Reputable witnesses swearing by their sightings, tantalising but ultimately inconclusive evidence, enthusiastic search teams out scouring the wilderness, outlandish claims by dubious characters of creatures captured or killed, and a scientific community stubbornly unwilling to take seriously the possibility that some hairy hominid may just be living within our midst … sounds like the search for Bigfoot in 2011, right?
Well, think again. This is Yowie hunting 19th century style.
From the time those early colonials first headed out from the relative safety of the expanding settlement by the banks of Sydney Harbour into the unknown wilds of the Australian bush, stories quickly spread of terrifying encounters with a huge hairy, and often smelly, ape-like animal.
Many of those first encounters occurred in the rugged Blue Mountains that lay to the west of what is today the ever-expanding metropolis of Sydney. Check them out in The wild hairy man of the Blue Mountains.
Claims that a Yowie was shot
One of those earliest reports, from around 1820, is of the intriguing, yet unfortunately unsubstantiated, account of a colonial soldier startled by such an ape-like creature while out hunting for food. Apparently, the creature approached the unsuspecting soldier from out of the trees and began making “threatening gestures”. Obviously in fear of his life, it is said he shot the creature dead.
No convincing photo or video, no body, no DNA. But who knows? With the remoteness and ruggedness of the area, it’s unlikely the soldier could’ve dragged such a huge body back to civilisation. He would’ve had little choice but to leave the carcass to quickly rot in the bush and return to camp with his more appetising bounty.
As more colonists moved into the mountains, more encounters were reported. The creature was now well known to those hardy residents of the mountains. They often referred to him as the wild hairy man or the Yahoo. Today, we affectionately know him as the Yowie. He was said to like chickens, and was blamed for raiding many a local’s coop.
Opportunities for moneymaking
It didn’t take long before some of the more enterprising chaps of the colony began thinking of the entrepreneurial opportunities. One such chap was Mr Cummins of the Royal Hotel in Springwood. He offered 50 pounds for the capture of a live Yahoo so that he might “fasten him up in a hen coop and exhibit him to an admiring public, or sell him as an advertisement to a hair-restorative company”.
The Australian Town and Country Journal, in August 1885 also saw the merit in Yowie hunting.
“The rising generation in and around Tarago have been almost frightened by the appearance of an orangutan, or hairy man. Some short time ago one of these certainly very peculiar animals for this country was reported as having been seen near Parker’s Gap.
“Here is a chance for curiosity hunters,” the paper stated.
Yowie Hunters go bush
It was the good townspeople of Bredbo and Jingera who soon took up the challenge.
In An Esoteric Guide to Australia’s Capital, weirdaustralia reported the case of the Jingera Yahoo, spotted by a young man looking after stock on a Bredbo station and later also observed by several other reputable locals. The Yahoo was described as “walking with an unsteady, swinging, and fast step, his arms being bent forward and nearly reaching the ground, whilst the colour was described as bay, between a red and chestnut”.
Perhaps it was that same entrepreneurial spirit demonstrated by Mr Cummins of the Royal Hotel, perhaps it was for the advancement of science, or perhaps it was the fact that they did not fancy a huge, hairy apeman wandering the district terrorising farmers and their stock. Whatever the reason, the Queanbeyan Age reported: “It is the intention of Bredbo and Jingera residents to scour the bush in a strong body and capture the monster alive or dead. For this purpose they will meet at Mr. Kelly’s hotel … on Monday next to organise their forces and obtain a supply of ammunition.”
Unlike the high tech recording equipment and cable TV contracts of today’s Bigfoot Hunters, this party of 19th century Yowie Hunters would go in search of the creature with nothing more than their guns, lots and lots of ammo, a swig or three of liquor from Mr Kelly’s hotel … and quite possibly a few flaming torches and pitchforks for effect.
This early Yowie hunting party did share one similarity with their modern counterparts, however. They returned home empty-handed and extremely disappointed.
A Tom Biscardi moment?
This was not the first time that disappointment had been experienced in relation to such cryptozoological wonders. Back in October 1871, The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser, announced to the world, (well to the inhabitants of the Hunter Valley at least) an astonishing revelation. A mysterious creature had been captured in the Lower Hawkesbury, said to be a Bunyip or Yahoo and that “it was determined to forward the wonderful animal to Sydney, and there exhibit it to a wondering and gratified public”.
But, yes, like so many similar promising breakthroughs since, this exciting news soon proved a huge letdown for the wondering and gratification-seeking public. The article concluded with the following heartbreaking bombshell: “An inspection proved the animal to be a large wombat … peculiar to New South Wales. The brute weighs about 100 pounds, and gave his captors a tough job to secure him”.
A captured Yowie … for real this time?
And then, a few years later, in 1912, hopes were again raised with the headline: A Queer Capture. Enormous Creature Resembling A Man.
“There is considerable excitement in the Bombala district over the reported discovery of a hairy man on Creewah station,” the article announced.
The owner of the station, Mr Sydney Jephcott, came across some peculiar tracks while out mustering stock. He described them as “like a human footprint, nearly 20 inches in length and 8 inches across”. Mr Jephcott, realising he had stumbled upon some remarkable evidence, or wanting to prove he was not a stark, raving lunatic “sent to a Bombala storekeeper for a quantity of plaster of paris with which to take an impression of the tracks”.
A neighbouring landowner, Mr Summerill, then claimed to have also seen the Yowie. “In a thick bush yesterday he saw an enormous creature resembling a man, covered with long hair. The animal was carrying a big stick and with long leaps made off through the bush.”
The article ended with the startling statement that: “A report was received later to the effect that the creature was captured today.”
And of course, that’s where the story ends. At least Mr Jephcott took some plaster casts!
The scientific debate rages
Like today, the scientific establishment seemed unwilling to accept the possibility that the Yowie or similar creature may actually exist, as the following correspondence to Australian Town and Country Journal from Mr H J McCooey of Mandurama Survey Camp illustrates.
In the journal’s The Naturalist in 20 October 1883 Mr McCooey wrote:
“A telegram from your Blayney correspondent appeared in the Evening News … announcing the fact that ‘a strange animal, like an ape has again been frightening the residents on the road from Orange to Bathurst, at a place called The Rocks. Several ineffectual attempts have been made to capture it’.
“Now, it is probable that you and many of your country constituents may remember that in your issue of December 9, 1882, I gave a somewhat lengthy description of a large ape, (or Yahoo, as the animal is called by bushmen) I had seen a few days previously in a rugged mountainous locality on the coast between Ulladulla and Bateman’s Bay …
“But strange to say, Mr. Ramsay, curator of the Australian Museum, disbelieves in their presence. Not because it is not possible for apes to be in the country up to date without being captured, but because of the deficiency of food plants for them to exist upon.”
McCooey goes on to argue that these Yahoos “have been frequently seen throughout the colony and that they were known to the aborigines of this colony, and were dreaded by them, long before a museum was ever founded in Australia”.
He then makes the tantalising, but sadly unproven, claim that “one was actually captured and killed near Braidwood within the memory of persons still living”.
But again, no photo, no video, no body and no DNA.
Mr McCooey, however, remained optimistic about obtaining suitable evidence with which to convince the stubborn curator that the Yahoo did indeed exist.
“The curator of the Museum, last December, offered me a bonus of £100 if I brought him either alive or dead an indigenous ape, and I think it is highly probable, that before many months elapse, I shall be in a position to claim his bonus.”
Unfortunately, that proved wishful thinking on Mr McCooey’s part. However, that did not stop him continuing his debate with the curator. In a second letter published in the journal in November of 1883, McCooey made the following valid point:
“The position taken by the curator of the Museum in regard to the presence of indigenous apes in this colony is wholly untenable. His argument is this. That as there are no fruits or food plants in Australia there can be no indigenous apes. Now, I readily admit that this argument would be of some weight if no ape had ever been seen in the colony, or if it were satisfactorily proved that without fruits or food plants it was impossible for the Australian ape to exist, but when it is notorious that apes have been seen in all parts of the colony at different times and by different persons, and when it is not shown that fruits or food plants are absolutely necessary for their existence, the curator’s argument becomes illogical.”
Well, it seems not much has really changed over the past 150-odd years.