Big Read: 'Blown up from the inside out' - the 1969 Ngātea crop circle

Jim Birchall
Jim Birchall

Editor - HC Post

At recent hearings in the United States Congress whistleblowers from within the intelligence community have disclosed information about Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP – formerly known as UFOs) and the potential existence of alien life. The extraordinary statements come hot on the heels of other announcements of verified sightings and videos of aircraft that defy our current understanding of technology and have sparked furious debate between sceptics and believers. While these disclosures have focused on the US, New Zealand has had its own history of UAP sightings, writes Jim Birchall.

The infamous “Kaikoura lights incident” on January 3, 1979, documented by an Australian film crew flying over the region, remains the best-known of New Zealand’s UAP sightings. However, many people will be unaware of a crop circle that appeared in a Hauraki Plains town many moons ago.

The Kaikoura lights UFO incident, a decade after the events at Ngātea captivated the nation. Photo / NZ Herald
The Kaikoura lights UFO incident, a decade after the events at Ngātea captivated the nation. Photo / NZ Herald

In the early spring of 1969, Ngātea – 18km southwest of Thames and 70km southeast of Auckland – created its own chapter in UFO folklore when a farmer discovered a triangular patch of burnt mānuka scrub, described by scientists as being “blown up from the inside out”.

The site, a nondescript paddock on Orchard Road East near Ngātea’s main street, was owned by farmer Bert O’Neill.

In what he describes as his favourite chapter from the book, author Scott Bainbridge penned a tale concerning the Ngātea curiosity in 2020′s New Zealand Mysteries. He wrote that, one September morning in 1969, “O’Neill had taken a walk around his farm. He’d noticed that some of his normally green mānuka 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 ...

“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.”

Researcher Harvey Cooke (right) inspecting the ground markings within the Ngātea circle.
Researcher Harvey Cooke (right) inspecting the ground markings within the Ngātea circle.

O’Neill’s story, coupled with reports of a UFO sighting a few days earlier in Wellington, led friends of the farmer to surmise that the same unexplained craft had made its way to Ngātea and left an impression in the paddock.

Harvey Cooke, the president of the Tauranga Science Space Research Group, heard about the discovery from a friend of O’Neill’s and travelled to the farm to see for himself.

In New Zealand Mysteries, Bainbridge stated that, 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 mānuka 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 mānuka.

“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 samples and consulted members of the University of Auckland’s UFO research group and the New Zealand Scientific Space Research Group. The investigators then conducted their own examinations.

Veteran journalist Kingsley Field was the first reporter on the scene in his capacity as caretaker editor of the (now defunct) Thames Star.

Field told the HC Post he and a photographer went to the farm after hearing about the incident on the local rumour mill. Being a “nosey journo, I would have phoned O’Neill for permission, and I ended up spending 30-45 minutes, with no other people there”.

He said of the marks: “There were three impressions in the ground – unusual and obvious and not consistent when compared with the surrounding area. The ground was bare and crushed.”

Field described walking around the site and feeling “somewhat eerie and peculiar. I couldn’t explain it to myself. I grew up on a farm, so I had the reasonable idea that it wasn’t some kind of plant spray”, as was speculated by others who had attended the scene and labelled the crop circle a result of the spraying of 245T – a now-banned herbicide.

A sketch of the "landing site" at Bert O'Neill's farm in Ngātea. Image / Waikato Times
A sketch of the "landing site" at Bert O'Neill's farm in Ngātea. Image / Waikato Times

“I thought that explanation was very far-fetched,” said Field, who noted the flattened area was in a “perfect circle” which would be ”impossible” to produce if the mānuka was sprayed and carried by the wind. “It was just a little too precise, the whole thing was just so extraordinarily unusual.”

By the time Field’s story hit the Thames Star, the mystery in Ngātea had been picked up by the big news outlets including the New Zealand Herald and quickly became a sensation.

New Zealand Mysteries detailed the growing fervour that swept the small settlement: “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 Ngātea. 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.’ ”

Kingsley Field added that the incident even took on a lighthearted slant some months later when local families dressed up in alien-themed costumes in the town’s annual Christmas parade and farmers played alien-themed jokes on each other.

“Interest waxed and waned after a few months,” said Field, who recalls the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) was not interested in the findings gleaned from Cooke’s samples.

The samples were inspected by a Tauranga horticulturist named John Stuart-Menzies, who retrospectively changed his mind about what killed the mānuka after an initial diagnosis of spray poisoning.

Bainbridge wrote: “On closer examination, Stuart-Menzies said he couldn’t work out what had caused the dead foliage. He suggested running a Geiger counter over the dead mānuka. 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 (Brian Talboys) authorised a plant pathologist to visit Ngātea.

“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 shortwave 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.’ ”

However, the DSIR response stunted further scientific analysis. “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,” wrote Bainbridge.

Author Scott Bainbridge covered the Ngātea UFO incident in detail in his book New Zealand Mysteries, distributed by Bateman.
Author Scott Bainbridge covered the Ngātea UFO incident in detail in his book New Zealand Mysteries, distributed by Bateman.

The official response was symptomatic of the buttoned-up, po-faced Government of the day, Field said. “Brian Talboys said the whole thing was rubbish – this was standard within the Government of the day who took the ‘don’t rock the boat approach’. There was a lot of scepticism about DSIR’s reluctance to investigate further, given there were other reported incidences (of UFO activity) at the time.”

The incidents Field alluded to were the reports of a herd of Te Kūiti cattle who fled a drinking pond that contained reeds flattened by an unknown source into a 25-metre-diameter circular shape that, according to Bainbridge, “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 5m in diameter were found on a hill on a nearby farm.”

While the Ngātea incident continues to fascinate, it remains unsolved. Public interest in UAPs remains high, with research group UFOCUS NZ receiving at least 50 or more sighting reports each year since its formation in 2000.

The group is dedicated to the scientific analysis of UAP sightings. Spokesperson Suzanne Hansen has nearly 50 years of experience investigating lights in the sky.

She says her worldview was shaken in 1975 when her car was engulfed and lifted off the road by a massive white ball of light, resulting in 90 minutes of missing time. That catapulted her into researching New Zealand’s rich history of UFO sightings and close encounter/contact experiences.

The group has examined the evidence for a multiple-witness sighting of an anomalous object in the Bay of Plenty in 2011, a 2012 sighting of a craft by a neuroscientist in Northland and a close-proximity observation of a triangular-shaped entity in the Dome Valley, north of Auckland, in 2013.

The group says its members include pilots, air traffic controllers, scientists, engineers and veteran researchers.

Hansen said many sightings “can be explained in conventional terms, while others lack sufficient information. A small number of sightings may have sufficient characteristics to be considered unidentified”.

“Sighting reports received are generally sent to UFOCUS NZ staff to investigate, which involves communication with the witness(es) and a final written report, and may involve visiting sites, and having photos/videos examined by a photographic data analyst. However, many reports short on detail can be briefly dealt with by phone or email.”

Did a UFO land and produce a crop circle near this farm in the Hauraki Plains town of Ngātea in 1969?
Did a UFO land and produce a crop circle near this farm in the Hauraki Plains town of Ngātea in 1969?

To this day, Kingsley Field, now in his 80s, maintains something extraordinary happened at Ngātea over 50 years ago, and he believes we are not alone.

“I have an open mind. It would be stupid to think that Earth could be the only place where life is, given the billions of galaxies we know exist outside our own.

“It’s very silly to be close-minded. Not long ago, people thought the world was flat but typically, or should that be tragically, humans like to think that we are it.”