Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Weird Weekend in 2006 and the 2013 Tasmania Thylacine Expedition

Tomorrow, I go to Tasmania for the first time ever and its not to sightsee, be a tourist or visit friends. I am going there for a reason. A CFZ expedition is going to hunt for the Thylacine.

We may never see one, never find evidence of one, but what the CFZ do best, is make the effort to go at their own expense. My friend Richard Freeman goes on expeditions every year (sometimes twice a year) to some remote part of the world looking for things - be it the Orang Pendek, Almasty (a Russian bigfoot), the Mongolian Death Worm, or Giant Anacondas in South America.

Most of what Richard comes home with is eye-witness stories, footprints, scat, hairs, but no sightings or photographs. One sighting of the Orang Pendek occurred in the 2009 expedition, but it was not seen by Richard's team.

Our trip may turn up nothing, but at least we make the effort. And have fun doing it! I've been wanting to go on an expedition for years - since I met the CFZ crowd in 2006.

So I will be away from the internet and this blog for two weeks starting tomorrow. We are camping. I hope I have enough stuff and I hope it is not too wet. Cold I can put up with but not too much wet. I am pretty tolerant of weather though.

Below is my account of the 2006 Weird Weekend Conference, North Devon, mid August

I missed my morning train to Exeter St David, but luckily, one hour later, I was put on the 12:05. I connected at Exeter to Barnstaple. I had called Jon Downes and the CFZ crowd at Myrtle Cottage, letting them know, that I'll be an hour late, as they were picking me up from Barnstaple. I waited about half an hour, and I learnt that Lisa and Mark North were on their way. I did not mind waiting. I was too excited to care. Why be stressed when a fun weekend is imminent??

On arriving at Myrtle Cottage, I got to meet Jon Downes, Richard Freeman, Nick Redfern, Darren Naish, Ronan Coghlan, OllLewis, Lars Thomas, Larry Warren, and many others - Even Paul Cropper, a cryptozoologist from Sydney came round.

After I help set up some dinosaurs and a chupacabra in the marquee, Lisa and Richard drove me to my camp site, near their B & B. I set up the tent, then walked to the B & B and on the way met the campsite owner, a friend of Jon's who was also supposed to be coming to the cocktail party that night - he could not make it. I went to the B & B and Lisa and Richard had finished getting ready - we got to the party at 8pm and spent the night laughing, drinking margueritas, and telling morbid stories about cryptid sightings. I missed seeing the dragon pinata being bashed by the kids. Helen turned up - she is Steve's friend from Barnstaple and offered me her sofa couch (which I eagerly took up on the Friday night). I did not feel all that drunk after a while. There were Salty Dog drinks going around aswell.

I had a sleepless night in the tent - I got cold and wet, therefore did not sleep much.  At 9am I walked down the country lane, heading to Clovelly. I walked to a lovely church and its grounds. Devon seems so untouched. On my way back up the road, Richard and Lisa drove past - their B & B sits on a huge hill fort. Resident dog Winston took us on a tour of the hill fort - he actually walked around a set path - it was funny. A lots of the dykes were overgrown with bracken and brambles.

Crop Circles
We went to my campsite and I picked up my bag and we drove to Jon's at 11am. The rest of the day was taken up by chatting lazily, drinking tea in the backyard and eating BBQ cooked by Nick Redfern. A very smokey affair. I think a few of us were tired and hungover, in fact I know we were. But the burgers were great.

That night there were talks on Beast Gods of Ancient Egypt and India, Scandinavian Lake monsters
and Matthew Williams did his talk on Mystery animals and Crop circles. I learnt something interesting about that. I am sorry to say that he and his team made most of the great crop circles we have seen, but the weird thing is, that often they are not alone when they are making these crop circles at night...! At the end of the night I went to stay at Helens instead of wet tent.

Paul Cropper
On Saturday, I decided to miss Richard Ingram's talk on the Fall of civilisations at 10:30am. The next talk that I saw was the Search for Camelot. The speaker kept asking Ronan Coghlan in the front row questions. Ronan knows more on Arthurian Legends.

Paul Crowther came next with the Beast of Bodmin moor - it was not an interesting talk, he was trying to be funny, but he was also rude, and Jon got angry with him after the talk. He was asked to leave the conference. Andreas Trottman did his talk on Lake Monsters and dragon legends of Central Europe.

Paul Cropper did a talk on an Australian Poltergeist story. This was a last minute lecture slot. Someone had pulled out. Firstly, Paul showed us some news breaks from Melbourne television, and other peoples footage of Big Cats and possible Thylacines in the wild. The poltergeist attack was from a house in Humpty Doo in NT. Paul and his friend went to witness a few events and write an article about it. They saw and experienced some weird things.

Jon Ronson (author of 'Men who stare at Goats') did an talk on Bohemian Grove - has anyone else heard of this? The pagan-like ritual that most of the rich leaders of the US attend in North California? (including Bush Snr and Jnr) Very strange. We watched some illegal footage of the ritual. It's on youtube.

Paul Cropper was up again for his talk on The Yowie - Australia's Bigfoot - This was a great talk that
I was looking forward too. Paul came from Sydney - the furthest travelled speaker - he may as well do two talks - they were both fantastic. His book is fantastic.

Nick Redfern did his talk on British security services spying on UFO researchers. It was a talk about conspiracies and how the government keep their eye on Ufologists.

CFZ awards were handed out to people who had provided excellent help over the weekend, and during the year. The final talk for the night was about this years expedition to Gambia to search for dragons and sea creatures. There was news about 'Ninki-Nanka' and large snake that is not recorded in the animal kingdon, yet, causes many people to believe they will die within 5 years of seeing it. Many of them did die. There were some great photos of the trip. Oll, Richard, Suzi, Lisa and Graham went on the trip.

On Sunday, I made it in time to see Paul Vella's Bigfoot talk at 11.30am. What creeped everyone in the hall out the most were the 2 recordings of supposed bigfoot calls. One recording was very bizarre - it was obvious two were speaking to each other - the sounds were strange, but it sounded like words.

Impression of the Ninki Nanka
I missed the next talk Jeremy Harte's 'Drunken Dragons: Capturing the sozzled monster in fact and folklore' - it was actually about wildmen in historical documents

I next saw Chris Moiser's talk on the sighting of the Wrangaton Lion (a big cat sighting in the west counties in the 90's).

Larry Warren did his talk next on the Rendlesham Forest UFO sighting. As I had been to Rendlesham two months earlier, it was good to understand the location. And it was great to actually meet one of the witnesses at this WW. Larry is American, but lives in Liverpool. He showed us a US documentary about the Rendlesham Forest UFO encounter.

The last talk for the day was Ronan Coghlan's 'The Goatmen cometh...' with was enjoyable all round, as he is quite a comedian.

The final part of the night was Jon thanking everyone for their efforts, and as it was Jon's birthday in two days - a cake was brought in.

I had bought Jon's book 'The Owlman and others' and I had him sign it for me. Ronan had given me
signed copies of his two books that afternoon - a free gift! Larry even offered to give me a signed copy of his Rendlesham book too - he'd have to send it to me.
All in all, I had a great weekend and it was everything I hoped it would be - everyone was so nice and I felt like one of them - one of the CFZ team.

Nick Redfern and the monster of the mere

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Weird Weekend of the CFZ 2012

My first Weird Weekend was in 2006, and it was the first time I met the crazy and wonderful people of the CFZ, the Centre for Fortean Zoology. I've loved cryptozoology since I was a kid, the bizarre stories of people experiencing strange creatures like Mothman, Owlman, Sasquatch, 'Nessie', Yowie or wondering what the hell the Beast of Gévaudan really was. It's funny, I think back to high school and how I used to read paranormal, supernatural, UFO and unsolved mystery stories in the library, often during free periods, or when I preferred reading books over hanging with friends. The last thing I thought would happen, would be that I attend cryptozoology conferences in a small village in North Devon a little over 10 years later. It was that, and a big thanks to Fortean Times magazine for getting me back involved in forteana - my life had been art, writing, medieval re-enactment and paganism for most of my adult life until then. The Weird Weekend is held every mid-August in Woolfardisworthy (Woolsery), a small North Devon village of no real significance except that the head of the CFZ  (Jon Downes) lives there, in an inherited cottage from his late father. The event runs in the local Community Centre and goes for a weekend. It’s only £20 to go – well, it's £25, but as a friend of the CFZ, I never pay that much – that price has not changed since I went in 2006 either. The lectures at the event can vary, and may not even be about cryptids either, just anything to do with forteana. On Thursday night, its the cocktail night, Friday night, the conference has its opening night, and the con starts at midday on the Saturday and Sunday. Then on Sunday its the end of weekend dinner.
The WW 06 was my final event in the UK, before I happily flew home to Australia. Then I never managed to get back to the WW again until 2012. While much had changed in that time, nothing really had changed with the CFZ crowd.

In August 2012, I was living near Huddersfield, and on the Wednesday before the WW, got the Megabus service to London (only cost £1!) and then to Exeter, then got a bus to Bideford where Jon Downes and his wife Corinna picked me up. It took all day to get there! I was going to be sleeping at their place. Beggars can't be choosers - I slept in the conservatory! Here's a run down of the event....

I arrived late on Wed night and slept in the lounge, promising to make cheese omelettes in the morning, which I did. The Thursday night cocktail party was a great success, even though the wind and the rain tried to spoil the fun – all those who attended gathered under the marquee in Jon’s yard, while Matt Osbourne and sometimes Max Blake mixed the margaritas nowhere near like Tom Cruise in ‘Cocktail.’ 

While the weekend appeared to hold the promise of rain, we began the talks on Friday night at 7pm by watching a video done by Jon, where he told a story about a sheep, a chupacabra and an alien coming to Woolsery for the Weird Weekend, with a song that he sung himself. It was typical Jon style music and video in an opening ceremony that was also very Jon style.
Richard Freeman began a talk about  ‘20 cryptids you’ve never heard of’ due to a cancelled talk, and half way through his list, was told he had 5 minutes to go. There certainly were cryptids I’ve never heard of, so the talk worked for me.

After a dinner break, we went back into the Hall to watch Paul Screeton ‘s ‘The Quest for the Hexham Heads, which I enjoyed because he went into detail about a few of the particular incidents that surrounded the heads. I've spoken about this topic on this blog before, but in regards to photography issues with stone heads of mysterious age. Paul even had two heads there – The first was a clay one made in art class by Colin Robson, one of the boys who found the original two heads in his garden in 1971 – he had made it in art class a couple of months before he moved to the house where he and his brother found the heads – the irony of this was added to the mystery. The second head was a carved one from concrete by the man who claimed to make the heads originally, as he used to live in the house where the Robson's lived. Paul had been given these heads back in the early 70’s when he researched this strange incident. He even went into detail about the strange cryptid sightings that occurred with the neighbours (the half-man, half-sheep animal in the bedroom) and Dr Anne Ross's werewolf that was seen in her house more than once.
NOT the Hexham Heads. The one of the left is a pottery
head made by the boy who found the heads, and the one on
the right is a similar head made by the man who claimed
he made the two, now missing, Hexham Heads 
Paul's book ‘Hexham Heads’ has also been published by CFZ press and tonight was the book launch of it, so Paul signed a few copies and showed off the two heads he had.
The final talk of the night was Richard Thorn’s ‘The Hunt for the Pink-headed Duck.’ Richard has been to Burma 3 times looking for this pink-headed duck, which apparently became extinct in 1935. His third trip was only taken this year, and the successful part of the trip was when his two tour guides took him into the wilds of Burma where all the lakes were, and they met many locals who recognised the duck and had seen it only a few days ago. Richard felt very close to the possibility of seeing it, but he had no success on this particular trip. He does know where to begin to look again, but due to the restrictions and laws of Burma at the moment, it might be hard to get into certain areas. You need a permit for a lot of things these days. Everyone enjoyed his talk immensely, and we all wished him the best with full support and encouragement.
Jon Downes and Max Blake
After I slept in a conservatory next to a tank of rare caecilians, I got onto my laptop to post on the CFZ Australia blog about the day-to-day occurrences of the WW.  Today in the intro, Jon Downes began with the question ‘What is cryptozoology’ in which he asked the youngsters, (some who are crew or just ‘gophers’) and they could not answer – or were too shy to. Even I asked for the microphone to give 3 categories of it –
1. Study of strange cryptids not yet recognised in the animal kingdom.
2. Study of animals previously thought extinct but rediscovered.
3. Study of animals not discovered until now.

I was right, except for another category – the study of out-of-place animals - like big cats running wild in Britain or Australia without knowledge of how they came to be there.
Nick Wadham was back with his bugs – dangerous and creepy looking ones – consisting of large snails, spiders, tarantulas, centipedes, cockroaches, stick insects and scorpions, even an Argentinian Boa. He got the kids up the front to hold the creatures and described how their victims were killed and eaten.
After some lunch, Max Blake spoke about the Analysis of the Borley Bug (left).
In 1938 Margaret Wilson, an artist, saw a strange creature one day in the garden of the Borley Rectory (the most haunted house in Britain), describing it, and sensing that it was supernatural, Max’s talk was to perhaps work out exactly what kind of bug it was, the closest thing it could have been was a dragonfly.
Jon McGowan talked about large cats in Britain – focusing on his location in Dorset. Jon is one of those very few people that can prove big cats do haunt the British countryside because he goes out into the wilds three times a week and watches their movements. His findings were amazing, and knowledge of big cat behaviour is brilliant.
Glen Vaudry spoke about Scottish Sea Serpent carcasses, and spoke about many findings that occurred in previous centuries as well as the more recent ones – quite often the carcasses turn out to be rotting basking sharks, complete hoaxes, or made up.

'Bobby' of the graveyard
Jan Bondeson, who I also saw talk at the Fortean Times Unconvention in London, in November 2011. He’d spoken then about Talking Dogs. This time it was another dog - Greyfriar’s Bobby. Most people know about the small mongrel that apparently mourned his master’s death and sat by the grave in the kirkyard for several years around the 1860s and 70s, but Jan had wanted to find out whether that was true – indeed he had existed – a dog called Bobby did indeed live in the kirkyard, but it was not known that he mourned by the grave. He was well fed, even attending a restaurant where he got fed, at 1 o’clock after the gun went off daily at the castle, and had many friends in places he used to visit. It may have been romantic story tellers or journalists that made Bobby a loyal dog that never left its master’s grave. He may have not even had a dead master!
After Jan was the annual award giving – people who have been incredibly valuable in the CFZ, a great helper, or a great speaker and explorer get acknowledged by being given a Golden Baboon award, and certificate. It’s typical tongue in cheek CFZ humour and honour.
The night ended with a documentary called ‘Heads!’ about the Hexham Heads and other mystery stone heads of North England. It must have gone for close to 2 hours. Some more raffle prizes were handed out, and then Silas Hawkins read out another ‘Bedtime story’ from Richard Freeman’s book ‘Green Unpleasant Land.’ It was my favourite story - about a dragon/wyrm – Drake's Brier – which I found out was everyone else’s favourite too. Including Richard Freeman, as I found out while I was sitting next to him during the story. The Saturday ended at midnight, yet most people went straight to the bar.
Apparently, during the night in Woolfardisworthy, a leopard was heard calling nearby! Jon McGowan, the large cat expert and hunter, heard it at about 5am, while he camped by the local Community Centre. Jon has heard many large cats before, so he should know. Yes, all manner of weird things come to the Weird Weekend, even cryptids like out-of-place leopards.
First of the day was Richard Muirhead’s ‘The Flying Snakes of Namibia’ where he looked into old stories from the 1950s where someone saw a flying snake – or thought they did. Since then and in many areas of this south western part of Africa, people who see lights in the sky at night, don’t say it’s a UFO like we would, but that it’s a flying snake with glowing lights on its head.
Someone asked Lars a question about
Trolls during question time. (image
from 'Troll Hunter')
Lars Thomas gave us a run down on the cryptids of Denmark, ranging from bugs, beetles, wolves, and chipmunks, to trolls, hominids and lake monsters. Lars not only reads a lot, and travels to locations of sightings, but he uses the microscope to discover what is out there – and has tested many hairs under a microscope, finding leopards, out-of-place cats, hominids, and even a platypus hair…from New Zealand. The old stories in Denmark of hominids and hairy creatures are found in many old documents from wooden carvings to old manuscripts. He also knows of a colony of Siberian Chipmunks that live in forests in Denmark, but is uncertain how they got there. The questions at the end even involved Trolls, and it was clear to Lars and many others that questions were asked in relation to the ‘Troll Hunter’ movie, released in 2011.
Orang Pendek - bipedal hominid of
Sumatra, as yet unstudied
Richard Freeman spoke about the Sumatra expedition of 2011 – so far the largest group to go on an expedition, splitting 3 teams up to cover more ground to try and see the Orang-Pendek. There was no success in seeing the cryptid this time round, like the sighting in 2009, but Richard still has hopes to see something one day and tick this off as ‘found’ for the CFZ.
Ronan Coghlan, the CFZ’s ever hilarious trickster talked about Sinbad the Sailor, and the cryptids he encountered. This re-introduced us to creatures like the Roc, and the ‘Old Man of the Sea’ – from Sumatra and probably like our Orang-Pendek or even the Flores dwarf.
Jon ended the Weird Weekend by remembering those lost to us – Jeanett Thomas, the late wife of Lars, and Lionel Beer’s long time partner Joy. And acknowledging a CFZ birth and a wedding too.
The dinner was held in the hall this year, with a wonderful meal presented to us by the lovely ladies of the community centre, and we all ended the night eating a CFZ cake too. After dinner, a small few of us stayed behind and watched ‘Occasional Monsters’ a British film that was inspired by Nick Redfern’s book ‘Three Men seeking Monsters.’
The men off on a big cat hunt - Mark,
Jon, Darren and Max
Due to the excitement about possibly having a leopard nearby, Mark North, Jon McGowan, Darren Naish, and Max Blake (left)appeared to walk away from the Community Centre equipped with headlights, torches and wet weather gear, into the dark fields of the Devon countryside in search of it. The rest of us (now an even smaller group) listened to Silas Hawkins read out a third story of Richard Freeman’s book ‘Green Unpleasant Land’ – this one a rather creepy one about the Bodmin little people. Richard is an excellent writer of the macabre and I recommend this book.
This ended the XIIIth Weird Weekend for 2012, and as a representative of the Australian CFZ gang, I was honoured to be there (It certainly helped when you were living in Yorkshire). Thanks to Jon and Corinna Downes, and all other members of the CFZ that helped me out on that weekend. 

Paul Screeton signing books

Pink Headed Duck, extinct 1935 (or so to be believed)

Joe Thomas with Nick Wadham

Max and the Borley Bug


Quiz time!

Jon McGowan and big cats

Glen Vaudry and Scottish sea monsters

Jan Bondeson and Greyfriar's Bobby

Jon gives Richard Muirhead a Devo hat

Jon McGowan's collection

Richard Freeman and the Orang Pendek

Ronan Coghlan

Ronan Coghlan talks of Sinbad (Jon Downes' step daughter
on the floor as a part of Ronan's act)

The Sunday dinner- my table from left - Joe, Chris, Richard,
Nichola, Nadia and Lars

Jon Downes cutting cake