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The market place in Leopoldville was bustling with activity, even so early in the morning, and the air was thick with chattering voices, fierce haggling, laughter and song. Riotous colour flooded Antoine?s vision ? bright yellows and reds from the fruits and spices piled high on the pavement, and a thousand rich hues in the dresses and head scarves of the women shopping. The rains had been heavy during the night. Streams of water trickled down the centre of the streets, and wide puddles settled in the uneven dirt square that housed the market. The rain had washed the dust from the skies, and in the clean air that remained, all the aromas of the market were crisp and intensified.

Antoine waved a farewell as his friends, Ruben and Dieter Van Buyten, headed off into the distance. Antoine had ridden to Leopoldville the night before, and met the two brothers for a few drinks that had lasted well into the night. The mood had been jolly to start with, as Antoine had not seen the boys for nearly a month. As the evening wore on the conversation dropped, and he had realised once again that he was just not good company, and that parties were generally more fun without him around. Certainly it seemed to him that as the brothers left the square, the banter between them had increased, and a spring had reappeared in their steps. Did he always drag the mood down, he wondered?

He was due to meet with a buyer later that morning ? just a formality really, to confirm a rubber delivery later that month. After that the day was his own, and he planned on returning to the small hotel where he normally stayed in the city, collecting his belongings and horse, and riding back to the plantation before darkness fell.

Looking around the market he realised that he was one white face in a sea of black, the Europeans generally avoiding the more downtrodden areas of the city. Spotting a food stall, he ambled over and took a seat on the rickety wooden stool. He removed his wide-brimmed hat and nodded politely to the owner. He spoke in Bantu, ?Coffee please. And plantain?.

He looked to the clouds above, wondering if the rains would come again today?.

--Orbost


Jungle insects flitted by as the results of rain settled on the muddy roads. The stall was vacant, save the owner who nodded with an obligatory smile and turned his bare back to prepare the drink. He poured coffee into a small English tea cup that had seen better days. A cracked arm supported a stained cup, but in its prime it would have been considered rather nice. The plantain was ripe and its sweet aroma could be discovered even under its sealed peel.

The avenue was bustling with native life as the morning settled behind him. The proprietor having done all he could, leaned on the stall and watched the passers-by.

"Are you with Dutch men?" He asked in broken French. It was more of a passing question, perhaps just to make idle chatter.

--Laveaux 00:41, 9 December 2005 (CST)


The coffee was strong and bitter, and he could taste the grounds between his teeth as his sipped the hot liquid. He could almost feel the buzz of the caffeine coursing through his veins, sparking his nerve-endings and senses into life.

He looked up as the stall owner spoke, raising his eyebrows questioningly in response to the query. Was he talking about the brothers who had just left? He turned in his seat to peer over this shoulder into the crowd, searching for white faces.

Seeing none, he turned back to the owner. ?The two men who just left? Belgian. Like me.?

Idle chatter was not his strong point, but there was nothing better to do on a slow morning like this. ?Busy morning, yes? Many people here. Sell lots of coffee today I think. Your coffee very good, thank you.? He kept the language simple, not wanting to overwhelm the man with his quick-fire colonial French.

--Orbost


"No," the proprietor said dismissively, "Dutch men. There."

He pointed off to the side in a direction that Antoine had yet to look. Sure enough, there were five men, white as him, loading a wagon with grains, water, cameras, and unmarked crates. A patchy mule uneasily rested, tied to the wagon as one of the men offered grass. Clad in the clothes of the wealthy-turned-explorer, the men wore khaki pants with deep pockets, utility vests, and breathable white button-ups. One even wore a jungle helmet over his balding, peached, and plump head.

Careful listening would indeed indicate the men were Dutch and were certainly not local.

"They hunt treasure," the proprietor said wiping down the stall, "but their hunt takes them to forbidden lands. They should grow brains."

A wild grin appeared on his face as he tapped his temple.

The grin disappeared as one of the men walked their way. With an impatient gesture, he approached without a greeting and in very broken Bantu.

"Three hands to plantain carry!"

Nodding an unspoken greeting to Antoine as he waited, the proprietor held back a sigh. Understanding what he meant he pulled three bundles of plantains.

"Three makuta, friend," he said in French.

The man clumsily paid.

--Laveaux 00:41, 9 December 2005 (CST)


The Dutchman?s lack of manners brought a frown to Antoine?s face. He was used to such dismissive attitudes from the Europeans, including from his own friends and family, but still he could not help but bristle at the insult paid to the storekeeper.

Normally he would just ignore such rudeness but today, perhaps, he was just in an argumentative mood. He could feel the heat rising in his cheeks, and without looking up from his coffee he spoke curtly to the Dutchman in French.

?Would it hurt you to say please? Or thank you?? As soon as the words escaped his lips he regretted them. This man was no different to thousands of others in Africa. He would not have spoken in such a way to his sister or brother, so why should he do so to this man? He turned to face the Dutchman, and softened his tone as he continued.

?Monsieur, a little good manners goes a long way in the Congo. If you have no-one who speaks better Bantu than you, you might get better prices if you at least greet the natives before you speak to them?.

--Orbost


The Dutch man flushed. His pudgy pale face turned pink-ish while his eyes glared over an oddly shaped nose. At first the blush could have been from rage, but then it dissolved into something far more evident. A hint of shame masked with embarrassment.

"Yes, you are right, of course."

Turning to the proprietor who stared at Antoine in shock, the man said in Bantu, "I am sorry."

"I must get used to the customs here," he added in French again.

Paying the man, he offered an additional coin for his trouble. He then leaned on the counter halfway studying Antoine. His curiosity overcame and he spoke with little apprehension.

"You must live around here? Belgian, yes? Perhaps you can assist my men and I on our exploration. We could use a local network. I would pay well."

--Laveaux 00:41, 9 December 2005 (CST)


Antoine nodded as the Dutchman spoke, acknowledging his gesture. I judged you too hastily, he thought to himself. It takes a strong man to recognise his shortcomings, and to have the courage to apologise.

Remaining seated, Antoine reached across his body and stuck out his hand. His grip was firm and confident.

?Antoine De Pont. Yes, I?m Belgian. My family run a plantation out east.?

Antoine eyes wandered across to the wagon and the man?s companions. He had business to attend to that morning, but perhaps he could free up some time to help these men. He scratched his nose, reflecting on his options.

?Where are you headed to? I know the countryside, maybe I can be of help. Do you have a guide? Anyone who knows the jungles and the mountains? The Congo is a dangerous place if you?re unprepared.?

He spoke without a trace of boasting. Even to Antoine, brought up in this environment, this was a hostile place. A man who entered the jungle with too much or too little confidence was asking for trouble?.

--Orbost


"Truthfully, I do not know the name of our destination. Somewhere to the north. We've commissioned an American for a safari of sorts. I suppose you could call him our guide, but he is certainly not local."

Looking over his back, the Dutchman sharply whistled at his companions and waved one of them over. He was a muscular and tanned man, obviously tenured in the art of expiditions. A leathery-stone face with unblinking blue eyes. Black hair, greased back, but falling down from the morning's exertion. A tan shirt was callously unbuttoned and forest green khaki's tucked neatly into military boots. A rifle was strapped to his back and a large knife to his thigh.

Reluctantly, he came forward.

He said something in English, to which the Dutchman responded in French, "Ivan Sanderson, this is a local man. He may be able to serve as a guide."

Sanderson cocked his head and offered a firm handshake.

"Help is useful," he said in broken French.

"Ivan is a zoologist . . ."

"Cryptozoologist," Ivan corrected.

"Yes, yes. Cryptozoologist. Whatever on Earth that means, "I am Alexander Catmael and you are?"

--Laveaux 00:41, 9 December 2005 (CST)


?Monsieur Catmael, Monsieur Sanderson?Antoine De Pont?.

Antoine nodded at the introductions. The American certainly cut an imposing figure, and looked as though he could take care of himself. It was a look he had seen many times before ? the rough, burly outdoorsman ? and far more common in the Congo than the slightly overweight, nervous demeanour of Catmael.

The word ?cryptozoologist? meant nothing to the young Belgian ? perhaps in the translation from English to Dutch to French the term had become garbled and confused.

?You are after game? To capture or to hunt? There are many animals in the bush. Elephants, leopards. Big gorillas high in the mountains.? Antoine addressed Catmael with an occasional glance to Sanderson, expecting the Dutchman to translate where necessary.

?And how long is your expedition for? I have business to attend to this morning, but after that?? He let the sentence tail off. He was expected back at the plantation tomorrow, but there was no pressing work for him there, and he could easily send a message from his hotel if was going to be delayed.

--Orbost


"We are going for a monster, actually," Catmael grinned, "Monsieur Sanderson saw the beast in the wild. Apparently it is something of a legend in these parts. They call it the . . . the...makaw? Mako?"

Sanderson, understanding enough, corrected him, "Mokele-mbembe. Beast north jungle."

"Yes well, after the war, any trophy from the Congo will of course gain popularity in Amsterdam, but a monster? Well, we may bring tourism back to Holland yet!"

The American lost track of wording and politely nodded to them, then returned to his work at the jeep.

"Truthfully, Sanderson does not know the language or the way, save from his own personal expeditions. I would pay you 10 marks a day if you would help guide us. If you prefer local currency, I'm sure it can be arranged."

--Laveaux 00:41, 9 December 2005 (CST)


Antoine had spent enough time around the servants at the plantation to know how superstitious the locals were. Stories of vicious monsters hiding in the jungle were a staple of tribal stories told around the cooking fire. Talk of monsters did not trouble him at all. There were dangerous animals certainly, but most could be hunted with a good knowledge of their habitat, a rifle, a keen eye and a large dose of common sense.

He shrugged noncommittally at the name. ?There are plenty of animals deep in the jungle. I don?t know mokele-mbembe, perhaps a creature we haven?t found yet?.?

He considered the business he needed to attend to. He was meeting a buyer in one of the western hotels to confirm a shipment ? that would only take an hour. He could then return to his hotel, collect his horse and belongings, and arrange for a message to be sent back to his brother.

?Give me two hours. I will meet you back here. You have provisions for a long trip? The nights get cold, you know, and with all the rain it is hard to find dry firewood. And your wagon?? he gestured with his chin, ??the tracks are poor outside the city. The remote areas you can only reach on horseback, or sometimes only on foot.?

Considering the matter settled, he turned back to the storekeeper, and switched to Bantu.

?They hunt mokele-mbembe. You know this creature? Why are the lands forbidden??

Antoine expected an answer riddled with fear and superstition, but the natives had been in this land for many centuries, and he knew that their views were well worth listening to.

--Orbost


Catmael officially shook Antoine?s hand and grinned with gratitude.

?Very well my friend. Two hours. I will also ask the American if we can gather more horses.?

Immediately returning to the others with his plantains he waved instructions and passed on the turn of events.

The proprietor quietly watched the exchange and only responded when he was spoken to.

?Yes, I know mokele-mbembe. It is a creature as old as the jungle itself. Roaming at night only, it rises from the riverbeds and eats all it can see. It is very dangerous to hunt it and none have ever made it back alive.

?The mokele-mbembe is in the nest. It was where our people was spat from the Earth and the leaders of our tribes pledged to the gods that we would never return for they feared we would plummet into the abyss from which we came. Some believe the beast gauards the abyss.

?It is suicide to go there. You should not.?

--Laveaux 00:41, 9 December 2005 (CST)


He listened intently as the storekeeper spoke, captivated as he always was by the stories and myths of these noble people. Of course it was easy to dismiss the more fanciful parts of the legend, but he would not disrespect the man?s beliefs by demonstrating his scepticism. And was the story any more unlikely than the Greek myths of Gorgons, the faeries and trolls of his homeland, or indeed the miracles and mysticism of his own Catholic faith?

No, he held his doubts inside his heart, and spoke only appreciative words to the old man.

?It sounds a ferocious beast?? he nodded sagely, ?...I thank you for educating a simple man.?

?It is the way of men to do foolish things, yes? And sometimes to ignore the words of their elders? I will think carefully about what you have said. Thank you.?

And with that Antoine stood, placed his hat back on his head and took coins from his pocket to pay for this food, paying a little more than the true cost out of habit.

?Good day to you Sir?. He turned, blinked his eyes in the fierce sun and made to leave the market.

Despite his words to the storekeeper he had no intention of changing his plans. He felt no fear from the man?s story, and instead had perhaps learnt a little of the nature of the creature. This dangerous land in which he had grown up was to be respected, not feared.

He glanced at the sun?s position to gauge the time and made a note to himself to return to the market place in two hours time. He need only attend his meeting and collect his belongings and he would be ready.

--Orbost


Two hours passed and the morning sun scorched into the afternoon. If one were high enough, one could see dense rolling clouds over the canopy threatening to bring yet another round of rain. Insects and birds had yet to recover from last night's storm, zipping through the town without rest.

The Dutch caravan and the American waited where they promised, now equipped with four horses and additional gear on the truck. Catmael greeted Antoine with a handshake, but the American hardly glanced over.

"I believed we are prepared, do you see anything amiss?"

--Laveaux 00:41, 9 December 2005 (CST)


His meeting had passed smoothly. Ten minutes to confirm details of the shipment, and closer to thirty on the obligatory small talk that Antoine found so trying. His brother maintained that it was the personal relationships that governed the success of a business. Fortunate then, that Antoine was not the man in charge ? he had neither the aptitude nor the interest in making polite conversation with strangers, or in developing and maintaining a network of contacts.

He had made his excuses as early as he could without causing offence, and had headed straight to his hotel to collect his belongings. He sat now, on a tree stump in the hotel courtyard, with his rifle across his knees. While he waited patiently for his horse to be brought around from the stables, he carefully cleaned and oiled his gun, searching out any specks of grit or dust that might cause a misfire or jam. The sight of an armed man in a Brussels, Paris or London hotel would undoubtedly have caused alarm, but here in the Congo it barely raised an eyebrow. It was a foolish man who ventured out without protection?.

His pack lay awkwardly at his feet, struggling to remain upright in the tangle of roots that pushed there way up through the cobblestones. The courtyard had been relaid less than three years ago, but already it was losing its battle with nature. Even here, in the middle of the city, the jungle asserted itself; a constant reminder to Antoine that Africa could never be tamed.

We cannot control our surroundings, he thought to himself, only adapt to them.

He had written a letter to his brother explaining his plans, and left it with the concierge. It had been a difficult letter to write, as he had no doubt that Alain would disapprove of his actions. Alain?s commitment to the business was total and absolute, and he scorned any suggestion that there might be other paths worth exploring. Still, this expedition was something that Antoine felt he needed to do. While he took his responsibilities seriously and never shirked from hard work, he knew that he could not live the same life forever. Each man must find his own path?.

And so, a short time later he was again entering the marketplace, leading his horse through the stalls to meet up with Catmael. His possessions were securely latched in place on the saddle, his rifle and water bottle within easy reach, his knife on his thigh.

Passing the plantain stall, he paused, catching the eye of the stallholder. He nodded once, respectfully. No words were necessary, his actions and equipment spoke for themselves. In that silent moment, an understanding passed between the two men, and the proprietor gave a sad smile and inclined his head, giving, Antoine imagined, his reluctant approval to the reckless young man in front of him.

Antoine rubbed at his chin ruefully, and turned, leading the mare away towards the gathering expedition. He approached Catmael, and spoke calmly when he arrived.

?Monsieur, you seem to have everything arranged. If we leave now, we have maybe seven hours until sundown. Will you introduce me to the rest of your party??

--Orbost


?Certainly, of course, yes,? Catmael cleared his throat and gestured to the American, ?You met Monsieur Sanderson.?

There were two other Dutchmen, both ill-equipped for their excursion, but it would be futile to equip them. Already sweating in their button-ups, they barely managed to carry personal belongings. Catmael was clearly the leader of the gang, although out of shape, he had strength and character, something his colleagues were perhaps lacking.

In his broken French he proceeded with introductions, ?This is Jan Landseer and Karel Tenbrook,? and in Dutch he bantered with them for a moment and with broad smiles they shook Antoine?s hand.

Behind the Dutchmen was the actual crew, certainly hired cheaply. One young Bantu, perhaps 16, herded five horses with a single skilled grip. Two others, about the same age, were putting jugs of water onto the vehicle and paid little attention to their surroundings. There was an older man there as well, white but perhaps local. He wore a white fedora and smoked a pipe from a neatly-trimmed beard, now white with age. He was perhaps fifty, but had the build of a twenty-year-old. Enjoying his tobacco he didn?t notice Catmael until the introduction was made.

?This is Dirk Schaffer, he is the investor.?

In much better French, the bearded man said, ?Pleasure to meet you. I am pleased a skilled local will be here to assist. We may have talent on our team, this country is yet unexplored by us.?

--Laveaux 00:41, 9 December 2005 (CST)


Antoine had returned the handshakes, and reciprocated the grins with a careful smile of his own. Landseer and Tenbrook both seemed friendly enough, but he had noticed their physical condition even before the introductions, and had made a mental note that the journey would perhaps be slower than they all anticipated.

Schaffer was a different matter. His appearance and demeanour commanded instant respect. Clearly a man willing to pay the costs of this expedition needed a certain confidence and determination, qualities that would be essential in any trip in to the country.

?Monseiur Schaffer, a pleasure. Tell me of this mokele-mbembe. What manner of creature is it? The natives have their stories of course, but I would be interested to hear your European point of view. Have you seen it yourself??

--Orbost


Pipe smoke eased out of Schaffer as he considered Antoine's question. A sly grin appeared on the older gentleman's face and he said, "I sense an aura of cyncism. It is well, I completely understand. However, before you are so quick to decide our fate I would caution that even legends have their merits.

"The mokele-mbembe is a terrible serpent that rises out of the rivers, swallowing entire tribes and herds. It protects the dark abyss from which man came.

"There is, indeed a dark abyss, young man, but it is called 'the unknown' by us. The creature protects where locals fear to go: too far beyond their home. It is the same as the notion of a flat earth. People are afraid to leave home and at that point fear turns into reality, they call it the 'abyss' or 'the end', or in the case of the Bantu, 'the beginning'.

"A creature in the jungle would certainly be enough to encite a natural fear into a real one. This is an ancient wilderness and some parts have yet to be explored. It was just a fingersnap of time ago before we'd even walked the stretch of the Nile. Africa has some of the oldest forests in the entire world.

"Why shouldn't prehistory be alive and well in this world today? Deep in unexplored jungles? What the good people of the Congo call I monster, I call a dinosaur. I want to be the first man to see one in the modern world. I have put 2,000 marks on the line to do just that.

"And you, friend, shall be a part of history."

--Laveaux 00:41, 9 December 2005 (CST)


To Antoine?s ears, the answer seemed too rehearsed, too much of a speech, and he surmised that perhaps Schaffer had spoken the same words to many a potential investor over the previous few months.

?I have no desire to be a part of history, Monsieur, just the curiosity to explore the country further. And I feel no cynicism in the local?s beliefs. They tell stories to their children, just as we do?but even stories have a grain of truth to them, yes??

?The jungles are deep. No white man has ventured there. It seems likely to me that there are undiscovered creatures. As for dinosaurs??, he shrugged noncommittally, ??you can call an animal any name you like, it is still an animal.?

?But tell me, why do you believe it is a dinosaur? Have you seen any evidence? Has anyone else seen it? Sanderson perhaps? It seems speculative to pronounce it a dinosaur based purely on the legends of the Congolese.?

--Orbost


"Indeed he has," the investor said with a puff of his pipe, "and his word is worth its weight in gold in the anthropological world The American is barely thirty-five and he has already seen far more than most men do in several lifetimes.

"I've used my sources in Oxford, Cambridge and USC. There is a great deal of biological support for such a creature giving Sanderson's sightings an electric spark in academia.

"It just so happens that us Dutch are quick to our feet and have an interest in promoting a tiny bit of nationalistic pride to our people. Investments came quite easy, despite the poor affairs of Holland at the moment.

"The Dutch always survive," he said with a wink.

--Laveaux 00:41, 9 December 2005 (CST)


In stark contrast to his first diatribe, this second reply was far more convincing. Antoine was no scientist, and could not comment on the academic rigour that Schaffer spoke of, but the words seemed genuine at least.

His last comment could not help but bring a smile to Antoine?s lips.

?As do the Belgians?, he replied. ?Enjoy the trip Monsieur.?

He turned and waved to Catmael standing nearby. He pointed up to the sun, burning its way across the afternoon sky. In a country in which wristwatches were not common, it was the equivalent gesture to tapping the face of a clock, indicating that time was getting on.

?The day will not last forever. Are we ready to depart??

--Orbost


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