The vast continent of Africa has always held a wild fascination for Europeans, with its spectacular landscapes, vibrant cultures and often brutal history of tribal warfare, sectarian violence and colonialism. Home to many nations, religions and ways of life, it comes as no surprise that Africa has more than its fair share of gods, demons and spirits that prowl over the grassy plains and creep through the hot darkness with flashing eyes and grasping hands. Some of these spirits are good, some evil, some indifferent – but belief in them remains widespread today, despite the prevalence of Christianity and Islam which abhor such ‘superstitions’.
I grew up in Southern Africa, spending the first ten years of my life there, and when you drive through the majestic volcanic mountains of Lesotho or across the sprawling South African plains it is not hard to imagine that all manner of dark and mysterious beings lurk out there in the wilds. In Botswana, the land of my birth, locals believe that the Legaga la ga Kobokwe – or the Kobokwe Cave – is haunted by evil spirits which take the form of gigantic snakes. Their belief is so deeply engrained that even though the Scottish missionary and famous explorer David Livingstone spent a night in the cave with a tribal king and emerged unscathed the next morning, they still maintain that the cave is haunted. At night they often see these mighty snakes moving about and supposedly any travellers who pass the cave are waylaid by spirits. Now the only locals to visit the cave are witch doctors and other spiritual personages, though foreign visitors enter quite regularly.
Further south, the rugged landscape of South Africa is said to be populated by all manner of spooks and spirits. One of the most famous is the apparition of The Flying Dutchman, which has inspired novelists, filmmakers and composers and was brought to life in the highly popular Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise. Originally The Flying Dutchman was a majestic ship captained by Hendrik Van Der Decken who swore an oath to sail around the Cape of Good Hope even if it took him until Doomsday. This is the most popular variation of the story, although of course there are others, and some sources cite his name as being Van Falkenberg or Van Straaten. Apparently, if all of the reports are to be believed, the stubborn captain failed in his mission and is still trying to complete it even in death. One of the original versions of the tale records that the ship encountered a violent storm and amid the lashing rain and frothing waves the Captain refused to find a safe port; instead he dared God to sink his ship.
A shining figure swiftly appeared on the deck of The Flying Dutchman, but instead of treating this divine messenger with respect the Captain fired at it with his pistol. Enraged, the holy apparition condemned Van Der Decken and his crew to sail for all eternity and serve as a curse to all those who laid eyes on them.
This is just one of the fascinating legends surrounding this notorious vessel. No one really knows what happened to the ship – the only certain thing is that it did not complete its journey but foundered in the treacherous seas around the Cape. Many sightings of it have since been recorded by steamers, freighters, the Royal Navy and even U-boats sailing during WWII. A sighting of the ship is said to be a bad omen; even worse is if you allow the doomed crew to pass you letters. To accept these missives means certain death.
The Flying Dutchman is not the only ghost ship to sail off the South African coast. Another vessel, the Libera Nos, also haunts these waters. Captained by Bernard Fokke, this phantom ship’s crew are supposedly skeletons. Libera Nos has sometimes been mistaken for The Flying Dutchman – though surely sighting either one is not a good omen for ocean travellers.
The Cape of Good Hope is not only haunted by ghost ships. Its castle, Goede Hoop, is also rumoured to be home to several ghostly entities – among them the merciless former governor Pieter Gijsbert Noodt who stalks through the castle grounds cursing his condemned fate. Construction work on the castle began in 1666; since then it has served a few different purposes, functioning as a centre of colonial power, a prison and now as a museum. Several of its rooms and corridors are haunted by spirits. Lady Anne Bernard, a former noble resident, haunts the ballroom and has even been seen to join in the various festivities once held there, while another female apparition garbed all in grey has also been spotted in the castle and was even glimpsed by Princess Margaret during the royal tour which took place in 1947.
There have also been other paranormal phenomena recorded in the castle. A spectral black hound – reminiscent of Norfolk’s Devil Dog – has been seen and even leaps at castle visitors, though it vanishes before it touches them. Unexplained noises have also been heard, including footsteps and voices arguing, and an invisible hand taps people on the shoulder.
Another famous South African attraction which is supposedly haunted is Kruger National Park – a favourite of mine, where I spent several happy holidays (thankfully undisturbed by the paranormal, although lions, an angry elephant and disgruntled rhino provided some scary moments). If you’re a fan of the Sleepy Hollow story you’ll be pleased to hear that Kruger is home to its own version of this haunted locale. There is a densely wooded part of the Lebombo Hills known as Crook’s Corner because it was frequented by smugglers and poachers. An Englishman who ventured into the Hills on a hunting trip shot seven elephants in these woods one day. He spent that night in camp and then rode into the trees the following morning to collect his precious ivory.
He never returned to the camp and was not seen alive again. His white horse emerged from the trees some hours later but fell prey to illness – perhaps African Horse Sickness or the fatal bite of a tsetse fly – and perished. After his mysterious disappearance people who ventured into the trees began to report sightings of a ghostly rider upon a white horse and hunters soon refused to set foot in those cursed woods.
Near the rest camp of Punda Maria stands Gumbandevu Hill, where sacrifices of live goats were made to the rain gods during times of drought. The doomed bleats of the goats supposedly attracted evil spirits to the hill and now locals refuse to venture onto its slopes. Despite this, the sound of drumming and singing has still been heard from the hilltop – even though rituals have not been held there for many years.
The Park is also said to be haunted by other strange spirits – such as the monstrous serpent known as muhlambela, which sneaks up on unwary victims and bites them in the back of the skull. The Park’s baobab trees are haunted too, serving as homes for devils and other wicked things.
This brings us to the conclusion of the first part of the Haunted Africa feature. These apparitions and folk tales which I have just recounted for you are just a tiny sample of Africa’s many spirits… In Haunted Africa Part II prepare yourself to be introduced to the infamous tokoloshe, the flying Kongamato and the “Adze” vampire of Togo and Ghana, to name but a few!