Real (perhaps), mainly Australian monsters

This is WORK IN PROGRESS, and suggestions are welcome

small front and back covers For those who have come here from a search engine, you probably need to look first at the page about my recent work, The Monster Maintenance Manual. This is a fun book for children, but I also write serious stuff on Australian history and science, both for adults and children. My next few books will be mainly serious Australian history. So this page is honest, mainly Australian history, reflecting a long love-affair with the fictional, semi-fictional and dubious monsters of the past. The accounts that follow are genuine to the extent that they have all been reported in newspapers, but I don't believe any of them, I definitely don't endorse them, and I suspect that the reporters didn't have much faith in them either!

This is a quick look at some of the Australian monsters that have been uncovered over the years, as revealed in Australian newspapers which have been placed online by the National library of Australia. I have thrown in a few foreign accounts that appeared in Australian papers as well, just to avoid any charges of dull and vacuous parochial chauvinism.

By way of explanation, I am one of the many volunteers who work through the OCR decipherment of old digitised papers, correcting the errors and adding comments and tags. You can peek at my activities here, if you wish.

The starting point was my chance discovery of Friedrich Gerstäcker, a German adventurer who took the Royal Mail coach from Sydney to Albury in 1851, constructed a dug-out canoe called Bunyip, launched it, and paddled it to Echuca, where it was wrecked. His German partner fled to Melbourne, but Gerstäcker walked to Adelaide, with a few adventures along the way, and submitted a report that steam navigation of the Murray would be possible. This excited me on a number of counts, but one of them related to the early use of language in Australia. In particular, I wondered when the word 'bunyip' had first come into use, that is, when the idea of the bunyip first became common among white people.

Caveat: The links that follow relate to large newspaper pages or long articles. To find the actual reference, use your browser's search function, or your eyes. The details I refer to are there, if you try hard! A second caveat: you may find yourself traipsing off in odd directions when other stories catch your eye.

The first step was to dig out and tag some early references to this mysterious beast. The point about tagging is that this will help searchers avoid references to Gerstäcker's canoe, or Mr, Austen's gelding called 'Bunyip' which seems to have started racing in 1851, because each of the tagged bunyip items is also tagged monsters. Hovell's bunyip skull

The bunyip first appeared in print in early 1847, but by February 9, William Hovell (better known as Hamilton Hume's explorer companion) had offered sketches of the monster's skull. Before long, this was identified as the skull of a hydrocephalous foal, and after that, nobody really took the notion seriously. By August 1847, we see clear evidence that the bunyip was being treated just another tall bushman's yarn. You can see the sketches on the left.

By early 1848, the bunyip was a figure of fun, a bit of an in-joke, and we read of two hunters at Glenelg shooting an old coat and thinking it a bunyip, for a while. By July 1851, one writer was willing to dismiss the bunyip as no more than a garbled account of a crocodile, shared between Aboriginal tribes. Mr, Gerstäcker's canoe had disappeared, sunk beneath a log, never to be seen again.

One odd thing that I still have to sort out: Mr, Austen's horse Bunyip appeared on the scene in 1851, but this report and this report, both from the first half of 1847, refer to a horse of that name. Perhaps the mythical animal was being talked about before the first published report. Now you can see why this is flagged as a work in progress!

One interesting 1913 report concerns the Macquarie Harbour "big seal". This one caught my eye, as it records seals going 50 km up the Gordon River, past rapids: one possible explanation of the bunyip legend suggests that there may have been a basis in past cases of seals entering rivers. I had always been inclined to reject that, but perhaps there could be something in it.

The universal fascination with monsters

About this time, it struck me that people have a bit of a thing about monsters, a fascination, an attachment, and a rather daft determination to believe at all costs. So I decided to start looking at reports of monsters, as they were given in Australian newspapers. It's early days in this hunt, but as I poke around, let me share the following with you:

The 30-foot issue

One pattern that crops up over and over again is that the monsters are generally said to be "30 feet" (about 9 metres) long. The Newcastle monster was this length, and while the Queenscliff oar fish was only half that, the species was said to grow to 30 feet. There is probably something interesting here for the psychologists.

And just one true story

Then, just as you start to give up on all these wild and improbable tales, you may come across the four-footed bird of the Lower Amazon, which is a genuine report of a relative of the hoazin, a bird in which the wings develop more or less as legs before they form as wings. Just once in a while, there turns out to be some truth in those yarns. The discoverer was Edward M. Brigham.

Further reading

  • Robert Holden, Bunyips: Australia's folklore of fear National Library of Australia, ISBN-10: 0642107327. Preview here.
  • The bunyip and inland seal archive of Australia of Peter Ravenscroft, who seems to ne a bit more of a believer than I am, but who cites most of the main cases.

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    It was created on October 23, 2010, and last revised October 26, 2010.

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