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Interview: Ivan Mackerle
On the trail of the "Mongolian death worm" - the Allghoi khorkhoi - with the Czech Republic's leading adventurer
Though he lives in an unremarkable Prague apartment building, Ivan Mackerle has a remarkable life.
Mackerle's adventures have taken him to Scotland to look for the Loch Ness monster, to Australia to seek out the elusive Tasmanian tiger, and to Madagascar to hunt for oddities like the aepyornis (a giant ostrich-like bird) and the island's mythical man-eating trees.
Since childhood, however, Mackerle has mainly been fascinated by the less celebrated Allghoi khorkhoi ("Intestine Worm") - a giant and possibly deadly creature said to live beneath the sands of the Gobi desert.
Mackerle first learned of the worm-like creature through a science-fiction story by Russian writer I. Yefremov.
Years later, at university in Prague, Mackerle jokingly mentioned the story to a Mongolian student, assuming that the Allghoi khorkhoi was a purely fictional creation.
The student's response startled Mackerle.
"When I asked him what it was, I expected him to start laughing," Mackerle explains. Instead, "he said, in a mysterious voice, 'yes, I know it.'"
The Allghoi khorkoi stuck in Mackerle's mind but, because of communist-era travel restrictions in Czechoslovakia and in Mongolia itself, he had no realistic hopes of traveling there, even after he'd been permitted to visit Loch Ness in 1977.
That all changed in 1989.
Mackerle recalls standing on Wenceslas Square with his friend Jiøí Skupien, during one of the Velvet Revolution's massive demonstrations.
"Now we can go to Mongolia," he told Skupien, a photographer.
Mackerle's first Mongolian expedition, in 1990, wasn't without its difficulties though.
As well as the remaining official restrictions on travel within Mongolia, and reluctance among ordinary Mongolians to discuss the creature, there were practical difficulties caused by the country's lack of transport infrastructure.
"There was only a train from Russia to China," he remembers, "and no buses - it wasn't possible because there were no roads around the country. There were only horses, camels and off-road vehicles."
Instead, Mackerle and fellow travelers Jiøí Skupien and Jarda Prokopec, a doctor, had to "pay, ask and pray" for a car, eventually hiring a Mongolian driver who would take them into the southern Gobi desert.
'An intestine filled with blood'
There, the Czech team collected eyewitness accounts of a remarkable-sounding creature.
American adventurer Roy Andrews, who visited the Gobi in 1922, had been struck by the consistency of eyewitness accounts: "If the faith in its existence was not so strong and widespread among the Mongolians, and if everyone did not describe the animal exactly the same way, I would believe it to be an idle myth."
Mackerle's team had a similar experience, hearing consistent accounts of a creature that "looked like a cow intestine filled with blood," usually about half a meter (20") in length (though sometimes longer), and as thick as a man's thigh.
According to most accounts, the worm is dark red in color, sometimes with brown spots, with no eyes, nostrils, mouth or other features that distinguish one end from the other.
The creature also moves strangely - "either it rolls around or it squirms sideways, sweeping its way about."
The worm is thought to live underground, and usually only emerges at the height of the summer - June and July - following rainfall. (Perhaps for this reason, the Allghoi khorkhoi has never been photographed.)
Most bizarrely, the Allghoi khorkhoi is said to kill its prey - including humans - either with poison, or with an electrical current.
On their second Mongolian trip, two years later, Mackerle's team tried a new approach, partly inspired by their Loch Ness experiences.
"We tried to lure the Loch Ness Monster with sounds of fish - its food - but we didn't know what the Allghoi khorkhoi ate," he explains. "So we decided to drive it out."
This involved smuggling explosives across the Russian/Mongolian border and discharging them in areas of the Gobi where the worm might live.
While this approach yielded no sightings, the 1992 expedition wasn't without incident.
Shortly after visiting a Buddhist monastery, where his team was warned that the Allghoi khorkhoi was a creature of "supernatural evil," Mackerle had a vivid dream about the worm, awaking with blood-filled boils on his back.
Prokopec, a doctor, became alarmed when more hematomas appeared and Mackerle began to show signs of heart failure, in an incident vividly captured in a TV documentary the team filmed for Èeská televize.
Thankfully, Mackerle made a full recovery, and in the summer of last year (2004), he launched his third Mongolian expedition, this time with the help of ultralight pilot Jiøí Zítka.
Zítka had "wanted to find a reason to fly across Mongolia," and Mackerle was happy to provide one.
With the pilot's help, Mackerle's team was able to cover a far greater area than in previous expeditions, filming great swathes of the Gobi with a video camera attached to the aircraft.
Despite this ambitious approach, however, the expedition failed to capture any signs of the worm on film.
Among known creatures that resemble the Allghoi khorkhoi in some way, Mackerle believes that South America's amphisbaenians, an obscure reptilian suborder also known as "worm lizards," come closest to matching the Mongolian reports.
Having initially thought that the creature might be a zoological reality, however, Mackerle has begun to suspect that the "worm" might be a psychological phenomenon, possibly caused by the extreme heat of the Gobi.
"The death worm could be - I don't want to say 'hallucination' - but some sort of psychological problem," he says.
With no new method for hunting the Allghoi khorkhoi, Mackerle says he has no plans to return to Mongolia but, now 62, his appetite for adventure remains as strong as ever.
Next up? Mackerle is planning a trip to India, to explore temples and caves that might explain legends of a subterranean kingdom called Agharta.
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