Saturday 15 June 2019

The Great Koolunga Bunyip Hunt of 1883

They sought it with thimbles,
They sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.
 (The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carroll, 1876)
Bunyip: The bogey of the bush, a mythical monster which lurks in the rivers and swamps of inland Australia, and makes Aborigines turn white with terror. Everyone has heard about the bunyip, but no-one can tell you what it looks like.
Koolunga, South Australia: population 195, the epitome of a one horse town. You'll need a really detailed map to find it, so I shall give the co-ordinates: 33½° S, 138.1° E, on the banks of the Broughton River, 33 km south of Crystal Brook, and 46 km north west of Clare.
     Yet, in early 1883 it was the centre of a colourful bunyip hunt which kept the rest of the continent amused long after it had ended with a blast. No doubt many readers in Queensland and Tasmania were asking themselves at the time: "Where the [expletive] is Koolunga?"
     This was an area apparently favourable for bunyips. Back in 1876 one had been reported in a waterhole near Crystal Brook, while another had put in an appearance in the Rocky River, which joins the Broughton, in 1853. But the Koolunga story came out in dribs and drabs. It was syndicated widely, with the most detailed accounts not necessarily the earliest, or published closest to the action, and not all of them provided a time line. Nevertheless, with a bit of investigation, the proper sequence can be established.
    It started off with a dispatch from Koolunga dated January 22, published in the South Australian Register (Adelaide) of Thurs 25 Jan 1883, on page 7. Sandwiched between reports of the harvest, the weather, and the Presbyterian church, was the paragraph:
     A great sensation has been caused here the last few days by the report of a bunyip having been seen in the river near White Cliff. The reports are so well authenticated that a large party of gentlemen have organized a special force so as to thoroughly investigate the truth of them. They are now at the field of operations, where it is intended to capture the bunyip by the aid of dynamite.
    The same page also included a "provincial telegram" from Koolunga dated January 24 to the effect that the bunyip was in a large waterhole in the Broughton River near Mr. Freeman's homestead.
     Now let's fast forward a few weeks to page 8 of the Port Adelaide News of Fri 16 February 1883.
    A great excitement has been caused here about the Bunyip. Several attempts have been made to capture it, but as yet without success. Still several gentlemen are sanguine of success, and are preparing a lot of dynamite charges to be used in the next hole the Bunyip is seen to enter. No doubt, many people are sceptical about the existence of any such thing up here, but there is not the least doubt that some sort of creature has been seen, and that it hides itself by going under the water in the deep holes; but the name and nature of the animal has yet to be proved. Four persons whose word can be trusted have positively declared that they have seen it
       Finally, a bank clerk at Clare, called Clark, who doubled as a newspaper correspondent, decided to see for himself, and his fascinating account was published in many newspapers. The earliest appears to have been on page 6 of the South Australian Register (Adelaide), Wed 21 Feb 1883.
    So many reports of this wonderful animal have reached Clare (where I am stationed) that I determined to go when opportunity offered and see with mine own eyes this creature which does not appear in any Natural History, but is reported to rise out of a waterhole nightly. The waterhole in which the bunyip is said to spend most of his existence is near Koolunga.
    "I have seen it frequently ; but always at night when the moon was up," said a gentleman of Koolunga to me a few days since. "It looks," he went on, "something like a fat wether with a head somewhat like that of a rhinoceros, and a back either of shell or short hair." Another man told me it was about as big as a foal two weeks old. It is reported that the natives told white people years and years ago that the bunyip (or Devil) was in that pool. Many old residents of Clare, Koolunga, and other places, remember hearing of such an animal having been seen; but it was always looked upon as an imaginary creature, or that it could only be seen by men who were in that condition of being unable to discern the difference between a haystack and a meatsafe.
    The thought of perhaps being able to capture the bunyip and travel as a showman certainly had something to do in prompting me to go forth to wage war with him.
   "Has he ever done any one any harm ?" I asked my Koolunga friend.
   "Well, I don't know that; but the children are frightened of it, and so are some of the women."
   "Of course the men are not."
   "N—o," said he. "— went out with a gun to shoot him, and when he saw the bunyip he got nervous and could not aim straight, and then the bunyip jumped into the water again."
    "Are you certain you saw it ?"
    "Oh yes, on my soul I did," said he, "and, strange to say, the horses and cattle will not drink at that hole at nights."
     I could not help thinking that the bunyip was near akin to Lewis Carroll's snark or boojum.
     On Saturday, the 17th February, I arranged for a trap to drive four of us to Koolunga early in the afternoon, so as to be in time to witness the bunyip come out of the water as the moon shed her mystic rays o'er the haunted pool.
     Many of the Clare people chaffed us on going on such a wildgoose chase; and as soon as a gentleman who writes harmless and senseless personalities in the Clare paper under the nom de plume of "Idler" heard of our going, it is reported he commenced a satirical poem, viz., "The Bunyip Hunters."
     Not a few of the Clare people looked surprised when they heard I was off for the day. The people I allude to are those who never consider a Bank clerk to be out of harness; that they are always to be at a customer's beck and call, and to be always willing (no matter at what hour of the day or night) to return to the Bank to change cheques they neglected cashing during business hours.
    No one but a Bank clerk who has experienced it can think how unpleasant it is to be hunted down by a customer who wants change. Some customers are actually so anxious to get change that they will not think twice before rousing the Bank clerk out of his bed, if he be an early bed-goer.
    Perhaps my trip to Koolunga will teach some people a lesson; and if it brings about such a desirable state of things as their doing banking business in business hours only I shall not consider that the bunyip has failed to do good indirectly.
    It was a lovely afternoon, and the drive was most enjoyable. We stopped for a few minutes at Rochester. How strange it seems now for any township not to be connected with others by telegraph wires. How isolated one feels now dwelling in such a township, and how fresh the stalest of news seems to the inhabitants of such places! The wire has not yet been carried to Koolunga, so we heard no news of how the Englishmen were getting on at cricket until Sunday, when two buggies from Clare arrived, on which more bunyip-hunters were.
    When we arrived at Koolunga we had tea at the hotel, and as soon as we had digested some we started to see the bunyip.
   The following announcement on a placard hung up in the bar of the Koolunga Hotel attracted my notice: — "An attempt will be made on Wednesday, the 21st February, to capture the bunyip, which was last seen in the waterhole near to Mr. Freeman's farm. Dynamite will be used. A start will be made from the Koolunga Hotel at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, February 17, 1883." Now this placard seemed to add much to our belief in the existence of the bunyip. I do not wish to flatter the Koolunga people, but I must say that they are without exception the very worst people I ever came across for directing one to a certain point.
   We left Koolunga at 7.20, and were told it was a distance of about four miles [6½ km] to the waterhole in which the bunyip was, that we had to keep to the river (Broughton), and that we could not go wrong. After keeping to the twisting and twirling river, and having walked considerably more than five miles, I saw in the distance a house, in the window of which a light glimmered. Leaving my friends to ramble along slowly I went up to the house (encountering several dogs), and asked the way to the haunted hole. An Irishwoman opened the door, and in answer to my question said — "It aint no more than a mile away cross the river down there, keep to that side and you will come across some tents, it's just there."
     In Scotland, when a man tells you that you are about "three miles and a wee bittock" away from a place, you can rely that the wee bittock is oftentimes much more than the three miles. It was the same in this case, "It aint no more than a mile," was at least two miles and a half.
    At last the tents came in view, and we noticed a man was carrying water from the river. Him we addressed, and he, regardless of grammar, said —
   "It's just 200 perch  [about a kilometre] from here." This gave rise to an examination amongst us as to what a perch was.  A bet was made, and by that I paid my expenses to the bunyip and back again. My opponent believed it took sixteen yards to make a perch. [It is only 5½.]
   At last we arrived at the sacred spot. We took up our positions a few yards away from one another, and waited and watched, and watched and waited. Mr. Freeman and some friends of his came down to the waterhole. Mr. Freeman says he had frequently seen it, and many who were with him, had also seen the bunyip several times. About midnight one of our party heard a peculiar noise exactly under where he was stationed. Soon after he saw what he describes as a sort of seal, about the size of a sheep-dog, emerge from the water and come up on the bank about three yards. He shot three charges from his revolver at it, but before he had time to shoot again, or see if his shot had hit, the animal he aimed at was in the water.
     At least six people, mostly Mr. Freeman's friends, saw this creature on this occasion. I failed to see the bunyip, but I saw the disturbance he made in the water. Frequently after that we heard the sound of him, which, when in the water was not unlike the struggles of a porpoise. I am perfectly sure that there is more than one of the same species in that waterhole, as we heard the same noise simultaneously in very different parts of the hole.
    We remained there until the moon went down, and then we started on our return pedestrian journey to Koolunga.
    Certainly the lump of locality is in no way developed in either of our heads, for we lost our way, and taking a short cut, as we thought, we found ourselves miles and miles from the river, which was to be our guide.
    The numberless ploughed paddocks we waded through, the countless paddocks of stubble we passed over, and the innumerable number of wire-fences we got over and through will never be forgotten by me. At last we determined at 3 o'clock to wander no longer in a state of darkness, but to wait for Aurora's rising. In the middle of a ploughed paddock, having no "friendly moon" to smile on us, or even a wire fence to protect us from the bitter wind, we lay down and tried for a while to lose ourselves in the land of dreams. At about 5 we rose, refreshed by our snatch of sleep, and started off with a quick step and great appetite. When we reached the hotel we ordered breakfast, and although we were all hungry, not one of us enjoyed what was provided for us.
    Chops and steaks were huddled together on the same dish, and they were neither hot nor cold. If the landlady had not informed us that a roast goose was for dinner, we would there and then have had the horses put in, and either gone on to Yacka or back to Clare. As it was, the promise of a roast goose for dinner, and the luxury of a sleep in a bed for a few hours, coupled with the chance of seeing the bunyip properly, made us decide to remain and rest until dinner-time. Mr. Freeman says the bunyip can jump like a kangaroo, and that it is like a sheepdog, another declared it was like a fat wether, while another said it was like a foal. I am perfectly satisfied that there is a curious animal in that pool, and that he is not the only one there. We heard the noise of snapping rushes, of which there are many round the hole, and came to the conclusion the bunyip was having a meal. At last dinner-time arrived and we were greatly delighted at what this time was put before us. We forgot the tea, the chops, the steak, and the bread of our early meal and did honour to what is called the Englishman's meal— his dinner. During the morning two buggies with other friends arrived from Clare being anxious to see the bunyip. So it was arranged that after tea we should return to the scene of mystery.
        We reached the hole about 8 o'clock and remained there until 2 o'clock on Monday morning, when we returned to Clare. On Sunday night we saw nothing of the bunyip at all, but occasionally heard the splash before described. Even those of our friends who only heard the few splashes thoroughly believe in the existence of the bunyip, and express a desire to make another trip out there, when the moon is at its full, in the event of the hundred charges of dynamite (or demonite as some Koolunga gentlemen, call it) failing to put an end to this curious and interesting creature.
   The best way to get to the waterhole from Koolunga is on horseback. The road is very bad between Koolunga and Mr. Freeman's, therefore it is not advisable to drive. Mr. Freeman kindly allows people to put their horses in his yard during the time they are looking for the bunyip. It will also be advisable for intending visitors to inform the hotel-keeper at Koolunga that they are coming, as that is the only house where one can be accommodated, and I am sure if the landlady was informed that visitors were coming she would do her best to give a substantial meal, but, being in such an isolated township it is hard to cater for unexpected visitors. Had we not visited Koolunga, probably turkey, a goose, and a pair of fowls would be today in the yard which are now and never will again "herald forth the morn from their accustomed hill."
     And now for the final act. This detailed account from page 5 of the Port Adelaide News , and although it was published on Friday 16 March 1883, the events are obviously those of 21st February. In fact, brief paragraphs in other newspapers give that date. I wonder if Mr Clark had returned to the town. It certainly sounds like his style.
   It is astonishing what excitement the bunyip has caused in this locality; it would be a very good thing if his aquatic majesty were caught. At present timid ladies living near the river frighten themselves with their own imaginations. Folly held high festival the other day, when several gentlemen met at the large water-hole, to disturb the bunyip with dynamite. Quite 200 people were there to witness the awful event, although if the bunyip had appeared it is certain there would have been some woeful wailing among the ladies who were present, in great force, and a speedy disappearance at the least of 199. The whole scene was under the direction of a gentleman named Palmer, who was assisted by Mr. Pemberton, acting as Chief Secretary to the affair. About half an hour before the introduction of the great event, a council of war was held, and it was decided that something religious ought to be done. It was therefore voted unanimously that the Apostolical injunction and Methodistic practice should be adhered to, viz., a Collection, but I am told this did not yield so much as was expected, for while numbers would pay to see the animal, few cared to pay for the dynamite. The scene itself, when all was ready was very imposing. Under General Palmer a brigade of nine men, walked to the north side of the river, each with three charges of dynamite and a fire-stick. They were placed about 10 or 20 yards apart, and waited for the signal, which was to be the firing of a revolver, by our local banker, who stood on a prominent part of the bank (no pun intended) and at the word of command, fired like a brave soldier — but hit nobody. And then the first round of charges was thrown into the river, quickly followed by the balance [other reports said a total of 70 charges], and for a few moments the river seemed to be boiling. Several gentlemen with rifles were standing on rocky ledges, like sentinels, awaiting the first appearance of the bunyip when they intended to put a bullet through him, and so finish his career for ever. But the bunyip seemed to know that he was wanted, and persisted in keeping out of the way, or perhaps had changed his residence a few evenings before. Ten minutes passed away in solemn silence, and then all was over, and the people returned to the township to be jeered at by their friends who "knew all along they would not catch him with that!" Gentlemen from Clare with plenty of whiskey to warm the night have been there, and one saw it and shot at it, only he was so frightened he could not take aim! Some four or five people have seen it since, but as yet the public have to wait the capture, I hear another attempt is to be made by the same company that tried the dynamite, but this time with nets. I hope they may succeed.
     I have found no further reference to a second attempt, with nets, so it appears that the great bunyip hunt went off with a bang, and Koolunga was left to go back to sleep for another century or two. It is interesting that, although several books and even more articles have been written on bunyips, this episode appears never to have been mentioned. It is a pity, because it was probably the most exciting thing which has ever happened at Koolunga.

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