WALKING through the dense bushland of Jackass Flat, an uneasy feeling came over James Toomer.
As an experienced bushwalker, he was used to the feeling of being watched – whether by kangaroos, emus or even snakes.
But the feeling he felt on one evening in January was something new. He went online to post about his experience.
“My hair stood on end and I felt extremely anxious. I distinctly heard what sounded like some soft ‘mooing’, much like a cow. However there are no cattle anywhere near Bendigo to the best of my knowledge,” James wrote.
“The uneasy feeling quickly got so unbearable that I… rode away as fast as I could, while I kept looking over my shoulder expecting to see an animal following me.”
James had one explanation for his experience: he had come close to the legendary Australian yowie. He shared his story with Yowie Hunters, an online community.
James is one of thousands in Australia convinced that yowies are real – that they roam the landscapes under the cover of darkness and woodland. They draw comparisons to bigfoot of north America.
The stuff of Indigenous oral history, yowies are often described as “hairy men”, ape-like in appearance. The stories were passed on to European settlers.
James pinpointed on a map where he believes he felt the presence – in the Jackass Flat Nature Conservation Reserve.
“Although there are many houses nearby, it is near the edge of town and does extend out into the Whipstick Forest, so it is possible a yowie snuck in there under the cover of darkness,” he said.
While usually only associated with Queensland and New South Wales, Bendigo has become something of a hot spot for yowie “sightings” in recent years. There were several alleged sightings in the area in 2011 – and more near Daylesford, in the Otway Ranges and Gippsland.
An elderly man recounted his experience in Sedgwick in 2015 to Dean Harrison, the Queensland-based founder of Yowie Hunters, an online community tracking yowie reports.
“I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes,” the man recalls.
“It was up on two legs, running.
“Arms were sort of down by its side. It was covered in hair. Short, wasn’t long hair on it.”
Others recall a “Whipstick hairy man” tormenting motorists in the 1980s.
Serious yowie hunters usually focus their attention further north than Victoria.
Mr Harrison has been compiling the stories for years, and said they were consistent across Australia’s eastern seaboard.
“The Bendigo area isn’t where you would expect to receive reports from, however we have had a small spate of them in the past few years,” he said.
As expected, one of the greatest barriers for yowie hunters is verifying reports.
“Fear of ridicule is the main stopper for people coming forward,” he said.
“After they see the sheer weight of information we have gathered from the start of white settlement, they often feel more vindicated to come forward.”
Yowie Hunters has also had run-ins with Australian Skeptics – an organisation devoted to assessing “claims of the paranormal”.
David Waldron, lecturer in history and anthropology at Federation University, said the term “yowie” was used as a cooey in the Hunter River area by local Indigenous people.
“It was also used to describe a water spirit. Also called the Wowie, yahoo,” he said.
“Lots of different Aboriginal groups had versions of hairy man or little people myths.
“This however is quite global, nearly all cultures have archetypal versions of little people, or wild men legends. It is important to look at each of them in their own cultural context and not to assume they are all the same.
“It starts to get shoe horned into a British style hairy man myth in the 1870s.”
But for James Toomer – and other yowie hunters – the facts are settled.
“The fact that there are so many credible stories of encounters with these mysterious animals convinced me of the fact they are real,” he said.
“Australia is such a vast and remote place that it is quite possible for a large animal to mostly avoid detection if it is intelligent enough, which I believe yowies are.”