Joe Marrero, Hollywood man, going to Congo to search for Africa's Loch Ness monster

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- Joe Marrero is planning a little trip this summer, and it's got his family kind of concerned.

The Hollywood software engineer is among a team of optimistic young men who intend to trek through the unforgiving Congo on a most outlandish quest: discover — and possibly bring back — a living dinosaur.

"Naturally, anybody's family would be worried about them," he said. "They don't want to hear the details."

Africa experts say the family's fears are well-founded. New York travel agency owner Valentine Sazhin has traversed the Congo. "There are many dangerous places," he said.

Marrero, 28, is the eldest of the six-man team that makes up the Newmac Expedition, named for its principals, leader Stephen McCullah and survival expert Sam Newton. They will brave the jungly Congo River to track a legendary sauropod said to live along its shore, the one pygmies call — cue the spooky music — Mokele mbembe.

"I believe it's a large unknown species of monitor lizard, kind of like the Komodo dragon in Indonesia," Marrero said. "Because 80 percent of the country is not explored, creatures like this could exist."

Tales of Mokele mbembe, which means "the one who stops the flow of rivers," have been bandied about for more than two centuries. Pygmies compare it to a long-necked, pot-bellied brontosaurus. At least 15 expeditions have slogged through the jungle trying to confirm its existence. They collected native accounts and speculated over vague footprints. Only two explorers claimed to have seen the creature, both under dubious circumstances.

Mokele mbembe is said to stretch 35 feet, sport brownish-gray skin and live in caves it carves into the riverbank. Though a herbivore, natives say it attacks hippos and elephants . Legend says a pygmy tribe once killed one with spears; all who dined on its meat died.

"I'm definitely not one that says it is there without a doubt," McCullah, 21, said from his Houston home. "I definitely think it could exist."

If they find it? "We're bringing a tranq gun," he said.

One semester short of a biology degree, McCullah has worked with missionaries in remote outposts in the Amazon and Nicaragua, though he's not a missionary himself. Marrero has hiked to Machu Picchu in Peru and camped in Belize. Other members include an environmental sciences student from Missouri, a criminology graduate from Maryland, and a global business graduate from Ohio.

Not all will make the expedition's late July start. "Several of them have had things come up," McCullah said. "They might have to bail out."

What the team lacks in academic credentials or African experience, it makes up for in enthusiasm. And they're undaunted by skeptics. "I've gotten everything — from people that were very supportive, to, 'You guys are a bunch of idiots.' " McCullah said.

The team has raised just under $29,000 for the three-month expedition through an Internet fundraising site. Much of its equipment — GPS units, solar panels, night and thermal vision gear, satellite phone and fishfinder — came from sponsors. Big- money sponsors — one pledged $10,000 — can have new species named after them.

And of course, production crews are talking a reality show.

Food supplies include freeze-dried fruit, powdered cream and oatmeal. When that runs out, the team expects to buy rice and beans, eat what pygmies eat, or trap animals for stew. "We'll probably eventually have to hunt," said McCullah, who hopes to obtain a permit.

They plan to fly into Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo, travel upriver to Impfondo, then trek overland about 60 miles to a pygmy village near Lake Tele, where Mokele mbembe is said to frequent. Besides dinosaurs, other critters in the area include dog-sized tarantulas and man-eating fish, according to the team.

"It's going to be pretty rough out there, even by African standards," Marrero said.

Marc Kupper, of Milwaukee, who's traveled the region and books rare tours there, was downright gloomy. "This is a prescription for catastrophe," he said. "It's Murphy's Law incarnate. There's going to be a surprise around every corner, from every aspect you can imagine."

Boats and transport vehicles are never where they should be, and often lack fuel. "They're going to end up in the middle of nowhere and they're just going to be stuck," Kupper said. The Congolese aren't keen to rescue "naïve American kids."

Marrero is unwavering. "There's risk to everything in life," he said. "You have to make a choice how you want to live and what you want to do in your life."


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