Sunday, 21 July 2013

A Trove of Bunyips

     Everyone in Australia has heard of the bunyip, but since it appears I have more readers in the northern hemisphere, I had better explain. The bunyip is a mythical (?) monster which the Aborigines believe(d) frequents the inland waterways of southeast Australia. The name by which it went varied greatly between tribes, its description was generally vague, and its habits reputably dangerous. What is not often known is that it was reported not only by Aborigines, but by white settlers, every twenty or thirty years during the nineteenth century.
     Interesting though this unusual history might have been, a major difficulty has always been documentation. The original reports were squirreled away in the musty archives of many local newspapers, too voluminous to search. The result was, when I began my investigations forty-odd years ago, I had to rely on secondary sources. Sometimes these secondary sources referred back to the primary source, sometimes not. When I wrote Bunyips and Bigfoots, I was forced to list a number of sightings of which I knew practically nothing, except that I had noted some fleeting reference.
    Fortunately, time brings a change. The National Library of Australia has now digitalised an enormous number of newspapers and magazines up to the 1950, or even later, on a website labelled Trove. As it is easily searchable, I have at last had the opportunity to follow up these stories. It turns out, many reports were copied almost verbatim from one newspaper to another, but I have attempted to cite the original as far as possible. I might add, too, that Andrew Nicholson appears to have beaten me to the Thargomindah Bunyip.
Lake Cowal, NSW (33 ° 35' S, 147° 25' E), 1873
I originally cited this from The Aborigines of Victoria by R. Brough Smyth (1878), but the original report appears to have be made in the Wagga Wagga Express. I shall refer to the account on page 3 of the Evening News (Sydney) of Friday 4 July 1873.
Another "Bunyip"
    The "Bunyip", according to the Lower Lachlan correspondent of the Wagga Wagga Express, has again been seen twice with the last three months, in the waters of Cowal Lake last, by a party of surveyors whose account can be relied upon, who were out in a boat and saw the animal about 150 yards off. They describe it to have a head [sic] something resembling a human being, or in their own words,"like an old man blackfellow with long coloured hair." When seen it appeared to be going in a straight direction rising out of the water so that they could see its shoulders, and then diving as if in the chase of fish, and rising again at intervals of about six or eight yards, and diving again.  They tried to get closer to it but could not for the pace it was going, consequently could give no description of it lower than the shoulders. They say the animal did not appear to be afraid of them. Another, a blackfellow and a white man, who were out in a canoe, say they saw it about a fortnight since. They agree in giving the same description of the head and hair as that given by the surveyors. The animal was swimming straight towards them, and when it saw them, dived and disappeared.
Molonglo River, ACT, 1876
This also comes from the Evening News, this time page 2 of Friday 20 October 1876. The site was not far from the present national capital of Canberra.
The Bunyip
    A strange amphibious animal - probably a veritable bunyip - was seen in the Molonglo River, at the Queanbeayan Junction, last Thurday. The river was in half-flood, and Frederick Hincksman, John M'Pherson, Luke Colverwell, and James Curley were about to cross. Hincksman entered first, followed by the others, M'Pherson bringing up the rear. Where they entered the stream was about knee-deep, and Hincksman's horse shied at what he supposed was a rock, but as soon as he passed on, the object proceeded up the river, following on the trail of the horsemen by a kind of diving, undulating motion, frequently coming to the surface and again disappearing. After landing on the other side, the party pelted the animal with stones for a distance of about fifty yards, when getting into deeper water it finally disappeared. None of the party seem to be able to give a minute description of the creature, but M'Pherson,who had the best opportunity of viewing it, said its face resembled that of a child, and that it swam with extended arms or long fins. It was whitish in colour, and the size of a large Newfoundland dog. That some unknown animal had its abode in our waters hereabout, there can no longer be any doubt, as several persons from time to time have caught a brief glimpse of it. - Queanbeayan Age, October 19.
Crystal Brook, SA (33° 21' S, 138° 12' E), 1876
The Evening News appeared to have picked up quite a lot of stories from regional newspapers. This one was published on p 2 of the issue of Tuesday 15 August 1876.
The Bunyip Again
The Port Pirie Gazette of August 4 states that Mr. Hagen, a resident of Crystal Brook, informed that paper that a peculiar-looking animal - black and covered with hair - has been seen in the Warra Warra Water hole, near the township named, and that various communications have passed between the local school master and the Government, inquiring as to the existence in Australia of such an animal described. The end of the matter was that the Government offered a reward of £50 for the capture of the fabled animal, alive or dead. That the story is no hoax may be gathered from the fact, that Mr. Hagen has purchased a huge shark-hook for the purpose of fishing for the monster. The animal is said to have been seen and remembered by the oldest blackfellows in the district, and they are said to be greatly afraid of it. The water hole is said to be bottomless, as on one occasion a line was let down 200 feet without meeting with any obstruction, and the water is said to rise and fall as if influenced by the sea, and tastes salt and bitter.
Dalby, Qld (27° 11' S, 151 ° 16' E), 1873
This account comes from page 10 of The Queenslander (Brisbane), Thursday 23 August 1873.
A bunyip has been seen by Alderman Eastaughffe, of Dalby - at least so the local journal says. He was out shooting ducks on the creek, when he came in sight of a huge monster, with a head like a seal and a tail consisting of two fins, a large and a smaller one. Further particulars are not given, but an endeavour ought to be made to form a better acquaintance with the animal, whatever it may be. It would be a proud day for Dalby were one of its aldermen to be the first to capture a real live bunyip.
Euroa, Vic (36° 45' S, 145° 34' E), 1890.
I have always been eager to discover the truth about the Great Euroa Monster Hunt, because it involved a photographer from the Melbourne Zoo. Rex Gilroy, in his unreferenced, unindexed 1995 book, Mysterious Australia, claimed it was a plesiosaur, but I have always taken his claims with a grain of salt. As it turns out, the site was a swamp 14 miles from Euroa, near the even smaller township of Moglonemby. The story was covered in various newspapers over an extended period. As far as I could discover, the original report was published on page 2 the Euroa Advertiser issue of Friday 14 February 1890.
MOGLONEMBY
    Hip! Hip! Hip! Hurrah! I've got some news at last. We have a Bunyip in our parish. He has not been captured yet, but he's here all the same. He has been here for the last two years, and though dogs and cattle have at different times been hunted out of the swamp in which he is located, he never deigned to make himself visible till one day last week, when he stopped the growth of one of our young men by placing himself in rather close proximity, and partly revealing himself, to his terrified observer. I shall not give the names of those implicated in the discorded to me [sic], only adding that the veracity of my informant is unimpeachable, and suggesting that some of the Euroa sportsmen unite together and go out and capture him - the bunyip I mean - not my informant. It appears that in Mr. Daly's paddock there is a large swamp, full of very tall rushes, and a couple of our young men having obtained leave from the owner to cut some of these rushes for thatch did so, but one of them not having sufficient went next day to get more. He was busily engaged when he heard a most peculiar sound close at hand, but the rushes being thick and tall he could see nothing. The rushes waved, however, from side to side, as some large object made its way through them, and when some twenty or thirty yards off a head of some sort, big, coarse, ugly in the extreme, raised its above the reeds, here about 6 feet high. It remained in this position for some time, and the young man though terribly scared had sufficient time to observe it narrowly, and says that he never saw anything like it, the nearest comparison he could make being that of the head of a bull-dog. He was so scared that he discontinued his labours and would not go single handed or unarmed to the work next day. He accordingly got his companion to assist him next day, and while busily engaged a sudden noise of some large animal was heard splashing through reeds and water, by young man No. 2. having sufficient reeds cut, one mounted guard over the other with gun in hand, while the reeds were carried out. In addition the sound of splashing through the water, a peculiar puffing or snorting was distinctly heard by both as the animal made its way through the rushes. It was minus horns, and its tail was not seen, nor its feet either, if it has any, so I cannot aver that it was his majesty taking a rest in a cool spot during this hot weather. The person who saw it declares that if it be any sort of reptile it must have been about thirty feet long as the head was above the reeds which were about six feet high where he saw it. It remained in this position for fully a quarter of an hour. In fact long enough for him to walk round it several times at a considerable distance. I shall only say that a cow was once seen to come rushing out of this swamp, bellowing like mad, and on several occasions dogs have been hunted out, but till last week, nothing had been actually seen. Now sportsmen is your chance to capture game worthy of your powder.  Enuff sed.
     The challenge was taken up because, a week later (Friday 21 February), the same newspaper carried the following brief paragraph on page 3:
We are requested to mention that as a party of sportsmen will leave Euroa on Saturday about noon, in order, if possible, to capture the Moglonemby "bunyip", they will be glad if residents near the swamp will attend with axes, in order to cut away the tree which is supposed to be the refuge of the ichthyosaurus.
     By now, the capital city dailies, as well as many regional newspapers, had taken up the story. One of the more detailed accounts, albeit written with the journalist's tongue apparently fixed to the inner side of his cheek, appeared on page 9 of The Argus (Melbourne) on Saturday 1st March 1890.
    It is to be feared that after all the pursuit of the "bunyip" will have to be ranked with such unprofitable proceedings as the hunting of the "snark" proved to be. Over and over again people seem to have got right on the tracks of this mysterious "Australian native," only to find that in the end he has managed to evade them, and to keep his secret to himself. The latest account of hoped for success, ending in discouraging failure, reaches us from the neighbourhood of Euroa. Near this flourishing township is a swamp, which has for more than six years past borne a bad reputation as the home of something more fearsome even than snakes and typhoid germs. Dark tales were told round selectors' hearths of how dogs had been known to fly panic stricken from the uncanny spot, but no human eye had as yet rested upon the monster. At length, however, the hour of detection arrived. Only a few days ago a reedcutter obtained for ten minutes a view of a strange animal, apparently about 30 ft. in length, with a head like that of a large bull-dog. On a subsequent occasion the beast was again observed by a party of Euroans, just as he was on the point of making himself scarce in the trunk of a fallen tree. The existence of some altogether unheard of monster is thus vouched for by a cloud of credible witnesses. His bull-dog head by itself was, perhaps, not absolutely convincing, seeing that bull-dog heads are found on other animals besides "bunyips", notably on bull-dogs. But no one ever saw a bull-dog 30 ft. long, and with a tail as thick as a man's thigh. Moreover, the body, it is stated, was yellow underneath and dark brown above, and "as thick as Mr. BARR'S belltopper." It is rather unfortunate that the latter comparison does not convey as much information to us as it would to people who are better acquainted than we are with the dimensions of "Mr. BARR'S belltopper." It is pretty clear, however, from the fact that the belltopper in question is used as a standard measure in Euroa, that the article must be something out of the way of ordinary "belltoppers", and that to be as thick as "Mr. BARR'S belltopper" must mean to be very thick indeed. Here, obviously, was a monster of no common order, whom it would have been of the greatest interest to discover and capture. Nor did the enterprise of Euroa at all lag behind the occasion. A pursuit was organised, headed by an enthusiast from Melbourne, who had provided himself with nets and everything necessary for securing the prize. The inevitable photographer was of course on the spot ready to photograph the "bunyip", and nothing was wanting to complete the success of the party but the presence of the "bunyip" itself. This, however, was just what was, and is still, wanting; and hence the failure which we have again to deplore. Like the "boojum snark" the supposed "bunyip" had "slowly and silently vanished away" into those shadowy regions which are perhaps his real home, whence no doubt many other attempts will be made to dislodge him before he is finally caught and classified.
     A more down to earth report of the incident appeared on page 3 of The Daily News (Perth) on Saturday 8 March 1890. The story began with an identification of  the source, and a description of the site.
    A singular story has been related to a reporter of the Albury Border Post (N. S. Wales) by a farmer from the Goulburn Valley, concerning the appearance of a strange animal in a swamp at Wyloneby [sic], fourteen miles from Euroa. The swamp is about 157 yards across, and a creek flows through it.
     He then goes on to describe the familiar story of the first sighting, and added that the witness "leaped upon a log". It then continues:
On a report of the occurrence appearing in the local journal a party of Euroa sportsmen went out to the swamp, where they were joined by local residents on horseback. About beating about for more than an hour they were about to give up the quest, when a sudden rustling was heard, and two of the party saw an enormous tail, as thick as a man's thigh, disappearing into the trunk of a fallen tree. A shot was fired at the animal but is effect is a matter of conjecture. Attempts were made to dislodge the "bunyip," but without avail, the only result being a small black snake, which was quickly despatched [sic]. Night coming on the party retired, but will again visit the scene on Saturday. Those who saw the animal describe it as being of a yellow colour underneath and a dark brown above, and of about a foot in diameter. It is supposed to be an immense serpent, such as is found in Queensland.
     The Northern Argus (Clare, SA) of Friday 14 March carried a small paragraph on page 3 stating that "the bailiff of the Royal Park [Zoo] organised an expedition to capture the beast."
     I don't think there can be any doubt that the animal was, indeed, a large snake. True, it would be hard to confuse the flat head of a snake with that of a bulldog, but the tail disappearing into the fallen tree gives it away. However, no-one ever saw anything 30 feet long. That was a guess based on the assumption that it was a (possibly prehistoric) reptile with its feet on the ground six feet below its head. In fact, if the reeds were dense enough, and leaning at an angle, a snake could quite easily travel through them well above the ground. The obvious identification would be the carpet python, Morelia spilota which does live in Queensland, but whose range extends to the region of Euroa - the only python which does. The alleged colour scheme is also consistent with it. Nevertheless, I suspect that excitement made the witnesses overestimate its thickness. Dr Geordie Torr, writing in Pythons of Australia for the Australian Natural History Series, gives its length at about 2.5 metres (8.2 feet), with a maximum of 3.7 metres (12 feet).
     What about the other cases? Firstly, it must be stressed that they were only the ones I missed on my first round; there were a great many like them. Also, they were all transients. Australia has no equivalent to Loch Ness, with a long history or repeated sightings. This brings me to the last newspaper account.

Conargo, NSW (35° 19' S,145° 09' E)
I have not been able to find the original report, assuming there is one, but this article on bunyips by Dudley Le Soeuf, the director of the Melbourne Zoo, provides sufficient detail. It comes from page 7 of The Mildura Cultivator (Vic) of Saturday 20 October 1900.
The animal has been occasionally shot at, but never secured, far inland in Victoria, as far as I am aware. On one occasion on the Goulburn River the bullet cut off some hairs, which were found floating in the water after the creature had dived and disappeared, and were sent to Sir Frederick McCoy for identification, and he pronounced them to be those of a seal. Many years ago an unusual animal was killed in a Billabong near Conargo, in the Riverina district of New South Wales, the exact location being close to the Puckawidgee homestead. It was skinned and stuffed with straw, and it was for a long time to be seen at the local public-house, but eventually it was destroyed. Mr. Weir, the present Government stock inspector at Deniliquin, New South Wales, remembers having seen it there. From the description given, it was evidently a female specimen of the Australian fur seal (Euotaria cinerea). It must have come up the Murray River from the sea, and then entered the Edwards River. From there it passed into the Billabong, where it was killed. The rivers were pretty full of water at the time, so the seal would have had no difficulty in ascending them. It seems strange that it should have gone so far inland, the distance by water to the sea being over 1000 miles.
     Scientific names are not as stable as their proponents would prefer, and Euotaria cinerea is now called Arctocephalus pusillus, although the common name remains the same. In any case, other references indicate that the event occurred around 1850. It is clear that, if it hadn't been for that lucky shot, it would have entered legend as just another bunyip. Most authorities consider seals - among which I include sea lions - to have been the origin of most of these stories. Most of them can be fitted into this format with a bit of imagination. Also, Peter Ravenscroft has recently performed the commendable service of producing a detailed list of animals definitely identified as seals discovered inland during the twentieth century. Despite the presence of dams, weirs, and noisy watercraft, it is remarkable how far inland some of them managed to roam.
     The Dalby bunyip was clearly a seal. Pity the poor pinniped! It was well and truly lost. To arrive north of the Queensland border, it must have travelled twice as far as the Conargo critter from the only possible point of entry, the mouth of the Murray in South Australia. As for the Molonglo River bunyip, the best identification, owing to its pale colour, would be a female, or young male representative of Neophoca cinerea, the Australian sea lion, but there are a number of other occasional visitors to our shores which might also fit.
     The Lake Cowal creature is slightly awkward. Zoologist Gary Opit has pointed out that "an old man blackfellow with long coloured hair" would be more consistent with a yowie (if you are prepared to believe in yowies), and there is independent evidence that they can swim. Initially, I warmed to the idea. However, a swimming ape is unlikely to alternately dive and surface, and I note the second pair of witnesses said that it dived and did not reappear. Also, on Peter Ravenscroft's list was a seal which appeared in one of the feeder streams of Lake Cowal in the 1950s.
     Not every bunyip sighting is amenable to the seal explanation. I have already provided another explanation for the whistling, neck-spouting bunyip of the Little Murray River. And I still cannot identify the creature of Kyneton, which allegedly used its long ears as oars.
     Also, could someone please direct me to the original account of the animal which haunted Tuckerbil Swamp, near Leeton, around 1929/30, because it was supposed to have had a head at both ends?

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The Possum Book

I am pleased to provide a link to a website of a friend of mine, Robyn Tracey, who has written a fascinating story about her dealings with brush-tailed possums in the outer suburbs of Sydney. You can download the book for free, or read it on the site. Go to: The Possum Book.

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