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The Bunyip: Australia’s Most Bizarre Mystery Monster

Australia is full of strange cryptid creatures, and some of them are truly special. Originating from Aborigine lore, the creature known as the Bunyip, also known as the Kianpraty and a variety of other regional tribal names, most of which translate from the Aboriginal words for “devil,” “evil spirit,” or some other ominous moniker, and it is not hard to see why. A massive, water dwelling amphibious monster said to inhabit swamps, billabongs, creeks, waterholes, riverbeds, ponds and lakes, the Bunyip were mostly traditionally described as being about 10 to 15 feet long and mainly reptilian in nature, often with bird like characteristics as well, with a head like that of an emu and legs like those of an alligator with long talons, although depending on the region they can have very different appearances, including seal-like, dog-like, or having tusks, horns, flippers, or long necks. Depending on the regional variation, some look like aquatic mammals with either sleek fur or a shaggy coat, others more like crocodiles, while others look like long necked reptiles, and they have even been described as looking like a calf or giant starfish. Whatever their appearance, they were always described as very aggressive and territorial, eating whatever they could catch, including humans, and the Aborigines had a sort of troubled relationship with them, seeing the Bunyip as both protectors of the waterways but also menacing and dangerous things not to be trifled with. While all of this may sound like it must surely be nothing but an Aboriginal legend and myth, when white settlers began coming into these regions, they too began to make sightings of something strange in the water.

Among the many reports that began to come in from explorers and settlers of the dark wilds of Australia, one of the earlier and weirder is from 1818, when the explorer Hamilton Hume and his companion James Meehan were at Lake Bathurst in New South Wales when they came across an array of bones from some large, unknown creature at the water’s edge. They did not specifically call it a Bunyip, but whatever it was, Hamilton described as being similar to a hippopotamus or manatee. Unfortunately, they did not take the massive skeleton, and oddly never went back for it even when offered a handsome sum to collect it for The Philosophical Society of Australasia. Interestingly, more anomalous remains were found in 1830, at the Wellington Caves, described as being like those of an ox or buffalo, which were claimed by locals to be those of a Bunyip. Another account printed in 1821 in the Sydney Gazette reads:

My attention was attracted by a creature casting up water and making a noise, in sound resembling a porpoise … it had the appearance of a bulldog’s head, but perfectly black …

Throughout the 1800s, and particularly the 1840s and 50s, there were numerous sightings of strange creatures in the waterways, often described as “water dogs,” with a sleek, seal-like appearance, but at other times as more like giant reptiles, or as a calf-sized, shaggy-haired or maned quadruped. Indeed, one of the strangest things about accounts of the Bunyip is just how inconsistent the descriptions are, with the disparate physical characteristics so nebulous and ill-defined that it is hard to figure out just what a Bunyip is supposed to look like at all. One description was published in The Greelong Advertiser after a report came in from an Aboriginal man who had been attacked by the beast in 1845, and it reads:

The Bunyip, then, is represented as uniting the characteristics of a bird and of an alligator. It has a head resembling an emu, with a long bill, at the extremity of which is a transverse projection on each side, with serrated edges like the bone of the stingray. Its body and legs partake of the nature of the alligator. The hind legs are remarkably thick and strong, and the fore legs are much longer, but still of great strength. The extremities are furnished with long claws, but the blacks say its usual method of killing its prey is by hugging it to death. When in the water it swims like a frog, and when on shore it walks on its hind legs with its head erect, in which position it measures twelve or thirteen feet in height.

For the most part, it seemed like pretty much any weird or unidentified creature in the waters of Australia was being called a Bunyip, and in 1847, more supposed physical evidence would surface with an outlandish skull found at the Murrumbidgee River near Balranald in New South Wales. It was prominently displayed at the Australian Museum in Sydney as the skull of Bunyip, with experts unable to identify it and as its mystery was making the rounds there was a sighting in Melbourne of a “Bunyip or immense platypus” sunning itself near the Custom House, but which then disappeared when it was approached. This hyped up the skull even more, but in the end, it was found to merely the skull of a deformed horse or calf.

Another prominent account comes from an escaped convict by the name of William Buckley, who lived among the Aborigines of Wathaurong for decades while on the run from the law. In his journal he mentions the Bunyip, which he describes as “a very extraordinary amphibious animal,” being present in Lake Moodewarri, now Lake Modewarre, as well as in the Barwon River. Buckley explains it as being a very dangerous creature known to sometimes kill people who ventured too close to the water’s edge, and he claimed to have seen the creature himself on more than one occasion. He would describe it as follows:

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.

There are also the accounts explorer Edwin Stocqueler, who in 1857 travelled along the Murray and Goulburn rivers and saw the creature himself. He would then make detailed drawings of what he had seen, and these were rather sensationalized in the news. One newspaper at the time said of Stocqueler’s sighting and drawings:

Mr. Stocqueler informs us that the Bunyip is a large freshwater seal, having two small padules or fins attached to the shoulders, a long swan like neck, a head like a dog, and a curious bag hanging under the jaw, resembling the pouch of the pelican. The animal is covered with hair, like the platypus, and the colour is a glossy black. Mr. Stocqueler saw no less than six of these curious animals at different times; his boat was within thirty feet of one near M’Guire’s punt on the Goulburn, and he fired at the Bunyip, but did not succeed in capturing him. The smallest appeared to be about five feet in length, and the largest exceeded fifteen feet. The head of the largest was the size of a bullock’s head, and three feet out of water. After taking a sketch of the animal, Mr. Stocqueler showed it to several blacks of the Goulburn tribe, who declared that the picture was “Bunyip’s brother,” meaning a duplicate or likeness of the bunyip. The animals moved against the current, at the rate of about seven miles an hour, and Mr. Stockqueler states that he could have approached close to the specimens he observed, had he not been deterred by the stories of the natives concerning the power and fury of the bunyip, and by the fact that his gun had only a single barrel, and his boat was of a very frail description.

Unfortunately, other newspapers would give different descriptions of the account, and even Stocqueler complained that his story was being twisted and warped by the media. This is one of the problems with the many Bunyip reports that came in through the 19th century, in that they were very often sensationalized in the news, and there was rarely any effort to come to a rational explanation for what was being seen. This, plus the incredible variety of different appearances reported, really makes it difficult to come to a conclusion as to what the Bunyip could be. Were these misidentifications of local wildlife, out of place seals or sea lions, examples of surviving prehistoric creatures, or something else? Zoologist and cryptid expert Darren Naish, of the blog Tetrapod Zoology has given some ideas on the possibilities in an article for Scientific American, saying:

For whatever reason, there does seem to be a core of reasonably good, anatomically consistent accounts of the Bunyip, all referring to a dark-furred, dog-headed ‘seal-dog’ (to use the term favoured by Tony Healy and Paul Cropper in their classic 1994 book on Australian cryptids). Could these all be descriptions of out-of-place seals or sea lions, or large platypuses, as some zoologists have proposed? Elsewhere in the world, seals are known to have travelled up-river for 1000s of kilometres (indeed, there are land-locked, lake-dwelling seals in Asia, Europe and North America). However, the shaggy fur, dangling ears and dark pelt described in some Bunyip accounts don’t much recall any known seal, or indeed any known animal.


Ideas that Bunyip accounts might refer to late-surviving specimens of Diprotodon (often imaged as resembling a rhino-sized wombat) or Palorchestes (a semi-bipedal, vaguely tapir-like relative of Diprotodon) (Flannery & Archer 1990, Heuvelmans 1995) don’t make much sense based on existing Bunyip descriptions. Furthermore, the notion that either animal could have survived into modern times is without evidence and not easy to take seriously. Of course, the possibility exists that all of the accounts are hoaxes, perhaps simply copied from the earlier ones. Other suggested explanations for Bunyip sightings include sightings of big fish, crocodiles and even of the Musk duck (Biziura lobata), a big weird duck that has a huge dewlap hanging from its lower jaw.

Whatever it is, Bunyip sightings began to peter out with the coming of the 20th century, either because whatever it was had become scare or extinct, or that the magic of the land and belief in the idea of monsters lurking out in the periphery had waned. However, there are some sporadic sightings reports made even to this day. One user submitted sighting to the site The Pine Barrens Institute seems to describe a possible Bunyip, or at least something very weird. The witness claims to have been out at a place called Coolendel National Park at the Shoalhaven river area, about 3 hours south of Sydney, and says of his strange encounter:

It was a couple years ago when i went on a little adventure/camping trip with my girlfriend. We traveled down to Coolendel National Park at the Shoalhaven riverina area, about a 3 hour drive south of Sydney. We were camping along the river during a long weekend with a two person kayak. It was the second morning of the trip, just before dusk and we were camping near the main river. About a fifteen minute walk inland from our campsite there was a billabong, which is similar to a pond but much more over-grown with a pretty deep and quick moving stream feeding into it. I was finishing taking care of some ‘business’ when I heard a thick splash in the water. Immediately I spun around and looked in the water. I used my iPhone torch to look into the pound and I shit you not, I saw a horse/crocodile head in the water with two horse size eyes floating on top of the water looking at me. In this part of Australia, there is no way in hell there could be croc in the area. For a minute or two I was in a state of awe and fear just staring at this thing. I could see whatever this thing was slowly floating towards my general direction. This animal or whatever it was had a relatively strong thick tail floating on top of the water about a meter behind where its head was, but it did not look reptilian. I turned around and ran back to our tent as fast as I could. I told my girlfriend to quickly pack up everything and jump back into the canoe and continue down the river. Never saw the thing again. Naturally I looked up on the net whatever information I could find about this thing. I was never into Cryptozoology but the only explanation that could explain it was that it was a bloody Bunyip. It was either that or a croc, but it is far too south for it. Never been back to Coolendel and never will. Most terrifying experience of my life.”

As with many other cryptids of the world, there seems to be no real consensus on what we are dealing with, and we are left to wonder just what this thoroughly bizarre creature was or is. Is there anything to the tales of the Bunyip, or is it all Aboriginal legend and spooky campfire stories? Is it still lurking out there or is it perhaps gone forever, relegated to the realm of curious historical reports and lore? Whatever the case may be, one thing for certain is that the Bunyip certainly ranks high among some of the stranger mystery monsters said to roam the wilds of Australia.