Peter Grayson had diamonds on the brain.
For years, the Oxford-educated English businessman had trained himself to find the legendary treasure of the Richtersveld in South Africa.
It was there, legend had it, that a cavern filled with diamonds awaited the bold adventurer. The only problem was, the cavern was supposedly guarded by Grootslang, a fearsome 40-foot-long serpent with enormous gems in its eye sockets.
But Mr. Grayson was not about to let an old legend stand in his way of becoming a wealthy man.
"I am determined to return to England as a very rich man or a dead man," he reportedly said before setting sail with six companions in the summer of 1917.
Before leaving, he read hundreds of old maps and diaries from prospectors. He studied African languages and familiarized himself with the customs, legends and superstitions of that part of the continent. His destination was the Orange River Territory, a harsh scrub land populated by poor natives and wild animals.
The first night in camp a lion killed one member of the expedition and seriously injured a second. A few days later a third companion died of either a poisonous insect bite or snakebite. A fourth man became sick and begged to be taken back to civilization.
That left only Mr. Grayson, since the two remaining members of the expedition "volunteered" to take the sick and wounded men to the nearest village for medical treatment.
"I can do this on my own," he boasted to the guides before they left him alone in the wilderness.
That was the last time Mr. Grayson was seen or heard from. When a rescue party returned a week later, they found the camp deserted and no sign of the Englishman.
The Richtersveld had claimed another victim.
Some say it was the Grootslang that killed the hapless adventurer. Native guides pointed out that only a fool would venture into the region alone.Even today, guides are reluctant to take expeditions to the cavern, which is known as the Wonder Hole or Bottomless Pit. Only one man, a tough prospector named Travis, is said to have tried to explore the hole and lived.
According to one account, he dropped his flashlight into the pit while descending and had to crawl his way back out through pitch darkness. One version holds that he was attacked by the Grootslang but survived by playing dead.
Some travelers claim to have seen the Grootslang. One man told a South African newspaper that he sighted such a beast once, describing it as "a monstrous snake" more than 50 feet long. Another said that he saw two such creatures but that he killed one with his high-powered rifle.
Other witnesses confirm the beast's length as 40 to 50 feet long and tell of 3-foot-wide tracks along the Orange River. Prospectors once followed the track for miles before it disappeared into the river.
Natives say the Grootslang is a spirit snake whose job is to guard the cavern from treasure hunters. Anyone unlucky enough to encounter the creature is instantly overcome by a sense of evil, according to Dr. Guenter Beck, a wildlife official in the Richtersveld region.
Does a giant snake live in the Orange River country?Some experts suspect the creature, if it exists at all, might be nothing more than a large python. These great beasts occasionally attain lengths of 30 feet, but rarely are longer ones found. The longest African python reliably recorded was 32 feet, but it was a freak.
Dr. Beck said that pythons 25 feet long have been shot in the area.
"Seen up close, one of these monsters would be sufficiently alarming to make exaggeration understandable," he said.
Local natives, however, insist that the legendary creature that guards the diamond cavern is not a python. It is the Grootslang, they say, belched up from the depths of hell to protect the Richtersveld treasure.
Syndicated writer Randall Floyd lives in Augusta.