19 June, 2011

A Bunyip Aristocracy

Every culture has its mythical beasts. The Egyptians have the sphinx, Greece has the Centaur, Scotland has the Lochness Monster, the Yeti inhabits the Himalayas and Bigfoot is found in North America. Both the European and Asian cultures created traditions based around the concept of dragons - a mythical, scaly, serpentine creature. Aboriginal culture also had its mythical creatures which varied from region to region, however one mythical creature which was common to many indigenous groups across the country was the bunyip. Known by various names (bunyip, kianpraty, katenpai, wawee, tooroodun), there were as many different descriptions of bunyips as there were names for it and each was different from the other. There was agreement that the bunyip was a large, aquatic creature which emitted a terrifying moan. However, one description was of an emu-like creature, whilst another had it with a tusk, teeth and feet like fins. It could have scales, fur or smooth skin.
To the European settlers who had recently arrived in the country, the concept of a bunyip must have been terrifying. They were in a land filled with animals which had been totally unimaginable only a few decades earlier - kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, platypus, a multitude of poisonous snakes, spiders and sea creatures and of course, crocodiles in the north, so the idea of a fearsome creature which lived in the rivers, lakes, swamps, billabongs and lagoons of this new country did not seem so far-fetched as it does today.
Drawing of a bunyip at "Barwon Lakes" near
Geelong, 1845
It is not surprising then, that the Wathaurong also had an established tradition of bunyip stories and sightings and naturally, several of these centred around the Barwon River. The first reported use of the word bunyip in and Australian newspaper was in 1845 when the Geelong Advertiser reported that a "wonderful new animal" had been discovered when a local indigenous man identified a fossilised bone as that of a bunyip. He claimed to have seen the creature and a tale was also told of an Aboriginal woman killed by a bunyip. When asked to describe the bunyip, he told of a part-bird, part-crocodile with an emu's head and a long bill. Its body was that of the crocodile or alligator and when in water it swam, whilst on land it walked on its hind legs, measuring about 12 to 13 feet. Interestingly, it was stated that the bunyip's preferred method of dispatch was to hug its victim to death. Another man showed deep scarring on his chest, also - he said - the work of a bunyip whilst it was also reported in the article that a "bunyip attack" took place on the river in South Geelong where the punts crossed back and forth. It was claimed that a local woman - the preferred prey of the bunyip - was taken in the river at this point.
However, not everyone was convinced that bunyips really existed. Some alternate explanations included seals which had found their way into inland rivers, fugitive humans hiding out in swamps, freshwater crocodiles or perhaps even a particularly large eel. If the latter is true, then I have seen a bunyip myself - by the Breakwater, dangling off the end of the rod of an elderly Greek fisherman. And an impressive size it was too!
Duck-billed dinosaur
As early as 1871 it was suggested that the bunyip was in fact an indigenous cultural memory of Australia's extinct megafauna with long dead bones being identified as those of bunyips. Gradually, as more people began to doubt the existence of bunyips, they slowly became a source of ridicule. It is from this we have terms like "bunyip aristocracy", used in 1853 to denigrate the idea of an hereditary peerage for Australia. Across the 20th century, the bunyip continued its transformation from fearsome monster to a wise and friendly creature used to impart wisdom to children - a far cry from the terrifying beast used to deter small children from wandering off into the bush or drowning in rivers and waterholes.
Nor was it only the Wathaurong who claimed to have seen bunyips in the Geelong region. William Buckley, the escaped convict who lived with the Wathaurong around the Geelong and Bellarine Peninsula during the first decades of the 19th century also claimed to have seen a bunyip on several occasions. In his 1852 memoirs he recounted that bunyips were to be found in Lake Modewarre (no doubt terrifying the poor musk ducks after whom the lake is named) and that they were common in the Barwon. Whilst he never saw a complete bunyip he claimed on several occasions to have seen the back of one in the water which was covered in dusky grey feathers.

Bunyip Pool, Barwon River
The local connection to bunyips was also reflected in the name of the last full-blooded man from the Barrabool clan of the Wathaurong. Waurn Bunyip who was also known as King Billy, died in 1885. He was named for the bunyip seen by his father on the day of his son's birth. In more recent times, the renaming of the "Devil's Pool" at Buckley's Falls to the "Bunyip Pool" after consultation with the local Wathaurong community also reflects the indigenous connection to the bunyip legend.
Whilst the bunyip was very real both to the Wathaurong and to the white inhabitants of Geelong during the 19th century, this was also true of the wider community and is reflected in place names across the country. The towns of Bunyip and Tooradin, the BunyipWaa in New South Wales all reflect this belief.


  1. The Leigh river is verry pretty in Shelford there could of been more photos of that. The Moorabool viaduct pics there could of been more pics of the Moorabool river around near the viaduct aswell.

  2. Can u please take pics of the Barwon branches in the Otways, im keen and curious to see what the Barwon is like at its headwaters in the otways

  3. Hi Jo, just wondering if you have a source please for the illustrations included in the blog? Thanks so much!

  4. Hi,
    The first image is relatively easily found via a Google search, but I believe was originally taken from the Geelong Advertiser. The image of the duck-billed dinosaur was as I remember an historical one, however I can't currently locate the page it came from. The photo of the Bunyip Pool is one of my own.

  5. Thanks for the reply. I found the original on trove once - it was from the Addie but I've never been able to find it again. Typical! Cheer Natalie

  6. there is an old story of a bunyip near Deakin,,but the falls ,no the Barrabools fished there ,,I have to say the ceo on the day was put on the spot,and named it as such ,,it is were the eels bite the stones ,,,buckley tried to spear one without the Barrabools knowledge, The fact is, if the Barrabool warriors knew ,,they would have slain Buckley for disturbing the Bunyip,,,