CHAPTER XXXIV. THE GIBBONS OF HO-MU-SHU

It is a long hard climb out of the Salween valley. We left on March 24 and all day crawled up the steep sides on a trail which doubled back and forth upon itself like an endless letter S. From our camp at night the river was just visible as a thin green line several thousand feet below, and for the first time in days, we needed a charcoal fire in our tents.

We were en route to Lung-ling, a town of considerable size, where there was a possibility that mail might be awaiting us in care of the mandarin. Although ordinarily a three days' journey, it was more than four days before we arrived, because I had a sharp attack of malaria shortly after leaving the Salween River and we had to travel half stages.

When we were well out of the valley and at an altitude of 5,000 feet, we arrived at a Chinese town. Its dark evil-smelling houses, jammed together in a crowded mass, and the filthy streets swarming with ragged children and foot-bound women, were in unpleasant contrast to the charming little Shan villages which we had seen in the low country. The inhabitants themselves appeared to no better advantage when compared with their Shan neighbors, for their stares and insolent curiosity were almost unbearable.

The region between the Salween River at Changlung and Lung-ling is as uninteresting to the zooelogist as it could possibly be, for the hills are dry and bare and devoid of animal life. Lung-ling is a typical Chinese town except that the streets are wide and it is not as dirty as usual. The mandarin was a jolly rotund little fellow who simulated great sympathy when he informed me that he had received no mail for us. We had left directions to have a runner follow us from Yung-chang and in the event that he did not find our camp to proceed to Lung-ling with the mail. We learned some weeks later that the runner had been frightened by brigands and had turned back long before he reached Meng-ting.

We had heard from our mafus and other natives that black monkeys were to be found on a mountain pass not far from the village of Ho-mu-shu, on the main Yung-chang-Teng-yueh road and, as we were certain that they would prove to be gibbons, we decided to make that our next hunting camp. It was three stages from Lung-ling and, toward evening of the second day, we again descended to the Salween River.

The valley at this point is several miles wide and is so dry that the few shrubs and bushes seem to be parched and barely able to live. At the upper end a picturesque village is set among extensive rice fields. Although a few Chinese live there, its inhabitants are chiefly Shans who are in a transitory state and are gradually adopting Chinese customs. The houses are joined to each other in the Chinese way and are built of mud, thatched with straw. In shape as well as in composition they are quite unlike the dwellings of the southern Shans. The women wore cylindrical turbans, about eighteen inches high, which at a distance looked like silk hats, and the men were dressed in narrow trousers and jackets of Chinese blue. I believe that some of the Shan women also had bound feet but of this I cannot be certain.

We camped on a little knoll under an enormous tree at the far end of the village street, and a short time after the tents were up we had a visit from the Shan magistrate. He was a dapper energetic little fellow wearing foreign dress and quite au courant with foreign ways. He even owned a breech-loading shotgun, and, before we left, sent to ask for shells. He presented us with the usual chickens and I returned several tins of cigarettes. He appeared to be quite a sportsman and directed us to a place on the mountain above the village where he said monkeys were abundant.

We left early in the morning with a guide and, after a hard climb, arrived at a little village near the forest to which the magistrate had directed us. Not only did the natives assure us that they had never seen monkeys but we discovered for ourselves that the only water was more than a mile away, and that camping there was out of the question.

The next day, April 1, we went on to Ho-mu-shu. It is a tiny village built into the mountain-side with hardly fifty yards of level ground about it, but commanding a magnificent view over the Salween valley. Although we reached there at half past two in the afternoon the mafus insisted on camping because they swore that there was no water within fifty li up the mountain. Very unwillingly I consented to camp and the next morning found, as usual, that the mafus had lied for there was a splendid camping place with good water not two hours from Ho-mu-shu. It was useless to rage for the Chinese have no scruples about honesty in such small matters, and the head mafu blandly admitted that he knew there was a camping place farther on but that he was tired and wanted to stop early.

As we gained the summit of the ridge we were greeted with a ringing "hu-wa," "hu-wa," "hu-wa," from the forest five hundred feet below us; they were the calls of gibbons, without a doubt, but strikingly unlike those of the Nam-ting River. We decided to camp at once and, after considerable prospecting, chose a flat place beside the road. It was by no means ideal but had the advantage of giving us an opportunity to hunt from either side of the ridge which for its entire length was scarcely two hundred feet in width. The sides fell away for thousands of feet in steep forest-clad slopes and, as far as our eyes could reach, wave after wave of mountains rolled outward in a great sea of green.

Our camp would have been delightful except for the wind which swept across the pass night and day in an unceasing gale. My wife and I set a line of traps along a trail which led down the north side of the ridge, while Heller chose the opposite slope. We were entranced with the forest. The trees were immense spreading giants with interlaced branches that formed a solid roof of green 150 feet above the soft moss carpet underneath. Every trunk was clothed in a smothering mass of vines and ferns and parasitic plants and, from the lower branches, thousands of ropelike creepers swayed back and forth with every breath of wind. Below, the forest was fairly open save for occasional patches of dwarf bamboo, but the upper canopy was so close and dense that even at noon there was hardly more than a somber twilight beneath the trees.

Our first night on the pass was spent in a terrific gale which howled up the valley from the south and swept across the ridge in a torrent of wind. The huge trees around us bent and tossed, and our tents seemed about to be torn to shreds. Amid the crashing of branches and the roar of the wind it was impossible to hear each other speak and sleep was out of the question. We lay in our bags expecting every second to have the covering torn from above our heads, but the tough cloth held, and at midnight the gale began to lull. In the morning the sun was out in a cloudless sky but the wind never ceased entirely on the pass even though there was a breathless calm among the trees a few hundred feet below.

My wife and I had just returned from inspecting our line of traps about nine o'clock in the morning when the forest suddenly resounded with the "hu-wa," "hu-wa," "hu-wa" of the gibbons. It seemed a long way off at first, but sounded louder and clearer every minute. At the first note we seized our guns and dashed down the mountain-side, slipping, stumbling, and falling. The animals were in the giant forest about five hundred feet below the summit of the ridge and as we neared them we moved cautiously from tree to tree, going forward only when they called. It was one of the most exciting stalks I have ever made, for the wild, ringing howls seemed always close above our heads.

We were still a hundred yards away when a huge black monkey leaped out of a tree top just as I stepped from behind a bush, and he saw me instantly. For a full half minute he hung suspended by one arm, his round head thrust forward staring intently; then launching himself into the air as though shot from a catapult he caught a branch twenty feet away, swung to another, and literally flew through the tree tops. Without a sound save the swish of the branches and splash after splash in the leaves, the entire herd followed him down the hill. It was out of range for the shotgun and my wife was ten feet behind me with the rifle, but had I had it in my hand I doubt if I could have hit one of those flying balls of fur.

We returned to camp with sorrow in our hearts, but two days later we redeemed ourselves and brought in the first new gibbons. We were sitting on a bed of fragrant pine needles watching for a squirrel which had been chattering in the upper branches of a giant tree, when suddenly the wild call of the monkeys echoed up the mountain-side.

They were far away to the left, and we ran toward them, stumbling and slipping on the moss-covered rocks and logs, the "hu-wa," "hu-wa," "hu-wa" sounding louder every moment. They seemed almost under us at times and we would stand motionless and silent only to hear the howls die away in the distance. At last we located them on the precipitous side of a deep gorge filled with an impenetrable jungle of palms and thorny plants. It was an impossible place to cross, and we sat down, irresolute and discouraged. In a few moments a chorus of howls broke out and we saw the big black apes swinging along through the trees, two hundred yards away. Finally they stopped and began to feed. They were small marks at that distance but I rested my little Mannlicher on a stump and began to shoot while Yvette watched them with the glasses. One big fellow swung out on a branch and hung with one arm while he picked a cluster of leaves with the other. Yvette saw my first shot cut a twig above his head but he did not move, and at the roar of the second he dropped heavily into the vines below. A brown female ran along the branch a few seconds later and peered down into the jungle where the first monkey had fallen. I covered her carefully with the ivory head of the front sight, pulled the trigger, and she pitched headlong off the tree.

For a few seconds there was silence, then a splash of leaves and three huge black males leaped into full view from the summit of a tall tree. They were silhouetted against a patch of sky and I fired twice in quick succession registering two clean misses. The bullets must have whizzed too close for comfort and they faded instantly into the forest like three black shadows.

For ten minutes we strained our eyes into the dense foliage hoping to catch a glimpse of a swaying branch. Suddenly Yvette heard a rustling in the low tree beneath which we were sitting and seized me violently by the arm, screaming excitedly, "There's one, right above us. Quick, quick, he's going!"

I looked up and could hardly believe my eyes for not twenty feet away hung a huge brown monkey half the size of a man. Almost in a daze I fired with the shotgun. The gibbon stopped, slowly pivoted on one long arm and a pair of eyes blazing like living coals, stared into mine. I fired again point blank as the huge mouth, baring four ugly fangs, opened and emitted a bloodcurdling howl. The monkey slowly swung back again, its arm relaxed and the animal fell at my feet, stone dead.

It was a magnificent old female. By a lucky chance we had chosen, from all the trees in the forest, to sit under the very one in which the gibbon had been hiding and she had tried to steal away unnoticed.

While my wife waited to direct me from the rim of the gorge, I climbed down into the jungle to try and make my way up the opposite side where the other monkeys had fallen. It was dangerous work, for the rocks were covered with a thin layer of earth which supported a dense growth of vegetation. If I tried to let myself down a steep slope by clinging to a thick fern it would almost invariably strip away with a long layer of dirt and send me headlong.

After two bad falls I reached the bottom of the ravine where a mountain torrent leaped and foamed over the rocks and dropped in a beautiful cascade to a pool fifty or sixty feet below. The climb up the opposite side was more difficult than the descent and twice I had to return after finding the way impassable.

A sheer, clean wall almost seventy feet high separated me from the spot where the gibbons had fallen. I skirted the rock face and had laboriously worked my way around and above it when a vine to which I had been clinging stripped off and I began to slide. Faster and faster I went, dragging a mass of ferns and creepers with me, for everything I grasped gave way.

I thought it was the end of things for me because I was hardly ten feet above the precipice which fell away to the jagged rocks of the stream bed in a drop of seventy feet. The rifle slung to my back saved my life. Suddenly it caught on a tiny ragged ledge and held me flattened out against the cliff. But even then I was far from safe, as I realized when I tried to twist about to reach a rope of creepers which swung outward from a bush above my head.

How I managed to crawl back to safety among the trees I can remember only vaguely. I finally got down to the bottom of the canon, but felt weak and sick and it was half an hour before I could climb up to the place where my wife was waiting. She was already badly frightened for she had not seen me since I left her an hour before and, when I answered her call, she was about to follow into the jungle where I had disappeared. We left the two monkeys to be recovered from above and went slowly back to camp.

The gibbons of Ho-mu-shu are quite unlike those of the Nam-ting River. They represent a well-known species called the "hoolock" ( Hylobates hoolock) which is also found in Burma.

The males, both old and young, are coal black with a fringe of white hairs about the face, and the females are light brown. Their note is totally unlike the Nam-ting River gibbons and, instead of sitting quietly in the top of a dead tree to call to their neighbors across the jungle for an hour or two, the hoolocks howl for about twenty minutes as they swing through the branches and are silent during the remainder of the day. They called most frequently on bright mornings and we seldom heard them during cloudy weather.

Apparently they had regular feeding grounds, which were visited every day, but the herds seemed to cover a great deal of territory. Like the gibbons of the Nam-ting River, the hoolocks traveled through the tree tops at almost unbelievable speed, and one of the most amazing things which I have ever witnessed was the way in which they could throw themselves from one tree to another with unerring precision.

On April 5, we received the first mail in nearly three months and our share amounted to 105 letters besides a great quantity of magazines. Wu had ridden to Teng-yueh for us and, as well as the greatly desired mail, had a basket of delicious vegetables and a sheaf of Reuter's cablegrams which were kindly sent by Messrs. Palmer and Abertsen, gentlemen in the employ of the Chinese Customs, who had cared for our mail. Mr. Abertsen also sent a note telling us of a good hunting ground near Teng-yueh.

We spent an entire afternoon and evening over our letters and papers and, through them, began to get in touch with the world again. It is strange how little one misses the morning newspaper once one is beyond its reach and has properly adjusted one's mental perspective. And it is just as strange how essential it all seems immediately one is again within reach of such adjuncts of civilization.

On April 6, we had the first rain for weeks. The water fell in torrents, and the roar, as it drummed upon the tent, was so incessant that we could barely hear each other shout. Because of the long dry spell our camp had not been made with reference to weather and during the night I waked to find that we were in the middle of a pond with fifteen inches of water in the tent. Shoes, clothes, guns, and cameras were soaked, and the surface of the water was only an inch below the bottoms of our cots. This was the beginning of a ten days' rain after which we had six weeks of as delightful weather as one could wish.