Descriptions of Bunyips vary widely. George French Angus may have collected a description of a bunyip in his account of a “water spirit” from the Moorundi people of the Murray River before 1847, stating:
Robert Brough Smyth’s Aborigines of Victoria of 1878 devoted ten pages to the Bunyip, but concluded:
However, common features in many 19th-century newspaper accounts include a dog-like face, a crocodile like head, dark fur, a horse-like tail, flippers, and walrus-like tusks or horns or a duck-like bill.
The Challicum Bunyip, an outline image of a bunyip carved by Aborigines into the bank of Fiery Creek, near Ararat, Victoria, was first recorded by The Australasian newspaper in 1851. According to the report, the Bunyip had been speared after killing an Aboriginal man. Antiquarian Reynell Johns claimed that until the mid-1850s, Aboriginal people made a “habit of visiting the place annually and retracing the outlines of the figure of the Bunyip which is about 11 paces long and 4 paces in extreme breadth.” The outline image no longer exists.
Non-Aboriginal Australians have made various attempts to understand and explain the origins of the Bunyip as a physical entity over the past 150 years. Writing in 1933, Charles Fenner suggested:
He provided examples of seals found as far inland as Overland Corner, Loxton, and Conargo and reminded readers that “the smooth fur, prominent ‘apricot’ eyes and the bellowing cry are characteristic of the seal.”
Another suggestion is that the Bunyip may be a cultural memory of extinct Australian marsupials such as the Diprotodon, Zygomaturus, Nototherium or Palorchestes. This connection was first formally made by Dr George Bennett of the Australian Museum in 1871, but in the early 1990s, palaeontologist Pat Vickers-Rich and geologist Neil Archbold also cautiously suggested:
They also note that:
Another connection to the Bunyip is the shy Australasian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus). During the breeding season, the male call of this marsh-dwelling bird is a “low pitched boom”; hence, it is occasionally called the “Bunyip bird”.
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. It has also been suggested that 19th-century bunyip lore was reinforced by imported European memories, such as that of the Irish Púca.
A large number of Bunyip sightings occurred during the 1840s and 1850s, particularly in the southeastern colonies of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, as European settlers extended their reach.
One of the earliest accounts relating to a large unknown freshwater animal was in 1818, when Hamilton Hume and James Meehan found some large bones at Lake Bathurst in New South Wales. They did not call the animal a Bunyip, but described the remains indicating the creature as very much like a hippopotamus or manatee. The Philosophical Society of Australasia later offered to reimburse Hume for any costs incurred in recovering a specimen of the unknown animal, but for various reasons, Hume did not return to the lake. It might be noted that Diprotodon skeletons have sometimes been compared to the hippopotamus; they are a land animal, but have sometimes been found in a lake or water course.
More significant was the discovery of fossilised bones of “some quadruped much larger than the ox or buffalo” in the Wellington Caves in mid-1830 by bushman George Rankin and later by Thomas Mitchell. Sydney’s Reverend John Dunmore Lang announced the find as “convincing proof of the deluge”. However, it was British anatomist Sir Richard Owen who identified the fossils as the gigantic marsupials Nototherium and Diprotodon. At the same time, some settlers observed “all natives throughout these … districts have a tradition (of) a very large animal having at one time existed in the large creeks and rivers and by many it is said that such animals now exist.”
In July 1845, The Geelong Advertiser announced the discovery of fossils found near Geelong, under the headline “Wonderful Discovery of a new Animal”. This was a continuation of a story on ‘fossil remains’ from the previous issue. The newspaper continued:
The account noted a story of an Aboriginal woman being killed by a bunyip and the “most direct evidence of all” – that of a man named Mumbowran “who showed several deep wounds on his breast made by the claws of the animal”. The account provided this description of the creature:
Shortly after this account appeared, it was repeated in other Australian newspapers. However, it appears to be the first use of the word bunyip in a written publication.
In January 1846, a peculiar skull was taken from the banks of Murrumbidgee River near Balranald, New South Wales. Initial reports suggested that it was the skull of something unknown to science. The squatter who found it remarked, “all the natives to whom it was shown called it a bunyip”. By July 1847, several experts, including W. S. Macleay and Professor Owen, had identified the skull as the deformed foetal skull of a foal or calf. At the same time, however, the purported Bunyip skull was put on display 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”. Reports of this discovery used the phrase ‘Kine Pratie’ as well as Bunyip and explorer William Hovell, who examined the skull, also called it a ‘katen-pai’.
In March of that year “a Bunyip or an immense Platibus” (Platypus) was sighted “sunning himself on the placid bosom of the Yarra, just opposite the Custom House” in Melbourne. “Immeadiately a crowd gathered” and three men set off by boat “to secure the stranger” who “disappeared” when they were “about a yard from him”.
Another early written account is attributed to escaped convict William Buckley in his 1852 biography of thirty years living with the Wathaurong people. His 1852 account records:
Buckley’s account suggests he saw such a creature on several occasions. He adds:
Buckley also claimed the creature was common in the Barwon River and cites an example he heard of an Aboriginal woman being killed by one. He emphasized the bunyip was believed to have supernatural powers.
The word Bunyip has been used in other Australian contexts, including The Bunyip newspaper as the banner of a local weekly newspaper published in the town of Gawler, South Australia. First published as a pamphlet by the Gawler Humbug Society in 1863, the name was chosen because “the Bunyip is the true type of Australian Humbug!” The word is also used in numerous other Australian contexts, including the House of the Gentle Bunyip in Clifton Hill, Victoria. Numerous tales of the Bunyip in written literature appeared in the 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the earliest known is a story in Andrew Lang’s “The Brown Fairy Book” (1904).
Alexander Bunyip, created by children’s author and illustrator Michael Salmon, first appeared in print in “The Monster That Ate Canberra” in 1972, Alexander Bunyip went on to appear in many other books and a live-action television series, “Alexander Bunyip’s Billabong”. The Australian tourism boom of the 1970s brought a renewed interest in Bunyip mythology.
- (1972) A coin-operated bunyip was built by Dennis Newell at Murray Bridge, South Australia, at Sturt Reserve on the town’s riverfront.
- (1973) Children’s picture book The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek
- (1977) The film Dot and the Kangaroo contains a song “The Bunyip (Bunyip Moon)”.
- (1982) Children’s picture book The Ballad of the Blue Lake Bunyip
- (1996) Australian children’s author Jackie French pens a handful of bunyip tales including the short story “Bunyip’s Gift” in the anthology Mind’s Eye.
- Bunyip stories have also appeared outside of Australia.
- (1937) Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay wrote a Bengali novel Chander Pahar which has an account of a bunyip in it. A film adaptation Chander Pahar was also released in late 2013. The bunyip was portrayed as the primary threat to the treasure seekers in the wilderness of the Richtersveld mountains in southern Africa. In the novel, the bunyip is visualised as a three-toed ape-like hominid.
In the early 1950s, Bertie the Bunyip was a popular character on Channel 3 in Philadelphia. In the 21st century the bunyip can be considered part of the international consciousness.
- (2000) In the Squaresoft video game Chrono Cross, the Bunyip is the boss monster that guards the Black Crystal in Another World’s Fort Dragonia.
- (2001) The Bunyip is also a familiar in the MMORPG RuneScape. As a reference to its origins, it speaks with a thick Australian accent.
- (2001) In the video game, Final Fantasy X, a Bunyip appears as an enemy in the Djose Highroad.
- (2002) The video game series Ty the Tasmanian Tiger portrays Bunyips as peaceful mystical elders who inhabit the world of The Dreaming, though not as ferocious as their namesake and more primate looking. The robotic suits that Ty can pilot in Ty the Tasmanian Tiger 2: Bush Rescue and Ty the Tasmanian Tiger 3: Night of the Quinkan are named after the Bunyips, such as Shadow Bunyip, Battle Bunyip and Missile Bunyips.
- (2009) A character named Bruce Bunyip appears in the book The Neddiad by Daniel Pinkwater. He is initially described as “big and swarthy, and had tiny eyes, a scowl and his eyebrows grew together.” Later, the character wails that his mother “says my father is a monster and I’m a monster too.”
- (2010) Bunyips appear in Naomi Novik’s fantasy novel Tongues of Serpents.
- (2014) In the novel Afterworlds one of the characters is the author of a fictional book named Bunyip.
- (2014) The fantasy novel, Queen of the Dark Things, by C. Robert Cargill the ‘Bunyip’ appears throughout the procession of the story at the hands of Kaycee