The History of Yowie-Research
Yowie / Bigfoot
By: John van Tiggelen
The Age (Melbourne, Vic)
Date: March 15, 2003
Page Number: 5 (Travel)
The History of Yowie Research
A new system of trails will finally reveal the mysterious forest of the Tully hinterland in far north Queensland. John van Tiggelen sneaks a preview.
In a town where the men haul cane, women brew banana wine and the mayor keeps a crocodile in his dam, Ron Hunt seems pretty much a regular Tully bloke. Big hat, big ute, big gut, big handshake, big knife. Hunt is the farmer behind the Big Gumboot, currently being built to cement Tully's reputation as Australia's wettest town. He's also the ex-logger behind the Misty Mountain Trails, a long-overdue 150-kilometre network of walking tracks through some of the north's most rugged tropical jungle.
The trails are the reason for our get-together early one hot November morning in front of the council chambers.
The trails won't be open to the public until April at the earliest, but Hunt is keen to start sharing and selling their splendour. I suspect he's also keen to put some pressure on the "pesky" environmental bureaucrats who have yet to grant his committee the necessary permits. (It's just a formality, he later tells me, provided the greenies don't "arc up".)
"You got insect repellent?" Hunt says by way of greeting. I nod, and hold up a "tropical strength variety of a heavy-duty brand favoured by campers."
"That's just cordial," he says. "Only good for mozzies. Here, get some of this on you."
He throws me a little white bottle with a spout. The label is half eaten away by a translucent clag dribbling from the spout.
"It's called Rugged Stuff and it's made from industrial-strength chemicals by a bloke down the road in El Arish (a nearby sugar town). It's been approved by the right people. At least I think it has. The best part is it lasts all day. Keeps away leeches, ticks and march flies. And you're going to need if you don't want to end up with scrub itch."
"Yeah. It's worse than ticks. It's caused by mites that bury under your skin. Drives you mad. And they're pesky little things when you want to get rid of them. I found the best thing for that is shaving cream. From tip to toe. But you don't want to get to that stage."
I give the spout a good pump and watch the gel pool in the palm of my hand.
"Whoa!" says Hunt. "Not too much or your arm will drop off. What you do is smear it around your ankles so the mites can't get you from below, and around your neck and shoulders so they can't get you from above. Then you do it around your waist to stop them getting near your crotch, because there's nothing worse, believe me."
Once we're all safely girdled with Rugged Stuff, Hunt sends us to a tap in the council gardens. "Like the original army stuff, that stuff eats plastic, so I might suggest you wash your hands well before you step into the car and start touching things. Especially when you're travelling in my car."
And one more thing: Don't think you're now mite-proof. This time of year you don't sit on rotten logs or fallen vegetation because it's that dry up there now that any mites or ticks will find you. One of the guys got a tick up there the other day. And even the march flies carry mites."
His patter has only made us itchier and by now I'm scratching compulsively.
But never mind the bugs. Nor the reports of gullies teeming with scrub pythons up to eight metres long and thick as a man's thigh. Dense, damp and barely penetrable, the Tully hinterland packs more mythology than any forest in Australia. As well as hosting the usual sightings of big cats, it has its own Yowie, for instance. Last year there were at least half a dozen sightings. The most famous sighting of the Maalan Man, as he is known locally, occurred in the mid-'70s. It led to a furry drawing and the discovery of a footprint said to be as wide as it was long.
Claims also persist that the forest is home to a tribe of lost pygmies. Station owner Neil Alderman, for one, remains adamant that several bulldozer drivers surprised "the little people" while clearing rainforest from his property west of Tully in the early 1960s. (When I track down two of the drivers, however, one says the "pygmies" were simply kids from a nearby clan, while the other suspects Alderman, who'd arrived fresh from the United States, fell for a prank.)
The most persistent reports concern UFOs. Since the 1966 discovery of the world's original crop circles in a nearby canefield, Tully has been an apparent hotbed of extraterrestrial reconnaissance. Many if not most Tully residents will, when pressed, confess to having seen "something", some time. Indeed, such is the town's reputation among the world's ufologists that some locals believe Tully should be erecting a Big UFO to draw tourists, rather than an eight-metre gumboot.
Hunt, a bushman who likes to drink from his hat and walk with a machete at hand, doesn't believe in pygmies and Yowies but he keeps an open mind on UFOs. Heading home one night after a day in the forest, he encountered something big and bright whizzing overhead. It made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. "I don't know what it was, and I don't want to know."
In recent years the forest's network of gorges and waterfalls - close to inaccessible yet close to the idyllic resorts of Mission Beach - has also made it a favourite with producers of Survivor-type TV shows. So far American, British and German series have been filmed here, and a French crew is expected soon.
But Hunt hopes the Misty Mountains Trails project will earn the forest a more tangible place on the world map. Budgeted at $1 million, the project links the Atherton Tablelands to the foothills of the "Cassowary Coast" (as the Mission Beach region markets itself) via 150 kilometres of walking tracks. And that's just stage one.
The ultimate aim is for the trail to extend from Paluma, a mountain village north-west of Townsville, all the way to Cairns. Such a walk, traversing some of the country's wildest terrain, would doubtless rival the likes of America's world-famous Appalachian trail.
Hunt refers to the slab of wilderness stretching north from Tully to the Atherton Tablelands as the "Golden Square". "It's a piece of gold that we've got on our back door that everyone's forgotten about," he says.
But it's actually a logging term; before the region was declared part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area in 1988, about 13 sawmills competed for its riches.
Hunt, too, made a small fortune from timber, and although he quit the industry in 1972, he remained a passionate opponent of World Heritage listing during the 1980s.
"Yeah, I was pretty vocal in the protests," he acknowledges, 15 years on. "My father was a sawmiller, and, well, put it this way, I've got sawdust running through my veins. It was all sawmill stuff we were carting out. Big stuff. Black bean, cedar, quandong and a bit of ash. But I am a greenie. So there you go. You can be both."
Hunt is the first to admit that the clear-felling practices of the 1960s and '70s left much to be desired. "Contrary to what people believe, there were loggers there who believed that what was happening was sacrilege, and I was one of them. It was just ball and chain, slash and burn. It all had to come out and what didn't come out they'd bulldoze over and burn.
"I was at King Ranch (Station, now the first port of call for reality TV shows) and the whole place was trashed for cattle property. Fifty square miles of stuff just came down."
However, by the 1980s he felt forestry officials were making a fairer fist of things. "With selective logging they almost got it right. The raping and pillaging had stopped. The only thing we got wrong was the time it took the forest to regenerate. We worked on a figure of 40 years, and the true figure is more like 80 to 100 years. But aside from that, you'd be hard-put to tell which of the areas I'm going to show you today have been logged."
Still, there's no disputing that the forest looks all the better for 15 years of no logging.
While Tully eventually recovered (2002 saw record harvests of both sugar cane and bananas), the same cannot be said for the former timber town of Ravenshoe. Located at the Golden Square's western point, it remains moribund.
"Tourism was supposed to be the panacea but, as soon as World Heritage came in, the roads were closed to tourists as well as loggers," Hunt says. "I believe in World Heritage but I don't believe in locking it up.
"Fortunately there's been a reversal of thought (at the Wet Tropics Management Authority) in the last 18 months. They've come to see that if we lock away the forest too long, there will be a generation of people who won't even know what we're locking away. It's too beautiful to hide, and it's high time we recognise that."
For the most part, the Misty Mountains Trails follow old logging tracks, which themselves trace the footsteps of the Aboriginal tribes who once migrated annually from the highlands to the lowlands and back.
The trails include shorter day-walks, two of which Hunt is showing us today. We pile out along a causeway across Cochable Creek, adjacent to a cool swimming hole. Hunt, who is 65, assures us that the walk will be "fairly easy".
"I took a couple of 70-year-olds up here the other day," he says. What he doesn't say - not until we're three-quarters through the walk - is that they didn't make it all the way. Nor does he mention until too late that they were "out of sorts" for several days afterwards.
In fact, in hindsight, Hunt's earlier advice to bring a "little lunch" and a "big lunch" was his only hint that some of us might find walking almost 20 kilometres of unfinished jungle trail a tad taxing in the summer heat.
As it is, two of the party have to retire early - one with blisters, the other from heat exhaustion - but even they agree the scenery has been well worth it. "Little lunch" takes place by a 10-metre ribbon of water tumbling into a small waterhole, though not too small for a dip. "Big lunch" is by a waterhole broad enough for a swimming carnival. And afternoon tea sees us high on the Cochable Plateau, gazing across a chasm at the Elizabeth Grant Falls spilling some 300 metres into the steamy depths below.
To be sure, the vegetation trips us, snags us, claws at us and even stings us. But no one sits on anything itchy, the pygmies keep to themselves, and so, for the most part, do the insects. Our lustiest encounter is with an ant colony. Hunt, walking in front with his machete, swivels round to warn us.
"Careful," he says. "They're jumping ants. They're aggressive and have a nasty bite. Skip past quickly or they'll jump you."
Some of us smile. Jump us?
Them and the Yowies, Ron. But as each of us passes the conical nest, ants the size of paper-clips leap for our lower legs.
Hunt laughs as he watches us skip.
"Even Rugged Stuff won't stop them buggers biting. Them and crocodiles, I reckon. Though they'd probably drop dead afterwards."