Region Inconnue 2

I was intrigued by the process by which some day the jungle would probably reclaim the track – a digestive action which had already begun. Since most of the trees were without low-level branches, there was little lateral pressure; no remorseless closing-in of the walls of vegetation on both sides. What had happened was that plants had seeded themselves in the track itself and had already reached the stage when they could have been potted-out for the embellishment of all the boarding houses of England. There were many aspidistra- and laurel-like varieties, throwing out new leaves that were often curiously veined, hairy, mottled or lac¬quered. Some bore small, orange-blossom-like flowers and spiders had increased the nuptial illusion by draping them with gauzy, bridal veils. I saw several familiar birds including bee-eaters, kingfishers and shrikes, and we once passed a peregrine falcon perched most uncomfortably on a slender swaying bamboo. The lieutenant was mortified that no tiger had appeared and said that now the sun was well up it was unlikely that we would see one. However, a troop of gibbons dropped from the trees into our path, awaiting our oncoming in petrified astonishment. At the last moment, when the chauffeur was already braking hard, they departed with fine acrobatic flourishes. Jungle-fowl frequently appeared ahead. They were as small as bantams and nearly as sprightly on the wing as blackbirds. It seems that the polygamous habit of the farmyard exists in the wild state – though on a lesser scale – since a cock was never without his two or three hens. The chauffeur Nha groaned in horror at these wasted opportunities but the lieutenant would not relax discipline even when we saw a huge boar in the track, at right angles to us, lethargic and indifferent, its head hanging down and snout practically touching the ground. It remained a perfect, unmissable target, until we were within a few yards of it, when, without looking up or making any preliminary movement it seemed suddenly to vanish, as if de-materialised.
By the afternoon we had left the jungle and entered a region offoret- clairière – patches of woodland alternating with coarse-grass savannahs. This phenomenon might have been caused by extreme variations in the natural fertility of the soil, or by the destructive cultivation of the region in the past by primitive tribes. There would be a few miles of grassland, followed, as the soil improved, by clumps of fern, bushes trimmed sedately with what looked like wild roses, and then, finally, the jungle again, a bulging explosion of verdure. The lieutenant said that these parts swarmed with all kinds of game, particularly elephants, tigers and gaurs – a large species of buffalo of legendary ferocity in Indo-China, which provides all local hunters with their most hair-raising escape stories. We saw none of them.
For several hours, it seemed to me, the lieutenant had been showing signs of irritation. This took the form of constant criticism of the chauf¬feur’s driving. It was no mean feat to drive a car along this track, with its ever-loose surface, its acute bends, its gradients, the patches of freshly grown vegetation through which we were obliged to crash implacably. I thought that Nha was doing very well. We had had no nasty turns, so far. I was well content to relax and look at the scenery. Not so the lieutenant. He began to indulge in the most acute form of back-seat driving, which included a regular flow of instructions. It went something like this:
‘All right now – gently out of the bend. Now accelerate hard – all you’ve got. No, don’t change up. Why change up when you’ll have to change down again straight away? Keep your foot on the throttle, now swing her across – bottom gear – there you are, you left it too late: stall the engine that way. Never change down after a corner like that, change before. Now give her full throttle – hey, slow down! What on earth are you doing? My God, you’ll have us over the top before we know where we are. There you go now – I told you you’d stall the engine.’
It was evident that Nha was getting rattled. After he had followed Suery’s instructions as best he could, thereby twice stalling the engine on a hill, Suery asked him if he was tired and would like a rest. Nha got out without a word and came round to the other side and Suery took the wheel. Suery’s driving was dynamic. We roared up gradients on full throttle in each gear, snaking gently on the soft surface. Bends were taken in grand-prix style. It was quite exciting.
After about ten minutes of this we happened to be coming down a hill with an easy gradient. There was a drop of about a hundred feet into a ravine on the left and a bank on the right. The road had widened out and Suery thought he could take the bend at forty. I had a glimpse of a flock of small, green parakeets leaving the top of a tree growing in the ravine, but was unable to follow their flight owing to the swinging away of the landscape. One moment I was looking at the birds flying up from the top of the tree, then the landscape shifted round and I saw the road – also slipping away – and a steep bank coming up at us. I heard Suery say ‘Mon Dieu’ three times very quickly and I wedged my feet up against the seat in front and pushed away hard. There was a crash and something hit me on top of the head and we seemed to bounce up into the air and go backwards. We did fifteen yards back-first down the road in the direction we were going, with all the car doors open. I fell out first and I saw Nha and Suery fall out on opposite sides. Nha sat in the road with his head in his hands and Suery got up and walked backwards a few steps. His face was covered with blood which was already dripping down his shirt. There was a ringing in my ears but I knew that I was not badly hurt. Nha got up and sat on the running board and said, ‘Oh malheureux,’ as well as something in Vietnamese. He then grinned and we both went over to look after Suery. Suery had a deep, ragged wound over his eye and a lot of small cuts on his face and arms. He had broken the steering wheel with his chest. I wiped the worst of the blood off him with a clean handkerchief and got some plastic skin out of my bag and squeezed it over his cuts.

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