The bunyip is a legendary animal said to inhabit small rivers, watering holes, and swamps in southeast Australia.
The Australian Indigenous people have long told stories about an evil, predatory creature that lived in or near water. The bunyip name comes from the indigenous word for an amphibious spirit being.
The creature is considered violent and highly dangerous and is sometimes reported as having supernatural powers.
The bunyip has been described in some detail, but there is a wide variety of physical descriptions and, indeed, considerable regional variations within Australia.
The creature is generally described as being aquatic in nature, with the characteristics of a large seal being most commonly described.
However, some have said it resembled a huge starfish, while others have described a duck-like bill and tusks like those on a walrus.
Other descriptions recount a creature with flippers, a horse-like tail, a crocodilian head, and even a face resembling a dog. Among the other animals it has been compared to are alligators and emus.
The bunyip has alternately been described as having shaggy hair, feathers, and or scales. It is spotted either floating in the water or very close to water and often has red glowing eyes.
Clearly, these various descriptions are not the same creature, and some theorize that the word could have been used by local people to describe a number of different creatures, some cryptids, and others perhaps not. When European colonizers first landed in Australia, it was thought there were at least 250 indigenous languages, which adds to the difficulty in adequately describing the phenomenon.
There is also a theory that it could be a sort of racial memory past down of some of the large marsupials that used to roam Australia but are now extinct. There are some similarities between many of the animals described in Aboriginal Dreamtime and some of the extinct megafauna that used to exist on the continent.
The marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) is the largest meat-eating marsupial known to have existed and certainly matches some of the more terrifying descriptions of the Bunyip. However, its habitat would not really have matched the reports.
Other large marsupials included the Diprotodon, a huge creature that was nearly 10 feet long and over 6 feet high at the shoulder. Interestingly it does have a couple of teeth that could be described as tusks and when fossils have been found of the creature local aboriginal people have identified them as that of a bunyip.
The Diprotodon lived on Australia for over a million years and only went extinct about 46,000 years ago, though some put that figure a little later.
Since most of these large marsupials went extinct just as humans arrived on the continent, it’s not hard to see the link between humans’ arrival and their being wiped out. It also gives some weight to the idea these memories could have been passed down, especially in a culture as rich with aural memories as that of the Aboriginal Australians.
In contemporary Australian culture, the term bunyip is often used to mean an impostor or pretender and was even used by a Prime Minister to insult members of the opposition. The word has also found its way into some place names with a town called Bunyip and the Bunyip River.
Sightings and Tales
There have not been many actual sightings of live creatures recorded, but Indigenous Australians have a varied collection of sightings and stories about the bunyip going back centuries.
The stories tell of an individual going for water in the night and promptly disappearing, with only traces of blood to be found. There are also accounts of bunyips attacking and kidnapping children who got too close to the water.
When European colonizers first started settling the country, they often reported any mysterious sound or unknown animal as a bunyip.
A number of remains have been found that some claim is that of a bunyip. The first of these was back in 1818 when Hamilton Hume and James Meehan uncovered some very large bones at Lake Bathurst in New South Wales. The bones reminded them of something like a hippo and some have said they could have been bunyip remains, though others have pointed out the similarity the Diprotodon has with these large creatures.
In 1830 George Rankin discovered some fossils that appeared to be that of a large four-legged creature much bigger than a cow. These were discovered in Wellington Caves and later confirmed to exist by Thomas Mitchell.
Later the naturalist Sir Richard Owen went on to identify these as the remains of Diprotodon and Nototherium. The latter is a smaller relative of the former, and the wombat we see today is a distant relation of both.
In 1847 a skull was found on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales, and the finder reported that locals all thought it was a bunyip skull. This discovery and its reporting in the press also resulted in a spate of vague sightings.
1845 Discovery and Report of Historical Attacks
The 1845 skull discovery led to some locals providing historical reports of bunyip attacks. These reports included one where a woman was killed by the creature and a man who claimed to have survived an attack, suffering chest wounds from its claws.
He described it as a cross between a bird and an alligator with a long jagged bill and an alligator-like body. It was said to crush its victims and swam like a frog in water but walked on its two back legs on land, being about 12 feet high when doing so. Interesting that it sounds a bit like a description of a dinosaur, as much as anything.
1853 William Buckley Reports Seeing Bunyips
William Buckley was an escaped convict who spent his time on the run with the Wathaurong people, who lived in the region around Lake Modewarre. He reported seeing a remarkable aquatic animal with grey feathers and about the size of a calf. He also said it could be found in the Barwon River and that it had been killed.
Buckley also attributed magical or supernatural abilities to the bunyip.
Bunyip sightings from the 20th century
The majority of reported bunyip sightings occurred during or before the 19th century, but the legends and stories have certainly not died out.
In the early 1930s, railway workers near the New South Wales town of Burrawang, 140km southwest of Sydney, reported hearing loud booming and growling noises coming from the swamp. The men were convinced it was a bunyip, and fearing for their lives, they ran off.
Reports of ferocious noises coming from the Burrawang swamp continued up until the 1070s. A bar from the local Burrawang pub recalled how the roars would cause the bottles on the bar to shake.
In 1962, the local newspaper of Mount Gambier in South Australia began reporting a series of sightings of a strange seal-like creature in the nearby Blue Lake. One morning, two walkers reported observing the shiny black head of a creature in the water for approximately ten minutes.
Later that evening, two different walkers again spotted a strange creature in the water. This time, the witnesses claimed the animal had flippers.
Over the next few days, further reports of sightings were reported, with one observer stating the creature was eight to nine feet long. Some townspeople instantly made the connection to the bunyip creature featured in mythological tales belonging to the local Boandik tribe.
Sometime later, an Adelaide-based individual contacted the local paper to say he believed that he and his friend might be responsible for the bunyip sighting, as they had been testing diving equipment in the lake around that time.
|Bunyip has also been called Tanutbun, Mulyawonk, and Katenpai.
Where to find
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-20/newspaper-offered-reward-for-mystery-monster-of-blue-lake/7429846 “Newspaper offered reward for mystery ‘monster’ of Mount Gambier’s famous Blue Lake,” accessed January 24, 2023.
https://www.pbs.org/video/bunyip-australias-mysterious-amphibian-monster-sklddd/ “Bunyip: Australia’s Mysterious Amphibian Monster,” accessed January 24, 2023.
https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/blogs/tim-the-yowie-man/2020/03/the-case-of-the-roaring-bunyip/, “The case of the roaring bunyip,” accessed January 24, 2023.