September 06, 1993 12:00 PM

FOR ME, TRAVELING IS A WILLINGNESS TO walk down a blind alley and let it lead you to some new light,” says Rory Nugent, chain-smoking his way through yet another pack of unfiltered Camels. “My fascination is observing what’s not readily observable.” Not that Nugent, 41, hasn’t stared down some perfectly obvious perils. The globe-hopping adventurer has confronted blowgun-toting Pygmies in the Congo, dodged bullets alongside Gurkha guerrillas in the Himalayas and drifted alone at sea—subsisting on soggy Godiva chocolates—for days. All this, and more, Nugent happily suffers. Why? “If you can grit your teeth and gel through it,” he says, “perhaps there’s a payoff down the road.”

For Nugent, sighting some rare fauna or smelling the flora along the way means just as much as chasing, or even catching, the creatures of his imagination. His latest book, Drums Along the Congo (Houghton Mifflin), recounts the four months he spent traveling by plane, pirogue and foot to reach the wilds of Lake Télé, in the Congo. The lake is rumored to be the home of Mokele-Mbembe, a rarely seen creature worshipped by locals as a “god-beast” and said to bear an uncanny resemblance to a sauropod. Whether being snookered by the village witch doctor or scaring Congolese children simply because of his white-skinned foreignness, Nugent gets through his “bungle in the jungle” with self-deprecating wit. Says Newsday reviewer John Leonard: “America has at last produced a travel writer as crazy as the British.”

Nugent never came face-to-face with his saurian obsession, but, ah, what wilderness! After tussling with bureaucrats in Brazzaville, the capital, he bolted for the Congo’s primeval rain forests, where parts of his body became so covered with fungus that “my feet were sprouting gardens by morning,” he says. “If there’s a heart of darkness, that’s as close as you’re going to get.”

But the horrors, the horrors! At one point Nugent sauntered off without his guides (tracking what turned out to be a gorilla) and crossed over into Pygmy territory. He was soon confronted by several crossbow-and spear-wielding warriors, naked except for their machete belts, their blowguns filled with poisonous darts. “A Pygmy with an itchy finger can make you very nervous,” he says. Armed only with his trusty slingshot, Nugent rose to the occasion—he pulled out his harmonica and, after playing a few bars of “Happy Birthday,” handed it over, somehow pulling the curious Pygmies at ease.

And then there were some excellent culinary adventures. Nugent subsisted on what piquant morsels his guides could spear: roasted python (“not nearly as delicious as I’d heard”), a shot of pureed crocodile brain (“like an avocado slurpee”), and what he calls Surf and Turf, Congo style—giant snails and grilled monkey (“the highest I’ve eaten on the evolutionary chain”).

Nugent traces his obsession with exploring unknown worlds to his fourth-grade teacher, a nun who insisted that dinosaurs never existed. “She took it upon herself to explain reality at the expense of my imagination,” he says. “She became my nemesis.” The son of civil engineer Joseph Nugent and his wife, Polly, Rory grew up in Larchmont, N.Y. He attended Williams College in Massachusetts at the same time as author Jay McInerney and director John Sayles.

After graduating in 1974, he became entranced with the sea and spent the next six years on Martha’s Vineyard, racing and building sailboats (among his creations: Orca, the prop boat that sank in the final scenes of Jaws). In 1980, Nugent almost became shark bait himself when a catamaran he was single-handedly racing across the Atlantic Ocean capsized after being hit by a rogue wave. He clung perilously to the boat’s hull for four days before being rescued.

After a try at writing rock videos in the early ’80s, Nugent hit the road in 1985 with a trip to the Anti-Atlas mountains in Morocco in search of a rare cactus. A year later he was off to the Congo in pursuit of the god-beast, and in 1987 he paddled down India’s Brahmaputra River in search of the supposedly extinct pink-headed duck. In between trips—paid for with loans and savings—Nugent lives in a restored 19th-century meat-packing warehouse on Martha’s Vineyard with longtime girlfriend Elizabeth McFadden, 43, a horticulturist. “To call Rory a free spirit is an understatement,” says McFadden. “Obviously he’s pushing it, but it’s what he loves to do, so how can that be crazy?”

Nugent never found the pink-headed duck, but he believes he glimpsed one “in a flaming sunset.” Likewise, he thinks he may have seen his dinosaur. Spoiling a long, thin-necked shape moving across Lake Télé, Nugent hopped in a pirogue to have a closer look—only to have his guides order him back at gunpoint, explaining that “the god can approach man, but man never approaches the god.”

No matter. “I was convinced, and no one can say I’m wrong,” he says. “The dream is safe.” And there are plenty more lo pursue. Nugent is already planning a solo submarine trip along the ocean floor off San Francisco in search of giant segmented worms (he deduced their existence after reading a newspaper clip about the discovery of the world’s largest sponge in 1986). “There’s just this vast unknown. What a joy to fill in the blank spots along the way,” he says. “And in most cases, it’s a romp!”

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