The bunyip (usually translated as "devil" or "spirit"1) is a mythical creature from Australian folklore. Various accounts and explanations of bunyips have been given across Australia since the early days of the colonies. It has also been identified as an animal recorded in Aboriginal mythology, similar to known extinct animals.
Descriptions of bunyips vary widely. It is usually given as a sort of lake monster. Common features in Aboriginal descriptions include a dog-like face, dark fur, a horse-like tail, flippers, and walrus-like tusks or horns or a duck like bill. According to legend, they are said to lurk in swamps, billabongs, creeks, riverbeds, and waterholes.
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.
One of the earliest accounts of the bunyip was in 1821 when Hamilton Hume recovered some large unusual bones from Lake Bathurst in New South Wales. He wrote about the monster that was very much like a hippopotamus and which he and the Philosophical Society of Australasia believed to be evidence of the existence of the Bunyip.
A large number of bunyip sightings occurred in the 1840s and 1850s, particularly in the southeastern colonies of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, as European settlers extended their reach.
Sightings in Victoria
Another early written account is attributed to escaped convict William Buckley in his 1852 biography. His 1852 account records "in.. Lake Moodewarri [now Lake Modewarre] as well as in most of the others inland…is a…very extraordinary amphibious animal, which the natives call Bunyip." Buckley's account suggests he saw such a creature on several occasions. He adds "I could never see any part, except the back, which appeared to be covered with feathers of a dusky grey colour. It seemed to be about the size of a full grown calf… I could never learn from any of the natives that they had seen either the head or tail."2
The Greta Bunyip was a bunyip which was believed to have lived in the swamps of the Greta area, in Victoria, Australia. Locals often heard a loud booming sound which emitted mysteriously from the swamps, yet none of the frequent search parties were able to locate the source of the sound. Once the swamps were drained, the sound subsided. Some Greta locals believed that the bunyip moved on to another area, while others believed it had died once its habitat was gone.3
Sightings in New South Wales
In 1846, a peculiar skull was taken from the banks of Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales which initial reports concluded that it was the skull of something unknown to science. In 1847 the so-called bunyip skull was put on exhibition in the Australian Museum (Sydney) for two days. Visitors flocked to see it and The Sydney Morning Herald said that it prompted many people to speak out about their 'bunyip sightings'. "Almost everyone became immediately aware that he had heard 'strange sounds' from the lagoons at night, or had seen 'something black' in the water." It was eventually concluded that it was a 'freak of nature' and not a new species. The 'bunyip skull' disappeared from the museum soon afterwards, and its present location is unknown.4
Sightings in South Australia
Between 1852 and 1895, several sightings of bunyips in South Australia were recorded and documented in the South Australian Register. A "12 to 14 foot long" creature was sighted on December 30 1852 in a Mount Gambier lagoon.5 On November 28 1853, a similar sighting was made at a lagoon near Melrose, South Australia quoting that the creature "like that of a horse with thick bristly hair… Its actual length would be from 15 to 18 feet."6 On August 20 1881 a similar creature was sighted in a salt water lake between Robe and Beachport, South Australia. Another sighting occurred on February 21 1883 in a Koolunga waterhole.7 On August 19 1884, it was reported that Mr W H Cornish of Dublin, South Australia had captured a bunyip.8 A report of a bunyip at Warra Warra Waterhole, Crystal Brook by more than six people over ten days was made on January 31 1889.910 The last documented report in the register was at Umpherston Cave, Mount Gambier in 1895.11