Thursday, July 3, 2014

Last Aboriginal police tracker to retire as 200-year-old tradition ends

Australia's last remaining Aboriginal police tracker, 71-year-old Barry Port, is retiring from the force, bringing an end to two centuries of a practice in which investigations and manhunts relied on hired bushmen who "can read the ground like a storybook".

Mr Port has been an officer in far north Queensland for 33 years, where the local force says he is the reason for its motto "you can run, but you can't hide".

During his decades of service, Mr Port, who was born under a tree by the banks of the local river, has used his skills to track escaped prisoners, stolen cars and missing teenagers. He learnt to track from his father, a stockman who taught him how to find stray cattle and horses.

Known as a shy, modest and much-liked figure in his home town of Coen, he once described his method as "just look for footprints and follow".

"When they go through scrubby places, we look for broken branches," he told a Queensland newspaper three years ago.

"You try and get out in front of them. Track in a big circle. Try and see where they are going. You've got to keep your eyes out."

In a famous track of Mr Port's in 2011 which has become something of a town legend, he followed a man who had been convicted for a petty crime and run away from the courthouse. The pursuit lasted two-and-a-half hours before Mr Port walked over to a clump of trees and pointed to the man's hiding spot; the man, it turned out, happened to be a distant relative.

Sergeant Matt Moloney, the officer in charge of the Coen police station, said he once watched as Mr Port arrived at the scene of a car accident and was able to assess immediately the cause of the crash, including the speed of the vehicle and the precise spot where the driver "twitched the steering wheel".

"I am standing at this pile of dust and thinking: 'How did he come to this conclusion?' Everything he said was right," Sergeant Moloney told The Telegraph.

"He is a legend. We all look at things but very few of us observe things; he observes things."

Sergeant Moloney said non-Aborigines tend to view tracking as magic but it is a highly developed skill that has to be learnt.

"As white people, because we don't have it, we have this mysticism – we think it's magic," he said. "It is true that he has these incredible powers of observation. It is something you have to be trained in. You have to be relatively experienced in the area to know things are out of place. You are not necessarily following tracks but signs that things are not where they should be or things are out of place."

The early British settlers were stunned by the abilities of the Aboriginal trackers and soon began deploying them to hunt lost children and bushrangers. A group of trackers helped to find Ned Kelly, probably the most notorious of Australia's bushrangers, and the practice has been depicted in films such as Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout and Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Pat Lowe, a British writer, said in a book about the trackers that they had excellent memory skills and often relied on tracking to find food and water.

"An experienced tracker can read the ground like a storybook," she wrote.

"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."

The first "native police" were employed in the 1830s but the practice has been phased out since the 1980s, with most forces now employing them only if needed for specific tasks.

Sergeant Moloney said Mr Port was believed to be the last tracker employed by an Australian police force.

"It is heartbreaking to see him retire – not just the loss of skills and not just that we're losing a man of great character – but he's my mate," he said. "I'm sorry I won't see him at work every day."

But Mr Port has promised he will be available if needed.

"Well I told them I won't be too far away," he told ABC News.

"If they need any help I'll be back here to help them out."

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