Australia’s alien light show

As she got out of the car, Louise Beilby knew immediately that she wasn’t alone. She suddenly sensed the presence of two men. She talked out loud as she walked hesitantly up the ridge to the gate, as much in the hope of making them understand as to maintain some semblance of calm. “We’re just passing through,” she said. “There’s nothing to worry about, we’ve just taken a wrong turn and will be out of here soon.” It took all her will to withhold her instinct to run.  

A sign in Outback Australia warning of the Min Min lights. Photo: gondwana, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

They’re on Bilinara land, 450km southwest of Katherine in the Northern Territory, somewhere near the tiny remote community of Pidgeon Hole. The three of themBeilby, Ruth and Richardgot lost in the bush trying to take a shortcut back to Top Springs where they would stay the night. As remote as it was, they were not alone in that vast, sparse landscape. This was Min Min light country.  

A tingling at the nape of her neck indicated her heightened state as Beilby opened the gate to let the car through. In the eerie red of the car’s reverse lights, she clasped the gate shut and sprinted back to the safety of the car. 

Cradling a beer at the Top Springs Hotel later that night, Ruth took advantage of a rare moment the two women had alone without Richard. She turned to Beilby and asked her outright if she believed in spirits. Beilby’s mother had always instilled in her a respect for spirits. She’d grown up surrounded by various degrees of psychic: her mother had premonitions and her sister could communicate with people who had died. So, yes, she more than believed — she knew. As a Gunggari/Gamilaraay woman, spirits had always been part of her life.  

“I may be a vanilla Aboriginal one but, you know, you still can’t get that spiritual connection thing out,” Beilby says.    

It was obvious to her why Ruth was asking this — the presence she had sensed at the gate on the ridge was not something she could imagine. Reciprocating Ruth’s abruptness, Beilby asked Ruth what had happened back there, at the gate. “Oh…” Ruth seemed taken aback, surprised that Beilby had noticed anything worth asking about. “Well, when you got out, when you were opening the gate, two lights come and hung right over your head …”  

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Have you ever heard 

Of the Queensland Min Min light? 

Heard the old folk telling whispers 

How it beckons through the light? 

How your horse will rear in terror 

And your dog will howl in fright 

For there’s something mighty here 

In that dancing Min Min light 

 

The 1967 song The Min Min Light, by Australian country singer and cultural icon Slim Dusty, is telling of the cultural relevance of the lights within the Australian outback. Known (although not necessarily seen) by most who have lived or spent time in Australia’s most remote places, stories of Min Min lights are commonplace. 

So, what are they? Min Min lights are an Australian outback phenomenon — Down Under’s take on the Will-o’-Wisp, Jack-o-Lantern, Texan Marfa lights or Norway’s Hessdalen lights.  Sightings are most common in the Channel Country of Western Queensland but there are also some stretches of the Northern Territory and Western Australia well-known for the lights. 

Dr Curtis Roman is a former professor of Australian Aboriginal studies and anthropology at Charles Darwin University who studied perceptions and experiences of Min Min lights in his research. He described them as “lights that appear out of nowhere”. 

“They can range in colour, they can change colour,” Roman says. “There can be one of them, there can be two of them, there can be three of them — usually two from what I understand. They’re renowned for following people while they’re in cars, for being erratic in terms of their movement, for being fast enough to keep up with cars. And then, as quickly as they appear, they disappear.”  

Individual descriptions of the lights are generally very similar. Local man Chris Puruntatameri recalls a time he encountered one as a child on the road in Queensland.  “We thought it was a car,” he says. “It kept coming closer and closer and closer until it got really close and then backed right off. It was fairly bright, I thought it was a truck light. It was right behind us, like someone was tailgating us. And then dropped right back off and kept on going back and forth all the time. It was pretty freaky. 

“I heard stories, but you never believe it until you experience it yourself, you know?”  

Beilby offers a similar description of a Min Min light experience. “I looked in the rear-view mirror and there was a single light behind me,” she says. “When I looked in the side mirrors it looked like it was like 3km back, but in the rear-view it was right at the back of the vehicle. And then it disappeared. And then it appeared again, and then it would just shoot off to the side of the car.”  

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Under the effect that bizarre, inexplicable phenomena tend to have, curious travellers are drawn to Min Min country to see the lights for themselves. The lights have even become a key drawcard for tourists in the Channel Country of Queensland.   

There’s a Min Min encounter museum in Boulia, the town said to be the home of the Min Min lights. There’s even a sign in the main street “erected by the Boulia Shire Council in the interest of tourism”, warning travellers of the lights, that they have been “approached but never identified”.  

With countless firsthand sightings of the lights, there is general consensus around what they look like physically. Beyond that, however, “people have their own thoughts on what they actually are”, Roman says.   

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Speaking about his research in the area, Roman says he originally “set out to capture what Indigenous peoples’ perceptions” were in relation to the Min Min lights. “Along the way I also found out what different people’s ideas were from different backgrounds,” he says. 

“Some of the people I talked to thought they were part of the landscape; they were alive and part of the land and they moved people along areas of land quickly in order to look after it.  

“Often, they were describing two lights that moved in unison together so at night they appeared as eyes. They moved as eyes would at night and they moved in sort of snake-like movements. And they were able to go forwards and backwards and lift up and down.  

“Min Min lights were seen in the vicinity of where water is or where water once was. Because of the connection to water, some of the people I spoke to were of the view that this was a rainbow serpent. And that rainbow serpent was moving people along, scaring people, and letting people know it was still there.”  

The Queensland Channel Country, known as the home of the Min Min light, is on land that was previously an inland sea known as the Eromanga Sea.  

Roman says it’s difficult to find people to speak about their experiences with the lights. As with other perceived experiences of supernatural or similarly inexplicable activity, those who have seen Min Min lights are not always likely to share. 

“Only so many people come forward,” he says. “One of the reasons for this is because people may have had these experiences but believe if they come forward with these they lose some credibility, so they often keep their experiences to themselves.”  

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In 2003, Professor John Pettigrew of the University of Queensland provided the most substantial scientific debunking of the Min Min lights to date. Pettigrew suggested the lights were a result of an “inverted mirage” or Fata Morgana — an atmospheric phenomenon brought about by differences between cold, dense air, and warmer, less-dense air above it.  

The locations commonly known for Min Min light sightings fit with this explanation. They are known to appear in the expansive, flat ground of the Queensland Channel Country and the Australian outback landscape, where, as Pettigrew explained, “hot days and cold nights” mean hot air rises from the ground as it cools once the sun goes down.   

It also perhaps explains why, as Pettigrew stated in his research, “sightings are distributed all year round but peak noticeably in midwinter, which favours stable air conditions and a cold ground layer”.  

The professor explained this theory further in an interview for the Australien Skies 3 documentary. “It’s like a giant fibreoptic light pipe,” he said. “It traps the light, and if it’s not disturbed too much, the light can travel coherently a long way, and give you an image hundreds of kilometres away. You can have a planet, or you can have a campfire — a campfire would do it too.”  

Despite Pettigrew’s scientific approach to the lights, he maintained a clear acknowledgement of their somewhat mystical attributes. In his paper, he suggested the light’s movements were “sometimes linked to the observer’s own movements or thoughts”. 

Mirroring Roman’s difficulties in finding people to discuss their experiences of the lights, Pettigrew said in Australien Skies 3 “the light seems to have a mind of its own, approaching closely at times and retreating to the distance at other times”. “This aspect of the behaviour of the Min Min light is literally hair raising and the source of considerable emotion that may inhibit observers from telling their experiences to a stranger,” he said. 

Aware of the potential negative perception of debunking a mystical phenomenon so part of Australian outback identity, Pettigrew even apologised for his discovery in his paper, stating:  “I know that there will be great resistance to the acceptance of this and any other explanation of the Min Min light from many in the Outback who are cynical about attempts by city slickers to reduce the magic and wonder of the phenomenon. I have some sympathy with this reaction but would plead that my approach to putting the phenomenon on a more understandable basis does not necessarily explain it away but rather may enhance one’s experience of it …”  

Unfortunately, Professor Pettigrew died in 2019. His 2003 scientific debunking remains the only attempt by Western science to explain the spectacle of the lights.  

Like much of the experience and wonder of Min Min lights, support for Pettigrew’s theory by those who have witnessed the lights is highly individual.  

Roman says his own research reveals mixed views on scientific explanations for Min Min lights by those who have experienced them firsthand. “It can be explained scientifically, and those who accept those theories will accept that,” he says. “There will be others who say ‘no you can’t explain it scientifically, I don’t accept it’. There are different explanations, and that’s cool, I think.”  

While Beilby is certain of the nature of the Min Min lights — spirit lights of elders passed looking after the land — not everyone is as confident in their mystical nature. Chris Puruntatameri “doesn’t see any spiritual connection or feel any spiritual connection”.  

“I don’t know anyone who’s had a spiritual connection to them,” he says.   

Others who Roman spoke to as part of his research felt that “the experiences they had couldn’t be justified by those scientific theories”. 

The verdict seems mixed. With inexplicable, bizarre occurrences like the lights, it’s unlikely there will ever be an answer that works for everyone. Maybe that’s what makes them so intriguing in the first place.  

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Despite the terrifying stories that come out of Min Min light experiences, those who’ve experienced them firsthand seem to have a sense of calm acceptance of the bizarre, puzzling and, at times, downright scary spectacle.  

As we learn from Beilby: “It was always like ‘oh yeah the Min Min lights are back, whatever’”. From Puruntatameri: “My mum just told me it’s a light that follows you. It could be good it could be bad”. 

“They just accept that they’re there and that they don’t know what they are,” Roman says. “And that no one knows what they are.”  

Whatever your own explanation of the Min Min lights, there’s a lesson here: maybe it does us good not to know everything. Maybe we lose something when we rush to understand everything all the time, to find explanations instead of just imagining, or believing, or accepting. In the current age of information, where so little is left inexplicable, simple acceptance of the unknown can be incredibly powerful.  

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