The huddled encampment had come into view hours ago, but had never seemed to get any closer as our tiny convoy negotiated the springtime Mongolian desert. At last we pulled up, and Ted stretched with relief before beginning to unload our paraphernalia. As we looked anxiously round for signs of the scientific expedition we had travelled thousands of miles to film, our interpreter,
Genghis, went to greet the headman outside his yurt. The atmosphere was intense.
“Juju man no here, boss,” said Genghis, “Disfella still make ready”. A keen student of Eng. Lit. – B.A. Mumbai (failed) – Genghis had his own idea of how an interpreter should speak.
“Any other camera crews arrived?”
We were still the first.
The race had begun nearly 3 weeks earlier, in the suburban headquarters of Warrington-online.com. The Editor came rushing up to our table excitedly, narrowly missing the Starbucks waitress, who was clearing away the coffee cups.
“This has got to be the story of the century,” he wheezed, collapsing into a chair. “A major zoological expedition to find a long-lost species of wildlife!”
“David Attenborough going after the Abominable Snowman is he?” asked Ted, slurping noisily at the dregs of his Frappucino.
“Better than that.” The Editor produced a sheaf of printouts from various Web pages, “This story is all over the Internet and Twitter’s on fire. The Fortean Times is going to look for the Mongolian Death Worm!”
“Again?” yawned Ted, idly scratching his beer-gut. “Didn’t they go a few years ago?”
“No, mate, that was a Czech.” And so the story unfolded.
The first known reference in English seems to have come from Professor Roy Chapman Andrews’ 1926 book On the Trail of Ancient Man. He had talked with the Mongolian Prime Minister who wanted to catch the Mongolian Death Worm, or Olgoi Khorkhoi, because the worm had killed one of his relatives.
Quite well-respected in his own time, Professor Chapman Andrews achieved posthumous fame as the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones.
Inspiration of a different sort was provided by a short story about Olgoi-Khorkhoi from the Russian palaeontologist, Ivan Yefremov. In 1942/1943 he wrote about a worm, which resembled a bloody intestine, that could grow to the length of a small man and mysteriously kill people at great distance, possibly with poison or electricity.
Filled with such scientific material was the boyhood reading of the foremost investigator of the Mongolian Death Worm, Czech author Ivan Mackerle. When he grew up, he searched for the Worm on two occasions in 1990 and 1992, using night-vision goggles and camera-equipped ultralight planes.
The Mongolian Dea
th Worm was brought to the general attention of the English -speaking public by British zoologist Karl Shuker in his 1996 book The Unexplained. This was followed a year later by his Fortean Studies paper on this subject, presented to his colleagues, among whom was Ivan Mackerle.
The presentation must have had a stimulating effect, as in 2003, Adam Davies and Andy Sanderson from Extreme Expeditions travelled to Mongolia to have a look for the fabled beast , funded by The Fortean Times.
In 2005, led by British cryptozoologist Richard Freeman, Chris Clark, (physicist), Jon Hare, (science writer) and Dave Churchill, (artist and designer), a joint expedition by E-Mongol and the Centre for Fortean Zoology examined reports and sightings of the Mongolian Death Worm, but found no proof that it exists.
This did not deter a second expedition in July, 2006, conducted by the reality-television series, Destination Truth, who, sadly, did not find any truth in the reality of Olgoi Khorkhoi when they reached their destination.
And now, July 2009, just in time for the start of the silly season, New Zealand TV entertainment journalist David Farrier and cameraman Christie Douglas were about to spend two weeks in the Gobi desert. They believe that explosives are the best way to find the “intestine worm” as it is said to be attracted to tremors.
Any suggestion that they may have been influenced by films about Graboids is, of course, unfair.
The widely-differing methods of investigation, and the fact that no expedition has yet succeeded has come as no surprise to Mongolian scientist D. Tsevegmed, who was quoted in the Ulan Bator News as saying that “Mongolians consider that there are 33 different Gobi Deserts, and there are two kinds of death worm in the Gobi.”
“But these articles all say the same thing,” objected Ted. “And I don’t see anything published by scientific journals or other reputable sources.”
“What are you talking about? There are reports here from Cryptozoology News, the Australian Courier Mail, and the Ulan Bator Post and Mongol News. Plus there’s a piece in Wikipedia. You don’t think anyone would put a joke article there, do you?” nodded The Editor, basking in self-delusion. “I can see it now. It’ll be ‘Build A Better Mousetrap’ all over again. Just get confirmation of the Mongolian Death Worm, and everyone and his dog will want to RSS our feeds. All you need are your mobile phones. Take some pictures, record a sound bite or two, blog it on your laptop, and Robert’s your father’s brother. It’ll be a great adventure for the two of you. Is that clear, Bill?”
“Right,” said Ted
Events had moved swiftly after that. The Editor pawned his new Swiss army knife and mortgaged his greenhouse to finance the trip. I had topped up my mobile, and Ted bought a new battery for the laptop. And now here we were, following Genghis into an acrid, smoke-filled yurt that bore the legend – Teahouse of the Death Worm Moon.
We gazed round in astonishment. The wicker walls were papered over with photos and drawings of Olgoi Khorkhoi – the very same photos we had seen on the Internet. Pride of place had been given to a full-size poster of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, with Harrison Ford’s name crossed out and Roy Chapman Andrews written in shaky bright red crayon.
At the far end, a rickety camp table was covered with plasticine rejects from Jurassic Park VI , and a wizened Japanese in steel-rim spectacles and a topi sat behind it, looking for all the world like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s and painting eyes on what appeared to be a cross between a Chinese dragon and a Martian stick insect. Every now and then he reached out and tilted the head of a bored-looking iguana whose tongue cast after flies with the world-weary insouciance characteristic of all artists’ models.
“Disfella Hirohito, boss,” said Genghis proudly. “Him very famous man. Work on olla big ones – Godzilla, King Kong, Krakatoa East Of Java.”
“Special effects?” said Ted, doubtfully.
“Him make Death Worm so juju men not go way disappointed. Last time he get here too late.”
It turned out that Hirohito had made a career out of following myth hunters and paranormal investigators. Staying just out of sight, he would provide them with tantalising glimpses of whatever it was they were seeking. Perhaps it was just as well that he was never up close and personal since he tended to have what might be called a gestalt approach to his craft – more Rolf Harris than Gauguin.
This lack of fine detail had got him into trouble more than once. He it was who had dressed his pet and uber-model, Iggy, in a skirt and tried to get him discovered as the Kimono Dragon. On another occasion, he had been stymied by Dian Fossey, who had been quick to publish her book before he could photoshop Godzillas in the Mist.
His career was now at a cusp, and when a villager came in with news that the New Zealanders had gone to the 32nd Gobi by mistake, he seemed to lose heart. All this effort for nothing.
It was close to noon by now, and the metal table top had heated to an uncomfortable degree. Iggy gazed piteously at Ted, lifting first one foot, then another, rocking from side to side in an effort to get some relief.
“Poor little monster,” remarked Ted to Hirohito. “Can’t you put a cloth on the table for him? Then he wouldn’t have to rock so much.”
No one else paid any attention. The feeling of disappointment was palpable. No scientists, no discoveries, and more importantly, no tourist trade spin-offs. We picked up our mobiles and Twittered to the world at large that the Mongolian Death Worm had once again declined to put in an appearance.
After a final round of farewell handshakes with our hosts we commiserated with the little make-up artist on the failure of yet another of his enterprises and wished him good luck for the future. But where would he go from here?
As we turned to depart, Hirohito crouched in front of his pet, swaying from side to side in time with the iguana’s dance. His spectacles gleamed with the fanaticism of one who has discovered the Holy Grail as he picked Iggy up and whispered a mantra, “Rock Less Monstah.”