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Bunyips have their origins in the folklore of the Aborigines

Long before Europeans walked the country, bunyips were believed to have inhabited swamps, lagoons and billabongs. Descriptions were varied yet had a common theme in that they described animals that ‘had shining, baleful eyes and a bellowing voice’. Other descriptions varied from medium to large animals, with bodies resembling alligators with emu-like heads which walked on their hind legs, to animals about the size of a hippopotamus with a horse-like head.  A report in the Wagga Advocate in 1872 said ‘it was half as long as a retriever dog... its body was jet black’  while in Australia Felix by W. Westgarth (1848) it is described as having a ‘round head, an elongated neck with a tail and body resembling an ox’. In Once a Week (1865) it was described as the Bulla Bulla Bunyip and was ‘bigger than an elephant, in shape like a poley bullock, with eyes like live coals and tusks like a walrus’. In A Visit to the Antipodes; with some reminiscences of a Sojourn in Australia ‘A Squatter’ (London 1846) E. Lloyd states that Aborigines said that ‘the bunyip was as tall as a gum tree... no picanniny gum tree–big one gum tree.’ and that the animal tore out trees by their roots, and grasped the trees with their arms.

Bill Wannan in Australian Folklore spends some time discussing the bunyip and various interpretations of the animal. He informs us that old Aborigines told him that the ‘bunyips devoured humans, coming up on them in silence and when least expected’. The old men hastened to add, it favoured women.

Sightings of animals have ranged right across the mainland and Tasmania.

Rev. George Taplin in his book The Narrinyeri describes ‘booming and explosive’ sounds from Lake Alexandrina which he was told were bunyips.  That report was challenged in the Melbourne Argus newspaper of 1894 which said ‘that the hollow boom so often heard on the margins of reedy swamps– more hollow and louder by night than day, the mythical bunyip, is the actual bittern.’

Bill Wannan sums up the scepticism with the comment that ‘bushmen and their tales suggest that bunyips are usually seen in swamps near bush shanties. They are never seen by men going to shanties, only by men on their way home...’.

But part of the story of these mythological monsters ‘may stem from a “truth”; the fossilized bones of some of the enormous marsupials, birds and reptiles that lived in Australia in times past’. Dr Pat Vickers-Rich in Kadimakara: Extinct Vertebrates of Australia  (1985) goes on to say that ‘when shown bones of these extinct animals, such as Diprotodon, Aborigines at times have frequently identified them as bones of the bunyip’. Needless to say, Aboriginal Australians may have seen some of these extinct backboned animals as well as their bones, for they certainly overlapped in time. The Diprotodon (30 000 to 20 000 years ago) was a large marsupial (about 2m tall at the shoulder and 3m in length) roughly the size of a rhinoceros. Complete Diprotodon skeletons have been recovered from Lake Callabonna in eastern South Australia. Dr Tom Rich states in Kadimakara ‘On the basis of carbon 14 radiometric dates, it appears that humans were in Australia at least 10–15 000 years before Diprotodon became extinct’. Vickers-Rich also states that another animal, Palorchestes, (55,000 to 20,000 years ago) ‘was the size of a large bull and may have been Australia’s first tree-ripper. Its exceptionally powerful forearms, massive claws and bizarre head would have surely been enough to have inspired the legend of the bunyip— or at least a few nightmares among Australia’s first Aboriginal inhabitants’.

Fact or fantasy? One thing is certain, the stories will continue to be told around camp-fires on the banks of the Murray River or at  lonely billabongs out in the bush.


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