The Heart of Darkness: Vanishings, Pygmy Elephants, and Mokele-Mbembe

Posted by: Loren Coleman on May 6th, 2007

Mokele-mbembe

Mokele-mbembe being killed by Pygmies; drawn by Bill Rebsamen and used with permission.

As I write these words, there is news that an airliner from Kenya has crashed in the jungles of Cameroon. They can’t find the plane. They can’t find any survivors because they can’t find the plane. It has disappeared, perhaps near some small village some distance from Douala, which is a coastal hopping off spot into the jungle.

Mokele-mbembe

Mokele-mbembe courtesy of Bill Rebsamen. Click on image for a larger view.

The Boeing 737-800 aircraft, which was carrying 114 people from more than 20 countries, went missing on Saturday after leaving Douala airport bound for Nairobi in torrential rain. It was reported to have come down in the thick jungle. They can’t find it. The aircraft, which was only six months old, was carrying 105 passengers and nine crew, including Africans, Chinese, Indians, Europeans and an American. The head of cellphone giant MTN in Cameroon, Campbell Utton, 51, is among the missing aboard the Kenya Airways Boeing aircraft that vanished over Cameroon, the Mail and Guardian reported on Sunday, May 6, 2007. The plane has simply vanished. Did I mention that?

I instantly thought, first of the survivors they can’t locate, and then of Mokele-mbembe that no one can locate there either.

Looking for a feel of this jungle again, I read the old journals of a bush pilot, Tom Claytor, who wrote of his days in those rainforests. Let me share some words from his notes to give a sense of being there:

It is late. I am sitting in a hangar trying to kill and smash as many mosquitoes as I can. Outside, light flashes all around from distant storms. All day, Portuguese C-130s have been evacuating refugees from Angola; a thousand people were just killed in the capital. DC-3s are ferrying people across the river to Kinshasa. None of the airliners dare go back there after the “pillage”. This is the deep dark part of Africa where things can go wrong and no one ever hears about it.

* * *

The value of an airplane is intensely present. The jungle begins. Thick rain and wild opaqueness follow the plane. Satellite photographs in the weather office have become my most reliable way to predict weather, but the machine is broken. After four hours the mountains of Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea are near. Douala is between, an armpit, as Africa bends. miserable wetness is piled upon the rising ground. The jungles and swamps are not visible, but like a sponge inhaling and exhaling wetness to the air, their presence is felt.

A high-school friend spent two years in Cameroon. When we did meet again, he was not the same. The enthusiasm, wit and sparkle – where had they gone? Was it this place? The bad flows down. The night is darker, maybe it is the mold and black that clings to everything. The soldiers come out at night like cockroaches in the street sewers. They have guns; they are drunk. One calls to me. What do I have for him? I better watch my step. He lets me go. No one smiles in the shops. What do I have to do to get a stranger to smile? They are educated. I feel like we are all being watched. Elections are coming soon. The president certainly can’t win again – nobody likes him – but he does. The military is paid; they are happy. Fear is rampant. I fly to the forestry camp of Campo with a young Cameroonian pilot. His dad is the head of state security. The rain comes hard. We can’t see the strip at the most critical phase. We ply on. suddenly, out of the rain, we are high and fast, but the trees rise above us and we drop down anyway. Sliding through an alley of forest, we stop. The young pilot is talking very fast. “Out here, you gotta know what you’re doing,” he says. “If you don’t, well, you’re gonna mess up.” He is shaking very hard.

* * *

Back in Douala, they are loading chainsaw blades and whiskey into the planes. They are bound for logging camps in the far east of the Cameroon. It’s illegal to fly single-engine planes over the jungle. You must also have a military observer onboard at all times – ever since the attempted coup in ’84 – and you have to pay him. No one has told me these things. No one has even looked at my passport. I seem to exist naively in between – observing, learning and avoiding. A man tries to sell us diamonds. Around the corner his military friend is lurking. This is also highly illegal. There are so many little traps. We politely decline. I am offered a job to fly for WCI (Wildlife Conservation International) filming the rain forest canopy in Korup park. The going rate is $500 an hour. The anti-poaching unit in Korup is equipped with bicycles and machetes. It may be a lost cause. People were there first. Trying to get them to leave has not been successful and has left very bad feelings. The best hope seems to be where there are no people – to put money and parks there – then keep them that way.

* * *

It’s raining hard again. I try to stay beneath the clouds, and the trees are racing past. Tendrils of hot jungle steam rise out of the forest. Water is dripping on my map. I’m looking for a place called “Wonge-wongue”. The forest opens to fields of golf course green, rolling and bending around fingers of tall darkness. The French hunter Pradel lives here, or at least he used to. This is the president’s “reserve de chasse” and the King of Spain has hunted here. There is one zebra from Zimbabwe; the others have died. There are two Siberian tigers, but they are in a cage. Fog consumes the green and darkness follows. There is mystery here too. Madame Pradel thrusts an 8 year old photograph before me. It is an elephant. Her young son has captured it by the tail. The elephant is smaller than he, and it is 70 years old. The world laughs. There are two species of African elephants – Savannah and forest – but there are no “pygmy” elephants. Norbert Pradel smiles gently as one with a secret. He is 25, and he has lived in this park for twenty-five years.

* * *

Our passports are taken, and we are forbidden to leave. For once, I had all my clearances and authorizations, but it doesn’t matter. Mike Fay is arrested once a week in Ouesso for smuggling red mercury. He says he would be happy to smuggle it if he knew what it was. The north of Congo lives in a world apart. They refuse to believe I have come to see a dinosaur named “Mokele-mbembe”. An evil-looking man from across the river exchanges 5 US$ for 8 million Zaires; he tells me he is a friend of President Mobutu and can get me diamonds. I sleep beneath the plane each night with a guard waiting for bandits from Zaire. Commandant Ndja has now told Hydrocongo not to give me fuel; I wonder if he gets commission from the bandits. The French lady has the only store in town; she sells mobilette parts, chainsaws and pornographic videos. A Swedish volunteer arrived in a village south of here; she had to leave because everyone thought she was the girl in the video. After four hours of rain, fog and lightning – following rivers with funny names – I have arrived in this place. West of here lies Lake Tele and many unanswered questions. I throw a party for 20 Aka pygmies out by the plane. I buy the “hydromiel” (honeybeer), and they spend the night; the Bantus in Zaire are scared of their magic. Edouard comes from the village of “Minganga” where they killed a “Mokele-mbembe.” He describes what sounds like a brontosaurus to a missionary in Lingala. It was his great, great grandparents who saw half the village die from the meat. Several expeditions have tried to find this monster or its remains. Few have ever reached the lake. There are hostile Boa villagers to the south. A Japanese film crew was recently held for ransom; 12,000$ was flown up from Brazzaville.

* * *

Conrad said in his Heart of Darkness that “going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.” I smiled when I read that.

* * *

This is such a strange world. Tom Claytor, Bush Pilot, 12 Nov 92 – Brazzaville, Congo

To order Tom Claytor’s Flight Over Africa and other items he has produced, please click here.

PygmyElephant

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.


11 Responses to “The Heart of Darkness: Vanishings, Pygmy Elephants, and Mokele-Mbembe”

  1. captiannemo responds:

    great story!

  2. elsanto responds:

    It really does feel like a contemporary, condensed Conrad… with a lot less of a storyline.

    Loren… is there any backstory on Claytor?

    Just my two cents.

  3. Nachzehrer responds:

    If you want to read about the lighter side of Cameroon, try Dervla Murphy’s Cameroon with Egbert. Apparently it’s not all poachers and “tendrils of hot jungle steam.”

  4. Richard888 responds:

    An episode of You Asked For It, an 80’s TV series, showed a grainy video of a Mokele-Mbembe taken during an expedition. In the video a brontosaurus-like head emerges out of a swampy area moves forwards and backwards and then submerges. Is there anyone else besides me who’s seen the video? Can stills of it or even the video itself be found in the web? This could be the best evidence of a brontosaurus-like creature in these difficult parts.

  5. Maine Crypto responds:

    Richard888 That would be great to see the footage! I read that the crew claimed it was ruined from the heat and moisture in the air….. I couldn’t find the video clip anywhere.

  6. Jason P. responds:

    Richard888 – That ‘You Asked For It!’ clip was mentioned in another blog here on Cryptomundo a few months ago. At that time, I and some others searched for it for weeks, but could not locate the video anywhere online, nor could I really find any specific information about it. I’d love to know more, if anyone here has any additional information to contribute.

  7. Harpo responds:

    A great book about Africa, the Congo and Mokele-Mbembe is Redmond O’Hanlon’s “No Mercy” I just finished reading it for the second time. If you want to get a very clear idea of what’s actually involved in travelling to Lake Tele, you ought to read this book. Also lots of interesting stuff on African history, culture, nature, etc. Unfortunately no dinosaurs were found but an excellent book, one of my favorites.

  8. Judy Green responds:

    I just saw on the Internet that they found the plane and are now actively searching for survivors. The plane was not where they thought it should be, it appeared they had turned around to return to where they took off for some reason. Since the searchers found much debris scattered about, it seems it is doubtful there are any survivors.

  9. Bob Michaels responds:

    Pygmy African elephant does exist, it should be recognized.

  10. kaiju responds:

    I’m not sure the show was “You asked for it”. I thought it was “That’s Incredible”.

    I remember seeing what looked like a head slowly rise out of the water and then slowly go back in. I wasn’t terribly impressed. But I’d love to see it again.

  11. Mnynames responds:

    I recall that footage too…please don’t tell me we now have the video equivalent of Sanderson’s Thunderbird Photo! somebody needs to find this film…




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