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
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
"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
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."