The Kongamato: Destroyer of Boats, Soiler of Underwear

You might remember our visit a few weeks ago to the billabongs of Australia, when we encountered everyone’s favorite dog/sheep/serpent/flippery thing.  Now we travel to the Jiundu backwaters of Zambia, Angola, and the Congo, where something else waits to burst from the murk–a prehistoric monster that should have went extinct, but never did. As it turns out, a lot of scary things can come from swamps.

Accounts of the Kongamato date back to 1745, though given that this “breaker of boats” is essentially a pterosaur and that the locals were already well acquainted with it then, it’s likely to have existed long before. What’s a pterosaur, you ask? A pterosaur is like a pigeon, if the pigeon had a seven foot wingspan, an elongated head, a snout, needle teeth, black eyes, and leathery red or black scales instead of feathers. Also, the pigeon would not only fly, but walk flat-footed or run on all fours, like the Landstriders in The Dark Crystal. The pigeon comparison doesn’t work for you? Fine. Imagine instead the pterosaur subspecies that Jurassic Park has made so popular–the pterodactyl. That is what is living in the Bangweulu swamps. That is what the fisherman there have feared for centuries.

Ivan T. Sanderson, an accomplished biologist and cryptozoologist from the early 20th century, became famous for bringing his account of this hellish reptile back to the Western world. As was usual for kongamato sightings, he encountered the creature at night. Sanderson had just shot a fruit bat, which had then fallen into the water. He was reaching for it when his companion warned him to duck.

“Then I let out a shout also and instantly bobbed down under the water, because coming straight at me only a few feet above the water was a black thing the size of an eagle. I had only a glimpse of its face, yet that was quite sufficient, for its lower jaw hung open and bore a semicircle of pointed white teeth set about their own width apart from each other. When I emerged, it was gone. … And just before it became too dark to see, it came again, hurtling back down the river, its teeth chattering, the air “shss-shssing” as it was cleft by the great, black, dracula-like wings.”

As mentioned, the sighting was not unexpected for the local Kaonde, nor for any number of other tribes near the swamp. Many viewed the Kongamato simply as a danger to be avoided–in the same category as a lion or a rogue elephant, if more rare and more frightening. Though white cryptozoologists were never able to locate bones or other such proof of the creature’s existence, numerous, consistent eyewitness accounts and grevious wounds spoke to something out in the reeds. The kongamato was said to upset boats, attack children, dig up corpses to feed on. It was a fact of life, if an unhappy one.

But for Western tourists, the kongamato was a fascinating treat. Sanderson was far from only one to report back on them; Frank Welland emerged in 1932 to also affirm their existence, emphasizing the compatible accounts from the local people:

“The evidence for the pterodactyl is that the natives can describe it so accurately, unprompted, and that they all agree about it. There is negative support also in the fact that they said they could not identify any other of the prehistoric monsters which I showed them.”

Sightings continued through the 1950’s, with one engineer’s report making it into the newspaper after he saw two “prehistoric” dark birds glide overhead when he went to get his canteen out of his trunk. A year later, another man would be hospitalized nearby with wounds to his chest. When asked to sketch the creature that attacked him, he drew what looked like a pterosaur. Even as late as 1998, Steve Romandi-Menya, a Kenyan exchange student visiting Louisiana, affirmed that the kongamato still haunted the bush-dwellers remaining at home.

Is there something else these could be? Sanderson referred to his kongamato offhandedly as “the Granddaddy of all bats.” Considering that the largest known bat is otherwise the Philippines’ Giant Gold-Crowned Flying Fox–whose maximum wingspan is 5 feet 7 inches–the suggestion that the kongamato is actually a heretofore uncategorized species of them is not implausible, though hardly less horrifying. Another theory is that the kongamato could be a giant stingray which, when disturbed, overturns boats and flaps a bit out of the water, though that does not account for sightings of the kongamato high up in the air or running before taking off, and is not entirely reassuring, either. The simple answer is often the best one; perhaps legends are real. It was just off the coast of Africa that fishermen caught the coelacanth, a marine contemporary of the pterodactyl. Who’s to say the pterosaurs couldn’t have survived mass extinction, too?

In 2010, the Creationist group Genesis Park traveled to the swamps to look for evidence of the kongamato themselves. They interviewed local fisherman and held night-long vigils, but found nothing conclusive. Perhaps it is time we took up the torch. After all, the swamp’s other claim to fame is that they are a popular site for bird-watching. Perhaps we will spot a lovely sparrow in addition to our flesh-eating friend.

Would you come on an ornithological trip to search for a prehistoric hell beast? What three items would you bring, besides a pair of binoculars and your trusty khaki shorts? Share your answers in the comments below.

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Blobs in the Deep: The North Carolina Sewage Monster

Warning: My beta reader has referred to the monster of this post as “okay, like, legit disgusting.” If you are eating or are easily disturbed, you might want to sit this one out.

On April 27, 2009, the town of Raleigh, North Carolina contracted South Carolina-based Malphrus Construction to pilot a robotic surveillance camera into the sewers under Cameron Village. They were, they claimed, looking to take a survey of the sixty-year-old system, which had been struggling with infrastructure issues. Later it came out that the company might actually have been looking for a discarded weapon, but once the camera got down below the surface and shined its light into the black, filthy pipes, everyone forgot about that in a hurry.

Imagine, if you will, inching through those conduits: shadows at your back, shadows just beyond the reach of your light. The pipe is small enough that your eyes are nearly at its ceiling, which is speckled with the type of debris one might expect to find in a sewage conduit. Brown water flows steadily over your feet, only to disappear into the darkness ahead. You come across a seam in the pipe that is not as flush as it should be, and cannot fail to notice that there is something bulging out of it, just above the stream of the water.

It is pink and black, bulbous, with tendrils like blood-poisoned veins stretching out to cling to the wall.  Sinewy and visibly slimy, at the touch of your light it shudders and retreats back into the crack, but only a little. It ticks, retracting, and shudders again. Horrified, you try to move forward, only to find two more straight ahead, facing each other across the sides of the tunnel. They sit quietly until you approach, and when you do, retract and retreat again, fighting their own weight, away from the shine of the light.

Think I’m embellishing? Take a look at the video.

When the footage hit the web, many doubted its authenticity. How could such a horror be real? Assuming that it couldn’t, everyone slept a little better. Then Marti Gibson, the Environmental Coordinator for Raleigh Public Utilities, confirmed that it was.  She wrote in addition to i09 and urged people not to worry; the creatures were nothing but slime molds–repugnant, but not worth a panic.

Then, a few hours later, Gibson abruptly retracted that, calling the blobs a collection of worms and stating that regardless, the city of Raleigh was not responsible for the things discovered by a private contractor.

Now it was early July. In the span of four days, the video of what lurked under Cameron Village had been viewed 4.7 million times. Exasperated commenters assured their less well-informed peers that the blobs were just worms–tubifex worms, in fact, the type that people use to feed their fish. Ed Buchan, with the comforting heft of an environmental coordinator position at the Public Utilities Department, assured folks that the tubifex theory made sense. Tubifex worms feed of off debris and are known to cluster in groups about a half inch to an inch in diameter, he said, and conjectured that they’d moved in response to the heat of the light. These worms, he stated, were not dangerous to the water system–were completely harmless. No need to panic.

Biology professor Thomas Kwak at North Carolina State University disagreed. They could not be worms, he said, giving voice to investigators skeptical that Tubifex worms could appear as uniform as the creatures in the pipes did, or move and pulse as one like the blobs had, or never show up individually in the video on or around the mass itself. More likely they were bryozoans, creatures that feed off bacteria, thrive in the dark, and are commonly found both in sea and freshwater environments. But these, he assured everyone, were also harmless. Though they could grow to be the size of a watermelon, they need not be removed from the tube.

Doctor Timothy Wood, bryozoan expert of Wright State University, threw the ball back yet again:

“No, these are not bryozoans! They are clumps of annelid worms, almost certainly tubificids (Naididae, probably genus Tubifex) […] The contractions you see are the result of a single worm contracting and then stimulating all the others to do the same almost simultaneously, so it looks like a single big muscle contracting.”

So the creatures were not bryozoans. And so, the intrepid observer might ask, if they were not those, but also might not have been tubifex worms, what could they be?

An excellent question, and one that seems to have been hastily avoided. Many considered the case closed with the final tubifex argument, but the issue of the blobs appearing to be uniform–without any spare worms around–was never addressed. Nobody went in to take a sample to settle the matter. Nobody pointed out other, less tidy options–the ones you and I might be thinking of now.

Everyone did agree, however, that they wouldn’t take responsibility, and that we really shouldn’t trouble ourselves to go back and bother the creatures again.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Would you?

The Bunyip: Swamp Monster of the Down Under

Let’s play a game. What is thirteen feet tall, bipedal, and with scales all over?

By Robertpeters9 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
No idea? Okay, what is snake-like, but with flippers, and black fur all over?

Via Wikimedia Commons

Not quite? What is essentially an enormous dog, only aquatic and possibly covered with feathers or featuring tusks?

By Macfarlane, J. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Still don’t get it? Surprise! This is the same creature, one and all. Regardless of how it’s appeared, this puppy has been terrifying Australians for some 50,000 years, ever since they first arrived on the continent. It lurks in the swamps, riverbeds, and billabongs;* howls in the night; and has a hunger for human flesh–especially that of women and children. Ladies and gentlemen, meet…the bunyip!

The stories surrounding this terror are only slightly more straightforward than its physical description. The bunyip was said not only to kill people by eating them, but to crush them to death with its arms. Indigenous Australians thought the bunyip to be a malevolent spirit from the Dreamtime, the realm in which earth itself was created.  As such, it was purported to have supernatural powers,  and on a continent full of things that can easily kill you, it scared some people so bad that they would actually avoid water sources for fear of falling in its clutches. Some have suggested that this might account for its varying descriptions–if a person was lucky enough to run into a bunyip and survive, she was likely too afraid to have taken careful stock of what the thing actually looked like.

When white settlers showed up, stories of the bunyip not only persisted, but proliferated. On July 2, 1845, the Geelong Advertiser provided the first written mention of the creature, interviewing indigenous Australians upon the discovery of a strange new bone:

“[T]hey one and all recognized the bone and picture as belonging to the “Bunyip,” repeating the name without variation. One declared he knew where the whole of the bones of one animal were to be found; another stated his mother was killed by one of them, at at Barwon Lakes, within a few miles of Geelong, and that another woman was killed on the very spot where the punt crosses the Barwon at South Geelong. The most direct evidence of all was that of Mumbowran, who showed several deep wounds on his breast made by the claws of the animal.”

They weren’t the only ones talking about it. In 1852, escaped convict William Buckley returned from his adventures living with the Wathaurong people to write a memoir. He himself had seen the bunyip several times–but only a large back drifting through the water, never a tail or head. He, too, knew of a woman who had been killed by one.

But even as the settlers were infected by bunyip fever, descriptions–and interpretation of–the creature began to change. In a rash of sightings in the 1840’s and 50’s, the bunyip went from being a horrifying supernatural predator to a shaggy herbivore the size of a large dog. In March of 1846, the Port Phillip paper reported the sighting of a bunyip (or an immense platypus) sunning himself on the side of the river Yarra. A crowd gathered and a team went to investigate, but the creature disappeared when they came within a few feet away. In 1852, a pair of friends canoeing on Lake Tiberias actually bumped into a bunyip with their boat, whereupon it simply turned and swam out of sight. As the years passed, the bunyip got even smaller–on one occasion in 1886, a couple of horseman came across one near a river, and threw rocks at it to drive it away.

A lack of recent sightings has led some to believe that if the bunyip did exist, it’s gone extinct. But with such a long and complex history, it would be foolhardy to say that nothing could have existed at all.

Even if you disregard supernatural explanations, the bunyip still represents a cultural terror passed down over millennia–a terror that might have been carried over from something very real. It could have been from something as simple as the saltwater crocodile–a known aquatic mankiller–but there were other, bigger things around when humans first arrived on the continent. Take the Diprotodon, the largest known marsupial to have ever lived, who could have existed alongside humans for as much as 20,000 years and whose name means “two forward teeth.” This is the creature crytozoologists point to most often as the inspiration for the bunyip, but there is also the Nototherium, the Zygomaturus, and the “ancient leaper” Palorchestes to consider.

Then we have the theory that for later sightings, witnesses might actually have encountered escaped convicts skulking in the swamp. Nicknamed swaggies, these fellows would evade capture by hiding out in one of the more inhospitable environments of Australia, only to rise, dripping and covered with muck, when the coast was clear. If the observer were forced to choose between that and a supernatural man eater, in theory the former would win, but it’s difficult to say by what margin.

Regardless of what the bunyip is or where it came from, I’ll leave you today with the wise words of a children’s song from Dot and the Kangaroo:

“So you better come come quickly

You better hide very soon

Or the bunyip’s going to get you

In the bunyip

Moon…”

Thanks for reading.

Have you ever seen a bunyip? Perhaps in your local sewer drain, creek, or the quagmire of your neighbor’s overwatered yard? Share your story in the comments below.

*billabong = stagnant river backwaters