NEAR GYMPIE, AUSTRALIA — I didn't really expect us to see a yowie - Australia's own version of Bigfoot.
But as the night dragged on, all ears straining to identify every sound in the night and rustle in the bushes, I did begin feeling a twinge of guilt: Somewhere out there among the eucalyptus and surrounding scrub, my wife was acting as bait.
A few hours before, as the sun was setting and we were lathering up in bug repellent, it had seemed like a reasonable idea.
We'd arrived at the "hot zone" with our yowie hunting host, Dean Harrison, and somehow it had been decided that my wife and a visiting friend would lure the creature in.
They would pretend to be camping in a dry riverbed where footprints had allegedly been spotted - and keep sausages sizzling on a portable gas barbecue to fill the air with an enticing aroma.
There's one basic rule for hunting yowies, Harrison told us: "You never go to the yowie; you let the yowie come to you."
To add to the allure, Harrison hung bloody beef shin bones in the trees around the campsite. The gist of Harrison's instructions: If you hear anything big approaching the campsite, radio us and we'll rush in and capture it on film. We'd all been given portable radios, and it sounded like a reasonable plan. And, hey, there's no such thing as a yowie anyway. Right?
I'm as skeptical as the next guy. But after several hours of listening to Harrison's yowie stories and the inevitable snaps and crackles you hear in moonlit woods, I began to doubt the wisdom of our plan.
After all, Harrison had told us, yowies were lurking in Australia's woods in unknown numbers and were responsible for the grisly deaths of hikers up and down Australia's east coast. Only a few hundred yards from our campsite, he insisted, a yowie had attacked an RV and chased a group of dirt-bike riders. He was clearly edgy.
"I'll tell you one thing: If there is one of these bad guys up here, neither one of us is going to make it out," Harrison, chief yowie hunter and spokesman for the Australian Homonid Research group, told me as dark began to fall and we hiked away from the campsite and into a nearby pine forest to stake out another spot where Harrison said he had spotted evidence of yowies before.
Just as most Americans scoff at Bigfoot, most Australians laugh off yowies as a kooky myth or hoax. And zoologists are quick to point out that there's no verifiable evidence of such a creature.
But, real or phantom, the yowie says a lot about the nature of Australia and its capacity to both engender and embrace the weird.
An island almost the size of the continental United States, Australia has a population of less than 20 million and large portions of the country remain not only unpopulated, but uncharted. That means that, 212 years after the arrival of British settlers, Australian scientists are still discovering significant pieces of the country's already curious ecological puzzle.
It was only in 1994, for instance, that, two hours' drive from Sydney, a park ranger stumbled upon a stand of towering pines thought to be the arboreal equivalent of living dinosaurs.
That natural backdrop leads to endless speculation about the possibility of survivors among species like the Tasmanian tiger, believed to be extinct. But it also leads to conjecture about things that go bump in the night - like yowies.
"Science proves time and time again that they get things wrong. As soon as they declare a species extinct it turns up a few months later," Harrison says. "They thought the Komodo dragon (a giant lizard found in Indonesia) was a myth made up by the natives until a white man saw one."
Harrison, a sales manager who claims he took up yowie hunting after being chased through the woods by an 8-foot- tall specimen one night in 1997, says there is still little known about the creatures.
What is known, he says, is that the yowie is related to the North American Bigfoot and the Himalayan yeti and probably came to Australia via a land bridge from Asia thousands of years ago.
Like its cousins elsewhere, Harrison claims, the yowie resembles a cross between a human and an ape. Covered in thick black or gray fur, it walks on two feet and has arms that dangle to its knees.
"The distinct difference between the Bigfoot and the yowie is that we've got two species here," Harrison says. The first, he claims, is a smaller, less aggressive version known as the jingera in Aboriginal lore, while the second can grow to 8 feet or more and is far more ferocious than its cousins elsewhere.
Harrison says he has made casts of footprints and heard what he believes to be yowies crashing through the woods. He claims that he has come close enough to a yowie to know that they are odoriferous. And he says he has identified one yowie with an ear for Neil Diamond.
But, for all his chronicles of tracking the mysterious yowie, Harrison has yet to capture one on video or snap the crucial photo that could prove once and for all that yowies are more than a myth.
Most Australians think yowies are simply characters from tall tales, good for a few laughs. "I'm happy to say there probably isn't a yowie," says Bob Nixon, chief investigator for the Australian Skeptics, a group dedicated to debunking tales of the paranormal.
"The yowie is something that speaks to our sense of humor," Mr. Nixon says. "Everybody else has got one, so we might as well have one."
The myth is so ingrained in Australian culture that confectioner Cadbury markets chocolate yowies filled with toys that have caused a collectors' boom rivaling Pokemon in Australia. Go to www.yowie.com and you'll find plastic collectibles, not Web-surfing yowies.
"Compared with a chocolate product that hopefully everyone in Australia can find in a store near them, the yowie (the flesh- and-bones version) has been pretty elusive," says Tim Stanford, the marketing director for Cadbury Australia.
Mr. Stanford says the name yowie was chosen for the product because it tested off the charts in popularity with Australians. He believes part of the draw is that, as a relatively young nation, Australia has few of the age-old myths older countries do. Some might dispute that, however, given that the myth-rich Aboriginal culture is thought to be among the oldest surviving on earth. But Stanford argues that for most Australians, "there is a huge attraction to what myths Australia has and, perhaps because of the lack of them, those that it does have it's incredibly proud of."
Like anything with an "X Files" quality to it, the hunt for the yowie has generated its share of conspiracy theories. Harrison claims to be in regular contact with sources in the police and military that he says confirm he's not chasing shadows - and that an active government coverup is under way.
"Off the record they talk to us and say 'yes, it is what you think it is.' On the record they say: 'We've been informed by higher authority not to talk to you and not to cause public hysteria.' "
Yowie hunting also comes with its own politics and rivalries. One of Harrison's chief rivals is a self-styled, publicity-hungry "cryptozoologist" who has legally changed his name to "Tim the Yowie Man" and drew media mentions last year when he claimed to have wandered onto the set of Survivor II and published on the Internet directions to the set's secret location.
Yet, during our night in the woods, the yowie's whereabouts remained as elusive as ever. It was quiet for most of the night, although both Harrison and another yowie hunter occasionally claimed to hear telltale noises. But around 4 a.m., an alarmed call came in over the radio from my wife, Rachel.
"Are any of you walking near the cars?" she asked. "No," the answer went back. "We both heard footsteps between us and the cars," Rachel went on.
A few minutes later, my friend Brian was on the air: "We think it's in the riverbed. It seems to be circling the camp."
Harrison whispered into his radio: "Is it definitely bipedal?"
It took a minute and then Brian was back: "It's hard to tell. But it's definitely not small. It's definitely not a rat. It's definitely bigger than that."
"OK, hold your positions," Harrison answered. Soon afterward the hunt was called off - Brian's description had been too vague for Harrison to get excited and rush in, camera rolling. The next morning Harrison searched the area around the campsite and found nothing. But both Rachel and Brian were spooked, and when we got back to camp they were peering out of the tent waiting eagerly for our return.
Spend long enough in the woods and you'll hear something go "boo."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society