Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Richard's thoughts on the expedition

At sometime in their lives an explorer will hear the call of the Dark Continent. Most of my work has been done in the Far East. The orient is beautiful and mysterious, but nowhere epitomizes primal savagery and shadowy weirdness the way Africa does.

It’s been 21 years since I set foot in Africa, so this trip means a lot to me. Anyone who has read Bernard Heuvelmans’ “On The Track Of Unknown Animals” cannot have helped but think of this as a continent seething with monsters. Heuvelmans wrote of giant flying reptiles, monster snakes lurking in swamps, great grey cats slinking through the night, and modern-day dragons.

Deep from the jungles and marshlands of central and western Africa come stories of huge and dangerous reptiles. They have many names. In the Congo it’s Mokele Mbembe, in Zimbabwe it is known as Chipekwe, in northern Angola it is called Isiququmadevu. In the Gambia the African dragon is called Ninki-Nanka.

It’s strange to think of the popular holiday destination as the home of a monster. But away from the tourist areas there are still great stretches of mangrove, jungle, and swampland in this tiny country. In neighboring Senegal there is even more trackless miles for the creature to lurk.

The stories of Ninki-Nanka stretch back to time in memorial. My first exposure to them came in an account written by Dr Thomas Hardie Dalrymple who was based in the Gambia in the 1930s. Once, the beast caused a panic when it rose from the river one night but the swarms of mosquitoes prevented Dalrymple from seeing the beast himself. On another occasion he saw a crowd of locals excitedly talking about how the white man had photographed Ninki-Nanka. On investigation the photo was of a model dinosaur in an American magazine.

Just after WW1, a night watchman at a lake that was being used to provide water for the capital Bathurst was allegedly killed by a Ninki-Nanka.

These stories were intriguing but I presumed that the belief in Ninki-Nanka had died out. I asked my friend Chris Moiser, a regular visitor to The Gambia, to enquire about it.
Both Chris and I were amazed to discover that not only was the beast still very much believed in, but it had allegedly killed people as recently as the 1990s! Chris found that even well-educated people like teachers were very, very, frightened of Ninki-Nanka. Even at governmental level, the dragon is taken seriously. In the 1980s a pollution even occurred along the River Gambia. A black slime flowed downstream and killed lots of fish. One theory the government proposed was that a dragon had died up-river, and the slime was poison from its carcass.

I think the Ninki-Nanka is a straggler from further south in Africa. It may well be a species of colossal monitor lizard. Whatever the truth, this will be the first dedicated expedition to search for this animal.

As for Bungalow Beach and its mystery carcass, the story has been kicking around for 23 years and no-one has been back to dig up the beach. If we dig a hole and find nothing, we have still put the story to bed once and for all. If we dig a hole and find the body of an animal we can then go about identifying it and solving the puzzle. Either way we get a result.


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