03 July 2015

The Saga of the Thargomindah Bunyip

Bunyip sketch, 1930s. In the Queensland winter of 1941, as the Second World War raged overseas, the 290 residents of the small country town of Thargomindah (1,100 km west of Brisbane) were distracted by reports of a strange creature lurking in nearby Lake Dynevor. News spread far and wide, and for a few months newspapers around the country followed the story of this new and mysterious ‘bunyip’.

The saltwater and freshwater lakes on the old Dyvenor station cover a wide area, some being about a mile wide and between 10-20 miles in length. Unusually heavy rain in early 1941 had greatly expanded their capacity and they provided sanctuary for many birds, including black swans and thousands of gulls (it is now part of the Lake Bindegolly National Park and home to over 200 species of birds). It was after these big rains that tales began to emerge of an elusive animal creature being seen in the waters.

Locals soon formed a range of opinions on what this animal might be. Ideas included seals, turtles, wild pigs, musk ducks, and the obligatory ‘bunyip’, which was a water-dwelling creature of Aboriginal mythology. Some said the creature had a body between three to four feet long, while others claimed it to be the ‘size of a bulldog’.

Lake Bindegolly National Park, scene of an alleged bunyip sighting in the 1940s.
Lake Bindegolly National Park.

The shire clerk told the Courier-Mail that about 20 people had glimpsed it. Two men, one a postal inspector and the other a station manager, had chased it in a boat at dawn before it disappeared into some rushes. One of them had attempted to photograph it, apparently unsuccessfully. He claimed it showed up in the negative but was indistinguishable in the print. They saw the creature from about 90 metres away in weak dawn light:
‘It was nothing like anything I’ve seen… The head was black and at least a foot long, and the animal was grunting and splashing a lot. From the size of the head I would say it was about 6 feet long. I was told that many years ago a seal was seen in the Dynevor chain of lakes.'
One of the men, J.G. Utz, also said that 'its head, which raised about 12 to 18 inches above the water, reminded me of a seal'. The news was picked up in Adelaide, where a newspaper reported that about a dozen people swore they had seen ‘a strange animal frolicking in the Dynevor Lake’, with most descriptions matching that of a seal. An implausible suggestion for how a seal would be in a saltwater lake over a thousand kilometres from the coast was given, in that ‘a seagull, one of thousands which flock to the lake, played stork and carried a baby seal from the coast!’

After months of scepticism about earlier sightings, the new reports prompted search parties from Thargomindah to head to the lake, eager to solve the mystery. Mr G. Gooch, owner of Thargomindah station, proposed to place a net across the neck of water where he had seen the creature, in the hope of catching it. He also claimed that ‘the bunyip resembles a seal, but it was impossible to say what it was’. He told Queensland Country Life that the Thargomindah bunyip was ‘no mere figment of imagination’ and that he intended to capture it and ‘confound the sceptics’.

The shores of the lake became a drawcard for dozens of travellers on the Cunnamulla-Thargomindah road, and they watched out for the creature near Broken Dam, part of the lake system. Many early-morning bunyip-spotters claimed to have seen it, although it always seemed to vanish before they get close enough for an accurate description.

On 17 August, the Sunday Mail reported that ‘The Thargomindah ‘bunyip’ - now a well-recognised local identity - startled residents this week by appearing with a mate’. There was now speculation that there may be in fact a whole family of the creatures:
‘Last week two of the animals showed themselves at the same time to a party of sightseers. ‘They were as alike as two peas, and we weren’t seeing double,’ said one of the party. ‘They were black, about 2ft. 6in. long, with heads like dogs, and very prominent ears. They swirled away as soon as they spotted us. Probably one was male and one female, but we couldn’t tell from where we were, about 50 yards away. They looked just the same.’
One week later a search expedition armed with guns and cameras was delayed while a local Warrego by-election was contested. Another recent sighting had the creature as having ‘a head like a mastiff and a tail like a duck’.

James Annand, Mayor of Toowoomba, then claimed to have shot at a ‘bunyip’ at Felton, near Toowoomba, some 40 years earlier.
‘As an alternative, he describes it as a moss duck. ‘The moss duck is a queer creature,’ the Mayor said. ‘It has a very large head and short neck. When it appears above water the head is doubled into the breast, giving the appearance of a large, shaggy animal’s head, surmounted by two pointed ears. Those who know the bird have never seen it fly. It dives and reappears anything from 20 to 50 yards away. It is very rare, and possibly the bunyips reported in Broken Dam, near Thargomindah, are moss ducks.’’
There is no such thing as a ‘moss duck’ and I presume what was referred to here was a Musk Duck. The male of this species grows to about 70 cm long and has a distinctive large, leathery lobe underneath the bill

A Musk Duck, which was sometimes confused with 'bunyips'.
Musk Duck

Despite this, Mr Utz was adamant that what he had seen was not a ‘moss duck’. He saw it twice and still guessed that it was a seal. He told one reporter:
‘What impressed me most about the animal was that it showed much shrewdness and curiosity. On each occasion I saw it, the animal waited until I had crossed the water before it broke the surface to have a look round to see what was going on.’
All the publicity surrounding the alleged bunyip led to concerns about hunters converging on the lakes, so in September the state government appointed G. Gooch and J.D. McLaren as ‘honorary ranger for the Dyvenor Lake bird and animal sanctuary’ or - as was reported in some newspapers – ‘Keepers of the Thargomindah bunyip’. From now on, the bunyip could only be shot with a camera, and Gooch led search parties intent on photographing the beast.

Carnavon’s Northern Times then reported another interesting description of the creature.
‘Mr. R.R. Smith, of Thyangra, who claims to have seen the ‘bunyip,’ said it was about three feet long, two feet six inches around the body, representing a football in shape, but tapering to the head and tail… The head was like that of a pug dog, but more pointed, and appeared to have strings or fibres hanging down from the upper lip. Its colour was mousy brown, with a definite polish, and it seemed to be rather inquisitive.’
Sightings seem to have stopped around September 1941, and interest in the saga of the Thargomindah Bunyip soon waned. The search parties gave up their pursuit of it, and it was never seen again.

In retrospect, it is probably safe to assume that what was seen was either dingoes or foxes out to raid the nests of water birds, or other species of birds attracted by the expanded post-rain lakes. Whatever it was, it would be a natural explanation. Unlike Lowood and their hoax bunyip, the locals have not used the ‘Thargomindah Bunyip’ to promote the area, although a Sydney newspaper article of 1941 predicted that could well happen:
‘Should the Thargomindah bunyip prove to be genuine and not merely of the fabulous kind, the little town-ship (which is already notable for having its very own electric street lights) will certainly become very famous Indeed. Tourists will doubtless flock there in gratifying numbers and a monument may even be erected to the bunyip's honour in the main street.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1941)
It wasn't to be.

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