"Tribes of the region believed in the existence of a race of 2.7m-tall hairy, manlike beings called the Rakatak. These monsters were said to inhabit the rock shelters and forests ... and the swampsand foreshores of the Myall Lakes north of Newcastle, frightening Aboriginal fishermen from their fishing grounds."
– Rex Gilroy, cryptozoologist, author, Giants From The Dreamtime, 2001
It takes a special kind of stupid to tempt fate.
It's putting a priceless Ming vase behind a sitcom door. It's pushing a big, red, unfamiliar button just to see what it does. It's searching for a gigantic, merciless man-beast and deciding to camp in the middle of the thick bush that legends say is its ancestral stomping ground.
It's exactly what we're doing. And what we're doing certainly seems like a bad idea to my fellow camper, Tom, who sums up the situation beside the fire. "So, we're in a place called Treachery." "Yes." "By this creepy Blair Witch Project swamp full of dead trees and surrounded by weird noises."
"I don't like it either." "With no phone reception. And it's pitch-black, and things are moving around in the bush, and there's nobody else camping, and we're here because they've had decades of yowie sightings." "That's the brief for our story." "Great," he snorts. "This is stupid."
I don't know if Tom means it's stupid as in silly (looking for yowies is clearly a Very Silly Thing, at least by daylight) or stupid as in scary (because now, in the late, quiet night, I'm not ashamed to admit it's actually, genuinely a bit scary).
But surely—surely—we'll be fine. No-one has ever found definitive proof that the yowie, Australia's version of the infamous Big Foot, actually exists. And, should someone actually manage to find the elusive cryptid, it won't be a pair of city slickers sitting by a poorly erected tent, pensively munching half-cooked supermarket sausages. But this is cold comfort at 2am, with a thin layer of mouldy polyester the only thing between us and whatever keeps making sounds that'd give Jason Voorhees conniptions.
Should a beast, once described as "like a big gorilla with a large head resembling three porcupines tied together", appear, I will fire up the grunty 3.0-litre engine and drive off, even as it feasts on the tent dwellers.
My Isuzu MU-X, parked nearby, looks an increasingly attractive sleep option. Solid steel and tempered glass certainly one-up our tent for protection. I'd be a full 230mm off the ground, thanks to its clearance, with thick steel plates on the underbody to stop anything seizing me, Jaws-like, from below. I'd even be able to set the climate control to a toasty 27°C, fold down the rear and middle seats—leaving a perfectly flat surface for my swag—and drift off into a lovely, nightmare-free nap. Safe in the knowledge that, should a beast, once described by a witness as "like a big gorilla with a large head resembling three porcupines tied together", come barrelling through camp, it will feast first on the tent dwellers. Even as I fired up the grunty 3.0-litre engine and drove off. Should something emerge from the shadows, I'd have zero qualms about doing just that.
"It was about 3m tall, covered in hair; it had a flat face and walked to the side in a crab-like style … it just ripped up whole shrubs between the creek and where our camp was, right out of the ground—roots and all. A bloke can't do that; it was quite incredible."
– Bill O'Chee, former Queensland National Party Senator, 1977
It's morning. Apparently.
There was no sunrise, just a pale hue that more or less failed to illuminate the low, heavy cloud cover. As morning breaks, the clouds seem to move in even closer, casting a malevolent shroud on our feeble encampment.
Tom breaks the malaise with a hearty breakfast before we load up and hit the sandy trails around Seal Rocks and Yagon, in the Myall Lakes National Park, 45km south of Forster on the NSW midnorth coast.
It's a truly beautiful part of the world every single day, except for the single day we've chosen for our yowie hunt. The clouds, grumpy all morning, have upped the ante from 'menacing' and look 'enraged', and it's raining sideways.
Tom confiscated the MU-X last night after I mentioned using it as a hotel. It's no real hardship, mind; I'm behind the wheel of a D-MAX LS-U which shares much with its seven-seater brother. Both vehicles excel as we plough further into the scrub, neither giving quarter in terms of off-road poise or panache.
Thirty metres further down the trail, we actually are ploughing. The trail exists now in name only. The scrub has given way to robust saplings that grow between the wheel ruts; they disappear beneath the D-MAX's bonnet like I'm driving a combine harvester up a sandy mountain. If I could share a small tip, it would be to never, ever try to do that, but I'd forgive you if you didn't take advice from a man who's hunting mythical creatures in the face of a Category 2 cyclone.
Our convoy comes to a halt in front of a hill that would block out the sun, if any of us could actually figure out if it was shining in the first place. It's unassailable, we expect, even in the dry; driving a heavily specced bruiser with fat mudterrain tyres, it would be a stretch. Last night's downpour has carved the hillside away, leaving a climb that resembles a Crisco-drenched slippery dip. There's nothing for it; we'll have to go around.
And then Mark, our Bear Grylls-esque photographer, decides we should give it a crack anyway, safe in the knowledge that we can reverse down or employ our salvage gear and the second 4X4.
He scales the cliff-like face, props himself up against a trunk and declares that there's a small plateau halfway up, just before the hill actually becomes a wall of loose sand. But there's a path around the summit from there, so we should go for it.
Tom is first to have a crack in the MU-X. He selects low-range 4WD, manually grabs second gear and sets off. Under-specced, his road-happy tyres struggle for grip, but the 4WD system doesn't let them lose out all together. Somehow, the MU-X pulls cleanly all the way up to the plateau. And the D-MAX follows. We're impressed.
"I had gone for a ride on my bike when I saw it up the hill a bit. It looked real to me and it was clawing the tree. Bark was falling down around its body. Then suddenly it turned and looked at me … from about 50 yards away … I turned and just went for my life."
– Shaun Cooper, student, 1978
Mark is deathly silent. He skulks like a ninja, stalking something into the bush. Tom and I exchange bemused glances and retreat to our cars. Ten minutes pass with the speed of an hour until Mark finally emerges with pictures, not of a Yowie, but of a six-foot goanna. And a second massive storm front, eagerly joining the one that's been hanging over us all day.
All of a sudden, bush bashing to find yowies has gone from tempting fate to asking for a Darwin Award. After all, we've plugged along, all day, through miles of sodden trails, almost-trails and places where trails have reverted to scrub. Dusk is nearing and our meagre fauna tally sits at a goanna, 24 brush turkeys, 10 million mozzies and one dingo awareness sign. And zero yowies. But we don't want to be here in the dark when that storm hits. So we make the brave call to scarper.
Fate rewards our boldness. The clouds mostly back off for one glorious hour, time enough for a detour to the desperately gorgeous Sandbar Beach. Both the D-MAX and MU-X revel in the soft sand as we slew through sand drifts. It's easy to relax when the prospect of being dinner for a giant simian—or goanna, for that matter—is long gone.
It's easy to relax, for instance, and forget that I've left my driver's window down. It's easy to then tempt fate with some bravado behind the wheel—bravado that picks up a cubic metre of sand and dumps it through the window, caking me.
We found no yowies, but that doesn't mean there were no hairy moments. And while we can't be blamed if the local bunyips had gone to ground, I can be blamed for the sandpit's worth of ground—or, at least, sand—lining my D-MAX's sills and door seals.
Every orifice of my D-MAX and me is caked in grit. I am not a smart man, but I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've been outwitted by a mythical beast. It takes a special kind of stupid to tempt fate.