June 28, 2009

Inside Story: Mullin On Mokele-Mbembe

2001 Cryptosafari
The 2001 Cryptosafari expedition members included (left to right) Scott Norman, Bill Gibbons, John Kirk, and Robert Mullin.

Robert Mullin, who recently appeared on the Mokele-mbembe MonsterQuest episode, has filed an exclusive inside story. He shares it here at Cryptomundo so readers and viewers get a more extended insight into the conduct of the expedition and the making of the documentary.

Below is Mullin’s report, which, needless to say, expresses his opinions alone, and not necessarily that of other members of the expeditions or the owners, editors, management and/or bloggers at Cryptomundo, Cryptosafari, and/or MonsterQuest. ~ Loren.

Robert Mullin Expeditions & MonsterQuest

“How many dragons have you slain?”
John Kirk, 2001 expedition to Cameroon.

In 2001, I was fortunate enough to be a part of the expedition to Cameroon to look for a creature known as Mokele-mbembe, or He-who-divides-the-waters. (The term has been translated a number of ways, including the slightly preferred One-who-stops-the-flow-of-the-river, but this was the most specifically literal and accurate translation I could get from our guide, Pierre. The imagery is that of a large rock parting the river as it flows around the creature–a clear reference to its size.)

I had known Bill Gibbons through a chat group, and participated with him in some online debates. I more or less invited myself along when I found out through a Fortean Times magazine that he was going to be headed in search of the dinosaur with another team. Bill wrote me back saying that he wasn’t going with that team anymore, that the leader was “a paranormalist nut who would get himself killed if he went anywhere near the Congo.” Bill was starting his own team, and would I like to be the first member? I thought about that for a nanosecond or two, and agreed, and the course of my life was set.

On that first expedition, [were] John Kirk (President of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club) and Scott Norman, a Cryptozoologist and tech guy who, lamentably, passed away in 2008 of a blood clot in the lung. We went with the BBC, ostensibly to shoot a TV special for the Discovery Channel. This did not go so well, as the BBC were not equipped to deal with the special conditions this animal required, and were seemingly accustomed to luxury accommodations on their voyages. No show was ever made, and we went home feeling disgusted, though we did learn from eyewitness testimony that we were on the right track (Bill had already been searching for Mokele-mbembe for years, and was the first to look outside the Congo for reports of its existence).

A couple of smaller expeditions then went, one having a close encounter with the animal, and one finding evidence of its presence through footprints (two adults and a juvenile) and a walled-in cave on the opposite bank. It seemed that we had been much closer on the first expedition than any of us knew; the animal was literally around the corner from our campsite. We had heard some loud splashes, but did not know the area well enough to go around what turned out to be an island, and instead searched the main river, and found nothing. We did gather several useful eyewitness testimonies and a great deal of information, but it was disheartening to learn just how close we had come on that first trip, and how little it would have taken to potentially see and document the animal.

My second expedition was in 2006, with Milt Marcy and Peter Beach. Milt runs an insurance business and funded the expedition, and Pete Beach is a scientist and a teacher. During that second expedition, we learned that the animal had moved on since the last venture, and had in fact been gone for two years (since the footprints were found). Rather than setting up base camp and exploring the surrounding area, our plan was to use a boat to explore the islands, thinking at the time that this was where the Mokele-mbembe liked to reside. All of the people we talked to, however, said that it had left the so-called “Forbidden Zone,” and gone north on the river Dja, and so we went as far up the river as time and finances would allow before being forced to turn around. That expedition was harder on us physically than the previous expedition had been; I lost a lot of weight, Milt got an injury that wouldn’t heal, and I rubbed the bottom of my foot off jumping in and out of the boat with sandals that abraded against the sand in the river. We spent our nights camped on the islands, whose inhabitants ranged from beautiful butterflies to sand fleas to ants that ate through the plastic covering our gear. One night towards the end of our upriver quest, we had to spend on a small jetty consisting solely of sharp rocks and elephant dung. Again, a dry run as far as Mokele-mbembe was concerned. I did learn that the French term for the animal is dragon; a fact I find fascinating on a number of levels.

In 2009, an unexpected opportunity came my way. Bill Gibbons had been interviewed for a MonsterQuest episode for the History Channel. The episode featured giant spiders, and Bill was able to relate one of my favorite stories about a missionary couple in the Congo circa 1938, and their encounter on the road with one of the creatures. He had talked with the people about his work with Mokele-mbembe, and they were interested in doing an episode. They were so interested, in fact, that they claimed that they were going to do this “with or without” him, despite Bill’s cautions about the possible poor timing of the trip. Doing it without the experts seemed to be a bad idea, so we quickly started looking at who was able to go on an expedition in short order. The time of year wouldn’t be right (we would already be well into the dry season when the shooting started, and we knew that the animal was seen most often towards the end of the rainy season), but it would be an opportunity to re-investigate the area, and to have a major television network focus an entire show on this mysterious animal.

I was a little leery of going, as I had worked very hard after moving to Colorado to get the job I have, and didn’t want to lose it (especially in these uncertain economic times). I had also broken my hand on the first of December, and was feeling less than up to an adventure. However, I was convinced that it was an opportunity not to be missed. I told Bill that I would be available after all. Then it was a flurry of last minute shopping, faxing, emails, and calls to make sure all was in order before the trip. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to do something I have long wanted to do, and had laser surgery on my eyes before I went, allowing me to see Africa for the first time without having to worry about losing my one pair of glasses or messing with contacts. It did require taking along sunglasses to protect my newly minted eyes, but I was glad to do that, as I would have had to wear them most of the time anyway in the intense equatorial light.

On March 2, 2009 , I headed out once more, this time to meet Jared Christie (the producer) and Steve Plummer (the cameraman) in Atlanta. As always, nothing went without a hitch, and instead of meeting in Atlanta, they had to meet me in Zurich, because their first flight had been cancelled. I met Bill in Zurich (after a grand search; he had already gotten to the departure gate for the next flight, and was napping under his hat. I don’t know how many times I passed him by before I recognized him), and then Jared and Steve joined us not too long before the flight to Africa.

We met Pierre Sima, who has been our guide and facilitator on all of our expeditions, at the airport. All of our luggage arrived okay, but we found out that the tents that we had left were no longer available to use. We also found out that the Minister of Science, who was supposed to sign a paper allowing us to do research in the area, was gone, and wouldn’t be back until Friday. We used out first day in Africa to exchange currency, check in with Swiss Air to get our exit tickets set up, and found out that our original plan of flying to the north of the Dja and floating down in a boat was completely toast; apparently arrangements had not been made for that, and so we were once again to take the “off-road adventure” down to the south of the Dja.

Pierre told us then that the Minister had called the governor of Bertoua, and that he was to sign the paper, so we could leave the next day after all. After nearly getting caught in the middle of a raid on the sidewalk market while purchasing some sneakers for Bill, we headed out. We had a flat tire on the way, then stopped by and borrowed a tent from the Anderton mission compound. We had a fairly lengthy discussion with Pierre , where we found out that the latest information we had on the animal was now almost five years old. So, frustrated, we tried to decide what to do next. Bill wanted to go west into the Dja Reserve, but Pierre said that where he wanted to go was too far. I wanted to find out what the last known sighting was, and start there, but unfortunately, that information was on a web page that was inaccessible from where we were (and, as it turns out, may not have been that reliable to begin with). We decided to go the rest of the miserable 500-odd mile distance on the logging roads, and set up camp where we had been in 2001.

The next day, we found out that the governor of Bertoua had decided to participate in some closed festivities that were supposed to last all day, and wouldn’t be available to sign the papers after all. With much trepidation, we decided to press on, hoping that some phone calls could resolve the matter. We traded in our mini-bus for a “safari bus,” which I believe was an old French designed prison vehicle. Imagine the worst possible off-road vehicle you could have—no shocks, no padding, no air conditioning—driving for hundreds of miles over red, dusty earth that has been pounded as hard as iron, spewing up dust that literally gets everywhere.

Arrived in Yokodouma (where “the elephant never falls”—as Bill pointed out, an ironic name for a town known for being founded in the elephant-hunting business) at night. We spent the night at The Elephant (a luxury hotel there; it had running water and electricity). Pierre went to see the Prefect of Yokodouma as soon as breakfast was over the following day. While he was gone, some rain clouds showed up in the distance. Within minutes, they had blown in, and we were in the middle of a torrential downpour. Pierre came back with the document signed, and we decided to head out, despite the good-natured warnings of some of the locals that the roads would be muddy. We went shopping for the last of our supplies, and then within five minutes of leaving town, we came across a huge logging truck in the middle of the road. Trying to pass it, we slid off the road and into a ditch. It took all of us, plus several villagers, to push the bus out of the mud. It wasn’t long before we realized we weren’t going anywhere that day—another delay. Someone with a car was able to get us all packed back to the hotel, where we admitted sheepishly that we had been wrong about trying to press ahead.

The next day, the road to Moloundou was actually better than the others, as their was hardly any dust, and the driver had to take it slow due to the drying mud. Still, a 200km trip took over eight hours. When we got there, we had to bargain with the driver to take us across the Boumba River on the ferry. When he saw that there were youths operating it rather than the usual man (it was “women’s day” in Cameroon, and no one was working), he refused to take us, so we had to get yet another truck (something akin to a dump truck) to pack us and all of our gear across the river and on the 7km trip to Languoue, where the Baka lived. We were told by the governor of Moloundou that it would be safer to camp with them than to camp on the Boumba, as there had been many bandits and other such characters causing problems in the region lately. Pierre volunteered to sleep in a Baka hut with all of our equipment, while the four of us slept in a tent (I think he got the better deal in the long run; one rainy night had my feet sitting in a pool of icy water, and I know that Bill got drenched on his side, as well). I got my first real humiliation on camera as I attempted to set up the tent in the dark. (Thankfully, this frustrating and potentially humorous bit of reality was not included in the final cut of the MonsterQuest episode.)

The first real day of shooting finally began on March 9, six days after we arrived. I had my official interview in the forest, snippets of which were included in the show (though one of my lines seemed a bit out of context–the show quoted me saying “I’d feel safer in Jurassic Park,” which was an addendum to a more lengthy description of the animal, saying that unlike their cow-like depiction in the film Jurassic Park, the probable sauropod Mokele-mbembe was, to all accounts, actually swamp-dwelling, shy, solitary, territorial, and aggressive). A man showed up with a motorized pirogue for us, but it was not the large one we had asked for. When asked why he hadn’t brought that one, he said he “thought we wouldn’t use it.” We assured him that we would, and that was why we had requested it, so please bring it the next day. As it was, we would just have to make do with what we had. Did some recon of the now completely safe and abandoned “Forbidden Zone” (to this day, it makes my blood boil to realize just how close we came to the animal in 2001). Got some filming done, and found some old Mokele-mbembe caves. Forgot to take my journal out of my pocket when bathing in the stream by the village, so it got soaked. Had to make up for lost entries a few days later when it finally dried out.

The following day, we got some eyewitnesses to do their testimonies, and before we showed them any drawings, they drew a couple of Mokele-mbembe on the ground. Perfect sauropod outlines, with specific biological features that no one there should know about unless they are REALLY up on their paleontology news. Also learned about some that we never knew of before, like an inflatable dewlap/air sac on the throat that allowed the creature to make its vocalizations (the eyewitnesses imitated the sound, which sounded exactly like the Regusters expedition recording made back in the eighties—giving that questionable evidence some added credence). We went on a trip up the Boumba, which turned out to be embarrassingly shallow, as we ran aground not too far from the ferry. This did allow for some filming opportunities, though. This was the river on which a couple of men had observed the Mokele-mbembe walking down the river, turning around when it came to the cables on the ferry. Pierre got a little nervous as we drifted towards the confluence of the Boumba and the Dja, which turns into the Ngoko and runs south into the Congo. Filming was a lot easier this day due to having the large pirogue. Did some night shooting, which probably wasn’t the safest thing, but got Steve and Jared visibly excited for the first time. They taught some Baka youths how to play Frisbee before it got dark. Absolutely melting on this trip; I’m afraid the mild Flagstaff summers spoiled me for life. Kidneys were working overtime.

March 11 was our last day of shooting. We took the equipment up the Dja and got some really weird sonar profiles, though in my opinion nothing likely to be the Mokele-mbembe. The guys had some of the Baka do reenactments of the eyewitnesses’ stories. The next day, we did our exit interviews, and started on the long road home. Found out that there was no water in all of Yokodouma, so we were brought buckets of river water to bathe with. Gave the fan in my room to Bill, so I spent the night on top of the sheets, sprawled out and sweating. Finally decided to risk the mosquitoes and open a window so I could sleep.

We all arrived safely at home after some adventures in the Zurich airport (where we got separated from Bill before we could say goodbye, then had to haul our own luggage while being hurried along and nagged about how close our flight time was by the very person who was supposed to be hauling it). Jared and Steve both bought some Swiss chocolate (I’m wishing I had, though I’m not entirely sure it would have made it home anyway–“self-control” and “gourmet chocolate” do not belong in the same sentence), and I got to see the Alps from the plane in a beautiful clear morning light.

I was glad, when the episode aired on the 24th of June (just five days before my birthday) to see that Roy Mackal and Peter Beach featured prominently, and was honored to be counted among the ranks of such wonderful scientists who have searched for the animal, each finding evidence of their own. I was less than impressed with the MonsterQuest “expert,” who seemed to have misunderstood that what he seemed to think was one footprint were in fact separate impressions in the earth, and then claimed that the casts made could not be from a sauropod because they were not big enough (apparently unaware that there were actually several impressions found, including two apparent adults and a juvenile–it never seemed to occur to the man that they could have been from a small sauropod, which is what Mokele-mbembe appears to be). Nevertheless, I was grateful for his inclusion on the show, as his stalwart behind-the-desk claims that the animal probably could not exist were made all the more laughable by the contrast with the eyewitness interviews, who, contrary to his assertation, gave multiple specific biological details about the Mokele-mbembe, and gave no indication of mistaking it for other animals or simply believing it to be a spirit or legendary animal. We had to tell the Baka that we needed only five interviews with people who had seen the animal–many more had seen it or knew it well! Moreover, he said that searchers for Mokele-mbembe have “ignored” the need for a breeding population. Hardly the case, as we have addressed the issue in a number of ways, not the least of which is the fact that there are several species on the endangered species list that have only a few specimens left extant, and this is an extremely isolated part of the world, with nothing of strategic value for high satellite surveillance, and a very dense forest canopy. Add that to the fact that the animal’s favored breeding territory is 55,000 square miles of swampland, it prefers to stay alone and under cover, and doesn’t appear to reproduce in massive numbers, and then compound that with the miles and miles of governmental red tape one must cut through just to get to the target area in the hopes of getting a few days of observation in before the visas expire, and you have some idea of why it’s so difficult to find this animal.

Some have wondered why better equipment hasn’t been taken on some of these trips. The fact is that we go with what we can afford; not every expeditioneer is rich, and often we do what we can at great cost to ourselves and our personal lives. Because we were aware that the animal had moved on long ago, we knew when we set out on this particular expedition that it was really more of an opportunity to make a television episode raising awareness of the animal itself than it was a full-fledged expedition, though we did attempt to do what we could to garner new information at every opportunity. We have talked about new strategies for the future, and would very much like to go again with better equipment, more people, and perhaps most importantly, more time. Going at the right time, when the eyewitness reports are recent, is crucial to finding this animal, and it is my belief that now that we know more about the creature’s habitats and behaviors, it is inevitable that success is just around the bend of the river.

Robert Mullin, 27 June 2009.

From the beginning of the 2009 MonsterQuest expedition, it appears Bill Gibbons, on the left, and Rob Mullins, next to him, may have been getting coded visual messages by the locals, as evidenced by the unidentified individual seen here in the background. Someone like Hoshi Sato is not needed to translate the nonverbal content being conveyed in this now infamous image.

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.

Filed under Breaking News, Cryptomundo Exclusive, Cryptotourism, CryptoZoo News, Cryptozoologists, Cryptozoology, Evidence, Expedition Reports, Footprint Evidence, Forensic Science, Living Dinosaurs, Media Appearances, Men in Cryptozoology, Mokele-Mbembe, Television