In our everyday lives, we have certain expectations about the natural world in which we live. We expect that when it clouds over and rains, for example, we will get wet. When we stand atop a mountain in the dark of night, we will see the stars shimmering brightly above and perhaps the glimmer of city lights below in the distance. When we sit on the verandah on a warm summer’s night, our lunar companion will appear suspended in position while it inches its way across the night sky.
But sometimes, nature throws us a curve ball.
It’s raining … mud, fish & frogs
When rain ain’t just wet.
On 28 December 1896, the Bendigo Advertiser reported on a curious weather event that had occurred the previous day. A shower of mud had fallen in the Victorian goldfields town of Castlemaine: “An immense whirlwind carried clouds of dust to the height of over a mile, the sky being darkened with the dust clouds. Shortly after it commenced to rain mud; clothes and umbrellas being covered with a red sandy substance. The ‘mud shower’ continued for some time.”
Ten years earlier, in the Hunter region of New South Wales, a far weirder rain of a biological nature had fallen. This time, it was frogs, very much alive, falling from the heavens. Sydney’s Evening News provided the following details of this extraordinary event as witnessed by Captain Hunter and his crew aboard the steam collier Duckenfield while anchored on the Hunter River at Hexham.
“A very heavy shower of rain passed over the neighbourhood, lasting about half an hour. It completely suspended work on board. When the storm passed over, and the crew came up from below, the ship’s deck was found to be covered with half-grown frogs which were hopping about in a lively manner all over the ship. Captain Hunter says there were no frogs to be seen about the ship’s deck or on shore just before the rain storm, but immediately afterwards, on going ashore, they were found in myriads, and that it was utmost impossible to take a step without treading them under foot.
“The driver of the locomotive running the coal train between the Duckenfield Collieries and Hexham, a distance of five or six miles, also stated that when coming down to Hexham soon after the storm, the country seemed to be alive with frogs and that the engine wheels were crushing the creatures on the rails in thousands.”
Two years later, a much tastier shower of fish had rained on a property about 80 miles from Warialda in the north of the state.
The Wagga Wagga Advertiser reported the event on 31 March 1888.
“During a recent thunderstorm, which fell over Messrs. Brown Bros.’ station … large numbers of fish varying from a foot in length to a few inches, were stranded on the plain, and after the storm subsided the station hands gathered tubsful of them, all alive and wriggling on the ground. The fish, which are described by Mr. Browne as a new variety, with which white and black men are unfamiliar, are splendid eating, and abound now in the various branches of the McIntyre [river], filled by the storm waters.
“As some of the fish were found on the plains at least three miles from the nearest permanent water, there is no doubt the thunder shower lodged them there.”
For the residents of Frankston in Victoria, rather than manna from Heaven, it must have seemed as though the Apocalypse had begun one Monday morning when a rain of sulphur fell. The Horsham Times succinctly reported the seemingly unearthly weather event stating that residents gathered handfuls of the foul smelling substance. The point was also made that there were no active volcanoes in the vicinity, or on the Australian mainland for that matter, and that the origin of the sulphur remained a mystery.
Mirages in the sky
In March of 1920, residents and visitors of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, more than 100km to the west of Sydney, reported seeing “a city in the sky”.
“An extraordinary phenomenon was witnessed at Katoomba shortly after a fall of rain had ceased on Monday just before midnight.
“The eastern sky high above Sydney was illuminated by a perfect mirage, in which the lights of a big city were as clearly defined as though in a neighbouring street. Huge signs could be seen, flashed like advertisements into space, one being reasonably distinct, though the lettering was reversed. No resident of the Mountains can recall a similar previous spectacle.”
Then, on 19 April 1934, some Sydneysiders were witness to a spectacular mirage of a “great arch in the sky” over Sydney’s world-renowned harbour.
“An extraordinary phenomenon was witnessed over the harbour last night when two rows of lights of the harbour bridge were reflected in a gigantic arch in the black sky. The reproduction of the lights was flawless.
“The State Meteorologist (Mr. Mares) said he had not seen the sight, which lasted only a few minutes, but several people had telephoned him last night.”
Mr Mares’ explanation was that the mirage was probably the result of a number of causes and that: “It would be due to the unequal density of the atmospheric strata above the earth’s surface bringing about an unstable equilibrium in the air.”
From city lights shining in dark skies to three-masted ships suspended among the fleecy clouds … Adelaide’s Chronicle on 29 May 1909 reported on a fantastical Mirage at Point Price.
“Yesterday, while two prominent townsmen were journeying from Cowell to Point Price, they witnessed a remarkable phenomenon near their destination on the shores of Spencer’s Gulf. It was a magnificent day, the sun was delightfully amorous, and light, fleecy clouds hung in fantastic draperies over the blue waters. Suddenly there appeared clearly defined against the sky and well above the Gulf a three-masted ship with ail sail set. The ship was suspended in the air, and the vision was most realistic. The phantom ship remained for several minutes and then gradually faded away.”
Yet another maritime mirage was witnessed in Spencer’s Gulf in December of 1922 according to the Brisbane Courier.
“When in Spencer’s Gulf recently the passengers and crew of the steamer Trevithick, which called at Fremantle en route to European ports, witnessed an extraordinary atmospheric phenomenon. The chief officer said the first he saw of the display was the appearance of a ship ahead. ‘I saw smoke and a funnel quite plainly,’ he said, ‘but at the time the vessel must have been far over the horizon, because I could not pick her up with glasses, nor could I see even any sign of smoke. A little later between the sky and the surface of the sea there appeared a distorted vessel that looked like the creation of a mad shipbuilder.
“She possessed neither lines nor any distinct type of construction. Her hull was high in some places and in others touched the water’s edge. She was upside down in the sky and her extraordinarily shaped propellers were churning the skies. The sea was calm, but there was a mist that rose and fell in an extraordinary manner. At one time we saw an inverted picture of dozens of vessels of all sizes moving in different directions; then suddenly the ships merged into one and dropped from their positions into their more natural place in the sea.”
“Another officer said that, although his experience of mirages had been most extensive, he had never witnessed such a display.”
Great balls of fire
From fireballs flying across our skies at irregular speeds, oscillating orbs resembling white birds and illuminations of unknown origins breaking windows indoors… these are no ordinary meteors from outer space!
In November 1864, a Randwick reader described a fireball moving erratically over Botany Bay to the Sydney Morning Herald.
“I relate the facts, as witnessed by myself and several others, who were differently affected by the appearance of the wonderful stranger at a quarter to eight p.m this evening. The moon very bright, and the sky clear, with a slight breeze from the north, some bright object resembling a large ball of fire presented itself in the sky, apparently over the Heads of Botany Bay, and travelled at a slow, irregular pace, in a line about parallel with the earth, and in a north-westerly direction towards Sydney, when it appeared to burst like a rocket. The distance travelled about seven miles, and the time it remained visible, about one minute.”
On 2 October 1900, the spectacularly long-windedly named The Western Champion and General Advertiser for the Central-Western Districts published the following reader’s letter:
“Sir, We witnessed this morning at about nine o’clock, what to us seemed an extraordinary phenomenon. A travelling star rose from the south and travelled right across the sky to the north west horizon in about ten minutes. When first seen it was some distance up, and looked more like a white bird than a star. It appeared to oscillate for two or three seconds, and then sailed steadily across the sky till lost sight of in the distance. I should be pleased if you could inform me if this is a usual or unusual occurrence.”
In June 1907, a fireball caused “considerable excitement” in one Sydney household according to the Warwick Examiner and Times on 26 June.
“During a heavy hailstorm in Sydney on Wednesday morning, a fireball passed over the eastern suburbs. It caused considerable excitement at the residence of W. Poole, Paddington, which it struck. It broke and passed through one of the frames of the window at the rear of the house, and in going through the room, startled Mr. Poole, who was lying in bed awake. It then went out of the door into the hall and through into the room occupied by Mrs. Poole, and in a few seconds the remainder of the household were startled by a crash of breaking glass in front. On making an examination it was found that both panes of glass in the front room were broken. The fireball then continued its way out to sea.”
Another close encounter with an unknown fireball had startled the residents of another house some 15 years earlier.
Victoria’s Colac Herald on 9 December 1891 reported that: “An extraordinary phenomenon was seen at Sandhurst on Wednesday evening at about half-past four, at Quarry hill. A ball of fire, described in various ways, was seen to rush parallel with the earth around the corner of a house inhabited by a family named Donnelly, and direct its course to the back of the creek, rising and falling from eight feet to one foot from the ground.
“Five minutes before the inhabitants were startled by a terrific smell of sulphur, and it was thought that the powder magazine was about to explode. Donnelly lifted up a bit of wood from the ground at the back of the house, but had to drop it immediately as the wood singed his finger. His daughter was also at the back, and as the ball of fire rushed past, it nearly blinded her.
“Another person employed at the place was nearly knocked down. A terrific clap of thunder took place at the same moment. The weather was extremely oppressive in the morning. About four o’clock a heavy thunderstorm passed over the town towards the south west.”
By far, the most bizarre of all these cases was that which two ladies from Quirindi on the North West Slopes of New South Wales reported in 1905.
The Argyle Liberal and District Recorder published the following report on 7 February.
“Two Quirindi ladies report having seen an extraordinary phenomenon. They were sitting on their verandah when they noticed the moon appeared to revolve, and a bright star was observed above it directly afterwards.
“Then the moon and star seemed to fade right out of sight then the moon flashed back point first, and after fading away appeared quickly, curve first. The star came back very slowly, while the moon revolved again to the right, and after twisting to the left faded away again, leaving the star big and blood red, and after repeating the disappearing trick both vanished.
“In the bright part of the moon there seemed to be a number of black figures jumping about. The ladies called the neighbours, and others saw the phenomena. One lady says it is a sign of’ great wars in the near future, and others reckoned the end of the world was near.”