As one of the strangest and most remote continents on the planet, it’s no wonder Australia has a few oddities hidden away. Our country’s 50,000 year history is filled with mystery, spiritualism and intrigue, right up to the present day. From South Australia’s unidentifiable Somerton Man to the mysteries of Lake George, here are five of Australia’s strangest unexplained phenomena.
Lead image by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
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A few kilometres inland from the gorgeous beaches of Far North Queensland is a mountain. It’s not a mountain like any you’ve seen before, however. Instead of peaks and cliffs, it’s a huge piled-up mound of slick black boulders. The huge, pitch-black cluster of boulders can clearly be seen on Google Earth, sticking out from the green of the surrounding landscape.
While the site is a National Park, visitors aren’t invited to climb or even approach the mountain — there’s a lookout just off the road, and that’s as close as tourists are invited to go. Within the mountain itself, occasional gaps between the rocks lead to twisting tunnels and caves which lead deep into the earth – at least, we think they do, as few people have ever explored the caves and come out alive.
Known to most as Black Mountain, the place had a long and storied history even before Europeans arrived in Australia. The traditional owners of the land are the Eastern Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal people, who know the mountain as Kalkajaka, literally translated as ‘place of the spear’. While many of the mountain’s better-chronicled legends have been told by white Australians, the Kuku Yalanji people definitely know better than to go too close to the mysterious mountain.
Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for Tourism Queensland
Since the arrival of white settlers in the area, a great many stories have been told about disappearances on the mountain. The first of these dates back to 1877, when a man went out towards Black Mountain on horseback, looking for a stray calf. Widespread searches were conducted when neither the calf, the horse or the man returned, but no trace of them was ever found. A few years later, a criminal named Sugarfoot Jack and a few of his companions took refuge near the mountain after a shootout, and again an exhaustive police search could find no trace of them.
A constable named Ryan was one of the next legendary victims of the mountain — he was tracking a fugitive with the help of local trackers, but the trail ended abruptly at the mouth of one of the mountain’s many caves. Ryan stepped into the cave to try and find the fugitive, but never came back out. None of the others in the group were game to look for him.
The list of disappearances goes on — a pair of police officers of whom one disappeared and the other made it out alive but was driven insane; two cavers and the trackers who were sent to find them afterwards; even a backpacker named Harry Page, the only person whose body has been recovered from the mountain, though his cause of death was unknown.
Image via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
While it’s incredibly hard to find solid evidence for any of these disappearances happening, the locals tend to believe it. With a place like Black Mountain, it doesn’t seem unlikely. The mountain is crawling with snakes, spiders and bats, and the caves within the mountains most likely contain sudden drop offs or pockets of bad air.
Many people even report a feeling of anxiety and fear when looking at the mountain and its strangely unnatural-seeming formation of boulders. The wind and the shifting of boulders is said to create an unearthly noise, sounding like moans or mournful cries. Pilots that pass over the mountain have also reported strange turbulence and magnetic disturbances, and most pilots now avoid the area if they can.
There’s definitely something odd about Black Mountain, though we may never know exactly what it is. No one has ever explored it fully enough to uncover its secrets, and it’s unlikely that anyone ever will, though many have tried.
The Missing Patanela
While the tale of the Mary Celeste is one of the most enduring stories of missing ships, the Patanela is Australia’s very own maritime mystery. This ship vanished without a trace while approaching Sydney Harbour in calm seas in November 1988, leaving behind only a barnacle-encrusted lifebuoy and a message in a bottle.
The Patanela was a 19-metre steel schooner that was known to be incredibly sturdy — having undertaken a number of Antarctic voyages and global circumnavigations under difficult conditions. Michael Calvin was one of the crewmen aboard the yacht, and the last communication from the vessel came in the form of a letter posted by Calvin at Port Lincoln, sent to his twin sister.
The ship was headed up the coast on its way to Airlie beach, where Calvin and his friend John Blisset had been promised use of the Patanela for a charter business. Just a few weeks later, however, the boat simply disappeared in waters off Sydney. No mayday call was received and no distress flares were sighted, no debris nor bodies turned up on Sydney’s shores – it simply vanished without a trace.
Almost 20 years after the ship’s disappearance, on New Years Eve 2007, a couple on a beach at Eucla, near the border between WA and SA, found a hand-written message in a bottle. Dated just a week or two before the disappearance, the note read:
Hi there. Out here in the lonely Southern Ocean and thought we would give away a free holiday in the Whitsunday Islands in north Queensland, Australia. Our ship is travelling from Fremantle, Western Aust, to Queensland to work as a charter vessel.
The only other trace of the Patanela that has otherwise been found was a barnacle-encrusted lifebuoy that was found floating off Terrigal almost seven months after the disappearance. Over the years there have been numerous rumoured sightings, leading to theories of hijacking and foul play, but nothing was ever confirmed about the fate of the Patanela and her crew.
The Devil’s Pool
The Devil’s Pool is a natural pool at the foot of three streams that run through the Babinda Boulders in Queensland. While it’s a beautiful destination for a hike, and swimming pools in the area are clear and inviting, swimming in the Devil’s Pool itself is a recipe for disaster — 17 people have drowned in the deceptively lush waters since 1959, and even more fatalities have been unearthed in earlier newspaper clippings.
“He came for a visit and stayed forever” is written on an eerie plaque commemorating the death of onelost to the waters of the Devil’s Pool. Another man named Peter McGann was 24 in 1979 when he slipped jumping a gap between two rocks and simply disappeared. It took experienced divers five weeks and five days to finally locate and free his body from the depths of the pool.
Another tragedy occurred when a young couple were swept up by a flash flood that had come barrelling down the river without warning. The woman managed to survive, but the man was swept away by the flood. The most recent death occurred in 2008, when a young Tasmanian naval seaman was swept into the pool and drowned. A report from the Townsville Bulletin even claimed that “his friends saw him get pulled backwards [into the pool], as if by an invisible hand”.
The history of the Devil’s Pool goes back long before all of the documented drownings, however. A Cairns tourism website gives the legends supposedly told by the local Yidinji people:
According to legend a beautiful girl named Oolana, from the Yidinji people, married a respected elder from her tribe named Waroonoo. Shortly after their union another tribe moved into the area and a handsome young man came into her life. His name was Dyga and the pair soon fell in love. Realising the adulterous crime they were committing, the young lovers escaped their tribes and fled into the valleys. The elders captured them, but Oolana broke free from her captors and threw herself into the still waters of what is now known as Babinda Boulders, calling for Dyga to follow her. As Dyga hit the waters, her anguished cries for her lost lover turned the still waters into a rushing torrent and the land shook with sorrow. Huge boulders were scattered around the creek and the crying Oolana disappeared among them. Aboriginal legend says her spirit still guards the boulders and that her calls for her lost lover can still be heard.
Some expansions on the tale even say that the spirit of Oolana actively lures men to their deaths at the Devil’s Pool.
Of course, a number of the natural features of the waterways around the Babinda Boulders lead to dangerous conditions for swimming. The water runs fast and can often pin people underwater, trapping them in jumbles of rocks and logs. The white water is also highly oxygenated, making it difficult if not entirely impossible for even the best swimmers to stay afloat.
However, the fact that 16 of the 17 people who have died at the spot were male lends an eerie bit of credibility to the tale. The only woman included among the total allegedly drowned further upstream from the fateful pool.
A no-go zone was eventually declared around the dangerous pool after the most recent death in 2008, and since then the pool has claimed no more lives. Other mysterious events have been reported, however, such as the tourist who claimed to have snapped a picture that captured the face of an Aboriginal woman peering up from the waters.
The Tamam Shud Case
Much has been written about the mysterious Somerton Man, or Tamam Shud case, and many continue to try and puzzle through its secrets to this day. It’s one of Australia’s most enduring cold cases, and one we’re no closer to solving even 68 years later.
On the morning of December 1, 1948, a man’s body was found on Somerton Beach, Glenelg, south of Adelaide. He had no identifying marks on his body or clothing — in fact, every label on his clothing had been removed. He was found with a half-smoked cigarette on his shirt collar, unsmoked cigarettes and matches in his pockets, an unused rail ticket to Henley Beach, a used bus ticket from Adelaide, half a packet of Juicy Fruit gum and an aluminium comb, made in America. An autopsy showed no foreign substances in the body, though the man’s death seemed consistent with the effects of poisoning.
The mystery deepened when investigators later found a scrap of paper with the words ‘Tamam Shud’ on it in a complex script, hidden within a secret pocket in the man’s trouser pocket. It was translated as a phrase meaning ‘ended’ or ‘finished’, with the distinctive text marking it as coming out of a book called the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. A nationwide search was begun for the copy of the book that this scrap had been torn out of.
The next break in the case came on January 14, 1949, when staff at the Adelaide railway station discovered a brown suitcase with its label removed, which was believed to belong to the Somerton Man.
Inside was a number of odd items including clothing manufactured and fitted in America, two blades in the form of a cut-down kitchen knife and a sharpened pair of scissors, and a type of thread only available overseas.
Again, all labels had been removed from the clothing aside from the name T. Keane on a tie, Keane on a laundry bag and Kean (sic) on a singlet along with a number of dry-cleaning marks. A search for missing people named Keane turned up nothing, and even the dry-cleaning marks could not be identified.
The next break in the case came when the book that the scrap of paper had been torn from was located, offering a number of clues itself. On the inside back of the book was a number of indentations from handwriting, which included a phone number, an unidentified number and a few lines of text resembling an encrypted message:
MLIAOIWTBIMPANETP MLIABOAIAQC ITTMTSAMSTGAB
Image via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
The woman whose phone number was listed in the back of the book was a nurse — Jessica Ellen Thompson, born Jessie Harkness. Thompson claimed not to know the man, though she claimed that an unidentified man had visited her house sometime the year before.
A number of clues given by Thompson did seem to point to one man, however – Alf Boxall, a man she had given a copy of the Rubiyat to some years earlier. Police were working on the assumption that the dead man was in fact Boxall — until he turned up quite alive in Sydney.
The case has led to some wild theories, about post-war spies and mysterious poisons, along with plenty of debate on whether the case was a murder or a suicide. Experts on the case have studied the code in the book exhaustively, and Thompson’s family have revealed since her death that it was likely she knew the mysterious man. However no one has ever managed to crack the code, nor offer up another likely candidate for the identity of the Somerton man.
Photo by Torsten Blackwood/Getty Images
Lake George is a well-known landmark for any who have ever made the trip between Sydney and Canberra, although it’s not always immediately recognisable as a lake. But locals and visitors alike have always felt that there’s something strange about Lake George — and it goes back much further than the area’s controversial wind farm.
The water level of the lake seems to rise and fall with no known reason — it isn’t connected to any rivers that might contribute to this almost tidal flow. The water is also described to be almost as saline as seawater when full. While the area is essentially dry farmland these days, a report from an early expedition in 1812 describes the lake as an ‘inland sea’, stretching so far that the travellers believed that they had reached the ocean. A steamship even travelled the lake in 1886, and yachting on its surface used to be a popular pastime. Boating enthusiasts weigh in on the lake's disappearing water in archival footage from 1970:
As a dramatic feature of the landscape in inland NSW, it’s no surprise that the lake is included in local Dreaming stories. This story originates from the Ngunawal people, the traditional owners of the land in which Lake Ngungara, or Lake George is located:
Budjabulya is a water spirit that lives in Lake Ngungara (renamed Lake George). Budjabulya created the rivers, valleys, hills, mountains, people, animals and plants. It is said when Budjabulya is happy there is plenty and when the spirit is not the water disappears and so does the food supply. That is why Lake George can become completely dry and why many ceremonies happened at this place to keep Budjabulya happy.
However tragedy seems to have followed the lake through much of its white history, as much as it seems to captivate people. The most famous of these events was in 1956, when five R.M.C. cadets drowned in the capsizing of two sailing boats. Only two years later, in 1958, another five lost their lives in a boating accident. Out on the often placid Lake George, storms can whip up quickly, turning boaters out into the icy water — and even in the past, the unseen perils of fence-posts have lurked beneath the waters.
Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Nearby residents say the place can appear unearthly at certain times of the day (or night), and the mystical Australian yowie is even said to haunt the shores of the lake.
Lake George is also associated with a death toll of another sort – a huge number of accidents that occurred when major highways were being duplicated between Canberra and Sydney. The stretch of single carriageway alongside Lake George was inadequate for the traffic coming through, leading to a number of accidents in which 21 lives were lost in a six year period.
While there may be an earthly scientific reason for Lake George’s mysterious water levels, it’s always been a place of mystery, beauty and tragedy, whether full or empty.