Mys­tery in the desert

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY BY HAN­NAH JAMES

With all the in­gre­di­ents of a thriller – gov­ern­ment cover-ups, lo­cal ri­valry and in­trigue – the story of the Mar­ree Man ge­o­glyph in South Aus­tralia is en­dur­ingly fas­ci­nat­ing.

ON A RE­MOTE AND EMPTY desert plateau, on the banks of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, South Aus­tralia, is the world’s sec­ond-largest ge­o­glyph. Un­like the 1000-year-old Nazca Lines in Peru that hold the ti­tle of the big­gest ge­o­glyph, the art­work that be­came known as the Mar­ree Man is of more re­cent ori­gin. Lo­cated 60km north-west of the tiny town of Mar­ree, it was first spotted from the air by a lo­cal pi­lot in 1998. In­ves­ti­ga­tions were im­me­di­ately launched into the work, which is 4.2km long and shows a man hunt­ing with a stick.

Lo­cal pub-owner Phil Turner bought the Mar­ree Ho­tel seven years ago partly on the strength of the Mar­ree Man. “I got car­ried away, like ev­ery­one else, with the myth, the mys­tery and the in­trigue, the fact they couldn’t find the peo­ple who did it,” he says. “The Mar­ree Man was such an at­trac­tion – scenic flights were help­ing busi­ness – and it was part of our de­ci­sion to buy the pub.”

The­o­ries about who cre­ated it sprouted and grew in all dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions. In­ves­ti­ga­tions cen­tred for a while around the US Army, thanks to the Man’s prox­im­ity to the joint US-Aus­tralian de­fence projects of the Woomera Pro­hib­ited Area, and the send­ing of press re­leases pur­port­ing to be writ­ten by its cre­ator that in­cluded US ter­mi­nol­ogy. In 1999 a plaque was dis­cov­ered near the Man’s head show­ing a US flag, and an­other flag was found in a nearby pit, although it’s been sug­gested both were red her­rings. In­evitably, some­one also pro­posed a the­ory that it was the work of aliens.

An­other pos­si­bil­ity is that it was cre­ated by SA artist Bardius Gold­berg, re­ported by the Ade­laide Ad­ver­tiser to have told friends he’d been com­mis­sioned – and paid $10,000 – to cre­ate an art­work vis­i­ble from space. How­ever, Gold­berg died in 2002, and with him the pos­si­bil­ity of dis­cov­er­ing the truth of that the­ory.

Phil Turner has his own idea. “In 1998 that land was being fiercely con­tested for na­tive ti­tle claims by a num­ber of Abo­rig­i­nal groups,” he says. (The Mar­ree Man is lo­cated on land held un­der na­tive ti­tle since 2012 by the Ara­bana Abo­rig­i­nal Cor­po­ra­tion.) “The hair and the head­band on the Mar­ree Man, that was not an Ara­bana prac­tice.That was more as­so­ci­ated with some­one from the Mus­grave Ranges. So why would there be an im­age of some­one from the Mus­grave Ranges in Ara­bana ter­ri­tory? ‘This is my land and I’m go­ing to claim it.’” He thinks the ac­tual ex­e­cu­tion of the fig­ure, which would have been enor­mously dif­fi­cult

“It’s im­por­tant as art, and as one of Aus­tralia’s great­est who­dun­nit sto­ries.”

be­fore the wide­spread avail­abil­ity of GPS, could only have been done by those with the rare, ex­pen­sive equip­ment, knowl­edge and skills re­quired – he guesses a min­ing cor­po­ra­tion, or even the Depart­ment of De­fence.

When pressed about the Mar­ree Man’s ori­gins, Phil says, “Do we re­ally want to know who did it? It’s full of myth, mys­tery, in­trigue. It’s im­por­tant as art, and as one of Aus­tralia’s great­est who­dun­nit sto­ries.”

WHO­EVER PUT IT THERE, Mar­ree Man at­tracted sorely needed tourists to the town, whose only other draw­card was the oc­ca­sional flood­ing of Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre. So when nat­u­ral ero­sion be­gan fad­ing the work, lo­cals were con­cerned.

Phil knew the fig­ure needed to be pre­served. “When you’re at the coal­face and you get vis­i­tors not just from Aus­tralia but from all over the world want­ing to see the Mar­ree Man and it’s slowly being eroded, it seemed to me we shouldn’t let this re­source fade away,” he says.

He re­ceived ini­tial sup­port from the SA gov­ern­ment, but soon, “I just kept run­ning into brick walls,” he ex­plains. “They did a cost­ing on it for restora­tion at about $368,000.” So in 2016, he formed a group to take mat­ters into their own hands. They se­cured per­mis­sion from the Ara­bana Abo­rig­i­nal Cor­po­ra­tion and hired a grader op­er­a­tor to re­draw the fig­ure’s 80m-wide lines around the whole of its 24km out­line. Their DIY ap­proach cost just $6400. “So I fig­ure we saved the tax­payer a lot of money.”

The restora­tion was a huge task, says Phil. “We had won­der­ful help from a sur­veyor who crunched all the data he could find on the in­ter­net and through his pro­fes­sional con­tacts. But the best he could get, us­ing all the spa­tial data and re­sources avail­able to him, was an ac­cu­racy of about 10–12m.” But then Phil was anony­mously emailed an in­tri­cately de­tailed line draw­ing of the Mar­ree Man. “Seems like Mar­ree Man is full of mirac­u­lous things,” he pon­ders. As­ton­ish­ingly, when the team checked the draw­ing against what re­mained of the orig­i­nal fig­ure, it

p14 Mar­ree Man

Mar­ree Man be­strides the desert plains of far north SA. Its out­line is 24km around, and its lines are broader than a city street, at 80m wide. It’s a mag­nif­i­cent work of art – and an in­trigu­ing mys­tery.

Lo­cal pub­li­can Phil Turner acted to re­store the Mar­ree Man when it be­gan erod­ing away – and nearly faced a huge fine.

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