The Kongamato


The natives of the Jiundu region of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) have legends of a strange flying creature called kongamato. The name means "overwhelmer of boats" and appears in a magic charm of the Kaonde tribe. The charm, muchi wa kongamato, is a recipe for a type of potion reputed to protect travellers from floods, which are caused by the monster.

Frank H. Melland was intrigued by this charm and asked several natives what sort of animal the Kongamato was, and their answer was "a lizard with wings like a bat." Melland gathered that the wingspan of the animal was between four and seven feet, and that it was red, featherless, and toothed. The natives identified it with a pterodactyl when a picture was shown to them by Melland. As to its whereabouts, a tribal chief from the Jiundu region said that it dwelt in the Jiundu Swamps. Melland wrote of the Kongamato in In Witchbound Africa (1923).

Professor C. Wiman of Uppsala University suggested that the natives' description was influenced by German excavations of pterosaur bones in eastern Africa. However, this did not discourage Kongamato reports: in 1925, British newspaperman G. Ward Price and no less a personage than the future Duke of Windsor were in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Here, they learned a local man had been attacked by one of the flying monsters in a swamp. Once again, the natives identified the creature as a pterosaur.

A. Blayney Percival recounted in 1928 how he found a set of odd tracks--tracks which the Kitui Wakama natives assured him were left by a nocturnal creature which flew down from Mt. Kenya. Capt. Charles Pitman recounted in 1942 that there were stories of a flying monster which dwelt in swamps on the borders of Angola and Zaire.

In 1956, the first real sighting took place when J.P.F. Brown encountered two flying creatures with a three-foot wingspan, long tail, and dog-like muzzle on a road near L. Bangweulu, Zambia. They doubled back and flew overhead once more, and then Brown saw their sharp fang-like teeth.

Finally, Roy P. Mackal launched an expedition to Namibia to search for the Kongamato in 1988. Mackal didn't see the fabled flying beast, but James Kosi (one of Mackal's group) claimed to have seen a large black gliding form with white markings--maybe or maybe not the Kongamato.

Other accounts of flying creatures that aren't Kongamato, but are nonetheless interesting in that context, exist. In 1932, author Ivan T. Sanderson was leading an expedition in the Assumbo Mountains of Cameroon. When crossing a river, Sanderson recalled, a flying creature nearly the size of an eagle dove at him. He said that that evening, the expedition saw the black, sharp-toothed animal again. Natives called the animal olitiau. Sanderson himself believed it was an exceptionally large specimen of the hammerhead bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus), a particularly repulsive type of fruit bat. However, he also noted in 1970 that the dentition of the animal, from what he noticed, seemed more reptilian than mammalian (Bernard Heuvelmans disputes this notion).

Heuvelmans believed that the Olitiau was actually a large, unknown, type of bat related to the hammerhead, its common name derived from the term ole ntya ("the forked one," the Christian devil). Other cryptozoologists suggest the creature may be a surviving pterosaur.

Another account with possible relevance to these flying creatures is recorded in Old Fourlegs by J.L.B. Smith, an account of the discovery of the coelacanth. Smith recounted a superstition, circulating near Mount Kilimanjaro, of flying dragons. Roy P. Mackal inquired to Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, another of the coelacanth's discoverers, who had done an investigation into the dragons.

Courtenay-Latimer told Mackal that she had investigated a report from Keetmanshoop, Namibia. A boy tending his father's sheep became aware of the sound of rushing wind. He looked up to see a large serpent hurling itself off a ridge. The boy was knocked unconscious (presumably because of fright) and recounted later that the creature gave off a smell reminiscent of burnt brass when it landed.

Courtenay-Latimer came to the conclusion that the animal could not be identified, although she suggested it may have been an injured python. However, Mackal points out that the python explanation does not explain the disturbance in the air at the time the snake appeared.

In the same book, Smith also recounts how he learned, in a letter, that similar winged dragons were occasionally seen by a German missionary family near Mt. Meru. Bernard Heuvelmans contacted a friend of the German missionaries (the Trappes), Dr. Laszlo Saska. Dr. Saska corroborated that a winged creature, which he (perhaps inappropriately) termed a "Pterosaurian," was seen in the forests near the Trappe homestead.

Heuvelmans also recounts the story of Earl Denham, an explorer and mountaineer. Writing in his 1957 book Animal Africa, Denham recounts an experience he had in the Ruwenzori (a region between Zaire and Uganda).

I turned my back on the peaks, and...I heard a sharp rushing sound...I looked up and was amazed to see the vague outlines of two unidentifiable birds as they hurtled into the mists below, diving almost vertically...

1999 Cryptozoology A to Z (w/ Jerome Clark). New York: Simon & Schuster/Fireside.

1986 Annotated Checklist of Apparently Unknown Animals With Which Cryptozoology is Concerned. Cryptozoology 5 (1-26).
1996 Lingering Pterodactyls, Part 2. Strange 17 (18-21, 56-57). Translation by Ben S. Roesch of material previously appearing in Les Derniers Dragons d'Afrique (Paris: Plon, 1978).

1980 Searching for Hidden Animals. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.