A Window Into Australia’s Bigfoot Enigma
By Ruby Lang and Michael Williams
Following a trail that leads from Aboriginal myth to modern-day encounters, Michael Williams & Ruby Lang set off in pursuit of one of Australia’s most mysterious inhabitants – the Yowie. This article first appeared in Fortean Times magazine.
It was like an elephant on two legs wearing size 20 boots.’’ That’s how Blue Mountains resident Neil Frost would later describe the ape-like creature he encountered in thick bush near his backyard to local police. It was February 1993. The schoolteacher and father of a newborn son was loath to wake up his youngest child with a midnight trip to the toilet. Instead, he chose to sneak out the back door and relieve himself in the bush-fringed yard. It was just as he finished his business that a large shape loomed out of the shadows, surprising him before itself taking flight. "I’d just finished and taken one or two steps and this thing got up out of the bush and just took off," Neil recalls. It was unbelievable. It sounded big, like it weighed… I don’t know… maybe 130kg [20st]. I didn’t get a good look at it." Somewhat shaken, Neil bolted next door to alert neighbour Ian 'Lizard’ Price, a herpetologist and former bike gang member, who was surprised to find his normally "quiet and boring" neighbour banging on his bedroom window in the middle of the night. "He was in a state of really extreme agitation," Ian remembers. So I said 'Let’s do it'. After all, the most it could do was kill us!
Together, the pair pursued the shape into the bush, but the creature eluded them – always just one step ahead – and began what was to become a bizarre, ongoing ritual of hide-and-seek. Reporting the matter to local police proved a fruitless exercise; the two men later found out that local constables had carried out a door-to-door enquiry to find out if either of the pair was a known troublemaker or "doing drugs". So, night after night, the two men would chase the creature – which would announce its presence by noisily thumping the ground – watching it flit between trees and across fire trails just beyond their reach. In their search for the elusive man-ape, Neil and Ian also located what appeared to be full body imprints in a bed of reeds near their homes and numerous footprints, which they disregarded initially as some kind of hoax. "I’m reasonably well versed in all of the indigenous wildlife in this country, to the extent I could identify any animal that you bring up, if not species at least genus," Ian says. "But this was strange. It was 7ft [2m] tall, two of me in build. I weigh 100kg [16st], so we’re looking at a creature at least three times my body mass. It was big. It ran sort of like a person, but not quite. There was something odd in its gait. It had a testicle-tightening growl, creating a real predator-prey type reaction. People say you shit yourself when you’re really scared, but you don’t. Your bum sucks in. And it could out-run us, out-see us and avoid barbed wire fences. It was a big hairy beastie." Despite the frightening spectacle, Ian retained his sense of humour about the risks involved in chasing something so large and, presumably, dangerous. "I guess I’d be famous posthumously," he chuckles. "I said to Neil at the time: 'If it rips my arms off and stuffs them down a hole, name it after me.’" On another occasion, Neil was lucky enough to get within a few feet of the creature after a visitor was adamant that "something had followed him down the driveway". "I held up my torch and shone it in front of me, and this thing just stood up, leaned into me and roared into my face," Neil recalls. "Then it took off through the bush. It was pretty terrifying, but what I remember of it was that it had a large head and red eyes. It roared again, and there were dogs barking right across the valley. I remember people were coming out of their houses to tell their dogs to be quiet." Monsters of the Blue Mountains The incidents in 1993 set the scene for multiple sightings of the creature around homes in the many Blue Mountains townships along the Great Western Highway. The road snakes its way through a massive World Heritage-listed wilderness area of some 1.03 million hectares (2.5 million acres), consisting mostly of forested landscape. It’s an area that has acquired a reputation for 'high strangeness’ among fortean researchers, due to a proliferation of UFO, big cat and Yowie encounters, not to mention the obligatory haunted houses dating back to the early days of colonial settlement.
Australia’s Blue Mountains, home to the Wollemi Pine and, perhaps, the Yowie. Image courtesy of Tourism NSW
"You’ve got all this land mass that’s basically unexplored," Ian points out. Look at the Grose River Valley – no one goes there. Look at the Wollemi Pine. It’s a 100ft [30m] tall tree! It can’t run around and hide. If you’ve got a 7ft tall, 300kg creature that can hide…" The Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis), the so-called "dinosaur tree" thought to be long extinct, was rediscovered in 1994 by a park ranger exploring a deep, narrow canyon in the heart of the Blue Mountains. [FT79:6] At least 63 of Neil and Ian’s neighbours have also heard or seen the bipedal creature near their own homes or in the dense, largely unexplored bush that surrounds the townships, both before and since that day in 1993. One, a nine-year-old boy living two doors away from Neil, was playing with fire one day and ran through the bush with a burning stick in his hand. "As you can imagine, that’s not a very smart thing to be doing around here," says Neil, referring to the frequency of devastating bush fires in the area. "He ran smack-bang into him, literally into this creature – it looked down at him, he looked up at it, and they both ran in opposite directions, completely horrified. "He gave a beautiful description of the creature, describing the skin folds on its face as leathery and black, with thick hair on the outside – grey with white flashes through it." On the surface, one would have thought monster-sized primates frequenting heavily populated areas in the Australian bush would by now have been discovered, identified and named by science. Unlike the United States, which has large mammals like bears, Australia has no animal that could be mistaken for the 'Yowie’ or 'Yahoo’, the Aboriginal names given to the Bigfoot-like creature chased by Neil and Ian. Nor does Australia boast any non-human primate lines, such as monkeys or great apes. While anecdotal reports are plentiful, there is a distinct lack of credible photographic, video or audio evidence of the creature. Not one whole or partial skeleton has ever been found. And Neil’s own efforts to collect samples for DNA-testing have also led nowhere. However, he has vowed to continue his quest to prove something physical is out there. Bizarre plaster casts and photos of Yowie footprints that have been taken in the area show giant two, three, four and sometimes five-toed footprints, and don’t look as though they could sustain a large animal’s locomotion, let alone stabilise the creature. No known species displays the same gross morphological variation that these 'Yowie feet' would suggest. They don’t even look remotely primate-like. Neither man favours the other obvious explanation for a creature that does not feature in Australia’s zoological profile, can elude capture, move with lightning speed and is often reported as having glowing red eyes – that it is a creature of paranormal origin.
Tapping the Dreamtime Struggling to find out more about his encounters, Neil eventually approached local Aborigines from the Burragorang tribe who were, initially, wary of discussing the Yowie with a white man. Eventually, after Neil shared his story, they told him what they knew of the creature from their own experiences and as it featured in their Dreamtime stories. Described as tall, powerfully built and with arms that taper to claws, the Yowie was reputed to be a man-eater. It was also usually accompanied by an overpowering stench, an element that often crops up in many modern-day Yowie sightings. But for Neil some of the Burragorang people’s answers merely added to the enigma.
One researcher who does favour a possible paranormal explanation is veteran Australian 'monster hunter’ Tony Healy. Healy, who along with colleague Paul Cropper 1 is working on what will be the most comprehensive book ever written on the subject of the Yowie, believes some accounts point to the creature "being something other than an anthropological or zoological mystery – that is, something other than flesh and blood. If we reject everything about the Yowie that smacks of the paranormal we’d have to sweep 20 per cent of the accumulated data under the carpet," Healy told the Sydney 2001 Myths and Monsters cryptzoology conference. 2 "After 25 years on the trail, I really suspect that the American Indians, the Australian Aborigines and some of the whacked-out American researchers are right: that is, that we’re dealing with shape-shifting phantoms here that will probably remain beyond human comprehension." How else to explain the vanishing acts, glowing red eyes (in one encounter described as "the size of tennis balls"), superhuman feats of speed and the ability to invoke the so-called "nameless dread" – the inexplicable primal fear that "turns your guts to water" – experienced by so many witnesses? "The dread", as some self-styled Yowie hunters refer to it, has stopped many individuals in their tracks and inspired a hasty retreat to the safety of cars and civilisation. It’s not unlike the sort of temporary, terrifying paralysis that strikes the prey of big cats. What kind of creature could engender that kind of fear? Two people who firmly believe that the Yowie has a paranormal origin are Jerry and Sue O’Connor, neighbours of Neil and Ian. They favour the term "nature spirit", and given some of the paranormal attributes outlined thus far, they may yet be closest to the mark in truly describing the mysterious creature. Their first encounter with the Yowie was in November 1999. Sue was out on the couple’s back veranda late one night when the silence was broken by a spine-tingling scream.
"It was about midnight and I was just doing some painting, when suddenly there was this sound," she tells us. I don’t know what it sounded like – like something out of this world, like a cross between a lion, a bear and a monkey. It sort of growled-roared. It freaked me out; it sent shivers up my spine. So I ran inside and called for Jerry." Initially sceptical of his wife’s claims, Jerry walked out to the back veranda, explaining to Sue as he went that the noise – it being springtime – was probably just wallabies or wombats making mating sounds. "Then this thing absolutely roared," Jerry recalls. "It was alien, and it sounded like nothing I’ve ever heard in my life. We didn’t have a torch so we couldn’t really see anything. But the feeling that came from it was like a physical barrier, like I was a threat to it. This wall of fear hit me and the hair stood up on my arms and the back of my neck. I just dragged Sue inside and shut the door. There was nothing that I was taught about in the Aussie bush that sounded like this. I never wanted to hear anything like it again, it was that frightening." The couple, both in ill health, had moved to the area two years prior "for a quieter life" following Jerry’s discharge from the Navy. But that encounter shattered more than the peace and quiet of one evening – like a ripple effect in a pond, it was the start of something much bigger.
Myth to Reality
"I thought that Yowies were just something we had invented because the Americans had Bigfoot," says Jerry. "That incident was the first inkling we had that there was something bizarre living in the bush around here."
Like Neil and Ian’s experience, the O’Connors’ encounter set the scene for a number of bizarre incidents around their home, leading them to become reluctant witnesses to a creature they had once relegated to story books.
Not knowing Neil at the time, the O’Connors got in touch with Queensland-based Dean Harrison, who runs Australian Hominid Research, a group dedicated to researching the Yowie phenomenon. 3 Dean put the pair in touch with Ian and Neil, who lived just streets away, as well as passing on the story of a third man who had spotted something large, hairy and hominid on a road near the O’Connors’ home – on the very same night they had experienced the spine-tingling roar. "This bloke Brad Croft was driving along the road, which is about 500m [1,600ft] away from our house, when he saw this large, 8–9ft [2.4–2.7m] hairy man cross the road and go down into the gully," Jerry says. "He drove straight home and got Neil, who lived in the same street as him, and within 10 minutes they were back at the spot walking around. As they got down near the creek they heard it crashing around and running up a track, which, as it turns out, led straight to our backyard." On another occasion soon afterwards, Sue was sleeping on her bed with several of her six cats when she was woken up by the sound of their collective growling: "Their hackles were up. I looked up to see why they were growling, what they were looking at, and just caught a flash of a shape in the window, about eight feet tall." Prior to that, the couple had regularly been woken up at night by the sound of their external fuse box cover being opened, and banging on the side of the house. "The fuse box door would slam, but there were no kids living in the area at the time, and hardly any neighbours," Jerry recalls. "We thought that it might have been yobbos [pranksters], but something was happening every week." A short time later Jerry, too, caught sight of their hairy visitor at the bedroom window, cementing his growing belief that something odd was afoot. "God knows how long this thing had been looking into our window," he says. "I woke up one night and looked at the window and I saw this thing – it was like a silhouette of a human head, with a messed-up lump of hair and a nose like a human’s – not like an ape with pushed-back nostrils. "It had these massive bloody shoulders, like a gridiron player wearing shoulder pads. I was convinced then. I wasn’t exactly a sceptic before, but this convinced me completely." As the frequency of the sightings increased, the couple began to have bizarre dreams about the creature, often waking to catch sight of a hairy face peering through the window. "I noticed we started having these nightmares. I would wake up and say to Sue, 'I’ve just had this frightening dream of a yowie,’ and she would say: 'Really? So have I’." Footprints were also found on the couple’s property after some of these visitations, which Jerry photographed and cast. The couple, who regularly "bush walk", have also spotted strange footprints along the fire trails and tracks that criss-cross the area, leading down into gullies, waterfalls and caves. Despite these physical traces, they remain convinced the creature is more faerie-like than fierce physical beast. Aboriginal lore does support the existence of 'little people’ (of a small, hairy variety) in Australia – the yuuri (pronounced 'yawri’, not unlike Yowie) or 'brown jack’, which fulfil a similar role to that of European elves and leprechauns, guarding certain places, granting favours and playing tricks on people. A Continuing Mystery While the ongoing experiences of the Frosts, Prices and O’Connors – which we have only touched on very briefly – are confined to the Blue Mountains region, there have been numerous Yowie sightings all over Australia, predominantly along the east coast in mountainous and forested areas.
But despite the prolific number of sightings, the occasional compelling plaster-cast of a footprint and a rich oral tradition that is thought to predate white settlement by millennia, there is as yet no concrete proof that a hitherto unknown species of man-ape walks the Australian continent. The elusiveness of the creature, if indeed it is a flesh-and-blood being, continues to puzzle and frustrate those who have encountered it, and those like the authors who pursue proof of its existence. It may one day be shown that the paranormal and physical aspects of the mysterious yowie are different sides of the same coin.
In the meantime, failing that, all we can do is flip it and see.