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With mounting evidence and stories circulating about their seemingly miraculous ability to find people, Aboriginal trackers’ abilities became legendary in the minds of white Australians. To the British people who had arrived in Australia after its establishment as a British colony in 1788, who were unfamiliar with the Australian landscape, these skills were remarkable and seemed almost magical.
The first recorded use of Aboriginal trackers in Australia took place in 1834 in Western Australia, near Fremantle, when two trackers, Mogo and Mollydobbin tracked a missing five-year-old boy for more than ten hours in very rough country. In 1864, the Duff children were lost for nine days in the Victorian Wimmera and the community was hampered in the search by heavy rain. Within a day of ‘black trackers’ being brought in, the Duff children were found, and amazingly, still alive.
Aboriginal people have developed exceptional tracking skills based on their hunter and gather life which includes the ability to track down animals, to identify and locate edible plants, and to find sources of water.
Indigenous Australian children learn to recognise the tracks of animals as soon as they are old enough to notice. Traditionally, as soon as children learn to walk, they learn to track their mother’s and sibling’s footprints as well as learning hand signs so people know when to be quiet or careful. To this end, people walking together in the bush do so in single file. The ground also makes a good drawing board and children learn the patterns and shapes which represent the tracks of common animals.
An experienced tracker can read the ground like a storybook. If the tracks are those of a mammal, he can probably tell you, from the size and ‘weight’ or depth of the tracks, its gender and approximate age. If the animal is a female, he will know by the spacing of the hind legs whether or not it is ‘parapu’ (carrying young). He will usually be able to tell you the species of a lizard and not only which way a snake is travelling, and its size, but how fast it is moving and whether it is harmless or venomous.
Pat Lowe, Hunters and trackers of the Australian desert, 2002
Trackers also need to know whether tracks are fresh, otherwise they might be wasting their hunting time. At the end of a day, however, a good hunter needs to be able to find his way home using the shortest route possible – not in the tedious zigzag way he tracked his prey. This acute sense of direction is inseparable from acute powers of observation and good memory.
As more and more European settlers came to the new British colony, the demand for land for farming and housing became greater. To meet the demand, some British settlers becameexplorers and it was common for such groups to include Aboriginal people as guides. The guides would use their knowledge of the land and their tracking skills to lead the party through unfamiliar country, find horses and party members who had strayed, and locate food and water.
The Aboriginal guides would also take on a diplomatic roles. They acted as ambassadors for the travellers as they passed through different tribal areas and making the group’s passage as peaceful as possible, sometimes handing over their responsibilities at tribal border areas.
Explorers who worked with Aboriginal guides as part of their expeditions includedMajor Mitchell, who relied on the services of the Bathurst man known to the party as ‘John Piper’ to cross the Great Dividing Range.