Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Rendlesham revisited, sea serpents, whale penises and alleged living dinosaurs of the Congo

Peter Roberts and Larry Warren, were both US servicemen serving at the RAF Rendlesham air base in Suffolk on that fateful Boxing Day 1980 night when something descended and fired ‘pencil beams’ into the sheds containing the nukes they were guarding. In their talk at Centre for Fortean Zoology’s Weird Weekend 2007, they described how samples of soil taken in the area of Rendlesham Forest where whatever-it-was landed showed that the sand in the sandy earth had been turned to glass. Peter Roberts then went on the deliver a workshop on UFOs especially for kids, with 15 attendees as part of the first Weird Weekend that has its own child-friendly events on the programme. There was also the now traditional mad hatter’s tea party – Richard Freeman in his everyday top hat, joined by Corrina Downes as the Red Queen, resplendent in a red Renaissance-style dress.
Child-friendly though Weird Weekend may be, parental advisory was in force for Dr Charles Paxton’s ‘cetacean porn’ half hour, in which he demonstrated how an eighteenth century sea serpent sighting off Greenland, and some other such sightings, could be explained as misidentified whale penises. ‘We first told our IT support people we were going to do a Google search on “whale penises”,’ explained Dr Paxton, before demonstrating with several slides of sinuous, serpentine whale willies from pilot whales and grey whales.
Adam Davies went looking for ‘mokele-mbembe’, the cut-down sauropod (diplodicus-type long necked dinosaur) that allegedly lives in Lake Tele, a spectacularly remote and inaccessible part of Congo Brazzaville in Central Africa. Reports from the local pygmies go back to the early days of colonial exploration.
Davies’ first expedition was ill-fated. He arrived in Kinshasa in the neighbouring Zaire, just as it was becoming the hilariously-named Democratic Republic of the Congo, with the rebellion that brought President Laurent Kabila to power breaking out in the capital just as Davies landed. He was shot at, and even had an rocket launcher pointed at his stomach at the airport. It took him an extra £1000 of his own money to fly him the hell out of there, from which he learnt that ‘you can’t wing it,’ you have to do your homework for expeditions.
Davies also learnt that you can get stuck in Brazzaville for a month getting a permit. But with its civil war over, Brazzaville is becoming safer. Child soldiers have pretty much disappeared, and you can wander round Brazzaville at night. Davies met Marcel Magnana, Minister of Forests, who told him he’d seen a brontosaurus-like creature in a hunter’s camp just south of Lake Tele. He also met pygmy lady with her teeth filed into points in the traditional manner. She smiled all the time, except when he wanted to take a picture.
There followed a trip by pick up, with a monkey on Davie’s lap, to the pygmy town of Infondo, where pygmies who spoke the Barka language told him, through a translator, that mokele-mbembe could shoot lightning from its eyes. He then went to the Boa villages, 20 km from Lake Tele. The Boa, regarded as the gatekeepers to Lake Tele, have a bad reputation locally but turned out to be friendly and hospitable. Theirs is a stratified society, with hereditary ‘notables’, (heads of the families) and chiefs elected every five years. The notables carried spears to hunt crocodiles. For them, seeing the mokele-mbembe is almost a rite of passage. They said the male mokele-mbembe has a horn on its head.
After a monkey for his Christmas dinner, and termites making a nest on his boxer shorts, Davies finally arrived at Lake Tele. ‘God, it’s so beautiful!’ he said, showing us some of the very few photos ever taken of the lake, which looks likes it’s been pretty much unchanged in the last 20 million years.
Davies didn’t see mokele-mbembe. ‘I have no definite evidence, but I’m a believer,’ he says. He’s an interrogator for the Home Office in his day job, which he says makes him ‘good on credibility.’ Locals nearer the lake told him that the creature bonds for life with a mate and goes around in pairs, and spends most of the time in the forest, and occasionally swims across the lake, which is only 8km by 5km and is shallow, ‘up to your waist’ in most places. While palaeontologists first thought that sauropods lived in lakes, their great bulk buoyed up by water, we have since discovered they were more forest and flood plain dwelling animals, so the reported lifestyle of mokele-mbembe fits the fossil record better.
Following local tip offs, Davies intends to come back, but to the nearby Lake Macule, about the size of Swtizerland and apparently a better place to see mokele-mbembe.

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