Out of the mists of the Dreamtime they come - the monsters of Australian Aboriginal folklore.
Half-man, half-animal. Giant plodding beasts; horned and hairy. Reptilian-skinned creatures more akin to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World than anything constructed by scientific knowledge. Water-dwelling, forest-dwelling creatures. Giant reptiles; giant birds; giant kangaroos - and giant men - a whole menagerie of seemingly improbable creatures which were both feared and respected by the early Aborigines, who fervently believed in their existence.
Yet of all these creatures, none was more fearful than that most fabulous of all Australian ‘monsters’, known collectively among the Aborigines as the Bunyip; a creature of many terrifying forms certain to put the chill of death up the spine of any Aboriginal whenever its name was mentioned. The name ‘Bunyip’ means ‘devil’ or ‘spirit’ to the Aborigines, but the Bunyip traditions seem to have been confined to the south-eastern region of Australia, where the creature took a variety of forms, both real and mythical.
It was undoubtedly the mythical aspect of the Bunyip traditions that was primarily responsible for European scepticism about the creature, from the early days of settlement of the 19th century.
Certainly there were some truly unbelievable bunyips; sometimes monstrous man-eating, night-dwelling beasts, all of which were invented by the elders to keep children in check and ensure they did not stray too far from camp alone.
And yet, beyond the campfire, out there in the forests and water courses, there did in fact lurk some truly fabulous, although very real ‘bunyips’; some of monstrous proportions. To gain a better understanding of the problem, it is my intention to deal with each of these ‘real’ bunyips in detail.
Perhaps the best-known bunyips were those that inhabited swamps, billabongs and watercourses. Of these aquatic bunyips, the most famous appears to have been a great lumbering, wombat-like beast which the Aborigines claimed inhabited the forests, wading about the swamps and billabongs where it fed upon vegetable food. Despite the fact that the existence of the Bunyip was first learnt from the Aborigines by our early pioneers, the Bunyip did not at first gain the attention of the press of that period.
All this changed after 1821.
It was in November of that year that the explorer, Hamilton Hume, while searching the shores of Lake Bathurst near Goulburn, in southern NSW sighted what he later described as “something like a Hippopotamus or Manatee” wading about in the lake. Upon his return to Sydney he gave an account of his sighting at a meeting of the Philosophical Society of Australia. The Society subsequently offered Hume a reward of 300 Pounds for the capture of the creature, or else its head, skin or bones. Although Hume led another expedition to the lake, he failed to find any further trace of his mysterious animal.
Aborigines had reported seeing similar creatures in other lakes and swamps all over Australia, as we will learn in a later chapter. The Question is: had Hume seen an animal which at that time had not yet been identified by science? In those days nothing was known about Australia’s fossil past, and it was not until 1838 that a few teeth and a jaw fragment of a large marsupial were found. It took until 1893 for the first foot bones of the same animal to be unearthed. From these scant remains the creature was named Diprotodon optatum, meaning “the ‘southern’ animal with two forward-projecting teeth”.
Diprotodon was the first fossil mammal identified from Australia. Later, in 1953, Professor Ruben A. Stirton of the University of California, discovered a Diprotodon ‘graveyard’ in the dry north-west of South Australia, which contained up to 1,000 skeletons of these marsupials in an excellent state of preservation. At least a further 100 complete skeletons of the Diprotodon have been unearthed from the salt Lake of Callabonna, South Australia. These fossils show the Diprotodon stood up to 3m in length by 2m in height at the shoulder. Their skulls are up to 90cm in length, making these animals larger than the rhinoceros. Could this have been the mystery animal described by Hume?
If indeed a Diprotodon, then Hume saw an animal which current scientific textbooks claim died out at least several thousand years ago, following the close of the last Ice-Age.
A study of the Ice-Age and its effects upon the Australian environment and animal life of that period is pertinent to our investigation of the ‘believable’ Bunyip and the many other unknown animal species to be discussed in this book, and this will be done at some length anon.
However, for reasons to be discussed later, the climate became warmer, ushering in the retreat of the southern Australian ice-sheet.
The interior dried up and the vast networks of lakes, swamps, rivers and forests gradually vanished, turning the landscape into a vast wasteland creating a drought that lasted several thousand years.
As the means for their survival vanished, so the animal life would have vanished accordingly, which scientists argue, was hastened by the hunting activities of Stone-Age Man. Yet the moister eastern Australian mountain ranges, with their vast expanses of forests and well-watered valleys would have offered ideal protection from the severe conditions of the interior, and it is therefore no surprise to find that the majority of modern-day unknown animal sightings reports emanate from these ranges.
Aboriginal legends over a wide area of inland South Australia told of a large reptilian water-dwelling bunyip that used to devour unwary lubras and piccaninnies as they waded about the lakes and swamps that covered much of that region in the long ago ‘Dreamtime’. Early settlers scoffed at these tales, even though Aborigines pointed to an ancient rock engraving at Panaramittee in the Flinders Ranges, which they said described the Bunyip’s head. The carving is very detailed, showing the skin pattern of a crocodile’s head, including the eyes and nostrils. Since the 19th century scientists have unearthed fossil remains from that region which show that crocodiles were indeed living in the Flinders Ranges and Lake Eyre district in late Pleistocene times.
Besides Diprotodon-type bunyips that inhabited the Victorian lakes, Aborigines also spoke of another, more terrifying bunyip of reptilian appearance which they called Whowhie, and who wandered the land eating all who happened to cross his path. They spoke of Whowhie as being at least 9 metres in length and from 1.2 to 1.5 metres tall when standing on all fours, with a goanna-type head and big jaws from which it flashed a tongue of fire [a common description for the forked tongue of monitor lizards].