Gorillas on rampage in Chase Valley?

2009-05-27 00:00

GORILLAS in the mists of Chase Valley. Huge eyes at the window. A midnight abduction followed by mutilation and death. All the ingredients of a horror story — and this one is Pietermaritzburg’s very own.

The headline on the page five story of the May 1, 1948, edition of The Natal Witness reads: “How gorilla dragged girls to their death”. A sub-heading provides the additional tantalising information: “Lurking monster haunted Chase Valley house 50 years ago”.

The ensuing tale has all the hallmarks of an urban legend including the source being the ubiquitous friend of a friend. It’s a lurid account blending in elements of the standard haunted-house story with a dash of King Kong plus a staple of the genre: young women in peril.

An anonymous Witness reporter was told the story by Mr H. R. Coleman and his wife who had bought the property Oakwood in Chase Valley in 1944. At the time it had been derelict and they had gradually returned the house, built in 1865, to its former glory.

The Colemans told the reporter the “tragic story of how two little girls were abducted by gorillas” from their house “more than 50 years ago and fatally mutilated in the thick bush surrounding the home”.

In the late 19th century, “Chase Valley was a desolate expanse of bush, and the house, Oakwood, was isolated in the middle of it ... there were cliffs in the vicinity of the house, and immediately behind it the bank rose sheer.”

Living in the surrounding bush were two gorillas, a male and a female. These had been brought to Pietermaritzburg “some years before while very young” and were owned by Africans in “a settlement on the southern half of the hill overlooking the Bird Sanctuary”.

When the two gorillas grew into adulthood they became “savage and unmanageable” and breaking free took “to the dense jungle growth on the hills round about”.

The family — unfortunately not named — then living in isolated Oakwood were worried the gorillas posed a threat to them and their twin daughters, aged “about 13”.

“The master of the house determined to try to hunt out the gorillas and kill them. He had seen them several times, and noticed that they had grown to an enormous size. Eventually he succeeded in tracking them down and shooting the female. The male escaped.” He intended hunting down the male in the near future but was “doomed to disappointment, however, for his quarry struck first”.

One morning when the twins were called to come downstairs for breakfast there was no response. On investigation their bed was “empty, and the door wide open. The girls had disappeared. A search was made and the bush beaten for miles around. Some days later, while searching in a wattle thicket, the girls’ bodies, terribly mutilated, were discovered.”

The presumption was that the male gorilla had wreaked his revenge, gaining access to the girls’ room via an outside stairway.

The grief-stricken family abandoned Oakwood “and it was left to the silence of the undergrowth which slowly encroached upon it and swallowed up and hid still more securely the huge male gorilla which still roamed there.”

In the early years of the 20th century, a young woman and her two brothers came to live in the house. “This young woman, whose name Mr Coleman has been unable to trace, told what happened to a friend, and this is how the whole story came to light.”

When the three siblings arrived in Pietermaritzburg they looked for a house to live in. “An agent said he had a house, and described its whereabouts but did not seem over keen to dispose of it. But the prospective tenants were persistent, and a few days later the agent led them, on horseback, up the winding path across the old wattle bridge and past the towering cliffs. The path was overgrown, and the grass reached to their stirrups.

“As they climbed higher they passed two tennis courts. The net was still in place, but had become mouldy, and the posts supporting it decayed. Stables were the next buildings encountered, and finally the old house itself came into view.

“The agent dismounted and walked up to the French windows on the veranda. He unlocked the doors and threw them open. Inside there was a strange, musty smell and an atmosphere of decay. The room looked as if the occupants had left it at a moment’s notice. A book lay face downwards on the sofa, a cushion was indented as if someone’s head had rested on it; a ball of wool lay on the floor.”

Despite the eerie atmosphere the young woman liked the house and persuaded her brothers to buy it. They duly moved in and the “next few weeks were spent in cleaning up and renovating ... and a little of the sunshine allowed to seep into what had been a tomb, denied of its warmth for many years.” Pleased with their surroundings and finding the “air exhilarating ... they complimented themselves on a acquiring a fine house for such a little cost.”

One evening the brothers rode into the city to attend a Masonic meeting, leaving their sister alone in the house. Accordingly she was “the first to see the male gorilla’s eyes peering malevolently at her through a window”.

She was terrifed and when her brothers returned told them what had happened. Although sceptical, her eldest brother “decided to test the truth of her story. He waited up with her until past midnight in the darkened lounge.

“He was sitting at the piano, and had just turned on the light when his sister clutched his arm. Turning round, he saw the two huge eyes peering through the top pane of the window. They moved along to the right side and then back to the left. Then they disappeared.”

The police were called in and a trap was set. A police sergeant took up his post in the lounge and African constables were posted around the house outside. “The sergeant was relating what he thought was an ‘old wives’ tale’ when he saw the eyes glaring at him through the window. He pulled out his revolver and fired. At the same time an assegai came crashing through the window, and there was a succession of shots outside.

“On the veranda they found the male gorilla, riddled with bullets, dead. He had paid nightly visits to the old house from his vast jungle habitat, but his curiosity had proved his undoing.”

Thereafter, according to Coleman, Oakwood stood empty for long periods. When he bought the house he did hear that the house was supposedly haunted but put this down to its isolated setting. Only later was he told about the marauding gorillas and he assured The Witness reporter that “the woman who related the story of the gorillas is positive that it is true”.

A final flourish has the Coleman’s little son experiencing nightmares which he subseqently grew out of: “Shut the door, don’t let it come in. There it is,” he used to shout. And when asked to explain what “it” looked like he would only say that it was a big thing coming to eat him.

Does this story have any basis in fact? Unfortunately at this removal of time it is difficult to verify any of the “facts”. None of the Colemans in today’s Pietermaritzburg telephone directory are related to the Colemans of the story and the house Oakwood is unknown to Pietermaritzburg historians. It seems to have disappeared, probably demolished to make way for one of the many town-house developments in the Chase Valley area.

However, one long-time Chase Valley resident recalled hearing of the gorilla episode: “We did hear tales about it but never took much notice.”

• Can readers throw any light on th is story? Did you know the Coleman family? And where is, or was, the house Oakwood? Contact Stephen Coan at 033 355 1111 or e-mail feature1@witness.co.za

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