We stumbled across Wycliffe Well on the way down to Alice Springs. Nearly everybody does. The petrol is cheap and it's another 250 kilometres until you'll see toilets, so you pull over thinking it's a standard roadhouse. Then you discover it's not.
Wycliffe Well feels like an abandoned theme park. The roadhouse's main facade is coated in a flaky, space blue paint and detailed with galaxies and exploding stars. There's a derelict train out the back. A lake. Dozens of rusting alien-shaped mannequins and ruined sculptures. Inside is a cavernous restaurant, its walls covered with hundred of laminated UFO-related newspaper clippings. White lettering above reads, "Welcome to Wycliffe Well: UFO Centre of Australia."
It's all a bit sad. Everything is broken, faded, unloved. I went into the restaurant and asked the owners what it was all about, but they didn't seem to know much. They just said that it was originally developed by a guy named Lew Farkas who tried to capitalise on Wycliffe Well's notoriety as the spot for UFO sightings.
There have been UFO sightings around Wycliffe Well for decades. Google it and you'll find lots of stories, and even more theories. My particular favourite is that these unidentified objects are attracted to Wycliffe because of its cosmic alignment of landforms, tectonic plates, and manmade structures, which emit a type of UFO-friendly energy. Another is that the US military intelligence base Pine Gap is just nearby. So, you know, aliens.
I left the place feeling curious. I wanted to know who this Lew Farkas was, and why he'd built (and abandoned) such a weird place. And I wanted to get his thoughts on the aliens. So I tracked Lew down in Alice Springs and got him on the phone.
VICE: Hey Lew. How did Wycliffe Well start for you?
Lew Farkas: I first arrived in Wycliffe in 1985. It was supposed to be a five-year experiment but five years turned into 25. The problem being that during that time, I just kept on investing in the place.
The place reminds me of an abandoned theme park. Was it always like that?
No everything was full on when I was there. The Galaxy Auditorium was a 300-seat restaurant. There was a stage when we had shows in there. I also brought the train over from the Grampians. It used to be a tourist train and it was a job and a half getting it over here. My stepfather came out and was my train driver. It drove in the back and then around the lake, which we filled with Barramundi.
Did you build the lake as well?
Yeah, when they were building the highway, in between jobs, I had them build the lake for me and lay the barriers for the railway line.
Exactly how much money did you pour into this place?
Around $4 million dollars.
That's a lot of money. Especially in the 80s. Was it a business decision for you, or just because you loved UFOs?
Mainly business. I read a journal, it might have been an American journal, that called [Wycliffe] the "UFO Capital of Australia." I picked up on that and went with it. Originally, Wycliffe Well was just a fuel stop. When the highway opened, I started working on the idea that rather than tourists leaving Alice Springs and just heading blindly north, they'd be heading to me.
Were you the one who's responsible for making Wycliffe Well into "The UFO Capital of Australia?"
I guess it was me. But there was already UFO activity in the area. I came here to discover that tourists were coming in just to have some sort of memento for this UFO spot. That's how I started making up the souvenirs. Then, we made a mural of a UFO based on a sighting we had in the area. People would come and take a picture of that mural and nothing else. That's how we started converting everything—every wall, every bit of space in the area—to do with space, to do with aliens, to do with UFOs. It got famous very quickly and it put Wycliffe Well on the world map.
Was it successful?
Sometimes the UFO thing was good for business and sometimes it was bad. On a lot of occasions people were getting chased down the highway by lights. They would pull up and be panicking so much that they would say, "Quick give us a room, we can't stay out there." So that was good for business… It chased people away at times, but it brought customers in too.
What kind of tourists came to Wycliffe?
We used to get a lot of people who'd had personal UFO experiences that they had never told to anybody. When they came in, they had this urge to release their burdens. I had so many stories that I started these diaries. They were on the counter and people would just write their experiences in there. There were hundreds and hundreds of stories.
Do you still have the diaries?
When I left, I left everything. I didn't bring anything away from there. I left everything for the next owner so he could carry on. I don't have anything other than my memories now.
Do you remember any of your guests in particular?
One scientist came from England. He turned up with just a briefcase. He told us when he arrived that he was coming to investigate the sightings and that he could tell if there was anything in the atmosphere without even looking. When he opened up his briefcase, it was just like an old school lab. All these things would just fold out: little things zipping around, glass tubes, electronics. I don't know how it worked, but he left happy.
Why did you decide to leave Wycliffe Well?
Well, because I had no family life. My children were going through schooling so they were living in Alice Springs all those years. One time I got a call from school because someone had asked my daughter, "What does your father do?" And she said, "I have no father." That's when I knew it was time to revaluate my situation. You know, business was good for us. It helped put my children through school, put food on the table, paid the bills and everything. But it was time to go.
Do you miss Wycliffe?
Yes, I do. I miss the hustle and bustle of everyday business. Retiring was a complete 180 degree change. It was like jumping off a cliff really.
Do you regret spending so much money and time on Wycliffe Well?
If I was to do it again, I would do it differently. With the same end result, but I would have done it all differently.
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