DANGER: A warning scrawled on the signpost to the Wodi Wodi track, near Stanwell Park, records a December, 2012 encounter. Is there a big black cat on the Illawarra escarpment?Illawarra ‘panther’: speculation of escarpment sightings quashed’Illawarra panther’ leaves sisters terror-strickenIllawarra panther picture provokes photo frenzy: photosThe sun had fallen behind the escarpment on Sunday as Alex Vourliotis headed higher up the sea-facingslope at Coalcliff, his spirits buoyed by fine weatherand the postcard-worthy sight ofSeacliff Bridgesnaking away below.
EYES PEELED: Alex Vourliotis and Tanaya Webb were pursuing the perfect selfie in the escarpment at Coalcliff when Mr Vourliotis realised they weren’t alone.
The Albion Park personal trainer and his partner Tanaya Webb had made a leisurely visit to thescenic spot,so the two could get a photo together.
But they beat a hasty retreat home;Mr Vourliotis witha racingheart and a firm belief thathe had seen for himself the Illawarra ‘panther’ –thebig, blackcat said to roam the region’s green border.
Mr Vourliotis told the Mercuryhis gaze was fixed on the bush when he caught something dark moving in the upper reaches of his field of vision at about 5.30pm.
Heestimates he was standing 15 metres away when the creature turned and ran,jumping a tree root before disappearing behind a tree.
“I’d say it wasthe size of a full-grown dog, maybe like a German Shepherd,” he said.
“The way it jumped–it didn’t jump like a dog and it didn’t jump like a cat, but it was on all fours.I immediately thought it was a panther.
“Ifroze, and didn’t know what to or say.”
The encounter lasted only about two seconds.
Mr Vourliotis, 26,said the creature’ssolid legs contributed to his belief that it was not a dog.
He followed it a short distance, and believes he spotted it a second time in a dark pocket of overgrown bush.
He said he realisedhis vulnerable position and retreated.
“It was a dark part of the bush and I swear I could see its eyes –I swear I saw it blink –thenI heard a thud right next to it,” he said.
“I got too scared and turned away. If it had attacked me there was no way I could defend myself or [Tanaya].
“I was shaking. That’s how confident I was I seen something.
“I’m a sceptic in general–I’m not a big believer until I feel or see something.”
The Illawarra and surrounds have produced sporadic big cat sightings over the years, including sightings at Austinmer’s Sublime Point track in 2014 and 2015 and along the Wodi Wodi track near Stanwell Park.
There, a trekker has used the signpost to recordan alleged encounter on December 31, 2012.
The sightings –and numerous others along the state’s east coast –have given rise to theories about escaped circus animals and one-time exotic pets.
A less colourful theory– favoured by some farmers, in particular–is that the sightings are of feral cats that have grown far bigger than the household variety of cat.