Andre Clayton has an ‘open mind’ on life’s great mysteries.
Andre Clayton has an ‘open mind’ on life’s great mysteries.

Why I’ve got an open mind on UFOs and Yowies

YOWIES, UFOs and the universe … for Andre Clayden, the truth is out there.

And "out there" is Springbrook.

It's where this Gold Coast grandfather calls home, and where he aimed for the stars with his down-to-earth hospitality business, and ended up building an astronomical observatory.

The Springbrook Observatory, despite becoming a base for university researchers with its spinning dome structure and two roll-off roof observatories, receives no government grants or funding - and that's just the way Andre likes it.

After all, while he may now be a man dedicated to science with a degree in astronomy, he's not averse to a tall tale or two.

The legend of the Springbrook Yowie might have been given a leg up by Andre, back when he and wife Helen owned the Springbrook Homestead restaurant; while Andre was also associated with the Springbrook Mountain Extraterrestrial Response Force (SMERF).

Andre was SMERF's self-described middle man, taking calls through the night about strange events in the sky.

Andre Clayden of Springbrook Observatory says it’s important to keep an open mind. Photo: Regi Varghese
Andre Clayden of Springbrook Observatory says it’s important to keep an open mind. Photo: Regi Varghese

As a sceptic, it was his job to bring the science to the sensational stories - but the extra buzz it created around the mountain certainly didn't harm business.

"Look, as a scientist you have to keep an open mind … we cannot yet definitively prove or disprove the existence of UFOs, alien life … or even yowies for that matter," says Andre.

"With the yowies, my wife and I went along with that for a bit of fun when we were running the restaurant - anything that brings business up the mountain is good. But that really took on a life of its own.

"We had a plaster cast of a footprint and it went over to the US for dermal ridge testing and we were on talk shows … it became serious and people thought I was a researcher. But from my point of view, it was promotional … I'm not a cryptozoologist.

"Working with SMERF was fun too - although I did manage to identify the unidentified objects. Still, if thinking about alien life is what's going to get people looking up at the night sky, well, I don't think that's a bad thing.

"Life on the mountain is always a bit different, and I am a bit of an odd bod. That's why even though the Springbrook Observatory is the real deal, I don't want to ask for government funding to keep it going. Once you ask for money, you lose control.

"I don't want to have to comply to outside influences or sign affidavits, I like having complete autonomy.

"The money spent on me would be wasted anyway, it should go to hospitals and the homeless. I'm entrepreneurial enough to look after myself and keep the observatory going."

Indeed, Andre built the mountain-top research facility with his own two hands - taking five months and five kilometres of jigsaw cutting to construct the first dome more than two decades ago.

He says what started as yet another promotional sideline for his former restaurant, quickly took over as his life's passion.

And while it's the paying public who keep him in telescopes, he says he's less interested in attracting busloads of tourists than amateur and professional astronomers alike.

"We ran a little campaign for the Springbrook Homestead billing it as 'dinner with the stars' - and we provided a little telescope for diners to look at the night sky," he says.

"Springbrook really is a magic place for star-gazing, we're so close to the city yet have so little light pollution.

"People really loved it. It just happened at that time that there were some amazing things happening in the sky. There were comets like Shoemaker-Levy 9 and Hale-Bopp, there was a close approach of Mars … after two weeks, I knew I needed to get a new telescope.

Andre Clayden says Springbrook is a “magic place” for stargazers. Picture: Jerad Williams.
Andre Clayden says Springbrook is a “magic place” for stargazers. Picture: Jerad Williams.

"Then I got a bigger one, and a bigger one … and then I built the observatory. We opened with a modest 11-inch telescope, then 14 inches. Then we bought some more land down the road and set up the observatory with a deck and multiple telescopes - and now we have a 16-inch Ritchey-Chretien research-grade telescope.

"In astronomy, size really does matter.

"During that time, I went back to university and was formally trained in astronomy. We sold the restaurant and now I spend my time looking for comets, asteroids, supernovas … we have students doing their Masters in science and astronomy come and do their major projects here.

"It's amazing how it's grown. We used to have tours come through - busloads of overseas tourists would walk through but I eventually realised that's not what I want to do. I don't want to give the same talk every day to a bunch of people who aren't that interested. Even if it does earn more money.

"Now I don't give a spiel, I have conversations with people who love the sky. They come for hours - some of them are professional astronomers from Japan and America - some don't know much but they are interested. And that's all I ask for.

"What I try to persuade people to do is to think critically. To research, to ask questions, to observe … that's what it's all about. Keep an open mind and don't deny anything, see things differently."

Andre built the mountain-top research facility with his own two hands. Picture: Regi Varghese.
Andre built the mountain-top research facility with his own two hands. Picture: Regi Varghese.

Living next door to the protected rainforest of Springbrook National Park, Andre says one of the things he sees differently is climate change.

He says while he supports - and actively practices - shrinking his environmental footprint, he believes we are entering a time of cooling temperatures … and it's all down to the sun.

"I am not a climatologist, it's not my genre, but what I would say is that our weather is no more or less stable now than ever before - climate change has been a fact of life on Earth. In fact, it's far more stable now than in the time of the dinosaurs," he says.

"The question is what impact are we making on the climate? To me, no matter whether you think it's a big change or just a big hoo-ha, we should simply plant more trees and reduce our pollution. It can be that easy.

"But the really interesting thing is that while we are all talking about global warming, the really big issue is what's happening with the sun.

"There is a real lack of sun spots right now and all indications are that we are entering a Grand Solar Minimum. The last time we had a significant event like this was in the 1600s, the Maunder Minimum, which is also known as the Little Ice Age and lasted 70 years.

"It goes against the grain of everything we're being told from certain sources, but when you listen to the guys with PhDs, our climate is cooling not warming. We're heading towards another mini-ice age.

"Global warming, you're talking about a .03 degree rise in temperatures over 50 years, that's not a great deal. Even with Tuvalu worried about going under water - there are decades of photos showing the sea level going back and forth … they're not under.

"It's not an argument against reducing our impact on Earth, we should do that anyway. But we do need to think critically about what is really happening with our climate.

"Again, I'm not a climatologist but I am interested - and it relates to astronomy. I go on facts and specifics from multiple good sources - not just one source."

Springbrook Observatory has become a very popular spot for star-gazers.
Springbrook Observatory has become a very popular spot for star-gazers.

Meanwhile, Andre says locals should keep their heads up for some amazing meteor showers coming to the night sky.

The Geminids are set to put on a stunning show for stargazers - weather and moonlight allowing.

"We got our new telescope just one year ago and it feels like it's been cloudy ever since," says Andre.

"Hopefully we'll get a good view of the Geminid meteors this year. But even when there's nothing particular happening in the sky, it can still be a miraculous view. To see the craters of the moon in full detail, it's mind-blowing. Or to see the rings around Saturn or Jupiter's moons … you can imagine what Galileo felt like in the 1600s."

Andre says after almost 25 years mapping the night skies, he has a succession plan in mind for his Springbrook dominion. Although it looks like his retirement is still years away.

"My grandson could probably do a better job than me right now - but he's not even 10 years old yet," he says.

"He already corrects me … I'm confident he'll take over the observatory one day.

"It's nice to think we've built something here that can be a legacy for our family, for Springbrook and for the Gold Coast.

"Since the beginning of time, human beings have been fascinated by the celestial world. Times have changed, but that fascination hasn't.

"Just like sitting around a campfire and telling tales about the yowie … the mysteries of our world and the universe is something that speaks to all of us."