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Bemusing Bunyips





Mr Stocqueler informs us that the Bunyip is a large freshwater seal having two small paddles 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 a 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 the curious animals at different times, his boat was within 30ft. of one, near McGuire’s point, on the Goulburn and fired at the Bunyip, but did not succeed in capturing him. The smallest appeared to be about 5 ft. in length, and the largest exceeded 15 ft. The head of the largest was the size of a bullocks head and 3 ft. out of the water.



The account above will be well known to most cryptozoologists, apparently describing an encounter with the ubiquitous bunyip of Australia which plagued the early white settlers from 1847 onwards. The encounter was described Edwin Stocqueler (1829-1895), an artist come naturalist who took it upon himself to sail down the Murray and Goulburn rivers (New South Wales) in a canvas boat. He apparently spent much of 1856/7 doing just this, whiling away the time compiling sketches for a diorama that he was working on which when complete was to be displayed in England. It was reported in the Moreton Bay Free Press of 15/4/1857, although it had occurred in March.


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 we have every reason to credit the statement of Mr Stocqueler, and, considering the imperfect way in which some of our rivers and lagoons have been explored, we imagine it is quite possible for an amphibious animal of extremely shy habits to have escaped.



In fact Stocqueler was not alone when he witnessed the creature; he was accompanied by his mother. The Bendigo Advertiser, Saturday 6th December, 1857, retrospectively comments on this partnership under the title of Novel Enterprise.


Mr Stocqueler, an artist, and his mother are on an expedition down the Murray, for the purpose of making some faithful sketches of the views on this fine stream, as well as of the creatures frequenting it. I can pronounce the drawings faithful representations. Mother and son go down the stream in a canoe. The lady paints flowers, etc. The son devotes himself to choice views on the riverside. One of the drawings represents a singular creature, which has the appearance in miniature of the famous sea serpent. Mr Stocqueler was about twenty-five yards distant from it at first sight as it lay placidly on the water. On being observed the stranger set off; working its paddles briskly and rapidly disappeared. Mr Stocqueler states that there were about two feet of it above water and he estimated its length at from five to six feet.


A report in the Moreton Bay Free Press concurred.Amongst the latter drawings we noticed a likeness of the bunyip or rather a view of the neck and shoulders of the animal.


A sketch that he produced had apparently been viewed by some members of the local aboriginal community. They had informed Stocqueler that the drawing showed the bunyips brother and this was interpreted by the paper as meaning an exact likeness of the bunyip. Unfortunately the picture does not appear to have withstood the passage of time which is a shame. If he were an artist of some talent we may have gained a very accurate picture of the creature. The paper then continued and we have no doubt that he will show his portfolio to any gentleman who would pay him a visit. His diorama was apparently finished in the same year and according to one account of the day was a mile long depicting life on the goldfields and other parts of Australia (it was named Golden Land of the Sunny South). A reporter from the Bendigo Advertiser who viewed it noted some seventy depictions of native birds and animals while also referring to other very numerous and interesting sketches and paintings. Although some pictures from the diorama remain, the complete work including his bunyip portrait appears to have disappeared long ago.


Then following the publication of his encounter things got slightly weird and a little mysterious as Stocqueler clearly irked by what he had read sent a terse letter to the Bendigo Advertiser. It was subsequently published Friday 3rd July 1857 and hints at either a mundane solution for his sighting or creates an even bigger mystery.


Sir-Having seen in the Advertiser of Monday last, an extract from an Adelaide paper on the subject of the Bunyip, I think it my duty (to prevent anyone from forming incorrect ideas) to say, that the descriptions given of my accidental meeting with a strange animal in the Goulburn River, differ much from my own account of it, and had I known that it would have appeared in print, I should perhaps have been still more careful in my choice of words. In the first place, I do not call it the bunyip, nor did I ever say positively the size of it, as I never saw the whole of one. A description of it would be difficult unless accompanied with a large drawing. The neck is not like a swan's; nor is it anything like a musk-drake. However, I know more about it than I am at present disposed to tell; but when my diorama (in which is an almost life size portrait of the beast) is painted, I shall give a full, true, and particular account of what I saw, did, and discovered. I am no wonder-maker, and I do not wish that scientific people should be misled by a half-told tale. I shall consider myself under an obligation to you, if you will kindly insert this; and am, Sir, Yours obediently, Edwin Stocqueler, Sandhurst, July 1st, 1857.


So it would appear that Stocqueler never nominated his creature(s) a bunyip(s) in the first place and denies describing a swan like neck! Presumably then we can rule out a clever ploy by Stocqueler creating his own bunyip sighting to gather publicity for his diorama.





One of the more intriguing accounts of a supposed bunyip is the one encountered at the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee Rivers after extensive flooding had taken place in 1847. The encounter was reported in The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW) Wednesday 16 June 1847, following a letter from William Hovell, an English sailor who had previously explored the New South Wales region and the Murrumbidgee River, in 1824. It was entitled, The Apocryphal Bunyip.


Gentleman, on the 9th of February last you did me the favour to publish a letter I sent you, on the subject of the skull of the Kinepratia. I now send you the copy of a letter I received by the last mail, not on the subject of the skull only, but on a living animal of that name, which you are at liberty to publish. I will merely observe that this beast, with many names, viz.:Kinepratia, Katimpia, Tanatbah, Dengas, and Bunyip, agrees with the description given me by a shepherd, who states that while he was standing on the bank of the Murrumbidgee, he saw something similar in appearance to the one mentioned in the accompanied letter rise suddenly out of the middle of the stream, that it showed, as he supposes, about half its figure, and that while in the act of shaking itself, it caught sight of him, and instantly disappeared, but although the time could not have exceeded a few moments, he saw sufficient to enable him to describe it to me, and which nearly agrees with what I have been told by the aborigines.


The letter was sent to Hovell by one George Hobler.


My Dear Sir,—The interest you have shown in the Kinepratia, induces me, in return for your kindness in sending me all the information you could gather, when in this part of the country, to furnish you with such as we have since acquired, and I shall not be much surprised if you one of these days receive an invitation to repeat your visit to this part, and have a look at one dead or alive. You know that the Lachlan when flooded spreads its waters over an immense extent of lowland, covered with reeds, through which the water finds its way to the junction with the Murrumbidgee. There is on the edge of this large reed bed, about twelve miles from the junction, a cattle station, recently settled by a Mr Tyson, the river has been overflowing these reed beds for some months past. Well, some few weeks ago, an intelligent lad in Tyson's employ, who was in search of the milking cows on the edge, and just inside this reed bed, where there are occasionally patches of good grass, came suddenly, in one of these openings, upon an animal grazing, which he thus describes: it was about as big as a six months old calf, of a dark brown colour, a long neck aGentleman, on the 9th of February last you did me the favour to publish a letter I sent you, on the subject of the skull of the Kinepratia. I now send you the copy of a letter I received by the last mail, not on the subject of the skull only, but on a living animal of that name, which you are at liberty to publish. I will merely observe that this beast, with many names, viz.:Kinepratia, Katimpia, Tanatbah, Dengas, and Bunyip, agrees with the description given me by a shepherd, who states that while he was standing on the bank of the Murrumbidgee, he saw something similar in appearance to the one mentioned in the accompanied letter rise suddenly out of the middle of the stream, that it showed, as he supposes, about half its figure, and that while in the act of shaking itself, it caught sight of him, and instantly disappeared, but although the time could not have exceeded a few moments, he saw sufficient to enable him to describe it to me, and which nearly agrees with what I have been told by the aborigines. nd long pointed head; it had large ears, which it pricked up when it perceived him; had a thick mane of hair from the head down the neck, and two large tusks; he turned to run away, and this creature equally alarmed ran off too, and from the glance he took at it, he describes it as having an awkward shambling gallop; the fore-quarters of the animal were very large in proportion to the hind- quarters, and it had a large tail, but whether he compared it to that of a horse or a bullock I do not recollect; he took two men to the place next morning to look for its track, which they describe as broad and square, somewhat like what the spread hand of a man would make in soft muddy ground. The lad had never heard of the kinepratia, and yet his description in some respects tally with that of the aborigines, who pretend to have seen them, so that I am inclined to think there is one of these extraordinary animals still living within a few miles of me, and I cannot but entertain a hope of being someday fortunate enough to come in contact with one, and if so, I shall do my best to bring him home with me. If you should again risk the perils and dangers by flood and field necessarily to enable us to meet again at Nap Nap, I hope you will escape the scourge of blight, and be able to see more clearly the barrenness of most of this part of the country which makes it necessary to devote so large a space to the maintenance of a flock compared with more favoured land.


As bunyips go this report differs from the norm, describing horns, not a usual feature from similar contemporary accounts and tempted some researchers to speculate on it being some undocumented pinniped or novel semi-aqautic species.

One of the suggestions made to explain the encounter was an extinct marsupial creature that died out around 40,000 years ago; the Diprotodontid (diprotodontid meaning two front teeth). Specifically a particular species known as Palorchestes azael, which did apparently have two downward pointing tusks. A description by Tim Flannery, in the Australian Museum’s 1983 book Prehistoric Animals of Australia;


Perhaps no animal is as suited to have inspired the legend of the bunyip as Palorchestes azael. Although a herbivore, it must have been a fearsome sight. The largest of the three known species of the genus, Palorchestes azael was the size of a bull. The skeletons of the species of Palorchestes are highly unusual. Perhaps their most striking feature is the structure of the front legs. …The nature of the articulation of the upper and lower arm bones in Palorchestes azael is very unusual and appears to indicate that this joint was immobile, the front legs being permanently locked in a partly flexed position….The finger bones possess large, semi-circular articulations and appear to have been highly mobile, but only in a forwards-backwards direction. In comparison with the forelimb, the hind limb was delicate….The massive claws must have presented a problem.


Indeed there are many features which seem to fit the aboriginal description and make this beast an interesting supposition for some form of bunyip. However such a clumsy and predominantly land based creature would surely have been captured over the intervening years? On a vaguely similar note Heuvelmans suggested that a number of bunyips witnessed by the aboriginal peoples were simply Indian long horn cattle which were not indigenous to Australia but had been brought from overseas. These were subsequently viewed by the aboriginal peoples as some form of monster. This is interesting as if we recap on the Lachlan report we learn that there had been extensive flooding sometime before the apparent bunyip was seen. If we now try and reconcile what exactly was meant by tusks; i.e. could they have been horns, then it is not hard to imagine a dishevelled, perhaps wounded bovine animal struggling on its feet after having been washed away from its normal pasture.

Shortly after the publication of Hovells letter however one Fred Thompson wrote to the paper with a possible explanation and one which should be taken into account when viewing such reports.


To the Editors of the Sydney Morning Herald, Gentleman,—Some months since a number of bones were found upon the banks of the Murrumbidgee, near the junction with the Lachlan, and which were supposed to belong to an extinct animal, whose existence was alone chronicled in the traditionary legends of the aboriginals. The printed report of the discovery above alluded to (and which appeared in your journal in the form of a letter from Mr Hovell, of Goulburn,) caused great conjecture to arise, and excited much interest on the subject, but failed to produce any authentic data on which the naturalist could form a reasonable surmise as to the "order" to which the apocryphal animal belonged. Beyond the fact that certain indescribable bodies had been seen in various places, by parties who did not profess to be able to form an opinion as to whether they might be otters or horses; and certain nondescript sounds had been heard (whether produced by oxen or whales, the writers could not say), the subject of the supposed existence of a new order of animals has been veiled in obscurity until now, when something tangible has been elicited. Both Mr Hobler and Mr Hovell have taken much interest in the subject, and by the letter of the former gentleman, which appears in your columns of Wednesday last, it is evident he at least has no doubt of the actual existence of an animal which he there describes as having been seen by one, in whose report, it would appear, he is satisfied he can place reliance, Mr Hovell was also informed by a shepherd that he (his informant) had actually seen an animal similar in appearance to that described by Tyson's stockman. These two pieces of evidence, taken abstractedly, may certainly be regarded as proof that in the neighbourhood of the Lachlan there exists an animal of which the zoological history of New South Wales presents no parallel. Still it is not to be wondered at if people (like myself) who are well acquainted with the Munchausen propensities of the shepherds and stockmen beyond the limits, take the liberty to call in question the veracity of their statements on such a question as this. Few persons would credit the excitement which was caused amongst all classes on the Lower Murrumbidgee by the printed report of the supposed existence of so formidable an animal as the "bunyip" was made to appear, and almost every one became immediately aware that he had heard "strange sounds" from the lagoons at night, or had seen "something black" in the water, which if not a whale, was "very like a whale;" and some who read this will smile at the remembrance of the high state of excitement they were thrown into by the appearance (on the surface of the Murrumbidgee) of a sleeping turtle, which being rather larger than usual, and appearing in a peculiar manner, was taken for the crown of the bunyip's head ! At a sheep station of my father's, situated on the edge of a deep but small lagoon, sounds were heard in the water during the night, as of a large body floundering about ; and a noise resembling the pawing of a heavy animal, round the borders of the little lake, caused a superstitious dread to seize the inmates of the hut, but it turned out to be the result of some gambolling wild colts freaks, who, in the hot summer nights, were enjoying a bathe in the cool waters of the lagoon, and the luxury of a good roll afterwards in the dry sands on the bank ! Such errors of judgment and false conclusions arose solely from the reported existence of a bunyip; and I am of opinion the same morbid ideas might lead equally to an optical as to an oral delusion. I, therefore, in common with many, doubt the evidence on which Mr Hobler relies.


The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 13th July 1847


Adapted from The Seal Serpent





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