Jul 26, 2022 I Brent Swancer

Giant Reptilian Monsters at South Africa's Orange River

Meandering through the mountainous desert landscape of the Richtersveld of South Africa from Lesotho into South Africa and Namibia to the north, at places like a lush desert oasis, is the Orange River, Southern Africa’s longest river, with a total length of 2,432 km (1,511 miles). Although it is an extremely important river for providing water for irrigation and hydroelectric power to the arid region, the Orange River is notable in that it has relatively poor biodiversity compared to the surrounding regions, with no large animals such as crocodiles or hippopotami and only 16 known species of fish present, many of them non-indigenous and none particularly large. Yet, despite this, the Orange River has long had persistent reports of something very large and fierce lurking in its depths that has defied understanding.

The indigenous tribes of the region have long had stories of strange monsters in the Orange River since long before settlers arrived. In Bushman myth there was the koo-be-eng, said to be a giant horned amphibious crocodilian reptile that would lurk near shore to lurch from the reeds and drag animals and people to their deaths, as well as another giant snake called the kou-teign-'koo-rou, which was equally as dangerous. Indeed, when European explorers first arrived here they often heard tales of these fierce creatures, and they likened them to enormous alligators, even though alligators and crocodiles have never been found in the Orange River. The explorer Sir Edward James Alexander passed through the region from 1836 to 1837 and heard many tales from the natives of such giant reptilian beasts in the river, including crocodile-like monsters and giant snakes up to 40 feet long and with tracks up to 3 feet across. The South African pioneer Doctor Hans Sauer reported to have actually encountered a mysterious giant snake in the river as a child in the 1860s, of which he would write in his book Ex Africa:

One afternoon a group of schoolchildren, including myself, were swimming in the river, as we used to, when suddenly we saw a very large black snake swimming stubbornly against the tide, with its neck pricked up out of the water. The reptile was almost in the middle of the current, some distance from us. It was impossible to determine how he swam: if it was by means of legs or by undulating movements of the body. We all got dressed in a hurry and went home to tell the adults what we had seen. Hearing my story, my father and our neighbour, Wolf Levy, grabbed their guns and bounded in a rowboat in pursuit of the animal. They could still clearly see it advancing upstream before they could catch up with him, the mysterious creature disappeared among the rock and islets, and they did not see him again.

A portion of the Orange River

Missionaries, ranchers and traders too heard tales of the giant reptiles attacking and killing livestock and even people along the river, and such stories seemed to pervade the entire length of the river, meaning that nowhere seemed truly safe from this menace. A report from 1910 comes from an American cattle herder called simply Kammeyer, who claimed that an enormous snake-like creature had reared 12 feet out of the water while he was bathing and violently snatched a calf from the shore right before his eyes. These giant snakes were almost always seen as terrifying, to the point that many of the natives and settlers refused to go near the water in some areas, and they were even said to attack and sink boats. One shipping merchant by the name of G. A. Kinnear would have a harrowing encounter with a monstrous snake while shipping goats in the Northern Cape in 1899, of which he would say:

The boat had just been fully loaded with goats and was about ten yards from the bank when the head of a monstrous serpent emerged from the stream. The head, in which were set two large blinking eyes, was from seven to eight inches in width, and the eight to ten feet of body it reared out of the water could only have been about a quarter of its length. Only for an instant did its head appear before it dived again. I waited in suspense for its reappearance as I naturally expected it would make for the boat, but that was the last I saw of it. Hendrik, the boatman, was terror-stricken, and the other natives holding the goats were screaming in their fear.

In more recent years, sightings of what are now collectively often referred to as the grootslang, simply Afrikaans for "big snake" seemed to have continued on. In November of 1947, a traveler was at a former diamond mine along the river called the “Big Hole” when he claimed to have seen a large creature similar to a crocodile, which was 20 feet long and “with an unusually large head and a light brown body covered with scales that sparkled in the moonlight.” In 1949, a “black-haired, finned animal the size of a bull, with a bulldog's face, long ears, a long neck, staring eyes, and horns” was seen lurking about in the vicinity of the Kafferskraal Dam. Two witnesses by the names of D. J. Dahms and C. A. Van Niekerk even claimed to have captured the creature, pulling it up on shore, but by the time they were able to bring more people to see it the thing was gone. The creature was seen near the dam through the following year, after which it was not sighted again. Another report from the same general vicinity gave quite a different physical description, saying it was “huge, like an elephant, with the tail of a serpent.” What was going on here? 

A dam on the Orange River

Another dam along the river had a wave of sightings in the 1960s. In January of 1960, a family at the Vaal Dam saw a “huge, strange object” moving about out on the water, which was then joined by another of the apparently serpentine creatures. The beasts were described as truly huge, measuring 200 feet long and 4 feet across, and they seemed to be cavorting about and playing in the water before diving out of sight. In 1963 a policeman called Sergeant Rottcher saw a “snake-like animal” between 20' and 25' long with a large flat head with fangs and a forked tongue on three separate occasions near the dam and his commander saw it as well, even shooting at it to no effect. Another policeman by the name of Flip Coetzee also claimed to have shot at it, which had caused the creature to thrash about wildly in the water before diving beneath the waves. For the rest of that year the monster was frequently seen by locals in the area near the dam, after which it seems to have moved on. 

There have been many ideas for what these grootslang could be, including eels, monitor lizards, rock pythons, crocodiles, or giant perch, but none of these are known to live in the Orange River. Considering the disparity in reports on the physical appearance of the creatures, the legendary cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans believed that there were probably several different phenomena involved rather than any one kind of creature. He surmised that some were out of place pythons, while others could have been an unknown giant long necked species of seal, and he was convinced that some of these reports were indicative of some undiscovered species of crocodilian in the Orange River, of which he would write:

That there are alligators in the Orange River I have little doubt, for the dread leviathan occurs in rivers under the same parallel of latitude on the east coast; and through I am not aware that any white man has seen an Orange River alligator, the natives on the banks told me that at night they heard occasionally cries from the river like those of children, such as I heard on the banks of the Mississippi; and that a short time before I visited the Orange River, a cow calved on the banks near the mouth, and that a creature crawled out of the water and devoured the calf.

What can account for such stories? Was this some undiscovered creature, misidentifications, a mix of both, myth and legend, or something else altogether? Considering that sightings such as these along the river have pretty much stopped in recent times, it seems that whatever it was may even be gone or extinct. Whatever was going on here, stories of these Grootslang have weaved themselves into the local lore, and remain a curious cryptozoological phenomenon. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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