The Min Min Light is the grand daddy of all such lights, the one everybody’s heard of and every bushman claims to see. Min Min is an Aboriginal word (for what no-one is absolutely sure) but the light was not named by the Aborigines. According
to legend, it was named after the Min Min Hotel on the old coach road between Winton and Boulia in central western Queensland where
it first appeared. There is however some doubt as to whether the light was named after the hotel or the hotel named after the
Hotel is far too grand a title for the timbers and corrugated iron shanty built last century to serve as a way station
for Cobb and Co coaches. Most such places had a bad reputation, but the Min Min had the worst of any in the region. It
reputedly served rot-gut liquor at exorbitant prices, doubled as a brothel and was the haunt of thieves, cattle rustlers and assorted
villains. Legend insists that many travellers and naïve jackaroos disappeared there and that the small cemetery behind the hotel
was conveniently provided to bury the evidence. So infamous did the Min Min become that someone put a match to it one dark night
in 1917 and it burnt to the ground …. or so the legend goes.
Reliable records, if they existed, would probably disprove
most of the above and reveal a much more mundane history for this miserable little hostelry. Records do show the name of the
last proprietor – a Mrs Hasted – but there is no real evidence that she presided over a branch office of Sodom or Gomorrah. Records also show that there were severe bush fires in the district in 1917 (Mrs Hasted’s brother was badly burnt fighting one), so
it seems more likely that nature disposed of the Min Min Hotel not a human avenger.
The generally accepted story of the
first sighting of the Min Min Light belongs to later the same year when a hysterical stockman burst into Boulia Police Station at
around midnight one night gabbling about being chased by a ghost. After the local constable calmed him down, the stockman told
how he had been riding past the ruins of the Min Min Hotel abut 10 pm when a ball of light suddenly rose from the middle of the cemetery,
hovered as if getting its bearings, then darted towards him. The stockman panicked, dug his boots in and galloped towards Boulia. Several times he looked over his shoulder and the light was still there. It followed him to the outskirts of the town, then
disappeared. (Sceptics who know the region may well wonder how horse and rider managed to cover 100 kilometres in two hours
– but let’s not spoil a good story.)
In 1961, a reported sighting from 1912, predating the above (and the destruction of the
hotel) by five years, came to light. Henry Lamond, one time manager of Warenda Station on whose land the hotel stood, claimed
that he had seen the light in the winter of that year on the Warenda Road. Its appearance had at first alarmed him, but when
he realised his horse was quite unperturbed by it Lamond decided his own fear was unwarranted.
There have been so many reported
sightings since then that it would take most of this book to recount them all. Station owners and managers, policemen, ministers
of religion, school teachers, shop keepers and no nonsense bushmen have seen the Min Min Light; most of them intelligent, sober and
honest people whose credibility is unquestionable. All describe it as a round or oval ball of light glowing so it illuminates
its surrounding, travelling between one and two metres above the ground either in a straight or undulating line. Sometimes it
appears to stop and hover; sometimes it bobs about and usually dives towards the earth as it disappear.
There are almost
as many theories about its origin as sightings and as they apply equally to the many other ghost lights recorded in the book, it’s
appropriate to discuss them. The supernatural school claim that such lights are spirits of the dead, ghosts in inhuman form.
Sceptics with some knowledge of the bush suggest that the lights may emanate from fluorescent fungi (such as do exist) of from
birds who have brushed their wings against the fungi. Fireflies are also cited as are swarms of moths; their wings reflecting
moonlight. None of these is likely. Personally, I’ve never seen a mobile mushroom and the only common bush birds that
hover (eagles and hawks) are not nocturnal. A swarm of moths would not be visible at any great distance and fireflies? Well, there’s no doubting their ability to emit light, but as one bushman put it “You’d need about ten million of the little blighters,
standing shoulder to shoulder, to produce a light that bright”.
Traditional science groups the Min Min
and other Australian lights along with European and North American Will-o-the-wisps and Jack-o-lanterns into the category ignis fatuus
(Which simply means ’foolish fire’) and attributes them to marsh gas (CH4) or phosphuretted hydrogen, the gas that escapes from decaying
animal matter. As the Min Min light was said to originate in a cemetery the presence on the latter was possible once, but its
domain is far too arid to produce marsh gas. Subterranean gas escaping through fissures or drill holes is more likely and records
show the min Min Hotel was built beside a water bore, but all theories involving gas rely on the premise that the gas somehow self-ignites,
which is impossible.
That very rare natural phenomenon, ball lightening, which travels across the landscape at high speed
has also been suggested as an explanation but, like all lightening, it dissipates quickly and never remains visible for visible for
as long as these lights are claimed to. Others suggest the lights are a type of mirage, however, the kind of mirage seen in
daylight, which is a reflection of the sky on a layer of hot air, cannot occur after dark. Apart from the fact that a reflection
of the night sky would be invisible and a reflection of the moon (if that were possible) would be identified as the moon; the lights
appear on cold nights, cloudy nights and moonless nights.
Some very distinguished scientists have studied
the phenomenon, arriving in Boulia in a flurry of publicity and making claims of infallible theories, but most have not even managed
to see the light, let alone explain it. The novelist H.G. Wells took an interest in it while visiting Australia, but even his
fertile mind could not come up with an explanation. Probably the most plausible theory to emerge in recent years comes from
Colin Croft of Charleville, who discovered that he could see a grass fire at night that was at least 80 kilometres away and below
the horizon. Croft claimed that what he saw was a reflection of the fire on a layer of hot air that had risen at sundown and
was hanging in the upper atmosphere. This ties in with an old theory that said the lights only appeared when a lighted lamp
was placed in a window at Lucknow, the nearest station homestead to the Min Min Hotel.
While scientists argue and country folk
speculate, the sightings continue. Tourists report the light following their cars and campers put the billy on in readiness
to offer a cuppa to the rider of the motorbike they think is approaching. A groups of station hands on horseback claimed they
cornered the light one night a few years back and played phantom polo with it!
If the reader feels inclined to go Min
Min Light watching, I suggest you take the Kennedy Development Road (the locals call it the Winton Beef Road) from Boulia. Cross
the Hamilton River, then just west of the boundary between Warenda and Lucknow is the site of the old Min Min Hotel. The old
coach road is about 500 metres north of the present road and there’s not much left of the ruins, just a scattering of broken glass
and some rusting rails around the cemetery. It’s not the most pleasant place to be after dark, but your perseverance just might
be rewarded with a glimpse of the legendary light.
Story reproduced with permission of Richard Davis, “The Ghost Guide to Australia”, Bantam Books, Transworld Publishers, 1997