In October our thoughts may turn to Hallowe’en, and the spooky pleasures of a good ghost story. How many of our explorers have experienced the ‘paranormal’, and how did they react? RSGS Writer in Residence Jo Woolf takes a sturdy torch and goes in search of a few ghouls…
Quite apart from their geographical activities, explorers often had to deal with puzzling phenomena that ranged from the mysterious to the distinctly threatening. Desert voices, ghostly spears, orbs of light, strange footprints on a Greenland fjord and even stranger ones in the Himalayan snow…
In 1923, when Mildred Cable first set out into the vastness of the Gobi Desert, her mind was focused firmly on the task that lay ahead of her. She was a missionary, and, in the company of her two dear friends, Eva and Francesca French, she intended to spread the word of the Gospels among the remote and scattered villages of north-west China. All kinds of danger lurked on the horizon: quite apart from the excruciating heat, tyrannical warlords tended to greet unexpected guests with summary execution.
That much Mildred already knew: she was not, however, expecting to find hazards of a less tangible nature. Dust-spouts rose from the desert floor, sometimes in ones and twos, and sometimes in such numbers that the air seemed alive with them, whirling all around the little caravan like a demonic horde. Mildred’s caravan-driver or ‘bash’ told her that these dust-spouts were known to desert-dwellers as ‘kwei’ – tortured spirits who covered their fleshless forms with sand as they roamed the desert in search of a human body to possess.
Then there were the voices. Mildred was alarmed when she first heard them.
“‘Halt,’ I said, ‘there is someone calling!’ ‘There is no one calling,’ said the bash, ‘and there is no reason to halt.’ ‘Cannot you hear?’ I persisted. ‘Someone is calling from among the dunes.’ ‘Never listen to those voices,’ he replied. ‘It is not a man’s cry, and those who follow it may never come back to the caravan.’” (Mildred Cable, ‘The Gobi Desert’)
Ignoring Mildred’s protests, the caravan-leader urged the camels away from the sound. It was only later, when he had assured himself of their safety, that he spoke again. He had got lost one night, he explained, and had heard the voices and followed them. Then the moon rose and he could see there were no camel tracks in the sand. Terrified, he turned around immediately and retraced his steps. To the people of the Lob desert, he told Mildred, the voices were known as Azghun; they would lead travellers to waterless places where they would perish.
Most people would have been unnerved by the experience, but Mildred saw it all as part of a greater plan. She believed that a voyager who kept her faith as a touchstone had nothing to be afraid of, and in the company of Eva and Francesca she crossed and re-crossed the Gobi Desert five times over a period of twelve years. Mildred sums up their no-nonsense attitude quite succinctly in her book, ‘Something Happened’: “If the missionary once let himself consider fear he would spend his life in a panic.”
In 1895, deep in equatorial Africa, it would have been interesting to know what Mary Kingsley feared the most. As she squelched her way through leech-infested swamps and edged her canoe nervously past ranks of gigantic crocodiles, she might have named a hundred sources of anxiety, chief among them perhaps the cannibalistic tribes whose rituals she was diligently studying. She was alone and unprotected, having travelled to west Africa on impulse, in the face of dire warnings from her friends.
Mary soon learned that the people of the rainforests believed in a panoply of malevolent gods and apparitions that walked among them and played an active part in their fate. One day, she wrote, she was forced to halt for a long time on an apparently clear path through the bush, because the ghost of a spear was known to fly across the track at a certain time in the afternoon, killing anyone who was struck by it. From the women, she heard the story of a mysterious water-pitcher, which would sometimes be seen near a stream where they went to collect water, but which would disintegrate into dust when carried back to the village. Bantu people told her a particularly grisly tale, of a woman who returned home late one night to find all the surfaces in her house, and every item within it, covered in blood; no matter how much she cleaned it, the oozing substance would reappear. Fortunately the horrifying phenomenon vanished with the return of daylight.
Interestingly, Mary herself witnessed an event which she struggled to explain. Late one night, as she bathed in the cool waters of a lake, she noticed a ball of violet light emerge from the forest on the far shore. As it danced over the beach, it was joined by another, and the two orbs moved together in a silent dance. Believing them to be some kind of luminous insect, Mary got into a canoe and paddled over in the hope of catching a specimen; but as she approached, one of the orbs disappeared into the trees and the other fled out across the water, glowing as it sank below the surface. Mystified, Mary asked her African hosts about them the next morning. They were called ‘akom’, she was told: spirits that came from a devil bush. Was Mary unsettled by her experience? In a word, no. “More than ever did I regret not having secured one of those… phenomena. What a joy a real devil, appropriately put up in raw alcohol, would have been to my scientific friends!” (Mary Kingsley, ‘Travels in West Africa’).
As a botanist, Isobel Wylie Hutchison revelled in the flower-rich landscapes of eastern Greenland when she travelled there in the summer of 1927. Like Mary Kingsley, Isobel’s adventures seem to have been fuelled largely by curiosity: even as a child, the wild northern lands of the ‘rime-ringed sun’ had beckoned to her, and as a young woman she escaped the confines of polite society to fulfil a long-held dream.
Accepting the hospitality of native Greenlanders, and quickly adopting their habit of wearing thick sealskin ‘kamiker’ (embroidered leggings) to protect against the clouds of midges, Isobel wandered at will around the remote coastline in pursuit of rare and beautiful plants which she was collecting for botanical gardens in Britain. It was with great interest that she heard about a sacred grove of birch trees that grew on the bank of a fjord; these, she was told, were the only trees in Greenland. More intriguingly, the place was reputed to be haunted by the strange figures of very tall men, who sometimes left footprints in the wet sands of the river, “coming none know whence, for the fjord is now utterly deserted…” (Isobel Wylie Hutchison, ‘On Greenland’s Closed Shore’)
Isobel lost no time in organising a delightful day trip for herself, hiring the services of a umiak* crew and paddling up into the far reaches of the fjord in order to inspect the trees for herself. Several children also went along for the ride, and they climbed eagerly up into the branches. Though she encountered no ghostly figures, Isobel noticed the tranquillity of the place and sensed the Greenlanders’ reverence that stretched back for many generations into the time of legend.
*traditional skin-covered boat
The mysterious beings that puzzled George Mallory, Eric Shipton and Sir Edmund Hillary also left footprints – but these were in freshly fallen snow, and, somewhat disturbingly, they were enormous. As they trekked across the Tibetan Plateau on the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition of 1921, Mallory observed that he and his companions were about to walk off the map; they were also entering a region that held, it appeared, at least one inhabitant of an unknown and eerily menacing species.
To Mallory’s Sherpa guides, the yeti was a feared and elusive creature, whose appearance foretold an unexpected death. Not surprisingly, the Tibetans were less than eager to track one down. Mallory made light of the discovery when he spoke to the RSGS in 1922:
“Strange footprints in the snow were found at a high altitude, and the suggestion was made that there were wild, hairy men about: ‘You’ll see the only kind we saw,’ observed the lecturer; and on the screen appeared a photograph of the party.” (Aberdeen Free Press, 9th February 1922)
Bashful but persistent, the ‘abominable snowman’ continued to perplex the likes of Eric Shipton, Frank Smythe and Sir Edmund Hillary, leaving trails of near-perfect footprints while managing to remain just out of view. In the villages, stories abounded of yak herders who had glimpsed a huge dark figure high on the mountain, or heard its high-pitched whistle. In 1960 Hillary attempted to solve the mystery once and for all, visiting monasteries where yeti skulls and skins were said to be kept, and stirring a huge wave of interest around the world. “One newspaper in Chicago humorously suggested that if the yeti were brought back to that city a decision would have to be made whether to put it in the Lincoln Park Zoo or check it into the Hilton.” (Sir Edmund Hillary, ‘View from the Summit’)
Unfortunately, the skin and skull that Hillary took back to the US yielded disappointing results under scientific examination: the ‘skull’ was moulded from the skin of a serow (antelope species), while the skin was that of a Tibetan blue bear. Hillary admitted defeat, but the sightings persisted. Rather ruefully, he observed: “It seems to be as elusive as the Loch Ness Monster.” (‘View from the Summit’)
Is there one explorer who has the best paranormal story of all? I am tempted to say it is Alexandra David-Néel, a Belgian explorer who I have yet to discover has any connection at all with the RSGS – not because she died before its conception, but because she was having far too much fun acquiring the spiritual powers of a Tibetan monk and then creeping into Lhasa in a bid to see the Dalai Lama. In terms of paranormal experiences, Alexandra seems to have been in a league of her own. She didn’t just encounter mysterious phenomena, she crafted her own – quite literally – by conjuring a ‘tulpa’ or ethereal being into the real world. (While you might consider this to be a souped-up version of an imaginary friend, for Alexandra it was quite a serious business.) At first the apparition took the form of a benevolent monk who became her travelling companion; but within a few months the monk had turned quite nasty and Alexandra was compelled to reabsorb him into her imagination, for the sake of her own safety and that of her fellow travellers.
Delicious, intriguing stories, and I’m sure there are hundreds more, because it seems to me that most explorers have at least one encounter with the unexplained. H M Stanley, Sven Hedin, Thor Heyerdahl, Sir Hubert Wilkins, Bertram Thomas, and of course the unseen guide who was felt by Shackleton, Crean and Worsley in Antarctica, and who has famously become the ‘third man’. Do you have a favourite story? If so, I would love to hear from you.
You can contact Jo via her Facebook page for her book The Great Horizon, Jo Woolf – https://www.facebook.com/JoWoolfHorizon/
Jo’s book about explorers, ‘The Great Horizon’, will be published in November. You’ll be able to read more about several of the explorers mentioned here, among them Isobel Wylie Hutchison and her encounter with the ‘ghost ship’ of the Beaufort Sea!