It was the kind of ink-black night you only every encounter hundreds of kilometres from the bright lights of the city, the stars hidden under a thick blanket of low-hung clouds, when Richard Hardy first spotted the alien spacecraft.
Hardy was walking with his wife in Belmont, about 90mins north of Sydney, when the bright blue light appeared as if out of nowhere, hovering for a moment before seeming to dive toward the ground.
“At first I thought it was a flare, it was a such a solid, glowing blue,” Hardy told his local newspaper. “It came in from the north-west, then slowly descended, and then it changed quickly from blue to red. Then it shot straight up for a couple of seconds…changed back to blue, then shot over towards the south-west.”
That other-worldly encounter occurred in November 2013, and was corroborated by several others who also reported spotting this mysterious and strange-acting light. And it was only the beginning, with dozens more unexplained sightings popping up all over the Hunter region in the months and years since.
In short, the people in these parts are used to seeing some weird shit. Which makes it the only place on Earth where my bug-splattered head poking out of the roofless KTM X-Bow R as it burbles along the main drag in the tiny town of Singleton isn’t the strangest thing these sun- and beer-weathered locals have seen this week. Or even this morning.
The most alien-looking car to have ever prowled the streets of Australia, the KTM X-Bow R (pronounced Crossbow) defies description. Part super bike, part open-wheeler, it’s low, wide and somehow always out of proportion no matter which angle you view it from.
It looks like a stepped-on insect, or like a magnetic coffin that’s been dragged backwards through a field of brightly coloured metal shavings.
With only 25 to be sold per year, it is, and will remain, a virtually unidentifiable object.
And, most important, with an Audi-sourced turbocharged 2.0-litre engine propelling a vehicle that weighs slightly less than a pair of sneakers, it absolutely flies. All of which is reason enough for us to go UFO hunting in our very own unidentified object that flies.
Though, if we’re honest, the fact that our alien hunting ground is ringed on all sides by some of the best driving roads NSW has to offer (the sublime Putty Road on the way in, the sensational Old Pacific Highway on the way out) may have had a little something to do with it, too.
Traipse across the Hunter region and you’ll hear more talk of invading aliens than at a Pauline Hanson rally, with polls revealing more than 25 per cent of the population claim to have had some sort of encounter with a UFO. Nobody seems sure why.
Some blame alien interest in the coal mine-heavy region, with intergalactic travelling types keen to see what we’re digging out of the ground.
Others reckon the army base in Singleton could be a drawcard, with aliens trying to uncover our military secrets. But whatever the reason, one thing is certain: if the truth is out there, we’ll find it somewhere near the town of Singleton.
But first, the car: KTM’s X-Bow R isn’t actually all that new. A Frankenstein’s monster born of blending the traditional skill set of Austrian motorbike company KTM with a racing-derived carbon fibre tub and an engine and gearbox from Audi has been tearing up tracks across Europe for the past 10 years.
What is new, however, is its appearance in Australia, where some of the harshest regulations in the world had made the X-Bow R little more than an impossible dream. Enter, then, Simply Sports Cars - the company responsible for importing the Lotus range into the country.
A gruelling three-year compliance fight, launched back in 2014 and which included international crash testing and the addition of an oddly placed seatbelt-warning light and fuel-consumption placard, has finally been won, and the entirely alien X-Bow R is now free to prowl Australian roads - albeit in extremely limited numbers, with annual sales capped at 25 to comply with the Specialist and Enthusiast Vehicle Scheme. The cost? $169,990.
It’s lightweight in every conceivable way, with an unfit driver likely to add as much 20 per cent to the X-Bow R’s kerb weight. A carbon fibre tub made by motorsport specialists Dallara is the epicentre of the action.
A mid-mounted and turbocharged 2.0-litre engine sourced from Audi produces 220kW at 6,300rpm and 400Nm from 3,300rpm, sending it screaming to the rear tyres via a six-speed manual gearbox with the help of a Drexler mechanical limited-slip differential.
The lopsided Michelin Super Sport-wrapped wheels measure 17-inches at the front and 18-inches at the rear, with Brembo providing the stopping power at each corner.
The barely-there bonnet is punctured by the suspension arms, which you can watch pumping mesmerisingly from the driver’s seat, while the carbonfibre tub itself forms most off the body styling, with the occasional piece or orange or black plastic glued on for fun.
Viewed rear-on, it loos like something that should be fired from a war ship, with two rocket-shaped exhausts jutting out from below the wing.
But this car, such as it is, is less about what’s included and more about what’s missing, namely doors, a roof, a windscreen. The only creature comforts you're likely to encounter are the ones kamikaze crashing into your exposed face and eyes, and they’re anything but comfortable.
The seats - so thin they might have been carved from shadows - are fixed in place, but the pedal box can be moved on a single, sliding piece of metal that’s intended to make the journey just a little bit comfortable. It’s a task it singularly fails at.
The result of all this stripped-back determination, though, is a weight of just 790kg. And that means a brutally quick sprint to 100km/h of 3.9 seconds (and it feels every bit of it) and a theoretical top speed of 230km/h. And I do mean theoretical, with your head long since blown off the top of your neck before you get anywhere near it.
It’s a unique experience, long-distance touring in this mentalist KTM, and not just because the rock-hard seats appear to have been forged from undistllled hatred and seem designed specifically to punch holes in the base of your spine.
It is the kind of uncomfortable that can’t have happened by accident, and as the road bumps dance a tap-heeled mambo on your coccyx, you can’t help but imagine an Austrian engineer laughing maniacally in his underground lair.
With no roof or windscreen, and with a footprint the size of an actual footprint, navigating freeways is laughably insane, with trucks taking on gargantuan proportions and a lingering fear you’re not just sitting in their blindspot, but hiding about two feet below it. And as the traffic slowly crawled along a clogged M2 Motorway, doubts had begun puncturing our thin cloak of confidence.
But the traffic thins as we approach the infamous Putty Road, the entry point to 177km of driving bliss linking Sydney with the alien hotspot of Singleton. By the exit of the first corner, we’re in love.
The acceleration is raw and brutal, offering moments of serenity as the turbo winds up, before delivering its power in a great lump to the rear tyres, rubber chirping as they struggle to process what’s happening.
It might not be the fastest car on the road, but there’s no doubt it feels the fastest. The wind clutches at your face, the turbo whistles behind your head and the surge of the engine pushes you in the base of the spine as you climb through the gears via the stubbiest gear knob in existence.
Cornering is an insane delight, the vision is so immense that placing the front tyre smack-bang on the apex is as simple as cocking your head slightly to see exactly where you’re putting the wheel.
Push too hard too early, and the rear tyres will start to move sideways, but it’s all so smooth and progressive that there’s nothing terrifying about it.
The steering is unassisted. So are the brakes. Slow speed wheel turns require brute strength, and there are planets with faster turning circles. But get the X-Bow up to speed and there’s a lightness to it that’s hard to fathom. Turning into corners requires the slightest, smallest of inputs.
The grip, too, is simply immense, with the X-Bow tackling 35/km corners in third gear, with second all-but banished on high-speed runs. If the X-Bow has limits on a road like this, it will take a better driver than me to find them, with my bravery giving way long before the KTM.
It’s the kind of road - and the kind of car - it would be easy to get lost on for days. But we’re on a mission. We meet Dave Thurston halfway along the Putty Road. He emerges from behind a long-closed service station. No shoes. Wild hair. Ready to talk aliens.
“You see plenty of lights in the sky around here,” he says. “There’s some strange stuff going on.”
“My encounter wasn't too long ago. But it wasn't in the nighttime, it was in the evening. It was thick thick mass of clouds, they were almost pulsing, then they started splitting apart.
“In the middle was a kind of pyramid, but with a person on top of it, and with eyes that were big and black and square. He was suggesting I come with him, but I knew that would mean death.
“So I turned my back to it. It lasted a couple of minutes. And I could have gotten a photo of it, but I just never thought of it.”
Unlucky. But our adventure continues. We approach Singleton as nights falls, presenting a new and unique set of issues in the X-Bow.
During the day, sunglasses offer you some protection from the wind and rocks, but at night they offer only blindness.
Suddenly bugs - attracted by the headlights - are ricocheting off your corneas. My hands are sore from my steering wheel death grip, and the X-Bow is clanging over bumps, unleashing a river of pain that’s flowing through my lower back. It’s exhausting.
We pull to a rest stop just outside Singleton, directly opposite the area’s military base, when the Cauckwell family emerge from their property, drawn by the weird and wonderful KTM. We explain our mission, and mum Linda begins her story.
“I was at the RSL playing bingo. I was in the carpark talking with my sister, and the next minute everything just blacked out above us,” she says.
“We couldn’t hear or see anything, but we happened to turn our heads as ‘it’ took off. No lights, no noise, it just went. It was as big as the whole building as it flew off.
“I turned to my sister, and asked ‘did you see that?’ Neither of us were hanging about there after that.”
Linda directs us to a nearby lake, a spot where the countryside opens up and you can see the sky for kilometres in every direction. If we’re going to stumble across an alien encounter, this is where it will happen.
Photographer Thomas and I had just settled in to wait when the bright lights appeared suddenly over the crest of a hill, silhouetting a wild-looking figure approaching the still-steaming KTM.
It’s dark, and we’re miles away from anyone else, but Thomas is determined to capture an image of this mysterious and vaguely humanoid creature approaching through the mist.
We’re squinting now, both thinking our mission could at last be over, when the creature speaks.
“What the hell are you blokes doing out here?” He asks. “Just thought I’d see whether you need a hand with anything. Watch out for roos, now,” he adds, before climbing back into his LandCruiser and driving away.
Mission failed, then. But on the plus side, there’s still the Old Pacific Highway to tackle on the way home. And like the truth, the X-Bow’s limits are out there. And, like the truth, I'm unlikely to ever find them.