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THE BIG TREE

The last episode, taken from The Wizard June 1st 1974

I hurried to the top of the tunnel and found Greg Walton, Dick Sullivan and Jock Leven anxiously awaiting me. Directly they saw that I had no torch in my hand their expressions revealed their horror.

My name is Sam Walker and I’m a photographer. At that time I was part of an expedition into the heart of Kenya, in search of a legendary Big Tree. The other white men in the party were Gregory Walton, the leader; District Officer Reg Hunt; Dick Sullivan, surveyor; Jock Leven, Walton’s assistant; and Archie Cunliffe, a big game hunter. To help us with our equipment we had forty Swahili porters. After weeks of trekking through the jungle we found the Big Tree. In all, it stood three thousand feet high, the first thousand feet being bare of branches. We believed that some radio-active quality in the soil had caused its freak growth and we planned to find out as much about the tree as possible. It was while we were exploring the tree that the Tree-men, strange natives who had made the tree their home, had captured us. Now, after escaping to the dangerous higher part of the tree, one of our party, Reg Hunt, had been killed when we were attacked by giant bats. However, we were not without hope for, after drawing lots Archie Cunliffe had made a daring descent by a make-shift parachute. He had signalled by rifle shots that he had reached the ground and our native followers safely. Now, we hoped he was preparing to rescue us. We had been descending the tree when the Tree-men spotted us. We had backed into a hollow in the trunk and defended ourselves with flaming brands. These were burning low, and the Tree-men were gaining courage, when I discovered a tunnel at the back of the cave. While exploring this, I met one of the Tree-men and, in the ensuing battle, although I knocked him out, our last torch was extinguished. “What happened to the torch?” gasped Gregory Walton. “Trouble down there,” I muttered, pointing behind me. “A Tree-man was creeping up on us from behind, and he tried to spear me. But there must be a way through, and if we hurry, we may get away before they tumble to what we’re going to do.” The Tree-men were still throwing their stone-headed spears at our refuge, and some of them were dangerously close. “All right, Sam!” said Walton, our leader. “We’ll try it. Lead the way!” I entered the narrow gap and, as the others followed, I warned them that it was necessary to go sideways in some places and to keep their heads down. Groping our way through pitch darkness, we entered the heart of the Big Tree, and in time came to the motionless figure of my recent attacker. I was glad to discover he had not stirred yet. More than once I slipped, and sustained painful bruises as we went farther on. The others kept close behind me, and we wondered if the Tree-men had discovered our disappearance yet. For all we knew we might be penned in this tunnel between two parties of them. Then I saw daylight, a narrow slit of light, and felt more confident. Hissing to the others to remain silent, I crept forward. At the end of the tunnel, there was a slight rise, and I lay down to peer through a gap about four feet by eighteen inches. It was just as well I took precautions. Right outside, lashed to the branch, was one of the Tree-men dwellings, with the family at the door. I crawled back and told the others. As far as I could see the way was clear but for this family group. We appeared to be in the middle of the occupied part of the Big Tree. Nothing could have been worse. It was true that most of the men were up above, but could we rely on making a dash through this village? “Right!” I murmured, and suddenly dived through the opening, the others scrambled after me. Shouts arose on all sides. None of the Tree-men could shout very loud, and much of their yelling was like the twittering of the birds, but to make up for this their ears were unusually sensitive, and they seemed to have no difficulty in hearing each other. The crackling of twigs and the disturbance of leaves told that swarms of them were coming down from above. We raced along the branch, suddenly, Greg noticed something I had missed. “There’s a ladder here,” he yelled. The ladder sagged across to a branch at an angle, nearly a hundred feet away, but not much farther down the tree. It was more of a bridge than a ladder and it swayed to and fro under the weight of the others. I did not like entrusting myself to it. But there was nothing else to be done. Very soon we were clinging on grimly as our movements made the bridge-ladder dance and swing.

HUMAN BRIDGE.

We were about halfway down when Walton yelled—“Hold on tightly!” I did so, and the next moment the upper end of the ladder became detached from the branch we had recently left, and the ladder whirled downwards. The Tree-men had cut the ladder above us.

There came a jerk that all but tore us from our hold, and then we found ourselves swinging upside down from the lower branch, swinging on only a few feet of ladder. We managed to right ourselves, but the ladder was swinging so violently that we could not climb it. Then I noticed that the lower end now swung very close to yet another branch, which seemed to be unoccupied. “Let’s get down to the bottom of the ladder and make it swing us across!” I shouted. I reached one of the bottom rungs. The others were not far above me, and we began to work ourselves to and fro, like children on a swing. I reached out with one hand to try to grasp some of the twigs which grew from the side of the bough we wanted to gain. Our chief fear was that more Tree-men would appear there before us. We could hear them scrambling down alternative ladders. At last I got hold and held on, hooking both feet over a rung of the ladder. It was a precarious link. “Use me as a bridge to get across!” I panted. It was not a thing they ventured at ordinary times, but the situation was desperate and one by one my companions climbed across me. Somehow I hung on, but my arms were nearly at breaking point by the time Walton had crossed. Then they heaved me up to the branch as well. Jock Leven was in the lead now, and a moment later he shouted out that he had found a slender ladder going in the right direction. We raced to the spot. By this time we were experts on ladders, and shot to the bottom without making use of the cross rungs. Hardly had we landed when Leven let out a stifled cry. Sitting on the same branch, between ourselves and the hole in the tree, was one of the giant rats which we had encountered on our way up. At that moment it was faced about to watch the oncoming Tree-men. Its long tapering-tail was lashing to and fro. “Let’s get out of here—down some other ladder!” hissed Walton. But when we came to seek such a thing we found there was none. The only way down from this branch was to get to the tree trunk and make use of that for further descent. We were trapped between the rat and the Tree-men. If we had possessed one revolver among us things would have been different, but we had not seen our firearms since they had been first taken away from us when we were captives of the Tree-men. Against the rat we were helpless, except for our sticks. So far it did not know we were there. The Tree-men had seen it, and had stopped climbing down. They clung to the trunk and pointed the rat out to one another.

For the moment the Tree-men could not reach us, but our position was far from comfortable, for we were only protected by the rat, and it might at any moment, scent us out and turn on us. We had never been in a worse plight since we had climbed the Big Tree.

FLYING DRAGON.

Once again our hopes were centred on our comrade, Archie Cunliffe, below. Archie had been chosen to make a do-or-die attempt to escape with a home-made parachute, and he was trying to help us that morning.

Archie had tried to communicate with us earlier that morning but we had been unable to reply. Now we were worried about what he would think of this. Would he believe it too late to make a rescue attempt? Would he be unable to do any thing without our co-operation? There was a good deal of noise at the other end of the branch, though we could not see what was going on. The Tree-man were evidently throwing spears at the rat, and we hoped they wouldn’t succeed in dislodging it. Suddenly a new sound struck upon our ears, a shrill, high-pitched whistling. It seemed to come from well above the ground, but not from the Big Tree. We turned our heads the other way, and looked intently around us. All we saw was a gigantic but vague shape swooping slowly to and fro about a thousand feet below us. It seemed to be rising, but not very quickly, and the arc of its movement was only a few hundred feet. The shrill whistling was incessant. It was a little louder when the mystery thing swooped, but it never stopped altogether. Then the sun shone through the clouds and revealed another detail. The swooping object had a hideous face, with great staring eyes with a vivid red mouth. “Are we seeing things?” muttered Dick Sullivan. “It’s a flying dragon!” I laughed. “It is a flying-dragon cloth and bamboo! It’s a gigantic kite! Archie Cunliffe has made a big Chinese kite and has attached a whistle to it. The wind is making that noise as the kite climbs.” The kite continued to swoop higher and higher. Someone far below was letting out an immense amount of thin but strong twine. The Tree-men must also have seen the strange object soaring around the lower branches, and they had become silent. We kept watch for the giant rat, but devoted all our attention to the kite. It was truly a big one, perhaps a dozen feet across, and twenty in length. The tail, of twisted paper attached to thread, must have been thirty feet long, and undulating like a snake as the kite changed direction. Presently a group of figures ran into our view, and we could see that they were holding on to the end of the thread. It was Ben Rami, Watson’s faithful servant, who held the bobbin, and with him were three or four Swahili bearers, helping him hold the kite from plunging too steeply. Archie Cunliffe was not to be seen. “I bet he’s on his way up!” muttered Dick Sullivan. “He’s using this to hold the attention of the Tree-men while he makes the climb.” “Good old Archie! If we had got his signal, we might have found he was asking us to come down and meet him.” But there we were, pinned at the end of a branch by a giant rat and a bunch of Tree-men! We were prisoners unable to stir to help ourselves. The whistle from the kite was nerve-racking in its shrillness. It never stopped. It seemed to pierce our eardrums, and rose to an unearthly sharpness as the kite made one of its periodical plunges. After each plunge the kite rose still higher. We watched the flight for altitude anxiously. We wondered how long the twine would last out, and dreaded that it might snap. Everything now seemed to depend on the kite getting high enough to cause a real panic amongst the Tree-men. The whistling was louder now, for the kite had gained several hundred feet. It was now no more than three hundred feet below us, and was still climbing. In the bright sunlight the face looked hideous. Cunliffe must have drawn it with charcoal and the blood of some animal. If we had never seen a kite before we would certainly have been terrified when it swooped in our direction. The thread was almost invisible, and in any case it would mean nothing to the ignorant tree-dwellers. A burst of voices greeted the nearer approach of the flying dragon. Some of the Tree-men were already retreating. We decided to go along the branch and watch what happened. The rat was now backed against the tree trunk, and its teeth were bared. It had glimpsed the kite through the foliage below. We looked to the branches above, crouching figures were no longer there. The Tree-men had given up the chase, and were climbing to get away from this new invader of their strange world in the Big Tree. Pieces of twig and many leaves were drifting down – testimony to the haste of their movements, for usually they disturbed nothing. Then came a noise from below, and the rat turned its head. A huge grey shape rushed up the side of the tree and arrived beside it. It was another rat of equal size, evidently its mate. The two monsters stood there for a moment, then with one accord turned and went up the hole at express speed. We sighed with relief. The way was now clear. We could go down by way of the trunk. We hastened to swing ourselves on to the footholds which the Tree-men had worn in the bark, and down we went, while the giant kite rose almost level with us.

CATERPILLAR MENACE.

It was at about twelve hundred feet from the ground, when we were in the midst of that jungle formed by huge lower branches of the Big Tree, that we encountered the caterpillars again. They appeared to be busy devouring the leaves ahead and below us. There were more than we had ever seen before; there must have been sixty of the hideous creatures, ranging in size from six to fifteen feet in length.

They had thick green bodies and hideous-looking black heads. Their eyes were attached to their heads by short spikes. The mouth was on the underside of the head, and we could hear the sharp teeth tearing at the tough leaves. We clambered round to the other side of the hole, and reached the end of another branch, but there the situation was worse. The caterpillars were in greater numbers. We crouched and watched them devouring leaf after leaf, and finally we decided to try to clear a way by hurling things at them. This had absolutely no effect, but from somewhere below them came a voice which cheered us: “I’m coming, you chaps! What’s wrong?” We were too startled to reply for a moment, then yelled in unison: “Archie! Archie Cunliffe! Where are you?” “On my way up—about a couple of hundred feet below by the sound of it. What’s the trouble?” “Caterpillars!” we yelled back. “There are scores of them between us and you. They won’t shift, and we can’t use the branches when they’re there.” “Hold on and I’ll clear a way,” was his cheery reply. “I’ve got a couple of revolvers. What about the Tree-men?” “Your kite settled them! They’re well above us, and not likely to come down yet awhile.” We heard Archie chuckle, and shortly afterwards his head and shoulders appeared through some leaves. He looked hot, but quite unperturbed, and when he saw how the caterpillars barred our way he wedged himself comfortably against the tree trunk and drew a revolver. I had seen Archie using a revolver before, and knew him to be a crack shot, but he had never done better than he did today. Shot after shot he fired, and every one scored a hit. As soon as they were struck the caterpillars reared up, curled themselves in ungainly shapes, and toppled backwards from their perch. They uttered no sound. In all he fired twelve times, and each shot claimed a victim. A gap was made through which we could descend and quickly we took advantage of it. At last we reached Archie, and there was much handshaking and back-slapping. On his back he had a heavy pack, and in this he brought foodstuffs, tobacco, matches, and other things which he knew we desperately needed. We squatted down there and then, and enjoyed the first real food for days. Heartened by this, we continued the downward climb, for we still had a great distance to go. Archie told us how he had injured his ankle when he had made that amazing parachute descent. It was still swollen and bandaged. He had spent the night making a kite, with the aid of Ben Rami, and at dawn had demonstrated how it was to be flown. When it was high enough he started up the tree. Archie was the only one provided with climbing irons, but we had had so much practice during the past week that we were quite at home without these aids. We did not go straight to the bottom without a halt. Not even the toughest of us could do that. We had numerous rests, and it was during these that Walton picked selected leaves and flowers and threw them down to be studied when we reached the ground. Archie told us how Ben Rami and the bearers had buried the body of poor Reg Hunt, and how the falling of our comrade to his death had almost provoked a stampede amongst the carriers. Finally we swung down the last long, stiff climb. It was the end of a desperate day, and we were not as strong as we had been when we had first climbed the Big Tree, but we were buoyed up by the sight of the ground below, and by the knowledge that if we once got there we would be safe. By the time we reached the bottom we were exhausted, but our Swahilis caught us up and carried us over to the camp, where they had first-class meals awaiting us. Lying there in the shade of one of the huts, we looked up at the mighty tree vanishing towards the clouds, and found it hard to believe that hundreds of savages, giant gorillas, and a host of giant rats, spiders and caterpillars and other insects lived amongst its widespread branches. That night we slept soundly, and the Swahilis and Ben Rami kept watch, but as far as they knew none of the Tree-men came down to follow up their escaped prisoners. Perhaps they were just as glad to get rid of us as we were to be out of their tree! The following day I took a series of photos with ordinary and telephoto lenses, while the others took further measurements, samples of bark and of the soil in which the Big Tree grew. That night we camped on the other side of the river, and in the morning took out last look at the Big Tree before once again plunging into the bamboo forest on the next lap of our trek back to civilization. We knew we were taking with us a story that would startle not only Africa, but the whole world!

THE END

 The Big Tree 10 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1125 – 1134 (1945/1946)

The Big Tree 10 episodes appeared in The Wizard issues January 28th 1967April 1st 1967

The Big Tree also appeared in The Wizard 1974

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2006