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Giant Worm Lures Adventurer(s)

Giant Worm Lures Adventurer(s)

Posted: February 09, 1994

By Stambush, Connie

As a boy, Ivan Mackerle spent his playtime searching for imaginary dragons, buried treasure and secret routes to the center of the earth. Today, the 52-year-old Prague resident is still pursuing legends and mysteries - only he no longer limits his explorations to his parents' back yard. Mackerle, generally considered the premier Czech adventurer, has searched for Almas (Bigfoot) in the Himalayas, the Loch Ness monster in Scotland, Count Dracula's castle in Transylvania, buried Nazi treasure, and Allghoy Khorkhoy, the gigantic killer sandworm of the Gobi Desert. This fall, he and partners Jiri Skupien and Jaroslav Prokopec will travel to Madagascar in search of Tepe, the legendary man-eating tree. Growing up, Mackerle was eager to experience the life he had read about in countless adventure books. When he became a man, however, he saw the lifestyles of his friends dominated by money, women and marriage. "Others thought it was better to have houses and cars, but I didn't go along with that belief," he says. "I continued to dream and read of mystery and adventure, wanting to know for myself if these things were true." While he never gave up his dream, he did put it on the back burner for a number of years. To support his wife and son, he became a supervisor at an automobile factory. Then, in 1978, he found a way to combine his dreams with the reality of making enough money to care for his family. He and a partner, Michal Brunlik, began lecturing on the mysteries of the world. Mackerle worked days and traveled to a different town each night to speak about the Loch Ness monster, UFOs, Dracula, ghosts and other legends. When that routine became too much, he quit his job in 1980 and became an "investigator of mysteries." Today, Mackerle travels to far-off lands and supports his family by writing articles about his adventures. During the communist years, his explorations were confined mainly to Eastern Europe. In 1977, however, he obtained a visa for the United Kingdom and led the first Czech exploration team to Scotland in search of the Loch Ness monster. They didn't find the monster. In fact, their most horrendous experience was crossing the Czech border, as the guards were highly suspicious of their trucks, movie cameras and diving equipment. "It took hours to get through this one checkpoint. They thought we were smuggling things out. They took everything apart, looking into the air tanks and examining every inch of our equipment," he says. Long-time partner Prokopec recalls he also was more than a little curious the first time he met Mackerle. "I was only a small boy, but I remember watching him," Prokopec says. "At that time, Ivan was a teen-ager and was already making short films about mysteries and thrillers. The day we met, he was filming a Western or something and asked to borrow my toy pistols. I thought, 'Wow!' " Traveling became easier after the 1989 revolution, and Mackerle and his partners took advantage of the opportunity. Their most recent expedition was to Outer Mongolia. Mongolia's Gobi Desert is the home of the legendary Allghoy Khorkhoy, which means "intestinal worm" in Mongolian. Locals say the sandworm is about one and a half meters (about five feet) long, blood-red and capable of killing from a distance. Allghoy Khorkhoy is not as famous as other legends Mackerle has investigated. That, he says, is why he chose it. He wanted to expose the creature to the world. Mackerle and partners Skupien and Prokopec first ventured to Mongolia in 1990. There they hired a translator and rented a truck to take them into the deadly desert. Their biggest challenge, however, was gathering information and eyewitness accounts, Prokopec says. Most people who knew about the worm were either reluctant to share their knowledge or couldn't be found. Their goal was to photograph Allghoy Khorkhoy, but that meant luring the creature to the surface. Taking their cue from the film Dune - the story line of which bears a striking resemblance to the legend of Allghoy Khorkhoy - Mackerle and his team employed "thumper." "We must have looked pretty ridiculous trudging around in the middle of the desert heat dragging a log behind us," Mackerle says. "Every few feet we would stop and raise the log, letting it smash to the ground, and hope that the vibrations would bring [the worm] to the surface." Allghoy Khorkhoy did not appear. The trio returned in 1992, this time armed with state-of-the-art filming equipment and explosives. They had a deal with Czech Television to make a documentary of their search for the giant sandworm. Each man had a critical role in the expedition. Mackerle would write the script, Skupien would be the cameraman, and Prokopec - a doctor who specializes in tropical medicine - would provide medical care if anyone was injured or became sick. They were warned repeatedly by locals not to search for Allghoy Khorkhoy. Although monks in the region said the creature could kill them, they did not take the warnings seriously, Mackerle says. They spent more than a week in the desert trying to rouse the elusive worm by sending vibrations deep into the sand with explosives they had smuggled into the country on the Siberian Express from Moscow. Mackerle makes a sign of the cross and says they were lucky they weren't caught. In the desert, Mackerle experienced a bizarre nightmare. He dreamed that Allghoy Khorkhoy rose up from the sand in front of him. He tried to run from the creature but could only move in slow motion. Fear shot through him. That's when he felt a piercing pain in his back and woke up. Prokopec says Mackerle's skin and muscles were hemorrhaging by the next morning. Large bruises and blood boils covered his body. His condition was serious. "I was really afraid for Ivan. I really thought he was going to die," Prokopec says. From a medical standpoint, Prokopec says it is difficult to say exactly what happened that night because he didn't have proper medical equipment to run tests. He says Mackerle exhibited extreme exhaustion and showed signs of heart failure. Skupien speculates that Mackerle may have experienced some sort of psychological reaction to the hardships of the trips and the deadly tales about the creature. "If a person is superstitious of a black cat crossing their path, and one does, they may begin to have bad luck. Perhaps something like that happened with us," Skupien says. None of the three believes Mackerle was actually attacked by the sandworm, but they acknowledge that there are ancient mysteries of the Mongolian desert that they know nothing about. "Maybe we shouldn't have been there. Perhaps we were pushing too much or weren't sensitive enough to the limits of where we could stick our noses," Prokopec says. Whether or not the creature actually exists is debatable. The team has several hypotheses about the legend of Allghoy Khorkhoy. Mongolian tribes may have created the stories as a defense from other tribes. Or locals may have wanted to protect their desert from plundering by outsiders searching for valuable antiquities and minerals. There are also number of theories to explain Tepe, a tree that supposedly consumes human flesh. Several plants are said to exist that could be interpreted by the locals as "man-eating," Mackerle says. "One plant supposedly is able to devour small rodents, much the way the Venus' flytrap does," he says. "Another is described as a willowy tree with hook-shaped thorns that secrete poison. "There are stories of people getting caught in this tree and the hooks ripping at the flesh as the person struggles to get free. Eventually, the poison from the tree gets into their blood and they die. Then when the bodies are found at the base of the tree, they call it a man-eating tree." And will the advernturers succeed in Madagascar, a major island off the east coast of Africa? That depends on how success is defined. "Some people may not think we are successful, but because we are able to develop new theories and explain some of the legends, I think we are successful," Mackerle says. Regardless of what they find or don't find, the three men say they get highs from all their adventures. They agree that adventure is like a drug they can't stop taking. "As a mystery investigator, I have a strong romantic desire for adventure. I'll stop when I die," Mackerle says.

By Stambush, Connie

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