On Safari in France: Discovering a Slice of Africa along the Languedoc Coast Sends Giles Foden into a Childhood "Retrospect"

By Foden, Giles | New Statesman (1996), December 4, 2006 | Go to article overview

On Safari in France: Discovering a Slice of Africa along the Languedoc Coast Sends Giles Foden into a Childhood "Retrospect"


Foden, Giles, New Statesman (1996)


Whizzing down to the south of France recently, just past the turrets of Carcassonne and the chateaux of Lezignan, I found myself "indulging in a retrospect", as Henry James once put it. The occasion was the Reserve Africaine de Sigean, a magnificent safari park unaccountably situated between the vineyards of the Languedoc and the marshy beach land of the coast. We'd passed it many times before, but this year, with a nipper to entertain, we turned in and paid at the gates.

For me, they were the gates of memory, as it is not so unbelievable that some entrepreneur would put a game park here. Left to itself, the land around Sigean turns into something very like the rough scrubland and thorny savannah that I grew up on in Malawi and Uganda. It was a clever idea, too, to use the marecage, or marshland, as a border for the reserve, filling its lagoon with flamingos and crocodiles.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The inhabitants of the park seem happy, and fine specimens they are, too. A pride of lions lie on a hill in the tawny sun. A vast bull elephant sleeps standing up in his enclosure; with his front legs crossed, one over the other, and his ears flapping down, he looks like an old gentleman dozing over the paper. A baby zebra, its stripes still more brown than black, follows its mother to a waterhole, stripe upon stripe converging to a vanishing point. There is even a pair of white rhinos, which is something one would hardly ever see in Africa these days, as they have been hunted to near extinction.

But then comes a still greater surprise--a sign for boeufs watussis, as the French have it. Here are "Watusi cattle", the reference being to the Tutsi tribal grouping which, though most commonly associated with Rwanda, actually spans a vast area along the Uganda-Congo border. The cattle are also known as Ankole, after the Ugandan district around the town of Mbarara. My family used to live there. To see these magnificent, chestnut-pelted animals--with their long, thick, lyre-shaped horns--flung me back into a lost stream of life as surely as the bull would fling the toreador at that night's games in Narbonne.

The origins and genetic make-up of Ankole cattle are mysterious, some believing they were brought by nomads from ancient Egypt hundreds of centuries ago. They are to be distinguished from the various strains of East African shorthorn zebu, the ones with the humped backs, though they, too, can survive harsh conditions and go without water for long periods. The wide horn span (sometimes as much as six feet) is partly to radiate accumulated body heat.

I used to drive with my father down to the Rwandan border, where there was a grain store he had to check (he was an agricultural economist). On the way, we'd often have to part a large herd of Ankole with the Land-Rover; back home that evening, drinking beer on the veranda, we'd watch the same road as it cut through the green of the Bacwezi valley below us. Sometimes convoys of French lorries would pass, taking arms to the Hutus--dividing on the way those same longhorn cattle, associated with their ethnic enemies, that we had split that morning. …

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