Region Inconnue

HAVING BEEN WARNED of the Lieutenant’s liking for punctuality I was waiting, shivering slightly, in the hotel’s grandiose drive soon after half-past four. The trouble in the Hauts Plateaux of Indo-China is that while the temperature may reach ninety in the shade soon after the sun rises, it usually feels like a mild December day in England just before dawn. Above the creaking of cicadas I could hear the occasional bark of a stag. On the stroke of five came the distant rattling of a car and the jerky reflection of headlights among the trees. The Citroen came juddering up the road and Lieutenant Suery got out and introduced himself. He was in his forties, a Provencal with a fine melancholy face; one of those Southerners who contradict the accepted Mediterranean pattern with their coolness of manner, their reserve and their taciturnity. Suery had a worried look and I suspected him of suffering from stomach ulcers. Only his rapid, singsong speech, which I found almost impossible to understand, gave a clue to his origin.
The car rattled badly. No car could stand up for long to these terrible roads. The chauffeur was a Vietnamese corporal called Nha – pronounced nya. He was the first genial member of his race I had met and he smiled continually. Suery sat beside him in front and criticised his driving and I was in the back seat surrounded by the luggage. It was still quite dark and after a while a short circuit developed causing the lights to bump on and off. Suery nagged at the chauffeur about this and after a while Nha told him cheerily that he couldn’t find the short in the dark and in any case he wasn’t an electrician. I could understand every word Nha said but had great difficulty with Suery’s high-pitched, buzzing replies. Suery asked me if I had a gun in my baggage, and I said, ‘No, why?’ Suery said it would be an extraordinary thing if we did not see at least one tiger or leopard on the track. Viet-Minh patrols? – no, not a chance. We were thirty miles from the regular frontier of their territory, and where we were going it was real no-man’s land. No-man’s land in the sense that, so far as anybody knew, there was no population at all. Two hundred miles of unexplored jungle without a single village, it was believed. You didn’t find the Viet-Minh wandering about in that kind of place. They couldn’t live on air any more than anybody else. Anyway the corporal had a rifle and if we came across a tiger we would take a pot at it, just for luck. Of course he couldn’t countenance hunting on a duty tour, but we would call that self-defence.
We reached Djiring in a chilly dawn. It was nothing more than a line of shacks on each side of the road. This was where I had been hoping to find a place to get some coffee. But it was too early. A few Mo’is were wandering about the street pulling on their long, silver pipes. They were wrapped in blankets worn with toga-like dignity, a fold flung over the left shoulder. The blankets were woven at the hems with some fine, intricate pattern.
We were on the jungle track when the sun came up. It showed a path hardly wide enough in most places for two cars to pass, with an earth surface varying in colour from orange to brick-red. We were passing through unexplored country; a succession of low mountain ranges with peaks reaching a maximum of 3500 feet. Our world was clothed in frothy vegetation, which, on the more distant mountains, looked as close- textured as moss. Lit up by the bland morning sun it was a cheerful, springlike aspect. As we plunged down into the valleys the landscape closed in on us, till at the lowest levels we practically tunnelled through the bamboos, which seemed to have choked to death all other forms of growth. At slightly higher altitudes we passed between evenly spaced ranks of trees. Their absolutely smooth trunks went straight up without any projection to the roof of the forest, where they put out a parasol of branches. From their bases to the height of perhaps twenty feet the trunks were bastioned with thin strengthening-vanes. There was no way that any of the hundred forms of parasitic growth could take hold. Each tree, it seemed, laid claim to a certain area for its growth, and I saw one with its trunk wrapped almost completely round an intruder of a different species.
There were other trees which had not adapted themselves to the social environment of the jungle and they were loaded with parasitic ferns that had established themselves in the crevices of the rough bark, while lianas, orchids and creepers cascaded from their branches. There was a curious regularity of shape to be observed about some of these parasites, particularly in the case of a chaplet of fleshy leaves fastened about vertical branches, from which there spilled, as from an overfilled basket, green, fretted patterns, repetitive in design as the torn newspaper of the cinema-queue busker. At this season, in early February, there were no flowering orchids, but sometimes in the valley-bottoms, half- extinguished among the bamboos, we caught a glimpse of the fiery smoke of flamboyant trees. A flower, too, grew abundantly by the roadside which looked like willow herb, but was lavender in colour. These were visited by butterflies of rather sombre magnificence – typical, I suppose, of dim forest interiors. Usually they were black with splashes of green or blue iridescence. They did not settle, but hovered poised like fruit-sucking birds, probing with probosces at the blooms. They fluttered in their thousands above the many streams and once, passing through a savannah, we came across what proved on investig¬ation to be the mountainous excretion of an elephant. At first nothing could be seen of it but the glinting of the dark, splendid wings of the butterflies that had settled upon it.

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