“Suddenly there came a soft, distant walling that grew rapidly nearer and louder … the cries appeared to be in different keys – devilish, unearthly shrieking, such as no human voices ever uttered… The screaming, now ringing in their ears at deafening pitch, was coming from the waterhole.
“The shearers thought their eardrums would burst, but they were too terrified to move. Then, to their fervent relief, the shrieking diminished in volume until it was merely a weird wailing. Moments later, it ceased utterly, and once more the bush was deathly silent.”
This was how Bill Beatty, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald of 4 January 1947, described the experience of two shearers camped by the notorious Wilga waterhole in central-western Queensland some time during the 1890s.
After the screams had subsided, the two shearers quickly packed their camp, gathered their horses and rode off into the night.
”When the men told their story at the shearing shed it was received with derision by most, but others mentioned that the Wilga waterhole was a notorious spot, and that the Aborigines always avoided it. Some of the old shearing hands said that horses were scared of it and drovers admitted that they never could get cattle to rest there. There were instances where cattle driven from distant parts had arrived there almost exhausted but had stampeded at sundown,” wrote Beatty.
Animals spooked by something unseen at the waterhole
The old shearing hands’ stories of spooked animals appeared to be corroborated time and again. One account, from a local of many years who had himself heard the eerie, ear-piercing screams by the waterhole was typical.
“I do not believe in ghosts, but I have heard the screams which have been so much discussed where ever Western men congregate, and I know for a fact that stock will not camp on the banks of the Wilga waterhole,” the local man wrote.
“On one occasion I tried to camp a mob of old cows quite close to the waterhole. Most of them were milkers and I thought that nothing would frighten them. Everything went well until about 9pm. then they started to rush and ring. In the morning we were a good three miles from camp… The horses had also made a break during the night and were found, badly rung with the hobbles, standing shivering in a corner about five miles from the camp.”
Alone with the shrieking and wailing: A wife left hysterical
Six years prior to Beatty’s article, another author who went by the name of ‘Beachcomber’ explored the mystery of the wailing at Wilga waterhole in the Sunday Mail.
Beachcomber recounted the story of a man employed at nearby Ruthven Station who had built a slab hut by the banks of the waterhole in which he intended to live with his wife. They did not last in that place for long.
Of the man’s wife, Beachcomber wrote: “She was a strong-minded woman, previously without hysterical tendencies, accustomed to loneliness, having been in the bush all her life.”
For a time, all was well for the couple living by the waterhole … until one night.
“The station hand, having been delayed, rode home to find his wife in a state of collapse. She could tell him nothing of any apparition which had frightened her. She had seen nothing, but she had heard the most appalling shrieks arising from the waterhole and going back to the waterhole to end as suddenly as they began.”
At that time, the station hand knew nothing of the evil reputation of the Wilga waterhole.
“He felt she had imagined the cries of some nocturnal bird to be ghostly shrieks and yells. Not long after this episode he was away for two nights. He arrived at the hut early on the morning of his return to find that his wife was in a semi-demented condition. Again she told between fits of hysterical sobbing of the shrieking and wailing and screaming from the waterhole. Forthwith he took her away from the hut and after that no one ever lived in it again.”
The station hand told his fellow workers the reason for their sudden departure from the hut, but those shearers who were new to the district refused to believe the story.
Emboldened by their scepticism, those out-of-town shearers decided to camp a night by the waterhole.
Shearers’ scepticism short lived
“Over a roaring log fire they sat and swapped stories and waited, their scepticism growing with each hour that slipped by. About 11 o’clock a wild bellow brought every man to his feet, and the party spread out to see what manner of beast had uttered it. There was laughter … when it was found that the bellow had come from an old bull wandering in the neighbourhood.
“Billies were put on the fire and the panacea for all bush crises was brewed. After drinking their tea and smoking and yarning for some time longer, it was announced by one man that midnight was almost with them and that if anything was going to happen It would, following all ghostly tradition, happen soon. It was unanimously decided that once midnight passed all would declare the ghost of the Wilga Water hole to be non-existent, turn into their blankets and sleep. Midnight passed. Not even the voice of the old bull broke the bush silence. Accordingly, yawning and stretching, the shearers put away their pipes, rolled themselves in their blankets and settled down beside the dying fire.
“Every man was soon asleep. None of them heard the first distant wail, but in a few seconds as the wailing increased in pitch every man was out of his blankets and on his feet. There came to their astounded ears yelling and wailing and screaming, as if made by innumerable persons, and of such a volume and nature that it could not have been uttered by any animal or bird of the bush.
“They decamped … some not even waiting to gather their blankets. It was said of the party that the fastest runner got back to his bunk at Ruthven first and the slowest prayed for wings.“
Will the real Wilga ghost please stand up
As with many folkloric tales, the apparent supernatural source of the wailing at the Wilga waterhole had a number of origins, depending on who recounted the story. Perhaps the one thing we can be certain of from the various versions of the story is that the Wilga waterhole had a violent and deadly past.
According to the World News of 4 August 1945, “one of the most popular stories is that the ghost is that of a swagman who went insane after drinking some of the local ‘snake juice’ and cut his throat beneath a tree on the bank of the Wilga hole.”
A similar story goes that the spirit of a swagman who died of thirst by the waterhole is responsible for the nightly screams emanating for miles in all directions of the waterhole.
On 16 March 1941, the Sunday Mail published a letter from T. Gill who wrote: “One story frequently told was that a young boy employed by a teamster many years ago was sent to bring in the horses. He did not return, and although searched for was never found alive. Some considerable time afterwards his body, mangled by wild pigs, was found at the waterhole. It is said that the screams how heard are his screams for help.”
And a correspondent whose family had been breeding sheep in the district for 40 years related the following tragic tale of the origins of the Wilga ghost to the Narromine News and Trangie Advocate in October 1934.
“About 70 years back a man named Wilfred was shepherding sheep for the late Jimmy Tyson and he lived in a hut on the south side of the waterhole…While Wilfred was living there a mob of wandering blacks camped alongside the yards where the sheep were kept and during the night they began molesting the animals. Wilfred went across and tried to make them shift camp. A row started, one word brought on another and Wilfred was murdered.
“Then his body was thrown into the Wilga waterhole where it was found three days later by some drovers.”
According to the correspondent, the local police later went in search of the alleged offenders and when they came across the camp, massacred the men, women and children of the tribe. Only a man and his son survived the atrocity by fleeing into the bush.
A natural explanation? Naturally
Naturally, not everyone was convinced the waterhole was, and possibly still is, haunted by any one of the spirits suggested over the years.
Early bushmen, for example, usually credited the unearthly screams to the cries of the bunyip. But with belief in the bunyip becoming increasingly unfashionable over the years, the wailing at the waterhole was soon attributed to another creature.
“The mysterious blood-curdling screams were discovered to be the work of the Powerful owl – one of our most raucous-voiced bush birds. Its screams in the stillness of the bush at night have to be experienced to be appreciated.”
Could the raucous call of the Powerful Owl really be responsible for frightening countless people over the years, many of whom spent their whole lives living and working in the outback, and spook animals so much that they would be discovered up to five miles away cowering together in a huddle?
Judge for yourself by listening to the call of the female Powerful Owl.
In his article, Beatty offered another down-to-earth explanation: “Of the many theories that have been formed as to the origin of the unearthly noises, one is that they are caused by a subterranean channel. The channel perhaps connects the Wilga to others, and, under certain conditions when the water rushes through, it causes the shrieking and yelling. Nevertheless, an exhaustive examination has failed to prove this theory or, for that matter, any other.
“So the wailing at the Wilga waterhole continues to hold its mystery.”
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