Greetings From Wycliffe Well
Nathan Roche searches for extra-terrestrial activity in Australia’s Northern Territory:
The question is begging to be asked: “At what point does a small town realise it has no economy and must lie its way into the fabrication of folklore for the sake of revenue?”
Maybe it wouldn’t have been asked quite like that, but its an interesting concept worth considering. Rest easy knowing I’ve not only considered it for you but I’ve gone straight to the source in the heart of the Australian desert. Tourists, skeptics and curious travellers have always been drawn into the world of the unknown and local old ladies behind counters have handed over t-shirts, magnets, coffee mugs and other paraphernalia in retail. Thousands flock in search of the lake monster in Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands and pay top dollar for three-day packages and specially guided tours. It’s a supernatural phenomenon that has been told since the 6th Century. It’s potentially one of the oldest scams since The Bible. The amount of American towns that claim to be the Big Foot capital are endless even if Willow Creek in California claims this title with a life-sized wooden carving of the folklore hero also known as the Sasquatch. Interestingly enough in Skamania Country, Washington it is illegal to kill a Bigfoot and those convicted face a $1,000 fine and up to five years in jail. Perhaps the rangers found too many dead locals in gorilla suites trying to uphold the tale by getting their drunk friends to take a few blurry Kodak photos. In Romania you’ve got the famous Transylvania trail which sends vampire fans (and believe me in this post-twilight generation they’ve multiplied) across the world to visit blood-soaked castles particularly around Halloween (otherwise known as “peak season”).
On the topic of horror, there are fewer towns without Ghost Tours than ones with them. I suppose it provides a fun late-night activity for families and mystic individuals. Don’t be shocked to come across those who haven’t left their parents basement in years and are sleeping on a mattress held up by X-Files fanzines and unauthorised UFO publications. These are all fun activities that people go out of their way to visit and experience and who can blame them?
Once the ticket price is paid and the dollars are counted, the tour guides, bus driver and clerk at the front desk will go down to the local grocer and buy ingredients for dinner, stop in at the pub and tell the locals how many fools they fooled. Then they’ll head home and do it all again tomorrow. The cycle continues and the township remains alive. Here’s hoping the next batch of Salem Witch Trial t-shirts arrive from a sweatshop in Korea by early next week.
You could suggest that all this dribble is the product of American commercialism but in Australia we are just as guilty of fraud through folklore. The Murray Bridge Bunyip in South Australia attracts about 20,000 visitors a year. Dennis Newell launched the concept in 1972 and people have been coming ever since. For a mere 20 cents you can watch a plastic mold structure of a Bunyip emerge from dirty water with a loud roar from a speaker system nearby. The price has since increased to $1 but if there’s an average of 20,000 people coming a year then it hasn’t been too bad an investment for the Newell family. They even revamped the Bunyip at the turn of the Millennium after it had been vandalised presumably by the restless youth of Murray Bridge who were fed up with the whole charade. Little did they know that the bakery in town could only survive because of it! The Min Min Light in the town of Boulia situated in the Eastern Australian outback is another phenomenon that draws people off the breezy coastal highway inland for inspection. Apparently fuzzy, disc-shape lights appear over the horizon and stalk those who see it – torment them even – according to this longstanding folklore that emerged from the native Aboriginals of the area. It’s also possible that the idea of incorporating Aboriginal influence into the folklore makes it seem somewhat more ancient and genuine. I doubt any of the natives were even asked before the plaque was mounted before signing off the name of their tribe. The Min Min Encounter show is a theatrical experience that tourists can watch and it says to “incorporate animatronics, fibre optics and loads of other high tech wizardry.” The 45-minute extravaganza will cost an adult $16, a child or concession $13 or $38 for the whole family. Judging by the photographs I’ve seen, the high-tech wizardry looks about as advanced as the first Sega Megadrive and covered in as just as much dust as you’ve find it at a second hand Cash Convertors.
UFOs and extraterrestrial phenomena are something that break the barriers and go beyond small-town folklore. Whereas most witches, vampires, Loch Ness, Bigfoots are all firmly planted on our earth, the idea of otherworldly beings from beyond is that much more exciting. Which is why I was very intrigued when I found out that in central Australia, just north of Alice Springs, we had our very own equivalent of Area 51. I decided to go and investigate this place in order to see if my theory of phony small town folklore extended into the desert, or if there really was the existence of aliens and unidentified flying objects floating about the skies of the Northern Territory.
After purchasing a suit from an op shop in Adelaide for the sake of character, I caught The Ghan, the famous railway line that extends all the way to Darwin to Alice Springs. After the scenic and tiring twenty-four hour train ride, I jumped off and stayed in town for a couple of nights. I was happy to stretch my legs around the McDonnell’s Ranges. Whilst doing this I’d tried repeatedly to contact Australian authorities to tell them I was on assignment. When that failed, I attempted to get in contact with the FBI for a third time but they wouldn’t have a bar of it and they requested I stop calling them. The still circulating X-Files fanzine however, was very pleased to receive my call and they said they’d publish one of my essays for the annual edition – this was a good enough substitute to keep me motivated. After a riveting two nights in Alice Springs, I caught the late night Greyhound bus just north between Alice and Tennant Creek. It was here where Wycliffe Well was apparently situated. Upon my late night arrival, I was shocked to discover this wasn’t a town at all, just a petrol station and a caravan park located in the middle of nowhere. I’d booked a cabin for three nights a week earlier. Out the front was a large sign, which read “Welcome To Wycliffe Well – UFO Capital Of Australia.” If it weren’t for the abnormal super moon that shone in the sky that night I wouldn’t have been able to see any of it. I was the only passenger who exited the bus. Apparently there weren’t many other interested travellers willing to peer into the unknown. I collected my briefcase and devices and headed into the caravan park. The owner had notified me of the cabin number and that the key was going to be left in the door. After dumping my things I set off with some recording equipment out and around the caravan park. Besides a few nomads parked outside their RTVs the place was desolate with the exception of a few crickets, but these crickets were native to earth and not the groundbreaking distant species I’d hoped to come across. I wandered out into the desert for a bit and in the distance I could see a small fire burning in the distance. I walked over towards it and sitting beside it was a man. I caught his attention as I came closer to the flame revealed in the darkness.
“Gave me a bit of a fright there, couldn’t see you walking over”
“Mind if I join you?” I said,
“Take a seat,” he pointed to a wooden log opposite him and I went and sat down.
“What’s with the suite? You just get back from a funeral or something?”
“Is anything alive out here?”
“I’m doing some paranormal research about Wycliffe Well for the Government”
I was lying through my teeth to make it seem genuine.
“That’s right. Have you seen much out here? Who are you?”
“I’m the gardener of the Wycliffe Well caravan park”
I flicked the tape recorder on in my pocket, “And have you ever seen anything out here?”
He didn’t even hesitate and he went into monologue, which seemed like some sort of scripted dialogue that he’d rehearsed.
“I’ve seen dozens of lights shinning in the skies around here. Oh yeah, it’s no big deal you know? Very common for this place – we’re the UFO hotspot of Australia. Did you know that? Did you see the sign out the front? It shouldn’t come as any real surprise,” he paused, “No, we’re pretty used to UFO sightings out here at Wycliffe Well.”
I wasn’t convinced.
“Not much tonight – I think the super moon has scared them all off.” He pointed at the moon. I’d never seen it so large before. It looked like it was coming towards us, planning on swallowing the earth.
“You should have a chat with Barry tomorrow morning. He owns this place and he could tell you a thing or two, I’m sure. The roadhouse will open at seven and you can get your alien breakfast special maybe even a t-shirt too. If you tell Barry I sent you he might fill your coffee mug once more free of charge.”
I wished him goodnight and retired back to the cabin. The next morning I woke up, put on my suite and went to the roadhouse. Inside the place was littered with newspaper clippings, blown-up alien dolls, caps, t-shirts, magnets, post-cards, witness reports, photographs, signs, coffee mugs, stubby coolers and more. It was an old, dated diner in the back area with a prehistoric television set playing the morning news. I went over to the counter and a man was asleep leaning on it.
“Ah hello?” I asked assuming he was the owner,
He slowly lifted his head. “You want gas?”
“No, I’m staying here in cabin four. I came in last night.”
“Oh,” he stood upright, “You go in OK?”
“Yeah, I did. Look I wanted to talk to you about UFOs and this place?”
“What do you want to know?”
I stared him deep in the eyes and didn’t flinch.
“I want to know everything.”
Barry the owner went into long scripted rambles about the caravan park and things he’d seen on the highway, he took me out the back and pointed out strange soil formations and dead cows. It seemed the man was passionate about the history and it would seem that, after years of telling these stories, he was somewhat convinced or had convinced himself they were true. There were burnt out cars out past the cabins that Barry said mysteriously exploded into flames one night. Wycliffe Well, a well that was once a viable source of water for the small communities, dried up one day without reason. Of course the logical answer was due to an overhead UFO passing by. There was no real damming evidence that any of this was true as all these things could be simply linked back to occurrences that would happen naturally here on earth. After a while of being led around the caravan park and having things pointed out to me, I thought I’d address the elephant in the room.
“Look Barry, let’s be realistic. This is all a crock of shit, isn’t it? I want to know when you decided that you’d turn this gas station into a UFO-themed attraction, why you did it and how you’ve continued doing it?”
After a while or denial he finally sighed and looked down without even bothering to defend himself or the caravan park any further.
“Because people like you and thousands of others come out looking for the same thing.”
“It pays my bills and keeps the place going. When I opened the park no-one had any reason to stop here. You’d get truck drivers on their way to Tennant Creek, Darwin and so on – they’d fuel up and head off. At least I have people coming here, staying here and conversing with me even if it’s about these theories of the paranormal. At least it’s interaction!”
My heart was breaking. Barry was right, this fable had brought people to him! Company, companionship and an economy to his desert gas station. The truth was he was the one who’d alienated himself from any form of civilisation outside the gas station! I felt a daunting sensation of how I was going to fill in the next few days at Wycliffe Well. Barry said he had the largest collection of beer in the NT and that was one way of solving it.
Later that night after a few drinks and talking to some mad truck drivers, I stumbled back towards cabin number four. As I did, I looked up at the sky in the distance and saw some odd lights in the sky. It didn’t look like your average spot lights either. Not your run-of-the-mill, $49.95 spotlights from the hardware store. I gasped, ran into the cabin got some recording devices and ran out towards them. There they were dancing about in the sky like a theatrical piece for the stars. I switched all my equipment on and tried to take some photos and get a few different angles of what I was witnessing. The world had a right to know what I was seeing! After a while spent in awe, which a few other caravan dwellers noticed and came out to see, I then heard some rustling in the bushes. I turned off the recording device, put the camera down and walked over to one of the trees and peered behind them. The gardener was standing inside the shrubbery with two projectors shinning them into the sky and looked at me highly embarrassed.
“Barry told me to do it,” he said with a touch of sorrow.
They weren’t run-of-the-mill $49.95 spotlights at all. They were $200 ones. I headed back to the cabin. I’d been made a mockery of, it seemed. A paranormal investigator made a mockery of. Over the next few days, this sort of thing persisted with small tricks being played out by the Gardner and Barry to try and fool me into thinking this whole place was legitimate. The gardener even took me to the Devils Marbles, just down the highway, in his beaten up truck. He claimed he broke up with his girlfriend in Darwin and just drove south. Wycliffe Well is where he wound up. The Devils Marbles did present some remarkable rock formations but did it reveal any more truths to this tale? I’m afraid to say no, no it didn’t. On my last day in Wycliffe Well before heading back to Alice Springs, I purchased a few novelty items from Barry behind the counter and it put a goddamn smile on his face.
We could close the case on this one, but most interesting of all was the fact that this – like the aforementioned small town fables – had helped sustain life in an otherwise unsustainable territory. As long as the people were fooled, or at least curious, then these stories would remain alive and man would continue his quest into the unknown. Even if he came back unsatisfied with only a t-shirt that read, “Greetings Earthlings From Wycliffe Well” a coffee mug, a magnet, a postcard, a baseball cap and a little bit of closure.
Words, opinions and pictures by Nathan Roche.