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The curious case of the crop circles in Ngatea

Actually kind of fairly almost credible evidence suggests that an alien spacecraft landed in a field in the Hauraki Plains.

At 7.30pm on September 4, 1969, two Straits Air Freight Express pilots reported an unidentified flying object in the form of a fluorescent blue pulsating light out the pilot’s side window. Earlier that day, farmer Bert O’Neill had taken a walk around his farm near Ngatea near Thames. He’d noticed that some of his normally green manuka trees appeared to be silvery in colour on the tips. He thought it was a bit odd, so decided to investigate. He couldn’t quite believe what he found.

O’Neill came to a formation of trees that were completely dead and had been bleached a silvery colour. They formed a circular patch, perfectly round, measuring 142 centimetres in circumference.

Within the centre of the circle were three very clear and deep V-shaped impressions in the ground. They were evenly spaced, giving the appearance of some object with three long tripod legs coming down and landing with great force. The marks were pushed into the earth with so much force that it had cut deep down to the roots of the trees.

O’Neill had never seen anything like it and could not fathom what the hell had caused it.

Several nights later, he had a group of friends over for dinner and he regaled them with tales of what he had seen. The group were stunned. Talk turned to the UFO sighting in Wellington a few nights earlier. One guest half-joked that both events might be linked, suggesting that the Martians had decided to pay us a visit. Had they landed their spacecraft at that spot on the farm? Had the craft’s legs caused the deep grooves in the earth? Was the damage caused by the spacecraft blasting off again?

The next day, one of the dinner guests phoned Harvey Cooke, president of the Tauranga Science Space Research Group, who travelled immediately to the farm.

In 1997, Cooke told New Zealand Geographic he was adamant that the circle had not been made by humans. He recalled how the three equally spaced depressions into the manuka formed an equilateral triangle, the result of an estimated 20 tonnes of pressure. He also noted that "the toes had been moved out from the pad after the object had landed. The ground had been pushed away and the flat end cut through the roots of the manuka."

"Some kind of short-wave high-frequency radiation has cooked [the trees]...I know of no earthly source of energy which could have produced these effects."

Cooke collected a number of samples and consulted members of the University of Auckland’s UFO research group and the New Zealand Scientific Space Research Group. The scientists made haste. The story had become front page news around the country. Initially, there was some suggestion that the damage had been caused by a neighbour's weed killer. Bu they denied it, and a weed expert confirmed that even a high level of spraying would not cause the extent of damage seen in the paddock.

Kingsley Field, then a junior reporter for the Thames Star, reported the story. He says, "I headed out there and saw these peculiar circles. It was a strange looking formation and not easy explainable. I had absolutely no idea what caused it.

"The thing I do recall quite clearly was the three triangular footmarks. They would have been the size of, say, bread-and-butter plates, and were embedded quite deeply in the ground, sort of sloping. Each of them had a cross in the centre and a hole in the middle ... Many believed the triangular grooves were caused by a UFO or some kind of spacecraft blasting off. There were a lot of sceptics too, but really nobody had any logical explanation."

Before long, reporters, UFO enthusiasts and picnicking families began arriving in droves just to catch a glimpse of this phenomenon. For people like Harvey Cooke and groups he was affiliated with, it was extremely frustrating: thousands of people traipsing over the farm would disturb potentially vital evidence, which could prove the existence of life in outer space.

Guy Speedy lived near the O’Neill farm. He says, "The circles had a huge impact on Ngatea. The population swelled as soon as the papers wrote about it. Cars were clogging up the roads and hundreds of people just trod all over poor Bert’s farm, so he couldn’t get any work done. He would’ve made a hell of a lot of money by charging at the gate. I think it didn’t take long before he grew sick of the whole thing, the attention, and it just went on for months."

Harvey Cooke had collected enough samples to take things further. He rang the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), but they weren't interested. He then took the samples to respected Tauranga horticulturist John Stuart-Menzies, who initially suspected the cause was spray damage.

On closer examination, Stuart-Menzies changed his mind and said he couldn't work out what had caused the dead foliage. He suggested running a Geiger counter over the dead manuka. This showed signs of increased shortwave radiation, which grew stronger in the thicker parts of the timber. He was intrigued and insisted that DSIR should investigate, but again they were uninterested.

The pressure made its way to parliament...The minister authorised a plant pathologist to visit Ngatea.

Unwilling to give up, Stuart-Menzies agreed to carry out his own tests on the foliage samples. On October 6, he released his findings: "Some kind of short-wave high-frequency radiation has cooked the material from the inside outwards. The effects appear to have been instantaneous. The energy received has reduced the pith to black carbon without the outsides showing any signs of burning.

"I know of no earthly source of energy which could have produced these effects. A meteorite or lightning couldn’t do this, and it has been too sudden for combustion. Some outside object appears to have landed on the spot, and in taking off emitted the energy which cooked the plants."

The release of Stuart-Menzies’ research caused a huge media frenzy and led to questions being asked of DSIR – why weren’t they carrying out official sample testing? The pressure made its way up to parliament where the minister of both agriculture and science, Brian Talboys, publicly refused to comment. Privately, he scurried around trying to find anybody in any organisation who had the qualifications and experience to check this strange thing out.

Shortly afterwards, cattle on Blackmores’ farm in Puketutu, south of Te Kuiti, beat a hasty retreat from a pond from which they had been drinking. Reeds on the island in the middle of the pond had been flattened into a circular shape about 25 metres across. It appeared to have been burned, pressed down and spread outwards in a spiral pattern. On closer inspection there appeared to be tripod marks in the middle of the circle.

A family near Dargaville then reported having seen what they thought was a low-flying aeroplane on fire, like a torpedo with flames shooting from the back, for a few minutes one night. The following day, four circles measuring a bit over five metres in diameter were found on a hill on a nearby farm.

Brian Talboys authorised the DSIR to send a plant pathologist to Ngatea, augmented by a trio of scientists from Victoria University who specialised in botany, zoology and geology respectively. Their task was to take samples and analyse them.

More than a month had passed since the discovery of the Ngatea circle by the time the team arrived, so they were unable to take accurate readings or measurements. Sightseers and souvenir collectors had grabbed whatever they could. There was little left for them to analyse. They had to rely on the material collected by Harvey Cooke.

Within days, the DSIR had handed their findings to the minister. Talboys then announced that the symptoms found were consistent with death from a saprophytic fungus attack. He made no mention of the triangular grooves and refused to provide any further explanation, which angered many people who knew that fungus attacks dead trees but that it doesn’t cause their death.

Ngatea resident Peter Thompson was 10 years old at the time. He says, "It was a huge talking point. There were those who were absolutely certain it was a UFO encounter, but many were reasonably cynical. The thing that stands out the most is that every year there was a Santa parade through the township, and that year, 1969, almost every float was a UFO or had some kind of space theme. Everyone saw the humour and got into the act."

Harvey Cooke remained adamant for the rest of his life that the Ngatea Circle was caused by visiting extra-terrestrials.

Taken from the wildly entertaining collection of urban myths and paranormal riddles New Zealand Mysteries by Scott Bainbridge (Bateman Books, $39.99), available in bookstores nationwide.

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