MISSING BACKPACKERS, MISSING CRIMINALS, MISSING HEADS. WELCOME TO THE ETHER.
Aurora Australis torments all who live beneath its glow. It’s ingraspable and it throws up more questions than answers.
Down on terra firma, the places off the beaten track reflect this torment with unsolved tales that keep us up at night and give us thrills and chills at campsites all over the country.
(Photos: NASA, Sydney Morning Herald microfiche, Courier Mail microfiche, Van Aken/CSIRO, National Parks NSW, Geoscience Australia/ACRS)
THE MARREE MAN, The Oodnadatta Track, SA.
Geoglyphs are shapes only seen from the sky, and they’ve surfaced in the south of England and the north of Peru, with the Uffington Horse and the Nazca Lines being the two most famous.
Enter ‘The Marree Man’, a geoglyph that made the town of Marree even more famous than its camel races.
The shape was found on Arabana land just outside the Finniss Springs mission, 600km away from the nearest capital city. It’s also one of the hottest, most inhospitable places on the planet, as anyone who’s fallen victim to a flat tyre on the Oodnadatta Track has no doubt told you.
Although pilots had flown over the remote district for a generation, in 1998 Trevor Wright almost crashed when he looked out the window to see the shape of a 4km Aboriginal man dug into the dust below.
When the mystery unfolded overnight, all sorts of cockamamie theories took hold, with everything from aliens to ancient horoscopes copping a mention.
One of the only clues as to any kind of terrestrial involvement was when the barman at the William Springs Hotel received a fax (another ancient method of communication) that explained the figure weeks before it was discovered.
The publican thought the fax was a joke played by a local drunk and forgot all about it until The Marree Man became a sensation.
The image of the hunter spread like wildfire in newspapers all over the globe and had even showed up on NASA’s geo satellites.
Investigators worked out that it was done with a bulldozer and what they believed to be the assistance of some serious GPS plotting devices. The entire project was also carried out without a single witness.
The indigenous owners reckoned that the increased traffic that came to photograph it was causing a dust storm. They also believed the shape of The Maree Man was misrepresentative of their culture because the figure depicted a Pitjantjatjara man from the faraway Central Desert.
Most pundits believed the shape was done by US servicemen and engineers who were packing up their base at Woomera, and wanted to pay a final homage to the local custodians, as some kind of going away present to Australia.
An American flag was found buried beneath The Marree Man’s head and this theory gained steam for a brief time.
It got even weirder when a strange manifesto was also dug up that referenced the Branch Davidian Cult.
The theory with the most credence is that it was the brainchild of a still anonymous Adelaide businessman who funded a central Australian artist by the name of Bardius Goldberg to construct the edifice.
Bardius went by the more Austalia-fied name of “Dave Fish” and he lived in Alice Springs. He was a bit of a handful and he had long expressed a desire to build a giant monument in the desert.
But was he up to it? His previous venture involved the creation of an underground house whereby he dug a hole by hand, dropped a caravan into it and then covered it with dirt. Fortunately, the roof caved in before Bardius Goldberg had a chance to move in.
Friends also recalled that Goldberg had taken quite a financial windfall at the same time as The Marree Man was discovered, and when they asked him whether it was his work, he neither confirmed nor denied, which sounded incriminating in itself.
In his later years, Goldberg moved to Adelaide where he spent his afternoons in a pub where he frequently got into arguments and dust ups with other patrons.
On one such occasion, a younger drinker knocked out one of Goldberg’s teeth. The artist was terrified of dentists, his mouth became infected, and he died from septicemia before The Marree Man’s true providence could be revealed.
THE MT. SORROW VANISHING, The Daintree, QLD.
It was 1997, the Aussie dollar was worth donuts compared to the pound, and crowds of British backpackers rolled up in North Queensland.
Although Airlie Beach and Cairns had a reputation for being wild party towns, many Pommy backpackers were more interested in exploring remote tracks, than they were in drowning in beer at Magnums or The Woolshed.
Daniel Nute was one such young man, a 19-year-old fresh out of high school in rural Devon, who sought solace under the canopy at Cape Tribulation for weeks on end. Or so it seemed.
After camping under the shadow of Mt. Sorrow, Nute woke one morning compelled to climb it. Something that should have been a six-hour trip.
For days, the other backpackers thought he must have come back already and they simply hadn’t crossed paths with him yet.
That’s when the search parties were sent out, all through the Daintree, a place the BBC referred to “as home to crocodile swamps, stinging trees, poisonous snakes and dense vegetation.”
Despite the months of searching, there was no trace of Daniel. Although the Cape Tribulation stretch of park is comprised of 17,000 square km of thick rainforest where anything off the trail is impossible to scour.
There was not one single clue as to Daniel’s disappearance. No backpack, no shredded clothing, no footprints, no nothing.
It seemed likely that he’d fallen to a possible bite from a local taipan or brown snake, or maybe he’d tripped on one of the many cliffs in the area. But what about the body, proof of life?
Superstitious types reckoned he might have picked up a stone from nearby Bouncing Stones Beach at some stage during his time in the Daintree. Local legend tells that tragedy will befall anyone who removes a stone from its shore.
The area beneath Mt. Sorrow is a no-go zone even for the Kuku Yalanji people. For them to enter for ceremonial purposes they have to communicate with their ancestors and request the go-ahead.
Daniel’s father, even five years after he first came out to Australia to help search for his boy, told the BBC: “We go on hoping that Daniel is still alive.”
THE HEADLESS PANELVAN, Brindabella Ranges, ACT.
Police claimed it was a double suicide, despite the fact both heads were found 50m away from their bodies.
The grisly scene was discovered by shaken forestry workers in the Cotter Reserve in the ACT, with a 28-year-old man and a 22-year-old woman found bolt upright in the front of a Kingswood panelvan.
The Cotter was already a place of abject spookiness, with rumoured shallow graves, suicides, and a famously haunted cave at the bottom of the valley. But never had something this stomach-churning been encountered here.
The mattress in the back of the Holden was drenched in blood and it apparently took a while to find one of the heads, which had rolled down the hill into some reeds.
It was the most macabre of suicides, as investigators noticed a rope tied to the trunk of a big tree, fed through the back window of the panel van. It appeared the driver ‘Michael’ had hit the gas, and, seconds later, the pair were headless. It was confusing to close friends who said the young couple had seemed pretty well adjusted before this.
When it was later found that telephone cable was fastened around their necks instead of rope, the local consensus changed – maybe this was a double murder.
Perhaps was some serial thrill-killer trawling the forests of ACT and South Coast NSW, which, looking back on things, wasn’t too far-fetched a theory.
Even 30 years later, the panelvan story is still talked about in the ACT, with the following comment coming from local web forum TheRiot-act.com: “I remember it. I was only a kid but there was a joke going around school along the lines of: “Where do you go when life’s getting you down? Head-off to the Cotter!”
THE NEST, Tully, Queensland.
When it comes to the great unwashed hordes of conspiracy theorists, no mystery has as much cache as the humble crop circle.
To this bunch, such circles are direct proof of UFO landings, and no amount of evidence will persuade them otherwise.
They’re the ultimate hoax, and because of this they’ve appeared all over the world, simply because there are pranksters all over the world, not aliens.
The bog-standard report of a crop circle involves a field of grain that is flattened at night.
Reports of crop circles popped up all over Europe and in 1991 two English lads Doug Bower and Dave Chorley confessed that they had used a plank of timber to create over 200 of them since 1978 as a prank to make people think UFOs had landed.
But where on earth did they get this idea from? From bizarre shapes that had shown up in remote areas of Australia, namely in Wokurna, Tooligie and Bordertown in SA. Unlike those in Europe, the SA ones were in remote areas not easily accessed from nearby roads.
The one that got the most press was in Tully in North Queensland, and it involved a series of shapes found across swamps and nearby canefields. By night it would have taken some highly skilled and fearless (given the crocodile situation) hoaxers.
Otherwise-no-nonsense banana farmers uncovered a whole batch of them in 1966 and the media dubbed them ‘The Tully Saucer Nest.’
One of these farmers, George Pedley, a self-proclaimed sceptic before the occurrence, claimed to have seen a shape in the sky that “shot away sideways at terrific speed” and that’s when he discovered the first crop circle in his tractor.
The RAAF were assigned to report on the phenomena, telling the Courier Mail: “During enquiries a number of local residents stated that the reported ‘nests’ are fairly common during the onset of the wet season.
The RAAF also discounted biological factors like reed-eating grubs.
When the two British hoaxers were asked about how they believed the original Tully crop circles were made, they believed that local farmers must have done it as a joke.
This was a claim that Amy Pennisi – whose land the original nest was found on – felt insulted by. She said there was no way such a hoaxing technique could have worked in Tully as it did later in the UK.
Pennisi told the Courier Mail in 1992: “The nest was 30’ in diameter and all the reeds had been uprooted and floating on top of 6’ of water – certainly two people could not have done this.”
The RAAF eventually declared the original nest to be the result of small, powerful willie-willies that tossed debris into the air, causing banana farmer George Pedley to see something moving quickly in the sky.
NUGAN HAND, Griffith, NSW
The Nugan Hand Bank was an international merchant bank dealing with squillion dollar investments in the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, Dubai, and, umm, Griffith, “the food bowl of Australia”.
The bank was set up in the high-flying 70s and was run by two go-getting 30-somethings, Frank Nugan and Michael Hand (pictured).
When the bank’s fortunes took a turn for the worse, founder Frank Nugan, a lawyer from Griffith, was found slumped in his car in the NSW Central Tablelands. And so unravelled one of the country’s wildest mysteries.
ASIO investigated, so too did the FBI (which was odd seeing as the death was in outback NSW) before the coroner pronounced Dugan’s death as suicide.
Frank Dugan’s partner at the bank was an American named Michael Hand who disappeared soon after, with no trace of his body uncovered despite an extensive search.
As the Sydney Morning Herald explained: “Many men associated with the bank’s affairs in Australia, the US and Asia have died early or in mysterious circumstances.”
It was such an odd state of affairs that the government immediately set up a Royal Commission headed by Justice Douglas Stewart.
Throughout the course of the commission, all sorts of dodgy practices bubbled to the surface, namely that the bank was used by crime cartels in Griffith and Sydney to launder their takings all over the world.
The Sydney Morning Herald claimed: “Over the years, the two words Nugan Hand became shorthand for drug-dealing, gun-running, organised crime and clandestine intelligence activities.”
So, what of missing man Michael Hand, he wouldn’t have gone down without a fight, after all, he was a former US green beret and a decorated Vietnam War hero.
Investigative author Peter Butt decided to look further into the matter:
Hand had worked with CIA intelligence during the Cold War throughout Indochina, and had continued to correspond with them right up until his disappearance.
Many authors have written on the subject, inferring that the bank was not just used to launder money from Griffith’s lucrative marijuana crops, but also from Asia’s ‘Golden Triangle’; and also by the CIA to wire money and arms to anti-communist forces all over the world.
Which all sounded a little far-fetched until Butt’s book Merchants of Menace, revealed that Michael Hand, the ex founder of the bank, was still alive and living under another name in the US. 60 Minutes confronted Hand soon after and it was a positive match.
Butt found that Hand was not only alive he was also head of a weapons company contracted to the US military.
Butt told 60 Minutes that even though Hand was an Australian citizen, “He was allowed to settle back into the United States when the Australian police and Interpol were desperately trying to track him down.”
It gets even weirder… When the former director of the CIA, William Colby was found dead, drowned in a muddy ditch, a paper trail revealed that he had been registered as the Nugan Hand Bank’s official legal advisor.
Who killed who? Who knew too much about what the bank were doing? Why is Hand still alive?
All sorts of theories abound and not just regarding Griffith’s well-known links to the Calabrian mafia. At the time of the bank’s collapse in 1980, almost the entire board was made up of retired US generals and senior intelligence advisors.
The craziest part about this story is that it’s a consipracy theory with actual merit.