Phantom of the Outback
The Min Min Light
Outback Australia is home to one of the World's oldest mysteries.
The ephemeral, enigmatic and elusive apparition known as the Min Min Light was appearing long before Europeans called Australia, 'Terra Incognito". Maybe it has been appearing since the beginning of time, yet it is still a mystery. Let's hope it remains that way. It's much more fun.
There is no argument that the Min Min is an eerie apparition. Its manifestations come unexpectedly and without any definable routine. Because it is seen in one place at a certain time is no guarantee that it will be seen again at that place. Yet there are many accounts of it reappearing at the same location and at the same time for nights on end. The phase of the moon and the seasons seem to have no influence on the Min Min. Years may elapse between sightings, but just because it hasn't been seen does not mean it hasn't been around.
Many people hunt for the Min Min, but they never find it. It seems to know when people are looking for it and becomes shy. Or does it delight in teasing those searchers?
The only constant seems to be that it appears at night, although it is intense enough to be seen in the brightest sunlight. Sometimes the phenomenon is reported as several lights, but most often it is a solitary majestic radiance.
Frequently the story tellers dramatise their accounts with terror, yet when they are analysed there is nothing of substance to generate that dread. Is it the unexpectedness of the encounter that is so terrifying? Or is it the fear of the unknown? On both my Min Min experiences, mystery and awe were strong feelings, as was surprise at its sudden appearance, but the apparition was not threatening. Even so, I was alone the second time I saw it, and glad that I'd met it before.
Hundreds of people have reported seeing it along the Boulia to Winton road, close to the ruins of the old Min Min Hotel. But the Min Min does not restrict its favours to one particular area. It ranges far and wide throughout Central Australia.
There are claims that animals cannot see it, but accounts of horses panicking and mobs of cattle rushing refute them. My own experience is that animals definitely do see it.
During my first encounter in 1982, I felt as if I was being examined by some ethereal creature.
We were camped at the side of a creek, west of Alice Springs, far from the Min Min's reputed normal haunts. We had two dogs with us and were relaxing with a post prandial brandy when we saw a bright light in the distance. It wasn't the brandy, for the dogs saw it too. T
he light rushed towards our camp from the south in a smooth arc. The dogs sat up to crowd against my legs, their hackles raised. The old boxer whimpered softly, her eyes glued to the light as it swept in from the south. The blue heeler puppy was made of sterner stuff. She was growling, but not loud enough to attract attention.
Our first thoughts were that it was a vehicle's headlights in the distance, but as it came closer we could see it was a single light. A searchlight perhaps, but no… it was brighter than any man made light. It moved without sound and its approach was too fast and smooth across the rough terrain for any ground based transport. It swept in, ignoring the trees, until it stopped just short of our fire. It seemed to be hanging in the air, an immobile source of intense white light which had no focus and no beam.
Just how big it was is hard to evaluate. It might have been fifty metres away, or two hundred, possibly further, but it was impossible to judge. It was stationary for minutes, but whether that was five, or ten, or more, I cannot say. Checking our watches was not high on our priorities.
Four pairs of eyes concentrated on the brilliant sphere, two pairs human, two pairs canine.
The silence that it brought was as impressive as the brightness of the light. During the light's approach the night insects had fallen quiet. Even the grass and leaves had stopped rustling. The dogs too had fallen silent and their hackles had subsided, but they still pressed hard against my legs.
The night was so still our ears ached.
But it was a friendly apparition and we relaxed as we watched. The feeling we were being assessed increased, as if the light was a form of intelligence. Whether it liked what it saw or not, I have no way of knowing, but once it had seen enough it shot off towards the south east. It hadn't travelled far when it disappeared, as if at the throw of a switch. The silence was still total and for an instance the blackness of the night was all encompassing. Then stars returned to the sky and the night noises recovered to reclaim the bush. The dogs dropped to the ground to fall asleep, and we poured another brandy.
We had no idea what it was, but nothing man-made could have moved so quickly or so silently.
The next morning I searched where I thought the light had been, and in many other places, but I could see nothing unusual. The grass wasn't flattened. Branches weren't broken. Nothing was charred or scorched.
Over the following months I examined many possibilities, but never gave the Min Min Light a thought. Perhaps it was visitors from outer space. For years I was content to label it as a UFO, but now that I've seen it a second time, the riddle has been solved. It was the Min Min and that remains an even greater mystery.
Scientists have tried to solve the conundrum, but failed. They have come up with many theories, none of which have been proved. One suggestion is that movement in the earth pressurises the quartz that is abundant in the area and so creates a piezo-electrical potential. This electricity then discharges, generating light, but the light we saw was unlike any electrical emission, and if it was an electrical discharge, why was there no charring or similar evidence?
Non-scientific people have more interesting theories. Some say that it is simply emus with phosphorescent feathers, but it would be a fast emu. Aborigines believe it is the ghosts of ancestors who were slaughtered in an inter-tribal war thousands of years ago.
The predictable option is that it is extra-terrestrial tourists. I won't argue. However I am more inclined to accept the next explanation.
Folklore has it that the landlady of a local hostelry would visit the rooms of her male guests after the hotel had closed for the night. She was keen to ensure that they lacked for nothing in the way of creature comforts. The lady would take a lighted hurricane lamp with her so that she didn't stumble in the dark as she made her way from room to room. Although she is long dead and the hotel is no more, her ghost is still searching for lonely guests to comfort. The Min Min is the light from her lamp as she makes her rounds.
OK. So that story doesn't explain the pre-white settlement sightings, but who cares. It's a happier legend that piezo-electricity, space invaders or massacred tribes.
Certainly the Min Min is a happy apparition.
Although the Min Min does not perform to order, which is a problem for time constrained tourists, there is one way travellers can be sure to see the mysterious light. In Boulia, the shire council has constructed "The Min Min Encounter", a theatrical tribute with light and sound. Based on the traditional bush yarn, animated figures relate their stories of Min Min in a dimly lit replica of the original Min Min Hotel. During the forty-five minutes of the show, you will journey through the Min Min's territory and experience your own Min Min encounter.
But a word of warning…
If you are of timorous disposition, make the journey with a friend. Someone less susceptible to things that go bump in the night. Someone reliable. Someone you can cling to. Remember though, the Min Min is a shy apparition. When you are back in the real world, you don't go looking for the Min Min. The Min Min comes looking for you.
The Grave of Mary Lilley
Located on the Winton to Boulia road, fifty-five miles (85km) west of Middleton, the Min Min Hotel was one of a chain of hotels between Boulia and Winton that served as a Cobb and Co. changing station. In Queensland these became known as mail changes . At the site of the ruins of the hotel, the Boulia Council have erected a sign for the benefits of tourists. This relates folklore that suggests the Min Min Hotel was a notorious den of iniquity, but this is probably a gross exaggeration. No doubt the stories of ladies of easy virtue had some basis, but if the hotel had been as evil as suggested, travellers and the stockmen from local stations would have been aware of its reputation. They would have avoided it. And would Cobb and Co. have continued to use it if the stories of thievery and murder were true? To have exposed their passengers to such dangers would not have been good for business. The Min Min Hotel was probably no better or worse than any other hotel along the road.
Nothing remains at the hotel other than a couple of large areas of shattered glass and one solitary neglected unmarked grave.
On the western side of the Min Min Creek, the opposite side the hotel, about a kilometre from the ruins, and exactly one kilometre from the road, is another grave. It is located a few metres behind a turkey-nest dam which hides it from the road. Unlike the grave at the hotel site, this grave is well cared for. It is marked by a ring of smooth, almost spherical, boulders with a white marble headstone. This is the last resting place of Mary Lilley. Mary was the wife of William Lilley, the publican who built the Min Min Hotel. She died of kidney failure in 1897.
We do not know if Mrs Lilley was the lady in the legend of the Min Min lights, or how well she cared for her overnight guests, but she was clearly well regarded. This is reflected in her headstone.
The inscription reads:—
The dearly beloved wife of
who departed this life
January 24TH 1897
Aged 57 years
Her lips are now silent
her heart is now cold
whose smile and whose welcome
oft met me of old
I miss her and mourne her
in silence unseen
and dwell on the memory
of joys that have been
© Jim Ditchfield 2003