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Aboriginal trackers

Warning. This article may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased. It also contains links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

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.

Tracking skills

Photo of Aboriginal tracker, Teddy Egan and son

Paul Raffaele, Aboriginal tracker Teddy Egan and son. Image courtesy of Paul Raffaele.

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

Photograph of emu tracks in the Gibson Desert, Western Australia

S. Sadler, Emu tracks (Dromaius novaehollandiae) in the Gibson Desert, Western Australia. Image courtesy of DW Stock Picture Library.

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.

Aboriginal guides in colonial exploring expeditions

Aborigine Piper who accompanied Mitchell on his expeditions

The Aborigine Piper, who accompanied Mitchell on his expeditions. Lithograph by Fernyhough, Sydney, c. 1836. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

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 became explorers 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 included Major Mitchell, who relied on the services of the Bathurst man known to the party as 'John Piper' to cross the Great Dividing Range.

Another well-known explorer was Edward John Eyre (1815-1901) who, together with his Aboriginal friend Wylie, was the first man to cross southern Australia from east to west, travelling across the Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide to Albany. About 1000 km short of Albany, Eyre and Wylie survived near starvation after seven days by finding a native waterhole and killing and eating kangaroos. Wylie was rewarded with a pension and returned to his country in Albany.

In contrast, the party led by Robert Burke and William Wills, from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia's far north, did not include Aboriginal guides. The account from the sole survivor, John King, records the explorers' hostility at offers to trade food for handkerchiefs from Aborigines along the Darling River. Oral history from Aboriginal descendents records the horror of the tribespeople at the expedition's caravan of oxen, bullocks, camels and horses drinking waterholes dry and removing all the heavy grinding stones from camp sites. Both the leaders of the expedition, and many others, died on this ill-fated expedition.

The Native Police forces

By the early 1800s, Aboriginal guides were also used to track down convicts and other criminals who had escaped into the bush, known as 'bushrangers'. It was a natural progression to use Aboriginal guides to track down Aboriginal people as well.

Photograph of horsemen including black trackers

W.S. Smith, Horsemen including blacktrackers. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

The first experiments with Native Police commenced in Victoria in 1837. In 1842, the Port Phillip Native Police Corps was established. The Corps included white officers and black troopers. The Corps provided a deterrent to Aboriginal attacks on pastoral properties as well as later policing the gold diggings and escorting gold to Melbourne.

However, the Native Police also used violence to settle conflicts with other Aboriginal people. By 1851, many Aboriginal people were killed by the Native Police in Western Victoria and Gippsland. The Corps operated for eleven years until it was disbanded. When it was disbanded, some of the Native Police were absorbed as trackers into the Victorian police.

A similar Aboriginal force was established in New South Wales in 1848 by Governor Charles Fitzroy. This force was under New South Wales' control until 1859, when Queensland became a separate colony and took over command. The Queensland force continued until 1900. Although the activities of the Native Police forces were often kept secret, its brutality toward Queensland Aborigines has been able to be documented (see Reynolds, 1990 and Elder, 1998 under our Print References section). They were ordered to 'disperse' any large numbers of Aboriginal people which meant 'nothing but firing at them' according to a contemporary police source. The force was also implicated in several massacres. This brutality was provoked by the Queensland police constables who, according to Walter Roth, Northern Protector of Aborigines (1897-1906), would engineer a series of tribal killings, creating bloodshed until the deaths were avenged (Richards 1999).

Many police forces established unofficial relationships with Aboriginal trackers. The most famous use of trackers was the party who assisted Victorian Police to track down the notorious bushranger Ned Kelly in 1878 and 1880. Ned Kelly was said to be more afraid of the Aboriginal trackers than anyone else.

The volunteer 'black trackers' from Fraser Island and Cape York, employees of the Queensland Native Police who tracked Ned Kelly, were lured by a promise of a cut in £8,000 reward offered for Kelly's capture. After the Glenrowan showdown with Kelly and his gang in 1880, Jack Noble (Wannamutta) and Gary Owens (Werannabe), along with 92 others, applied for the reward. Sums were set aside for Noble and Owens and paid to the Queensland Government, but despite repeated requests the men never received their money. The men were placed in confinement camps with their families because they could not show visible means of support when they retired.

Aboriginal trackers in films and books

Stories about trackers are often used to explore the relationships between Indigenous and white Australians and, in turn, how these groups relate to the land in which they work and live. Aboriginal trackers are also immortalised in oral histories as well as fictional accounts such as Ion Idriess's Mantracks and in the detective series of Arthur Upfield's Bony.

Photograph of The Tracker by Rolf DeHeer

David Gulpilil in a scene from The Tracker by Rolf DeHeer. Image courtesy of Vibe Australia.

Walkabout, by Nicholas Roeg, tells the story of two white children lost in the Australian desert, who are rescued by a passing Aboriginal tracker. The Tracker, by Rolf de Heer, and Rabbit-Proof Fence, by Phillip Noyce, also feature Aboriginal trackers in their stories, based on life stories.

John Romeril's One Night the Moon, tells the story of an Aboriginal tracker who searches for a lost child despite being told by the child's father that his help is not wanted because he is Aboriginal. It is based on the true story of tracker Alexander Riley, who served in the New South Wales Police Force from 1911 to 1950. Tracker Riley, as he was known, received the King's Medal in 1942 for his work on a serial killing case. His grandson, Michael Riley, made a documentary called Blacktracker, which tells Tracker Riley's life story.

Famous Aboriginal trackers - yesterday and today

Photograph of Aborigine Neighbour

Neighbour, from Parliamentary Papers 1914. Courtesy of Australasian Legal Information Institute.

The first Aboriginal man to receive the Albert Medal for Bravery (the highest award possible for police officers) was a man known as Neighbour, who was awarded the medal for rescuing a police officer from the flooding Wilton river, in the Roper River area of the Northern Territory in south-east Arnhem Land in 1911. Neighbour rescued the policeman, who was clinging precariously to some pandanus palms in the middle of the fast-flowing water, whilst wearing heavy chains around his neck. Neighbour went on to work as a tracker with the Northern Territory Police.

Until 1900, many Aboriginal men and some women worked as police trackers, often on a casual basis or sometimes for longer stints. Often they were only paid a few shillings with rations supplied to their families. Trackers were employed full-time by the Northern Territory police until the late 1980s when they began to be phased out. Northern Territory artist Long Tom Tjapanangka worked both as a stockhand and police tracker for years before commencing his artistic career.

Yuendumu man Teddy Egan is probably the best known tracker in Australia today. In 1967, he assisted in the capture of an escaped murder suspect after two police officers were wounded in the pursuit. In 2000, he helped Northern Territory police to recapture an escaped prisoner. Egan says that tracking humans is much easier than tracking animals, because 'people make too much mess.' He was also one of four trackers used by Barrow Creek police to try to find missing English tourist Peter Falconio.

The Australian police still occasionally call on the services of Aboriginal trackers, particularly in Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. In 1980, several Aboriginal trackers joined the search for missing baby Azaria Chamberlain after she disappeared from a campsite near Uluru.

Related Culture Portal Stories


Native Police

Films and popular culture

Listen, look and play

Print references

Elder, Bruce, Blood on the Wattle (Expanded Edition), New Holland Press, Sydney, 1998.

Lowe, Pat, Hunters and trackers of the Australian Desert, 2002.

Reynolds, Henry, With the White People - the crucial role of Aborigines in the exploration and development of Australia, Penguin Books, Melbourne, 1990.

Richards, Jonathan, Moreton Telegraph Station: 1902 The Native Police on Cape York Peninsula, Paper presented at the History of Crime, Policing and Punishment Conference convened by the Australian Institute of Criminology in conjunction with Charles Sturt University and held in Canberra, 9-10 December 1999.

Richards, Jonathan, The secret war : a true history of Queensland's native police, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2008.

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Last updated: 29th April 2008