The first time you see these animals," said the Dutch hunter, "you will run, not shoot. You must hold your dogs, or they will be killed."
"This snake is most bod," said the Bush Negro. "If you are shooting at him, he do not go away, but he come at you. He follow your boat to eat you."
"These nasty insects cover the floor of the jungle like a carpet," said the government geologist, "and they consume everything in their path. They can turn a dead horse into a pile of bones in a few hours." '
The Dutch hunter was talking about wild boars, the Bush Negro about water snakes and the government geologist about army ants. But all of them were talking about Surinam, formerly Dutch Guiana, a postage-stamp country on the northeast coast of South America and a new hunting-and-fishing frontier for those with plenty of cash and vast reserves of raw courage. Going there is like seeing Month Cane and suddenly finding oneself in the middle of the screen looking out at the audience. One is surrounded by terrors, hardly any of which one will ever see. Thus, like the burglar who never comes in the night, the terrors are made more real than life.
November 9, 1964
The good people of Surinam are fond of telling about the Great White Hunter from the United States who arrived with his .357 Magnum and his 12-gauge Remington for an orgy of hunting. Sitting around the lobby of the Palace Hotel in Paramaribo, Surinam's capital city, the American was told about the scorpions and tarantulas, boa constrictors and anacondas, fer-de-lances and rattlesnakes, piranhas and crocodiles, and he suddenly lost all zest for the outdoors. Instead, he spent his two weeks in the hotel's casino playing the red while the black came up and casting nervous glances over his shoulder.
Henk van der Voet, a merchant of Paramaribo and an avid outdoorsman, tells of a fisherman who was trolling for the 200-pound tarpon in the Coesewijne River and, for personal and confidential reasons, asked to be put ashore. "We put him off on a log," the jolly Van der Voet recalls with gusto, "and immediately he began shouting, "Red ants! Red ants!' So we took him back on and looked for another tree. This time we put him ashore on a hive of bees, and we all had to go over the side."
The gay vacationland that abounds in such antic phenomena lies just north of the equator between pepper and rum: French Guiana, or Cayenne, to the east, and British Guiana, or Demerara, to the west. Offshore to the east is Devils Island, Ile du Diable, the infamous penal colony that France has shut down and would like to forget. At one time or another Surinam has belonged to the British (who gave it up in the deal for another dangerous place, New York), the Spaniards (who left little imprint), the French (whose mark may be seen in streets bearing such names as Divertissement and creeks called Marechal and Compagnie) and, eventually, the Dutch, who only recently granted the country full autonomy.
As a melting pot, there are few countries that rival it. Surinam has its own native Amerindians, dark and reddish in color except for some mysterious tribes said to be light and blue-eyed. It has Bush Negroes, or Djukas, descendants of African slaves who fled into the jungles from their Dutch masters. It has tens of thousands of Javanese and Hindus, brought in as contract laborers after the slaves took it on the lam. It has a large Chinese population and a nucleus of Europeans. The country glories in happy miscegenation; the Surinam flag has five stars, each denoting a different racial color: red for Amerindians, white for whites, black for Negroes, brown for Creoles and yellow for Asiatics, with an elliptical band tying them all together. The colors have bred and interbred, and the result of all this vigorous hybridization is a handsome group of people. One sees tall, lithe men with coppery skin, neatly cropped black hair and the slightest trace of a slant to their blue eyes, and café-au-lait women with long black hair, heavily accented Asian eyes and the provocative hip-wiggle of Piccadilly Circus: Suzie Wongs in their wild state. All of them speak Dutch ("Put a hot potato in your mouth and talk fast and you will be talking Dutch," says Government Official Herman van Eyck). All of them also speak Takitaki, a conglomerate native language made up of English, African, Spanish, Dutch, Hindi and imagination. And most of them speak English.
For the sporting visitor from North America the lure of Surinam is the interior, a wondrously unexplored region of jungle, rivers and open savannahs so receptive to life that there is hardly a type of flora or fauna that does not abound there. In temperate and arctic zones an animal's main problem is finding food, but in a torrid area like Surinam the problem is not to find food but to avoid becoming food. There are no homes for elderly tapirs in Surinam; death by old age is all but unknown in the jungle. The interior is full of animals that have to do impressions to stay alive. There is a frog that looks like a dead leaf, an insect that resembles a stick, a coral snake that is deadly and a cheap imitator that is nontoxic but enjoys wide respect because of its masquerade. There also are vampire bats and six-inch caterpillars covered with spines which secrete a fluid that can lay a man up for days. There are grasshoppers five inches long, toads the size of dinner plates, beetles as big as saucers and huge butterflies with metallic blue wings that flash in the sunlight. At dawn the army ants arise from their bivouacs and move across the forest floor like a corps of rapacious soldiers. Ahead of them, creeping and flying insects flutter and jump in useless attempts at escape. Inevitably, they are going to be caught and ripped asunder, and not even the defenses of such sinister creatures as the tarantula, the scorpion and the wolf spider are of any use against the creeping scourge. The naturalist Marston Bates recalled an invasion of army ants against a tropical laboratory. "We tried everything we could think of to stop them or at least to make them change their course," Bates wrote, "but to no avail. The ants poured on in their tens of thousands, swept through our snake pit and left us with a collection of bare skeletons."
In Surinam life crawls upon life. Termites build large bulb-shaped housing units in trees. The seed of a strangler fig comes to rest high in a tree, puts roots all the way down to the ground and takes over like a grasping mother-in-law. At last the host tree is smothered to death, and the strangler fig stands alone. Patches of water hyacinth float down rivers, reverse themselves and come upstream on the steep incoming tide, and by this yo-yo process slowly inch their way to the sea, where they join the other greenstuffs rotting offshore in a giant vegetable soup, making the coastline of Surinam totally uninviting except at the mouths of the biggest rivers. Bits of humus break off the river banks and begin the same march to the sea, picking up flowers and grasses en route, and slowly sink deeper into the water until they resemble floating gardens. Crocodiles lurk around them, and giant tarpon bask in their shade.
The visiting fisherman would do well to leave his swimming trunks at home. The rivers of Surinam are full of slashing, gamy fish like the tarpon and the lau-lau (a catfish that goes up to 200 pounds), but they also abound in fish like the piranha, the river's own Disposall unit, and the tiny candir√∫, which likes to pry itself into the urethra of the swimmer with unpleasant results for all. There are wading rivers where unnamed bronze fish will rise to a dry fly and fight like grayling but where one may also step on a fresh-water stingray or get a jolt from an electric eel. The rapacity of the fish life of Surinam may be seen in the way natives fish at Kaysergebergte, one of the government-sponsored landing areas deep in the interior. Each year the floods recede and leave a nearby moat filled with mud. The natives stick their arms deep into the muck until they feel something bite them, whereupon they pull out their catch, wriggling at the ends of their fingers.
In such a place one comes to expect anything and believe anything, and the natives, born and bred in the jungles, are themselves often uncertain where truth ends and hyperbole begins. Their attitude toward the fearful forms of the deep forest is one of propitiation rather than confrontation; and offerings arc often placed at the foot of tall ceiba trees to appease the jungle terrors.
Ironically, one of the most dreaded creatures of the interior is one of the least dangerous: the so-called anjoemara ("big fish") snake, a large water snake done up in black and brown and slightly flattened from head to tail like an eel. When an anjoemara snake is sighted at a jungle fishing camp, all activity stops. An American party was encamped on the Tibiti River recently when one of the snakes was seen swimming lazily into a tangle of rotting hyacinth and vines on the river bank. Instantly every native in the party joined in motionless vigil while one held a shotgun poised and ready. This tableau of watchfulness was maintained for an hour in the gathering dusk until all visibility was gone, and even then a few nervous natives stayed rooted to the spot, watching edges and shadows. An elderly riverman explained the anxiety: "Dot anjoemara sneki, he is the most worst of all. He has poison like the cobra; it travels through your nerves, and it makes the heat in your body go way down till you die. Dot is why we rub victims with soap and turn them over a fire, and even then sometimes they die. The anjoemara sneki, he is most dangerous because he is no afraid. He follow your boat to get you. If you shoot him and miss, he come straight at you. You throw a rock at him and he rise out of the water to get you."
The natives are firmly convinced of all this despite the fact that no poisonous fresh-water snakes are known in South America. The anjoemara snakes, according to ranking naturalists, are misidentified anacondas or South American water cobras, Cyclagras gigas, both nonpoisonous. To this information, the natives of Surinam respond that the ranking naturalists can tell it to the Marines, and merrily continue their traditional roasting of anyone bitten by an anjoemara. The fact that the roastees sometimes die merely shows the natives the extreme toxicity of the snake's venom.
To make such matters even more perplexing, the Surinamers enjoy pulling the legs of outsiders, scaring them half to death and then explaining that it was all a joke. On a recent hunting trip Photographer Tony Triolo spotted a brownish-orange snake, some eight feet long, with a puffed neck like a cobra. "Is it poisonous?" he asked his guide.
"No," said the Surinamer. "Definitely not poisonous."
Triolo advanced on the snake with his camera, whereupon the snake advanced upon Triolo and lifted its head into a high striking position. "Get back!" shouted the guide. "It's deadly poison!"
Triolo executed a magnificent backward broad jump. "That was a close call," he said, and the guide nodded grimly. Two days later he told Triolo that the snake, a reditere, or red-tail, was really harmless.
The most genuinely feared snake in Surinam is the bush-master, whose venom is not so toxic as that of the South American rattlesnake but which makes up for this deficiency by injecting a massive amount of the poison through extraordinarily long fangs. The bushmaster comes in the large economy size, up to 12 feet, making it the longest venomous snake in the Americas. Surinam also boasts the largest snake in the world, the anaconda or water-boa, a constrictor which has been measured up to 37 feet.
Sometimes these big snakes are found in almost dormant states, inspiring neophytes to attempt feats of derring-do not recommended by the natives. A Paramaribo hunter recalls: "Once an American friend of mine was hunting with some Indians when they saw a bushmaster with a head as big as a watermelon. The American shot once and missed. He shot again and the shell misfired, jamming the gun. The American said he would kill the snake with a knife, and the Indians warned him that they would all be killed if he tried it. But Americans are always doing some damned fool thing like attacking a bushmaster. The minute an American gets into the interior he begins acting like a character from an old jungle movie. Luckily the snake began moving its head from side to side, and the Indians hauled the American off. He was highly annoyed that he hadn't been permitted to get himself killed."
The Amerindians and Bush Negroes have their own manner of handling big snakes. "When these snakes get old and bulky," explains a Surinamer, "they lose their quickness and they tend to stay on the same narrow paths. They leave behind a silvery trail of mucus, and this attracts little animals like frogs. Later the snake comes back along the path and gobbles up the frogs. The natives spot these highways, and they imbed a razor in a piece of wood and bury it along the trail with just the blade sticking out. When the big fat snake comes sliding along, he conveniently opens himself up from neck to tail."
As one might by now gather, the sportsmen who hunt in Surinam are not ordinary sportsmen, nor do they hunt in a normal manner, nor are there many of them. A hunt, Surinam style, is an exercise in agony, a forced-march sort of affair in which no one out of top condition can take part. A hunt begins at dawn and ends at noon, when the hot midday sun becomes too much for the dogs, a motley group of skinny mixed-breeds. The idea, as you set forth from camp, is to cover as much ground as possible in this limited time. Quickly the canopy of the rain forest closes over the hunting party. The ground is almost lifeless; there is no green vegetation, because no sunlight can get through the treetops to provide photosynthesis. With no identifying landmarks, the entire sortie is conducted by compass. To keep up with the dogs, the hunters must move at a fast clip; therefore no water or food is carried. If the party comes across a certain type of liana, a vine that stores water, thirsts are assuaged. Otherwise, one does without. "You must be totally mobile," explains William Gummels, former police chief in Paramaribo, who now, at 60, sets a hunting pace that would wind an ocelot. Wearing sneakers, he trots through the forest with total disdain for all the vaunted dangers. "If this place were as tough as they claim," Gummels says in a basso profundo with a thick Dutch accent, "would I still be alive?"
In the next breath he points out that a week earlier one of his dogs was killed by a seven-foot bushmaster, and then launches matter-of-factly into another tale not guaranteed to soothe the craven North American. "A friend and I hunted together one day with four dogs. We went to a place where we had already had good hunting, and we heard our dogs barking far ahead of us, and then we don't hear a thing at all. Then we find one dog, slashed to death. A few meters farther on, we find a second one, dead. The third one we never seen back to this day. But now we knew it is a tiger [jaguar] taking our dogs. And now we have one dog left only. He is walking back with us through the forest when suddenly we heard a noise in the brush, and the tiger is going off with our last dog. So it was for the tiger—what you call?—a total success."
The favorite quarry of Gummels and the small coterie of Surinam hunters is the pingo, a wild boar that weighs more than 100 pounds and travels in troops of 20 to 400 in a wide swath through the jungle. Hunter Orlando Brakke says: "If you are in the bush and the pingos are coming you will know it when they still are 500 meters away. It is a roar and a clacking of thousands of teeth chewing across the jungle. They are always walking, never stopping. They walk all the way to the Surinam River and then to the Coesewijne, turn around and go to the Saramacca, then come back, always following one leader. Everything they meet on the way they kill with their tusks and their teeth. When you follow where a troop of pingos has walked you will find no animals, no snakes, no grass, no roots, nothing. They are the vacuum cleaners of the bush."
When the pingos sense danger, they come together in a tight group and gnash their teeth loudly, almost as if they were communicating with one another. "When we hear them going ka! ka! ka!" says Gummels, "we grab first the dogs, because the pingos will kill them. Then we wait for the pack to pass by, but we are careful not to shoot the leader. If you shoot the leader the pack will lose its sense of direction and run around crazy, and then you will be run over by them. One must always have a tree picked out nearby." The trick in pingo hunting is to station oneself close enough to the pack to pick off some stragglers, but not so close as to be killed. The first rule is: when in doubt, climb.
At certain times of the year the pingos go berserk en masse, milling around and swimming rivers and stomping on farmers' fields. Then it becomes easy to kill them with clubs or any heavy object, though nobody would consider this kind of slaughtering to be a form of hunting. Gummels tells of a man who shot 56 such loony hogs in a single day and trucked them all into Paramaribo, where their roast-young-suckling-pig flavor was enjoyed by thousands.
Another favorite Surinam target is the pakira, a smaller hog and a less gregarious one. It travels in groups of four to 12, and the group can be chased into a hole by hunting dogs. "You seal off one entrance to the hole and push a stick through till you touch a pakira," Gummels explains. "That will make another pakira come out the other exit, and you shoot him. When the first one comes out, the others appear in a single file, like a shooting gallery, and you get them one by one."
Now and then hunting dogs pick up the trail of a tapir, the huge hippopotamuslike creature that may weigh up to 600 pounds. There are no ground refuges big enough for the tapir, so it seeks to protect itself by wading into water holes and snapping its powerful teeth at the dogs. The tapir is peaceful, by Surinam standards, though one hunter says "he can take down whole trees with a single bite just to get at the leaves, and he will bite a dog in two."
For the North American hunter in search of bizarre quarry suitable for impressing the boys back at the Elks Club in Sioux City, Surinam also boasts such animals as the giant armadillo (up to 100 pounds): the capybara, world's biggest rodent; the coatimundi, long-nosed kin of the raccoon and one of the smartest animals in the animal business; the agouti, which looks like a big rat and tastes like tender beef; and a wild swamp dog that comes with webbed feet. A favorite target of the Amerindians and Bush Negroes is the howler monkey, one of the heaviest of the American monkeys and the worst dinmaker since the Rolling Stones. The hyoid bone of the howler's throat has developed into a resonator, and at night, high in the banak and the purpleheart trees, he provides an auditory late late show, a sort of Chiller Theater, for those encamped beneath. In this treetop social structure, the female monkey is the aggressor, panting around from male to male until she finds a sport willing to mate with her. One wonders what all the howling is about.
The sportsman who would consider going to Surinam and studying such matters should be reminded that the country, by North American standards, is still on the primitive side and somewhat removed from the flow of world affairs. You will not be eaten by cannibals and you will not be sickened by the pure, fresh water, but you will be overtaken by a feeling of insularity, a total separation from things American. The only English-language news available to the visitor is a daily mimeographed newsletter containing such items as:
"the hague: a dutch navy grumman tracker aircraft which was taken to Libya on an unauthorised flight by a dutch sailor on march 7th, on thursday returned to valkenburg naval airbase near here. (the sailor, 21-year. 3:¾-, 8:5½ 39 = (, took the plane from malta to benghazi. he is reported to hav been given asylum in Libya.)"
And: "holyhead, wales—the 400-ton dutch coaster Lenie was olated cove near here today after being accompanied by the Lifeboat the Lenie made for holy-head for a keel examination, she is not making water."
The best plan is not to read this at all and forget about the rest of the world. The daily news garble only titillates; it does not inform.
One also should be well prepared for a swarm of tourist propaganda in Surinam, for the country is belatedly trying to make itself out as a sparkling oasis of sincere native folkways in a desert of ersatz, grasping Caribbean vacation spots. To this end, a convention of foreign travel agents was recently assembled in Paramaribo, and a news release about the event proudly pointed out that "shy, barebreasted Amerindian maidens posed for them at the placid village of Bigi Ston." The truth of the situation is that there are precious few "shy, barebreasted" females remaining in Surinam, and of those who do cavort about in the Rudi Gernreich manner, it must be said that when you've seen two you've seen 'em all.
Finally, the visitor to Surinam should be prepared to pay. This is no primitive country of goggle-eyed natives eager to shine the white massa's shoes for a penny. Paramaribo, once a haven for buccaneers, retains much of its heritage. A small room in a good hotel can run more than $20 a day. Guided trips into the interior to fish for tarpon or hunt pingos cost up to $100 a day. There are gambling casinos, but they are leased to sophisticated U.S. interests and operated by Latins who tend to regard every gringo as a mark, inviting him into after-hours card games "just among us friends, se√±or," and then attempting the kind of cheap jiggery-pokery that was passé in Las Vegas 15 years ago. Surinam can be a pleasant and rewarding place for the vacationer, but only if he remembers the essential fact about its cities and its jungles: in Surinam the hunter is often the hunted. This can be exhilarating, as in a Graham Greene novel, but sissies had better stay home.