More Options

Mysterious Australia

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 25.2, March / April 2001

It is a spectacular land to which many superlatives apply. Separated from the other continents for some forty million years, Australia has produced unique flora and fauna, and its history “began twice": first, some fifty to sixty thousand years ago when the nomadic Aborigines reached the shores, and second, on January 18-20, 1788, when eleven British ships arrived laden with convicts (Chambers 1999, 1-10).

I had a wonderful opportunity to visit Down Under during the Third Skeptics World Convention, held in Sydney on November 10-12, 2000. I determined to extend my sojourn another two weeks, so that I could investigate several myths and mysteries. I began with the “haunted” Hyde Park Barracks and then was joined by Sydney magic historian Peter Rodgers for three days of excursions. Subsequently, the Victoria Skeptics generously flew me to Melbourne. From there, Australian Skeptics’ Chief Investigator Bob Nixon, Victoria Skeptics vice-president Richard Cadena, and I motored along the “Shipwreck Coast” to Warrnambool pursuing other mysteries. Here is an encapsulated skeptical look at some of these Australian enigmas. (I hope to discuss others later.)

Convicts’ Ghosts

Reputedly “the most haunted building in Central Sydney” (Davis 1998, 2), the Hyde Park Barracks served as secure housing for government-assisted male convicts. Opened in mid-1819, its central building held an average of 600 men who were assigned to various workplaces by day and lodged at night in twelve rooms outfitted with hammocks (figure 1). Now a museum, it has attracted reports of various phenomena attested by security guards and others who spend the night there, including schoolchildren who stay on organized sleep-overs to gain the “convict experience.”

Unlike most “haunted” places the Barracks maintains a ghost file, containing accounts of experiences recorded just after they occurred. Curator Michael Bogle graciously made these available for me to study in his office. Bogle takes a “professionally neutral” stance on the subject of hauntings, but admits he has himself had no ghostly experiences. (Neither had four staff members I interviewed there; a fifth described a few incidents she attributed to a ghost, but none occurred at the Barracks.)

Despite the neutrality, the museum’s solicitation of overnight visitors’ “thoughts and feelings” about their visit-utilizing a handout with space to record their impressions-no doubt encourages spooky thoughts. The handout says in part: “Should you have an 'eerie' meeting of some sort, or merely sense an inexplicable presence, the museum would appreciate your description-with as much detail as possible.” It continues: “The accompanying [floor] plans will help you on your journey through the building and enable you, where appropriate, to map any 'out of the ordinary' occurrences.”

Not surprisingly, then, several people did report having eerie feelings. For instance, one pre-Halloween (October 11), 1991, account stated that a security guard “hoped” a certain fellow guard “could make a connection with the ghost” which “everyone in Security knew of” and which was typically experienced as “a chilling sensation” on the third floor. Other respondents described apparent “waking dreams": sometimes apparitional experiences that occur in the twilight between wakefulness and sleep (Nickell 1995; 2000). For example, one respondent reported seeing “a man standing beside my hammock looking at me” and wearing period clothes. Her account reveals she had “tried to imagine what it must have been like for the convicts who stayed there"-thus helping set the stage for such an experience.

On occasion in the written narratives are suggestions of possible pranking-as when one of a group of forty-seven schoolchildren felt a “long hand” reach in under her sleeping bag to touch her on the hip (or was that instead merely the effect of a runaway imagination, or even another waking dream?). Once, a child’s footsteps heard by two guards were first attributed to one of the children having gotten up but-that reportedly not having been the case-was explained as a sound that “must have been made by the wind.” One experiencer heard a tapping sound that staff subsequently ascribed to a mechanized display.

Such incidents seem typical of those reported at the Hyde Park Barracks, as well as many other allegedly haunted sites. For instance, “some say” that the Old Melbourne Gaol is “the repository of many troubled spirits, the ghosts of criminals who suffered and died there” (Davis 1998, 174). Certainly it is a stark showing of nineteenth-century penal life with exhibits of grim implements of restraint and punishment together with various mementos mori. An advertising brochure promises: “Experience the haunting and eerie atmosphere of the gaol, and by listening carefully, you can almost hear the clank of the prisoners’ chains.”

However, evidence of ghostly phenomena at the site is scant, notwithstanding a questionable “ghost” photo half-heartedly brought out by a gift-shop employee when the topic of hauntings was broached. She conceded that some people did get “feelings” at the site but that she had worked there for ten years without paranormal experience of her own. She jokingly conceded that she only worked one day a week and that perhaps “the ghosts take Tuesdays off.”

Cryptids

The term “cryptid” has been coined to refer to unknown animal species or to those which, believed extinct, may only have eluded scientific rediscovery (Coleman and Clark 1999, 75). Examples of the former are the yowie (Australia’s version of Bigfoot) and the bunyip (a swamp-dwelling, hairy creature with a horselike head) (Coleman and Clark 1999, 49-50; 255-257). An example of the latter is the thylacine.

Also known as the Tasmanian tiger, the Thylacinus cynocephalus was a wolflike marsupial with prominent stripes on its back (figure 2). It became extinct on the mainland some 2,500 years ago, but continued to exist on Tasmania where it eventually succumbed to habitat destruction and bounty hunting. The last known thylacine died in a zoo in 1936 (Park 1985). Nevertheless, since then hundreds of sightings have been reported, and were even on the increase in the 1980s; however, there were scant reports of attacks on sheep or other domestic animals as would have been expected if thylacines were making a comeback (Park 1985).

Still, thylacines are “frequently reported seen in the coastal border country between Victoria and South Australia” (Gilroy 1995, 74). Indeed, as we drove along the Great Ocean Road from Melbourne to Warrnambool, Bob Nixon recalled one reported Tasmanian tiger sighting some years ago near Lorne (where we ate lunch). This was an area of virgin “bush” country (a eucalypt forest), but, alas, all we saw was beautiful scenery. (I also kept an eye out for the thylacine while looking for the yowie in the Blue Mountains-to be discussed presently-another area where the striped creature is reportedly seen [Gilroy 1995].)

Hope springs eternal, but it increasingly appears that if the thylacine is not to forever remain elusive, an idea of paleontologist Mike Archer must prevail. Archer, who is also director of the Australian Museum, has suggested resurrecting the species. Using DNA from a preserved specimen, he proposes to clone the creature, giving us a glimpse of that possibility at the skeptics conference. (For a discussion of the relevant biotechnology see Lanza et al. 2000.)

The yowie, on the other hand, has left only meager traces of its supposed existence, like those of other hairy man-beasts reported around the world. These include the Himalayan yeti, the North American sasquatch, and similar creatures alleged to inhabit remote regions of China, Russia, southeast Asia, and elsewhere.

The yowie is a fearsome, hairy creature of Aboriginal mythology. Also called Doolagahl ("great hairy man”), it is venerated as a sacred being from the time of creation which the Aborigines call the Dreamtime. An alleged sighting by a hunting party of settlers in 1795 was followed by increased reports from the mountainous regions of New South Wales in the nineteenth century. For example, in 1875 a coal miner exploring in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney reportedly stalked a hairy, apelike animal for a distance before it finally eluded him. Sightings of the yowie mounted as settlers penetrated the country’s vast interior, and yowie hunter Rex Gilroy (1995, 197) now notes that his files “bulge with stories from every state.”

The self-described “'father' of yowie research,” Gilroy (1995, 202) boasts the acquisition of some 5,000 reports together with a collection of footprint casts, but he complains of “a lifetime of ridicule from both ignorant laymen and scientists alike.” When Peter Rodgers and I ventured into the Blue Mountains, we experienced something of the prevalent local skepticism at the information center at Echo Point (in the township of Katoomba). Staffers there were emphatic that the yowie was a mythical creature pursued by a few fringe enthusiasts. (To them yowies exist only as popular toys and chocolate figures marketed by Cadbury.)

Nevertheless, to Gilroy “the Blue Mountains continues to be a hotbed of yowie man-beast activities-a vast region of hundreds of square miles still containing inaccessible forest regions seldom if ever visited by Europeans.” The fabled creatures are known there, he says, as the “Hairy Giants of Katoomba” and also as the “Killer Man-Apes of the Blue Mountains” (Gilroy 1995, 212).

In the Katoomba bushland, Peter and I took the celebrated “steepest incline railway in the world” (built as a coal mine transport in 1878) down into Jamison Valley. The miserable weather gave added emphasis to the term rainforest through which we “bushwalked” (hiked) west along a trail. We passed some abandoned coal mines that Peter humorously dubbed “yowie caves,” before eventually retracing our route. We saw no “Hairy Giants of Katoomba” but, to be fair, we encountered little wildlife. The ringing notes of the bellbird did herald our visit and announce that we were not alone.

Resuming our drive we next stopped at Meadlow Bath, an historic resort area overlooking the Megalong Valley-also reputed yowie country (Gilroy 1995, 217-218). From there we surveyed the countryside which was, however, largely shrouded in fog. We continued on to Hartley, then took a narrow, winding road some 44 kilometers to Jenolan Caves. Gilroy (1995, 219) states that the Aborigines believed the caves were anciently used as yowie lairs, and he cites reported sightings and discoveries of footprints in the region.

We passed through the Grand Arch, a majestic limestone-cavern entranceway into a hidden valley, and surveyed the spectacular grotto called Devil’s Coachhouse, continuing our cryptozoological pursuit. We searched the surrounding mountainous terrain (see figure 3) for signs of the elusive yowie, again without success. Here and there the raucous laughter of the kookaburra seemed to mock our attempt. An employee told us he had worked at the site for three years without seeing either a yowie or the inn’s resident “ghost,” indicating he believed in neither.

Failing to encounter our quarry, we ended our hunt relatively unscathed-soaked, to be sure, and I with a slightly wrenched knee. But consider what might have been: headlines screaming, “Skeptics mauled by legendary beast!"-a tragic way to succeed, certainly, and with no guarantee, even if we survived, that we would be believed! Even Gilroy conceded (1995, 202) that “nothing short of actual physical proof-such as fossil or recent skeletal remains or a living specimen-will ever convince the scientific community of the existence of the 'hairy man.'”

But that is as it should be: In many instances the touted evidence for Bigfoot-type creatures-mostly alleged sightings and occasional footprints-has been shown to be the product of error or outright deception (Nickell 1995, 222-231). Cryptozoologists risk being thought naïve when they too quickly accept the evidence of “manimal” footprints. “Some of these tracks,” insists Gilroy (1995, 224), “have been found in virtually inaccessible forest regions by sheer chance and, in my view, must therefore be accepted as authentic yowie footprints.” It seems not to have occurred to the credulous monsterologist that a given “discoverer” might actually be the very hoaxer. But the debate continues.

Spiritualist’s Grave

Among the sites that supposedly make Australia “a very haunted continent” is the Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney ("International” 2000). One of the graves there has a profound link to spiritualism and once attracted famed magician Harry Houdini. It is the burial place of one of the notorious Davenport Brothers and the subject of an interesting story.

Ira and William Davenport toured the world giving demonstrations of alleged spirit phenomena. While the pair were securely tied in a special “spirit cabinet,” the “spirits” played musical instruments and performed other “manifestations” in darkened theaters. Then on July 1, 1877, while they were on tour in Australia, the long-ailing younger brother William died and was buried at Rookwood.

Decades later, in 1910, while Houdini was himself on tour there (and incidentally entered Australian history by becoming the country’s first successful aviator), the great magician/escape artist paid a visit to the grave, accompanied by two fellow magicians (Christopher 1976). Houdini (1924) found the grave “sadly neglected” and so, he wrote, “I had it put in order, fresh flowers planted on it and the stone work repaired.” Subsequently, when Houdini met the surviving brother, Ira was so moved by Houdini’s act of kindness that he confessed the brothers’ tricks, even teaching his fellow escapologist “the famous Davenport rope-tie, the secret of which,” Houdini noted, “had been so well kept that not even his sons knew it.”

My own interest in the Davenport Brothers was renewed when I was able to help bring to light the contents of their personal scrapbook (Nickell 1999). I had continued my interest in the duo by locating and visiting Ira’s grave in Mayville, New York. Now, finding myself in Sydney, I determined to recreate Houdini’s visit to William’s grave. I was accompanied again by Peter Rodgers and by another magician, Kent Blackmore (both of whom had visited the site in 1983).

The Rookwood Cemetery is huge, requiring some time for us to relocate the grave (in the Church of England Necropolis, section E, grave number 848). Armed with weed clippers and a bouquet of fresh flowers, we soon had made the site presentable once again. Like the trio who preceded us in 1910, we three magi posed for photographs to record the event (figure 4). Alas, neither William Davenport’s nor any other spirit put in an appearance-as far as we could tell. But it was nevertheless an occasion to recall those who lived in earlier times and to reflect on how things have since changed yet remained much the same. For instance, while the physical manifestations of spiritualism’s earlier era have largely been supplanted by mental mediumship (as practiced by spiritualists like John Edward and James Van Praagh), the attraction to alleged spirit communication continues.

So does the interest in other paranormal claims. Although I pursued several mysteries that had a decidedly Australian flavor, they nevertheless represented many of the same themes-hauntings, monsters, etc.-that are found virtually everywhere. How familiar is the strange, we might say, and even, considering Australia’s distinctive natural offerings, how strange the familiar.

Acknowledgments

I am supremely grateful to John and Mary Frantz for their generous establishment of an investigative fund that helps make much of my research possible. Also, in addition to those mentioned in the text, I am grateful to my Australian friends Barry Williams and Ian Bryce for their assistance. Closer to home I also owe thanks to Michael Dennett, Christian Ambrose, Tim Binga, Tom Flynn, Ranjit Sandhu, Ben Radford, Lisa Hutter, Barry Karr, Kevin Christopher, and-of course-Paul Kurtz.

References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.