were no amenities of any kind, no shop, canteen or bar. At more or less weekly intervals the convoy to Ban Methuot passed through, and the checking of vehicles and passes, occupying perhaps one hour, was their only routine activity. They had endless time to devote to the sad reflections that are the occupational disease of colonial soldiering. The staleness of existence couldn’t be imagined the Chefde la Poste said. The only thing you could do was to go out and shoot a tiger or a gaur, or something like that. Even then you couldn’t call it sport. They were too tame. They came and gave them¬selves up. Committed suicide. The other day he had seen a herd of gaur in a clearing nearby. He had just driven up to them in his jeep, picked out the biggest one and shot it like that. The Chef sighed, thinking perhaps of weekend partridge shooting in France.
Our host apologised for a splendid lunch of wild poultry, the flesh of which was very white and sweet and Suery said that he would try to let him have some tinned stew next time he came through. The drinks were, of course, warm. It always surprised me that the Frenchman in the tropics lacking ice never made an attempt to cool liquids by keeping them, as the Spanish do, in porous vessels.