Sunday, 24 June 2012

Corpse candles, Will-o'-the-wisps & Min-Min lights: Who said Boulia had exclusivity in Australia??

Min Min Hotel ruins, c. 1967 (National Library of Australia)
Many years ago, I was asked to write an article for inclusion in the Insight Magazine Annual, & had free reign on choice of topic.  Obviously, being a stickler for stories of the paranormal with an historic basis, I chose a well-known Australian oddity that most would have heard of but few knew much about - the Min Min light.   For those who are a little unsure of the tale of the Min Min light, it is likely best summed up in an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald on the 25th of January 1947:

One of Australia's most remarkable ghostly manifestations is the strange wandering light that appears at indefinite periods at Min Min, near Boulia, in western Queensland. Known locally as the "ghost light," it is a moon of light suspended in space, darting hither and thither, vanishing ghost-like in the dark recesses of the trees.

The locality in which it appears happens to have been the site of a notorious shanty which was known as the Min Min Hotel.  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. It stood beside the road to Warenda, and other outlying stations, towards the border of Central Australia.  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. It is nearly 70 years since the hotel was destroyed by fire.

Shortly after the fire a stockman rode wildly one night to the police station. He was greatly agitated, and it was some minutes before he could pull himself together. After the sergeant had given him a glass of water, he told his story:

"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.  Dont smile, sergeant! Can't you see it's the truth I'm telling you?'

But the police made light of the stockman's story, and the whole town ragged the unfortunate man about the spook he had seen.  Then came report after report that substantiated the story. Today the phenomenon is an established fact.  Thousands of people have seen the Min Min light. Many scientists have gone to Boulia in the hope of solving the mystery but have been completely baffled by it.  

True, it has some features in common with the will-o'-the-wisp, that curious light seen in marshland and church graveyards in northern Europe. But there are vital points of difference between the will-o'-the-wisp and the Min Min light. The former is produced from decaying animal matter in churchyards or marshes, whereas the Australian light not only shines above a graveyard but moves about over hard, rocky plain country totally unlike European marshlands.

The riddle remains unsolved.

For the sceptics out there, the Min Min light over the years has been attributed to a range of naturally occurring phenomena...some very simplistic, & some wildly outlandish.  Bioluminescence seems to be the main suspect, with explanations covering a wide spectrum from simple bioluminescent fungi, through to fire-flies, through to owls inexplicably coated in bioluminescent pollen.  Another explanation put forward is that of the phenomenon of Fata Morgana - an atmospheric anomaly that creates mirages right on the horizon, usually of far-away objects that are out of sight.  It's postulated that this refraction of light could possibly show the glow from a camp fire or lantern, even though the light source might be beyond the view of the distant observer.  Never the less, not one of the above explanations go any way towards rationalising the Min Min light - especially given the sprite's playful nature, racing towards & then away from the observer, & regularly changing speed & direction.  Many motorists who have come in contact with the Min Min light claim that the light has followed them whilst driving, keeping pace with their cars...yet, if the car is turned around & driven back towards the light, the anomaly will retreat at the same speed, never allowing itself to be caught.  Countless men, from the days of droving in the late 1800's through to present-day truck drivers, have chased the light in the hopes of catching it - not one has been successful.

 The Min Min light, published on the 1st of  January 1944 in The Argus (Melbourne)

According to the "highly reliable" Wikipedia entry for the Min Min light, the mysterious oddity has apparently been sighted from Boulia in central Queensland, to areas as far south as Brewarrina in western New South Wales...needless to say, this clearly doesn't account for the myriad of reports of "phantom lights," usually termed Min Min lights, seen on the Nullarbor Plain anywhere between Norseman in Western Australia to Ceduna in South Australia.  During the week, we posted an historic newspaper article also dealing with "phantom lights" spotted in various locations around Australia, published in The Queenslander on the 30th of August 1934 - one set of mystery lights, spotted in the vicinity of Tinonee which lies just inland of Forster on the central coast of New South Wales, was known locally as "the ghost."  Another set of mystery lights, spotted on the Old Man Plain near Hay in south-western New South Wales, was referred to locally as the "ghostly coach," or "Phantom Mail."  I have many other historic records of similar light phenomena occurring in various locations throughout Queensland & New South Wales over the past 120 years, however one occurrence near Brisbane deserves our examination, as I have found no recent sources written on the, taking that into account, it seems worthy that we publicly document the phenomena right here for posterity!

Our story centres around the small township of Cooloolabin, just outside of Yandina in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland.  These days, Cooloolabin is renowned for the Cooloolabin Dam, which supplies the Sunshine Coast with water, however back in the 1920's Cooloolabin was nothing more than a scattered assemblage of farming families & transient employees.  And in that decade, in the fading months of 1925, an unexplained phenomenon shared by numerous townships around Australia, entrenched itself.  According to the Nambour Chronicle and North Coast Advertiser, published on the the 22nd of January 1926, "For some months past Cooloolabin residents have been greatly purturbed at the frequent appearance after night-fall of a mysterious-looking light on the top of a rise in an unfrequented spot about 300 yards from the School of Arts. The illumination, which is not visible every night, when it does show out, is early in the evening and steadily moving to and fro not unlike someone walking about with a hurricane lantern; it is visible in this fashion until towards morning, when it disappears. Residents on several occasions have visited the place when the light has been visible in an endeavour to probe the mystery, but without success, as it disappears at their approach, to shine out again when they retire from the scene. The theory that the variation in the darkness of the evenings may have something to do with the phenomenon is advanced by several residents, but this idea is discounted by the fact that it is in any sort of night, whether it be cloudy, raining or lit up by the rays of the moon. A big party is now being organised in an endeavour to probe the affair, which has caused the loss of more than one night's sleep to more timid residents."

Six weeks later, after the local residents of Cooloolabin had done all in their power to explain the phenomenon, including scouring the hill on which the "phantom light" appeared, a further article appeared in the Nambour Chronicle and North Coast Advertiser, on the 19th of February 1926 - for all accounts, the residents felt that the paranormal light just beyond town had been solved:  "The origin of the mysterious light, which has been appearing at intervals at Cooloolabin was solved in a peculiar and rather amusing way recently.  It appears the illumination shown as usual on the night in question, when a resident armed with a military rifle aimed at it with very satisfactory results to the lamp, but not to the owner who was engaged in feeding the pigs on his farm, which is situated on another elevation beyond the rise where the light appeared.  It is not known yet who got the biggest fright - the wielder of the rifle, the owner of the lamp, or the pigs."  For a very short time, the mysterious Cooloolabin light was laid to rest at the muzzle of a sharp-shooter...but miraculously reappeared again soon after!  Had the pig farmer failed to learn his lesson on having a lantern explode, via bullet, in his hand?  Was a prankster to blame this time round, knowing a sharp-shooter lay in wait in the township capable of firing a round through any upheld light source?  Or was the Cooloolabin light back in all its glory, puzzling the farmers residing below the ridge??

Despite the risk of a sharp-shooter's bullet, the mystery light on the ridge above Coolloolabin continued...those brave enough to venture onto the ridge in the dark organised search parties, yet none managed to approach the light closely enough to identify its source.  This to-&-fro continued for some time, until the residents of Cooloolabin simply accepted the fact that something unexplained lived beyond their town border...& in that acceptance, they finally found comfort.  Three years later, in 1929, the township's acceptance of the anomaly was clear - on the 16th of March 1929, the Cooloolabin Tennis Club hosted a dance in the School of Arts building, which was well attended by local residents as well as those who had travelled from the nearby township of Yandina.  Numerous competitions were held during the night, & the subsequent prize-winners were rewarded...however, all attendees present were rewarded with a special prize - "During the proceedings the mysterious light that has been in evidence on various nights on a lonely ridge several hundred yards from the hall made its appearance, causing much interest to visitors, who naturally asked had any efforts been made to find out as to the cause of its existence.  Information was given by the residents in the affirmative.  After several hours of visibility the light faded out."  The Cooloolabin light was again at play in full view of neighbouring residents...& would continue agian into the late 1930's.

Further newspaper articles document the Cooloolabin light past 1938...however, the trail grows cold soon after.  With the advent of the Second World War in the early 1940's, numerous American Military contingents settled around Yandina, Ninderry & surrounds...on the eastern slopes of Mt Ninderry, trenches still exist as a part of the U.S. army's training...on the western side of Mt Ninderry, armoured divisions trained in "bush bashing," with live-fire exercises.  Much of the area was off-limits during the war years, as the surrounding bushland rang out with the sound of machine gun fire and tank shell bursts...& when the war was over and the troops had left, the Cooloolabin light had vanished from the spotlight all together.

So...was the Cooloolabin light a cleverly constructed hoax, perpetrated by the townsfolk, spread diligently over the space of a decade for no real reason??  Or was it a true-to-life anomaly, similar to that of the Min Min light, which puzzled a town for over a decade before being scared into the crevices of the hillside at the hands of the U.S. Forces during World War II...I'll leave it up to you to decide, but if you ever find yourself staying in Cooloolabin & notice an unexplainable light dancing on a nearby hillside - contact me!   

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