For those early settlers, the Australian landscape, fauna and flora most certainly appeared unwelcoming, unforgiving and even alien. Along with having to contend with the rugged, inhospitable Australian bush, severe droughts and flooding rains, there were also those strange beasts … like the wild hairy man, Jerrawerra, bunyip and fearsome big cats.
But apart from all this cryptozoological strangeness, as reported in Strange skies: Frog falls, heavenly mirages & great balls of fire there were many down-to-earth mysteries that also confronted those early pioneers of the Australian outback. Such down under earth mysteries as mountains burning from within, Mass Arachnid Events and electric cyclones.
A mountain on fire … from within
On 30 November 1881, the Southern Argus reported on the extraordinary sight of a mountain on fire in the vicinity of the Snug River 21 miles down the river Derwent below Hobart. While bushfires are common throughout Tasmania, and indeed Australia, the flames from this fire appeared to emanate from within the earth itself.
“During the night a sudden flood occurred in Snug River, caused by an extensive landslip, and much damage resulted. In the morning, the people determined to investigate the cause of such a sudden body of water coming down the river, as the rains had not been sufficient to explain the outburst, On proceeding to the stream some distance they were startled by the spectacle of a mountain on fire. The flames were bursting out of the ground at irregular intervals, and extended over a length of two miles. The heat was intense, the flames rising high into the air.
“The nearest subterranean opening was half a mile higher up the river than the landslip. A reporter was despatched by the Mercury to the scene and he and others attempted to reach the place but it was found impossible to make any headway in the face of the dense mist which prevailed.
“Another start will be made tomorrow morning. The glare of the light from the fires can be seen from the city. A curious fact in connection with the matter is that the river was again flooded during the night… The country around the scene of this outbreak has been prospected for coal, and it is believed that the unusual spectacle is caused not by volcanic action, but by a seam of coal being on fire.”
Silky filaments like a sheet of ice
On 22 May 1894, the quaintly-ttitled Goulburn Evening Penny Post reported on another natural wonder, this time from the animal kingdom. The location was the town of Keroit in western Victoria.
“Two hours after sunrise some newly ploughed paddocks were so thickly covered with white silky filaments that they looked as if a sheet of ice was spread over them. The clothes of persons very soon became covered with the web. The telegraph wires had a network of stuff between them that appeared almost as close as muslin. When the midday train from Port Fairy arrived the cow-catcher of the engine looked as if it were covered with a white blanket.
“The clouds of web hung in the air in some paddocks, and in the State school enclosure the ground was alive with myriads of very small brown spiders. The weather during the day had been beautiful, the previous night having been rather frosty.”
Nine years later, a Queensland sea captain experienced a similar Mass Arachnid Event while sailing his schooner on Moreton Bay. The Brisbane Courier reported on 5 December 1903 that: “Captain Fred Ruska, of the Moreton Bay Oyster Company’s auxiliary schooner Sir Arthur, has reported a strange incident which happened in Moreton Bay on Thursday. When his vessel was making her way through the Bribie Passage on the day in question a mass of cobweb was seen floating in the air and very soon the masts of the vessel were covered with it. The cobweb had the appearance of a sheet of silver, and upon close inspection it was discovered that at the ends of the web were hundreds of little living black spiders.
“These insects were about the size of small black ants. Captain Ruska stated that he has been cruising about Moreton Bay for the last thirty years, and never before saw such a sight.”
A spiral column of water of immense height
A very bizarre and inexplicable natural event was witnessed near Rushworth north of Melbourne in 1876. The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser, published the following brief report on 28 March.
“What at first appeared like a streak of smoke issuing from a hollow tree, and ascending far into the heavens, was observed, but upon closer inspection proved to be a spiral column of water of an immense height, which moved in a southerly direction across Gunn’s Swamp, a large sheet of water about two miles from the town.”
An “electric cyclone”
A far more detailed account was provided in a letter to the editor of Mt Gambier’s Border Watch published on 15 April 1871 by a very observant resident of Mingbool, South Australia. The correspondent eloquently described in great detail a strange whirlwind that appeared from nowhere on an otherwise still day and that was speculated to be an “electric cyclone”.
“As I was sitting last Sunday (9th) about noon on the verandah, I observed through the garden gate a sheet of dust moving rapidly along the road easterly, a few inches from the ground. There was not a breath of wind at the time. This, and the smooth liquid flow of the dust arrested my attention so much that I involuntarily stood up to look at it.
“By the time I was standing the foremost end had ascended, not vertically, but slantingly, and all at once there was formed a rotating column of considerable height, ending above in a cone about two feet high, say – the diameter of the column itself being from a foot to 18 inches. A sound of storm reached me from it. I was distant about 200 yards. For a few seconds it continued to rotate nearly in the same spot, but with that tremulous or dancing movement so characteristic of aurora, which I supposed was due to slight momentary changes in the axis of rotation.
“I had now the impression of a forward (that is eastward) movement, when to my surprise I both saw and heard it raging in a tree that stood about six yards north of the road. The idea of the presence of electricity occurred to me directly I observed this – it must have leapt out of its course to get to the tree. The sound of storm was greatly, increased.
“After a few seconds the column reappeared east of the tree at the distance of a few feet, presenting the same features as before, with the exception that there was less body of sand. I noticed several leaves expelled from the cone, not at the apex, but about half way up the side. It now made a sudden and long skip that carried it east and south across the road. I do not think that any one could have witnessed that skip without an instant conviction that it was of the same nature as that observed during the more animated displays of the aurora borealis as seen in the home country.
“A peculiar conduct on the part of the column now followed. Suddenly the pillar portion of it was run up into a cone from the ground to within; from a foot to eighteen inches of the base of the top cone, at the same time the top clone shortened, was now seen resting on the base of an inverted cone similar to it in all respects – all three cones revolving rapidly and with loud noise on the same axis I believe. My attention became fixed on the double cone on top appearing as it did to rotate on the apex of the high cone whose base rested on the ground.
“There appeared coming out of the side of the uppermost cone a succession of double-coned lumps of apparently kneaded if not baked sand, some of them I should think three inches one way by two the other, they were of a darkly red colour, resembling that of the sand of which the column was composed when it is wotted – a shade darker perhaps.
“And what struck me most was that while the cone from whose side they issued was revolving rapidly they continued to come out at the same spot, though the nine or ten that I counted must have taken some time as they followed one another in succession, I may mention that the rock and stone round about is of limestone formation.
“I shall hot detain you further than by saying that after describing an arc of a circle from the time it had emerged from the tree, the column subsided amongst some small bushes inside the garden fence as suddenly as it had at first been formed. Its motion was from west by north to east, with a volition on its own axis in the same direction.
“Am I right then in inferring that its true character was that of an electric cyclone on a small scale? Further assuming electricity to be the chief agent in all cyclones, and calling this, of which I witnessed a segment, a cyclone in dust or sand, may we not suppose that the aurora is a cyclone in watery vapour.”
Mysterious markings on the rocks
In what could possibly be a case of the supernatural meets the natural, or more likely, a case of pareidolia, the Cairns Post reported on 27 July 1934 that some mysterious markings had been spotted on the rocks in Cairns, Far North Queensland.
“Mr. A. C Nicholson, engineer of the Cairns Harbor Board, who recently visited Mt. Mulligan, commented on the peculiar rock formation on one of the high escarpments near the mine entrance on which it was easy to discern the figures 1921.
“The water has apparently worn the rocks in such a manner as to make the figures appear, but the remarkable coincidence in their appearance is that 1921 was the year of the disaster in which a large number of men were entombed. Mr. Nicholson stated that the figures were plainly discernable from the hotel in the early morning when the sun shines on the rocks. The figures are not so clear in the afternoon.”
Australia’s enigmatic disappearing lake
Perhaps, one of Australia’s greatest earth mysteries is that of Lake George situated in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, just outside the boundary of the Australian Capital Territory. The lake can be seen from the main highway running between Sydney and the national capital, Canberra, and is often described variously as being ‘enigmatic,’ ‘eerie’ and ‘mysterious’. The waters of the lake can suddenly disappear and then reappear, apparently, without any correlation to prevailing climatic conditions.
The lake first came to the attention of European settlers in 1812 when Governor Macquarie and his vice-regal party explored the southern frontier. The party sent two aboriginals ahead to find a suitable route further south but on returning to camp, they had some astonishing news. They had arrived at the sea and could go no further.
According to one account of the expedition: “The members of that exploratory party, believing themselves to be more than 60 miles from the ocean, listened in disbelief. But, proceeding forward, they were overwhelmed to find the aborigines’ tale was evidently correct. At their feet and stretching southwards as far as could be seen was a vast tract of water, with waves rolling to the foothills of their vantage point … seemingly from the Pacific Ocean itself.”
But that inland sea, settlers would soon discover, would recede and advance like the ebb and flow of the ocean’s tides.
In 1926, local chronicler John Gale wrote: “Since I have known it, thrice it has been an extensive pastoral plain, abounding in luscious herbage; as many times an inland sea. Certainly never so vast as when its waters … covering fathoms deep the site whereon the village of Collector now stands.”
Reverend Cartwright wrote about his travels with the 1812 expedition 43 years later from his parsonage in the nearby village of Collector: “Believe me, my little church and this parsonage where we are now, had they been in existence then, would have been under fathoms of water.”
Today, Lake George is a shadow of its former self. As you drive along the Federal Highway, you can see fence posts, erected during times the lake was more pastoral plain than inland sea, stretching out across its shallow waters. Will this vast inland sea return again soon, swamping not only the tiny village of Collector, but the highway between Sydney and Canberra as well?