In 1954 Donald Macintosh joined the Nigerian Forestry Service. During the next
30 years, his various activities as a surveyor, tree-prospector and forest botanist
took him through some of the most remote areas of West Africa. Many of the
chapters in the book provide glimpses of the exceptional hardships he endured -
though in describing his work and day-to-day life he makes light of them.
A day or two after his arrival at Lagos, he was jolting his way along the laterite
road to the north of the city, heading for "West Africa's fabled rainforests". He was
filled with excitement and expectancy. He had an "inexplicable feeling of
contentment, of serenity, a feeling almost of destiny fulfilled already". He felt no
sadness at having left home and family behind him. Instead he experienced a
tremendous elation and a strange feeling that "home was where I was going right
Macintosh gives a vivid picture of the life which awaited him. Being a forester,
he records a wealth of information about the trees amongst which he lived, worked and travelled; the gigantic Okan, hardest of all African timbers; the squat Bombax
with its scarlet tulip-ike blossoms; colossal Mahoganies, eight feet in diameter;
Azobes, towering skywards; the mighty Obeche; the Coula, whose hard-shelled nuts
were greatly valued by village women; the Sasswood, which could rise to a height
of 150 feet and was renowned for the use of its poison in so-called trials by ordeal;
and many others.
The nature of his work imposed extremely hard living conditions, which he
accepted with equanimity. "Day after awful day", he writes, "we slithered and
stumbled, often armpit deep, through malodorous swamp, being attacked without
cessation by clouds of blood-sucking flies. Occasionally a startled cobra would
veer sharply on meeting us ... Once, a huge python watched us from a low fork in a
bushy mangrove..." Night-time provided little or no relief. "As sunset approached
we would dump our gear on some islet rising marginally out of the endless ooze and
try to clean the mud from our aching bodies before settling down to a meal of
hornbill or monkey.... Arboreal ants fell upon us from every leaf, twig or shrub we
touched and the formic acid from their vicious stings inducing (sic) a lingering,
unpleasant nausea within us. The onset of night was the cue for squadrons of
voracious mosquitoes to batten on our blood until daylight, making sleep all but
Conditions were made even worse by relentless rain for half the year. It was so
heavy that, in the gloom of the great trees, it was "often impossible to see more than
10 yards ahead". However, the author's sense of humour seems never to have
deserted him, and he likened this continuous downpour to "an emptying of the
heavenly bladders on a grand scale, a deluge of truly Noachic proportions".
Throughout the book there are descriptions of a huge variety of wildlife ranging
from elephants to squirrels, eagles to weaver birds, and clouds of butterflies to
armies of driver ants. Snakes were a constant hazard, and he describes graphically
an encounter with an enraged cobra on which he had inadvertently trodden.
In the course of the book, we also come across a varied assortment of interesting
and entertaining human beings, including: Obi, the Leopard Man; the dancing R.C.
Father; Old Man Africa, who taught Macintosh - amongst other things - how to
prepare snacks of fat, white, goliath beetle caterpillars fried in rich, red palm-oil;
Osei, the Carpenter, and his mad wife; Magic Sperm, who by his 15th birthday had
impregnated more maidens than the King of Benin had achieved during a lifetime;
the son of a British peer, who had come to grief in an open sewer outside a lowly
brothel; the newly married Forestry Officer who received a surprise Christmas
present from the Harlots of Mundoni; Famous Sixpence; and Pisspot.
One's enjoyment of this excellent book lasts from the first to the final page. It
evokes - almost poignantly - for those of us have lived on the Coast and worked in
the bush, memories of past days ... and nights; "A huge African moon was edging
its way up behind the two cotton trees, bathing the compound in silvery light and
velvet shadow. Beyond the trees and down in the village a lone drummer began to
beat a vigorous tattoo. A second drummer picked up the beat, hesitantly at first,
then faster and more confidently, until the two merged as one in the ancient rhythm.
They were warming up for the dance that was being held this night in the village..."