The Strange Story of Australia’s Mysterious Marree Man

Ella Morton,  Slate

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Charter pilot Trec Smith was flying over South Australia toward the opal mining town of Coober Pedy in June 1998 when he saw it: a 2.6-mile-tall naked indigenous man, his left arm raised and ready to launch a hunting stick toward unseen prey.

The perfectly proportioned figure, carved into the earth, was dubbed the Marree Man due to its proximity to the small outback town of Marree. Its wide lines, dug 10 inches into the ground, could only be seen from the air. But despite the planning, precision, and sheer boldness required to create it, no one came forward to claim authorship of the geoglyph—and apparently no one witnessed its creation.

The situation only got stranger. Anonymous press releases appeared, seemingly written from an American perspective. They used US units of measurement, referred to local places with awkwardly formal names, and referred to the Native American Great Serpent Mound in Ohio. In June 1999, a fax from the UK revealed that a message had been buried beneath the Marree Man’s nose. Authorities surrendered to curiosity and dug it up to discover a plaque that was decorated with an American flag, the Olympic rings—likely referring to the 2000 Sydney Olympics—and a quote about Aboriginal wallaby hunting from The Red Centre, a 1936 book on outback Australia.

The created-by-Americans angle seemed to be a red herring planted by an audacious eccentric. That’s where Bardius Goldberg, now considered the most likely perpetrator, comes in. Goldberg, an artist prone to provocation, had been making Aboriginal-style dot paintings near the desert town of Alice Springs when he got into a dispute with the traditional land owner, Herman Malbunka. National newspaper The Australian spoke to retired drilling contractor John Henderson, who said Goldberg used a borrowed GPS and a tractor to send a spiteful message to Malbunka in the form of the Marree Man.

Unfortunately, Goldberg died in 2002—according to The Australian, after getting a tooth dislodged in a bar fight, he refused to go to the dentist and developed fatal septicemia—meaning the mystery of the Marree Man has never been officially solved. Goldberg’s other schemes included planting eucalyptus trees in the shape of a giant kangaroo and installing a magically disappearing Virgin Mary in the wall of a house. To those who knew him, he was the only possible culprit.

The Marree Man is gradually disappearing due to erosion. In 2013 some impassioned locals spearheaded by Marree pub owner Phil Turner made a public plea to restore the geoglyph at an estimated cost of half-a-million dollars.

“It’s really no different to someone restoring a masterpiece, a Rembrandt or something like that that’s been lost and covered in dust,” Turner told Australia’s ABC News.

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