On the Trail of the Yay-Ho

A real treat for followers of The Fortean! The following is an excerpt from Tony Healy’s soon-to-be-published memoir, Monster Safari – the story of his 40-year pursuit of semi-legendary animals in many odd locations around the world. So let’s set the wayback machine to 1979…

Tony Healy, 1979.

The idea originated with bigfoot hunter Bob Morgan. Around the campfire at Mount St Helens one night, he jokingly suggested I include, in my round-the-world “monster safari”, a search for the mysterious, magical, little monkeys of Andros Island – of which he’d heard a vague rumour. They were supposedly feared by the local people, and he thought they were called chickcharnees.

Intriguing as the idea was, I couldn’t have flown to the islands on the strength of such a vague rumour. Luckily, though, I chanced to mention the little critters to journalist Brian McA’Nulty in Winnipeg a few weeks later. As it happened, a friend of his, Dr Bill Brisbin, of the University of Manitoba, had been on a field trip to Andros a year or two earlier, and had heard a “big monkey” story. In 30 seconds flat, Brian had him on the phone.

Dr Brisbin had been with a group of geologists that was taken by boat to the deserted west coast of 100-mile-long Andros by a Dr Conrad Gebelein, to learn about the highly unusual rock formations there.

One night, as they camped on the shore, Dr Gebelein recounted how he and the captain of his boat had encountered a five-foot tall monkey there one day in 1971. The ape (which had a tail and was therefore not related to our bigfoot friends) scurried into a cave. Later, when the men returned to the site, they found the cave entrance had been skilfully camouflaged with rocks, mud and branches.

Dr Brisbin was sure this was more than just a tall story. Both Dr Gebelein and his companion were emphatic that they’d really seen the animal and were very excited about it. The natives of Andros, they said, firmly believed in such creatures. Dr Brisbin, however, didn’t remember hearing the term “chickcharnee”. Gebelein had referred to the creature as a “yay-ho”.

Before I go any further, I should warn the reader that the evidence I uncovered for the yay-ho’s existence was rather thin; but those with a sceptical mind-set may be interested to see how the few details of an alleged sighting can quickly become distorted when passed around by word of mouth: folklore in the making. Folklorists, too, may be interested in the attitude of the Bahamians to the mysterious apes. Some of their beliefs conform to what academics refer to as “classic myth motifs”. Whether or not they really exist, the folklore surrounding yay-hos may be a little stronger and more varied now – simply because I went there and stirred things up a bit.

Dr Brisbin recalled that Gebelein was attached to the Marine Sciences Department of the Miami University, so when I reached Florida I attempted to locate him.

Between forays into the Everglades and elsewhere in search of “skunk apes”, I phoned several officers at the university, asked at the Rosenstiel Institute and even visited tiny Pigeon Key, an oceanographic station halfway to Key West. Dr Gebelein proved a difficult man to track down, and no wonder – he wasn’t alive anymore.

A colleague of his, Dr Ginsberg, who I finally contacted at the US Geological Survey on Fisher Island, told me that Gebelein had died on Andros almost a year earlier. He couldn’t recall hearing of the “yay-ho” incident and seemed curiously reluctant to talk about his late workmate at all.

The news of Gebelein’s unfortunate death naturally put the dampeners on any plans I had for the Bahamas. Thanking Dr Ginsberg, I was about to hang up when he suggested I contact Michael Queen of the University of Santa Barbara Geology Department, who had spent some time with Gebelein on Andros.

During a lengthy long distance call the following evening, Mr Queen told me he had good reason to remember the yay-ho incident: he’d been with Dr Gebelein and the boat captain, Dave Carter, on the day of the sighting. In fact, he’d been so impressed by their excited descriptions of the animal that he was making plans to return to the island with a small, multi-disciplinary expedition.

He hoped to explore the west coast of Andros, using canoes to negotiate the many little lakes, estuaries and waterways. There is much of interest to the scientist there, so hunting for the mystery ape wouldn’t be the sole purpose of the expedition.

Mr Queen agreed with Dr Brisbin’s account of the sighting except for the detail of the yayho’s cave being carefully camouflaged after the sighting. He recalled the “cave” as being just a burrow-like hole in the ground. There were several of these in the area of the sighting, which he pinpointed for me as having occurred just north of Forsythe Lake and north-east of a large, shallow, Vee-shaped bay called Wide Opening. He also gave me the names and addresses of various good contacts on Andros, and was generally very encouraging; so as soon as he hung up, I began arranging a flight to Nassau.

In 1979 Chalk’s International claimed to be the world’s oldest airline. Certainly, it flew what must have been the world’s oldest working aircraft: stubby, pot-bellied, World War II vintage Catalina flying boats.

Our brightly painted, charismatic old work horse trundled into the water from a tarmac beside a tiny terminal right at Miami Beach. Engines roaring, it bounced along in a welter of spray, crawled into the air and droned at a very leisurely pace across the beautiful blue-green waters of the Straits of Florida and the Great Bahama Bank. Tiny “cays” – blobs or crescents of emerald-green foliage trimmed with white sand – passed slowly under the swaying wings.

The island of New Providence is less than 200 miles from Miami, so before I knew it the tubby little amphibian was swinging down, as blue water and palm trees came rushing up to greet us. After we splashed down right next to the bridge in Nassau Harbour, the cheery pilot drove the plane out of the water and dropped us on the shore.

I took an immediate liking to old Nassau and felt at ease walking its tree-lined, weather-beaten streets. The city’s stately public buildings dated from the days of British rule, as did the pith helmets and crisp white jackets of the policeman guarding them.

The modern shops lining the main streets were a hive of activity, as were the fruit and vegetable markets and the docks, where ebony-faced mariners cheerfully hawked silvery fish and mounds of beautiful, pink conch shells. Everywhere there were lovely young girls in light cotton dresses, music, sunshine and good humour.

Nassau had always sounded tremendously exotic to me, its name evoking images of Spanish galleons, treasure maps and Robert Newton staggering around with a parrot on his shoulder.

I found, in fact, that the town still had its fair share of colourful characters. On the side streets, cheerful black dudes leaned out of bars and pool halls as I passed, offering me “chicks”, “grass” or “coke”. Some used a quaint sign language: eyebrows raised in polite interrogation, the grass sellers made smoking gestures, the coke sellers pointed discreetly up their noses, and the chick purveyors made graphic little motions that it’s best not to describe in a family-friendly publication such as this.

Over the years, the Bahamas have experienced many changes in fortune. After the halcyon days of the 17th and 18th century, when the buccaneers kept Nassau booming by squandering their ill-gotten gold on grog and lusty wenches, the islands went into a long, slow decline.

Then, during the American Civil War, Nassau became the main base for the bands of adventurers who ran desperately needed supplies to the Confederate ports of New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston and Wilmington, slipping through the union blockade by night in speedy, dark painted ships. Historian J.H. Starke wrote: “Not since the days of the buccaneers and pirates had there been such times in the Bahamas, success (blockade running) paid larger premiums than was ever attained by any legitimate business in the world’s commercial history”.

After the war, the colony, with few resources of its own, slid into another severe recession. The fine mansions built with Confederate gold slowly fell apart in the tropical heat and Nassau became a tacky, dull backwater of the Empire.

Then, in 1919, the US government kindly banned the Demon Drink. Suddenly it was like old times again. Adventurers in speedy, dark painted motorboats loaded with precious Scotch whiskey slipped by night from Bimini and Grand Bahama to the Florida coast. Others buzzed over in float planes, landing in remote areas of the Everglades. Large booze ships sailed to “Rum Row” off the coast of New York and Boston.

In his fascinating book, A History of the Bahamas, Michael Craton quotes H. McLachlan Bell as saying: “Up and down streets that buccaneers had laid out, rolled a new tide of marked men – bootleggers, gangster leaders, kidnappers, cracksmen. Bootleggers played poker for $100 bills on the piles of empties, competed at pitch and toss with gold pieces on the wharves, roared loud choruses as they trekked to their boats for outward runs … money ruled.”

Then, in 1933, party-pooper Franklin Roosevelt decriminalised grog – and boom times were over again.

In the post-war years, the Bahamas quietly prospered on tourism and legalised casinos, until, in the late 1960s, millions of fun-loving Americans suddenly developed a ravenous appetite for dope – and the whole circus got underway again.

Now, once again, adventurers in dark-painted, speedy boats make their midnight runs to the Florida coast, while light planes buzz into the ‘glades, dodging the radar.

Although Andros has never been properly surveyed, I managed, on my first day in Nassau, to obtain some fairly reasonable maps of the island from the obliging staff at the Lands and Survey office.

By far the largest Bahaman island, Andros is 100 miles long and up to 40 wide. It is divided into three parts by wide, shallow cuts known as North Bight, Middle Bight and Southern Bight. To the north, west and south, it is bounded by the extremely shallow waters of the Great Bahama Bank, but just off the east coast is an enormous underwater canyon, 30 miles wide and more than 6000 feet deep, called the Tongue of the Ocean.

The maps indicated that the island was very flat and swampy. I noticed, too, that virtually all settlement seemed to be along the east coast. There was only one village, Red Bays, in the west.

Mr Cyril Stevenson M.R.V.O., Director of the Government Information Office in Nassau and formerly the Member of Parliament for Central Andros, very kindly took time out from his busy schedule for a leisurely cup of tea and a pleasant chat about the island.

Although the term “yay-ho” was new to him, and although he’d never heard of apes on the island, he was able to set me straight about the chickcharnees. Apparently many Androsians believed them to be small, magical, three-toed birds with human-like faces.

A favourite story about them, he recalled, concerned Neville Chamberlain, who, before his involvement in British politics, managed his father’s huge sisal plantation on Andros around the turn of the century. Ignoring the warnings of his native employees, Chamberlain ordered the clearing of some forest said to contain chickcharnee nests. The little birds had their revenge, of course: the plantation went spectacularly broke and poor old Neville, as we know, wasn’t noted for his luck in later years.

Mr Stevenson told me that the island’s very rough terrain abounded with wild hogs, wild dogs, flamingos and iguanas, and he didn’t think it impossible that an escaped ape of some kind could survive there as well.

To illustrate his point that the island was very difficult to explore, he dug out an old volume, The Bahamas Handbook, in which the author, Mary Mosely, wrote that as late as late as 1926, when the book was published, there were “tantalising rumours that the interior parts of Andros were inhabited by a lingering race of primitives … It is to be hoped, that the mystery of the interior of this land will someday be unfathomed by means of aviation, when the allegations of explorers as to the existence of a tribe of people who hunt with bows and arrows can be investigated.”

The Air Bahamas flight from Nassau to Andros Town took only a few minutes. As the small, twin-engined plane swung in low over the Andros Coast, I saw that the huge, flat island was covered with thick scrub interspersed with large sheets of water. Everywhere, lakes, swamps, “blue holes”, puddles and creeks reflected the tropic sky.

On the small, dusty airstrip, beside a tiny wooden terminal, I haggled with the driver of the one-and-only taxi who, to judge by his extortionate demands, seemed to think I was an eccentric millionaire. Finally, in exasperation, I called down the curse of the chickcharnees on his bald head, shouldered my pack and trudged towards Andros Town, four hot, thirsty miles away.

I’d hardly had time to begin feeling sorry for myself before the world’s most beat-up Vega stopped beside me in a cloud of dust. “Do you want a lift, mate?” came the welcome call.

Mike Lamb was a young English schoolteacher employed by the Bahaman government. He had lived on Andros for three years and was so tickled to meet someone loony enough to go searching for mythical monkeys that he offered me accommodation for the duration of my visit.

The village of Love Hill (formerly known as Hard Bargain) is situated on a lofty peak – fully 20 feet high – just up the road from Andros Town. There, Mike and a few other expatriates lived among friendly Bahamians in a collection of small but comfortable houses.

Mike had heard only the vaguest rumours of yay-hos, but he took me to meet some friends of the late Conrad Gebelein: Dick and Rosie Birch, the Canadian owners of the nearby Small Hope Bay Hotel.

Dick and Rosie had very fond memories of Dr Gebelein, who must have been a remarkable man. They still grieved for him a year after his death. (He died, in fact, on 28 February 1978 – almost exactly twelve months before my arrival on the island).

Conrad Gebelein

“Conrad was considered the boy genius of geology”, Rosie told me. “He was revered by his friends and co-workers, and was one of the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever met. When Conrad was around, you were interested in geology whether you’d ever heard about it before or not. He was a thorough scientist and a stimulating person – a lovely man. He was head of the Lamont Geological Observatory for the University of New York when he was only about 26, and he took over the Bermuda Geological Station a few years later.

“He spent months of every year here on Andros, running the boat, doing corings off the west side – he did core sapling for all the major oil companies. His death was a real tragedy – he was only 32 years old.”

Dick vividly remembered Gebelein and Carter’s excited description of the yay-ho: “They’d been walking along a logging road, and some distance ahead saw a couple of figures. At first, they thought they were monkeys walking on their hind feet, but as they drew closer these things scampered down on all fours and disappeared in the underbrush. When they investigated, all they could find were some round holes – a little larger than land crab holes. There were no tracks.

“They had to go on, and when they returned by the same track, they found to their surprise that a circle of rocks had been placed in the middle of the road where the animals had been – a perfect circle – and there was nobody around for miles.

“Since then I’ve heard rumours of an ape-like creature on the west side, but apart from Conrad and Dave, I’ve never met anyone who’s seen anything.”

Dick thought Gebelein said the creatures were only a couple of feet tall. Rosie thought he’d said more like 3 to 4 feet. This didn’t quite agree with Mr Queen and Dr Brisbin’s recollections (both had said one five-foot-tall ape) but as 12 months had gone by since Gebelein’s death, a few discrepancies were only to be expected. The exotic “circle of rocks” detail puzzled me more. It didn’t sound like anything a normal animal would construct just for the hell of it. I hoped this yay-ho business was going to be a straightforward zoological mystery, without any “weird” elements to it …

Right on cue, Rosie broke into my thoughts by saying that Gebelein had often mentioned having psychic experiences on Andros.

“Did he think the yay-hos were some kind of psychic phenomenon?” I asked.

“Oh no, he thought they were real enough – and after all, Dave Carter saw them too. But Conrad did firmly believe in the psychic side of things. He often said he felt Andros was his spiritual home, and it was strange: only two weeks before his death, he told a friend that if he died he wanted us to bury him here – off the coast, in the Tongue of the Ocean – which we did.”

“How did he die?” I asked. “Was there an accident?”

Dick answered the question thoughtfully, and a little hesitantly: “Well … nobody knows for sure. It happened in the little hotel at Nicholls Town. The District Coroner declared that he died in his sleep ‘of natural causes’, but that seems absurd. Conrad was young, fit and vital. He was very health-conscious – he didn’t smoke, drink to excess or use drugs – he didn’t even eat meat, except for fish. Dave Carter was with him on the day of his death, and Conrad hadn’t complained of feeling ill. Of course, it was a terrible shock for Dave when he found the body in the morning. He and his wife weren’t satisfied with the coroner’s verdict and had a second autopsy done – but I don’t know what the result was.”

Dick turned away for a moment and stared out the window, but I could see by his worried expression that he wasn’t admiring the blue-green waters of the bay. Eventually he said with conviction: “I’m certain Conrad was murdered. He spent a lot of time on the west coast and I’m sure he must have stumbled on something there – something to do with drug trafficking. Conrad would never, ever, have been involved in anything like that, but I think he was cleverly murdered – poisoned, perhaps – because of something he found out by accident.”

Dick and Rosie told me Dave Carter was now working in Miami and gave me his contact number. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to talk with him – possibly the only living yay-ho eyewitness – until I returned to the States.

Over the next couple of days, I heard several rumours about Dr Gebelein’s death. A waiter at the Nicholls Town Hotel said Gebelein had been arguing with a man on a nearby jetty the night he died. He also claimed to have seen water pour out of Gebelein’s mouth as his body was turned over the next morning. Another black man (the only person I met who didn’t have a high opinion of him) said flatly: “Gebelein was a bastard. He was involved with the drug people and they wiped him out.”

It seems everyone on Andros knew that the deserted west coast was regularly used by Colombian criminals as a trans-shipment point for drugs bound for the USA. Boatloads of it came into Wide Opening, and light planes sometimes landed on the old logging road – the only road down the west coast.

The good people of Love Hill, who already considered me rather odd for wanting to chase yay-hos, thought I’d really flipped out when I started planning a solo trek to Wide Opening.

The west side was becoming a bit of a no-go zone, they said. Recently, a bizarre air-sea battle had been fought there between local Androsian thugs in a few small boats, and a light plane with a machine gun sticking out the door. The plane, piloted by Colombians, was victorious – riddling the boats and killing one man. For good measure, it continued on to the village of Lowe Sound, on the north coast, where it flew up and down the main street, strafing everything in sight.

Young British schoolteachers, Tim and Penny Williams, told me they’d given up their occasional hog hunting expeditions in the west after being repeatedly buzzed by a plane near Forsythe lake. The pilot almost clipped their car’s roof with his wheels, and only quit when Tim jumped out brandishing a shotgun.

I’d already heard more than enough to make me very nervous – and worse was to come. So I began seriously thinking of altering my itinerary and steering for the bright lights of Nassau rather than Wide Opening. I decided, at least, not to rush the trip to the west, and spent a few days socialising with Mike Lamb’s many friends and following-up one or two leads on the east coast.

Two long-time Andros residents told me a Bahamian customs official had told them a picture he’d seen of a yay-ho, taken some years earlier by American hunters. Unfortunately, when I tracked the man down, he proved to be not the world’s greatest witness. Although quite a nice fellow, he was infuriatingly vague. He couldn’t recall any details of the photo except that it was “of some animal”, nor could he remember who the Americans were or why they showed it to him. Very frustrating; but I could tell by his shaky hands and high-octane breath that the poor bloke was pretty firmly “in the grip of the grape”.

Another persistent rumour concerned a boatload of Americans who supposedly photographed a man-sized ape through a telephoto lens as it followed a group of hogs across a muddy west coast beach. Although it was said to have happened quite recently, that event proved just as hard to verify as the story about the hunters, so it seems likely that both rumours stemmed from the Gebelein-Carter incident – the story having become considerably distorted through telling and retelling.

One afternoon I visited Jeremiah “Bob” Dean of Love Hill, a wise and kindly old guy, well known for his hunting skills and knowledge of traditional bush medicine. Because he’d been worried that the yay-hos were in danger of extinction, he was very happy to hear of Gebelein’s sighting: “To my mind he saw nothin’ else but a young yay-ho – because there’s no other creature around here that’s hairy. I heard they’re in the shape of a man and live in caves. They’s very powerful. If you buck a woman yay-ho you’ll be alright, but if you buck a man yay-ho he’ll kill you. The onlyest thing you can do for them is to catch a fire – they run from that because that can burn the hair on them, you see.”

I also met John and Vicky English, an American couple living at Fresh Creek, who had a good knowledge of the west coast. John was familiar with the Gebelein-Carter incident and had once found a couple of very unusual tracks that he thought might have been left by a yay-ho: “It was about July 1975. A friend, John Surry, and myself were hog hunting just north of Forsythe Lake. Just before dawn we found a great number of hog tracks in an area of coral dust that had turned to mud. Then we noticed two tracks which were definitely not pig tracks.

“At first, we thought they were made by wild dogs, but they weren’t. They were three to four inches across – an oval pad and three symmetrical oval toes. They were not asymmetrical, as if a toe had been amputated – one was in the centre, with one on each side. Whatever made these tracks was probably following the same feeding patterns as the pigs – or stalking them.

John English’s sketch of the track.

“The tracks were clear, but pretty light, maybe half an inch deep – there’s not much here for a big, heavy animal to live on. The pigs root on cassava and what else they can find – they’re very tough, very rangy. The dogs eat anything, as do the vultures and land crabs.”

Vicky, a marine biologist, suggested that an animal such as the yay-ho could possibly live on fish from the shallow inland lakes: “There are snapper and blue crabs there that normally live only in salt water. During the 1926 hurricane most of the island was underwater and a lot of marine life was washed into the centre. All the lakes turned to salt for about six months. Because of the limestone here, you have a very high level of calcium in the water; this affected the metabolism of the fish and crabs and enabled them to adapt to fresh water.”

John and Vicky pointed out that the country between the east coast villages and the old logging road in the west was trackless, extremely inhospitable and rarely penetrated by man.

John was quite willing to believe that the tracks he found had nothing to do with the yay-ho, but as yet no one had suggested a more mundane explanation. If there had been only one print, he might have written it off as a composite of two or more other animal tracks, but there were two – and both quite clear.

If the tracks were made by a yay-ho, the creature’s feet must be entirely different from those of any known ape.

Setting aside the track find for a moment, John commented that Gebelein’s description of the beast would fit that of the spider monkeys of Central and South America very well. He suggested that as the conquistadors were known to have taken exotic animals back to Europe as gifts for royalty, it was just possible that a couple of spider monkeys survived an early shipwreck and bred on the west coast of Andros.

Although the largest male spider monkeys can reach three feet seven inches in height, I don’t think the noisy, exuberant acrobats of the South American jungles will prove to be the answer to the yay-ho mystery. Spider monkeys aren’t difficult to find – they live in groups of ten to thirty-five, spend most of their time in trees, throw branches and excrement at intruders and do not live in holes in the ground.

Later in the evening I told John and Vicky about the ape-man mystery in my own country, remarking that the word “yay-ho” was remarkably similar to a very common Aboriginal term for Australia’s hairy giants: yahoo. Vicky then reminded me that in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift’s hero meets a hairy, uncouth race called exactly that: “yahoos”.

At that, John turned to his bookcase, and with a flourish produced an old volume: Narrative of an Expedition against the Revolted Slaves of Surinam, 1772-1777, in which the author, Captain J.G. Stedman, mentions that “all the Guiana Indians worship the devil, whom they call ‘Yawahoo’”.

Exploring the South American connection a little further, I recalled that in his excellent book On the Track of Unknown Animals, Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans, the dean of cryptozoologists, told of a violent encounter between a party of Swiss explorers and two savage five-foot-tall apes in the jungles along the Colombia/Venezuela border in 1920.

The creatures advanced, screaming with rage, tearing at the foliage, excreting into their hands and flinging the droppings at the startled intruders. (Thank God sasquatches don’t do that!)

Miffed at having their pith helmets and baggy khaki shorts so foully besmirched, the explorers shot one creature dead and drove the other away.

The expedition leader, Francois de Loys, claimed that the dead animal was far taller (5 feet 3 inches) and more massive than any spider monkey. It also, he said, had only 32 teeth, whereas spider monkeys have 36.

Unfortunately (there’s that word again) because of fever and exhaustion the party was forced to leave the carcass behind, so that when they finally returned to Europe not everyone believed their story.

The de Loys ape

They did, however, take one photo. But although the subject looks rather fearsome and somewhat more thick-set than a spider monkey, there is nothing in the picture to give a clear idea of its size. Surely any explorer worth his salt would have had the sense to place a man or measurable object beside such a remarkable beast.

In any case, de Loys’ ape didn’t fully conform to Gebelein and Carter’s description of the yay-ho – because de Loys stressed that his creature had no tail.

At the time of my Andros trip the only reference I’d seen to ape-like beings living in burrows was in Col. P.B. Fawcett’s book Lost Trails, Lost Cities. The intrepid Colonel, who ultimately disappeared in 1926 while looking for a lost city in Brazil, said that Indians of the Mato Grosso once told him of hair-covered “ape people” who lived in holes in the ground. Because they were nocturnal, they were known to the locals as Morcegos or “Bat people”.

But the Mato Grosso is a long, long way from Andros, so maybe we’d better stop grasping at South American straws.

When we parted, John and Vicky warned me – as others had – to be careful if I ventured down the west coast. They’d finally ceased going there themselves after three rather sinister-looking characters in city clothes stepped out of the bush in the middle of nowhere one day, and politely suggested they go hog hunting elsewhere.

There seemed to be so many bad vibes emanating from the west side that in my fevered imagination the area began to loom sinisterly, like a gloomy, tropical Mordor.

Whenever I thought of wandering down there alone and unarmed, butterflies flapped wildly around in my stomach. But if yay-hos existed at all, that was the only place they could be: right in the middle of all the badness.

Obviously, the time had come to make a decision … so I procrastinated: I elected to leave Love Hill with enough food for a trek to Wide Opening or Forsythe Lake – but to go via Red Bays, on the north-west coast – and make my final decision there.

Although there was no public transport on Andros, the locals were an easygoing bunch, and the few private vehicles rarely passed a hitch-hiker by. So, without so much as sticking out my thumb, I scored a series of short rides with friendly, curious people, and in no time was at the village of Stafford Creek.

There I was picked up by a young marijuana peddler. A good-hearted, friendly kid trying to act ultra-cool in a little hat, sunglasses and blue-painted fingernails, he’d lean out of his battered sedan in every village and try to sell the loungers an ounce or two. He went out of his way to drop me at the Red Bays turnoff, and from there it took me the rest of the day to hike the dozen or so miles in, over a hard rock road, through a dead-flat, scrubby landscape.

Red Bays proved to be a poor but honest village consisting of perhaps thirty houses, some just three-ply shacks with wooden shutters, dirt floors and roofs of woven palm fronds. With no electricity, and water available only at the expense of a long haul on the rope at the village well, you couldn’t describe the place as a vibrant metropolis – but it had spirit. On the edge of town, a faded, hand-painted sign announced gamely:


Mike Lamb and others had suggested I talk to the settlement’s leading citizen – the school teacher, minister and de facto mayor, Reverend Bertram A. Newton. So I headed straight for the town’s largest building – the one-room schoolhouse.

As it was a Saturday, Rev Newton was away fishing, but while waiting for him I had an interesting conversation with some other villagers, who all said that yay-hos had not been seen for many years and were thought to be extinct.

Some, however, looked a little frightened by my suggestion that a few of the creatures might still be lurking around, as they were considered very dangerous. “If you see one, maan,” a lady warned me, “you look out. They baaad animals – they eat you, maan!”

I noticed, by the way, that some of the villagers used the words “yahoo” and “yayhoo” interchangably with “yay-ho”.

Stansyl, a tall, quiet fisherman, agreed that the yay-hos had, in their day, been very bad news, but he thought they’d all been drowned in their holes during the great 1926 hurricane. When I told him of Gebelein and Carter’s report he shook his head, saying, “Well, maybe they is a couple left alive, but I don’t think so – I think those men saw somethin’ else – a hog maybe. But if you do see a yay-ho, maan – you be careful!”

“Yes, sir”, chipped in his aged father, “if’n you see his tracks, then you go the way his toes are pointin’, ’cause he goin’ the other way – his feet – they turned backwards.” Everyone nodded in agreement: “Yeah – that’s right, maan!”

This detail fascinated me, as the Sherpas of Nepal often say that yetis’ feet are turned backwards. Stranger still, Aborigines have occasionally said the same thing about the ape-men of the Australian bush – ape-men they sometimes referred to as yahoos.

Reverend Newton proved to be a man in his late fifties, but when he greeted me with a warm handshake and a kind smile that evening, I assumed he was a much younger man. Other visitors to the Bahamas have commented on this: that older Bahamians rarely go grey or snowy-headed, and their faces often remain unlined into their later years.

Rev Newton invited me into his comfortable home for dinner and a chat, and allowed me to sleep in the school house for the duration of my visit. A cultured man with an engaging personality, he had visited the US and England and corresponded with people all over the world. He kindly presented me with a copy of a short history of Red Bays, which he wrote in 1968.

I was fascinated to learn that the people of Red Bays were largely descended from black Seminoles who escaped from Florida last century. Rev. Newton wrote:

“In 1845, the United States acquired Florida from Spain and at that time also, the Five Year Seminole War took place. Previous to the U.S. taking over Florida it had been a haven for runaway slaves from Georgia and Alabama, and these people had joined the native Seminole Indians. The negroes now found themselves again in the position of being captured as runaway slaves and moved further and further south in Florida to escape the Americans moving in.

“They were driven to the Everglades and to Cape Sable, where they met Bahamian privateers and pirates who told them of the free land to the east – the Bahamas, as part of the British Empire, having abolished slavery in 1838. In ones or twos in their dug-out canoes, the negro Seminoles crossed the Gulf Stream and landed along the western shore of Andros over a 20-year period. Some Seminole Indians apparently also migrated as a result of their long struggle with the white men.”

The brave refugees founded the village of Red Bays, where they set about farming the rugged land, and later, sponge diving. Their crops, boats and houses were destroyed by terrible hurricanes in 1866, 1899, 1926 and 1965; but in their isolation (there was no road until 1968) they resolutely hung on and rebuilt. Now, in addition to fruit growing and fishing, they made magnificent baskets, woven so closely that many will hold water for several hours.

Some of the Red Bays families had spread across the Bahamas, but their names are easily recognisable as being of Seminole origin, particularly the Tigers and Bowlegs. Rev Newton introduced me to Benjamin Lewis, a direct descendant of Sammy Lewis, the first black Seminole refugee, who came from America in a small boat in 1840.

Benjamin Lewis (left) and Reverend Newton 

Mr. Lewis and Rev Newton didn’t have a great deal to add about the yay-ho legend. They too, thought the creatures had all been drowned in 1926; but they did tell me of another long-vanished animal, the yamassi, which interested me even more – because the creature sounded for all the world like the sasquatch.

One yamassi incident was said to have occurred about 40 years earlier, when Rev Newton was a young man. A family named Griffith, from Lowe Sound, had landed on a remote part of the coast in order to trek inland to a place called the Koonty Wood, where they’d earlier cultivated some land.

Halfway there they came across a line of huge footprints, but, because the tracks appeared to be leading away from their destination, they weren’t too worried, and continued on. Little did they know that yamassi’s feet, like those of the yay-ho, were back-to-front.

Fortunately, however, they took the precaution that night of making a circle of fires around their camp. Rev Newton explained: “I was told these men were so hairy and their skin so oily that fire can very well catch their skin. And so, just about sunset, they saw this big man coming up – about 8, 9 feet high – all hairy and naked. The dog ran after it and that night nobody could have slept. They sat in the middle of the fires because it was also told that these men eat people. And as this man came, he leaned up alongside one of the big pine trees there, because I think he wanted to eat somebody.

“So, they kept throwing fire after him and they could not stop from putting up the fire until the day was clean. After the day was clean, he left and they went to the boat. They said, ‘Well, we must leave here’. Then immediately after they pushed off, this man appeared back again.

“So, I don’t know if it was real, but this is what I was told and brother Lewis, I think, was told the same story. They had to leave that place and I don’t think anyone ever went back there – until of late, you know.”

“Did the yamassis have tails like the yay-hos?” I asked.
“No, they had no tails”.

“At that time”, Rev Newton continued, “they thought there was only two of these creatures left. It was said that an old man called Uncle Phillip came to a wide hole where he heard the dog barking, and this big man was lying down there dying. The old man knew what it was – seeing the hairy skin and so forth: a yamassi. It was all helpless and could only roll its eyes at the dog. So he left it. It is believed that it died, and that was the last one around here – the last of the yamassis”.

After two nights at Red Bays, I packed up and hiked back to the main road. As I walked, I still hadn’t fully committed myself to the west coast trek. Rev Newton had advised against it, saying that a lone white man could easily be killed if he met the wrong people there, and local hog-hunter William Colbrook’s dire warning rang in my ears: “You meet anyone down there, maan, you got a 50/50 chance of gettin’ shot!”

William Colbrook

It was quite a dilemma: I’d come halfway around the world in search of unknown animals. I had to either stay true to my insane quest, proceed down the west coast, into the Valley of the Shadow of Death, fearing all kinds of evil … or chicken out. A million-to-one chance of seeing a scrawny, nondescript ape, versus, allegedly, a 50/50 chance of getting murdered. As I plodded along, head swimming under the blazing, noon-day sun, a vision of dear old Oliver Hardy floated up out of my memory bank. “A fine pickle you’ve got us into this time, Stanley”, he seemed to say.

After a bit of lucky hitch-hiking on the “major” roads during the heat of the day, I found myself standing, all too soon, at the desolate, final turn-off, where the west coast road began.

Consisting of hard-packed coral rock, the old logging road was in amazingly good condition after its many years of neglect. I looked down its dismal length as far as I could – to where it disappeared in silvery, quivering mirages. Not a breath of air or a single sound disturbed the hot, oppressive air.

Checking the sketchy map for the tenth time, I calculated that a two-day hike should take me the 30 miles or so to Forsythe Lake. If I jumped off the road at the approach of any vehicle, I reasoned, and lit no campfires, I’d surely cut the 50/50 chance of being shot down to practically zero. Far from convinced, and moaning inwardly, I muttered a prayer to St Jude and trudged glumly southwards.

The West Coast Road

As I walked, I thought about the pirates who long ago cruised the Andros coast: Henry Morgan, Benjamin Hornigold and Edward (“Blackbeard”) Teach. The “lady” pirates were here, too: Anne Bonney and Mary Read, who sailed with Stede Bonnett and “Calico Jack” Rackham. According to Mary Mosely, “Wide Opening was one of the resorts of the old pirates, who, it is said, buried their treasures far inland”.

Although they may have been absolute swine, somehow, as the centuries have rolled by, the pirates have become, in the minds of many of us, romantic and sympathetic characters. I wondered if the creeps, cut-throats and drug runners I’d been warned about would also, some time in the future, be regarded as swashbuckling, loveable rogues.

The sound of a truck engine cut into my thoughts. Turning, I saw, through the dust and heat-haze, a distant, shimmering vehicle rapidly overtaking me. As luck wouldn’t have it, I happened to be on a long stretch of road with wide, water-filled ditches on either side, and very low surrounding scrub. So much for my brilliant plan of simply ducking for cover.

The vehicle proved to be a newish Ford pick-up containing two young black guys who looked just as nervous as I felt. They first asked cautiously if I was lost, then sat wide-eyed and bamboozled as I explained that I was off to Forsythe Lake to look for the big monkeys.

The youths exchanged worried glances – as well they might- and eventually offered me a lift. In contrast to the relaxed, talkative drivers in the east, these fellows were obviously very suspicious of their oddball passenger. I didn’t feel in any immediate danger from the slight, fresh-faced teenagers, but I wondered where they were going and how they could afford such an expensive vehicle. They avoided saying where they were from and finally said vaguely that they were going “down there” to collect someone who’d been fishing. They didn’t look like real villains, but I worried that if they were involved in the drug trade they might be on their way to see some tougher customers, who might have firm views on how to treat nosey foreigners.

As the country rolled by, I began to see several large expanses of water, any one of which could have been Forsythe Lake.

My companions had never seen a map of Andros, possibly couldn’t read, and in any case, had never heard of Forsythe Lake, so I eventually asked them to stop when I figured we’d come about thirty miles. I chose an area where there were many old logging trails heading off at right angles through the re-grown pine forest, in the hope that it was roughly where the Gebelein-Carter and English incidents had occurred.

After the pick-up left, my paranoia remained, so I slogged south for a couple of extra miles before cutting deep into the scrub on an overgrown side trail. If the teenagers or someone else came back to find me now, they’d have their work cut out.

As night fell, I settled down in the underbrush, ate a hearty meal of cold spam washed down with water, and watched the blazing stars above. In the dead of night, a large hog almost walked right over me, paused, sniffed in rank disbelief, and hurtled away in terror.

The next day I snooped around the old trails for hours, scouting for animal tracks. When the loggers came through the area ten years or so earlier, they apparently left several tall, spindly pines standing on every acre. These were now thickly surrounded by 10 to 15-foot saplings. Scrawny saplings and tall grass had sprouted on most of the trails, too, making walking a little difficult. Off-the-trail walking, though, was virtually impossible.

I’d rarely seen more inhospitable countryside. Off the tracks, the coral rock surface was so broken and uneven that it was difficult to walk more than a couple of paces without stumbling – it was difficult even to find a rock flat enough to sit on. The woods bristled with spiky bushes, palmettos, and a particularly venomous form of poison oak which, I’d been told, causes a livid rash that can last for two years or more.

As the temperature climbed into the nineties, I stopped frequently to drink from the many pools of fresh water, and as a result saw two of the large blue crabs mentioned by Vicky English. Several times too, fearless little green humming birds zoomed up close to my face, hovered, staring curiously, then flickered away into the pines.

Hog tracks were everywhere, but I didn’t see any wild dog, human, iguana or yay-ho prints. Nor did I find any suspicious burrows or tell-tale circles of rocks; but then, I didn’t really expect to find anything earth-shattering.
This was just a token visit. Aside from my ten million-to-one chance of photographing a yay-ho, I just wanted to see its reputed habitat for myself.

That night I ate another cold dinner. I hadn’t heard a motor all day and the forest itself was eerily quiet. Two nights and a day was all the time I could afford to spend in yay-ho land. With a 30 mile hike ahead and only a few tins of gunk left to fuel me, it was time to make a move.

So, just after dawn, I eased back onto the main road and plodded north, casting occasional nervous glances over my shoulder. The next vehicle, however, came from the other direction: at about 10 am I saw, way, way ahead, up the straight-as-a-gun-barrel road, a cloud of dust and a shiny, shimmering, metallic glob dancing in the mirages. Stepping quickly off the road, I picked my way carefully through the underbrush and hunkered down about 15 metres back.

By and by the vehicle cruised past, slowly enough for me to see it was a brand new, bright-blue pickup. “This is easy”, I thought, “no need to worry at all”. Then, to my dismay, I heard it stop just a hundred yards further on.
Doors slammed.

Uh oh.

I was sure the motorists couldn’t have glimpsed me as they went by – but maybe they’d seen me from miles up the road – my silhouette magnified by a mirage. Maybe right now they were scouring the road for my tracks.
Fortunately, in my paranoia, I’d been careful to tread on only the hardest portions of the road.

In the steamy, dirty underbrush I waited, one buttock perched on a jagged coral rock and thorny bushes digging at my sides. Twenty long minutes passed without anyone so much as charging in at me with a machete, so I relaxed a little. But if they weren’t looking for me, what
were they doing?

Then I recalled there were four empty oil drums beside the road at approximately the point they’d stopped. Maybe I was going to have a ringside seat as a dope plane landed! I crept closer to the road, camera in hand. But my big chance for the Pulitzer Prize dissolved in the roar of the truck motor, as it started up again and moved south. Maybe they’d simply had engine trouble

Several miles further on, I was mildly excited to see a large, dark animal emerge from the forest ahead and begin shambling up the middle of the road. I soon saw, however, that it was not a wayward yay-ho, but rather a rangy, long-legged sow. Andros hogs have no spare fat on them – they’re lean, mean and wiry. Their big, long ears flop comically and their tails, too pooped to curl, hang down like lank, frayed rope. Because of the hard road and the wind direction, the dawdling porcine beauty didn’t stop daydreaming until I approached to within about ten feet. I took a couple of good photos, but could just as easily have grabbed her by the tail.

Continuing on, I reached a very long stretch where the road was again flanked by wide pools of water. “Just as well there isn’t a car coming now”, I muttered, hurrying along. Right on cue, a cloud of dust formed to the south and I saw the same blue pickup materialising amid the silvery mirages.

When it finally drew alongside, I turned, trying to look as casual as possible. The eyes of the burley, unshaven driver and those of his even burlier offsider were almost popping. This may have seemed comical in other circumstances; but they weren’t clowning around – they were very surprised to see me, and, it seemed from the tone of their voices, not too pleased about it either.

“What you doin’ down here, maan? You lost?” they demanded. “Don’t you know there’s nothin’ down here?”

Anxious to assure them I was just a harmless lunatic, I leaned through the window and regaled them at length with my garbled, rambling, “yay-ho hunter” routine. This had the desired affect of temporarily confusing them, so they dropped their abrupt interrogation and eventually offered me a lift.

I threw my pack in the tray of the pick-up and was about to scramble in after it when they pointedly suggested I sit in the front between them.

Conversation lapsed immediately. At the time, I was sure it was because they were mulling over ways to murder me. On reflection, it may have had something to do with my not having had a shower for five days. So we drove along in silence, the driver looking tense and his huge side-kick staring moodily out the window with hooded, heavily bloodshot eyes.

The truck was brand new – several thousand dollars worth of Ford with all the trimmings. These guys were in their late twenties. Where did they get the money? There was no fishing or hunting gear in the back. Eventually the moody fellow muttered something to the driver who nodded sharply. As my heart missed a couple of beats, he reached slowly into the glovebox … (“You got a 50/50 chance of gettin’ shot, man!”) … and pulled out a marijuana joint the size of a Havana cigar.

After taking a couple of hearty puffs he offered it to me. Now, although an enthusiastic “juice freak”, I’d never really taken to grass, even in the Swinging Sixties. That’s because, while most people said it relaxed them, it often had the opposite effect on me: making me tense, hyper-imaginative and – might as well flog the word to death – paranoid.

So, grass was absolutely the last thing on earth I wanted to indulge in; but If I didn’t, my companions might be offended – they might even suspect me of being a narcotics agent.

So I puffed away politely, passing the joint on to the driver. The dope was tremendously strong. Strategically placed in the middle, I copped two hits for every one of theirs – and was soon so blocked I didn’t know what day It was.

As I became more and more stoned, the nagging fear that I was about to be bumped-off grew to absolute certainty. In the grip of real paranoia, I watched as the road appeared to pass more and more slowly under the wheels of the car. Also, although I knew we hadn’t turned off, I began to get the irresistible feeling that we’d somehow got onto a side road and were heading the wrong way.

My companions looker bigger, meaner and moodier by the minute.

Then the driver started singing. To my surprise, his buddy, still looking moodily out the window, joined in, then sang a verse solo. Because of their strong accents, I couldn’t understand the lyrics at all, and immediately thought: “They’re sending messages to each other! Any second now one of them will reach down, grab a knife …”

Then, belatedly, it occurred to me they were extremely good singers – almost professional standard – and I eventually had the gumption to say, “Gee, you guys sing well!”

That was all it took. The driver suddenly broke into a big grin. “Yeah, maan? You really think so? We’re in a group, maan – we’re just startin’ to get it together. We’re playin’ in pubs now and maybe we’ll get a gig in Nassau soon!” The “moody” guy was also nodding his head brightly, looking years younger: “Yeah – that’s right, maan!”

I almost laughed with relief, realising they were good guys who’d been just as spooked by me as I was by them. They may well have had something to do with the drug trade, in fact I’m sure they did, but not all dope runners are murderers. By the time they dropped me a few miles from Stafford Creek we were bosom buddies. As they drove away I was still stoned out of my skull, but higher still on a great wave of relief.

Staggering into Love Hill the next day, I ransacked Mike Lamb’s refrigerator, had a shower, a sleep and began thinking about leaving the island.

After two weeks on Andros, I felt I’d exhausted every yay-ho lead, so I packed up and flew back to New Providence accompanied by Mike and his mate John De Fazio. Then “around Nassau Town we did roam, drinkin’ all night…”, etc., until I piled into a Chalk’s flying boat and buzzed back through the Bermuda Triangle to Miami.

Naturally, I was eager to talk to the yay-ho eye-witness Dave Carter; so as soon as we landed, I dialed the number given me by Dick Birch. The man who answered told me that although Carter had indeed worked there, his colleagues no longer knew where he was: he’d disappeared recently after flying a light plane from Andros to Opa-Locka, Florida!

This was starting to sound like a B-grade movie. First Gebelein dies – possibly murdered – and then his best friend disappears!

“What do you mean ‘disappeared’ – do you think he’s dead?” I enquired dazedly.

“Oh no, no,” the man chuckled, “Dave will turn up, I’m sure”.

Before hanging up he gave me the number of Carter’s ex-wife.

Leigh Carter proved to be a pleasantly-spoken woman, very helpful about the yay-ho incident – but most reticent about her ex-husband’s whereabouts.
Her memory of the yay-ho sighting was the same as Dick Birch’s (including the ring of stones detail) except that she was sure the men saw only one animal, a little over three feet in height.

Later, she said, Dave managed to find a Behring Point man who also claimed to have seen one of the creatures. While sailing his boat through Northern Bight to the west coast, the man came ashore to cook a meal. As he was eating, he said, something larger than him – and hairy – came along and sat down beside him. He didn’t absorb too many other details during his meteoric dash to the boat. (Actually, I reflected, if the hairy “something” really was larger than a man, I suppose it could just as well have been a yamassi rather than a yay-ho).

Towards the end of our conversation the puzzling subject UFOs came “out of left field” again, as it had – repeatedly – in my sasquatch investigations. Just six months before the yay-ho incident, Dave had seen a dazzlingly bright light speed horizontally across the night sky and then rise vertically, disappearing much too quickly, he felt, for it to have been a conventional aircraft. Dr. Gebelein, who was with him at the time, just missed seeing it. This occurred near Wide Opening.

So, with the Little Green Men trying to complicate things again, I closed the book on the mysterious yay-hos.

Well … not quite. When I caught up with him in Key West a few days later, sasquatch researcher Ted Ernst showed me a copy of the January 1977 Yeti and Bigfoot Newsletter, published by L. Frank Hudson of St Petersburg, Florida. In it, Mr. Hudson told of hearing, during a visit to the Bahamas, stories about a tribe of three-foot-tall people living in caves on Lubbermans Island, near the southern end of Abaco. They were supposed to have eyes in the back of their heads as well as the front – and their feet were turned backwards. The locals called them yahoos.

To my surprise, the term yamassi also turned up again. I recently learned that there was once a Native American tribe with a similar, if not identical, name. The Yamassee, regarded as being particularly fierce warriors, occupied parts of southern Georgia and north-east Florida. Interestingly, because so many escaped slaves were welcomed into their ranks, they were noted for their very dark complexions.

In 1687, after clashing with the Spanish, the Yamassee relocated to South Carolina, where, after a period of collaboration, they eventually fell out with the British. During the ensuing Yamassee War of 1715-1717 they killed fully 7% of South Carolina’s white colonists before being defeated and driven far to the south.

Once in Florida, they allied themselves with the Spanish but in 1727 the British caught up with them once again, attacking their settlement and virtually wiping them out. A few survivors joined the Seminole tribe, and most sources say the Yamassee thereafter disappeared from the historical record.

I find it interesting that Rev Newton and his people at Red Bay, as descendants of black Seminoles, could very well be descended, in part, from the fearsome, war-like Yamassee. So that makes it doubly interesting that they now apply the term yamassi to the mythical (or are they?) fearsome, bigfoot-like creatures of Andros.

One Reply to “On the Trail of the Yay-Ho”

  1. Thank you for this. For me, it’s a bit of a time machine. For six months in 1974, I lived and worked on the R/V Goldenrod, Dave Carter, Captain. Leigh (Dave’s wife) lived on board, along with a couple who were engineer (of sorts) and mate. I and a friend were deckhands. I forget when, exactly, Conrad Gebelein and Mike Queen came into the picture. We were at anchor (or spud, as we referred to the two pylons that dropped into sea bottoms) in Key Biscayne, directly between the MacArthur Causeway and Star Island. On Star Island lived Gene (Eugene) Nesic, owner of Atlantic Marine Salvage Corporation, whose offices were at 11 SE 5th Street where we received mail. I have distinct memories of Conrad appearing with Gene, and on board the Goldenrod, while we were still in Miami. We met Conrad’s wife, a lovely woman, and we met Mike Queen there, too, I vaguely recall. We set off, nearly disastrously, from Miami to Andros. And it’s in Andros that we had the most overlap with Conrad. He lived on board for at least a couple of weeks. Mike Queen visited. I remember him sketching in his notebooks remarkably exacting images of some of the items he brought up from the sea (conchs, pieces of coral that, one hopes, were already broken off). I remember both these men with great fondness. On several occasions, we ventured from Morgan’s Bluff and the Nicholl’s Town area over to the West Side, mostly with Dave Carter (whom we always referred to, simply, as The Captain). Dave was a remarkable figure. I remember all the coring we/they were doing. I remember groups of geologists arriving, and excursions to nearby islands and various Bahama Banks bottoms where, we were told, there were generous oolite deposits to be found. I learned, upon returning to Andros in 1997, that Conrad was dead, and probably murdered. (One story circulating was that he was found with his throat slashed in a room of the American Hotel. That might have been the actual story on steroids, since the article suggests that poisoning was more likely.) No one had any idea where Dave Carter was. Several people suggested that he was the actual target of the murder and that Conrad may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I left Andros in the summer of 1974. Around Thanksgiving of that year, back in Miami, I nearly literally ran into Dave Carter. After crying nearly desperate poverty the six months I worked for him, he was now driving a power blue Mercedes with a DMC vanity plate (that’s how I ran into him–I saw the car, read the plate, and my eyes bulged). I worked for Dave again, living on board the R/V Poplar, a twin of the Goldenrod, still at anchor in Biscayne Bay. Eventually, the Poplar was seized by the US Coast Guard on the grounds that it was being sold illegally. The day of its seizure was the last day I saw Dave–he paid me, and a friend, quite generously, actually, for the time we’d spent working for him, and we motored on. He remains, as do Conrad and to some extent Mike Queen, enormous figures in my imagination. I remain shocked and saddened by Conrad’s murder, and I remain intrigued at the possibility of Dave re-appearing somehow, somewhere, but there doesn’t seem to be much information, if any, available about him. Kudos to this writer for tracking down Leigh.

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