Tim The Yowie Man: Into the realm of the Fishman

It's 25 years, almost to the day, since the first photograph of the Fishman - a humanoid-type creature purportedly wallowing in the wild rivers south-east of Canberra - was captured on 35-millimetre film during a university field trip. Although defying science, the Fishman quickly become entrenched in our folklore, gaining notoriety alongside the other mystery creatures like the bunyip, the black panther and heaven-forbid, even the yowie.

But does the Fishman really exist? In a quest to uncover the real story behind the Fishman, earlier in the week I joined John Reid, the creature's discoverer and self-confessed champion on an expedition into one of its suspected hideouts - the Deua National Park, around 100 kilometres south-east of Canberra.

Next to photographs of the fabled Fishman are photographs of Reid swimming butt-naked in similarly wild rivers.

I first heard Reid telling his compelling tale of the half-man, half-fish, complete with photographs in the Hayden Allen lecture theatre while studying at ANU in the early 1990s and the story hasn't changed since then. In late January 1988, Reid, together with three colleagues from the ANU School of Art, set off on a photographic expedition into the Wyanbene Caves in the Deua. They were especially interested in trying to secure images of bats with a special acoustically sensitive auto scan camera they were trialling.

However, instead of capturing images of bats, when the quartet of shutterbugs processed the film it revealed an image of a peculiar human-like figure swimming through the cave complex.

Reid's journal entry at the time (and only recently published) reads, "We gathered around the composite image. Heads bobbed above it. Magnifying glasses, like referees, intervened. Before long we were locked in debate. "The Fishman", someone uttered. The term like a virus quickly passed everyone's lips. Now we had words as well as pictures."

Reid promptly returned to the Deua and succeeded in capturing a second humanoid image, this one in an above ground watercourse connected to the cave system. The Fishman phenomenon was born and, together, the two photographs prompted an obsession for Reid in which for over a decade he undertook countless expeditions into the forests of south-east NSW in an attempt to find more evidence of the curious creature.

It's a story Reid has told and retold for a quarter of a century to fascinated audiences in lecture theatres and conferences as far afield as the United States, never deviating from his original story. "Many an hour around a campfire has been dedicated to debating how the creature emerged and how fortunate I was to come across it," says Reid.

But surely, there's more to the story yet to be disclosed, such as why is it only Reid who manages to capture photographs of the creature? In fact, subsequent to the two 1988 images Reid now has a substantial folio of Fishman photos. Is Reid in fact the Fishman? There's always been speculation, but he's never fessed-up.

Strangely, no journalist has ever accompanied Reid into the field to test this theory, so earlier this week, I loaded up the Yowie mobile and, armed with an open mind, my togs and underwater camera, set off towards the Deua with Reid in tow.

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On the phone, the night before, while finalising details of our expedition, Reid denies he is the Fishman: "One needs to be a bit discerning here, I'm the Fishman man, not the Fishman - a lot of people think I'm the Fishman and I don't know it, but that's not how I see it."

However, I'm already armed with a significant lead - one tantalisingly provided by Reid himself in the current exhibition featuring the Fishman at the Canberra Museum and Gallery (CMAG). Next to photographs of the fabled Fishman are photographs of Reid swimming butt-naked in similarly wild rivers. Call it coincidence if you like, but you can't tell the difference between Reid and the Fishman. The two sets of images bear more than an uncanny resemblance to each other, and I'm hoping that immersed in the watery domain of his beloved Fishman that Reid might drop his guard and spill the beans on his 25-year secret. Or even better, I might actually spot something genuinely inexplicable. Either way, I couldn't think of a better way to spend yet another scorching summer's day than on a waterhole crawl along the untamed Deua River.

As we pass the last of Araluen's orchards and bump along the gravel road deeper into the Deua, it's soon clear Reid has a strong affinity for the beauty of the wild rivers and forests that dominate much of south-east NSW. It's a love for wild and beautiful places that he has nurtured for most of his life. "These places deliver such intense sensory experience that they easily evoke 'the poetic image' - accounted for by C Day-Lewis in The Clark Lectures, Cambridge, England, in 1946 - which I first purchased as a schoolboy," says Reid as we round another hairpin corner.

Just beyond Bakers Flat, Reid directs me down to a pretty riverside camp area, where, despite the spectacular setting, there's not another soul within cooee. The water is gently flowing at no higher than chest height - and with the sun now directly overhead, it's the perfect spot for a refreshing dip - and more importantly to try to nail my own evidence of the Fishman. As I clip the waterproof casing onto my camera, I ask Reid what exactly it is I should be looking for. Will the Fishman just float silently by or will it dart through the water at break-neck speed in search of prey which surely it would need to eat in vast quantities in order to sustain its size? He responds, somewhat surprisingly, that Fishman may not be flesh and blood after all.

"Fishman is more a fine art discovery as opposed to a scientific discovery," explains Reid. "I've tried to elevate the creature from the state of a weird crypto creature to something that represents all that is unknown and yet to be discovered in our wonderful forests. The Fishman had a lot of currency in the early 1990s when it was put to work in a context of a conservation campaign associated with trying to prevent logging in south-east NSW in our natural state forests," says Reid, as we paddle further downstream.

I see this revelation of the Fishman as a symbol rather than a specimen as my prompt to quiz Reid about his self-portraits in the CMAG exhibition. "Yes they bear an uncanny resemblance to the Fishman itself," he admits, adding, "how that might fuel people's interpretation of things I don't know," he cagily adds before reaching a rock ledge on the far side of the river.

Although Reid stops short of confessing that all the photographs of Fishman he has published since 1988 are actually self-portraits, while drying off on the rock ledge he divulges some of the challenges he has faced during his so-called 'Fishman swims'.

"I recall one day in Cave Creek in the Snowies I was standing in the water. It was freezing and suddenly a hail storm hit. Exposed to the elements, my naked body felt like a prawn in a bucket. I was pink, hurting and vulnerable."

"For me, wilderness is a full sensory experience of the world unmediated by artefact so when I undertake my swim to establish a meeting with the Fishman, I have what I think is a genuine wilderness experience," he says.

So after a day snooping around its prime habitat, what's my take on the Fishman? Is it more than one man's attempt to find the ultimate wilderness experience? Is it more than a symbol for all that is unknown in our forests? Regardless of its scientific plausibility or artistic merit, the Fishman continues to shine the spotlight on some of our region's wonderful wilderness, and for that we should be thankful.

FACT FILE

Exhibition: John Reid's photographs of the Fishman feature in the Lens Love Exhibition, on show at Canberra Museum and Gallery (CMAG) until Sunday February 23. CMAG is adjacent to the ACT Legislative Assembly in Civic (cnr London Circuit and Civic Square) and open 10am-5pm on weekdays and noon-5pm on weekends. Free entry. More: Ph 6207 3968.

Floor Talk: Still not sure what to make of the Fishman? On Wednesday (February 12, 1-2pm) John Reid will join CMAG director and exhibition curator Shane Breynard and fellow artist Cathy Laudenbach for an in-gallery conversation about their thought-provoking photographs.

Hot spots: According to Reid, apart from the Deua River, the Mongarlowe River (which rises in Monga National Park south-east of Araluen), parts of Morton National Park and Cave Creek (near Blue Waterholes) in Northern Kosciusko National Park are also known haunts of the Fishman.

DAY TRIP

Check out the watery domain of the Fishman for yourself - you never know what you might find.

Explore: My daylong search for the Fishman with John Reid centred on the Deua River, Bakers Flat and Dry Creek riverside camping areas, all easily accessible with a 2WD off the Araluen-Moruya Rd (gravel). Allow 2.5 hours (140 kilometres) travel (one-way) from Canberra via Braidwood.

Expect: If you don't catch a glimpse of Reid's legendary Fishman, I guarantee you'll certainly return with a deeper appreciation of the beauty of this hidden valley.

Don't forget: Your togs - all three areas have delightful (and shady) swimming holes (little wonder the Fishman likes it here!)

On the way: If you stop for supplies at the Braidwood IGA supermarket look out for an original photo of the Fishman hanging above the chilled food aisle (ironically near the frozen fish).

CONTACT TIM

Email: timtheyowieman@bigpond.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/o The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie Street, Fyshwick. A selection of past columns is available at canberratimes.com.au/travel/blog/yowie-man.

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