The following extended feature is adapted from 'Sun, Steel & Spray - A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge', researched and written by Peter Roberts and first published in 2011. The book is available to order online through Amazon and specialist book suppliers.
On 21st September 1908 the first motor vehicle visited Livingstone and received special permission to cross the Victoria Falls Bridge, with a receipt for the 20 shilling toll noting on the bottom ‘First motor car to cross Zambezi Bridge.’ It was driven by Lieutenant Paul Graetz on his expedition from Dar es Salaam to Swakopmond, the first motorised transit of the continent from east to west coast, completed between 1907-09.
"Lieut. Graetz and Lieut Von Roeder arrived, in the course of their expedition across Africa on a motor-car, at Livingstone in September, and, after having repairs necessitated by their rough journey executed, left for Bulawayo, Palapye and Swakopmund." (Livingstone Mail, Christmas Issue 1908)
In 1911-12 Graetz crossed Africa again, in a journey completed in two stages using motor-boats for significant sections, first travelling from the east coast up the Zambezi and then Shire River to Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi) and transporting overland before reaching Lake Bangweulu (part of the upper Congo basin located in north western Zambia), and later traversing the Congo River. Whilst in the region of Lake Bangweulu Graetz recorded reports from local people of a unknown reptile, “a degenerate saurian which one might well confuse with the crocodile, were it not that its skin has no scales and its toes are armed with claws” (Graetz, 1912).
Graetz’s written account of this monstrous lizard, together with the rather inconsistent and incredible accounts from subsequent travellers to the region, appear to have originated from local African belief (common throughout the region) in a mythical river spirit-serpent, here known as ‘Mokèlé-mbèmbé,’ merging to create a twentieth century legend of a Loch Ness Monster of the Congo.
The opening up of the remote regions of the Congo to European travellers resulted in further incredible stories of fabulous creatures from the depths of the vast jungle swamps. Bridge-worker Arthur Davison recalled the beginnings of one such story:
“Dave Le Page, an Australian, and one of the best known prospectors in Southern Rhodesia... later came up to the Congo to work for Tanganyika Concession Ltd. One day up there he met some missionaries and entertained them with a lively imaginative description of how he had seen a brontosaurus. The result was startling. One of the missionaries with some journalistic training wrote up the story as being true and the article appeared in many American and English journals. Journalists came out to interview Dave and an American expedition arrived in the Congo to search for the fabulous beast. It was the great joke of the age and Le Page was known throughout Central Africa as ‘Brontosaurus Dave.’” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, January 1952)
Lepage’s incredible report hit the pages of the Times, London on 17th November 1919, relayed from a Port Elizabeth correspondent under the unassuming title ‘A Tale from Africa:’
“The head of the local museum here has received information from a M Lepage, who was in charge of railway construction in the Belgian Congo, of an exciting adventure last month. While Lepage was hunting one day in October he came upon an extraordinary monster, which charged at him. Lepage fired but was forced to flee, with the monster in chase. The animal before long gave up the chase and Lepage was able to examine it through his binoculars. The animal, he says, was about 24ft [7.3 m] in length with a long pointed snout adorned with tusks like horns and a short horn above the nostrils. The front feet were like those of a horse and the hind hoofs were cloven. There was a scaly hump on the monster’s shoulder.” (The Times, November 1919)
Lepage’s report was quickly followed by another sighting of an unknown creature, this time from a Belgian named Gapelle. In late 1919 Captain L Stevens set out from London on a one-man (and his dog) expedition to hunt down the beast and generating world-wide newspaper coverage of the search for the ‘Congo Brontosaurus.’ Despite the excited media hype the reports were “regarded in London with mingled amusement and scepticism” (New Zealand Herald, December 1919). By early 1920 the both the accounts of Lepage and Gapelle had been exposed as nothing more than hoaxes.
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