The late biologist Ivan T. Sanderson told of a fascinating encounter of the mysterious ape variety that occurred in 1918. The location: Indonesia. The witness, said Sanderson, “…was a Mr. van Heerwarden timber-cruising from the other side (the northeast) of the Barisans in Palembang province, but down in the swamp forests by the coast near the Banjoe-Asin River. In 1918 he spotted two series of tracks on the banks of a small creek in the Musi River district; one larger than the other, as if of a mother and child, as he remarks. These were perfectly human but exceedingly small. Later he discovered that a Mr. Breikers had also found such tracks in the same area.”
Sanderson noted that van Heerwarden began to dig deep into the heart of the puzzle and uncovered additional accounts of the creatures, which, he learned, were known locally as Sedapas – also as Sebabas and Sedapak. On this particular matter of further such reports, Sanderson said: “Their descriptions agreed perfectly in that they were about 5 feet tall, walked erect, were clothed in black hair that formed a mane, and had prominent teeth. van Heerwarden later heard that a hunter had found a dead one and tried to carry it back to his village but its body was much decomposed and the hunter himself died shortly afterward. Another, he learned, was said to have been spotted in a river and surrounded by locals in canoes but it dived adroitly and escaped.”
Fortunately for van Heerwarden, he had a startling encounter in October 1923, while he was engaged in a hunt for pigs. Since the pigs were acting in a highly elusive fashion, van Heerwarden decided to situate himself in a place in which he would likely not be spotted by any passing pig. It was not a pig that passed by, however, but something else. Something absolutely unanticipated.
van Heerwarden recorded the facts himself. They begin as follows: “I happened by chance to look round to the left and spotted a slight movement in a small tree that stood alone. By now it was time for me to be going home, for it was not advisable to journey through such country after sundown. But all the same I was tempted out of curiosity to go and see what had caused the movement I had noticed. What sort of animal could be in that tree? My first quick look revealed nothing. But after walking round the tree again, I discovered a dark and hairy creature on a branch, the front of its body pressed tightly against the tree. It looked as if it were trying to make itself inconspicuous and felt that it was about to be discovered. It must be a Sedapa. Hunters will understand the excitement that possessed me.”
To begin with, van Heerwarden decided to just keep a careful eye on the animal, which was apparently practically frozen to the tree. Maybe, as a result of outright fear. As we’ll very soon see, that was almost certainly the case. van Heerwarden chose to call out to it. The animal remained completely still. He said: “What was I to do? I could not get help to capture the beast. And as time was running short I was obliged to tackle it myself. I tried kicking the trunk of the tree, without the least result. I laid my gun on the ground and tried to get nearer the animal.”
van Heerwarden climbed several feet up the tree, which allowed him to get a good look at its hair, its face, and its penetrating eyes. When man and animal locked eyes on each other, recalled van Heerwarden, the poor creature “became nervous and trembled all over its body.” van Heerwarden quickly lowered himself, in the hope that the unidentified animal would calm down. He sat quietly and noticed just about every aspect of its appearance. As a result, we have an excellent description of the animal from the man himself. van Heerwarden said of the creature, which was female and around five-feet in height:
“The Sedapa was also hairy on the front of its body; the color there was a little lighter than on the back. The very dark hair on its head fell to just below the shoulder-blades or even almost to the waist. It was fairly thick and very shaggy. The lower part of its face seemed to end in more of a point than a man’s; this brown face was almost hairless, whilst its forehead seemed to be high rather than low. Its eyebrows were the same color as its hair and were very bushy.”
van Heerwarden had much more to say about the curious thing that sat barely a few feet away: “Its canines showed clearly from time to time as its mouth twitched nervously. They seemed fairly large to me, at all events they were more developed than a man’s. The incisors were regular. The color of the teeth was yellowish white. Its chin was somewhat receding. For a moment, during a quick movement, I was able to see its right ear which was exactly like a little human ear. Its hands were slightly hairy on the back. Had it been standing, its arms would have reached to a little above its knees; they were therefore long, but its legs seemed to me rather short. I did not see its feet, but I did see some toes which were shaped in a very normal manner.”
At one point, van Heerwarden raised his weapon at the animal. On doing so, he said, “I heard a plaintive ‘hu-hu,’ which was at once answered by similar echoes in the forest nearby. I laid down my gun and climbed into the tree again. I had almost reached the foot of the bough when the Sedapa ran very fast out along the branch, which bent heavily, hung on to the end and then dropped a good 10 feet to the ground. I slid hastily back to the ground, but before I could reach my gun again, the beast was almost 30 yards away.”
While van Heerwarden clearly had the opportunity to shoot and kill the mysterious ape, to his great credit he chose not to. There was a very good reason for that. It was a reason which played deeply on his mind. He recorded that: “Many people may think me childish if I say that when I saw its flying hair in the sights I did not pull the trigger. I suddenly felt that I was going to commit murder.” An indication, perhaps, that the animal had qualities which bordered upon human? Unknown ape? Primitive human? Maybe the answers are still to be found in the depths of the islands of Indonesia.