King's "UFO vision" at the tragic end of the 1861 Burke and Wills expedition
150 years ago the epic Burke and Wills expedition was ending in tragedy. Within days both Burke and Wills would be dead, victims of an expedition gone wrong and paying the ultimate price in the harsh conditions of the Australian outback at Coopers Creek.
However even while death was only days away,William John Wills recorded in his journal for Tuesday June 23:
"Near daybreak King reported seeing a moon in the east with a haze of light stretching up from it to be quite as large as the moon and not dim at the edges. I am so weak that any attempt to get a sight of it was out of the question; but I think it must have been Venus in the Zodiacal light that he saw, with a corona around her."
Maybe Wills was right. After all he was the surveyor and astronomical observer for the ill-fated expedition. Between 1858 and 1860 he had worked as an assistant at Melbourne's Flagstaff observatory.
In his 1976 Boyer lecture historian Manning Clark stated:
"The story of Burke and Wills could be told to illustrate many things about life. Like all great stories it had everything.... To feel the full force of that tragedy one has to stand on the banks of Cooper’s Creek at the spot where Wills died. Right to the very end Wills had believed, like Mr Micawber, that something might turn up.... The most difficult thing of all for a historian is to learn how to tell his story so that something is added to the facts, something about the mystery at the heart of things."
Well, something may indeed have turned up. Astronomy software reconstructing the early morning sky for the period in question suggests that Venus was below the sunrise horizon, and the moon was in the west. So if these tentative reconstructions are correct we have a mystery on our hands. I suspect it was something prosaic that the lone expedition survivor - John King - saw that morning, 150 years ago. Perhaps given the dire and tragic circumstances closing in on the 3 men, that precision in observations may have understandably started to lapse.
What did John King see - Venus, the moon, a UFO?
Wills original journal which carries King's "vision" is held in the National Library of Australia. The account is excerpted here. A mosaic of film and books (fact & fiction) is also included.