Michael Terry is little known now but was one of a small group of adventure-writers who helped to shape Australia’s self image during the 20th century. A genuine explorer, who took advantage of motor vehicles to traverse some of the last desert areas crossed by Europeans in Australia, he helped to open up and map large areas of desert country. In 1961 he discovered unusual rock art at Cleland Hills, west of Alice Springs, depicting stylised faces, which he thought may have indicated ancient foreign contact. From that time on secret visitors became an obsession and he can be credited with collecting many of the stories that were later picked up by Rex Gilroy and others and have become part of secret visitor lore.
Terry’s autobiography The last explorer remained incomplete upon his death in 1981, and was finished by his sister Charlotte Barnard . The title refers to his position in the pantheon of Australian continental expl0ration, having traversed parts of arid Australia largely avoided by previous explorers, prospectors and pastoral settlers. He pioneered motor transport and aerial survey in central Australian exploration.
Terry was born in England in 1899. He served in the Royal Naval Air Service driving armoured cars in the British miltary contingent that supported the anti-Bolshevik forces in the Russian Civil War. After that he came to Australia and within a short time was selling cars and trucks. On an extended tour with a mate he drove from Winton in Queensland to Broome, WA inadvertently performing the first motorised trans-Australian crossing. While this had been a personal adventure it led to an offer to write newspaper articles and a talk to the Royal Geographical Society. Terry describes becoming engaged and then addicted to the idea of further exploration in the modern manner. His next journey was supported by various sponsors with film and print rights already sorted. Once his familiarity with the outback became known he was often engaged to ferry prospectors into these areas. Most of Terry’s expeditionary work took place between the wars in an area that also became the domain of the writer Ion Idriess. Idriess and Terry clashed over the truth of the story of Lasseter’s lost reef. Idriess took it personally and his biographer records that his letters were filled with complaints about Terry, and repeated any malicious gossip about him that he had heard [Eley 1995: 202].
The first incident relating to secret visitors was Terry’s discovery of pecked stylised faces at Cleland Hills, west of Alice Springs. Although largely retired from exploration he led a prospecting party to Thompson Well, a natural reservoir west of Alice Springs. He had visited this site in 1932 and not noticed anything unusual. On their last day on his second visit, in 1961, he recounts that his wash basin was in just the right position for him to notice a pecking-engraved face in the oblique dawn sun. Finding a large number of engravings in similar style nearby he sought to engage archaeological or anthropological interest in the discovery.
Terry’s imagination was fired and he thought that the art represented a distinctly non-Aboriginal presence in early central Australia. He cast around for analogues, and seems to have found some in mentions of the ‘suns’ – concentric circles with lines radiating from the centre as examples of the claimed heliocentric [sun-worshipping] cultures that hyper-diffusonists like Grafton Elliott Smith and others suggested brought the gifts of civilisation to other parts of the world [eg. Smith 1933].
After much lobbying Terry finally persuaded anatomist Professor NWG Macintosh of Sydney University and Bob Edwards of the South Australian Museum to visit the site, supported by the South Australian Museum and Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies. They documented the Cleland Hills as a major site with 387 engravings, including 16 stylised faces. Edwards affirmed their great age but did not support Terry’s ideas about their foreign, non-Aboriginal origin [Edwards 1968].
The recent find clearly fascinated Terry and the topic of secret visitors became a significant obsession in his later years. During this period he was engaged by old friend Hudson Fysh of QANTAS to write articles for their inflight magazine promoting outback and Pacific destinations to boost tourism. The arrangement is sketchily described in his autobiography, which is noted as being very thin on personal insight, despite being an enjoyable read [Dewar 2009]. He was as interested in the opportunities for trips to tropical islands with ‘the Perfect Body’. Therefore we have to turn to incidental clues to understand Terry’s engagement with secret visitor subjects.
In 1963 Terry heard about a Hellenistic Egyptian coin allegedly found by a farmer in 1910 in coastal Queensland. An initial tentative article [Terry 1965] and a later more definite one following the expert advice [Terry 1967] declare his beliefs. Terry thought the circumstances made the find uncontestable, and it became the lynch-pin of his secret visitor theory. The find is discussed in detail in an earlier post [Part 2, Part 3, Part 4]. Unfortunately it is demonstrably a modern forgery, although it is unclear whether there was deliberate deception by the original finder in 1910 or more recently by other people.
Terry appears to have respected the opinion of professional archaeologists, up to a point. He certainly sought out their opinion rather than pretending he was an authority on ancient history. When he investigated the authenticity of the Ptolemy IV coin he spoke to both Vincent Megaw, of Sydney University and Jack Golson of the Australian National University, who together constituted about a third of the population of academic archaeologists in Australia. He almost certainly contacted John Mulvaney as well, who was more dismissive of his ideas. Mulvaney is almost certainly writing about Terry when he says about the secret visitors phenomenon, based on isolated finds of coins or other objects:
Perhaps it should be termed the ‘Lasseter syndrome’. Like Lasseter’s reef of gold, some of these finds have been publicised by extrovert outback characters, unversed in archaeology, anthropology, history or verbal restraint. [Mulvaney 1989: pp. 16-17]
Following on from this Terry sought out a range of other evidence and increasingly began to suspend his critical assessment to accept even vague anecdotal evidence in long lists as ‘proofs’ of secret visitors. He initially thought Egyptians of the Hellenistic period arrived here, based on the evidence of the Ptolemy IV coin, but began to broaden the story to accommodate all of the possibilities that the evidence opened up.
Terry’s later writing and claims are listed separately, and cover a range of magazines exploring the general topic. Many of the long, unsourced lists in these articles have subsequently been reproduced, without credit, by Rex Gilroy, in his Mysterious Australia  and other writings, and from there by many other internet sources.
Given his colourful life and genuine contribution to exploration it is unclear exactly why Terry is not nearly as well-known as other outback writers. His secret visitor speculations in his later years should not have tarnished his reputation quite so completely.
Dewar, Mickey 2009
‘Michael Terry: the last explorer?’ Journal of Northern Territory History, 20, pp. 51-74.
Edwards, Robert 1968
‘Prehistoric rock engravings at Thomas Reservoir, Cleland Hills, western Central Australia’, Records of the South Australian Museum, 15, pp. 647-670. Available here.
Eley, Barbara 1995
Ion Idriess, Imprint Books, Sydney.
Gilroy, Rex 1995
Mysterious Australia, Nexus Publishing, Mapleton, 1st edition.
Mulvaney, J.D. 1989
Encounters in place: outsiders and Aboriginal Australians 1606-1985, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia.
Smith, G.E. 1933
The Diffusion of culture, Watts, London.
Terry, M. 1965
‘Did Ptolemy know of Australia?’, Walkabout, 31, 8 August 1965, pp. 30-31.
Terry, M. 1967
‘Australia’s unwritten history’, Walkabout, August 1967, pp. 19-23.