EPISODE XIX: THE BUNYIP

The outback of Australia is known for its deadly creatures… from the poisonous puncture of the Sydney Funnel Mouth Spider to the stealthy bite of the Eastern Brown Snake, or the pulverizing power of the kangaroo to fatal sting of the Box Jellyfish, Australia is teeming with creatures with the power to eradicate humankind – or, at least cause the early demise of those most unfortunate individuals to encounter them.

Bunyip anonymous artist drawing 1935).jpg

The bunyip is no exception. An elusive creature said to reside in the swamps of the northern hinterlands, indigenous lore varies in its descriptions of the beast. However, by all accounts, the bunyip is a Manhunter, with a powerful jaw and a long neck that extends from a massive torso.  The aquatic nature of the bunyip lends itself to comparison to the Dobhar-Chu of Ireland, a mythical beast described as a ‘water-hound’ that stalks marshes and swamps.

 Diprotodon Cave Drawing, Australia. Date Unknown.

Diprotodon Cave Drawing, Australia. Date Unknown.

The legend of the bunyip is coupled with many bizarre, often conflicting accounts that has amounted to much ridicule and debate over the years, but witnesses continue to come forward with descriptions of long tusks, dog-like facial features, extensive sharp claws, pointed antlers, a horse’s shaggy mane and seal-like flippers to top it off.

The aborigines meaning of ‘bunyip’ loosely translates to ‘devil’ or ‘spirit’ in English. This connotation blurs the lines between the biological and ethereal and is commonly associated with mythical creatures found in indigenous lore. The creature is usually spiritual and powerful but takes on physical forms that often threaten or protect places and the people who respect them. The legendary lake monster Ogopogo from the Okanagan Syilx traditions parallels this observation.  

 Indigenous artist interpretation of the Okanagan People's Legendary Ogopogo

Indigenous artist interpretation of the Okanagan People's Legendary Ogopogo

During the 1800’s there were several eyewitness reports of the Bunyip. Lake George and Lake Bathurst near the Australian Capital Territory are hotspots for reports, where witnesses claim to have sighted a large hairy creature with the head of a horse, usually partially submerged in water. One of the most interesting descriptions is of the hollow ‘booming’ call of the bunyip that can be heard for miles around and has been reported by hunters and aborigines alike. Some have described the sound of the bunyip more as a blood curdling shriek that is emitted just before it strikes unlucky victims.

 Diprotodon Cave Drawing. Date Unknown. 

Diprotodon Cave Drawing. Date Unknown. 

There is little physical evidence to support the existence of the bunyip. In the 19th century a skull rumoured to belong to a bunyip was put on display at the Australian Museum of Sydney where it was reported stolen almost immediately after the exhibition premiered. The skull is lost to this day and most skeptics believe it was really a deformed cow or oxen, perhaps, but many still believe that it belonged to none other than the Bunyip.

Scientists now theorize that the creature could be a descendant of the Diprotodon Australis, a massive marsupial that resembled a wombat with the size of a rhino more commonly known as the Giant Sloth. This would put the weight of the bunyip at approximately 2 tonnes, about the equivalent of two sedans. The first archeological evidence of the Diprotodon was unearthed in 1839, and extensive numbers of bones were discovered later on in muddy areas where ancient lakes used to be found in the interior. Most theorize that Diprotodon species lived millions of years ago until roughly 20,000 years ago where they died off with most other Mega Fauna species in the late Pleistocene era. 

Many Australians today have a vague understanding of what the Bunyip is. Many believe the species to be entirely extinct in modern day given the lack of recent sightings in the 20th century, but we may never know for sure if the creature is still out there, lurking in billabongs awaiting its next victim...

Andrew McKay