The mystery of Banjawarn station and the deadly doomsday cult that called it home
10 Feb 2018
Vast, sparse and remote, it's difficult to picture Western Australia's central desert region as an integral link in a Japanese doomsday cult's murderous plan to survive an imminent apocalypse and assassinate non-believers.
But that unlikely scenario is exactly what played out on a far-flung cattle station near Leonora in WA's Goldfields region 25 years ago when members of religious sect Aum Shinrikyo moved in.
cult members were persuaded to stockpile biochemical weapons
The group would two years later earn global notoriety for its deadly Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks, in which 12 people died, 50 were left permanently injured and thousands of others were temporarily blinded.
This bizarre and little-remembered chapter of West Australian history is explored in a new Perth Festival exhibition, Banjawarn, by visual artist Christopher Charles.
Banjawarn was the name of the cattle station bought by the cult in 1993. Exactly what they got up to in that isolated location, 800 kilometres north-east of Perth on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, remains a mystery a quarter of a century later.
It's a mystery fuelled by evidence of sarin poisoning, a strange and still unexplained blast and flash of light that rocked the region on May 28, 1993, rumours about uranium mining and the development of nuclear weapons, and endless conspiracy theories.
Anthrax and apocalypse
Initially drawing on elements of Buddhism and Hinduism, cult leader Shoko Asahara was also intensely interested in Christian notions of the apocalypse. He was convinced World War III was imminent and would result in the destruction of the planet.
To survive, cult members were persuaded to stockpile biochemical weapons, including the deadly nerve agent sarin and killer diseases including anthrax.
Many of Asahara's followers were bright young university students and graduates, disillusioned with the pressure of Japanese society to succeed, and many of whom were recruited for their scientific capabilities.
Charles said this was one of the things that sparked his interest in the group.
I wanted to know what is it about human nature that can change a gentle religion into a cult that commits mass atrocities, and what makes intelligent people want to join?" he said.
"There was this whole generation of intelligent but socially isolated people interested in technology and drawn into this fantasy world of manga comics, and then comes a group that offers them a sense of community, a ticket to enlightenment that offers access to these technological advancements.
"Here is your chance to live the dream, here is your expedited trip to nirvana."
Customs on alert
About 25 members of Aum Shinrikyo came to Australia to stay at Banjawarn in 1993, and while the group had come to the attention of Australian Customs upon their arrival in the country because of the vast amount of excess luggage they brought with them - reportedly $30,000 worth - few members of the public knew of the cult's existence.
The bizarre inventory they carried with them to Australia included generators, ditch diggers, gas masks, lab equipment and chemicals - including hydrochloric acid transported in large glass bottles labelled "hand soap".
It would be unimaginable to try to carry this sort of cargo on a plane today, and even back then it was enough to raise red flags.
Two members of the cult were arrested and charged with carrying dangerous goods on an aircraft and fined $2,400 each, and Customs seized some of the chemicals and lab equipment.
But after that minor blip, the group were sent on their way to Banjawarn, free to buy more chemicals to replace those confiscated and to begin their clandestine activities far away from prying eyes.
A black and white photo of a dilapidated wool shed at Banjawarn station in the Goldfields showing the floor and some fixtures.
Deadly sarin attack
It wasn't until the sarin attack in the Tokyo subway in March, 1995, that most Australians had heard of Aum Shinrikyo.
That attack, regarded as the first ever use of a weapon of mass destruction in an act of terrorism, took place on crowded trains at the peak of the morning rush hour on March 20, when tens of thousands of Japanese commuters were on their way to work.
Five cult members used the tips of their umbrellas to pierce plastic bags of liquid sarin gas on separate trains at the same time, before disembarking and escaping into getaway vehicles.
The gas, first developed by the Nazis in the 1930s, seeped through the carriages on each of the trains and through the respiratory systems of thousand of passengers, causing convulsions, bleeding from the mouth and nose, seizures and paralysis.
Twelve people died in the shocking attack and an estimated 6,000 were injured, many of them permanently.
Days later, police raided branches of the group all over Japan, uncovering tonnes of chemicals and arresting hundreds of cult members.
Eventually, 13 cult members would be sentenced to death for their roles in the Tokyo attack and a series of other murders and terror attacks across Japan.
Nuclear explosion or earthquake?
Investigations into the group's activities soon led authorities to that unlikeliest of locations, Banjawarn station in the WA outback.
Federal and WA police raided the property, long since abandoned by cult members, and uncovered evidence of a range of suspicious activities.
It appeared the station had been used for variety of scientific experiments, including the manufacture and testing of sarin.
Traces of the deadly nerve agent were found in the carcasses of 24 sheep found on a remote part of the property and in the surrounding soil.
Aum Shinrikyo's interest in acquiring nuclear weapons was by this time well known, and rumours began to swirl that uranium had been mined on the property.
Locals recalled a strange event that punctured the still of the desert evening on May 28, 1993, when a sonic blast rocked the area, accompanied by several bright flashes of light in the night sky.
The seismic rumble was big enough to be recorded by Geoscience Australia, measuring around 3.6 on the Richter scale, and had been thought to be no more than a small earthquake.
However, the Aum Shinrikyo connection with the area was enough to pique the curiosity of international authorities, prompting a US Senate committee to investigate.
While the exact source of the unusual event was never conclusively nailed down, a nuclear test was ruled out because of the type of seismic signal, and it was thought to have been either an earthquake or meteorite strike.
Meanwhile, the cult's charismatic leader Shoko Asahara, now in his 60s, and 12 of his followers remain on death row in Japan, awaiting execution.
And conspiracy theorists continue to speculate about what really happened on a remote cattle station in the West Australian desert 25 years ago when a doomsday cult moved in.
Banjawarn is on at Gallery Central in Northbridge until March 3.
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