The wandering ghost lights of the outback

“A moon of light suspended in space, darting hither and thither, vanishing ghost-like in the dark recesses of the trees.”

Cooper ck min minThat’s how one rather poetic writer described the Min Min Lights of outback Queensland, the most celebrated of Australia’s ghost light phenomenon.

The ethereal, elusive Min Min Light, however, is just one of the many, uncannily similar, but as yet unexplained, wandering ghost lights of outback Australia.

If ever there was a place to be frequented by tortured souls

In The Sydney Morning Herald on 25 January 1947, Bill Beatty, in his article on Australia’s most famous ghost light, described the outback hotel that gave name to the mysterious lights as a “notorious shanty”.

“No spots on earth were lower than some of these western shanties of the Queensland of 70-odd years ago. The Min Min Hotel was regarded as the worst of these vicious dens.

“Dispensing adulterated liquor and drugs, the Min Min Hotel derived its profits from the process known as ‘lambing down’ unwary shearers and station-hands, who arrived there with large cheques and still larger thirsts.

“Many of these men remained there. The fierce, doped spirits caused their deaths. Others were killed in wild brawls, or were murdered for their money, and at the rear of the hotel site there is still to be seen the Min Min graveyard, where these victims were buried.”

If ever there were a place to be frequented by the tortured souls of the dead, the graveyard behind the Min Min Hotel would be among the top contenders.

The Min Min Hotel was destroyed by fire around 1918. And according to Beatty, shortly thereafter, a stockman rode into the police station one night. In an agitated state, he gave the following account to the sergeant on duty.

“You won’t believe me, but it’s true – I swear it’s the gospel truth! About 10 o’clock this evening I was riding not far from the Min Min graveyard when all of a sudden I saw a strange glow appear right in the middle of the cemetery. I looked at it amazed. The glow got bigger, till it was about the size of a watermelon. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I saw it hovering over the ground. And then I broke into a cold sweat, for it started to come towards me.

“It was too much for my nerves. I was terror-stricken. I dug the spurs into the horse and headed towards Boulia as fast as I could. But every time I looked back over my shoulder I could see the light following me! It only disappeared when I got to the outskirts of the town.”

Apparently, the sergeant found the stockman’s story a little hard to swallow.

“Don’t smile, sergeant! Can’t you see it’s the truth I’m telling you?”

Soon enough, however, many more sightings of the strange ghost light of Min Min were reported. And it can be assumed that the sergeant was no longer smiling.

It’ll lead ye to destructionMin Min

A decade earlier, in December 1937, Bill Bowyang, in his regular column, On the Track, wrote of his own experience with the ghost light while travelling years earlier through outback Queensland. As he sat one night chatting with an old timer, something caught Bowyang’s attention; “We were all sitting looking into the darkness, well away from the dying campfire and enjoying the cool air after the heat of the day, when suddenly I saw a light. At first I thought it was someone waving a lantern, but it suddenly rose higher in the air, danced a few jigs, and hovered about, first high and then low, but always keeping at about 50 yards distant.”

In answering Bowyang’s query as to the origin of the light, the old timer replied; “Oh, that’s Jack O’ Lantern, or the Mln Min as some folks call it.”

Bowyang was intrigued and wanted a closer look, but his companion warned him against such foolishness. “It’ll lead ye to destruction. Where that light is, it leads right into a chasm with a drop of three or four hundred feet, and as soon as ye gets close to the light, out it’ll go over the abyss.”

But Bowyang ignored the warning and set forth to follow the ghostly floating light.

“I strode on into the darkness. I had got to within perhaps twenty yards of the peculiar light, which was still hovering like some huge ball of glowing embers in mid-air about seven or eight feet from the ground, when suddenly it swerved abruptly to one side and, soaring a little higher, led out over ground which, as I followed, I quickly realised … was decidedly boggy.

“Suddenly the old man’s warning voice came through the darkness. ‘The abyss ain’t a dozen yards from where ye are; come back, come back.’ I stopped, but not before I had seen – true to the old fellow’s words – that the strange light had indeed drifted out over the great chasm. As I watched, the light hesitated, floated back a little towards me, then as though tempting me to follow, but at the same time annoyed at the possibility of losing a victim, it glided back again over the chasm where, with a few final erratic movements, it dropped from sight.”

Even today, sightings of the Min Min Light are regularly reported around the isolated town of Boulia. But the remote, desolate flatlands of central Queensland have no monopoly on Australia’s ghost light phenomenon.

Unheralded visitations of the ‘ghost’

In 1947, W.G Noble wrote of the mystery of Quinn’s Light near Cootamundra in southern New South Wales.

“I had many strange experiences during my thirty years’ service with the Mounted Police in Back o’ Beyond, but certainly the queerest was my encounter with the ghost known as Quinn’s Light,” Noble wrote.

“The Quinn family owned a fine property in the Dudauman Valley and here, it was rumoured, the ghostly phenomenon most frequently appeared. For years before his death, John Quinn, a notable horseman and authority on stock, acted as sole judge at the State’s annual sheep dog trials, and the fact that his numerous decisions were never questioned was a tribute to his integrity.

“People took him seriously, therefore, when he described the unheralded visitations of the ‘ghost’ and the attempts made by himself and other night riders to overtake it.”

Noble went on to describe the ghost light from details supplied by the trustworthy Quinn. “I gathered that a light of extraordinary brilliancy had been observed at intervals throughout a period of years. After nightfall it could be seen amongst the tall timbers ‘floating’ down the valley at various heights towards the grazing areas.

“Quinn said it resembled a large yellow falcon or crested eagle, with immense outspread wings shining like burnished gold, and illuminating the surroundings with a phosphorescent glow. After encompassing his home paddocks, it would suddenly disappear in the direction whence it had come. Local hunters had fired at it without effect, and residents from outlying places would journey to the vicinity and keep vigil till the ‘spectre’ was seen. They invariably went home convinced of its existence, but highly perplexed.”

Noble also reported that the appearance of ‘Quinn’s Light’ was enough to force one family off their newly acquired dairy farm … forever.

Noble himself experienced the ghost light while setting out “some hours before daylight on an official mission”.

“When abreast of the Quinn’s old station, I saw on the boundary, in a quiet corner of the stock route, an apparently freshly lighted campfire. Curious to learn who was abroad at that hour in such an out-of-the way place, I rode towards it. Seemingly set beside a decaying log, the fire was shooting up spires of flame and emitting a sulphurous kind of incandescent glare.

“On drawing nearer, my horse, a big, spirited animal, became unusually restive, champing at the bit, baulking, rearing, and breaking away. Bringing him under control, and seeing no one about, I scouted around … cooee-ing and searching for indications of human tenancy. I could not find a soul and so turned back, determined to focus closer attention on the fire. To my amazement every trace of it had completely vanished.”

On his return that evening, a curious Noble went in search of the light’s source.

“I could discover no vestige of camp … no sign of charcoal or ash, no trace of charred wood on the log, no tracks, no footprints. I was bewildered.”

Such unheralded visitations of the ‘ghost’ were reported across outback Australia including at Augathella and Cooloolabin in Queensland and in the wide expanse of the Northern Territory’s Gulf Country.

And also in the central west of New South Wales.

In July 1855, D.H Davidson of Kings Plains, in a letter to the editor of the Bathurst Free Press, wrote; “It is now about seven weeks since a large blazing light first appeared in a paddock in my neighbourhood, which now appears every night without intermission say about half an hour after dark. Its appearance to the naked eye is that of a large blazing light, and it continues lightening for a period of five or six minutes at a time.”

Supernatural lights … an omen of death?

In 1937, the appearance of such supernatural lights took on a more sinister hue. Following a letter to Perth’s Western Mail in which the author described a visitation of the ghost lights just prior to the death of the witness in a mining accident, several more readers shared similar experiences of the ghost lights as omens of death.

One reader wrote to the newspaper on 11 February 1937; “Further to a recent item about a man seeing a light and then being killed in a mine accident. I remember my mother telling me a story about a friend seeing a light and then dying. It was not in a mine but in a country district of South Australia – and it was true.”

The writer continued with his own experience.

“About 25 years ago in a town in South Australia … A friend and I were walking down town about 7 o’clock one night. It was not moonlight, neither was it really dark. Halfway down the park there were two big, dull lights like floating bubbles coming towards us from the sky. Just a few seconds and then they disappeared.

“It gave me a fright as my brother had gone out hunting that day and had not returned when we had left home. Having heard the superstition about lights, naturally I thought he had met with an accident. We hurried home as soon as we could, but he was safe and well.”

Thankfully!

But on 15 April 1937, an Indarra, Western Australia resident recounted the following, more tragic, tale.

“About nine months ago I was living home with my father, mother and sister … We had finished our supper and my mother and I … had just stepped onto the verandah when we both saw two lights like floating stars coming towards us from the sky. It gave me such a fright that I ran back to the kitchen, but my mother wasn’t a bit frightened. She stopped there and watched them. She said afterwards that they stopped a few minutes and then disappeared.

“About a week later my father met with an accident which caused his death and my mother followed him three months afterwards.”

Perhaps the most ominous sighting of the ghost light occurred on the doomed 156-ton wooden sailing brig Maria which was shipwrecked on Bramble Reef in Queensland in 1872.

A survivor of the wreck, Mr T. Ingram recounted his experience to The Capricornian in February 1909. In his account, he spoke of a strange ghost light, apparently, visible only to those doomed members of the ship’s crew.

“A curious incident occurred on the Maria before she was wrecked which may be referred to, though it savours of superstition. During the time the Maria was being driven south by the monsoon, a dancing light was seen on the mast of the vessel, a sort of will-o’-the-wisp. This light the sailors called a ‘ghost-light,’ and stated that it portended some disaster. The light was seen for several nights, and the curious thing about it was that every person could not see it. Mr. Ingham, for instance, failed to see it, though his three mates pointed it out to him again and again. At length one of them said: ‘If you cannot see that light yon must be blind.’

“However, Mr. Ingham was by no means the only one who could not see the light, and those who failed to do so could not make the affair out, as the others were so earnest about it. When the eight saved on the raft were on shore, the matter was brought up … and it was found that all those who had seen the mysterious light, including Ingham’s three mates, were drowned, while none of those saved saw the mysterious light. Mr. Ingham can give no solution of the extraordinary occurrence, but merely tells exactly what occurred.”

Whatever their origin and whatever they may represent, the wandering ghost lights of the Australian outback, seen from the earliest days of settlement, continue to mesmerise and intrigue to this day – and are yet to be satifactorily explained.

 Find out more

Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Min_Min_light

Bill Chalker: The Min Min Light Revealed Nature Unbound?   http://www.auforn.com/Bill_Chalker_8.htm

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