IN Aboriginal mythology the Bunyip was also known as Dongus, Kianpratty, Bunyup and Tumbata, depending on the tribal area. However regardless of name he was always evil and emerged from the water in search of prey as he sought to use his supernatural powers to punish evil doers.
While it is easy for modern man to pass this off as superstition, much of what is being claimed in relation to the rivers of the Murray Darling Basin is as unreasonable as a belief in Bunyips.
To begin to understand the ecology and the unique environment of the Murray Darling Basin, we need to revisit some of the observations made by the first explorers after the arrival of white man in Australia.
Shortly after the settlers made their way across the Blue Mountains in 1813, a Government surveyor, Mr. Evans was sent on an expedition westward to find rivers and water, sufficient for settlement. He found and named the Lachlan and Macquarie rivers and a number of tributaries. He notes in his journal:
“The greater part of these lands are nearly free of timber and brushwood and should meet every demand for the Colonies extension of tillage and pasture lands for a century to come.”
On a later excursion when the land was in drought Evans notes:
“Rivers such as these no man has ever heard of before. They all run inland. They stop when least expected, leaving no visible channel or water-course. Sometimes they are as salty as the ocean and at other times contain excellent drinking water. From my observations it is apparent that they can go from a chain of stagnant ponds to boiling over their banks, filling whole valleys with raging water.”
To resolve the riddle of the two rivers discovered by Evans, the Governor dispatched in 1817, Lieutenant Oxley and botanist Alan Cunningham to follow the Lachlan and if possible also the Macquarie. According to Oxley’s journal:
“We reached the Lachlan on the 26th April 1817at a place where it is about 100 feet wide, with deep banks, and its course obstructed by many large trees that have fallen into the stream, obstructing the current and rendering progress difficult. Flood marks thirty-six feet above the stream were clearly visible.”
After making their way down the Lachlan, Oxley and his party are eventually stopped by the swamps of the lower Lachlan valley only a day or so short of discovering the Murrumbidgee.
They retrace their steps back up the Lachlan until the 1st of August 1817, when they head north to the Macquarie and then back to Bathurst.
In 1828 with the Colonies expanded stock numbers are all dying as a result of extended drought, Governor Darling sends an expedition led by Charles Sturt and Hamilton Hume to return to the Macquarie marshes found by Oxley, in search of pasture for the dying stock.
They reach the marshes on 26th December 1828, to find them dry and denuded with the barest trickle of water. This was in stark contrast to what Oxley had described ten years earlier.
They head north and on the 4th February 1829 in Sturt’s words:
“We discover a fine river about 240 feet wide, deep and covered with wild fowl. Much to our astonishment the water is so salty that our thirsty horses refuse to drink.”
The party proceeds downstream and discovers the Bogan River and replenish their water supplies. The party then proceeded to the Castlereagh River which was totally dry and Sturt described thus:
“So long had this drought continued, that the vegetable kingdom was annihilated. In the creeks and rivers, weeds had grown and withered and young saplings were growing in their beds. The larger trees on the banks were drooping and many appeared near dead.”
by Ron Pike, Coffs Harbour, Australia
The Picture is of the Castlereagh River at Gilgandra taken by Ron Pike in September, 2008.