Short story by Iris Carden
There’s a lot of nothing in western Queensland. On some of these roads you can drive for hours without seeing a tree, and in a prolonged drought like this one, you can even go for kilometres without sight of a blade of grass.
I’m driving at night, from Winton to Boulia. Even with the car air conditioned, it’s stinking hot driving through the day, so I drive at night whenever I can. While I might not see a grass or trees, I do need to keep an eye out for starving kangaroos or scrub cattle. The roads here are unfenced. The cattle properties around here are bigger than some Pacific nations, and fencing kilometre after kilometre of highway is just too expensive. Driving here means keeping alert to any movement anywhere near the road.
As I drive, I notice a single light in my rear view mirror. It’s either a motor bike or a car with one headlight out. It’s bright, like it’s on high beam. Strange, light carries a long way on this long straight flat road, but I didn’t notice it until it was right on top of me. There’s some optical illusion here. It doesn’t seem to be right behind me, but a little off to my left, parallel to the road, but that doesn’t make sense.
The light’s a bit too bright. I think the driver’s left the headlight on high beam. I angle the rearview mirror a little so the light isn’t glaring right in my eyes. I have to keep watching the road ahead, and the sides of the road for animal movement, but I keep being distracted by the light following me. It’s like a second moon, but lower, near the ground and keeping pace with me, over my left shoulder.
I’m going about a hundred and ten kilometres per hour, a bit over the limit, but everyone does here. Even so, that light is gaining on me. If I’m doing a hundred and ten, how fast does the other driver have to be going.
Suddenly, I start to realise that as a woman driving alone, on an almost deserted highway, I’m vulnerable. I’ve never felt vulnerable out here before, and I’ve lived in this area for years.
The car CD player is misbehaving. The same track has stopped and started three times, and now something like a chittering noise is coming from it. At the same time the clock on my dashboard has started flashing and seems to be showing random numbers. This is not a good time for the electrics on my car to go out. That light just keeps getting closer.
Suddenly, the engine just stops. I can’t pull the car over to the side of the road, can’t do anything, except make sure the doors are locked as the light keeps coming closer.
Yellow light engulfs the whole car. It’s so bright I can’t see. How can any headlight be that bright?
It’s only a moment. Suddenly the light’s gone, the car’s engine is running, the CD’s playing properly, but the clock says three hours have gone. My watch, and the faint light on the horizon confirm it.
I don’t know what just happened, but I continue my journey, because there’s really nothing else to do.
The story behind the story
Anyone who has ever been to Boulia, and many who haven’t, has heard of the Min Min, a white, yellow, red or blue, light that mysteriously appears and floats a bit above the ground, and follows whoever witnesses it. It’s been explained as swamp gasses (strange in what is basically desert), a ghost that was related to the history of the Min Min hotel, atmospheric issues, a type of mirage, aliens, and numerous other things.
Back in my journalism days, a man in Boulia who had the most eclectic collection of everything imaginable told me he had a Min Min skeleton. (When I say eclectic, think everything from dozens of old wood-burning stoves in all stages of disrepair to “shin plasters” a kind of Depression-era currency issued by local storeowners , that they baked in ovens to make the paper likely to disintegrate meaning store owners didn’t have to honour them, so people carried them plastered against their shins under their socks, so they wouldn’t bend and crumble.) He handed me a small wooden box. I opened it to find a skeleton of a small animal with a long tail, perhaps a possum or bilby, with light bulbs in the eye sockets.
In my days out west, I also interviewed people who claimed to have had encounters with alien space craft in the middle of nowhere. And then there was the man who driving on one of the western highways simply vanished. His car was found beside the road, but no sign of him was ever seen.
Western Queensland is a just the kind of place where strange stuff happens.