Mysterious sky sounds have been heard right across the world in recent times, reaching an apparent crescendo as we tentatively step into the much-anticipated, and often feared, year of 2012. Are these unknown sounds from the heavens a portent of doom from an impending apocalypse? Are they the result of top secret weather manipulation technology or electromagnetic weaponry? Or are their origins more mundane, such as the simple misidentification of everyday modern machinery?
Well, perhaps the answer to the enigma is none of these, as it appears our early explorers were similarly baffled by such strange sounds seemingly emanating from clear night skies.
Accounts from early explorers and settlers of hearing strange sounds of unknown origins in our skies were published in Phenomenal Sounds in the Interior of Australia — Are They Terrestrial or Atmospherical? – a pamphlet by Mr T. Gill from a report of the deliberations of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Melbourne in December 1913.
‘”I am somewhat diffident in submitting to the geographical section of this association the following particulars, chiefly obtained from explorers’ journals and personally from explorers and old bushmen who have traversed the interior of Australia,” Gill wrote. “I do not presume to offer any explanation as to the cause of the phenomena reported here, but humbly submit the reports and opinions of various travellers on the mysterious sounds which are of frequent occurrence in certain localities, and which bewilder all who have heard them.”
One such story was told to Gill by a gentleman traveller of an encounter he had with the strange sky sounds in southern New South Wales in 1833.
Firing ascended into the air, higher and higher
“On my way to our sheep station, in the year 1833, I passed a night at the residence of Mr Hamilton Hume, at Yass. While we were engaged in conversation in the evening we were surprised to hear the report of musketry, as if a smart fire of about 25 guns were kept up near the place. We hastened out, supposing that the mounted police had come to the spot and were engaged with the bushrangers. The evening was dark, and we could discern nothing, though the firing still continued; but now appeared ascending into the air, higher and higher, till it gradually ceased, as if those who were firing had ascended as they discharged their muskets.
“We remained a short time, listening in awe; wondering what this strange phenomena could portend. All was still. After expressing our astonishment, we withdrew to the doorway, when Mr Hume related a similar happening during an exploration journey which he took with Captain Sturt.”
Captain Sturt wrote about that experience while exploring the Darling with Hume in 1829.
“About 3pm on February 7, Mr Hume and I were occupied tracing a chart upon the ground. The day had been remarkably fine, not a cloud was there in the sky, nor a breath of air to be felt. On a sudden we heard what seemed to be the report of a gun fired in the distance of between five or six miles. It was not the hollow sound of an earthly explosion, or the sharp, cracking noise of thunder, but in every way resembled the discharge of a very large piece of ordnance. On this we all agreed, but no one was certain whence the sound proceeded.
“Both Mr Hume and myself … thought it came from the north-west. I sent one of the men immediately up a tree, but he could observe nothing unusual. The country around him appeared to be equally flat on all sides, and to be thickly wooded. Whatever caused the report, it made a strong impression on all of us, and to this day the singularity of such a sound in such a situation is a matter of mystery to me,” Sturt wrote.
Again, when exploring Central Australia in 1844, Captain Sturt heard similar noises in the far north of the colony.
“When Mr Browne and I were on a recent journey to the north, after having crossed the stony desert, being in between it and Eyre’s Creek, about 9 o’clock in the morning, we distinctly heard the report as of a great gun discharged to the westward, at a distance of about half a mile. On the following morning, nearly at the same time, we again heard the sound, but it now came from a greater distance, and consequently was not so clear.”
Food for speculative minds
Another account of mysterious sky sounds was published in 1853 by Mr James Allen, who witnessed the phenomena first-hand while aboard the Lady Augusta on the Murray River. This account however differs in that these sounds were witnessed in conjunction with a flash of fire.
“I may here mention a very singular phenomenon which appeared at Swan Hill (on the Murray) some two years ago, and which has been so well authenticated, both by the natives and the settlers in the district, as to leave no doubt, as to the occurrence.
“About a month previous to the Christmas of 1851, a small dark cloud was seen to rise above the horizon, towards the north-west. Immediately after its appearance it emitted a flash of fire, succeeded by a rumbling noise like thunder, or the trampling of a large body of horses, but considerably louder, and passed over to the east, dispersing itself like smoke. The day was remarkably bright and clear, with a perfectly unclouded sky.
“Its passage occupied from four to five minutes, and the noise resulting from the discharge of the flash, I am told, was most terrific. The natives were dreadfully alarmed and even to this day have a vivid recollection of the circumstance. This account is not in the least exaggerated, and if the occurrence had not been well authenticated by respectable settlers in the neighbourhood, I should not have described it in my journal. As it is, it will be food for speculative minds, and interest those fond of the marvellous.”
The sounds were distinctly overhead
On 20 December 1919, Broken Hill’s Barrier Miner published Mysterious Noises Are Heard In The Air, Sounds Like Musketry. The article included the following account.
“I was travelling from Wilgena to Port Augusta, with my wife, child, nurse, and man, about the year 1902, in November. The time was about 9am. The man was out after the horses, and the remainder of us were having breakfast. There was not a sign of a cloud. A loud, sharp crack was heard undoubtedly overhead like the report from a field gun. A few seconds later what seemed to be volleys of musketry occurred. After those sounds had proceeded for about a minute I looked at my watch to ascertain how long they would continue. The sounds like musketry – still coming from the sky – gradually went out of hearing to the north-west. It was over four minutes from the time I looked at my watch until the sounds died completely away.
“On the man’s return to camp with the horses he reported that he had heard the same noises, which were also heard, we learnt later, by Mr Yates (a district road inspector), at his camp, 25 miles from ours, to the north-west, at Ashton Hills. They were also heard at Arcoona, about 25 miles to (the north-eastward). There had been partial heavy thunderstorms the day previously, but at the time of the noises the sky was cloudless, and it continued so all day. There was no flash of light or earth tremor.
“I sent a report of the occurrence to Sir Charles Todd at the time. We subsequently had many conversations about the matter … Sir Charles tried to persuade me that the sounds must have come from the earth, and possibly had been due to a land slip. This is out of the question. The sounds were distinctly overhead.”
Invisible armies bombarding one another in the realms of space
The Sydney Morning Herald published yet another account of booming sky sounds on 28 September 1935.
“One night, when camped on the gibber tablelands west of Lake Torrens, in Central Australia, I heard the deep booming of the so-called barisal guns or ‘desert sounds’. So loud were the noises that they set my horses plunging in their hobbles. Concluding that a thunderstorm was approaching, I got up to see what cover I could find. But everywhere the sky was clear and starlit. I heard the sounds again some evenings later, this time, seemingly, from directly overhead – a thunderous rumble followed by a splutter like rifle fire, an irregular “feu de joie” [a salute fired by rifles in quick succession] that trailed away into the far distance. Yet there was no perceptible earth tremble or flash of falling star.
“It was as if the air had suddenly become haunted by invisible armies bombarding one another in the realms of space.”
So, what were those mysterious sky sounds heard throughout outback Australia during the 19th and early 20th centuries? There are some apparent similarities between the reports in that they were often described in terms of gunfire, ascending into the skies, generally experienced under clear, blue skies and heard over large distances. Witnesses, often experienced bushmen and explorers, ruled out thunder as a possible cause and were left baffled.
And Australia isn’t the only country to have experienced these unexplained booming sounds in the skies. In India they are called ‘barisal guns’, in Italy ‘brontidi’ or ‘marinas’, in Japan ‘uminari’ and in the Netherlands and Belgium ‘mistpoeffers’.
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