By Frances Whiting
It has been more than 70 years since the devil man came looking for Jack Muriata.
Then, he was a little boy playing with his friends on the sandy banks of the Tully River (pictured right). Today he is a much respected Girrigun elder but Muriata, 79, says time has not erased the terror of that moonless night all those years ago.
"Our mothers and grandmothers used to tell us not to go too far from camp in case the Devil Man came calling," Muriata said.
"Devil men, we Aborginals call them, or chic ah bunnahs.
"White people call them UFOs, and if you get caught by one, our grandmothers told us, you will die.
"One night I was with my friends and we wandered too far from our camp to the river.
"We were playing in the dunes when this great big ball of light, so bright, you have never seen such a light, came flying down from the sky above us.
"It lit up the whole river, and then it zoomed down low along the banks, like it was looking for us.
"My friends were yelling, 'Run! Run!' and we all took off as fast as we could back towards camp and our mothers.
"You don't want to get caught by the devil man."
Devil men, "chic a bunnahs", unidentified flying objects, call them what you will, believe in them or not but whatever they are, and whatever name they go by, they do seem to be particularly attracted to the small, picturesque north Queensland town of Tully.
About 180km south of Cairns with a population of about 3400, Tully would be like any other pretty sugar cane town in the far north, but for several factors.
First of all, there's the famous Tully Gorge, where white-water rafting enthusiasts from around the world gather to shoot down its rapids.
Then there is Tully's extraordinary weather with an average annual rainfall of 4252mm, it is officially Australia's wettest town and has decided to build a giant gumboot to celebrate the fact.
But if you believe the locals, Tully's most interesting claim to fame is that it is Australia's UFO headquarters, with hundreds of sightings every year.
Muriata says the Aborigines have known about Tully's strange visitors "since the beginning", and other, older locals such as 82-year-old cane farmer Albert Pennisi agree.
"Everyone who lives in Tully knows about the UFOs here," Pennisi says. "It's just that some folks choose to talk about it and some folks don't."
Pennisi is one who does and no wonder. It was on his 83ha farm that Tully's most famous UFO sighting took place.
On the morning of January 19, 1966, Pennisi's neighbour George Pedley was driving his tractor across his banana farm when he heard a strange hissing sound.
At first Pedley who no longer speaks publicly about his experience thought the hissing was from his tractor tyres, but Pennisi says the sound was instead coming from a medium sized, horseshoe-shaped lagoon on Pennisi's property.
"Suddenly George saw this machine rise up from our lagoon it rose about 30 to 40 feet (10-12m) and then it turned on its side and just shot away." Pennisi said.
"It was gone, vanished into thin air."
But Pennisi and others who have visited the site believe it left behind a souvenir of its visit.
"George went to the lagoon straight away and he saw the water still swirling, still churning around.
"I think it really shook him up, and he came to get me but I was away. Later on when I got back we went to the lagoon together and, by crikey, did I get a shock."
Floating on Pennisi's normally unremarkable lagoon was a UFO "nest", a 9m circular mass of reeds, tightly woven in an intricate design swirling clockwise and so strong, Pennisi says, it could easily support the weight of 10 men. (pictured above right)
Pedley's sighting of the blue-grey saucer was never repeated, but whatever made that first "nest" on Pennisi's dam kept making it.
"They came back in 1972, 1975, 1980, 1982 and 1987," Pennisi said. (pictured right and below)
"There was always the big one, but we also got about 22 smaller ones and, the strange thing is, while the big one always went clockwise, (the others) were always anti-clockwise."
Determined to explain the phenomena, Pennisi took to watching the lagoon at all hours of the night.
"I wasn't scared. I didn't take any weapons with me except my cane knife but I never did find out why they came to my farm or why they suddenly stopped coming, but I've got a fair idea why."
Pennisi believes interest in his lagoon (carloads of people came at the height of its fame) plus the attention of the police and the air force may have made whatever or whoever was visiting his farm, shy off.
"We had people from all over the world arriving: UFO researchers, police, the air force investigators were watching us 24 hours a day. It was all a bit much for a cane farmer."
After an extensive investigation by the police and the RAAF, a 1966 report by the Commonwealth Aerial Phenomena Investigation Organisation (CAPIO), concluded:
"There is no explanation for the visible phenomena reported but it could have been associated with or the result of 'down draughts', 'willy willies' or 'water spouts' that are known to occur in the (north Queensland) area."
Pennisi, a down-to-earth farmer not usually given to flights of fancy, laughs at the explanation.
"They also tried to tell me it was a low-flying helicopter, a mini tornado, even a crocodile. But anyone who saw it will tell you whatever made it was not of this world, my friend.
"Before this thing happened to me, I might have been a bit sceptical, too, but things change when you see things with your own eyes."
And for many Tully locals, seeing it with their own eyes is all that it takes to turn them from sceptics into believers.
Semi-retired handyman Les Holland, 60, reckons Tully is "crawling with UFOs".
"I think I would have had trouble believing it if I hadn't seen them myself," Les says. "There's a hell of a lot of activity here.
"If you look up in the night sky in Tully, you'll see them soon enough. Lots of very bright lights, moving quickly through the sky. They're par for the course, but occasionally you see something really mind-blowing.
"A few years ago I saw this massive one hovering above us you could see its lights: red, yellow, green. It was completely silent, just hovering there then, in a flash, it was gone."
Holland's son Morgan, 17, has also had his fair share of sightings. A keen fisherman, his late-night trips have yielded much more than the tasty jungle perch he is angling for.
"Morgan was out one night about 18 months ago looking out over Tully Heads when he very clearly saw a machine in the sky which looked like a pyramid with the top part cut off it.
"He could see bands across it . . . he could see the whole thing quite clearly. It didn't make any noise most of them don't, they're just silently hovering.
"It didn't bother Morgan and he didn't bother it. That's the thing about Morgan, all he wants to do is fish crocs, sharks, UFOs nothing gets in the way of his fishing."
But one young Tully mother's experiences with what she believes were UFOs were not so casual.
"I was living on a property just outside of town right on top of this hill," says the woman, who asked not to be identified.
"It had the most amazing view; you could see all the way to Hinchinbrook Island and the Great Dividing Range.
"My baby was really young at the time, so when I started seeing things like motherships hovering about 400m away with small discs being released out of them, I was actually terrified - really, really frightened
"One night there were five of them in the field behind the shed a few hundred metres away.
"I could not believe it, they were as plain as day with about 40 flashing lights all over them.
"But I guess the frieakiest one was this massive structure right above our house.
"It was about four or five hundred metres above us and the only way I can describe it is like a huge Eiffel Tower in the sky.
"It was massive, like a football field. I was pretty frightened and all I kept thinking was 'Why can't anybody else see this ?'"
A good question, and according to Tully's resident UFO expert Claire Noble, one with a simple answer.
Noble, who has spent 36 years putting together a dossier of more than 1000 UFO sightings from her home, believes that not only do the UFOs sometimes choose to make themselves known to only certain people, but "other people just don't know how to look up".
"There's a lot of ignorance unfortunately," say Noble, a grandmother of two.
"Some people just don't want to see, which is a shame because it's fantastic here. We've had every shape here, every size, every type of light.
"Disc-shaped ones, ones that look like a sombrero hat turned upside-down, rectangles, flotillas of triangular-shaped crafts.
"Ordinary garden-shaped size discs [no, I don't understand this either - pd], long torpedo-shaped ones, spinning tops, ice cream cone-type craft.
"I used to have a 360-degree view here before they built all these houses and the things I saw . . . once we watched them landing at the bottom of Mount Mackay for about 3.5 hours, just this constant buzz of activity."
Noble says that in 1966, she made contact with what she calls the "visitors".
"After one close sighting we went out into the bush with our torches and our car lights to welcome them and, yes, contact was made.
Noble does not wish to elaborate on her experience, but will say that Tully's extraterrestrial visitors mean no harm.
"They can teach us a lot, and I can say that big changes are coming.
"There was a lot of activity here during the '60s and then it dropped off, but since last September it's really been hotting up again.
"The skies above Tully are buzzing with activity if you only know wehre - and how- to look ."
Noble says that she knows some people might consider her crazy.
"I don't care, I', beyond caring what people think of me. I know what I know and I've seen what I've seen, and a lot of poeple have seen the same things so if I'm crazy, then we all are."
Farmer Alfio Cali certainly seems sane enough and he says what he saw late one night while working in his cane field is something he will never forget - no matter how hard he tries.
"We live out in the Lower Tully region near the beach'" Cali said. "We were working on the ground, I was going east on my tractor and a worker who was with me was going west.
"Suddenly out of nowhere this light just lit up the whole canefield, you could see all the way from one end to the other.
"It was just shining down on us. It would change colours every few seconds and then it just took off.
"I was frozen in shock and my mate jut said to me, 'I'm going home," and took off.
"Before that I didn't believe, but there's just no other explanation for it, other than, well, I guess it was a UFO.
"I've never seen anything like it again and I never want to."
But not all the locals are believers. Many just want the whole issue to go away.
One shop owner, who asked not to be named, had this to say about his town's unusual reputation.
"They're all nutters, the lot of them," he said. "It's not good for the town, makes us all look stupid, dumb, gullible country clowns if you ask me.
"Other towns get known for their scenery or their history; these people want it to be like, "Come to Tully, meet the local fruitcakes'."
And despite all the sightings, Tully's police say they've never heard of a single UFO being seen there.
Senior Constable Breet Humphreys said that if UFOs were targeting Tully, the police would have heard of it. "To my knowledge we have never had a single report," he said.
"We've never been called out to attend a job that involves a UFO and we've never been asked to investigate a sighting - so what does that tell you ?"
The Tully Nest