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BioFortean Review: Reprints

On the Trail of the Brontosaurus.
Encounters with Africa's Mystery Animals.

By Fulahn.

I.

A BIG-GAME hunting expedition now engaged in Central Africa under the leadership of Lieut.-Col. H. F. Fenn, D.S.O., intends to film gorillas in the as-yet-unpenetrated depths of the Belgian Congo; it hopes to secure a full-grown male gorilla for the Natural History Museum in London.

That capture in itself would provide enough adventure for most folks to go on with. There are few seasoned big-game hunters whose hearts would not go pit-a-pat were they to get the great chance of coming face to face with a full-grown gorilla. 'But,' says Colonel Fenn, 'the most thrilling part of our expedition will be our attempt to solve the long-existing problem of certain unknown species of animals which the natives say live in unexplored areas.'

That is putting it modestly; for Colonel Fenn has met a hunter who has told him what every big-game hunter worth the name has heard. That there is a monster in Lake Edwarda mysterious beast called the irizima; and irizima means 'the-thing-that-may-not-be-spoken-of.'

This mystery animal, the irizima, is said by some to be like a gigantic hippopotamus with the horns of a rhinoceros upon its head. Not long ago a madcap fellow trekked up from the Cape and plunged into the Congo forests to catch it. He declared that he saw it crashing through the reeds of a swamp, and that it was the brontosaurusa huge marsh animal, ten times as big as the biggest elephant. In the Cape Town clubs they called him a liar; but a famous American scientific institute guessed better, and sent out an expedition to capture this 'brontosaurus.' It was never caught. Mishaps dogged the expedition and spoiled all chance of capturing the mystery monster.

Others declare the irizima to be a marsh monster with a hippo's legs, an elephant' trunk, a lizard's head, and an aardvark's tail. No less a personage than Lewanika, King of the Barotse, saw the beast in the marshes of his land, and set a special warrior watch to capture it. 'A monster,' says he in his official report to the British Government, 'with a head like a snake, making a huge track in the reeds as large as a full-sized wagon would make were its wheels removed.' He speaks of course, of the old Boer trek-wagon, a big, lumbering concern pulled by twenty or more oxen.

Under the name of the 'lau,' perhaps the same animal has been seen, not only by black hunters, but by white men as well, in the great swamps of the Nile valleys below Malakal to Rejaf, and in the region of Lake No to Shambe.

This may be a different mystery beast, for it is said to be like a gigantic cobra, striped dark brown and yellow, covered with thick, wiry hairs; upon its head it has large tentacles, with which it seizes its human prey. Measuring forty to a hundred feet in length, its body is as thick round as a bullock's. By night it is said to make a loud, terrifying, booming cry; by day, as it well might, it makes a rumbling noise like the digestion noises of a herd of grazing elephants.

From Lakes Bangweolo, Mweru, and Tanganyika every hunter of experience has heard inexplicable reports of a huge pachyderm similar to a hippopotamus, but with a large horn rising from its head; this may be the same or a different mystery monsterthe brontosaurus or some other.

The level-headed man at home will be tempted to exclaim, 'But this is rubbish, this talk of undiscovered monsters.'

So at first thought it may seem; but it must be borne in mind that such an obvious animal as the okapi, a beast that looks as though it had escaped from a jigsaw Zoo, remained undiscovered up till the beginning of the present century, when Sir Harry Johnston startled the scientific world by sending home the skin and skeleton of one. Scientists gasped: this cannot be, they said. They said the same about the man who first reported the giraffe; in fact, they tortured him for a downright romancer of the worst description. But there were children feeding giraffes in the London Zoo this week.

II.

The famous chimiset or Nandi bear is perhaps the most notorious of all Africa's mystery monsters.

Speaking of it, Captain A. Blayney Percival, the famous authority on big game, who has lived his life amongst Africa's wild animals and who for twenty-three years was Game Ranger in Kenya, makes a remarkable assertion. 'I do but assert my belief,' he says, 'that some strange animal lurks in the Nandi forests awaiting discovery and a name.'

Were there no other tittle of evidence to support the real existence of the mysterious chimiset, the word of this famous hunter could be difficult to get round; but nearly every hunter who has safaried through the vast Masai and Nandi Reserves in Kenya and Tanganyika has been implored at the manyattas or villages to track down and shoot the chimiset. Often the weird tracks of this mysterious animal have been foundqueer five- or three-toed tracksthe tracks of no known animal.

Fear and superstition have embroidered the native accounts of this uncanny beast; but, while allowances must be made for the exaggeration to which savages are prone, it must also be borne in mind that both the Masai and the Nandi are courageous and warlike tribes, not easily dismayed by dangerous animals. It is the proud and truthful boast of many of their warriors that they have walked boldly up to a savage lion on the veld and pulled it backwards by the tail! Such is a test of their manhood, and it will be plain in the face of such foolhardy bravery that there must be some good reason to make the Masai and the Nandi stand in abject terror of the chimiset, which they look upon as a monster infinitely more savage and terrible than a lion at bay.

Kitapmetit Kipet, the headman of a Nandi village to which I was sent to investigate raids on stock and children by a chimiset, described the monster to me in these words, which I quote from my report. 'The chimiset is a devil which prowls the nganasa (hut settlement) on the darkest nights, seeking people, especially children, to devour; it is half like a man and half like a huge, ape-faced bird, and you may know it at once from its fearful howling roar, and because in the dark of night its mouth glows red like the embers of a log (i.e. a log-fire).'

During my stay in his village Kipet showed me a hut, in the mud-and-lattice wall of which a large hole had been battered; through that hole the chimiset had dragged a six-year-old girl who had been sleeping in the koimaut or Iiving-room of the hut. On the earth outside the hole were claw furrows. Calves had also been stolen from Kipet's cattle boma. Besides the palisade of poles which surrounds all Nandi cattle kraals, Kipet's men had piled up thorn-bush to a height of six feet in a solid wall eight feet thick. Burrowed through this wall was a tunnel big enough for me, not a small man, to crawl through, and on the bottom of this tunnel were more claw marks. But they were the claw marks of no known animal, unless maybe the aardvark. But then the aardvark does not eat young girls or burrow big tunnels through thorn zarebas, nor does it prey on calves; it is content to eat white ants.

III.

Kipet informed me that the chimiset seemed to come from a small forest-clad kopje or boulder hill some five miles from his nganasa. I circled that kopje with spearsmen, and, gradually closing in, beat every bush and twig on it till we got to the summit. We put up baboons, rock-rabbits, some mongooses, some dik-dik antelopes, a bush-buck and its does; we put to flight owls, hawks, bats, and guineafowls. We found the lair of a porcupine family and a hyæna hole; we dug both out. We put up some wart-hogs, and the dogs turned out innumerable rats, mice, and lizards, and not a few scorpions and snakes. But we found no chimiset; nor trace of it. Nor did we find a trace of the spoor of lion or leopard, which might have been the culprits.

I thought of a score of such hunts after the chimiset, all of which had proved futile, and decided to make quite sure. A huge forest, some twenty miles square, stretched away from the kopje. I could not search that forest, but I could make certain if any beast came to the kopje from the forest and then left the kopje by night for the village.

Around the kopje ran several sandy bushtracks, which led to water-holes. Cutting down the bush between, Kipet's men joined these paths until they made a sandy track completely encircling the kopje. We brushed this track clean and smooth, so that even a beetle walking over it would leave its trail.

Then I went to bed. I had a small khaki-coloured pi-dog named Mbwambi with me, a mongrel, but a ferocious, plucky, little beast, and I tied him up to the door of my tent:

It was well after midnight when he gave a sharp, alarmed, whiny growl and woke me. But before I could get out of bed the whole tent rocked; the pole to which Mbwambi was tied flew out and let down the ridge-pole, enveloping me in flapping canvas. At the same moment the most awful howl I have ever heard split the night. The sheer demoniac horror of it froze me still, and not for some seconds did I hear the clatter of poles in Kipet's nganasa, which told of his men, having been aroused, unbarring their hut doors.

I heard my pi-dog yelp just once. There was a crashing of branches in the bush, and then thud, thud, thud of some huge beast making off. But that howl! I have heard half a dozen lions roaring in a stampede-chorus not twenty yards away; I have heard a maddened cow-elephant trumpeting; I have heard a trapped leopard make the silent night miles a rocking agony with screaming, snarling roars. But never have I heard, nor do I wish to hear again, such a howl as that of the chimiset.

A trail of red spots on the sand showed where my pi-dog had gone. Beside that trail were huge footprints, four times as big as a man's, showing the imprint of three huge clawed toes, with trefoil marks like a lion's pad where the sole of the foot pressed down. But no lion, not even the giant 9 feet 4 1/4 inches long which fell to Getekonot, my hunter, at Ussure, ever boasted such a paw as that of the monster which had made that terrifying spoor.

At the first streak of dawn we followed those tracks; they led to the kopje. Over our sandy path they showed as plain as the print on this page; on the farther side of the kopje were more footprints leading to the forest, where, searching with our hearts in our mouths every day for a week and more, we found and lost and lost and found them. But we found no chimiset. Such is the mystery beast, hunted by many a hunter who has trekked the big-game trail in Africa; a beast which the Game Ranger who lived amongst beasts for twenty-three long years believes to be 'awaiting discovery and a name'!

IV.

Another mysterious animalseen, shot at, spoored, but never killed or capturedis the nunda, the giant cat of East Africa's coast. Not long ago a reign of terror gripped a small fishing-village on the coast of Tanganyika, where I was stationed as a native magistrate.

It was the custom for native traders to leave their belongings in the village market every night, ready for the morning's trade; and to prevent theft and also to stop stray natives sleeping in the market-place, an askari or native constable took it in turns with two others to guard the market on a four-hour watch.

Going to relieve the midnight watch, an oncoming native constable one night found his comrade missing. After a search he discovered him, terribly mutilated, underneath a stall. The man ran to his European officer, who went with me at once to the market. We found it obvious that the askari had been attacked and killed by some animala lion it seemed.

In the victim's hand was clenched a matted mass of grayish hair, such as would come out of a lion's mane were it grasped and torn in aviolent fight. But in many years no lion had been known to come into the town.

We were puzzling the problem at the boma next morning when the old Arab Liwali or native governor of the district hurried into our office with two scared-looking men at his heels. Out late the previous night, they said, they had slunk by the market-place lest the askari should see them and think them evildoers; and as they crept by they were horrified to see a gigantic brindled cat, the great mysterious nunda which is feared in every village on the coast, leap from the shadows of the market and bear the policeman to the ground.

The Liwali, a venerable and educated man, assured us that within his memory the nunda had visited the village several times. It was an animal, not a lion nor a leopard, but a huge cat as big as a donkey and marked like a tabby. I had heard this tale, and had put it down as silly superstition, but the Liwali's assertion put a different light on things.

That night we kept watch with two armed askaris at the market; nothing happened. On parade next day we read the native constables a lecture on the stupidity of superstitions.

It seemed that we were slightly premature. That same night another constable was torn to pieces, and clutched in his hands and scattered about the buckles of his uniform was more of that grey, matted fur. The terrified villagers meantime had paid a famous medicine man to work 'dawa' or magic-medicine to scare the nunda off, and the village, between fear and rage and witchcraft, was in a ferment. I sent the hair to headquarters for expert examination. They replied, asking me what animal it came from, 'as it was a fur and not a hair as you state: probably cat.'

Followed a month of tragedies at small villages up and down the coast: worried headmen trekking in to say that a huge grey-striped animal like a cat, but as big as a donkey, was seizing men by night. Traps and poison were set, and armed police scoured the district. Then, as suddenly as they had begun, the raids of the nunda stopped. The mysterious beast was never found. As in the case of the chimiset many a hunt has been made for it; but, though seen and fought with, it has never been killed or caught.

V.

Of other mystery animals, such as the ngoloko, the man-ape of the Isansu hills, a weird creature that prowls the dismal stretches of Yaida Lake, I will not tell, for the certainty of being disbelieved. But such are the mystery animals. There are othersthe mpisimbi, the leopard-hyæna, which eats sugar-cane, and which I have hunted many a weary night without success; the yiya, a tiny elephant unknown to science; and, a bit farther abroad, the orang pandak, the man-bear-ape of Malayseen, hunted, spoored, but never caught; the migu or snowman-monkey of Tibethalf animal, half man, who preys on yaks.

Perhaps Colonel Fenn may discover and bring home one or more of these mystery monsters. At Ngoholi, not far from Lindi on the Tanganyikan coast, in a huge valley, dropping sheer two thousand feet from a plateau top to the primeval jungle down below, I have stood in a graveyard of brontosauri and other mighty monsters of the long-dead past; stood and kicked up the turf and seen in the pale green earth below, only a few inches down, their mighty bones; stood and watched a great tree, perched perilously on the cliff edge, totter and sway and slowly fall, tumbling and hurtling root over branches into the abysmal depths below, rocking the silent grandeur of that mighty valley with the splintering of branches, raising the raucous calls of toucans, the hoarse barking of baboons. So has the valley been crumbling to slow decay for aeons past, since the days when the pterodactyl, the megatherium, the hideous dinosaur, and that long-necked nightmare beast, the brontosaurus, hunted and fought, mated and died, on that very spot.

As science counts the years that was but yesterday.

Who knows but that, in the unpenetrated depths of the vast mysterious continent, there may yet linger some of those grim monsters of an age when men grew hair for covering, and swung, long-armed, from trees?

Fulahn. 1927. On the trail of the Brontosaurus: encounters with Africa's mystery animals. Chambers's Journal. October: 692-695.

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