THE MIN MIN LIGHT REVEALED
For more than a century, an extraordinary phenomenon steeped in folklore and genuine mystery has haunted a remote area centred near the town of Boulia, in South West Queensland.
Elsewhere around the world, possibly similar phenomena go by various evocative names, such as “jack-o’-lantern”, “ignis fatuus” (foolish fire), “fairy lights”, “will-o’ the-wisp”, and “ghost lights”. Many are called by their locational identities, such as the “Waimea lights” (Hawaii), the “Marfa ghost light” (Texas, USA) and the Brown Mountain Lights (North Carolina, USA).
In Australia there have been many such reports through the years, dispersed widely around the country. However, the most enduring, and best known manifestation of the Australian “ghost light” genre is the famous Min Min Light.
Hundreds of people over the years have told of seeing the Min Min Light in the Boulia district. The light got its name from the old Min Min “pub” and mail-change, which used to stand on the boundary of two big stations - Warenda and Lucknow. Only a stack of bottles, a dust heap, and the remnants of a cemetery, reminds us of what was. The locality is approximately 100 kilometres east of Boulia, just off the Boulia-Winton road.
The popular genesis of the light is evocatively captured in an old bushman’s legend. Ernestine Hill, in “Walkabout” (1955), relates the tale:
“Min Min now is nothing but the light. History tells that it was once a roaring shanty notorious for ‘lambing down’ the shearers on sunset run, with a ‘dead house’ and a graveyard nearby. So many were its crimes and murders of kerosene and brimstone, that in righteous anger they burnt it to the ground. The place was stories and desolation- but the dead men would not be forgotten on their stoney plain. Just as a rider was passing by, out of that graveyard came the biggest Jack-O’-Lantern in Australia!”
The Min Min Light legend has long spoken of the light appearing soon after the Min Min shanty had burnt to the ground. Three sightings, in quick succession, allegedly started the mystery. The “Sunday Mail Magazine” of March 2, 1941 contains the earliest renditions of these reports that I could find and it dates them as occurring some 60 years earlier, that is, in the early 1880s or thereabouts. This places the genesis of the Min Min Light legend as contemporary with the establishment of the town of Boulia itself.
The first of these tales is in part consistent with the evocative legend related by Ernestine Hill and tells of an unfortunate stockman who encountered the light, soon after the Min Min shanty or hotel was burnt down. He was riding from Warenda Station to Boulia on a somewhat cloudy night. At about 10 pm, as the stockman passed the Min Min locality a strange glow appeared right in the middle of the little cemetry located at the rear of the old hotel. The glow appeared to grow to the size of a small watermelon, hover over the graveyard, and then move off in the same direction the stockman was travelling. Terrified, the man galloped towards Boulia with the light allegedly following him all the way, until he reached the outskirts of town. Not surprisingly, police and locals gave the poor man’s story little credence.
However, in rapid succession, 2 further reports came to light, which seemed to substantiate the stockman’s experience. A married couple visiting the district, who apparently did not know of the stockman’s story, reported seeing the mysterious light, while riding on a track into Boulia from one of the stations. The light intensified in brightness while they watched and then moved away. The couple then followed the light onto the hard, plain country, for a few minutes. When they turned back to the track the light, which had been receding, began to advance and follow them. Legend does not detail how the light disappeared, but the couple were most anxious to find out from the locals what the light was. No one could provide an explanation.
Likewise for the next report that came in a few nights later. Another station hand said he had seen the light rise up out of the old Min Min hotel graveyard and go bounding up and down through the air across the stony plain.
The Min Min light was well on its way to gaining a permanent niche in Australian folklore.
The connection with the Min Min Hotel is somewhat misleading. The hotel was built by William T.C. Lilley soon after he settled in the Boulia district around 1886. After many years he sold it to Jack McMillan, who in turn sold it to Mrs. A.E. Hasted in 1914. The hotel burned down a few years later, some say between 1916 and 1918. Clearly, despite the Min Min Hotel burning down as in the legend, the timing is well after the earliest reports. According to Henry Lamond, who was managing Warenda Station at the time, the light was old, even by 1912.
Ernestine Hillls tale imparts such a sinister reputation to the Min Min ‘shanty’, that it is difficult to reconcile this with ownership by Lilley. It seems clear that if there is any substance to the legend then a ‘shanty’ predated Lilley’s establishment, ostensibly at the same location.
The age of the Min Min Light legend is supported by retired parliamentarian Bill Wentworth’s 1978 “A Big Country” interview, with an elderly aboriginal woman named “Lani”. She said her grandmother talked about the light and called it “koorari”, meaning “light”. Local identity, Charlie Robinson recalls when he was a child (around 1910), “Old Man” Lilley told people that the oldest “blackfellow” in the district then, reckoned he saw it when he was a little boy. Indeed, the older aboriginals considered that the Min Min Light emanated from an old Aboriginal burial ground, north of the Winton road opposite Dinner Creek, (north of Pollygammon). Locals tell of the legend that the light only came after “the white man started killing the black fella.” The Min Min Light was viewed as a “debil-debil”, or as one local put it in the ABC “A Big Country” programme on the light, “The Boulia Triangle”, “He was the black fella’s ghost, that fella.” In 1878 many aborigines were killed in retaliation for some killings of white settlers. By the early 1900s, according to Charlie Robinson’s excellent historical record, the “Souvenir Book of the Min Min Festival” (1976), “most of the (local aboriginal) tribes had been decimated by privation, disease, alcohol, drought and lead.” Clearly the legend goes back a long way.
This association with death (i.e. “ghost lights”) marches right through worldwide legends and lore of these lights. As tantalising as this coincidence may be for some, we will see later, when we come to possible mechanisms for the lights, that the appeal of the supernatural explanation is not as straight forward as proponents may have us believe. We will see instead that Nature appears to be our culprit.
The earliest reported sighting of the Min Min Light, for which we are reasonably certain about the date, is the classic account of Henry Lamond in 1912. At least 2 accounts exist, the first, as a letter in “Walkabout” (1 April, 1937- a suitable occasion for recounting of such anecdotes, some would say) and the second is from the “North Australian Monthly” in January 1961.
In “Walkabout” Lamond described his experience as follows:
“During the middle of winter -June or July (1912) - I had to go to Slasher’s Creek to start the lamb-marking I did not leave the head station until about 2 am, expecting to get to Slasher’s well before daylight…
“After crossing the Hamilton River, 5 miles wide with 45 channels, I was out on the high downs ...5 or 6, or 8 or 10, miles out on the downs I saw the headlight of a car coming straight for me (The light had appeared to be coming from the direction of Winton and seemed to be about half a mile away -B.C.). Cars, though they were not common, were not rare. I took note of the thing, singing and trotting as I rode, and I even estimated the strength of the approaching light by the way it picked out individual hairs in the mare’s mane.
“Suddenly I realised it was not a car light -it remained in one bulbous ball instead of dividing into the 2 headlights, which it should have done as it came closer; it was too green-glary for an acetylene light; it floated too high for any car; there was something eerie about it.”
According to Lamond’s account in “Walkabout” his horse stopped, snorted and pricked its ears. His other account in the “North Australian monthly” states this aspect differently, albeit a small inconsistency. “Nellie kept trotting along quite unperturbed. She didn’t even prick her ears or lift her head. I know, had it been a car coming towards us, that mare would have been afraid.”
Lamond’s “Walkabout” account continues:
“The light came on, floating as airily as a bubble, moving with comparative slowness ... I should estimate now that it was moving at about10 m.p.h. and anything from 5 to 10 feet above the ground ... Its size, I would should say, at an approximate guess, would be about that of a new-risen moon.
“That light and I passed each other, going in opposite directions. I kept an eye on it while it was passing, and I’d say it was about 200 yards off when suddenly it just faded and died away. It did not go out with a snap -its vanishing was more like the gradual fading of the wires in an electric bulb. The mare acknowledged the dowsing of the glim by another snorting whistle.”
The Min Min Light mystery does not only have its basis only in compelling, historical and largely unconfirmable tales. N.W. Bauer, the late Queensland Commissioner for Police, in an article in the “Royal Geographical Society of Australia Bulletin,” describes what he referred to as “the best authenticated recording of this remarkable phenomenon.”
Mr. Bauer quoted the statement of Detective Sergeant Lyall Booth, of the Police Stock Investigation Squad at Cloncurry.
On the night of Saturday, May 2nd, 1981, after 6 days of Mustering, Booth was camped on the bank of the Bulla Bulla waterhole, approximately 60 km east of Boulia, on the main Boulia -Winton road. The main camp had been in the centre of a plain several kilometres across and was beside a very shallow, drying-up waterhole ringed by gidgea trees. There was only one other person present in the camp, a forty year old part Aboriginal woman - the camp cook. She was located approximately 600 metres to the north of where Booth was camped.
Lyall Booth had gone to sleep at about 9 pm. It was a cool clear night.
“I woke up at about 11 pm (I don~ know why) and saw a light which at first I took to be a car headlight, approximately 1500 to 2000 metres north east from me. I thought it was a vehicle on the main road, but after a short time I realised that the main road was further to the north and that vehicle lights could not be seen plainly from my location. The light appeared to be just to the west of the Hamilton River channels and appeared to be moving but it did not seem to get any closer (I know that’s hard to grasp, but that is how it appeared).
“The light was below tree top height. Its intensity seemed to fluctuate a little and this may have given the impression of movement. It was a single light and white in colour, similar to the light thrown by a quartz iodine headlight. After watching it for 3 or 4 minutes. I realised that it was probably the Min Min Light.
“I kept it under observation for about half an hour and its position remained about the same (I can’t say the same for my pulse rate). I went to sleep with some difficulty about midnight and awoke again at about 1 am and saw the light again just to the North of where the cook was camped. That means that, if it was the same light, it had moved about 1000 metres to the south-west from its original position.
“It was not as bright as the first light and had a slightly yellow colour to it. It was about the colour of a gas light which is turned down very low and is about to go out, but it was of much greater intensity than that type of light.
“It appeared to be slightly bigger than the gas light used in the cook’s camp. It seemed to be from 3 to 6 feet from the ground, and moved only several yards from west to east and then remained stationary. It illuminated the ground around it, but I was too far away from it to see any detail. I could, however, see the cook’s camp
“I watched the light for about 5 to 6 minutes and then it suddenly dived towards the ground and went out. It may even have gone out on contact with the ground. I did not see it again.”
Dectective Sergeant Lyall Booth checked with the cook in the morning and found that she had seen nothing. They had been the only people in the area. The cook had a small camp fire going earlier in the night but it had not been visible from Booth’s camp. His own camp fire was only glowing coals by 8 pm, and was not in the line of sight of either of the mystery lights. A daylight search failed to find any trace of a physical agency for the lights.
Booth concluded: “I am at a loss to explain in physical terms the lights that I saw. My enquiries lead me to believe that they were not caused by man...”
I have given this account in some detail as it is one of the few modern accounts that is well documented. Later we will examine possible explanations for this report.
Most accounts of Min Min Lights are unfortunately somewhat more anecdotal than the above account. Some however are still very interesting.
Veteran researcher, Stan Seers, quotes an interesting account in his book “UFOs -the case for Scientific Myopia” given by a Mr. C. Rhodes. He was travelling the stock route between Winton and Boulia, with 2 other men.
On l0th February, 1951, they were camped about 2 miles west of the site of the old Min Min Hotel:
“At about 8.30 pm, we were about to turn into our swags. I glanced to the north and saw a strange light hovering in the sky. This was on open downs country, interlaced with small gidyea creeks, none of the trees being over fifteen feet in height.
“While we watched, the light glided swiftly and smoothly through about 40 degrees to the west in a matter of moments. It then jazzed up and down for a while before coming to rest. Every movement was extremely fast.
“I was puzzled at the pace it travelled, and thought it must be very close. You can image my surprise when it disappeared in the edges of a small cloud, which I estimated to be about 15 miles away. It could have been closer.
“It then reappeared at the bottom of the cloud; and simultaneously a second light appeared above the cloud. It moved west again but when it reached the edge of the cloud only one light was visible.
“We had been watching for about 10 seconds, yet I calculated it had moved at least 30 miles. There were no roads in that direction, and this light was up in the sky, hovering - it was large and bright - about twice the size and brilliance of Venus.”
Another intriguing Min Min Light story was described by John Pinkney, in his “People” magazine column. The account describes how back in 1980, 2 fossickers were driving from Bedourie to Boulia, when they saw a very bright light by the roadside. As they drew level with it, the light suddenly took off. The young men’s car was showered in a hail of rocks and dust. The light was last seen travelling quickly away between trees and channels. Upon investigating the light’s departure point, the two men reportedly found a fine white powder, but it was not reported whether the material was retrieved and analysed.
Such occurrences are not unique to the Boulia area although the Min Min Light enjoys such a reputation that “Min Min light” is now virtually a generic term for Australian “ghost lights”.
The earliest recorded report appears to be that found in T. Horton James’ book, “Six Months in South Australia, & C.” published in 1838. A group of explorers were camped in the Ovens River region of eastern Victoria, then known as part of the Port Phillip district, when they saw “a fire a little way off.” Some of them rode off to investigate, “but it was about three hours before they returned, and had seen neither fire, bushrangers, nor travellers. They rode boldly up to the spot where the fire, as they thought, was burning, but it was as far off as when they started. In short, it turned out to be an ignis fatuus, or jack-a-lantern, and kept them upwards of an hour trotting on in the vain pursuit, ‘till by some sudden flickering and paleness, it confirmed them in its unsubstantial nature, and they returned rather mortified to bed...”
Other reports continued to be reported throughout the years. Consider for example, the following Goulburn area manifestation recorded in the Goulburn Herald during March, 1878 :
“Lately there has been some excitement amongst the superstitious, numbers of whom go off in parties, with guns & c., to the range above Stewart’s garden, where there is an unfinished stone house. Here an apparition is said to make its appearance in the form of a light, and to travel, sometimes very slowly, and frequently very quickly, from the riverbank just below, up to, and around the house, then varying, the performance by a run among the trees. This is said to be kept up from an early hour in the evening until about 3 in the morning; all endeavours to get near the light are said to prove futile.”
In “The History of Goulburn, NSW” by Ransome T. Wyatt (1972), it is recorded that one “Grunsell claimed to have disposed of it with a shot gun.”
During a search of newspapers in Maryborough, Victoria, I came across an account of a classic “ghost light” in the Natte Yallock area. Its manifestations spanned more than 50 years. In a letter to the editor of the “Maryborough Advertiser”, of April 20, 1966, the following 3 intriguing stories were recalled.
The first account is from the 1860s:
“One of the old settlers, while walking from Natte to his home, vowed he saw a spirit light come from Skinner’s cellar and it nearly bumped into him. It gave him enough strength to run two miles home. Skinner’s was a deserted house about one mile from Natte. This corner was supposed to be haunted ever after.”
The second story describes the witness riding in a gig, near Natte Yallock, one night back in March, 1911, seeing a very bright light between 2 trees. It appeared to move backwards and forwards, at a height of about 40 feet from the ground. The light also appeared to reflect on the gig and pony, showing them as clear as daylight. It reappeared about half a mile on. The witness recalled, “It then started to quietly fall towards me. It was getting so close that I was leaning as far out of the gig as I could get, trying to miss the thing... It again disappeared and I travelled on for about another half mile.”
The final account describes how in the Natte Yallock area, about 8 miles from Landsborough, during the Autumn of 1913, a group of people saw a light that seemed to be approaching. The group pulled to the side of the road. “The ball of light travelling at about 5 feet from the ground, just passed the buggy as if it was controlled and it did not seem to be doing more than 10 miles per hour.”
Many reports of the “ghost light” genre refer to extraordinary events of an apparently unique nature. Here are a few such reports that attest to the complexity of this phenomenon and the potential for bonafide scientific enquiry amongst the rich harvest of such accounts.
During his 1972 summer vacation, a university student engaged in night ploughing work on a remote property out of Garah, near the western NSW - Queensland border, experienced an extraordinary encounter. The following details are based upon my own interviews with the witness. At about 1.30 am, on December 16th, 1972, the student stoped the tractor near access gate of the paddock he was working in, for a short break. He soon heard a high powered engine noise approaching. As the surrounding countryside was typical of western NSW, namely flat, the monotony of which was broken only by scattered bushland. He was extremely puzzled when he was unable to locate the source of the approaching sound. Whatever it was, it seemed as if the “source” de-accelerated as it appeared to pass by some 500 yards away. It finally gradually died out as if the low altitude aerial noise source had come to rest down the road, some 2 miles away. The witness likened the sound to a semi-trailer, but he felt that even without lights a truck would have been quite apparent. Of course invisible flying trucks are quite rare.
The witness soon dismissed the incident and some 5 minutes later was ploughing directly opposite the gate at a spot near the paddock fence perimeter. It was then he noticed a single light approaching. Its location and the lack of undulating movement as it moved over ploughed ground made the lights nature all the more curious.
The strange light entered the field and moved towards the tractor driver at a steady height of about 10 feet and speed of about 30-40 mph. As the light came closer its appearance became apparent - a small circular “object” which had what seemed to be a smaller concentrated light centre. The bright light evident, which illuminated a wide area, appeared to be radiating from the surface of the circular object and not from the central mass. It did not appear to be solid, but the centre appeared to be more concentrated. The “shape” of the sphere was “traced out by 3 (or 4) ill defined lines on the outside of the object. “ These “circles” or “ribs” of relatively, well defined light were seemingly geometrically evenly spaced and all met at the top and bottom of the object, like meridians of longitude. The total diameter was 3 feet with the “concentrated” centre apparently 8 to 9 inches wide. The total display appeared to be constant.
At 50 yards distance the object made a smooth turn and then stopped just 20 yards away. It hovered there for about 5 seconds then suddenly vanished. The object “reappeared” behind the tractor driver, just outside the paddock fence line, still at about 10 feet altitude. It continued to move away in the same direction, finally disappearing in the distance. The total duration of the light phenomenon was between 1 to 2 minutes. Other people in the area ostensibly saw similar phenomena at about the same time.
During 1974 in the Bega district of NSW, a local farmer encountered a similar extraordinary phenomenon. His account can be found in the “Bega District News” of September 17th, 1976. After checking fence posts on his property, the farmer was finishing up, when he heard a very high pitched sound, “a bit like air escaping from a high pressure tractor feed.”
“I tried to locate the source of the sound, but as the light had almost gone, it was difficult to see anything, let alone not fall over a fallen limb.”
The noise grew in volume until the farmer realised it was coming from the vicinity of a boulder which sat out in the middle of the field.
From behind the boulder, a bright yellow, orange light shone out.
“My first thought was that it was a fire, but the light was too constant ... As I got closer, the noise got louder. I got level with the rock and pocked my head around the corner and my Heavens, did I get a shock.
“There on the ground was a bright globe of “something”, about the size of a football, I suppose. It was a very bright yellow which then changed to a bright orange and then to yellow again, the cycle taking about 5 seconds each time.”
“My first thought was that it was a fireball, but it really wasn’t sitting on the ground. I think it would have been about 6 inches off the ground. There was no sense of heat, but when I tried to get closer, I could feel my skin tighten, and all the hair on my body stand up.”
“It was like trying to walk into a very strong wind, so much so I couldn’t get any closer.
“I walked over and picked up a dead limb of a tree, and poked this at it, but I couldn’t get too close at all, it just seemed to slip away, like two magnets opposing each other. Then it went a vivid green and started to fade away, and finally there was nothing there. At this time the noise was unbearable, but as it faded so did the noise. I did notice a sweet, sickly smell, but that faded quickly too.”
An anonymous anecdotal account in a newspaper hardly constitutes evidence but the story is certainly compelling. Although not specific about weather conditions, stable conditions are implied, making it difficult to invoke a ball lightning mechanism. This account certainly stretches the point.
There are many reports of apparent high evidential value that seemingly fall within the ambit of bona fide scientific investigations.
The following account reminds us that the quest for possible physical evidence for “Min Min Lights” is not without its frustrations.
The reporting witness, Bruce Cheeseman, told me how he and a friend were driving near the Queensland Northern Territory border, out of Tennants Creek, during November 1979. They stopped for a break and also to wait for another truck following them.
The two men saw strange lights, which they took to be “bloody Min Min Lights.”
The other truck pulled in behind the first. Two aborigines with them became scared of the lights, calling them “debil, debil.” They retreated to behind the trucks. The lights appeared to be about 3 feet in diameter and looked like a swirling ball shaped manifestation. The lights would change, ostensibly with the angle of observation, from a very pale grey, misty grey, to a hazy blue. When they moved the lights changed from a blue to a hazy blue, to a light green colour.
As the men closed in on the lights a peculiar smell, likened to ozone, was noticed. Horses, they were carrying on a float, became very agitated, and there was extensive static on the radio, like a very high-speed engine and buzzing noise. These aspects suggest a possible static electricity explanation, albeit a rather amazing form of it.
One of the men took photos of the lights at a distance of only 30 feet. This extraordinary phenomenon remained in view for 4 to 6 minutes. As the group closed in on them, the lights went off across a paddock and down towards a gully, disappearing into a washout or “donga”.
Here we have multiple witnesses, long duration, electrical interference, apparent animal reactions, a strange smell and photographs. Unfortunately, or predictably some would say, the photos have disappeared, allegedly after they were sent to a university photo lab for developing. So ultimately the prospect of physical evidence (photos no less) proved as elusive as the Min Min Lights themselves.
(to be continued)
Source: The Australasian Ufologist Magazine Vol.6 No.3 Pgs 9-13 (Photos/Illustrations)