Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Enigmas in Empty Places: Haunted Deserts

Enigmas in Empty Places: Haunted Deserts
By Scott Corrales

One does not immediately associate the concept of deserts with Brazil - our mental images of the South American giant immediately take us to the jungle greenery of the Amazon or to the bright pleasures of Rio de Janeiro. However, the South American superpower extensive coastal deserts—complete with sand dunes—in the northern region of Maranhao, once known to be the wealthiest part of this Portuguese possession (so wealthy, in fact, that a Portuguese monarch was willing to abdicate his crown as long he was able to keep control over Maranhao). Located between the Mangueira and Parnaíba deserts, the vast sand dunes are contained within the Lencois Maranhenses National Park and aerial photography shows the sand encroaching on the surrounding vegetation, like a stain of white ink on a green tablecloth. This is not surprising, as the Maranhao dunes stand a staggering thirty meters talls and are a source of humidity that attracts all manner of wildlife to it.

The sand dunes of Maranhao are also the home of highly unusual paranormal phenomena. In 1997, researchers Pablo Villarubia and Carlos Alberto Martins crossed the desert to visit remote communities and interview locals about their brushes with the unknown. The people who somehow wrest a living out of this harsh land speak freely of a recurrent luminous phenomenon known as the caburé or even more picturesquely as “the phantom Jeep”. Unlike tales involving phantom cars like the terrifying Haitian zobop, the ghost Jeep of the Maranhao dunes is seen where no vehicles usually drive; some claim having been blinded by the intense blueness of its headlights, which can illuminate the surroundings like daylight. One man interviewed by Villarubia and Martins was out deer-hunting when the ethereal vehicle made a beeline toward him, scaring him out of his wits and making him beleive that he was about to be run over in the wilderness. Unable to move, he saw the phantom Jeep vanish into thin air before it struck him. The "phantom Jeep" may also have a Mexican cousin: the carro de Banda reported in Durango's Zone of Silence since the 1920s.

However, the caburé isn’t the only light in the Maranhao. Carlos Araújo, born and raised in the area, told researchers that he was hunting deer among the scrub when he came across a cigar-shaped light suspended in the air, looking like “the burning tip of a cigarette” and less than a hundred meters from where he stood in the darnkess. Calling out to the object, thinking it might belong to a fellow hunter, the cigar shaped light did something completely unexpected: it changed shape, elongating up, down and sideways into the shape of a cross. Believing that it was a sign of God, Araújo dropped to his knees in fervent prayer as the cross turned to the same blue color associated with the phantom Jeep’s headlights.

Yet these experiences are hardly new. As far back as the 1930’s, ethnographers were collecting stories in the area about strange goings-on that were quickly filed under “folklore”. Author José Carvalho reported that fishermen along the Mangueiras River were used to seeing objects best described as brightly lit phantom boats that caused riverboat captains to panic and veer off course before a collision could occur.

But lights aside, the area contains even more compelling mysteries, such as the abandoned city of Tutóia, believed by 19th century archeologist Ludwig Schwennhagen to be a Phoenician fortified trading post in the manner of similar trading posts found along the Red Sea during the Hellenistic Age. It was believed that further proof of the Phoenician presence in northwestern Brazil could perhaps be found not in this desert-girt city but in the swamps and bogs along the shores of the Pinaré River.

Salt Deserts of the South

In February 2001, residents of the northern Chilean town of Calama—located in the vicinity of the country’s northern salt deserts—claimed having seen a “caravan of UFOs” in the Salar de Atacama, one of the driest spots on Earth. A strange silvery sphere had been causing a great deal of consternation among locals, but it wasn’t until February 24 at 8:30 pm that Adolfo Trigo, a young resident of the outlying village of San Rafael, claimed having seen a UFO taking off from one of the village’s quarters. The object, he would later tell the Diario de Calama newspaper, was a “fish-tailed cylinder with a phosphorescent green front, an electric blue middle and a violet-hued tail.”

Trigo was spellbound as the multicolored object made a full turn in the air before rising into the night sky at full speed. But what makes Trigo’s account unique is that he did not see the object lose itself among the stars, as is often described in UFO sightings, but rather “disappear into a doorway in the sky.”

Others would become witnesses to this latest desert mystery. Weeks later, Gustavo Glade would become a witness to UFO while traveling by truck along Cuesta El Diablo on the southernmost reaches of the Atacama Desert. The driver, accompanied by five other passengers, was able to see a sequence of bright rectangular lights that appeared to be flying in tandem. It looked, in his own words, “like seeing a train riding through space”, a description corroborated by the others aboard his vehicle. However, the same peculiarity as in the Trigo sighting was noticed: the heavenly convoy did not fly away or shoot up into space—it seemed to enter into a cloud or “dimensional doorway” through which it vanished completely. Glade’s sighting lasted a total of eighteen to twenty seconds and the objects involved were no mroe than a dozen, flying in an upward direction, which discarded the suggested possibility that the driver and his passengers had seen a meteor.

The UFO phenomenon’s interest in Chile is mirrored by the U.S. military’s interest in both the country and the phenomenon. According to journalist Cristián Riffo (www.ovnivision.cl), a Col. Hubert Brandon prepared a dossier on the anomalous activity in this country in 1965. This Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) dossier documents UFO sightings and encounters reported by trained professionals, including the Septemebr 1965 encounter between a LAN Chile airliner piloted by Marcelo Cisternas over the city of Arica, in which a zig-zagging object buzzed the aircraft for a number of minutes.

Months before the Trigo and Glade sightings, researcher Jaime Ferrer of the Calama UFO Center managed to collect a compelling account from the desert community of Chiu-Chiu which took place in October 2000. A man named Gonzalo, owner of a hard candy factory in the area and who distributed his product personally to the local towns, told Ferrer the following story: he had been driving some forty kilometers along the road when he saw a bright light the size of the full moon which appeared to be coming in for a landing. However, the bright object was actually suspended in mid-air. Gonzalo pulled his delivery van over , turned off the headlights and lowered the driver side window for a better look. To his astonishment, the object “exploded” and vanished, scattering three lights—red, yellow and blue-- in separate directions. What truly astonished him, he told Ferrer, was that no sooner had the lights scattered, he could hear a helicopter taking off in the darkness, although he couldn’t see it. The helo kicked up a dust storm and Gonzalo noticed “ a powerful ultraviolet light” aimed at the ground. Three wheeled vehicles, which he took to be Jeeps or 4x4s followed the helicopter’s beam and lost themselves in the desert – proof that the Chilean military is as interested in UFOs as it ever was, despite strenuous protestations that it keeps no files on the phenomenon?

Why Chile? Why the Atacama Desert with its thousand year-old mummies and vestiges of the earliest civilizations in South America? Archaeologist Juan Schobinger has written in his Prehistory in the Americas (NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000) that Chile faces one of the richest seas in the world and is backed by one of its most forbidding deserts. The dryness of the salt desert, where rainfall is measured in inches per century, made it ideal for preserving cultural artifacts such as baskets, textiles and even food.

It also preserved something darker—the rituals of forgotten shamans who would bury sacrifices deep in the desert for the “gods” to feast upon. The sacrifices would be held at night and the victim, usually a llama or a dog, left out. At daybreak, the ancient medicine men would return to the site to insure that the gods—the meandering lights of the desert—had accepted the offering. The carcass would be utterly exsanguinated and a puncture mark could usually be found somewhere on the body, which was then transported back to the primitve settlement to be consumed by the community. Subsequently, evidence of this communion between man and his deities was buried under a cairn known as an apachetca, a tangible link of the trade betwen ancient man and supernatural forces. It is easy to dismiss this as the savagery of ancient man until we remember that the books of the Pentateuch mentioned that the blood of the sacrifice belonged to the godhead. Contemporary thinkers of the paranormal like Salvador Freixedo have written at length about this curious aspect of the human worship (Defendámonos de los dioses, Spain: Quintá, 1985).

Death Lurks in the Sand

Spanish author Miguel Seguí, writing in Año Cero magazine, mentions a conversation a conversation he held with Tunisian camel driver Mohamed Charaa regarding the perils of the northern reaches of the Sahara desert. In the vicinity of the town of Gafsa, said Charaa, the truly unlucky ran the risk of coming across monstrously large snakes known as taguerga which measure up to 4 meters in length and whose poison is lethal. In the late 1950s, desert nomads spoke of giant snakes that devoured their goats and and sheep; when one specimen decided to help itself to a young camel at a desert campsite, the nomads decided that no matter how much they loathed the idea of doing so, it was necessary to appeal to the colonial authorities for help.

It was thus, according to Seguí, that a French army detachment was sent to investigate from the vicinty of Beni Ounif. It wasn’t long before these romanticized desert warriors came across the largest snake they had ever seen—so large that their Enfield rifles were unable to fell it. The soldiers had to resort to a heavy machine gun to slay the beast, which measured a nightmarish 20 meters long—very nearly 90 feet.

Although the serpent’s skin was preserved for a while, the political turmoil of the times and the withdrawal of French forces from the area caused all traces of the spectacular find to be lost.

Seguí was able to determine, however, that a year earlier, a native auxiliary had been attacked by a giant snake measuring anywhere between fourteen and fifteen feet. The skin of this desert beast had indeed been preserved and seen by many, but was ultimately sold for forty-five thousand Francs to a private collector. The notable characteristic of this monster snake is that it appears to be able to “jump up” to bite a human or camel in the head, and has a singular characteristic: what appears to be a crest of long hairs on its head, which also have horns.

Years would go by before another case was reported. It wasn’t until 1967, during the construction of a massive dam in southern Morocco, that bulldozer operator Hamza Rahmani saw a seven long serpent engaging in a singular activity—eating its way through the construction site’s entire supply of engine grease. Using his bulldozer’s blade, Rahmani was able to kill the creature, which measured a little over nine meters long and had a “mane’ of hair running along its head. According to Seguí, the construction project was bedeviled by the creatures, with a ten meter long one—complete with twisted horns—being seen the following year and twelve to fifteen meter one reported two years later. While even the most open-minded may scoff at these measurments and call them overblown, the author reminds us that eighteen-meter long snakes were common during the Pleistocene in South America.

But stranger things than giant snakes can be found in the world’s deserts. Ing. Marco Reynoso of Mexico’s defunct Fundación Cosmos A.C. describes a case involving a group of teenagers during the months of December '89/January '90 as they traveled to visit a series of caves located in Cerro Pajarito, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua on the road leading to the Paquimé archaeological site. According to Alvaro Villareal, one of the witnesses, they found two dead, 3-point deer and one doe on their path. The animal’s carcasses were not rigid and the eyes had been eaten by ants. Three perforations, spaced at 3 cm., were on their necks forming a triangle. Footprints similar to those of a puma were seeing in the area.

When the group entered into one of the caves, they heard squealing sounds and smelled an odor of burned wood; standing on an outcropping 15 meters away was an entity resembling the one described as the "Chupacabras", which advanced toward them. Seized by panic, one of the would-be speleologists drew his pistol and fired an entire clip at the creature, which was impervious to the hail of bullets. The group ran out of the cave, uncertain if the creature was dead or not. They also claim having encountered a thin, metallic green entity standing some 80 cm., which they took to be an "extraterrestrial". Drawings were subsequently made of both creatures. It is worth noting that the deserts of Northern Mexico have also been the locale for many encounters and sighings of winged creatures best described as “gargoyles” or even “Birdmen” (see “Return of the Birdmen” by Scott Corrales, FATE October 1998).


The desert is a place of great beauty, but also of danger. It is the place where animals and insects inimical to human life dwell and also the place seekers go to find hidden wisdom and revelations. Traditionally the “deserted places” were shunned by the ancients, who believed that the gods of the ruined cities in the desert reverted into angry demons, having no one to worship them. Tanith Lee, one of Great Britain finest authors of sword and sorcery, writes a compelling account of a band of desert travelers who entertain a stranger by their campfire—who should it turn out to be but the demon king, come to the surface to listen to the chorused voices of his “children”, the desert predators. H.P. Lovecraft, whose visions disturb our sleep to this very day, had the “Mad Arab” Abd Alhazred title the fearsome Necronomicon “Al Azif” – supposedly the sound made by nocturnal desert insects who are in fact, evil spirits.

But so much for the worlds created by our gifted fantasists. What wonders—and horrors—do the world’s deserts hold for us?