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The Sydney Morning Herald

Lost in space SUMMER AGENDA

Date: 11/01/1995
Words: 1681
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Page: 14
IT ALL happened many months ago and the immediate details were destroyed in a mysterious computer mishap, but John Dawe recalls his most puzzling UFO sighting with clipped, photographic clarity.

"I was driving back to Sydney. My wife and daughter were sitting next to me on the front benchseat of my van. We were going up a hill near Merriwa, at the top of the Hunter, when I happened to look up at the sky.

"There was uniform, grey cloud cover, but suddenly something seemed to detach itself, hover for a while, then fall vertically very quickly below the brow of the hill. I yelled an expletive, which made everyone take notice. My wife saw the same thing, but by the time we got to the top we couldn't see anything.

"My tentative explanation was that it was a weather balloon. But this was grey, rather than silver, and was elliptical horizontally not vertically." That is, flying-saucer shaped.

As soon as he arrived home, John Dawe excitedly tapped precise details of the sighting into his electronic notebook; later, when he came to print a copy to show work colleagues, the program unaccountably crashed.

Recalling the extraordinary episode now, he says it was "classic stuff".

More like classic, pie-in-the-sky science fiction, cynics might say. But the Merriwa spotter is no starry-eyed dreamer or cosmic comic. Dr John Dawe is an internationally respected astronomer and manager of the Australian National University's Siding Spring Observatory, near Coonabarabran.

The small, central NSW town is not just the self-styled "astronomy capital of Australia", sitting on the renamed Newell "highway to the stars". It can also lay unofficial claim to being the nation's No 1 centre for UFO sightings.

Each month, Dr Dawe receives several phone calls from members of the public, or even the police highway patrol, reporting strange objects in the sky. In the most recent publicised incident, six people claimed to have seen a UFO on the Mendooran road. It made front-page news in the Coonabarabran Times.

"Police said witnesses saw bright lights directly across a roadway and noticed a large object hovering approximately 200m above a house. It was described as a large diamond shape which made no noise ... though eyewitnesses heard a loud roaring noise as the object accelerated off at extremely high speeds." Such reports pass almost unremarked locally, for in the pubs and clubs of the area it is not difficult to find people prepared to swear to having had similar strange experiences.

Most relate to mysterious lights in the night skies: * a Baradine log-cutter was forced to change his daily routine after being scared witless by lights that repeatedly seemed to follow him as he loaded his truck for the regular, pre-dawn run to Narrabri; * a motorist was forced to make an emergency stop when confronted by a brightly-lit object on a remote road near Bugaldie. "The poor bloke froze, thinking no-one would believe what he'd seen," said a work-mate. "But a driver behind him said, 'I know, I saw it too'." * two men were returning through the Pilliga Scrub from a ball when they were stopped by an oval object. "It beamed a light down on them, before moving off sideways at incredible speed," said the close friend of one.

Nor are such sightings confined to high-tech objects stalking the sky. If the people of the Pilliga region are to be believed, earth, too, is walked by mysterious creatures. "Yes, yowies," one Coonabarabran woman says confidently, referring to what the Macquarie Dictionary defines as the "ape-like man, about two metres tall, believed by some to roam in certain parts of Australia".

Pressed, local people will tell tales of "Hairy Mary", of "the Pilliga princess". Of how, a few years back, truckies refused to stop on the Newell Highway after reports that one driver had been woken from a cat-nap to find his truck being shaken violently by a giant, hairy creature. "They simply would not stop," said one man. "Not even for punctures. Just kept on running." Tall tales. Or possibly true? Not surprisingly local people are rarely prepared to put their names to sightings, for fear of ridicule.

Certainly some reports are risible: one man, who did not wish to be identified, claimed to have encountered alien spacecraft which he said had been guided to their landing spot deep in the Pilliga Scrub by subterranean pointers laid through the northern NSW opalfields.

But Wilf MacBeth, who recently opened the new Skywatch Observatory in Coonabarabran to the public for star-gazing, dismisses suggestions that "eye-witnesses" are fabricating spooky stories. "You only have to talk to people who say they have seen a UFO to know they are not making it up. They are shaken and genuinely convinced they have experienced something they can not explain." Fortunately, common-sense and science do have an explanation for most - though significantly far from all - flying (or earthbound) objects.

Just as the yowie appears in Aboriginal legends about the creation of the cosmos, so it is tempting to suggest that many contemporary stories about aliens are so much "white man's dreaming". That is, a continuing attempt by settlers to come to terms with - and impose some sort of pattern on - a huge, and to many hostile, environment. For, hereabouts, the bush is not just big but mind-boggling - in the words of the current historical society exhibition "out of this world".

There are the Wurrumbungles, a jagged range of mountains - "in every variety and shape and form that the wildest imagination could paint" said the explorer John Oxley in 1818 - thrown skywards by volcanic action some 13 million years ago.

According to Dawe, a sixth of the State can be seen from Siding Spring peak.

There is the Pilliga Scrub - the "million wild acres" of Eric Rolls's evocative book title. Vast, flat, eerie and intimidatingly empty but for small, isolated communities. "I can see why some people would find it scary," says Neville Owen, of Coonamble, who has first farmed and then photographed the scrub for more than 40 years. "If you don't know it, it can be a bloody maze." It is also easy to imagine the existence in the maze of yowies, says Kevin Head, who has lived in Ceelnoys, a community of only two families, for half a century. Not that he believes in them, preferring to explain sightings in terms of feral animals. "If you heard two big kangaroos fighting, you could be forgiven for thinking it was the yowie," he explained.

And then there's the sky, bigger, brighter and blacker than almost anywhere else in Australia. That's why so many observatories are located here, explains Skywatch's Wilf MacBeth. "There's a low horizon, little air turbulence, only minor light pollution and a very high proportion of cloudless nights." Probably as high as 90 per cent.

On sale at the local newsagency is the local variation of the ubiquitous holiday postcard showing "Coonabarabran by night". It is all black. In fact, says MacBeth, visitors from heavily light-polluted cities such as Sydney are "blown clean away" by the spectacular, nightly star show even before they start looking through the main telescope.

International astronomers at Siding Spring can see almost forever: peering through more than 7,000 million light years to close to where it is all believed to have begun. Vision at Skywatch is more limited but no less impressive for visitors. "People come here and their reaction is, 'Like, wow!' And why wouldn't it be? You'd have to be pretty passionless not to be awe-struck." And herein lies one clue as to why it sometimes seems a disproportionate number of UFOs head for Coonabarabran (the name, significantly, is Aboriginal for "an inquisitive person").

"Many people who come from the east coast of Australia are really seeing a dark sky for the first time," Dawe explains. "It is not so surprising that at times they can not make sense of what they are seeing." Similarly, suggests MacBeth, many UFO-spotters may be in a suggestible frame of mind because they are over-tired from either working long hours or performing monotonous or lonely tasks. " If the observer is under stress or is agitated, by seeing something they don't immediately recognise, the imagination can do all manner of strange things." For both groups, says Dawe, problems of interpretation are exaggerated by the lack of fixed points of visual reference.

"Lights may appear to hover, dance, move this way and that. The effect may be caused by air turbulence, but it really is difficult to know quite what is going on." Indeed, as Dawe's Siding Spring colleague Robert McNaught explained, "the general system of knowledge that makes the world understandable to us can fail when presented with something extraordinary". Thus, routine perceptions of brightness and velocity may seriously mislead observers into understating the size and proximity of unusual objects such as meteorites.

Thus, the expert advice: don't jump to extra-terrestial conclusions. But what, then, are those bright lights and strange furry figures that out-of-towners, truckies, drivers, farmers and timber-cutters are convinced they have seen? There are numerous possibilities, say MacBeth and Dawe. "I would say most reported UFOs turn out to be classical things like Venus or Jupiter, seen close to the horizon," says Dawe. "Quite often police officers ring to say they can see a UFO moving back and forward across the western horizon. We take a look and it's definitely Venus." MacBeth adds that the lowlying star Betelgeuse can also cause confusion. "It appear quite dramatic, because it is bright red with a yellow tinge, and appears to pulse." Meteors, or shooting stars - some of which drop spectacularly towards earth as brilliant fireballs - and satellites make frequent appearances in the dark night sky above central NSW.

But there is a category of "light" sightings that are less easily explained. They may be from meteorological balloons, which tend to behave eccentrically if punctured, or, more commonly, airplanes. Until a few years ago, Dawe explained, F1-11 strike bombers and F/A 18 fighters from the Williamstown and Amberley airbases, in NSW and Queensland, used to swing low through the 'Bungles on training exercises. Smaller planes still occasionally use Coonabarabran as sighting points on night navigation flights.

Beyond that, car headlights pointed upwards, cloud formations, even flocks of birds can create confusion among watchers, according to MacBeth.

Nor does he rule out the possibility of people seeing the "min min", especially in the Goorianewa valley, where in certain atmospheric conditions a phosphorous gas emission can create a light that appears to hover disconcertingly, close to ground level.

That still leaves much that can not be explained, much that remains unidentified.

Australian astronomers do not rule out the possible existence of alien intelligence; indeed, they are involved in the current US-based SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) project.

"Personally, I keep an open mind about such matters," says Dawe. Many months on, he remains "intrigued rather than disturbed" by the memory of his own UFO.

"It was something I still can not explain. But I am 99.99 per cent certain it was nothing alien." And the computer breakdown? Did laptop, perhaps, succumb to some alien virus? Dawe laughs. "No. Not at all. I suspect it was more a reminder of the psychological factors involved with UFOs. People get all het up about something they cannot explain and start making mistakes.

"More likely human error than alien virus."

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