Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

The Snake Park
(This is one of a series of articles I wrote dealing with memories of an African childhood. To read the first of these, click here)
Many long years ago, when I was busy growing up in Harare, Zimbabwe, there was a place known as the Snake Park that everyone would visit occasionally, to while away their leisure time. It was about fifteen miles from the city and a pleasant ride through rolling hills and farmland to get there. To be honest, it was a rather seedy, run-down place, but it was one of the few entertainments of those days.

Contrary to its name, it was not a park but a building. At the entrance was a cage with a baboon inside. He must have led a fairly miserable existence, being unable to escape the ogling visitors who passed his cage but he had developed a very effective technique for fending them off. Pretending no interest in any gathering crowd, he would sit there, perhaps chewing on a piece of sugar cane or merely gazing off into the distance. When a suitably large number of onlookers had assembled, he would get up, apparently completely unconcerned, and then suddenly turn around and push his rear end right into the faces of the adoring multitudes.

A baboon's bottom is not the prettiest sight in the world. With cries of disgust, the crowd would fall back and melt away. Our baboon friend, having established his privacy once again, would return to whatever pursuits with which he chose to pass the empty hours.

Inside the building there were the usual rows of glass display cases containing representatives of all the snakes of Zimbabwe, as well as a few from other places. The only one that I can remember is the spitting cobra, for he had attempted so often to avenge his imprisonment on his captors that the glass was obscured and milky with the poison he had hurled at them.

But the spitting cobra was not the highlight of our visits. That was reserved for the crocodile.

There were three or four crocs kept in a sunken area with concrete walls. It contained a small pool with a sandy beach and a few reeds to make it seem a little more realistic. One of the crocs was the largest that I have ever seen, so much so that he dwarfed his companions. He was a monster and children would delight at his fearsomeness while they remained safe.

The old croc had developed his own survival tactics in common with the baboon at the entrance. He knew from experience that he could never hope to scale the walls to vent his rage on the crowd. But he had a secret weapon and had learned how to use it. Just occasionally, when the buzz of onlookers became too much, he would heave his great bulk to the wall, stand up as far as he could go and open his mouth wide.

The inside of a croc's mouth is quite interesting. It is not pink as is ours but a vivid yellow color. The rows of teeth, too, are quite impressive but it was not this that caused the crowd to fall back in horror. It was the smell of his breath. He had the most fetid and disgusting breath imaginable. It would smack his admirers in their faces, causing them to gag and turn away, revolted.

I often wondered whether he was aware that it was not his ferocious appearance that scared people but his oral hygiene. His friends were far too small to have broached such a delicate subject with him. Whatever his thoughts on the matter, however, he knew for certain that the technique worked.

This was the Snake Park as I remember it from my childhood. In later years, they extended it to include a large area for birds. I visited it only once, as a teenager, for reasons that will become apparent.

The bird area was outside the main building and consisted of a collection of outdoor cages and huts connected by pathways. We wandered these paths, looking at the various occupants until we arrived at the largest construction, the parrot house. This was a rectangular building with the entrance at one of the two short sides. Inside, there were rows of cages down both of the longer walls of the rectangle.

Like all parrot houses, it was fairly noisy in there. All of the parrots were cackling and calling at each other in typically parrot fashion, having a raucous parrot get-together, in fact. We wandered down one row of cages, being greeted by the occupants with more catcalls and jeering. They were a lively bunch, I do admit.

At the far end of the row, just as we turned the corner to return along the opposite wall, we came to the macaws. They were blue macaws, huge birds, much more impressive in both color and size than anything we had seen so far. And they were silent.

In all that cacophony of sound it was only these, the mightiest of all parrots, that had nothing to say. They seemed a little depressed at the state of the world, as if the mindless chatter of the other birds was far beneath them. I decided to cheer them up.

Now, in those days, I fancied myself a pretty good imitator of animal calls. I had never heard the call of a macaw but I reasoned it could not be much different from that of the other parrots. They might be a bit louder, I thought, when one considered their size. So I spoke to them. In a fairly loud voice, I said, "Rawwwwk!" to them.

To this day, I do not know what that means in macaw language but I do know that it means something, for they all took notice immediately. By the nature of their response, I must either have insulted them or told a joke that was hilarious to any self-respecting macaw. They replied in kind.

I realized immediately that I had seriously underestimated the volume of sound that a macaw can achieve. A macaw can be, if he wishes, the equivalent of a foghorn going off within a few paces. They were deafening. I had started a chorus of "Rawwwwk!" that filled the available space and threatened to blow the roof off the building. The other parrots went silent in awe.

The wall of sound issuing from the macaws was so loud that we fell back instinctively. Then it occurred to us that we would be identified easily as the instigators of the commotion, being the only human occupants of the building at the time. We ran for the exit, remembering to slow our pace and to saunter outside as if the racket issuing from the building had nothing to do with us. All the way back to the gate the noise followed us. At any moment we expected to hear shouts and the sounds of pursuit as the attendants realized who was responsible for setting off those macaws. Even as we piled into the car, we could still hear them shouting their defiance at the world.

I never returned. The powers that be must have deduced the culprits by now and be waiting, even as I write, to pounce upon me with writs and charges of disturbing the parrot peace. Such is my guilt.

(to read the next of the African Memories articles, click here)


All this and he speaks Macaw too. Is there no end to the talent? Loved the croc with the bad breath (I wonder if there are crocs with good breath). I remember a trip to an animal park when I was in grade school and the baboon there behaved very much the same way. Must be a secret baboon technique. Don't we all have these little incidents from our younger days, and fears we may still be found out? A nice little slice of life. Very satisfying and goes well with a cup of coffee.
Date Added: 12/02/2005

Gone Away
Thank you Ned. As to crocs with bad breath, it's not surprising when one remembers that they eat meat and nothing else. They're not too fussy about cleaning those teeth as well, although there is a bird that wanders around in their mouths, picking off tasty tidbits from their teeth when they lie, gasping in the sun on a sandbank...

I'm sure we all have memories like these lurking in our brains somewhere. The trick is in excavating them first, before anyone else thinks of it. Just ask Way... ;)
Date Added: 12/02/2005

Harvey Young
Reminds me of the Philadelphia Zoo. Never could get close enough to the crocs to smell their breath. Sounds like I can now spare myself the experience.

Our zoo had a monkey house. This room too had primarily glass walls. Our inhabits did not simply show their rear end to the guest. Rather, they would remove the contents of said rear and hurl them at the glass. Even now I remember having an appreciation of the glass walls and the saving barrier that provided for keeping those school trip outfits nice and clean.

You are a man of so many talents. Your recollection of these long ago events makes me want to parrot you.
Date Added: 12/02/2005

Gone Away
LOL Harvey. Squark!
Date Added: 12/02/2005

Reminds me of that Far Side cartoon -- the one with the Crocodile in the psychiatrist's chair:

"I gotta come clean, doc -- the guilt is killin' me. You know those little birds that walk around inside a crocodiles mouth, so trustingly? Well, I been eatin' those things like popcorn."
Date Added: 12/02/2005

I am first struck by identifying strongly with both Mr. Baboon and Mr. Croc. I am flattered that both ends of me so match your clearest of descriptions of these two fellows, and on most any given day of the week.

Then, and not one to ever mix my metaphors (or even once to fall into disagreement with my wiser spouse), I view the parrots and macaws and the small observant boys, and I believe that I see some other sight hiding among the dense foliage.

Is it the light playing tricks on my eyes? Did something move there, and jiggle the leaves? I keep staring into the greenery.

Staring can actually cause this to happen, I know, but the apparition seems plain to my active imagination.

I behold a vision of an even larger bird, biding his time there, patiently listening to parrots squawk. Then the macaws add their two cents-worth, egged on by other forces, in a serious attempt to teach the gaudier galahs and head-bobbing cockatoo-ish sorts "how it's properly done". The colorful mob, hushed and subdued now, are not even really paying attention. They merely sit and look on with vacant stares of their own.

I then further dream that this silent bird, when he does choose to call out, can say things that would silence even the raucous macaws, for he is wise, this huge specimen. And his presence, one can tell, is not a bit gone away.

Days like these, I so wish I had my camera.
Date Added: 12/02/2005

Gone Away
LOL Josh, good one. I love the Far Side.
Date Added: 12/02/2005

Gone Away
He's a funny old bird, that Gone Away... ;)
Date Added: 12/02/2005

And don't get me started on the Far Side, Josh. :))
Date Added: 12/02/2005

Eh. Blame Josh for this next item; he needs some attention, and besides, I have nothing better to do than pick my teeth.

Two bears stand at the edge of a nudist colony. One looks to the other and intones,

"Suddenly, I lost my appetite."

There. I feel better now.
Date Added: 12/02/2005

Gone Away
LOL Way.
Date Added: 12/02/2005

Harvey Young
LOL2 Way.
Date Added: 12/02/2005

Medical, perhaps.

Otherwise I am content with flying under the cone.
Date Added: 13/02/2005

Gone Away
Josh has been a faithful commenter in these pages almost from the day Mad introduced the comments system. We have all watched in amusement when he and Mad have a little web developers' competition, too. Has anyone been to have a look at Josh's blog? If you haven't, I thoroughly recommend it as it is an excellent example of good website design. Josh writes a lot of technical stuff but he has the gift of making it understandable (in the main) to the layman.

Try it, you won't regret it. :)
Date Added: 13/02/2005

Well, as an owl, who fiercely protests the encagement of any birdkind, I must admit I was hoping you'd set the poor macaws free. (br /)Seriously, I love the story. The one-room zoo, the bored occupants, the children who gaze in awe at these most mistreated of creatures.(br /)True enough, modern zoos are much better places for their occupants, but no matter how pretty, a cage is still a cage.
Date Added: 14/02/2005

Gone Away
Couldn't agree more Hannah although, in the case of some endangered species, zoos are their only hope of survival.
Date Added: 14/02/2005

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