Cryptids. Ever since I was a child, the very term had intrigued my ever-curious mind. I was relentless on research and observation of facts, of articles and pictures. Not surprisingly, I was often the most eccentric of the bunch, especially at school. No one had ever shared the same sentiment, leaving me to a solitary fascination which I had learned to accept, and eventually, enjoy. It was better in that manner, I suppose.
I was twenty-eight then, an intern for a magazine company which specialized in tour and travels. After a bit of time, which I think was a period of about three or four months, I was rather fortunate and lucky enough to be brought along on a trip to Tristan da Cunha. Even in today’s terms, it still remains the most remote place on Earth. On it exists no airstrips, no roads and no man-made docks. Only a shoreline to greet small boats from the great continent of Africa, boarded by the few who dare to experience its mystical beauty. One that captivated my hunger for the unknown, as some of you may presume. Ah, the wonder of youth.
The island of Tristan da Cunha is a very small one, and does not even qualify as a country, despite its independent stand in the Atlantic Ocean. Today, it possesses its own local government, and even has connections to the outside world via satellite and internet relays.
It was a long and treacherous drive through South Africa on a four-by-four vehicle. I went with a three-man crew; one that included the delegated journalist herself, the photographer, and then there was me, the eager and hopeful intern. This journalist was a veteran member of the press, and a good traveler as well. She was about thirty years old, had short, brown hair and a deep look in her eyes that somehow intimidated me. She brought along a notepad, a pen and a recorder, among other things. Without a doubt, her presence alone let us assume that she was the leader of the team, since both me and the photographer did not possess the kind of experience she had. You could say I was the least seasoned of the team.
That aside, it took about two and a half-weeks to traverse South Africa’s unforgiving terrain, climate and other natural conditions, like the heat and a bewildering variety of wild animals. Basically, Tristan da Cunha was an island two-thousand kilometers from the nearest speck of civilization, a lone dot on the map. This frightened me, considering that if anything went gravely wrong, either we had to wait for weeks, or even months for emergency services to come to our aid. We could even die waiting. As travelers, we instinctively took that risk, for the sake of journalism and information. Besides, who else gets a chance to visit the remotest location in the world?
On a bleak Friday, 16th of July, 1992, we embarked on the last leg of the journey in South Africa, an imposing eighty-kilometer dash to the shoreline before we departed by boat towards the island itself. By that time, our vehicle had experienced severe mechanical errors, such as a broken driveline, punctured sidewalls and a cracked axle, all of which were thankfully replaced and/or repaired by our South African mechanics, albeit we couldn’t risk anymore daring tactics with the car, so we were told to drive at a slower and more careful pace.
We had reached the sixty-seven kilometer mark, passing through the gravel-topped terrain with ease, since it had gradually flattened, as with the absence of stones the size of soccer balls. The entire route itself was nowhere near civilization, so we were out there gambling with our lives. The weather was a slightly-cloudy one, with the sun gently bearing down on the rocky, and slightly-grassy landscape, which was utterly empty to glimpse at.
The seventy-two kilometer mark. Our engine had begun to sputter, jerking the car forward in an erratic fashion. Our Nigerian driver (and guide) began to worry excessively, though no one spoke a word in total fear. You could see the deadly-serious look on each of our faces, each person thinking that they might never make it back, and ultimately die in a location where we could possibly never be found.
The seventy-six kilometer mark.
Sputter. Sputter. Clank!
The engine died out completely.
“Oh. My. God.”
The feeling of excitement and adventure in our hearts died and sunk in a pool of absolute dread and terror. I had this cold feeling run through my gut, telling me that everything had changed, and for the worse. I was scared for my life, and for the life of my team members. I began to think that fortunately, not one of us was a father, or a mother. I did berate myself for thinking such a distasteful thought. One thing was certain: that we were going to survive, or die trying.
“This is not good,” said our guide in a prevalent African accent.
“This, this is the Badlands.”
The fear was so imposing that no one could utter a single word. The cold wind drafted by as the clouds above began to blot out the sun.
I brought out our distress beacon, and pressed the alert button firmly, a symptom of my immediate desperation and panic at such a life-threatening event. We didn’t know how long it would take for anyone to rescue us, so we decided to hold it out as long as possible. Repair on the vehicle proved impossible since we lacked the prerequisite tools and parts.
Of Mere Myths
Our guide had set up a tent for us. It was good for two people; although the four of us could fit inside once we had taken out our packs and piled them just outside the tent. Our journalist attempted to be euphemistic all the more, saying that we could also pool our body heat if we stayed close to each other during sleep. I wasn’t one to complain on that, though.
As we were cooking a small portion of our rations for the night, our guide began to tell stories about the place. About Tristan da Cunha, though more importantly, about the Badlands.
His name was Jaheem. He was relatively young, about thirty-five, and was of good shape. Not too thin, and not too wide. He seemed in his best physique and was a rather optimistic fellow, and that helped give us hope. Moreover, he could speak English, and really well too.
The Badlands, he tells, was a land of myths, of mystique. As you would know, I became intrigued at that. My fear transitioned into fascination for the entirety of the night’s transpirations then. Since that area had remained relatively unexploited, it became home to a number of mysterious creatures, or “beings” as Jaheem fondly called it, many South African travelers had become used to seeing strange things, regardless whether it was day or night. These things, whatever they were, became sources of legends. Legends that would normally frighten children and religious elders. He told us that the untouched status of the location made it ideal for beings to dwell in it, including what he described as giant people.
A whole race of them.
The wind, rarely as it came on an already cold night, came by once again, sparking a flurry of goosebumps on my arms. We remained silent, scooping up pork n’ beans as Jaheem shared his strange and wonderful stories with us.
These giant people our guide referred to were the shadowmen of the Badlands. Ranging from seven to nine feet in height, they must have been an awe-inspiring, if not terrifying sight to the foreign eye, and even as I imagined them, they were a most unpleasant figment of my imagination. We were told that the ancient, and legendary bushmen of Africa hunted them with great fear and passion, because they believed that these beings were conjured by witchcraft. This was mainly because of tribes of giant people commonly raided villages, by taking livestock, destroying houses, and even worse, raping women, young and old.
Jaheem told us that eventually, the bushmen overwhelmed these evil beings through sheer force, outnumbering them and killing them. The corpses of the giants were later burned, and buried without sign or stone to commemorate their final resting places. It wasn’t only these people, but also the packs of coyotes and wild boars, which bushmen had to deal with on a daily basis.
The menacing shadowmen were reported to have disappeared during the nineteenth and twentieth century, as the British had already arrived in Africa, sporting guns that the continent had been unfamiliar with.
As for me, I wasn’t absolutely sure whether he was spouting myths, or whether all of it was real. Up until that point, I had never heard of any race of abnormally towering human beings, though my instinct told me to be afraid. That connoted the fact that I did believe it somehow. Would you fear something you didn’t believe was true in the first place?
If they were true, it was something to be scared about. These shadowmen wouldn’t just have been wiped out entirely. A number of them may have escaped the purging of their tribe, and in that case, they may still be alive up to today.
Being tired and all, I had enough speculation for that day. We all finished up our food, drank a bit of water, then proceeded to sleep inside the tent like a can of sardines. Our photographer took a few pictures, then set aside his equipment to save batteries. After checking the functionality of our flashlights, and Jaheem preparing his FN FAL rifle, we all went soundly to sleep. The stress, bad as it was, actually helped put our minds to rest.
Thankfully, our combined body heat accumulating inside the tent helped combat the 5˚C temperature outside. I never thought it’d be this wonderful sleeping in a tight space with four people I barely knew, but it helped me understand the pain everyone was going through. In a way, they had become my family. Despite that feeling, I slept with an uncertainty that haunted me persistently. As a believer of cryptids, the Badlands was something of a big deal to me. I could not get anywhere near sleep, even as the night dragged on for what seemed like forever. I looked at my watch, seeing its ethereal glow in the darkness.
Nothing could have prepared me for what was going to happen next.
At around 2:31 AM, at which point I was still wide awake, the crickets stopped making noise. I made out what may have been faint footsteps on the grass outside, like weak thuds on the soil, followed by short rustles of grass. Fear overtook me as I tried to nudge Jaheem to try to wake him up. If there was anything outside the tent at a time like this without having warned us, it was probably an animal, or something else that was hostile.
My second nudge woke Jaheem up, as he raised his head slightly. I could tell that he’d also noticed the noise coming from outside, as his brows furrowed. He slowly palmed the FAL as he sat up, turning its safety off with a soft click. We both hoped it wasn’t audible to whatever was outside. Now, because the rustling thuds were quite quick, I immediately thought it was a four-legged animal, mostly a coyote. If there’d been snorting, it would have been a boar. Common animals this part of Africa, as I’d been informed.
Then there was a snort. Several snorts followed.
Ah, wild boars, foraging, I thought to myself, relieved somehow. Boars wouldn’t normally be dangerous if you just let them pass by (though they were notorious for stealing food and crops), nevertheless, Jaheem was keen on observing external movement, ready to fire at any moment. A bead of sweat trickled down his face, his eyes widening as my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside the tent.
I wondered though. How could a pack of boars be out at this time, when the temperature would be downright freezing? It was rather strange. Jaheem himself seemed to be in a state of observation. He must’ve been thinking the same, too. By that time, everyone of us had woken up inside the tent, although barely moving. The rustle of grass had intensified, and sounded awfully near the tent. Hooves thudding against the ground so close we could feel the thumps underneath our beds.
It became more intense as though the animals had started trotting, then gradually faded into the distance, although still had the same fast pace of thudding against the ground. Why had they done that? I thought once more. Everything became terrifyingly quiet as we remained alert to our surroundings. I thought for sure that the white noise was going to make my ears bleed.
Thump, thump, thump, thump.
Suddenly, something sharp ripped into the tent (from the side where our pillows would’ve been), sort of like a spear, running down the stiff fabric, tearing through it like a zipper. We all sat up and reeled back in shock, unable to scream in terror. The sharp object reeled back into the darkness as an arm shot inside, dirty and reeking of dried blood. Once the dirty arm had gotten deep enough inside the tent, a face came after the shoulder.
It was so hideous, a sight so frightening that I almost blacked out. I could only glimpse two bright almond-shaped eyes, visible in the dark, against a dark oval which I thought was the creature’s head, almost twice as large as my head. In a frenzied fashion it searched around the tent, as the arm grabbed the journalist by the shirt and pulled her outside effortlessly, such was its strength. Petrified, I saw her legs leave the tent, struggling as if she was being hanged.
Screams permeated the night as Jaheem hopped outside, rifle ready. I counted about three to four shots, the muzzle flashes lighting up everything outside the tent. Our journalist kept on screaming and struggling, before I heard a metallic clatter. Strange as it already was, her screams abruptly stopped. Even Jaheem stopped firing his semi-automatic. Scared, desperate but determined, we rushed outside the tent to help. Our photographer clicked on two of our flashlights and handed one to me, as we hopped out, adrenaline rushing through our bodies.
In the cold of the night, we waved the flashlights around, hoping to glimpse what grabbed our journalist forcibly. We couldn’t find any sign of her at that point, as everything had quieted down once more. The crickets began to chirp in the distance, blocking out any sound she may have tried to shout in distress.
Even our guide was nowhere to be found.
For the hours that followed, we screamed their names and wandered off several meters from the tent, before returning in fear. We had let panic get the best of us, and now we had two missing crew members, ourselves stranded literally in the middle of nowhere. As we returned to our tent, horrified as we were, we saw small splatters of blood on the grass and tent as we shone our flashlights on it. Assuming that Jaheem had wounded one of the abductors, we assumed there would’ve been a blood trail, so I told the photographer to pack up and follow me along the trail.
I guess we both panicked then, because we decided not to. It was too risky and the tent had our rations. Getting lost was not an option, despite the theoretical blood trail that would lead us to and back where we came from. Hundreds of miles from civilization, with two missing people and a damaged tent, we were severely traumatized and fatigued.
We didn’t sleep until dawn. The terror of what lurked outside the tent forced us to stay inside of it, holding the torn fabric together with our own hands. We felt like idiots realizing that we could have stayed inside the vehicle and spared ourselves the trouble of setting up the tent. We’d all still be here right now.
That morning, a towing vehicle and a small unit of armed rangers arrived. We had never been more grateful to anyone in our lives. They towed the vehicle and helped out with folding up the tent. The rangers were able to track the blood trail, only to find it disappear among a few, small dead trees a full kilometer away from the main road. No sign of the journalist or our guide. The FAL he was carrying was found lying on the gravel road, fifteen meters away from the tent, which explains the metallic clatter during the abduction.
All in all, it was the most terrifying expedition I’d ever had. Few were ever able to get to Tristan da Cunha, passing through South Africa and the Badlands, though I honestly never returned anywhere near that damned place ever again. The photographer I was with became one of the leading journalists at the magazine firm I used to intern at, courtesy of his article, titled “The Ill-fated Journey”, while I settled down to managing a small camera shop in Minnesota.
Our journalist, and the guide, they were never found. Or at least, as much as I hate to imagine it, their bodies were recovered. Jaheem’s family invited me to the funeral, as they had accepted that he would never come back. As for our journalist, there was no funeral. Her relatives were defiantly hopeful that she was still alive, as South African authorities are still on the lookout for her, even after all these years. A missing persons case that still remains open for anyone to solve it.
Post-expedition, January 10, 1993
I won’t forget it, ever. Speculate as you may, whether it was a coyote, a boar, a lion, or something else that ran amok in the wilderness of Africa. One thing stays in my mind.
Whatever they were, they were not something Africans would see every day. It was something you’d only see in that area, as far as I’m concerned. No other place in the world would have the quality, the atmosphere of the Badlands.
They will forever haunt my memories.