Cry of the Bunyips
A creature of Aboriginal mythology, the bunyip reputedly haunted the swamps of south-eastern Australia, devouring anyone straying too close and disturbing the waters at night. It passed into the mainstream culture of European settlers in the mid 1800s with reported sightings and even a strange skull believed to be that of the beast. The legend was most prominent around the Koo Wee Rup swamp at the mouth of the Bunyip River in Victoria, although accounts have appeared in newspapers right across the country.
Descriptions vary enormously, from feathered alligators to large seal-like monsters and even giant three-horned toads. Some have suggested that the mythology may have originated from the early Aboriginal people's encounters with megafauna, the giant marsupials that occupied the continent thousands of years ago. In the popular children's book The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek by Jenny Wagner (1973), illustrator Ron Brooks depicts it as a bear-like creature, both haunting and endearing at the same time.
Other children's books featuring bunyips include The Bilby and the Bunyip (Irena Sibley, 1998), The Bunyip and the Night (Mark Nestor Svendsen, 1994), Emily and the Big Bad Bunyip (Jackie French, 2008), Rosie and the Bunyip (Meredith Costain, 2008) and The Wollondilly Bunyip and the Koala (Julie Morris, 1990).
Cry of the Bunyips is not a children's book, I hasten to add, and my Australian bunyips appear more wolf-like to fit in with the related Cornipean bunyip, described in Call of the Delphinidae as a small dog-like animal with a long snout and big brown eyes. They have large canine teeth and are prone to drooling when sizing up their human prey.
Another mythological creature sometimes associated with bunyips is the yowie, although yowies reputedly walk upright and are more human-like than bunyips. Described as Australia's equivalent of the yeti or bigfoot, they have been sighted all over the continent although are more commonly reported in the mountainous regions in the east.
It's easy to dismiss bunyips and yowies as the product of a fertile imagination, but Australia's a big country and stranger things have been found. The Wollemi Pine was thought to have been extinct for millions of years until a ranger stumbled across a grove of them deep in a Blue Mountains gorge. In the words of Billy Collins, “Know there are things lurking in the dark corners, things the universe’s collective scientists still can’t explain.”
Bunyip illustration by J. Macfarlane, published in 1890.