By Tony Healy.
During the early colonial era, Aborigines often warned British settlers about huge, ape-like creatures that supposedly lurked in the rugged mountains and deep forests of eastern Australia and in the Outback. Their people, they said, had been encountering the hairy horrors since time immemorial. They knew them by many names, including doolagarl, thoolagarl, gubba, jimbra and jurrawarra.
In the 1820s, for instance, the Awabakal people told Captain Peter Cunningham, who farmed in the Hunter Valley N.S.W, about a monster known locally as Puttikan that resembled a tall man with a hairy body and long mane. Its feet were reversed to confuse trackers and its skin was so tough that spears could not pierce it. It roamed by night and devoured children, but was afraid of fire. On still summer evenings, Cunningham heard strange cries that were attributed to the hairy giant echoing through the mountains.’
In The History of Australian Exploration From 1788-1888, Ernest Favenc wrote about two squatters named Oakden and Hulkes who, in 1851, were told by Aborigines to the west of Lake Torrens, South Australia, that ape-like creatures were sometimes encountered in the area. He added that Messrs Dempster, Clarkson and Harper were warned about similar animals in south-west Western Australia in 1861:
“[The Aborigines] gave an account of the jimbra or jingra, a strange animal … resembling a monkey, very fierce, and would attack men when it caught one singly.”
The natives also said that, some years previously, three white men had died far away to the east – possibly killed by jimbras. Favenc went on to say that some Western Australian Aborigines believed the three men were the last survivors of Ludwig Leichhardt’s doomed 1848 expedition, and that jimbras not only killed them – but also ate them.
It wasn’t long before gob-smacked colonists began to report actual encounters with the huge, foul-smelling, but damnably elusive beasts, which they referred to as “Australian apes”, “yahoos”, “youries” or simply as “the Hairy Man”.
Henry Lawson was familiar with the phenomenon. In Triangles of Life and other Stories (Melbourne 1913) he wrote:
“… the Hairy Man was permanent, and his country spread from the eastern slopes of the Great Dividing Range right out to the ends of the western spurs. He had been heard of and seen and described so often and by so many reliable liars that most people agreed there must be something. So now and then…search parties were organised and went out with guns to find the Hairy Man, and to settle him and the question one way or another. But they never found him.”
An “Australian Ape”
In a letter to the Australian Town and Country Journal, 9 December 1882, H.J. McCooey told of meeting, just a few days earlier, in the bush between Batemans Bay and Ulladulla, an “Australian Ape”:
“… a number of birds were pursuing and darting at it … it was partly upright, looking up at the birds, blinking its eyes and distorting its visage and making a low chattering … Being above the animal and distant less than a chain [22 metres] I had ample opportunity of noting its general appearance.”
Nearly five feet tall and tail-less, the creature was “covered with very long black hair which was dirty red or snuff colour about the throat and breast. Its eyes, which were small and restless, were partly hidden by matted hair. The length of the arms seemed to be strikingly out of proportion … it would probably weigh about 8 stone … it was a most uncouth and repulsive looking creature, evidently possessed of prodigious strength”. The bemused bushman eventually threw a stone at the animal, which rushed off into a ravine, pursued by its squawking persecutors.
Even today, hardly a month goes by without someone – a bushwalker, a hunter, a farmer, a ranger, a soldier – sometimes even groups of people – coming forward to describe hair-raising encounters with the legendary ape-man. We have documented nearly 400 such reports, dating from 1848 to 2019, and have personally interviewed about 250 eyewitnesses.
Although sceptics like to explain – or explain away – the yowie phenomenon as an amalgam of Aboriginal myth, hallucinations and hoaxes, some of the physical evidence that has been collected – footprint casts, hanks of hair, half a dozen “yowie nests”, plus a couple of huge, incredibly foul-smelling droppings – suggests that the damnably elusive creatures really do exist.
One of Australia’s most knowledgeable and experienced bushmen, Major Les Hiddens (“The Bush Tucker Man”) found the physical evidence so compelling that he intends to set up camera traps in an area of north Queensland rain forest that is noted for yowie sightings.
He first became intrigued by the mystery while escorting a party of six scientists to a remote location near the Russell River, in the leech-infested, rain-sodden jungle between Millaa Millaa and Cairns. He described the incident in The Townsville Bulletin, December 8, 2004:
“In that country it takes a good hour to move 1 kilometre through the scrub … the forward scout came upon this very strange construction … that left us quite baffled. Someone or something had constructed a rectangular sleeping mat on the ground made from fronds. It was perhaps a little over a metre long and a metre wide. This mat had been slept on that very night and the vegetation [calamus fronds] that made up the mat was extremely fresh. None of us could come up with any sort of logical answer. We examined the ends of the fronds to see if they had been cut … but they had been chewed off the main vine, not cut. Dr John Campbell, our expedition archaeologist, said that ‘If I were anywhere but here in Australia, I would have to say that was a primate nest’.”
Major Hiddens is also very impressed by the eyewitness reports of fellow servicemen, including Corporal J. Webster of the SAS, who sighted a yowie about 25 kilometres south of the Russell River.
“On the 23rd July 1985”, Cpl Webster wrote, “while working in the Dowrey Creek area of Palmerston National Park, I observed a creature, not animal or man … about 50 metres away … rubbing itself against a tree … it stood up … stared at me for a few seconds then walked off into the scrub. Height: 5 ft min; weight: 80-90 kg; covered in fur or hair; walks upright”
The yowie phenomenon is Australia’s greatest anthropological or zoological mystery. Aborigines have apparently known of the creatures since time immemorial, British colonists encountered them at least as early as the 1840s and people – even foreign visitors who’ve never even heard of the creatures – just keep on seeing them.
Occasionally, after a particularly dramatic report, search parties are organised, sometimes armed with guns, sometimes with cameras. They go out to find the creature, to settle the question once and for all. But, as in Henry Lawson’s day, they never manage to do so.
As always, the Hairy Man simply fades back into the wilderness.