The sun had fallen behind the escarpment on Sunday as Alex Vourliotis headed higher up the sea-facing slope at Coalcliff, his spirits buoyed by fine weather and the postcard-worthy sight of Seacliff Bridge snaking away below.
The Albion Park personal trainer and his partner Tanaya Webb had made a leisurely visit to the scenic spot, so the two could get a photo together.
But they beat a hasty retreat home; Mr Vourliotis with a racing heart and a firm belief that he had seen for himself the Illawarra ‘panther’ – the big, black cat said to roam the region’s green border.
Mr Vourliotis told the Mercury his 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.
He estimates 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 was the 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.
“I froze, and didn’t know what to or say.”
The encounter lasted only about two seconds.
Mr Vourliotis, 26, said the creature’s solid 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 realised his 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 – then I 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 record an 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.