Impish Aboriginal prank or beastly reality? Mel Campbell probes the enduring mystery of the bunyip.
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 . . ."
Perhaps the last hurrah of bunyip-related childhood terror is a Facebook group called "I Was Freaked Out By The Bunyip In Dot And The Kangaroo". In the 1977 animated film, amid Godzilla-esque roars and horror-film strings, Maurie Wilmore crooned ominously: "So you better come home quickly/and you better hide very soon/or the Bunyip's going to get you/in the Bunyip moon".
There must be many emotionally scarred Gen-Xers out there. But I say: let's scar Gen Y! Recent local horror films have tended to focus on vengeful ghosts, killer wildlife and sadistic torturers in remote areas, or have imported vampire and zombie narratives to Australia. Clearly, the time is ripe for the bunyip's chilling return to Australian popular culture.