Where is the Midnight Lair of Mokele Mbembe?
October 14, 2013
I remember the first time I ever heard of Mokele Mbembe. One of my geology students from Africa stayed after class to discuss the subject. I had just given a lesson on the coelacanth, the prehistoric fish that was presumed extinct for seventy million years—until one was caught in 1938. Others have been caught since.
Njinbe Coboru came up to my lectern to ask if I had ever heard of Mokele Mbembe. I hadn’t. When he spoke of the creature he did so in hushed tones, with an almost reverence. Every time he said the name “Mokele Mbembe,” he got a strange look in his eyes. Then, the longer he talked of him the more excited he got. When he turned to go, I promised him I would read up on the matter, and thanked him for bringing it to my attention.
In 1980, I received a call from my good friend, Ray P. Mackal. He promised he would call when he returned from his trip and gotten on a relatively even keel, again. Ray was a biochemist—we had gone to school together and remained friends. I had been resigned to teaching geology.
Ray wanted me to come over to his house for a cup of coffee. He said he would tell me the tales of his journey.
I rang the doorbell and he answered. He didn’t look any worse for the wear. His white, shortly-clipped beard and his thick eyeglasses always made him look older than he was. He seemed a little more animated than his usual laid-back self—a hard to contain air of excitement.
We had a couple of cups of coffee in the study, then, he invited me into the dining room, where he had many things spread out on the table there. He picked up something that looked like a berry, with twigs and large oval leaves attached and handed it to me. It was bigger than an apple.
“Do you know what this is?” Ray asked.
“No. I don’t have a clue.”
“It is landophia fruit. It is the preferred diet of Mokele Mbembe.”
I was amazed—amazed that he had actually learned the main ingredient of Mokele Mbembe’s meals.
“It doesn’t eat humans, then? I am relieved that you weren’t gobbled up.”
“No. Mokele Mbembe is a herbivore. But it has been known to attack and kill, if its territory is invaded. And to reverse that, some pygmies once killed a Mokele Mbembe with spears, cooked and ate it. Afterward, bad luck and pestilence rained down on the pygmies for years.”
I did feel that there could be some prehistoric animals in the oceans or roaming in the dark secluded areas of our planet. The discovery of the coelacanth verified this. All sorts of unknown creatures wash up on beaches daily. I carefully examined each item on the table. There were plaster casts of footprints, larger than elephants’ feet and shaped differently. There were photographs of every aspect of the expedition that Mackal had just made into the dark recesses of the Congo.
There was photograph after photograph of the handicaps that faced them on their expedition—huge man-eating crocodiles in the Ubangi River, deadly mambas and gaboons, clouds of mosquitoes and tse tse flies. “You don’t have a photo of….?”
“Of Mokele Mbembe? No, but I feel we were very, very close to getting one. I plan to return in late 1981. Don’t suppose you would like to go…”
“I would love to, but it is out of the question at this time.”
Then Ray said, “Oh, I think you will like this. He pushed the ‘play’ button on a cassette recorder. I heard a long roar, similar to, but deeper than the bellow of an elephant. “That is the actual voice of Mokele Mbembe. We could not get in. The vegetation was too thick.”
“That is shocking! I remained in disbelief. Who is this fellow here?” I pointed to a picture. Mackal and his photographer were the only two white men in the crude log dugout navigating the Ubangi. The other men were large African guides.
“That one is not a guide. He is Marcellin Agnagna, an African biologist that has made a second career out of searching for Mokele Mbembe. He is a very interesting fellow and he has actually seen the beast!” The sketches Ray showed me that Marcellin made of it resembled a sauropod dinosaur.
“You are now even more convinced that the thing exists?” I asked. “It is very convincing.” His reply was:
“I admit that my own ideas are tinged with some romanticism, but certainly not to the extent that I would endure extreme hardship, even risk my life, to pursue a dream with no basis in reality.”
Markal returned to the Congo every time he could raise enough funds to go. There are trips by others, most of them scientists, often annually for the sole purpose of photographing Mokele Mbembe. The expeditions must endure oppressive steamy heat, threat of disease and fatal snakebite, the jaws of crocodiles, and the threat of civil war, terrorism or marauding butchers. Sometimes there is infighting in the expeditions before they even leave U.S. soil and the missions are aborted. I could never make the arrangements or scrape up the funds to go myself, or I would have. My brother and I spent hours watching Jungle Jim and Tarzan after school on TV. I am entranced. I love the way “Mokele Mbembe” sounds tripping off my tongue. I can hear drumbeats along the Congo in my head as it comes out of my mouth. I am so entranced that I did include the creature in a poem:
….or the place the earth drops off,
Its dropping-off place
Midnight lair of Mokele Mbembe,
By Mokele Mbembe
In 1983, Marcellin Agnagna spotted Mokele Mbembe again. This time it was in a lake.
Mokele Mbembe—when will you be ready for your close-up?