Mountain of the Death
Like an island in a sea of eucalyptus, a huge mass of dark boulders was protruding against the northern Australian sky. It was the Black Mountain, known to the Aborigines as "Kalkajaka", the most frightening and enigmatic place of northern Queensland, situated 16 miles (25 km) south of Cooktown. The Aborigines avoid it, alluding to ancient legends filled with horror. White men are frightened by the number of those who have gone there and never returned, as if swallowed by the earth or the mountain itself. Birds and animals shun the area and planes avoid the entire region on account of its peculiar air turbulences and magnetic disturbances. In 1991, a Bureau of Mineral Resources aircraft flew over the Black Mountain in the north-south and east-west directions. With the aid of a helium magnetometer and a spectrometer, it conducted tests for the presence of magnetic rock and radiation levels. The results were negative but the mystery surrounding the disappearences and supernatural occurrences has remained intact. The locals warn all explorers: "Anyone set on unraveling the mystery of the mountain must be well organized and prepared to tackle the most awful dangers – such as facing a giant python."
We never expected the mountain to look so strange. Abruptly emerging from around the bend, it resembled a lump of coal, left by a gigantic dump truck in the midst of the vast green expanse of trees. Only this 'pile' was almost two miles (over three kilometers) long, and what looked like pieces of coal were in reality great black boulders, up to 20 feet (over six meters) long. A dusty road ran all the way to the mountain's lowest point. There was a small resting place there with an overlook and plaques explaining its origin. Geologists place it about 250 million years back. They tell us that hardened magma production had gradually eroded and the soil around it washed off, exposing more and more of its surface, until it reached its present height of 900 feet (300 meters) above the Earth's surface. Due to weather factors, the basalt block in time deteriorated, crumbling around the rim into individual pieces, which in turn disintegrated, thus creating new boulders.
But mystery buffs hold a slightly different opinion. Although this geological process is a common pattern in the birth of countless mountains throughout the world, Kalkajaka is a mountain unlike any other. That's why mystery aficionados claim it was built by artificial means, and that it is a ruin of an ancient extinct civilization dating back to the dawn of the world. Its recesses are thought to harbour wondrous mysteries; chronicles of sublime priestly wisdom, remains of ancestral kings, and best of all, untold treasures. The way into the heart of the mountain has been guarded by the spirits of the dead, demons, and poisonous snakes by the hundreds. Modern legend has it that this is but one gate to an underground empire, populated by an extraterrestrial race of "reptilians" and a dero-like group of human slaves, kept under reptilian control with the help of implantation, technosis, and the like.
The mountain has always been a source of terror to the Aborigines. To this day, they keep their distance, earnestly maintaining that it is a site of supernatural events. It is true that of the many daredevils who had entered underground to search the mountain, almost none returned. It seemed like they disappeared off the face of the Earth. At least that's what we learned at The Lion Den Inn, one of the most frequented pubs on Cape York Penninsula. A meeting place for the locals, the Aborigines, as well as the accidental tourist, and neatly stashed under giant mango trees, its chilled beer was a most welcome refreshment in the 90 degree (32 % Cenegrade) heat. We joined a bearded local, Peter Fitzgerald, and admitted we'd like to search the Black Mountain. He stared at us for some time in utter amazement. After a while he said, “You must be ignorant or totally insane. It swallowed up prospectors, farmers, policemen, native hikers, an entire Aboriginal tribe trying to take shelter from enemies, and a herd of cattle.” He took a sip of his beer and continued, “The Aboriginals tremble before the mountain. Sure they brought trailers with them while building the road but never stayed overnight. They always went home to sleep.” Then he led us out front onto the veranda where two Aborigines were sitting. We ordered some beer for them and they began to tell us an old legend.
Back in the age when the human race was young, there dwelt among the tribe in the vicinity of the mountain range a terrible medicine man whose name meant Eater of Flesh. So great was his craving for human flesh and so great was the dread the superstitious tribesmen felt before his powerful magic known to spirit away even a strong man that they sometimes allowed him to eat an old woman or a diseased tribesman. One day, however, being very hungry, he overstepped his boundaries and partook of a young chief, whom he found asleep. Caught in the act, the tribe rose up against him, but an evil spell helped him change into a monstrous snake. Hissing away, he made his home in the very heart of the barren and desolate Black Mountain. Only hunger could drive him out. Ever since then, people as well as animals have been disappearing there.
Naturally we took all this to be nothing more than an old wives' tale. But we sat up at attention when they added seriously that the mountain still produced mysterious sounds like crying, lamenting, loud thumps and curious extraterrestrial music. It was swarming with poisonous snakes and huge pythons, they said. The whole mountain was cursed and we had better stay away.
Waiting for a demon
Most travellers had come, carefully examined Black Mountain from the roadside overlook, and continued on their way. Only a few would decide to probe the native legend, listen carefully to the mysterious underground songs, and launch a search of its corridors. The terror, which the mountain inspired in the Aborigines, especially at night, challenged us to sleep over. The problem was that reaching this dreaded place involved a difficult treck through a primeval forest thicket in a hostile tropical region populated by vines, poisonous fig trees and fiercely stinging palms. And our rough terrain vehicle, filled with expensive cameras and other equipment, would stay unguarded in some secluded spot, which we thought risky. Therefore we decided that only Danny and I would go ahead with our tent to try and find the mountain's demonic cannibal. The rest of our group drove back to a campsite near The Lion Den Inn. The dry river bed led us all the way to the foot of the mountain. It was a dreadful, gloomy place, shaded by twisted trees and dusty withered bushes. Slick boulders were lifting their heads up high, and black abysses, emanating a rotting odour, gaped at us from underground passages.
Around seven o'clock, night had descended abruptly and unannounced, as is usual in the tropics, and all we could discern in the light of our little gas lantern was the blurred shadows of trees forming a seemingly impenetrable mass. For the next two hours we chatted. Here and there we stopped and listened to the nighttime forest, and watched silently the dark wall of boulders looming over our tent. The feeling of this slumbering landscape's ancient history had crept over us and we awaited excitedly any unusual event that would lend credence to the legends of Mount Kalkajaka. Experience told us to expect a fairly uneventful night. Little did we know how wrong we were.
Around ten o'clock a strong wind picked up and down from the tree tops came a cracking sound. We crawled inside the tent, lay down on our mats and stared at the dark fabric, straining to hear every possible sound. The nighttime cries of the primeval forest were frightening at first, full of odd wails mingled with horrific laughter and the occasional crunch of a branch broken off by the wind. It was enough to make your soul shiver. But little by little we got used to it and began to fall asleep when a sudden hush fell over everything. Not only did the wind cease but the voices of animals and night birds were gone. The silence was deafening. Danny and I looked at each other in surprise. We began joking, saying it must be the boogyman, when we heard stone crumbling from the rock above us. As if something was slowly crawling out of the mountain. It sounded quite close and we thought it might be an animal. Maybe a rock wallaby. But once it climbed all the way down, what we heard from the bushes and dried up leaves was the sound of human steps. A crawling animal would not sound like this. This was clearly a human walking.
“Let’s see who it is,” whispered Danny, reaching for a flashlight. “Wait,” I stopped him. “I bet it's hard to see our black tent. Maybe he won't notice it and leave.” To be honest, I was scared and didn’t want to call any unnecessary attention to us. After all, we were foreigners in wilderness, without a permit to build a tent by a holy site. By now the steps were definitely headed for us, as if someone knew very well where we were. Heart in my throat, I automatically gripped the handle of a long hunting knife. The prowling footsteps began to circle the tent.
“Let’s go for it,” cried out Danny, unzipping the tent with a jerk. I jumped out after him, with a flashlight in one hand and a knife in the other. The oval reflections of our flashlights pierced through the spots from which the sounds had come. A formless dark mass, undulating by the grim wall of black bushes and trees quickly dissipated. An ominous silence set in. True, no one was attacking us, but we heard no evidence of a person or animal escaping. All was still. We were completely baffled. Carefully, we searched all around our tent for possible traces and called into the dark forest, but to no avail. Dead silence was our only answer. We crawled back inside, ready to run out again at the slightest provocation, but we no longer joked about demons. Life returned to the primeval forest and so did its nighttime music, which we knew by now to be harmless. Even so, I couldn't fall asleep until dawn. My dreams were chaotic, full of fear before the evil powers emanating from the bowels of the Black Mountain, and full of images so vivid that I had a hard time separating them from reality. I was progressing down a long corridor, straight into the mountain's heart. I ended up in a square chamber, its floor strewn with curiously long skulls with a blue-and-red checker board painted all over them.
We woke up to the sound of the car horn and human voices. It was eight in the morning, and our friends were waiting for us on the road. They said they had returned to the mountain last night and watched it with binoculars. They reported seeing flashing lights. I think they were mistrustful of our nighttime adventures.
Rumours tell the truth
Historian Hans Looser of Cooktown is a Black Mountain mystery buff. He wouldn’t enter its underground passages for the world. An elderly man, he had spent his career compiling Aboriginal Black Mountain myths and legends, notes about those who have mysteriously vanished there, and eyewitness accounts. That confirmed that we weren't dealing with a mere rumor of drunk bushmen and dreamers.
“Old police records concerning investigations of these incomprehensible events have been long lost, but let me show you something,” he smiled, inviting us into his apartment. There he pulled out files yellowed with time. One of them was a seventy-year old interview with Sgt. Mac of Cooktown about people who had disappeared inside the mountain.
It began shortly after the earliest white settlement. The first known fatality, in 1877, was a courier named Grayner, who was horseback riding, searching for his strayed calf when he, his horse, and the calf all vanished without a trace. Several years later, following a shootout with his pursuers, an escaped criminal, Sugarfoot Jack and two of his cronies hid inside the mountain. None of them had ever been seen again. 13 years later, constable Ryan, stationed at Cooktown, was tracking a wanted man down to the brush at the foot of the mountain. Other trackers followed his trail to the entrance of one of the caves, but they never found him or the wanted man. More recently a gold prospector by the name of Renn has been added to the list. For weeks, police squads and trackers were combing the whole area - in vain. And the mysterious disappearances did not stop there. Harry Owens, the owner of Oakley Creek Station, rode out one Sunday morning towards the Black Mountain looking for strayed cattle. When he didn’t return on time, his partner, George Hawkins, alerted the police and meanwhile went out to look for him on his own. But by the time the police joined the search, Hawkins was gone as well. Two native police trackers entered one of the caves. One had actually come out alive. However, he was so unnerved by his encounter with terror that he couldn't give a clear account of what happened. During the Twenties, two young European cave explorers decided to solve the riddle of the earlier disappearances. Neither they nor two native trackers who tried to find them were ever heard from again. The latest fatality occurred in 1932. A packer by the name of Harry Page disappeared but this time the police found him. Unfortunately, it was too late. He was dead.
Within underground labyrinth
Why is Black Mountain black? It consists of pale gray granit but the black film covering the face of the boulders lends it a peculiar, forbidding appearance. After periods of steady rain, the colour of the mountain deepens further. Initially, geologists ascribed the strange black hue to a deposit of a very thin coating of iron and manganese oxides, only to later proclaim it covered by lichen. Today they seem assured it is not lichen at all but blue-green algae growing on the exposed surfaces.
The intimidating demeanor of the mountain might have ceased to be a mystery, but what is hiding inside has not. What happened to those who at various times during the last hundred years reportedly disappeared without a trace? We had to find the answer inside the mountain. Finding an entry port was simple. The whole place abounded with dark abysses. Some passageways were no more than a few feet long; others went on into an impenetrable darkness. It soon became clear that it would take months to find out which ones lead into the mountain’s core. There was nothing for us to do but take our chances, throw in the rope and climb down one of the larger openings. That's what we did. Inside we found a roomy chamber with corridors running into all directions. We decided to embark on the widest, which lead diagonally downward.
About ten yards later we entered another shadowy chamber. Again, the corridor divided itself into four different directions. David agreed to stay put and be the lookout while Danny and I continued on our quest. The first two paths turned out to be dead ends. They became more and more narrow, until they vanished among tiny openings between boulders, impossible to negotiate. At the beginning of the third path we were forced to crawl but soon hit a crosswise tunnel tall enough to allow us to stand. We turned back to fetch David, but our sense of direction began to betray us. It would be too easy to lose our way in all the possible twists and turns so we thought it best to mark our path. We considered using a nylon fishing line but ended up using our mountain-climbing rope instead. The floor on which we were walking was made up of stones. Some rocked dangerously, perpetually threatening to slip into a crack or an abyss bellow. The narrow tunnel was straight and walking it was no trouble. Nothing but the careful unraveling of the rope was slowing us down now. Then, without any warning, the tunnel took an abrupt turn and the vaults over our heads dipped down dramatically. From here on we had to bend. Suddenly, a huge bat charged out against us. In that narrow corridor he almost hit us and we could feel the wind from his flapping wings in our faces. Of course we were startled but not afraid even though it turned out to be a savage carnivorous Ghost Bat (Macroderma gigas). It feeds on frogs, birds and small rodents but wouldn’t tackle bigger creatures. We saw more bats hanging down from the boulders, rocking in an odd motion. With our flashlights we scanned the walls and ceiling vaults, unexpectedly jutting out and just as quickly disappearing into the as yet unexplored labyrinth. Unfortunately, here the path ended. A huge boulder, which had once fallen off the ceiling, made further passage impossible. As I squeezed through the crack under it, a big flat stone under me moved precariously. I would have been doomed but thanks to the rope I escaped slipping down forever into the abyss of a diagonal shaft, which had so suddenly opened under me. All around me, boulders began to tear down, leaping wildly and hitting the walls on their way, ending in a free fall of a few seconds. The echo told us that the abyss was several yards deep.
In the following days, we returned several times. We tried our luck in different spots and soon realized that an intricate underground web of passages and pathways was underpinning the entire surface of the mountain. Thus we were able to descend further down and explore many narrow stray paths, but in the end Black Mountain was able to preserve its mystery. We never did find a way into its legendary heart. All the trails we embarked on were filled with gravel and sand from disintegrated stone.
It would be hard to state unequivocally whether that heart harbours any mysterious chambers filled with tombs and treasures, or whether it is nothing but solid and untouched rock, as the geologists claim. To reach a conclusion would require a search lasting anywhere from weeks to several months. Yet the assumption that the mountain is either entirely or partially hollow seems reasonable. The locals once observed smoke from a burning bush drifting into the mountain on one side and coming out on the other. That is not to say it is inhabited by monsters (subterranean-dwelling creatures of serpent races), which kidnap or massacre foolish adventurers who come too near.
The mysterious disappearances might have a simpler explanation. Those who don't mark the trail on their way through this horrifying maze might never return. It is not difficult to imagine the agonies of a human being lost in the eternal darkness. The din of falling boulders and unexpected encounters with large bats or snakes could easily bring on panic, loss of orientation and consequent injuries. All you have to do then is trip on one of the thousands of slippery stones. The flashlight can easily fall out of your hand into one of the crevices. The victim of such an unfortunate accident is a goner. He can never again find his way to the light of day.
The mysterious sounds coming from inside the mountain might be caused by wind, by falling rock echoing with a curious metallic sound, as well as by explosions caused by changes in temperature. When the boulders' temperature rises high in the summer, a sudden cool tropical downpour causes them to contract. Occasionally the pressure is so great that a boulder explodes violently.
However, we could not explain away one mystery. Who was walking through the night around our tent? Could it have been the subterranean-dwelling "reptilian" after all?