It was 1997. Midway through our jungle training course in the Border Ranges, my platoon of 30 strapping young blokes left the renowned Kokoda Barracks of Canungra in Unimogs (AWD vehicles), under the watchful eye of SAS elite. This was the bush phase: time for the young guns to put their newfound knowledge into practice and impress the gnarly veterans.
After days of patrolling through mountains and valleys heaving with leeches, surrounded by ‘wait-a-while’ vines that could strangle a grown man, we were carrying out another mock attack on an enemy we could never see. The jungle was so thick that visibility was less than 5-10m even during the day. At night, we were swallowed by what’s known as ‘the jungle dark’. The triple canopy of the rainforest blocked all light from the stars and moon so we couldn’t even see our hands 3cm in front of our faces.
So there we were, with our trip-flares set and sentries posted 15-20m apart in a tight circle. Before dusk, I’d given the order for no-one to move unnecessarily. After all, as the guy who was leading this platoon, I didn’t want to be responsible for someone stumbling out for a piss in the jungle dark and getting lost. There’s enough paperwork to deal with in the Army for losing a paperclip, let alone a soldier!
For four hours we stayed silent with only the sound of sentry changes and the normal jungle noises of frogs, bandicoots and so on. Then I heard it: footsteps, echoing from a two-legged gait ahead. Padding gently on the damp undergrowth, circumnavigating our position, sometimes doubling back.
I approached the sentry, crawling on my hands and knees following a small cleared path and hanging on to the guide-rope to keep me on track.
“Who the hell’s moving?”
“We don’t know… It’s out there boss.”
By then, my movement had caught the instructor’s attention.
“There’s enemy out there. Our position’s being probed,” I said.
“No it bloody isn’t.”
“Then, what the f$#k is out there?”
Were the sentry and I hearing things?
Now, I’m not saying anyone crapped themselves at that point, but you could smell the tension. For the next 20 minutes, all you could hear was normal jungle noises. Everyone was at stand-to looking out and listening… before the footsteps started again. This time moving away, with no trip-flares or other early warning devices activated.
In the morning, I sent out clearing patrols. But we found no footprints, no broken branches. Nothing to mark the passage of our midnight prowler. We’d all heard those footsteps. But what, if anything, can move in the jungle with such ease – in the pitch dark? I know this much: it was certainly the first – and only time – in a 24 year Army career that my sentries stayed absolutely alert all night!
Our encounter occurred in the dense Border Ranges, which was originally logged by cedar getters from 1842 but further opened up in the 1970s and 80s with forestry roads. A significant part of this rugged area was declared as national park in 1983. Three years later, it was listed as part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area.
Scoff at this story if you like, But tales of the Yowie (Yuuri or Yahoo) are deep in Indigenous bush lore. Some suggest that the Yowie has walked this land before the Dreamtime. Meanwhile, European encounters are prominent in Australia with more than 3000 documented cases. The earliest of which is recorded in 1795 by a group of convicts and marines.
There’s a name for creatures like these – ‘cryptids’ – and people who study them are known as cryptozoologists. Australia’s pre-eminent expert in the field ‘Tim the Yowie Man’ claims to have seen a Yowie in 1994 in the Brindabella Ranges. Since then he’s investigated Yowie sightings and paranormal activity in Australia and internationally.
He told me there’s reason to take a longer look when things send a shiver up your spine in the bush. As he says “Australia’s the envy of cryptozoologists around the world for the variety of cryptids lurking in our bush, outback, billabongs and along our remote stretches of coast. The jungle of south east Queensland has the highest density of Yowie sightings in the country.”
Well, that’s a relief. At least my group of young diggers on jungle training in 1997 weren’t the only ones who’ve spent a night out bush thinking – ‘WTF was that?!’