Humankind has always had the drive for exploration, to reach further over the next hill, toward the next horizon, to push into the uncharted areas of our world and beyond. It seems only natural that the intrepid explorers who first step foot into new, unexplored realms that are strangers to civilization should come across things no one has ever seen before, to come across creatures that seemingly should only inhabit the wilds of the imagination. Very often these adventurers are not particularly looking for the totally outlandish, but sometimes the weird manages to find them all the same. Here we will look at some cases of early explorers penetrating into new, dark domains and encountering things from beyond our understanding.
Going way back to the year 1882 we have a curious discovery that was allegedly made out in the wilds of Australia by explorer and naturalist Henry James McCooey, who was at the time exploring the vast uncharted wilderness of the coast between Bateman’s Bay and Ulladulla, of New South Wales. He would write that he had during his journey come across a peculiar man-like beast, its presence alerted by a sudden flight of small birds from the brush. As McCooey peered through the trees he would claim to have seen something unlike anything he had ever seen before, saying of it:
When I first beheld the animal it was standing on its hind legs, partly upright, looking up at the birds above it in the bushes, blinking its eyes and distorting its visage and making a low chattering kind of noise. Being above the animal on a slight elevation and distant from it less than a chain, I had ample opportunity of noting its size and general appearance. I should think that if it were standing perfectly upright it would be nearly 5ft high. It was tailless and covered with very long black hair, which was of a dirty red or snuff-colour about the throat and breast. Its eyes, which were small and restless, were partly hidden by matted hair that covered its head. The length of the fore legs or arms seemed to be strikingly out of proportion with the rest of its body, but in all other respects its build seemed to be fairly proportional. It would probably weigh about 8st. On the whole it was a most uncouth and repulsive looking creature, evidently possessed of prodigious strength, and one which I should not care to come to close quarters with. Having sufficiently satisfied my curiosity, I throw a stone at the animal, whereupon it immediately rushed off, followed by the birds, and disappeared in a ravine which was close at hand.
McCooey would then get back to civilization and try to convince the Australian Museum to mount a search for the creature but he met with little success in this and was mostly scoffed at. He was offered a large sum of money if he were able to bring the creature in alive, but he was never able to do so. He may have not been so crazy after all, because his is among the first sightings by outsiders of what would become known as the Yowie, Australia’s own version of Bigfoot. Indeed, in the years after McCooey’s encounter sightings of the strange creature in the same vicinity would begin to pour in, right up to the present day in fact, and he would later further lament the decision of the museum to not follow-up on any of this, at one point writing:
The position taken by the Curator of the Museum is absolutely untenable... there are indigenous apes in this colony...they have been frequently seen in Budawong mountains, in Jingera mountains, and in the Abercrombie mountains, at Bateman's Bay, at Mount Macdonald, and on the Guy Fawkes-road between Armidale and Grafton...apes were known to the aborigines of this colony, and were dreaded by them, long before a museum was founded in Australia, or a white man crossed the Murray; and that one was actually captured and killed near Braidwood within the memory of persons still living.
Whatever McCooey did or didn’t see, there can be no denying that the Yowie is one of Australia’s best known cryptids, and his is still a remarkable historical account. In the 20th century we have many supposed accounts from the region of South America, which at the time had vast expanses of largely unexplored, nearly impenetrable wilderness that might as well have been the surface of some alien world. One early explorer of South America, who wrote of actual possible living dinosaurs in the region, was a German by the name of Franz Herrmann Schmidt, who in October of 1907 was exploring the inhospitable Peruvian interior along with a Capt. Rudolph Pfleng and some native guides. Upon coming to a thickly forested valley they claim that they found an area along the Solimes River that was oddly devoid of any water animals such as alligators and aquatic snakes, or indeed any life at all, and they came across some unusual massive footprints in the mud. The guides reportedly became quite upset and agitated at this discovery, and warned them to head back, but they apparently camped out there anyway. The next day fresh mysterious tracks were purportedly found along the river near the camp, and Pfleng announced that he had decided that he was going to follow them to see where they led. Shortly after this, there was a commotion in the jungle as the monkeys and birds screamed and shrieked and a large dark shape crashed about in the brush, which sent one of the spooked Indian guides scurrying for safety in one of the canoes. Schmidt would write of the incident:
One of the excited Indians began to paddle the boat away from the shore, and before we could stop him we were 100 feet from the waterline. Now we could see nothing and the Indians absolutely refused to put in again, while neither Pfleng nor myself [sic] cared to lay down our rifles to paddle. There was a great moving of plants and a sound like heavy slaps of a great paddle, mingled with the cries of some of the monkeys moving rapidly away from the lake…. For a full 10 minutes there was silence, then the green growth began to stir again, and coming back to the lake we beheld the frightful monster that I shall now describe.
The head appeared over bushes 10 feet tall. It was about the size of a beer keg and was shaped like that of a tapir, as if the snout was used for pulling things or taking hold of them. The eyes were small and dull and set in like those of an alligator. Despite the half dried mud, we could see that the neck, which was very snakelike, only thicker in proportion, was rough knotted like an alligator’s side rather than his back. Evidently the animal saw nothing odd in us, if he noticed us, and advanced till he was no more than 150 feet away. We could see part of the body, which I should judge to have been eight or nine feet thick at the shoulders, if that word may be used, since there were no fore legs, only some great heavy clawed flippers. The surface was like that of the neck.
It is all rather dramatic and harrowing enough to be sure, but it apparently got even more so when Pfleng whipped his rifle up and took a shot at it, as it seems humans are wont to do when facing the unknown, which apparently merely ricocheted off of its bony head. Schmidt also fired at it, and this time hit it in the base of the neck, which also seemed to also have little effect. According to Schmidt’s account, they then began unloading their weapons on the massive creature in unison, which sent it fleeing into the muddy water. Schmidt would say of what happened next:
As quickly as we could fire we pumped seven shots into it, and I believe all struck. They seemed to annoy the creature but not to work any injury. Suddenly it plunged forward in a silly clumsy fashion. The Indians nearly upset the dugout getting away, and both Pfleng and I missed the sight as it entered the water. I was very anxious to see its hind legs, if it had any. I looked again only in time to see the last of it leave the land -a heavy blunt tail with rough horny lumps. The head was visible still, though the body was hidden by the splash. From the instant’s opportunity I should say that the creature was 35 feet long, with at least 12 of this devoted to head and neck.
In three seconds there was nothing to be seen except the waves of the muddy water, the movements of the waterside growth and a monkey with its hind parts useless hauling himself up a tree top. As the Indians paddled frantically away I put a bullet through the poor thing to let it out of its misery. We had not gone a hundred yards before Pfleng called to me and pointed to the right. Above the water an eighth of a mile away appeared the head and neck of the monster. It must have dived and gone right under us. After a few seconds’ gaze it began to swim toward us, and as our bullets seemed to have no effect we took flight in earnest. Losing sight of it behind an island, we did not pick it up again and were just as well pleased.
It is certainly a very spectacular account, made all the weirder as it appears within an otherwise rather nondescript, even dull account of the expedition that is all rather credible and ordinary for the most part. It has been suggested that perhaps this report was an addition slipped in later or that Schmidt just made up the story to liven things up, but there is no way to tell. In remains another lost historical account buried in a forgotten explorer’s notes, with no way of checking its veracity and forever to linger in the realm of speculation.
Also from the wilds of South America we have the famed explorer Percy Fawcett, who is most well-known for his ambitious and ill-fated expedition in 1925 to find a lost city he was convinced existed in the forgotten depths of the Amazon jungle, a journey during which he would vanish off the face of the earth to become one of the most baffling disappearances in history. I have written of Fawcett and his various expeditions in much more depth here at Mysterious Universe before, but one of the more interesting aspects of his adventures are all of the strange and mysterious creatures he allegedly encountered along the way. Fawcett kept detailed journals of his expeditions, and flipping through the normal, more mundane everyday trials and tribulations of the expedition one can find some rather amazing, bizarre accounts involving myriad strange creatures that just seem to fly off the page. Indeed, Fawcett’s journals hold a veritable zoo of strange beasts that have never really been identified or explained, and he once cryptically wrote of the Amazon as being:
A poisoned hell that could never be explored on foot, 60 foot anacondas capable of picking a man out of a canoe, savage ape men, an infested plain of deadly snakes, bats so big they looked like pterodactyls, ferocious black panthers, white Indian tribes, swarms of biting bees, fires in the distance.
Some of the strange creatures that are mentioned in his journals and which are obviously something not officially known are frustratingly mentioned only briefly or in passing, as if they are just a part of everyday life for them, another one of the menagerie of poisonous snakes and spiders, vampire bats, giant anacondas, electric eels, ferocious piranhas, jungle cats, and other dangerous animals that all conspired to make the expedition members miserable. One of these was something he called the “sauba ants” which could apparently reduce clothing and bedding to threads in a single night, mentioned in passing but obviously no normal ants. There are also causal mentions made of millipedes that squirt cyanide and a type of gigantic spider larger than a dinner plate he calls the Apazauca Spider, which he says had poison that could kill a grown man nearly instantaneously and liked to enter tents at night. Another creature described in only passing detail is what is described as a cat-like canid with a double nose, and he also makes mention of a shark called the manguruyú, which he writes is “a freshwater shark, huge but toothless, said to attack men and swallow them if it gets a chance.”
These are all strange in that they give such short shrift to these oddities, maddeningly brief and lacking in detail, which was a bit odd for Fawcett, who normally went to great lengths to take meticulous and detailed notes during his expeditions. Fawcett made another brief mention in his many notes of something very strange, large, and seemingly very much like a dinosaur in the wilds of Bolivia, of which he wrote:
Some mysterious and enormous beast has frequently been disturbed in the swamps – possibly a primeval monster like those reported in other parts of the continent. Certainly tracks have been found belonging to no known animal – huge tracks, far greater than could have been made by any species we know.
What was it? It is hard to say as he never mentions it again, although he at several points talks about hearing from natives of enormous, mysterious tracks along the Acre River, near where the borders of Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil collide. This is only just the beginning of tales of Fawcett’s encounters with mystery beasts in the remote rainforests of South America, and other reports get a bit more meat to them and are also quite a bit more spectacular. One of these is his expedition’s supposed encounters with a giant snake far larger than anything known, and also more aggressive. Compared to the brief, matter-of-fact write-ups on the creatures already mentioned, Fawcett in this case goes into great detail about the team’s harrowing encounter, writing:
We were drifting easily along in the sluggish current not far below the confluence of the Rio Negro when almost under the bow of the boat there appeared a triangular head and several feet of undulating body. It was a giant anaconda. I sprang for my rifle as the creature began to make its way up the bank, and hardly waiting to aim smashed a .44 soft-nosed bullet into its spine, ten feet below the wicked head. At once there was a flurry of foam, and several heavy thumps against the boat's keel, shaking us as though we had run on a snag. With great difficulty I persuaded the Indian crew to turn in shore-wards. They were so frightened that the whites showed all round their popping eyes, and in the moment of firing I had heard their terrified voices begging me not to shoot lest the monster destroy the boat and kill everyone on board, for not only do these creatures attack boats when injured, but also there is great danger from their mates.
We stepped ashore and approached the reptile with caution. It was out of action, but shivers ran up and down the body like puffs of wind on a mountain tarn. As far as it was possible to measure, a length of 45 feet lay out of the water, and 17 feet in it, making a total length of 62 feet. Its body was not thick for such a colossal length-not more than 12 inches in diameter -but it had probably been long without food. I tried to cut a piece out of the skin, but the beast was by no means dead and the sudden upheavals rather scared us. A penetrating foetid odour emanated from the snake, probably its breath, which is believed to have a stupefying effect, first attracting and later paralysing its prey. Everything about this snake was repulsive. Such large specimens as this may not be common, but the trails in the swamps reach a width of six feet and support the statements of Indians and rubber pickers that the anaconda sometimes reaches an incredible size, altogether dwarfing the one shot by me. The Brazilian Boundary Commission told me of one killed in the Rio Paraguay exceeding 80 feet in length!
That is a big snake. Besides giant snakes, Fawcett also wrote quite a lot on his encounters with a tribe of hairy, man-like beasts that he calls the Maricoxi, and which are mostly described as being little more than beastly hairy ape-like savages. By far his most detailed entry on these creatures is also the most sensational, in which Fawcett provides a blow by blow description of his expedition’s frightening encounter with these beasts thusly:
I whistled, and an enormous creature, hairy as a dog, leapt to his feet in the nearest shelter, fitted an arrow to his bow in a flash, and came up dancing from one leg to the other till he was only four yards away. Emitting grunts that sounded like 'Eugh! Eugh! Eugh!' he remained there dancing, and suddenly the whole forest around us was alive with these hideous ape-men, all grunting 'Eugh! Eugh! Eugh!' and dancing from leg to leg in the same way as they strung arrows to their bows. It looked like a very delicate situation for us, and I wondered if it was the end. I made friendly overtures in Maxubi, but they paid no attention. It was as though human speech were beyond their powers of comprehension.
The creature in front of me ceased his dance, stood for a moment perfectly still, and then drew his bowstring back till it was level with his ear, at the same time raising the barbed point of the six-foot arrow to the height of my chest. I looked straight into the pig-like eyes half hidden under the overhanging brows, and knew that he was not going to loose that arrow yet. As deliberately as he had raised it, he now lowered the bow, and commenced once more the slow dance, and the 'Eugh! Eugh! Eugh!
A second time he raised the arrow at me and drew the bow back, and again I knew he would not shoot. It was just as the Maxubis told me it would be. Again he lowered the bow and continued his dance. Then for the third time he halted and began to bring up the arrow's point. I knew he meant business this time, and drew out a Mauser pistol I had on my hip. It was a big, clumsy thing, of a caliber unsuitable to forest use, but I had brought it because by clipping the wooden holster to the pistol-butt it became a carbine, and was lighter to carry than a true rifle. It used .38 black powder shells, which made a din out of all proportion to their size. I never raised it; I just pulled the trigger and banged it off into the ground at the ape-man's feet.
The effect was instantaneous. A look of complete amazement came into the hideous face, and the little eyes opened wide. He dropped his bow and arrow and sprang away as quickly as a cat to vanish behind a tree. Then the arrows began to fly. We shot off a few rounds into the branches, hoping the noise would scare the savages into a more receptive frame of mind, but they seemed in no way disposed to accept us, and before anyone was hurt we gave it up as hopeless and retreated down the trail till the camp was out of sight. We were not followed, but the clamor in the village continued for a long time as we struck off northwards, and we fancied we still heard the 'Eugh! Eugh! Eugh!' of the enraged braves.
What were these creatures? Considering they are only ever mentioned in Fawcett's report we will probably never know. Although it might be tempting to chalk some of these reports up to instances of Fawcett being a little imaginative and sprucing his journal up a bit, the thing is he was not really known for that at all. Fawcett was a respected explorer and naturalist, a consummate professional who kept very good and accurate journals for what he saw or witnessed, with no real hint that he was prone to just sudden flights of fancy or making things up, and these tales are also interspersed between totally normal accounts of mundane things and observations, so why would he do this in the first place? In the end we are left to just wonder what was going on here.
What collection of mysterious and strange stories from past explorers would be complete without a visit to the dark jungles of Africa? Here we indeed have other tales, and certainly high among these is the account of a British explorer and big game hunter by the name of John Alfred Jordan. In a 1910 book of travel essays, the explorer and fellow big game hunter Edgar Beecher Bronson wrote in his memoir In Closed Territory of a harrowing confrontation Jordan claimed to have had with some sort of mysterious reptilian beast. Bronson relates that Jordan was marching along the shores of Kenya’s River Maggori when he reportedly came across an enormous beast the likes of which had never seen before or since. During their trek, some of the native guides who had scouted ahead came rushing back through the thick jungle in a panic and told Bronson that they had seen a hulking brute of a beast which they said looked like “a cross between a sea serpent, a leopard, and a whale,” but the explorer had dismissed the story and told them that he’d believe it when he saw it. Apparently he did not have long to wait, as he soon saw it for himself wallowing in the river. The initial sight of the creature is described thusly:
Holy saints, but he was a sight—fourteen or fifteen feet long, head big as that of a lioness but shaped and marked like a leopard, two long white fangs sticking down straight out of his upper jaw, back broad as a hippo, scaled like an armadillo, but colored and marked like a leopard, and a broad fin tail, with slow, lazy swishes of which he was easily holding himself level in the swift current, headed up stream. Gad! but he was a hideous old haunter of a nightmare, was that beast-fish, that made you want an aeroplane to feel safe of him; for while he lay up stream of me, I had been brought down to the river bank precisely where he had taken water, and there all about me in the soft mud and loam were the imprints of feet wide of diameter as a hippo’s but clawed like a reptile’s, feet you knew could carry him ashore and claws you could be bally well sure no man could ever get loose from once they had nipped him. Blast that blighter’s fangs, but they looked long enough to go clean through a man.
The hunter then stood there in bafflement watching the beast for a time as it swam about in the water oblivious to his presence. When the hunter began to fear that it might notice him and attack, he got out his .303 rifle and fired at the creature, hitting it “behind its leopard ear,” which caused it to leap straight up out of the water in a rage. Jordan then claimed that he had run away as fast as he had ever run before into the jungle. When he returned later there was no sign of where the creature had gone, no body, and the perplexed hunter would describe the puzzling scene as follows:
Presently I heard the bush smashing and up raced my Lumbwa, wide-eyed and gray as their black skins could get, with the yarn that they had seen a frightful strange beast on the river bank, which at sight of them had plunged into the water as they described it, some sort of cross between a sea serpent, a leopard, and a whale. Thinking they had gone crazy or were pulling my leg, I told them I'd believe them if they could show me, but not before. After a long shauri palaver among themselves, back they finally ventured, returning in half an hour to say that IT lay full length exposed on the water in midstream. Gory wonder, was that fellow; a .303, where placed, should have killed anything, for he was less than ten yards from me when I shot, but though we watched waters and shores over a range of several miles for two days, no sight did we get of him or his tracks.
The creature would go on to be known as the Dingonek and “jungle walrus,” and although the entire party who had been present corroborated the strange story it remains unique in that no one has apparently seen the creature since, or at least has lived to tell the tale. There was understandably a lot of skepticism at the time, and it was mostly considered to be a tall traveler’s tale, but at least one other explorer would provide corroboration of these events, in the form of the British Colonial administrator in Kenya at the time, a Charles William Hobley, who would write in his Journal of East Africa Uganda Natural History Society of another, very similar report, saying:
At the time this (Jordan’s) story appeared it was considered that this was probably a traveller's tale, told to entertain a newcomer, but I have sine met a man who a few years back wandering about the Mara River or Ngare Dubash which rises in Sotik, crosses the Anglo-German boundary and runs into Lake Victoria in German territory. He emphatically asserts that he saw the beast. He was at the time where the Mara River crosses the frontier, and the river was in high flood. The beast came floating down the river on a big log, and he estimated its length at about sixteen feet, but could not certain of its length as its tail was in the water. He describes it as spotted like a leopard, covered with scales, and having a head like an otter; he did not see the long fangs described by Mr. Jordan. He fired at it and hit it; it slid off the log into the water and was not seen again. It is the greatest rarity which has not yet been bagged [which] would appear to be the extraordinary creature which is said to inhabit certain of the rivers running into Lake Victoria and the lake itself.
Also from Africa is the account of the explorer Frank Welland, who allegedly had a noteworthy tale to tell in 1932 while on an expedition to Central Africa, and of which he would describe in his book In Witchbound Africa. During his travels he says he came across stories of a massive winged beast with leathery wings and reddish coloration, which the natives called the Kongamato, or “overwhelmer of boats.” It is a creature that has gone on to become much discussed in cryptozoology but at the time was totally unknown to the outside world, and Welland claimed that the natives of the regions it was said to inhabit greatly feared it. Welland himself believed it to perhaps be a surviving type of pterodactyl, and he would write of it:
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…The natives do not consider it to be an unnatural thing like a mulombe [demon] only a very awful thing, like a man-eating lion or a rogue elephant, but infinitely worse… I have mentioned the Jiundu swamp [northwestern Zambia] as one of the reputed haunts of the kongamato, and I must say that the place itself is the very kind of place in which such a reptile might exist, if it is possible anywhere.
This assumption would be further bolstered by later explorers who claimed to have heard the stories or to have even encountered the ferocious creatures, with one solid eyewitness account coming from the explorer J.P.F. Brown, who in 1956 was working in the region at Fort Rosebery, near Lake Bangweulu in what is now Zambia. Brown would claim to have seen two of the creatures soaring through the sky, and that they had massive wingspans, long thin tails, and long, protruding snouts. It certainly sounds very much like pterosaurs or something similar. There have been sporadic reports of something very much likes this from several areas of Africa, and one wonders if this is a relic population of winged prehistoric reptiles or something else.
These have just been a few of the many expedition accounts of explorers running across the wild and weird in our uncharted wildernesses, uncovering mysteries that linger to this day. Such historical accounts are perplexing in that there is no way for us to really verify them, the witnesses long dead and the only thing left to go on these writings filed away in old journals from another era. What did these explorers encounter out there? Whatever the case may be, as long as we continue to venture out to new frontiers there will inevitably be more such encounters, perhaps even stranger still.