In 1988, an Australian family encountered something strange while driving from Perth to Adelaide. Was it group panic, or aliens on the Nullarbor?
In January 1988, Faye Knowles decided to relocate to Adelaide from Perth, with her children. She was looking for new opportunities, and wanted a fresh start.
She and her three adult sons – Patrick (24), Wayne (21) and Sean (18) – decided to go by car, a lengthy trip of 2700km through one of Australia’s most isolated areas. But the family car was in good order, Faye had recently purchased a new Ford Telstar, and they could share the driving between them.
The road trip would be an exciting small adventure, the perfect start to this new chapter.
Between Perth and Adelaide lies the Nullarbor Plain.
The Nullarbor is an enormous stretch of arid land, measuring around 200 000 square kilometres, sitting between the Great Australian Bite, and The Great Victorian Desert. Hot, dry and largely featureless, this is remote and hostile terrain.
‘Nullarbor’ was the label applied by the first European explorers; derived from Latin, it means ‘Treeless’. The local Indigenous population had an equally bleak name for it; ‘Oondiri’, meaning ‘waterless.’
An early British explorer described the area in dramatic terms:
‘(A) hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams.’
– Henry Kingsley
To travel across the Nullarbor is to feel that you have left civilisation behind.
The only road across the Nullarbor is the Eyre Highway.
Named after Edward John Eyre, the British explorer who was first to cross the plain, this is a real endurance test. Concentration can be difficult in the flat landscape; one stretch of the highway is dead straight for 146 kilometres, the longest straight stretch of road in the world.
I have driven across the Nullarbor a few times, and it leaves quite an impression.
On either side of the road, reddish-brown soil stretches away to the horizon.
Small, hardy plants, like spinifex, scratch out a living, and you might see the odd Wedge Tailed Eagle, or kangaroo. There are low hills to the north at times, otherwise you are surrounded by a barren void.
You feel dwarfed by the environment.
Every few hundred kilometres, your map will indicate a town. These are tiny and oasis like; a roadhouse, pub, and caravan park, where you can re-provision for the next stint. Road trains thunder by constantly.
From Norseman, in WA, to Ceduna, in South Australia, the Eyre Highway is the only route available. There is no other way to go.
On January 20, 1988, the Knowles family arrived at Ceduna, at the eastern end of the Eyre Highway.
Their car was in a state of disrepair, and the family members hysterical. They hurried to the local police station.
‘The car was damaged and covered in ash. They were clearly shaken up.’
– Sergeant Fred Longley, Ceduna police
What the Knowles told police was a sensational story: crossing the Nullarbor the night before, they had been attacked by a UFO.
Around 2.45am, January 20, the Knowles were about 40 kilometres west of Mundrabilla, near the West Australian border.
Sean was at the wheel, when they saw something strange in the road ahead:
‘It was about a metre wide, and glowing bright and white, with a yellow centre.
The light was like an ‘egg in a teacup’, and disappeared after ‘jumping around a bit.’
– Sean Knowles, describing the encounter in the local media
The light then appeared to chase after a truck the Knowles passed, heading in the opposite direction. But it subsequently returned, and began to pursue them.
Sean now hit the gas, and accelerated the car to its top speed, around 150km an hour.
The bright light caught up to them easily. It was now much larger, having seemingly expanded.
When the light was overhead, something seemed to land on the car’s roof, and lifted it into the air. In the panic of the moment, the family would later report strange sensations; a feeling of time slowing down, and their own voices becoming distorted.
Faye put her hand out the window, to try and work out what had hold of them.
‘I wound down the window and I felt this thing on the roof… all of this smoke stuff started coming into the car, the car was covered in black stuff.’
– Faye Knowles
Faye would later describe what she felt as having an unusual, spongey texture.
Just as suddenly, the car was released again, and crashed back to the road.
The light disappeared, and now the family were alone in the dark, terrified. They fled from the vehicle, and hid in some low bushes nearby.
But when the light did not come back, they calmed down sufficiently to return to their car. They quickly fixed the flat tyre, and then continued to Mundrabilla where they reported what had happened to staff at the roadhouse. According to some reports, a truck driver there also indicated he had seen unusual lights on the road.
After a short pit stop, the family then drove the remaining 500 km to Ceduna, where they reported what had happened to police.
When the story broke the next day, the media coverage was voluminous; ‘UFO Attacks Family’ lead the morning news.
The story elements were intriguing; the isolated location, and the drama of an actual, physical encounter. But the Knowles incident had additional aspects, not commonly found in UFO stories.
There was tangible evidence that something had happened; dents on the car roof, and ash covering the vehicle’s exterior. Then there was the initial police response, with Sergeant Longley stating that they ‘had to take the report seriously’, which added credence to the story.
Some news reports also cited a commercial fishing vessel in the Bite, that also reported seeing lights in the sky.
Finally, there were the Knowles’ themselves.
A family of everyday Aussies, they did not seem like the sort to make up a bizarre UFO attack story. A few days after the incident, they were interviewed together on TV, and impressed with their sincerity (you can watch this here).
But as investigators probed their encounter, some parts of their story became less convincing.
Most notably, the physical evidence from their car ultimately proved to be inconsequential. Closer examination revealed the roof dents to be very minor, of a sort likely to be caused by the use of a roof rack.
An investigation conducted by the Australian Mineral Development Laboratory, which analysed the ash from the car’s exterior, found particles of clay and salt, consistent with a vehicle that had recently crossed the Nullarbor Plain. In effect, the car was just dusty.
At the same time, the Knowles themselves mostly retained their credibility. They clearly believed the story they were telling.
So what happened to them?
A possible explanation for the light the Knowles claim to have seen is what is known as a ‘superior mirage’.
A superior mirage is an optical illusion caused by an inversion of air layers, with different temperatures.
Normally, cold air sits on top of warm air; if you climb a mountain, you will notice the air temperature drop.
In some cases though, a cold layer of air will sit below warm air.
Light travels through different air temperatures at different speeds, this reversal of the air layers can cause light from distant objects to appear above where they normally are.
It is an uncanny and odd effect, highlighted recently by the photo of a cargo ship seemingly floating above the water, captured by a hiker in England.
Here is a very real looking image, in plain daylight, showing something we know has to be impossible. A superior mirage in action.
Some researchers have suggested this same effect may have been what the Knowles family saw. It could have been the lights of a distant truck, altered optically by natural conditions, to seemingly float above the ground.
How then to explain the other things they reported? The close encounter, the car being lifted off the road, the smoke, and the weird impact on their voices?
Some psychologists have suggested it may have been a collective panic attack.
This is a surprisingly common phenomenon, experienced by people in stressful situations. Lack of sleep, isolation, and emotional duress can provide the triggers, the sufferers then reinterpret innocuous events as sinister, or supernatural.
‘During episodes, members become distressed and emotionally unstable, often as a result of prolonged fear, fatigue and lack of sleep.
These factors enhance suggestibility and inhibit their powers of critical thinking.
Within this atmosphere, members begin to redefine everyday objects and events in a new light.
A car backfiring, may be perceived as a gunshot, or rustling in the bushes is mistaken for a monster.’
– Dr Robert Bartholemew, ‘Psychology Today’
In the Knowles case, their encounter occurred in the middle of the night in a remote, unfamiliar location. The trip from Perth to Adelaide is lengthy, and they were likely short of sleep. And such a significant move is an emotional stressor.
It is possible that they saw distant truck lights, enhanced by atmospheric effects, and then imagined themselves under attack. It this is what happened, it would have seemed quite real, which would explain their subsequent sincere testimony.
But what actually happened, no one really knows. The Knowles encounter remains a popular one with UFO enthusiasts and investigators.
The first time I drove across the Nullarbor, I was on an extended camping holiday with my mother.
She was an adventurous type, who loved travel and the outdoors. We lived in Busselton then, in south-west WA, and mum bought a combi van, and took me out of school for a few months so we could see some more of Australia.
It was 1991, and we both knew the Knowles family story, from a few years before. I vividly remembered it from the news, and had been especially struck by Faye Knowles’ description of the alien craft as ‘spongey’, which seemed very unusual.
We joked about it, as we joined the Eyre Highway in Norseman: would we see aliens too?
Mum did not like driving at night, so we mostly travelled during the day. At this leisurely pace, crossing the Nullarbor would take about three days.
On one of these, somewhere near the WA-SA border, we had to drive into the evening to make the next town, where we would stop for the night. Darkness fell. There are no lights on that road, and night time, when it comes, is complete.
And now, what do you know: behind us, seemingly far away, some strange looking lights.
At times they looked like headlights, two distinct circles as on another vehicle, at other times they appeared to behave quite oddly. As Sean Knowles indicated in one of his descriptions, it looked like they were ‘jumping’.
The lights bounced back and forth, sometimes forming into one light, then back to two, then flicking around. At times they looked a bit like arcs of electricity, pulsing near the horizon.
We joked about this some more: there they are, the aliens! But mum reassured me, it was just the headlights of some distant vehicle, and our eyes playing tricks. And for certain, that’s what it was.
But it was a slightly eerie, strange little moment. This was twenty plus years ago, it has stuck in my memory ever since.
That night we stayed in the motel at Bordertown. The next day, we stopped to snap a photo of the sign out the front of the roadhouse. It read: ‘BEWARE: UFOS NEXT 111 KM’.