Hunt for the swamp thing

Loch Ness's `monster' may have a cousin in the Congo. Adam Davies really wants to find it.
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The Loch Ness monster is passe. Forget it. The one that's truly in vogue now is the Congo monster. Its official name is the mokele-mbembe. But it is, in effect, a Congolese Nessie. And a bunch of Brits - with a like-minded international crowd - are determined to find it. The unseen creature, supposed to resemble a brontosaurus, is said to be found in the depths of the Congo swamps. Mokele-mbembes are said to skulk in the Congo - especially in the Likouala region in the north, a vast and scarcely charted area of swamp. Locals are alleged to have seen them again and again over the years.

Once an African hunter called Nicolas Mondongo, 17, was standing beside the Likouala-aux-Herbes river, when, according to a collection of cryptozoologica, How Dead are the Dinosaurs?: "Without warning, the waters parted and a huge animal surfaced - beginning with an extremely long, slender neck and well-defined head, followed by a very bulky, elephantine body rising up on four massive legs, and finally revealing a lengthy, tapering tail."

Redmond O'Hanlon, author of Congo Journey, describes a fearsome trip into the deepest jungle in search of the mokele. Once he hears something that he thinks might be a giant mokele-mbembe, "hung with testicles the size of beer-barrels" - the noise turns out to come from a pair of owls. Another time, he asks one of his guides if he's ever actually seen a mokele-mbembe. "`What a stupid question,' said Doubla, looking genuinely surprised, stopping with the water-bottle halfway to his lips. `Mokele- mbembe is not an animal like a gorilla or a python. It is an animal of mystery. It exists because we imagine it. But to see it - never. You don't see it'."

Adam Davies, 30, an enthusiastic Cable & Wireless project manager in Wythenshawe, Manchester, is determined to track down the mokele. With him will be about a dozen other enthusiasts, including various cryptozoologists from Sweden, Canada, and elsewhere. Their name makes them sound like animal-lovers on secret assignment for MI6, but cryptozoologists are a sort of virtual zoologist, seeking to pin down all the alleged creatures that science cannot reach.

The mokele-mbembe is just one of a long list of mythical monsters, including the bigfoot - man-meets-bear-meets-ape - a "hairy hominid" with an 18in foot and a lumbering gait that's been seen in Vermont, Idaho, and (more startlingly) Malaysia. Photos of bigfoot - a "relative" of the Himalayan snows' yeti - are liable to show "a speck in a field", that does little to help the cause. A horned first cousin to the mokele-mbembe is the emela- ntouka in neighbouring Zaire, described by one explorer as "a marsh monster with a hippo's legs, an elephant's trunk, a lizard's head, and an aardvark's tail".

There have been an alleged 3,000 sightings of Nessie over the years, with lots of blurry images to match. These days, you do not even have to visit Loch Ness to spot the elusively conspicuous monster. A man from South Carolina has been building a submarine called Nessa, mounted with a harpoon which is intended to prick the monster and come home with a DNA sample. His previous submarine voyage failed to find Nessie, because - he explained - "something was lying on the bottom, and the wash from it threw my submarine way off course".

One cryptozoology website is dedicated purely to lake monsters across the world, of which there are said to be more than 200 - from Sweden to China, from Russia's provinces to Ohio. Mokele-mbembe is in one of the most inaccessible regions, and, so, all the more alluring.

Davies first heard of the creature as a teenager. In the intervening years, his fascination seems to have grown, rather than waned. Various expeditions to the Congo have failed to track the mokele down (though there has been the usual crop of sightings when the lens cap was on, when there was no film in the camera, and so on). A Japanese television crew came up with a blurry image of something. Roy Mackal, vice-president of the International Society of Cryptozoology, has written an entire book devoted to the mystery of the mokele-mbembe, and even launched a fruitless expedition to find it himself.

According to the gathered wisdom, based on sightings by local villagers and others, this Congolese Nessie looks a bit like a brontosaurus, but is deeply shy. This may have helped it to survive for millions of years, even after all the other brontosaural types had long since died out. The mokele-mbembe's name translates as "stopper of the rivers" - a reference partly to magical powers it allegedly possesses, and partly to the creature's size.

Evidence adduced in favour of its existence includes the fact that on one occasion a series of flashcards was shown to locals, depicting various animals known and unknown locally. The locals recognised the leopard; they greeted the very un-African bear with a blank look; they reacted to a picture of a brontosaurus with a cheerful: "It's a mokele-mbembe!"

Redmond O'Hanlon remained unconvinced of mokele-mbembe's existence. He eventually decided the mysterious creature might have been an elephant, or similar, in the water. Cryptozoologists don't like such spoilsport defeatism. Davies insists that none of his colleagues at Cable & Wireless regard his enthusiasm for finding this perhaps-mythical creature as odd.

Another difficulty with finding the mokele is that locals are said to be as frightened of the mokele as the mokele is of them. It is claimed that it inhabits deep pools in the banks of the forested waterways. It spends most of its time submerged, only coming to the surface to eat. It has a huge three-clawed footprint.

Davies, whose travelling companions will include his C&W colleague, John McDonald, has already been to neighbouring Zaire on a recce. He dismisses the idea all this could be fantasy. He acknowledges he and the others are likely to get "bitten to death" on the proposed trip, in an area where both mosquitoes and deadly mamba snakes are rife. "It'll be a tough slog." He admits his wife Laura, a Sainsbury's manager, needed "a bit of convincing". But he's determined to find the elusive mokele- mbembe, and to ensure it is protected. Some might argue: if nobody can find the mokele, it is already protec ted - but that's another matter.