He Did What To A Monkey? Oxford naturalist Redmond O'Hanlon writes travelogues of unknown and odd places

January 12, 1998

A pleasant disorder reigns at Pelican House, the hedgerow-hidden
home of Redmond O'Hanlon. Books and magazines are everywhere:
stuffed under tables, stacked in unruly piles against chairs,
heaped in drifts across the floor. Odd and exotic treasures line
the walls. On a shelf near a stuffed pelican is a Maxwell House
can containing the charred foot of O'Hanlon's best friend at
Oxford, who burned himself to death at 24. On another shelf is a
carved wooden totem draped in a sinister red ribbon. "It's a
kind of Congolese voodoo doll," O'Hanlon says. "Each knot in the
ribbon signifies a successful death." (There are 12 knots.)
Reposing atop O'Hanlon's desk is the skull of a howler monkey.
Local Amazonian custom dictated that he suck out the monkey's
eyes. When he complied, a local groaned, "How revolting! You
white men will do anything to be loved."

England's best-loved naturalist and literary traveler has
roosted in this quiet corner of Oxfordshire for 20 years. Every
so often O'Hanlon grabs some bug spray and flutters off to the
jungle. In 1983 it was the Borneo rain forest. In '85 the Amazon
basin. Most recently, the swampland of the Congo. Upon his
return, the former Oxford University English professor
chronicles his adventures in books that marry scholarship and
ensemble comedy and leave readers convinced they would rather
swallow a monkey's eyeball than follow O'Hanlon one step of the
way. His appreciation of suffering borders on the masochistic.
"It's part of a particular brand of Anglicanism," he explains.
"Unless you're suffering, it can't be real."

Traditionally, British travel writers have written about the
peculiarities of peoples who are not British. O'Hanlon
transcends the genre with self-deprecation. "The fear of the
unknown puts you in a childhood position," he says. "You have to
trust your native guides as if they were your parents. Indeed,
they are your parents. They look after you, and you hope they
love you. In fact, you're absolutely desperate for them to love
you."

O'Hanlon, 50, is a large, exuberant and enormously funny man,
curious and observant, with thickets of gray hair, a reckless
optimism and an undepletable fund of anecdotes. "My aim is to
write a structured travel book that's as good as, say, Gogol's
Dead Souls," he says. "That's the nearest thing you could call a
novel that is also a travel book. I try to produce an intimate
portrait of a country with as long a reach as I can."

Raised in a rural vicarage in Wiltshire, O'Hanlon had an
epiphany at age four when a mistle thrush dropped half an empty
spotted shell at his feet. He still keeps the fragment on
display in his fetish room. His father, a onetime missionary in
Abyssinia, kept a vast collection of reference books in his
study. Though the room was off-limits to young Redmond, he would
creep in to sneak peeks at volumes such as The Birds of Tropical
West Africa. At 14, he discovered Charles Darwin and abandoned
his parents' religion.

Armed with a slim volume on birds and a pair of Wellingtons, he
arrived at Oxford University in 1965 with the intention of
studying English literature. But the mildly pornographic novel
he was writing fell into the wrong hands, and O'Hanlon was
kicked out in '67. A year later, married and bent on dedicating
his life to Darwin, he inveigled his way back in. He wrote his
doctoral thesis on Darwin's influence on Joseph Conrad's fiction
and took a post at Oxford teaching English literature.
Unfortunately, O'Hanlon unwittingly covered the wrong century,
so his students learned practically nothing of T.S. Eliot and
D.H. Lawrence, which they needed to pass their exams. "It never
occurred to me that Oxford would enter the 20th century," he
says with a small shrug. Canned, he found work as the natural
history editor of the London Times Literary Supplement. "At TLS,
it didn't matter what century you were dealing with as long as
you dealt with it passionately," he recalls. "My greatest
triumph was publishing a lengthy treatise on the sex life of the
naked mole rat. The rush of pleasure lasted for days."

O'Hanlon is genially digressive both in his conversation and in
his routes through the tropics. His career as a travel writer
began serendipitously in 1983 when the poet James Fenton, his
pal, proposed a snorkeling vacation in Borneo. It didn't work
out that way. Instead, the pair set out after a rare rhinoceros,
paddling up the Baleh River to Mount Batu Tiban, a primary
jungle unexplored by Westerners since 1926. They survived
headhunters, wild boar ticks, pit vipers ("fangs like four-inch
masonry nails") and a dish of spaghetti that turned out to be
parasitic fish worms. The bones of that maiden voyage became
O'Hanlon's mock-heroically titled Into the Heart of Borneo. The
book ends with a visit to the tribal compound of the Ukits, who
call O'Hanlon the Chief of Disco and command him to dance. Tired
but eager to please, he improvises a "seven-step wobble"--and
starts a dance craze in Borneo.

When O'Hanlon later asked Fenton to accompany him to the Amazon,
the poet famously replied, "I would not come with you to High
Wycombe." Undaunted, O'Hanlon enlisted the sensationally
unsuited Simon Stockton, a manager at a London casino. Their
ostensible purpose was to find the Yanomami, the "most violent
people on earth." Yet, as detailed in O'Hanlon's In Trouble
Again, an even greater potential hazard was the candiru, a
toothpick-shaped catfish that follows the scent of urine up a
victim's urethra, where it sticks out its spiny fins. "Nothing
can be done," wrote O'Hanlon, who rigged up an anticandiru
contraption by sewing a tea strainer into the cup of a
jockstrap. "The pain, apparently, is spectacular. You must get
to a hospital before your bladder bursts." The candiru is most
commonly removed by penile amputation.

Stockton abandoned O'Hanlon in midexpedition. "It's nothing but
rain and mosquitoes and the same bloody awful trees and endless
rivers and disgusting food," Stockton wailed. "There's no wine
and no women and no song and nowhere sensible to s---." None of
this seemed to much bother O'Hanlon, who located and befriended
the Yanomami and partook of their hallucinogenic drug yoppo.

For his latest book, No Mercy, O'Hanlon and animal behaviorist
Lary Shaffer tramped though the dense and uncharted swamp forest
in the Republic of the Congo in 1989. Their stated goal was to
observe an iridescent bird (the pennant-winged nightjar)
O'Hanlon had read about in his youth and to seek out a kind of
African Loch Ness monster (Mokele-mbembe) alleged to be living
in remote Lake Tele. Beset by government bureaucrats, sickened
by rancid elephant meat and attacked by armies of driver ants,
Shaffer declines O'Hanlon's invitation to accompany him on the
journey's final leg. Before they part, the emphatically rational
Shaffer writes a note that he asks O'Hanlon to sign: I, Redmond,
declare that I am going to the Lake Tele death trip of my own
free will and hereby forgive Lary his escape.

O'Hanlon slogs on in this modern-day Heart of Darkness, finds
love in the arms of a baby gorilla that defecates on him, and
journeys inward to explore the boundaries between science and
sorcery. Unhinged and slightly dislocated, he comes to rely on a
magic talisman, a lump of string and monkey fur wrapped around
the severed finger of a dead child. O'Hanlon has carried the
pouch around for the last seven years. "I realize this fetish is
on very marshy ground intellectually," he says. "But it doesn't
matter if you believe it or not, it plays straight into the
subconscious." When O'Hanlon briefly lost the totem last year in
a Rotterdam hotel, he broke into a cold sweat.

From his Pelican House perch, O'Hanlon is already planning his
next raid, on the wilds of New Guinea. He hankers to see a tree
kangaroo. "Besides," he says, "New Guinea is where one of the
Rockefellers was eaten." Does he fear becoming an entree? "Over
there, being served by your hosts is a great compliment," he
allows. A puckish smile flickers across his face. "And what
better shortcut to learning than eating a professor?"

PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN O'Hanlon is fond of talismans, like the charred foot of a dead friend he keeps in a Maxwell House can. [Redmond O'Hanlon] PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN O'Hanlon broke into a cold sweat when he lost this fetish.[Redmond O'Hanlon holding string containing monkey fur wrapped around severed finger]

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