theage - The mythological creatures that fill today's horror literature and movies hail from faraway lands. Zombie tales originated in the Caribbean, while European folk tales gave us vampires and werewolves. But a vastly more terrifying creature lurks much closer to home: one that has haunted the dreams of Australian children and the imaginations of adults: the bunyip.
Bunyips are not at all funny, although recent children's books, plays and TV have made them seem that way. Rather, the bunyip is a fascinating emblem of cross-cultural contact in colonial Australia: an indigenous bogeyman that came to terrify European settlers.
The bunyip is that breath of cold air on the back of your neck in a closed room. It's that person staring at you in a crowded party, whose face you can't place. It's an anxious mystery that makes us doubt ourselves...which is why Australians have tried to laugh it off.
White settlers first learned of bunyips from indigenous Australians in the early 19th century. The word itself comes from the Wergaia people of north-western Victoria, although similar creatures exist in indigenous folklore across Australia. William Buckley, the escaped convict who lived with the Wathaurong near the Barwon River, claimed to have spotted one several times.
Another escaped convict turned bushranger, George Clarke, had lived with the Gamilaraay on the Namoi River in northern New South Wales. Trying to capture Clarke's gang in 1832, policeman Captain John Forbes met "Liverpool", a Gamilaraay leader who sketched a creature he called a "Wawee". It had fin-like feet, teeth and a tusk. "All the Blacks express fear of it, and say that it will devour them if it can catch them in the water," wrote Forbes in his diary. A town in the Wawee's splashing ground is now known as Wee Waa. Similarly, in 1878 indigenous man Kurruk sketched a fearsome, emu-like bunyip called Toor-roo-dun said to terrorise swamps around Western Port — where Tooradin stands.
While the bunyip was always large, amphibious and emitted a terrifying moan, no two accounts seem to agree about its physical appearance. In some descriptions it had a seal's flippers and sleek body; in others, scales or shaggy dark fur. It usually had tusks or horns, but its head could resemble a pig's, dog's, cow's or duck's.
This uncertainty frustrated white settlers. Robert Brough Smyth's 1878 book Aborigines of Vic-toria concluded that the locals "appear to have been in such dread of it as to have been unable to take note of its characteristics."
Other colonialists were more sceptical. In an 1891 ghost story, Rosa Campbell Praed wrote, "The blacks have an impish drollery and love of mischief, and they delight in imposing on the credulity of their white auditors." Captain Forbes worried: "I am not very sure, after all, that these people are not laughing at us."
White Australians have long debated whether the bunyip is, or was, a real creature. After all, to European eyes Australian wildlife already seemed like a bizarre zoological prank: deer that stood like humans but hopped like frogs; egg-laying otters with ducks' bills and beavers' tails.
The word "bunyip" first appeared in print in July 1845, under a Geelong Advertiser headline: "Wonderful Discovery of a New Animal". But an edition of the Warrnambool Examiner, dated May 12, 1857, dismissed "stupid and idle stories" about bunyips, concluding: "It's obvious that the bunyip is a mere tradition of the crocodile, with which the northern rivers abound."
Australian Museum naturalist George Bennett was first to suggest formally (in 1871) that the bunyip might be an indigenous cultural memory of extinct Australian megafauna, passed down through oral tradition. By 1991, the authors of Vertebrate Palaeontology of Australasia were postulating that, "When confronted with the remains of some of the now extinct Australian marsupials, Aborigines would often identify them as the bunyip."
And in 1998, geologist Greg McNamara told Australian Geo-graphic magazine his theory that the remembered bunyip was actually a prehistoric turtle, Meiolania prisca, "a most impressive beast" up to two metres long with a metre-long, bony club tail and curved 25-centimetre horns.
Aborigines' and Europeans' shared uncertainty colours the bunyip's meaning even today. By the 1850s, the word came to denote imposture and pretension: in 1853, radical lawyer and political activist Daniel Deniehy lampooned William Wentworth's bid for a hereditary peerage in Australia by branding it a "bunyip aristocracy". Prime Minister Paul Keating used the same phrase to ridicule his Liberal opponents in Parliament.
The 1970 comedy/documentary The Naked Bunyip dealt frankly with Australian sexuality. Director John Murray had read a story in which a bunyip didn't know what sort of creature it was. "We, as Australians, did not have a strong sense of identity, either," Murray recalled in 2005. "Were we a myth, too? Why not strip this creature bare and find out what it is made of?"
Australian parents used the indigenous stories to warn their children away from the bush. In colonial times, kids regularly drowned in waterholes or died of exposure, so these scary tales were practical. But as children's entertainment strove to build a self-consciously Australian vocabulary in the early 20th century, bunyips began to appear as literary monsters.
The children's pantomime The Bunyip was the Wiggles of its day, playing from 1916 to 1924. A stunningly elaborate production, it featured indigenous actors throwing boomerangs out over the crowd!
But by the 1957 children's musical The Bunyip and the Satellite, the bunyip had become wise and whimsical, advising children how to defeat the wicked Bush Fire Spirit. Barry Humphries, who played the bunyip, described it as a "prancing bird-like clown with a falsetto that inevitably got huskier after 12 performances a week".
Humphries also presided over a giant bunyip float in the 1958 Moomba parade and starred in a Channel Seven TV series. He fled from bunyip typecasting by moving to London in 1959. But by then, kindly bunyips were the go — especially Michael Salmon's pink Alexander Bunyip, who ate Canberra in 1972 and will soon get his own statue outside the Gungahlin library.
Nonetheless, the bunyip retained an undercurrent of fear. As a child I remember finding the Ron Brooks illustrations in The Bunyip of Ber-keley's Creek (1973) deeply disturbing. And Patricia Wrightson's The Ice Is Coming (1977) featured the chilling description: "Its red eyes were like death and its bellow was like fear... You could not tell what it was except that it was dreadful..."
The bunyip is a mythical creature that is native to Australia. It is also known as kianpraty. The Aborigine word “bunyip” translates into demon spirit. The Australian Aborigines believed in the Bunyip so thoroughly that it has been integrated as a part of their traditional ceremonies and stories.
There are numerous descriptions of this beast from a giant starfish to being identical to the North American Bigfoot. One of the most common descriptions is that it has a canine face and head, tusks like a walrus, flippers and a horse-like tail. Because of this description, some believe that the bunyip is, in fact, an endangered, or even extinct, species of seal or sea-lion. Other descriptions included anything from feathers and legs like a dinosaur, to scales like a crocodile.
Though the creature seemed to prefer the unexplored territories of Australia, there have been sightings in Tasmania. The bunyip lives in a rivers, swamps, bogs, or water-holes, across Australia. It is believed that if a camp is set too near a bunyip hole, the entire camp will be destroyed, including the campers, during the night, by an enraged bunyip. The main source of food for a bunyip is thought to be cattle and people. Many people claim that several drownings throughout Australia are due to the bunyip, rather than bad choices or inability to swim.
Probably the most prolific period for bunyip sightings was in the 1850s. Hundreds of settlers and natives claimed to have seen the creature.
There are several explanations for the possibility of the bunyip. The first, an endangered or extinct seal or similar marsupial, is a good possibility. Another explanation is that it is a species of creature thought to be extinct over 10,000 years. The species is known as the diprotodon. The diprotodon was a plant eating marsupial that was large and to a point meets some of the criteria in the descriptions. Some researchers claim that if this creature did survive, but is yet undiscovered, it would have evolved into a hippo-like marsupial.
First Written Use of 'Bunyip'
Fossils found near Geelong were revealed by The Geelong Advertiser in July 1845, under the headline Wonderful Discovery of a new Animal. It continued "On the bone being shown to an intelligent black (sic), he at once recognised it as belonging to the bunyip, which he declared he had seen. On being requested to make a drawing of it, he did so without hesitation." The account noted a story of an Aboriginal woman being killed by a bunyip, and the "most direct evidence of all," which was that of a man named Mumbowran, "who showed several deep wounds on his breast made by the claws of the animal." The account provided this description of the creature:
“The Bunyip, then, is represented as uniting the characteristics of a bird and of an alligator. It has a head resembling an emu, with a long bill, at the extremity of which is a transverse projection on each side, with serrated edges like the bone of the stingray. Its body and legs partake of the nature of the alligator. The hind legs are remarkably thick and strong, and the fore legs are much longer, but still of great strength. The extremities are furnished with long claws, but the blacks say its usual method of killing its prey is by hugging it to death. When in the water it swims like a frog, and when on shore it walks on its hind legs with its head erect, in which position it measures twelve or thirteen feet in height.”
Shortly after this account appeared, it was repeated in other Australian newspapers. However it appears to be the first use of the word bunyip in a written publication.
Mastin, Colleayn O. Illus. by Sovak, Jan “The Magic of Mythical Creatures”
The Geelong Advertiser 2 July 1845 in Peter Ravenscroft's "The Bunyip and Inland Seal Archive"
The Bunyip: Australia's Cryptid King