A Doomsday Cult's Secret Sarin Ranch in Outback Australia

Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Feb. 28 2014 12:03 PM

The Tokyo Sarin Cult's Outback Australian Test Ranch

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

On March 20, 1995, members of the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas into Tokyo's subway system during the morning rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring thousands.

In order to prepare for the attack, members of Aum Shinrikyo conducted sarin tests in an unlikely location: outback Australia. In April 1993, the cult purchased Banjawarn, a sheep ranch in the state of Western Australia. There they conducted nerve-agent experiments — on the sheep.

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When the Australian Federal Police raided Banjawarn following the Tokyo attacks, they found a laboratory hidden in an abandoned house. Inside were piles of labware, Bunsen burners, mixing bowls, and generators. Soil at the ranch contained traces of methylphosphonic acid, a residue of sarin. Twenty-nine sheep carcasses strewn around the site showed signs of sarin exposure. 

Besides the nerve-agent tests, Aum Shinrikyo may have been conducting more ground-shaking experiments. Late at night on May 28, 1993, there was a seismic disturbance in the area. A fireball shot into the air, flashes lit up the inky sky, and a low rumble spread across the desert.

Though there is no concrete evidence that the explosion was a nuclear test, Aum Shinrikyo had a keen interest in nuclear weapons and had visited Russia frequently in search of munitions experts. The cult was also mining uranium at Banjawarn — a key ingredient in atomic bombs. 

Police concluded that the sect once intended to establish a permanent haven in Australia, but found no evidence of its members living in Australia. Banjawarn has since reverted to its pastoral origins, operating as a cattle farm with a four-bedroom cottage, garden, and orchard.

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Ella Morton is a writer working on The Atlas Obscura, a book about global wonders, curiosities, and esoterica adapted from Atlas Obscura. Follow her on Twitter.

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