13 June 2018

A History of Queensland Bunyips (Part Two): The 20th Century

By the end of the 19th century, the possibility that the mysterious 'bunyip' could be a real zoological entity had been generally dismissed, and it had taken its place firmly in the realms of Australian folklore as a mythical beast. Although there had been numerous recorded sightings of strange unidentified creatures in the waterways of Queensland since the arrival of Europeans, the descriptions varied widely and the reports were unverified (see my article on Bunyip sightings in 19th-century Queensland). There was also no biological evidence, such as skeletal remains, scat or fur, to support claims that the bunyip was a real animal. Despite this, the concept of the bunyip was established in popular culture and reports of new sightings lingered well into the 20th century.

There were also ongoing attempts to provide rational scientific explanations for past encounters. This was evident when the noted ichthyologist J. Douglas Ogilby addressed a meeting of the Royal Society of Queensland in 1904, on the subject of ‘A Chelydroid Tortoise Identified with the Bunyip’. He argued against identifying ‘bunyips’ as seals, carpet snakes or musk ducks, and claimed that the Chelodina longicollis (Snake-necked Turtle) could be involved in some alleged bunyip sightings:
‘…acknowledged retiring disposition of these tortoises and their selection as a 'dwelling-place of the loneliest and most desolate swamps - and waterholes,' from which they seldom emerge, fully accounted for the rarity of its appearance, and, coupled with superstitious fear, for the ignorance of its habits among the aborigines; while their ferocity, when cornered, which perhaps in bygone times caused the death of a chief, would account for the universal terror in which this animal was held, vivified and heightened by the glamour of centuries. Mr. Ogilby also drew attention to the curious but undeniable fact that there were many waterholes, to all human appearance similar to others in the neighbourhood, on which wild fowl refused to alight, and he deduced from this that these holes were inhabited by chelydrids, and experience had taught the birds the danger of settling thereon. Mr. Ogilby concluded with some recent stories of the appearance of the bunyip, tending to show that it is in reality a gigantic freshwater tortoise.’ (The Week, 29 April 1904)
The former politician and journalist Archibald Meston was present at this talk and congratulated Ogilby on his 'ingenious' argument, but maintained that the bunyip was no more than 'a good deal of imagination connected with the supposed presence in deep dark pools of a dangerous wild beast'. Meston had been on an expedition to the Bellenden Ker ranges, south of Cairns, in 1899 and heard Aboriginal people talk about a deep pool where a 'long-necked monster who used to swish about in the water, especially at night time'. He suggested that such a disturbance could have merely been a large fish eating a water bird.

The Bellenden Ker ranges.

So academic discussion of the bunyip around this time seemed to be concerned with finding rational explanations behind the folklore or - as such stories were called in the Brisbane Courier in 1908 - 'the equivalent of the mumbo-jumbo of Central African tribes'. Nevertheless, occasional reports of sightings continued to appear in the news, such as one near Gayndah in 1909, in which three young girls out looking for calves saw a creature 'trot or flounder along, until it took its refuge in the Baronne waterhole'. One of the children reportedly 'resorted to that feminine defence in crisis - hysterits'. The girls' parents and other adults subsequently searched for the animal and found nothing but tracks. This was enough to impress one man who maintained a nightly search for the creature. A local fisherman also claimed to have seen the bunyip, which he refused to fire at at since 'he reckons it is a spirit'. The animal was described as being 'the size of a calf with a ewe neck, and short reddish hair, resembling that of a retriever'.

This report prompted Mr F. Williams, a resident of nearby Torbanlea, to publicly recount an incident from a few years earlier. His station was home to a number of lagoons, some about 20 metres deep, and he claimed that one day his wife and 18-year-old daughter saw two creatures that looked like 'little men with longish black hair', the larger one being just over a metre tall, come out of a waterhole, run towards them for a 100 metres, then turn around and head back to the water. His three teenage sons reported seeing a very similar creature on the waterbank during the following year, and during a drought there were similar sightings at the Brushwood lagoon a few kilometres away.

Another alleged sighting occurred in 1910 at Coalstoun Lakes, near Biggenden, in the North Burnett. An amateur photographer took some shots of the lake, and when developing the film he noticed some kind of animal, which was subsequently described in one newspaper:
'Its appearance vaguely suggests a shovel-nosed shark taking - which a shark has never been known to do - a hop, step, and a jump over the surface of the water. It has a dorsal fin, a large terrifying eye, and a mottled skin. Indeed, it might be compared to a dugong, or sea cow, flying through space.' (Brisbane Courier, 19 January 1910)
'Shovel-nose shark' is an early term for 'bull shark', which are known to jump on occasion, although it would be near-impossible for such an animal to find its way to the Coalstoun Lakes from a river system.

Coalstoun Lakes National Park Queensland.

There was another sighting in 1910 when Reg Randall claims to have seen a bunyip while pig shooting on Moreton Island. No description was given, although Reg and his brother were said to have been organising a follow-up search party.

Things were quiet on the bunyip-spotting scene for some years afterwards, but talk of crocodiles in Gold Coast waterways during the late 1920s stirred up interest again. Reports soon began to emerge of strange sights and sounds in the swamps and lagoons near Merrimac. There had been stories about bunyips in this area for decades, including one from a local resident who had been shooting ducks there in 1886 and claimed to see have seen 'a monster with a very big rough mane coat and an enormous big rough long bushy tail' that dived among the water weeds near the bank. A local squatter offered £1,000 to anyone who could get the bunyip dead or alive, prompting some serious search parties. The eventual conclusion was that the creature was probably a crocodile.

The alleged Merrimac bunyip. (Brisbane Courier, 29 March 1929)

Public curiosity about the local bunyip grew during the the development of a housing estate in North Burleigh area in the 1920s. There were reports of a loud 'boom - boom - boom' noise coming from the swamp each night following the construction of the Miami Hotel (1925) and a sanitary depot in the swamp area (1930), although these sounds were sometimes not heard for 12 months before starting up again. According to one local resident, reminiscing in 1938, 'local aborigines would pull up camp when the booming noises came from the swamp, referring to the 'Debil Debil'.' This large Yugambeh camp was on the 'old Racecourse flat midway between Burleigh and West Burleigh'. 

These events prompted Fred Garland to recall mysterious happenings at Yalebone Creek, between Roma and Surat, about 60 years earlier:
'At that time the creek had an unfathomable water hole, which both blacks and whites were afraid to approach. Every night a tremendous splash, like the fall of a mountain of rock into the water, was heard, and, although venturesome persons had endeavoured to ascertain the cause of the splash, the mystery was never solved. Mr. Garland also states that the late Mr. A. Meston spent some time at Coombabah, between Brisbane and Southport, endeavouring without success to shoot a monster that was supposed to inhabit a creek there.' (Brisbane Courier, 24 June 1932)
The 290 residents of the small country town of Thargomindah (1,100 km west of Brisbane) were alarmed by reports of a strange creature lurking in nearby Lake Dynevor in the winter of 1941. News spread far and wide and for a few months newspapers around the country followed the story of this new and mysterious ‘bunyip’. A shire clerk claimed that about 20 people had glimpsed it, including a local postal inspector and station manager, who had both had chased it by boat one morning before it disappeared into some rushes. They saw the creature from about 90 metres away in weak dawn light and described it like this:
‘It was nothing like anything I’ve seen… The head was black and at least a foot long, and the animal was grunting and splashing a lot. From the size of the head I would say it was about 6 feet long. I was told that many years ago a seal was seen in the Dynevor chain of lakes.' (The Mail [Adelaide], 2 August 1941)

Lake Bindegolly National Park, near Thargominda.

Hunters and photographers searched for the 'bunyip', and travellers took time out to stop by hope for a sighting:  
‘Last week two of the animals showed themselves at the same time to a party of sightseers. ‘They were as alike as two peas, and we weren’t seeing double,’ said one of the party. ‘They were black, about 2ft. 6in. long, with heads like dogs, and very prominent ears. They swirled away as soon as they spotted us. Probably one was male and one female, but we couldn’t tell from where we were, about 50 yards away. They looked just the same.’ (Sunday Mail, 17 August 1941)
Carnavon’s Northern Times then reported another interesting description of the creature.
‘Mr. R. R. Smith, of Thyangra, who claims to have seen the ‘bunyip,’ said it was about three feet long, two feet six inches around the body, representing a football in shape, but tapering to the head and tail… The head was like that of a pug dog, but more pointed, and appeared to have strings or fibres hanging down from the upper lip. Its colour was mousy brown, with a definite polish, and it seemed to be rather inquisitive.’Sightings seem to have stopped around September 1941 and interest in the saga of the Thargomindah Bunyip soon waned. It was never seen again, and the search parties gave up their pursuit of it.
Reports of sightings died off in September 1941 and the bunyip was soon forgotten. In retrospect it is likely that what was seen there was either dingoes or foxes out to raid the nests of water birds, or other species of birds attracted by the expanded post-rain lakes. The musk duck was mentioned at the time as a likely candidate. 

Around this time, two boys saw a carcass floating floating upstream with the tide in the Mary River, Maryborough. They described it as being:
‘about 10 feet long, with a long snout, almost like a bill, about two feet long, and fitted with teeth an inch long... It was neither alligator nor dugong, although the body was similar to a dugong with large flippers. An outstanding feature was the creature's huge eyes. It appeared to have a tough hide, with barnacles clinging to it. In colour the body was greenish brown above and yellow underneath. The creature had been dead for some time.' (Maryborough Chronicle, 25 August 1941) 
This appears to have been no more than a badly-decomposed marine creature, although the 'bunyip fever' of the day prompted speculation about cryptids. The bunyip story associated with a waterhole at Mulgidie, near the tiny town of Monto (Upper North Burnett) was mentioned in newspapers a few years later, after subterranean rumblings caused nearby cattle to flee. The waterhole is just over a kilometre long and 20 metres wide, and on occasion is known to bubble and gurgle. There are stories of 'disappearing cattle and eerie sensations throughout the generations'. Some Aboriginal elders believe the hole is connected to a network of underground waterways. There seems to be little evidence of sightings, but local tradition has spawned an annual 'bunyip festival' in what seems to be an attempt to attract visitors to the area.

Bunyip figure at Mulgildie (Mulgildie Bunyip Festival)

One of the last reported 'bunyip sightings' in Queensland occurred at 18 Mile Swamp on Stradbroke Island in 1950, when four workmen heard a loud splash and saw 'something big' dive into the water. They described it as having 'a pointed snout and long floppy ears… it seemed to be four or five feet long with a thick body. It has black and had a long neck and long ears like a spaniel.' It left a large wake before emerging in some rushes and then disappearing into the waters again.

The second half of the century saw a dearth of Queensland bunyip sightings. Zoologically, the creature had its day - in mainstream science anyway - and it even lost status as a feasible cryptid as creatures such as the 'yowie' took hold of the imagination of the researchers of mythical beasts. The numerous sightings of yesteryear came to nought under the crushing weight of a lack of hard evidence. People catching glimpses of wild animals they couldn't identify are no longer prone to throwing the word 'bunyip' around, and newspapers generally lost interest in the tired cultural trope a long time ago. The bunyip did remain a character in children's media, most famously in Jenny Wagner's 1973 book 'The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek'.

If the animal has survived as a going concern anywhere, it is in the Indigenous Australian stories that have circulated from as far back as anyone can remember. Aboriginal people around Beaudesert, south of Brisbane, continue to share their knowledge of local bunyip places with the public, giving the lagoons there an aura of mystery that would have been more common around other Queensland waterholes a century ago.

For most of the State, the mystery of the bunyip faded away a long time ago.