The bunyip is a large mythical creature from Australian Aboriginal mythology, said to lurk in swamps, billabongs,creeks, riverbeds, and waterholes. The origin of the word bunyip has been traced to the Wemba-Wemba or Wergaia language of Aboriginal people of South-Eastern Australia. However, the bunyip appears to have formed part of traditional Aboriginal beliefs and stories throughout Australia, although its name varied according to tribal nomenclature. In his 2001 book, writer Robert Holden identified at least nine regional variations for the creature known as the bunyip across Aboriginal Australia. Various written accounts of bunyips were made by Europeans in the early and mid-19th century, as settlement spread across the country.
Descriptions of bunyips vary widely. George French Angus may have collected a description of a bunyip in his account of a “water spirit” from the Moorundi people of the Murray River before 1847, stating it is “much dreaded by them … It inhabits the Murray; but … they have some difficulty describing it. Its most usual form … is said to be that of an enormous starfish.” Robert Brough Smyth’s Aborigines of Victoria of 1878 devoted ten pages to the bunyip, but concluded “in truth little is known among the blacks respecting its form, covering or habits; they appear to have been in such dread of it as to have been unable to take note of its characteristics.” However, common features in many 19th-century newspaper accounts include a dog-like face, a crocodile like head, dark fur, a horse-like tail, flippers, and walrus-like tusks or horns or a duck-like bill.
The Challicum bunyip, an outline image of a bunyip carved by Aborigines into the bank of Fiery Creek, near Ararat, Victoria, was first recorded by The Australasian newspaper in 1851. According to the report, the bunyip had been speared after killing an Aboriginal man. Unfortunately the image no longer exists.
During the early settlement of Australia by Europeans, the notion that the bunyip was an actual unknown animal that awaited discovery became common. Early European settlers, unfamiliar with the sights and sounds of the island continent’s peculiar fauna, regarded the bunyip as one more strange Australian animal and sometimes attributed unfamiliar animal calls or cries to it. It has also been suggested that 19th-century bunyip lore was reinforced by imported European memories, such as that of the Irish Púca.
A large number of bunyip sightings occurred during the 1840s and 1850s, particularly in the southeastern colonies of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, as European settlers extended their reach.
And while the population in these areas has extended vastly over the last 150 years, having been camping along the Murray River miles from anywhere it wouldn’t surprise me if something was living out there in the quiet lagoons and bush of the riverlands…