- Historic Sites
Damn The Crocodiles—Keep The Cameras Rolling!
Surviving encounters with an awesome variety of enraged wildlife—rhinos, lions, tsetse flies, studio brass—Trader Horn, Hollywood’s first jungle spectacular, became the progenitor of hundreds of white-hunter-meets-white-goddess epics
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
Van Dyke planned to use Murchison Falls, in Uganda, as a base camp for three months. When Ugandan officials, fearing the company’s exposure to the tsetse fly, said they would “not permit one man, woman, child or animal to go up into that district from this colony,” Van Dyke replied that neither the whites nor the natives were from Uganda. And that was that.
Van Dyke later wrote: “You couldn’t suppose that anyone would be damn fool enough to go up into such a place after such a warning, would you? It gave me a pause … yet there were the hippos, there were the crocs, and there were the falls, and in no other place in Africa were there so many … nor such beautiful falls. There was no one to whom I could turn for advice. The responsibility must rest squarely on my shoulders. Maybe it was the heat. I had already had a fairly rotten case of malaria but anyway, perfectly insane, 1 decided to go, explained the circumstances to the people, and they decided to go with me.”
Murchison Falls is located north of Lake Albert, where tlic Victoria Nile plunges down a iso-foot drop. The noise is horrendous, the sight unnerving. “Somehow [it] reminds me of Dante’s Inferno,” wrote Van Dyke. “The chasm and the falls are seething cauldrons in which it is impossible for any fish in the world to live. And that is more or less the secret of the fat crocs. They lie in wait at the foot of the falls and eat the fish that are swept down and killed in the passage.”
Renaldo recounted that for three months they camped on one of the most spectacular sites in the world:
The Nile is one thousand feet wide nt that point and crammed with crocodiles and hippos. There is no kind of creation that isn’t represented in the water, or above the ground. Life is teeming so much that you can actually hear it in the water. If you take a glass of water from the Nile and boil it down, you will have about a quarter of it left as residual animal life of the most fantastic variety imaginable. But in order to live there, everything has to cat something else, and you hear this agony going on night and day.
The crocodiles were immense beasts like prehistoric monsters, twenty feet long, four feet wide at the shoulders. Edwina and I would sit ouLsidc our tents at night and watch a Hotilla of crocodiles sliding up to the bank. All you can see is their eyes, great knobs protruding above the water. At night if there is any light at all, they shine red as the beasts move upstream so smoothly they leave no ripples.
Sometimes the hippos would come snorting and stumbling into our camp and sometimes go lumbering off dragging ropes and tents.
And then there were the bugs. Scorpions got into boots despite all precautions. Flying ants would dive right through mosquito netting. “You couldn’t eat soup,” said Renaldo, “because a thousand insects would commit suicide in your spoon. AVe had insects in our eyebrows and our hair and we found ticks on our bodies for weeks afterwards. This was a terrible time for Edwina with her long hair.”
Van Dyke wrote: “Frequently, in the dead of night, I would hear a wild yell and wake up to sec some member of my company flying out of his camp absolutely nude, slapping and rubbing every part of his anatomy. He had innocently pitched his tent in front of an ant safari, and when these ants take it into their heads to come into your camp, you might just as well move out until the parade is over. No one ever stopped to think of clothing. Jf it were a man’s yell we heard, some of us would sometimes go to his assistance; if it were one of the women who was yelling, we would politely cover our heads and let her take care of herself—oh yeah?”
Van Dyke’s diary shows entries like: “June G. Roberts [a cameraman] suffering terribly from tsetse fly bites. Neck swollen terribly. Miss Booth hit with sun.” One after another the group began to succumb to sunstroke or malaria.
Through all this, liquor was the one sustainer. Renaldo followed the prescription given him by one of the white hunters, Pete Pearson, who had been in Africa for years: three fingers of Scotch—good Scotch —in the morning and three fingers at night. The idea was to keep the blood racing at such a pace that malaria would not have a chance to catch hold. Whatever the medical explanation, Renaldo never got sick.
“The person who suffered the most was Edwina,” he said. “Blondes are particularly vulnerable to the sun. In Edwina it caused a kind of anemia.” She was weak and listless eighty per cent of the time, but she rarely complained. “She had courage,” said Olive, and John McClain agreed: “She had plenty of moxie. She went on with the work.”
One day when they were shooting, the sky began to darken. One of the white hunters cried out: “Locusts!” They came in clouds, in the billions. It was like twilight at midday. The people ran for the tents and closed the flaps. When the swarm had passed, the trees were completely denuded—bare skeletons. The cameras and other equipment were caked with insects.
There was trouble in screening the rushes at night. The light attracted thousands of white flying ants—a great delicacy for the natives. As the ants settled on the screen the natives would fall on them and, despite repeated warnings, tear great holes in the screen.