'Jimmy saved me'

ART OF TRACKING: Sr Gabrielle Travers, pictured, was found as a young girl by famous Aboriginal tracker Jimmy James in 1941 after she went missing. Photo: Bianca Iovino
ART OF TRACKING: Sr Gabrielle Travers, pictured, was found as a young girl by famous Aboriginal tracker Jimmy James in 1941 after she went missing. Photo: Bianca Iovino

A Catholic nun who once went missing as a child on the West Coast is campaigning to save the art of Aboriginal tracking.

Mercy Sister Gabrielle Travers believes the mystical skill is dying and hopes for an education program to ensure it does not vanish.

Sr Travers is perfectly placed to issue this plea - she was found 80 years ago by the late tracker Jimmy James after she wandered off as a young girl near Cleve.

Recent news of missing Western Australian girl Cleo Smith and the death of Cleve man Jeffery Beaton have caused Sr Travers to lament the lack of credit that trackers receive, often working with police and offering an understanding of the land to help find missing people.

"It is a moment that we can catch to highlight this lost and extraordinarily important skill that the First Nations people have," Sr Travers said.

FOUND: Sr Gabrielle Travers, pictured, at almost three years old when she strayed from home and was found in an overnight search with police by local tracker Jimmy James. Photo: supplied.

FOUND: Sr Gabrielle Travers, pictured, at almost three years old when she strayed from home and was found in an overnight search with police by local tracker Jimmy James. Photo: supplied.

"We are only beginning to recognise their care of the land ... and I am saying, surely, across Australia, there ought to be some skill-training offered at a tertiary or TAFE based establishment, conducted by indigenous people, and accrediting them for this important work."

Sr Travers was just under three years old when she went missing from a neighbour's land halfway between Cleve and Lock 80 years ago this week, and was found by Pitjantjatjara tracker Jimmy.

She had wandered from the scrub where she was left to play with other children in late October, 1941, and did not realise she was lost until she was found the next morning, sitting happily at the edge of a crop field.

Cleve police knew Jimmy and his companion were camped on the Cleve-to-Arno Bay Road about 35 miles from the area. They were called upon to help and eventually found her.

She had walked about nine miles overnight, having negotiated several barbed-wire fences and a wheat paddock. "I didn't think I was in trouble, but I knew something bad had happened when we had breakfast at some stranger's house in the morning," Sr Travers said. "I am in awe of Jimmy's skill... he tracked me all that way."

Jimmy moved to the Riverland where former detective Max Jones wrote a book, Tracks, outlining his life and legacy.

A spokesperson from the South Australian Police said trackers were still used today, but there were few to call upon.

"Police continue to use trackers and did so in some of our most recent missing persons searches," the spokesperson said.

"Unfortunately, this valuable skill is in short supply and not as readily available as it once was."

In a speech on Foundation Day, April 28, 2019, Police Commissioner Grant Stevens recognised the contribution Aboriginal trackers have made to the police and the community, and he gave a nod to Jimmy and his co-trackers.

"For about 40 years Jimmy worked closely with police, using tracking skills and instincts honed by generations of Pitjantjatjara men to locate scores of murderers, prison escapees and missing people," he said.

Sr Travers reunited with Jimmy in the 1970s or 1980s in Elizabeth, Adelaide.

She was able to thank him for finding her as a child before he died in 1991.