The Min Min




 I

He’s never seen the Min Min, but his Cousin Mandy has. 

It was after he got his first car that the country around Coonabarabran finally opened up, when the frustration of having travelled six hours from Sydney only to reach the beginning of the real outback was overcome.  He had his cousin and a green Mazda as willing partners and there were trips, hundreds of kilometres in a day.  Together over a latte at the Jolly Cauli café they planned; together they drew big circles in the sand, to the west and to the northwest.

Mandy would be the model of a farmer’s daughter had her father been a farmer.  Her trim figure, short wavy blond hair and the face that’s seen a season or two: there’s nothing to suggest she’s not a child of the country; and true to her origins she’s a storyteller. 

In Coonabarabran stories have their own life, such that to question the factuality of a narration is an activity without relevance.  City people don’t always understand this, but questioning the actuality of a Coonabarabran story is like trying to count the bulky rural raindrops as they hit the tin roof during a summer afternoon storm.  There was only ever to listen and enjoy, which is what he did when Mandy told him of her encounter with the Min Min.

Nonetheless he’s wondered what the secret to the success of her storytelling might be.  Perhaps it’s in her face that never lights up with excitement or drops in disappointment as she narrates.  She never gets carried away with her words.  He’s wondered if it might be the wheat field accent that, with its elongated and contorted vowels, soothes to make the dramatic sound as clear and obvious as sitting on a rock in the garden of a summer evening with a cup of tea in the hand.  The cicadas are loudly chirping. 

And when the telling gets eerie her tone doesn’t waver; when the telling gets hilarious there’s barely a note of laughter in it.  However she does it, Mandy can make wild statements sound as indisputable as reading off a shopping list.  He admires her skill.

And if she speaks of the city it doesn’t alter anything.  Even when the subject matter turns urban her storytelling remains a rural creature despite the geography of its words.

And he might not be telling it right.  It’s best that she should do it.

They made it to the unlikely Macquarie Marshes to west of Coonamble on one of their sand circles.  It’s a wetland at a junction of rivers in otherwise dry country.  He negotiated his first red-mud road to get there, the road damp from the marshes.  There’d been an eagle, as a human a third as high, sitting in the dry grass of the sunburnt reed lands along the road side.  Eagles can’t take off straight away, Mandy said.  As much as they are kings of the sky they need a run up to take flight. 

A few yards behind that eagle was a fox, pushing itself flat against the ground in that stalking posture and inching forward toward the bird.  What would’ve been the result he couldn’t say, because the dust-kicking rumble of the car scared fox and scared bird.  The eagle took a few ungainly steps and started to unfold its enormous wings while the fox ran away.

The sky grows ever larger in the flat country beyond Coonamble.  It’s blue and weighty when there’s no rain about, meaning most of the time.  The sky pulled them further, or was it adventure, and by lunch the two cousins had reached as far as the small town of Carinda, with its population of a hundred and ninety four.  Carinda seemed to have only one shop, a post office cum grocery store cum café.  There were pigeon holes screwed up on one of the walls with a slot allocated to each household.  Who could be bothered delivering mail when the locals have legs and can walk a few hundred metres to collect it?  To the side of the grocery shelves there was a single plastic table: the café.  They sat there and asked the store keeper for a menu.  But who could be bothered to write up a menu when people can just open their mouths and speak?

‘What do you want?’

‘What do you have?’

‘Well what do you want?’

‘Well what do you have?’

In that country where a flat white is a coffee with milk, they might’ve settled for a corned beef sandwich.

Turning back for Coonabarabran they came across the unlikely event of rain.  It was with city trepidation that he steered along the red-dirt-becoming-red-mud road, wetter than at the marshes, muddier than at the marshes.  It made the car slide sideways a bit as he drove.  A red-mud road was not too much of a worry, Mandy said.  It was the black-mud road that was the nightmare.


II

In another dirt circle to the northwest where the land grows rocky and lifeless, they one day reached Lightning Ridge.  Aunt Mary, Mandy’s mother, was with them then.  Lightning Ridge is a mining town, about two thousand people, situated atop the world’s largest known deposit of black opal gemstones.  Miners come from across the world to settle there, to spend days in backyard-type mines underground, in the hope of striking it rich.  They busied themselves at the mining museum and saw a house made of glass bottles.  By late afternoon they were still on their way home, not much beyond Collarenebri, and they’d chosen a short cut route with about forty kilometres of dirt before Wee Waa.  Well, in that country that doesn’t see much rain, by a city dweller’s luck it came again, as grey clouds rolled in from the west and the first drops started plonking against the windscreen.  There was a problem.  The road this time was black-dirt.

‘We’d better get out of here fast,’ Mandy said as the clouds closed in.

‘What happens if we don’t make it?’ the city cousin foolishly asked.

‘We’ll get bogged,’ the country cousin replied, ‘and it’ll be a week until the road dries enough to pull the car out.  Whatever you do, don’t touch the brake.  Keep moving or you’ll slide and if you go off the edge of the road we’ll never get out of it.’

Suddenly the mere forty kilometres seemed like four hundred as he kept the motion going, as the raindrops became more frequent and the road started to become slippery.  All the while there was the groaning and banging of black-dirt and rocks tumbling beneath the car’s underbelly.  It was the bloody four-wheel drives, Mandy said, that made the deep wheel ruts that made the road all but impassable for city sedans like his.  The rain kept coming.  The dirt and rocks kept groaning and banging.  The car kept rolling on.

‘Problem is,’ Mandy said, ‘if you do get bogged and it takes a week to get the car out, in the meantime there’ll be no one to guard it and whoever does happen to come along might take the tyres, the wheels, anything that can be salvaged.  After a week when you come to get it there might only be a wreck.’  It would’ve been impossible to guard the vehicle in that middle-of-nowhere country.  He was worried.

They took a risk in a patch where there seemed to be a bit of sand to the land and he stopped the car, cautiously applying the brake.  He wanted Mandy to take the wheel as with her knowledge of red-dirt and black-dirt she might be able to get them back onto the tar stretch faster.  It was a road that needed country hands.

It was a deep thankful city relief and a more exhilarated, humoured country one that greeted them when finally they emerged at the safety of the tar.  They’d made it through!  Her husband back in town would never believe how foolish they’d been to attempt that road in that Mazda with rain clouds about, Mandy said.  It wasn’t the end of trouble though.  By the time they’d reached the Newell and the last one hundred or so kilometre stretch back into town from Narrabri, it was the end of evening, the beginning of night.  It’s the perfect feeding time for kangaroos.  By the hundreds they lined the roadside and he’d never seen them so thick.  Any one of them could, with a singular hop and a splatter of blood, destroy the car’s engine. 

The semi-trailers that plied that route down from Queensland don’t even slow down for the roos, he saw, and the semis account for almost all the road-kill carcases along the way; but for his city sedan the impact could’ve been fatal.  With a limit of one hundred kilometres per hour they rarely reached sixty as his nerves climbed new mountains although the land is for the best part flat.  City people like the roos, Mandy said, and think they’re cute.  ‘Well they are cute, but on the road they’re a menace.’

And yet without incident they made it through, that too, they made it through!  The junction of the Oxley and the Golden Fleece roadhouse on the outskirts of town were the final symbols of a safe return.


 III

There and back they tried the Gwabegar Road on another evening, in a convoy of two vehicles.  Mandy’s husband drove one while she drove the other, because of the roos and the faster pace possible without a city cousin behind the wheel.  Along with Mandy’s sons, his sister was with them then and they’d stocked provisions for the evening, including champagne, for the swimming expedition under the stars.  It’s scrubby country out that way, the Pilliga Country of grey-leafed eucalypts and short Pilliga pines.  It’s sandy and rocky in the place where two of his great grandfathers, the maternal ones, had once become neighbours.  And it’s under the land the water is, in the artesian basin. 

They were headed for a bore where water was pumped to the surface to service the homesteads and cattle.  And when it comes up the water is hot.

The cattle dam they knew of was a good hundred and fifty kilometres from town in the middle of an unmarked scrub paddock.  Without any indication they’d reached the spot the cars pulled off the road and stopped.  There was a gate of the typical cattle variety, and after unclasping the chain they drove through, making sure the gate was closed again behind them.  The dam was some metres into the paddock.

It might’ve stunk, that place, of cow dung and the mud might’ve squelched underfoot but the water left no doubt it was mineral, delivering that inner body warmth that only mineral water can; and overhead there was no doubt why the astronomers had chosen Coonabarabran as the site for their observatory: in the scrub country without the light pollution of a single house the night sky was awash with stars.  The champagne cork popped.  Cows occasionally mooed.  The nearest human to their group was who-bloody-knew how many kilometres away.

They laughed at him, the country cousins.  It was on the way back when he couldn’t figure out how to close the cattle gate.  And yet, in the following days the tide turned.  They’d decided to head to Sydney in convoy, with Mandy’s car following his.  She wanted it that way because her car’s engine had the risk of breakdown about it as country cars often seem to; and after five and a half hours they’d crossed the Blue Mountains, with the final descent and the blanket of city smog on the Cumberland Plain of Sydney to the east before them.  It was there that Mandy asked him to take over the driving, while his sister could drive his car.  She was out of practice with city traffic, she said.  It made her nervous.


IV

But about the Min Min, well, as he remembers it, as she told it and as best he can, it was like this:  she was on her way back down from Queensland, it was in those days, and it was night.  She drove the road, without another car or a house in sight, much as they had, when all of a sudden strange lights appeared in the sky to the side of the road.  They were bright and at low altitude and seemed altogether not too far off the roadway itself, somewhere beyond the eucalypts in the nearest paddock.  There is no human factor that could be making lights like that, mainly because there are so few humans around and it was odd because the lights seemed to be following the car, moving parallel to it at some distance through the paddocks.  She could see their shine in the gaps between the trees. 

The lights seemed to be keeping up with the car’s speed easily.  She stopped the car.  The lights stopped.  She accelerated.  The lights accelerated.

Mandy thought it might be the Min Min.  The Min Min light is famous from the Gulf Country south to the start of New South Wales.  Many people have seen it and it’s mentioned in aboriginal legends.  Nobody can explain it. 

She thought it might be the Min Min, true enough, but she didn’t know what to do about it, in that country of vastness, in the darkness of the night without a soul to ask for help, in the days before mobile phones.  And then, after about half an hour, as suddenly as it had appeared the Min Min was gone. 

But he might not be telling it right.  It’s best that she should do it.

Dog house made from bottles




The Min Min Light is hardly the only unusual phenomenon the world has to offer.  Kashem Bhai in Bangladesh, for example, called on the help of Diabula and possibly the Portuguese to get him into the bazaar one day.  In Dhaka there's the phenomenon of the rishka wisdom to keep the wheels turning.  Meanwhile in Ukraine and Russia there's a phenomenon that's a bit more man-made: the cities that don't exist.


This article also published in Star Magazine, here: The Min Min
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