Bush skills track criminals

Last updated 05:00 05/07/2014

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Barry Port, Australia's last indigenous police tracker, has been described as a living legend.

The 71-year-old's retirement on Friday brings to a close a remarkable era for the Aboriginal craftsmen who have helped police hunt down criminals and find missing people in remote areas since the late 1880s.

"I love being on country," the humble and quiet Lama Lama elder from Queensland's far north said.

"I like working for the police."

Trackers are famed for using their bush skills to spot subtle markings which reveal the path a person has taken in often harsh and remote areas.

They're able to sound out things that are out of place but go unnoticed to the untrained eye.

"I look for footprints, broken trees or a camp fire or something like that," said Port who was born and bred at Coen on Cape York.

He learnt his skills while droving as a young man with his father Garvey on cattle stations across the region.

"When you work on the cattle station you have to learn how to find cattle and horses if they disappear and bring them back to the camp," he said.

Since Port began working as a tracker alongside Coen police in 1981 he's been instrumental in helping to solve a number of well-know cases.

In 1997 he tracked down two teenage New Zealand stowaways and a Malaysian sailor after they jumped ship off Cape York and swam ashore.

He received a citation for his work in 1984 when he and partner George Musgrave tracked a stolen car over rough terrain for 22 kilometres near Coen.

The thieves were found asleep in their tent surrounded by a large cannabis crop.

Police trackers have been employed in every state and territory except Tasmania since about 1885 and were involved in famous cases like tracking down Ned Kelly.

Historian Jonathan Richards, a researcher at the University of Queensland, says Aboriginal trackers have been employed in some capacity since the beginning of European colonisation in the 1700s.

"It could be argued that they were an essential part of the frontier history and also the policing history of Australia," he said.

"(Since about 1885) they've helped police by finding stolen horses, cattle, lost people in the bush and escaped criminals.

"Barry is the last of a long line of Aboriginal trackers."

Port was this week given a fitting send off at the local pub in Coen where officers, family and friends spoke of his dedication and humility.

Local officer in charge Sergeant Matt Moloney described Port as a living legend whose work went far beyond tracking.

"He's a real link between cultures," he said.

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"His powers of observation were utilised right up until the end of his service."

Sgt Moloney said in recent years Port's role as a liaison officer included normal policing duties as well as assisting with crash investigations in and around Coen.

The tracker is able to determine exactly how an accident happened by looking at markings on the road.

"I'm standing there looking at dust wondering how he's come to that conclusion," Sgt Moloney said.

"It's like when you see those computer CSI things on television where you get someone re-enacting precisely what happened at that accident."

His family said in a statement they were extremely proud of his achievements, dedication and courage, adding that he'd set a great example.

Acting Chief Superintendent Brett Schafferius, who worked alongside Port in the early 1990s, said his contribution to the police force couldn't be described in words.

"But even greater than that is the contribution he has made to the communities on the Cape and the people of Queensland in this area," he said.

Although Port is the last person to work solely as a police tracker other police liaison officers have these skills which continue to be used by police.

Port has passed on some of his tracking skills to his nephew Aaron Port who works as a liaison officer at Mossman, north of Cairns.

"When we were kids Uncle Barry used to take us out and show use how to hunt for food and where to walk so people knew you'd been there," Aaron Port said.

"When my uncle retires we're going to lose one of the best trackers in Australia.

"It's very important to us in our culture that our kids should learn this knowledge."

After so many years working as a tracker, Port plans to turn his attention to getting jobs done around his Coen property.

"I've got a lot of things to do," he said.

"But I said to the sergeant that if they need a hand I'll be here to help them out."

- AAP

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