Zoo Quest For A Dragon by David Attenborough

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Growing up, I loved Willard Price’s ‘Adventure’ series (Safari Adventure, South Sea AdventureUnderwater Adventure, etc.) about the schoolboy zoologists Hal and Roger Hunt, who travel the world with minimal parental involvement, zero interest from social services and no health and safety assessment, capturing animals and generally being intrepid. David Attenborough’s real-life version, 1957’s Zoo Quest For A Dragon, doesn’t really suffer for excitement by comparison. Much is rightly made of Attenborough’s ability to communicate on camera. But he is terrific on the page too: for instance, when he is describing ants – not a subject in which I have even a passing interest – it is fascinating. The ants, you see, are trying to expand their territory by building a new nest using larvae as glue. No, honestly, it’s amazing. Attenborough reacts with incredulity to being accused of spying in Indonesia (‘absurd,’ he splutters) – but decades later, recounting the trip in his autobiography Life On Air, he understands how this might have come about: he has by then discovered that one of the men who helped him sort out the jaunt had indeed been working for British Intelligence. However the Zoo Quest trip is, in many ways, shambolic: virtually nothing has been arranged in advance (‘I confess I rather wished we had,’ Attenborough admits winningly). But the romance of it all is entrancing. When he describes being pickpocketed on board a cargo ship, or peering into smoking volcanoes, all while dreaming of seeing dragons, it is pure Jules Verne. Approaching Komodo (at least they think it’s Komodo, they don’t really have a proper map) they are caught in eddies, whirlpools and vicious reefs which could sink their tiny fishing boat in an instant. They also realise that the captain is not really a fisherman but a gun-runner, who then tries to persuade men from an island tribe to help him overpower them and steal their money and equipment. In your face, Willard Price! Attenborough actually lived this stuff – and to think he could do it all while still being paid a BBC salary! It would be incredible were it not for the fact that, since Sir David has written it, you know it must be true.

 

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