Have you ever heard of the Marree Man? I hadn’t until about a month ago. That was when I listened to an amazing interview on our ABC radio station. Phil Turner, who lives in Marree, explained some of the mystery surrounding the Marree Man.
No one knows who created it. No one knows exactly when it was done. And no one is confessing anything. Turner says, ‘It’s probably Australia’s greatest peacetime whodunnit.’
The Marree Man was first noticed in June 1998, spotted by outback pilot, Trec Smith, when he was flying from Marree to Coober Pedy in remote South Australia.
Smith later said, ‘It was so big I assumed everyone would know about it. But when I landed back in town nobody had any idea.’
In fact, the Marree Man is the world’s largest geoglyph, measuring 4.2 kilometres long, 28 kilometres around, and covering 2.5 square kilometres (or 620 acres). When first discovered, his etched outline was up to 30 centimetres (one foot) deep and 35 metres (115 feet) wide.
A few weeks after Smith’s discovery, someone claiming to be behind the artwork sent anonymous faxes to businesses in Marree and, later, the media.
The first fax said, ‘On a plateau 36 miles north-west of Marree there is a giant drawing of an Aborigine more than two miles long.’
A later fax said, ‘During the creation of the figure, a 36-inch by 25-inch dedicatory plaque was buried on the plateau four inches below the surface, 23 feet south of the point of the nose.’
Police dug a hole and, sure enough, there it was: a chipboard plaque with an American flag and a faded version of what looked like the Olympic rings.
The next message said, ‘There will now be provided weekly, for several weeks, a series of answers to such questions as: Who, Why? How?’
More faxes arrived, all leading to clues buried near other giant geoglyph figures in England—the Cerne Giant in Dorset and the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex.
One clue answered the why. It said, ’As a permanent benefit to the state of South Australia through increased tourism, and also to honour the inherently athletic pursuits of the Indigenous people for the Sydney Olympiad’ referring to the Olympics in Sydney in 2000.
Who and how were never answered because the messages stopped.
There have been countless theories about who created the Marree Man, but it remains a mystery. Some think it was done by American or Australian soldiers based in Woomera in South Australia.
Others suspect Bardius Goldberg, a Northern Territory artist who died in 2002. Goldberg, who talked about creating a work visible from space, refused to confirm or deny that he had created the image. On his death bed, Goldberg made references to the Marree Man and indicated some involvement. But who knows. Marree Man is certainly visible from space.
Over the years, Marree Man had been worn away by the elements. Aaron Stuart, chairman of the Arabana Aboriginal Corporation, that holds native title over the location, launched a plan in 2016 to restore the image.
He recruited Phil Turner to organise the job. They got a surveyor, crunched all the data they could, rented a grader and went up to the plateau for 11 days and restored the Marree Man. Unfortunately they lacked the GPS coordinates that would make the finished work look like the original Marree Man, and not some jumbled mess.
Amazingly, someone sent an email with the exact GPS coordinates. Turner reckons they are from the original operation. GPS technology was in its infancy in the 1990s. Obviously someone who knows a lot about the Marree Man was still around in 2016.
So why am I writing about this fellow today? I’m thrilled to say that after hearing about the Marree Man about a month ago, I’ve now seen him in person. Poor John and I have just finished a tour in central Australia that included three flights.
We travelled with Outback Spirit, with the main focus on Lake Eyre (more about that later). Poor John’s brother and sister-in-law, David and Charlotte, were among our traveling companions. We met our pilot, Chris, in Marree the night before our first flight, and Charlotte was quick to ask whether he’d be swinging us past the Marree Man on our way to Lake Eyre.
Thanks Charlotte, your request worked. And I almost forgot to mention that I scored the co-pilot’s seat on the first flight. We had two more flights that day. David and Charlotte scored the co-pilot seat on both.