• Fraser du Toit

The Howick Falls Monster - River God, or Suicide Serpent

Everyone knows about at least one monstrous beast rumored to live in a body of water. For most people, the idea of a river or lake monster calls up images of a particularly grainy picture of the Loch Ness Monster. Others might think of their own local legends, like the people of Howick in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.




Howick - The Place of the Tall One



Like most places in the world that were founded by European settlers, the area of Howick had been occupied for a very long time before the town got started. The Zulu people have held the Howick Falls in high regard as a sacred site, KwaNogqaza, "Place of the Tall One". The water falls for 95 meters (311 feet) before rejoining the Umgeni River on its journey to the Indian Ocean.

Howick is a small town with a lot of history. Officially founded in 1850, the village of Howick had been operating since the late 1840s. Location is important, and Howick formed as a way to provide travelers with safe passage over the river. 88 kilometers (54 miles) from the port city of Durban, Howick forms part of the route north to Johannesburg.

Before there was a Howick, travelers crossed the Umgeni River at a spot called Alleman's Drift (Everyman's Crossing). Along came a missionary, James Archbell. He bought three farms near the top of the waterfall. The river crossing was moved to the more convenient, and deadly spot about 200 meters (660 feet) from where the Howick Falls drops off.

Many who attempted the crossing tumbled into the river and were swept over the falls, wagons, animals, and family in tow. They would fall into the pool below, where Inkanyamba waited to feast on their misfortune.

The local government recognized the problem, so they established a town in 1850 by buying parts of the Archbell farm. Named after Lord Howick, the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London, the town shares its name with two other towns founded at the same time.

Before the time of the settlers, the local people revered the waterfall. Their name for it is KwaNogqaza. According to their traditions, only a Sangoma (traditional healer, the equivalent of a shaman) can safely approach the pool at the base of the falls. They would perform animal sacrifices to the guardian of the spirits of the waterfall, named Inkanyamba.


Sightings of Inkanyamba - It Likes to Nibble


The bodies of those unfortunate few that are taken by the Umgeni River are often found with chunks missing. Sightings have occurred sporadically over the decades. The most famous being the hoaxed photo of the creature.

One report comes from a Conservation Ranger, Mr Buthelezi, who saw a large serpentine creature slither off the bank and into the river in 1962. This sighting occurred near the Midmar Dam, which is also located on the Umgeni River.

Another man witnessed the monster twice. The caretaker of a caravan park, Johannes Hlongwane, saw the Inkanyamba in 1971 and 1981. Afterwards, he describes the creature as raising its head 9 meters (30 feet) out of the water. The neck of the creature had a sail or crest running up its length.

Bob Teeny claims to have seen the monster in 1995. He put up a reward for whoever captures the creature on camera after witnessing the snakelike head of the Inkanyamba rising from the depths below the waterfall. This had the unfortunate side effect of producing the most famous picture of the monster, which was quickly dismissed as a fake.

The picture was easily dismissed as a picture from a children's dinosaur book. Unfortunately for the Inkanyamba, the existence of one proven hoax is often used to dismiss its existence outright.


Powers of the River Serpent



According to the legends, the Inkanyamba is more dragon than snake. It flies into the clouds when angry, and causes terrible storms to rain down on the land below. This calls to mind the myths of several Asian cultures, where dragons are often bringers of rain as opposed to breathers of fire.

Storms caused by Inkanyamba are said to produce tennis-ball size hailstones and high velocity winds. Ancient rock art from the area, created by the Bushmen, who once lived all across Southern Africa, depict a horse-headed serpent that has been dubbed the "Rain Animal" by archaeologists. It seems that the mythology of the Inkanyamba is older than the Zulu tradition.

Local lore holds that the Inkanyamba is most active during the summer, much like other cold-blooded creatures.

But the Inkanyamba isn't evil, it helps to guard people from the evil spirits that are said to inhabit the pool at the base of the Howick Falls. These spirits are blamed for the many deaths that have occurred from people tumbling over the precipice.

Zulu settlers, long ago, had to cross the Umgeni River, and as a result, many were swept away by its current. They either drowned on the way to the waterfall, or died from the fall itself. Over the centuries, the waterfall has claimed many lives. At least one person died by trying to go over the waterfall in a wooden barrel.

Over 40 suicides have been attributed to the Howick Falls. It is almost as if something draws people to leap off the top. Some claim that the call of the evil spirits below is what does it.

Over 40 years ago, a young Zulu girl was playing by the river with her friends. Suddenly, she was pulled under the water, never to be seen again. This attack has been blamed on the Inkanyamba.


Skeptics Have Thoughts



Obviously, not everyone believes that a titanic serpent haunts the Umgeni river. Skeptics exist for every mystery or legend, and the Inkanyamba of Howick Falls is no exception.

These skeptics believe that the mystery monster is nothing but a pack of carnivorous migratory eels. That would explain the serpentine nature of sightings, but does not account for the size of the Inkanyamba. According to science, only one species of eel lives in Southern Africa, Anguilla mossambica Peters, which only grows up to 135 cm (53 inches). So, not the river dragon being reported.

Others claim that the sightings are caused by the misidentification of otters. The African Clawless Otter is the second-largest species of otter in the world. Adult African Clawless Otters can grow up to 113–163 cm (44–64 in) in length.

Sian Hall, an anthropologist, wrote in a local newspaper:


"There are no physical monsters in the Howick Falls. Giant eels, perhaps, and even huge otters, if that is your idea of a monster. But we do not need to misinform the public, nor to use their gullibility to attract tourists to Howick,"

Seeing as no giant eels exist in South Africa, and otters don't grow to gargantuan sizes, the mystery of the Inkanyamba of Howick Falls still persists.