08 August 2017

Life & Death

Life & Death in the Sunshine State is a growing collection of interesting stories about the history of Queensland, including - among other things - tales of hangings, cemeteries, sharks and other animals, and prisons.

Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, circa 1860 (State Library of Queensland)

This website has been created by Christopher Dawson, a Brisbane-based professional historian.

05 April 2017

The Merrimac Bunyip

Although the 'bunyip' had generally been consigned to the realms of fantasy and folklore by the early 20th-century (see my history on 19th-century Queensland sightings here), occasional speculation over mysterious water beasts still surfaced from time to time, such as when reports of crocodiles in Gold Coast waterways stirred up interest in the subject during the late 1920s.


The bunyip as described by Matt Heeb (below). (Brisbane Courier, 29 March 1929)

A part of Yugambeh country, the broad Merrimac Plain was home to a chain of lagoons named on early maps as the 'Great Swamp', fed by overflow from the Mudgeeraba and Bonogin Creeks which eventually joined with the Nerang River. Thomas Blacket Stephens - former mayor of South Brisbane - bought 6980 acres there in 1873. He intended to drain the swamp to create grazing land for cattle, including a large drain through to the Wyangum Lagoon in 1882, but it proved to be a difficult task due to the depth of the waters. The swamp extended from the original Merrimac Estate property to Burleigh Waters.

Plan of Merrimac Estate, undated (John Oxley Library)

Bunyip tales were already well established in this area when Stephens took the land, and interest peaked with a series of incidents there during the 1920s and '30s. On one occasion, Luke Meyers claimed to have seen strange tracks and heard an unidentifiable animal call at Burleigh in 1928. He was part of a family that had lived near the Nerang River since the 1870s and was well aware of old accounts of a bunyip in the district, but was of the opinion that a crocodile was the real animal in those stories.

This report prompted local resident Matt Heeb to recall a bunyip scare at the nearby Merrimac lagoon. Heeb had been shooting ducks there in 1886 and claimed to see have seen 'a monster with a very big rough mane coat and an enormous big rough long bushy tail' that dived among the water weeds near the bank. A local squatter made a verbal offer of £1,000 to anyone who could get the bunyip dead or alive, prompting some serious search parties that were later recalled by Carl Lentz in his Memoirs and Some History (1961):

'We explored those lagoons and part of the swamp. We had double shot guns loaded with swoon drops, we tried to find out its habits so we could try to catch it alive... Towards evening as we were getting ready to go home, William Laver called. When he saw the ducks he asked if we were the chaps shooting at the big lagoon, I said we were, and he asked how we got the ducks out. I told him I swam in and got them out. He said he would not go in there for a fiver, no, he would not go in there for any money... if that fellow got you it would be the end of you... He said that Jack Stanfield was mysteriously losing foals about the big lagoon... Jack was manager of the Merry Mac Estate, they had a horse stud, mares and foals running around that big lagoon. As time went on the swamps were gradually drained off, except eastwards towards Burleigh Heads. Some returned soldiers from the Boer War were trying to get the monster, but with no success... There were also Bunyip hunters up the Little Tallebudgera Creek swamp, No.1 War veterans with the same results as the previous ones. It was too cunning and wary to be caught in those labyrinths there.'

Lentz also concluded that the creature was a crocodile, an animal not too dissimilar to the one recalled by Matt Heeb, although a retired policeman claimed it was probably an otter.

The Merrimac story prompted a group of Brisbane university students to explore the swamps in December 1929, and an article about this expedition featured the claim that there was a 'general belief' that the lagoon was connected to the ocean by an underground tunnel and the alleged bunyip was in fact a dugong. Demonstrating the inherent unreliability of folklore, another article about this same bunyip was printed in the Queenslander in 1934, but placed the 'big scare' in the 1890s instead of the 1880s and described local residents as:

'telling weird tales of its blood curdling, nightly shrieking, described usually as something between a woman screaming and a bull bellowing. Some had claimed to have seen it, an awesome sight - something between a camel and a giraffe - with long,patchy, moss-like hair clinging to it, and one staunch soul had even watched it as it calmly walked across the sand terrace and disappeared into the sea. Looking back, it seems to me that the descriptions varied according to the particular brew of local rum that had been imbibed.'

Public curiosity about the local bunyip grew during the the development of a housing estate in North Burleigh area in the 1920s. There were reports of a loud 'boom - boom - boom' noise coming from the swamp each night following the construction of the Miami Hotel (1925) and a sanitary depot in the swamp area (1930), although these sounds were sometimes not heard for 12 months before starting up again. According to one local resident, reminiscing in 1938, 'local aborigines would pull up camp when the booming noises came from the swamp, referring to the 'Debil Debil'.' This large Yugambeh camp was on the 'old Racecourse flat midway between Burleigh and West Burleigh'.

'Miami Hotel looking south westwards across the Great Swamp and the Hinterland', c.1935 (Gold Coast Libraries)

Could there be a geological or human source behind these sounds? A quick search found similar noises occurring at Cooma in NSW in 2015, and in various parts of North America (2015), so an environmental cause cannot be ruled out.

Part of the mystery behind some of the sightings was solved in 1938 when Charles Finamor, a council sanitary contractor, encountered a 3-metre crocodile lying in long grass at the north end of the Merrimac Swamp. The remains of a cow, with scattered bones, were lying nearby. Heber Longman, director of the Brisbane Museum, suggested that the crocodile must have escaped from captivity. As usual, this story kickstarted more speculation, and long-term Burleigh Heads resident W.R. Clarke recalled hearing a 'deep booming sound from the undergrowth' near the swamp one day and finding tracks which he supposed to be a seal. He spent days afterwards trying to track down such a creature, but without luck.

'Digging of canals on the Merrimac Estate, circa 1924'. (Gold Coast Libraries)

Old resident Walter Lawty then recalled hearing 'unearthly howls from some animals on the rocks' there some 30 years earlier, and after meeting a boy who had just witnessed a large animal in the same vicinity he had packed his rifle and found and shot a 3-metre 'common grey seal'.

The bunyip reports declined along with the swamps as land reclamation and drainage transformed the local landscape around Miami and North Burleigh and the area became more densely populated. It is now clear that a variety of 'exotic' creatures such as crocodiles and seals had occasionally found their way into those swamps, and unclear sightings and mysterious sounds were combined with Aboriginal lore to generate speculation about bunyips.

UPDATE:
I started parts of this article a few months ago, and upon completion noticed that the Courier-Mail had a story titled 'Bunyips: The simple but scary truth behind local legend' on 1 March 2017, which covered some of the history here. It highlighted a number of historic cases of crocodiles being found in SE Queensland rivers, and is a reminder of how little credence is given to bunyip mythology in modern newspapers - even the Murdoch press.

History of 19th-century Queensland bunyip sightings

30 March 2017

Cryptid Cats and Dogs of the Far North

There have been some recent reports of possible sightings of a thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) in the far north of Queensland. The witnesses were reasonable sources - a Park Services employee and a frequent camper - although these encounters did happen at night and there is no footage. The sightings were interesting enough to warrant further investigation from scientists at the James Cook University, who are now looking at setting up numerous 'camera traps' in the areas (although that project is also focussed on other wildlife).

Thylacines
Thylacines. (John Gould)

The last known Tasmanian tiger died in captivity in Hobart in 1936, which was also the year that other reports of cryptid sightings emerged from north Queensland. On that occasion, the Victorian naturalist Charles Barrett led an expedition to Mount Bellenden Ker, between Innisfail and Cairns, which at a height of 1,593 metres is the second highest peak in Queensland, behind its neighbour Mt. Bartle Frere. The ranges there had been the site of cryptid speculation back in 1899, when former politician and journalist Archibald Meston was part of an expedition that heard local Aboriginal people talk about a deep pool with a 'long-necked monster who used to swish about in the water, especially at night time'. Meston dismissed claims that this could have been a bunyip, and instead suggested that such a disturbance could have been a large fish eating a water bird.

Barrett later reported his belief that the 'dense jungle on the mountain was one of the haunts of the mysterious 'marsupial tiger'.' He had not witnessed the creature himself, but his guide Arnold Leumann (a 'noted North Queensland guide and bushman') claimed to have seen one. Leumann described the animal as being 'about the size of a dingo, but with a short, blunt head, rather like that of a tiger. It's body and tail were striped like a tiger's. It was perched on the branch of a tree, and snarled and spat at him.'

The Bellenden Ker ranges.

Leumann was aged around 40 years at the time, and was well respected as a knowledgeable guide. Barrett was not skeptical about the existence of the animal, which he presumed to be marsupial and 'might be an unusually large species of tiger-cat'. After reading Barrett's report, the Brisbane Museum director Heber Longman said that he had been interested in the possibility of such an animal for many years, but there was nothing more than hearsay evidence to support claims of its existence.

Alfred White of Burleigh Heads, who was an old friend of Leumann, responded to the reports by saying he 'could vouch for the accuracy of the description of any animal seen by him', but believed that the animal described was a 'marsupial tiger, a large specimen of the native cat'. He was familiar with Bellenden Ker and suggested that a search on the western side of the range - where there was plentiful food for a large cat - would be the best bet for finding a specimen. 

There was reasonable speculation that what had been seen was a 'tiger cat', which could refer to the tiger quoll (Dasyurus maculatus gracilis), an endangered species found in a small region of northern Queensland, including the Bellenden Ker area. The average length of these animals is 80cm (male) and 75cm (female).

Talk of the 'tiger cat' could also refer to the 'Queensland tiger', which is considered to be a cryptid, although one with a feasible chance of actually being real. Known within Aboriginal culture as the yarri, it is said to be a 'dog-sized feline with stripes and a long tail, prominent front teeth and a savage temperament'. Such an animal could be a descendant of the extinct predatory marsupial Thylacoleo (T. carnifex) or even a variety of large feral cat. The story of large cats being descended from mascot pumas brought to Queensland by American soldiers during World War II is apparently an urban myth.

Restoration of T. carnifex.
Restoration of T. carnifex. (Nobu Tamura [http://spinops.blogspot.com])

Another theory, posited by tree kangaroo expert Roger Martin, is that the sightings could be of either Lumholtz's or Bennett's tree kangaroos, animals which walk on four legs when on the ground and are found in small areas of far north Queensland.

Indigenous accounts of the yarri date back through time, and the earliest non-Indigenous reports emerged in 1871. Sightings were quite consistent, although reports have declined in number since the 1950s. The Australian zoologist Albert Sherbourne Le Souef described the animal in his 1926 book The Wild Animals of Australasia as being a 'Striped marsupial cat', a description also provided by Australian Museum curator Ellis Troughton in his Furred Mammals of Australia (1965) although he also proposed that it could be a mainland variant of the thylacine. This idea was also shared by Cape York artist Percy Trezise.

The notion that the 'Queensland tiger' might actually be a mainland thylacine has been promoted by cryptozoologists for some time, although there are clear differences between the descriptions of the cats and the thylacines, such as in their head shape, position and colouring of the stripes, and arboreal habits. Nevertheless, the idea that a remnant population might exist cannot be dismissed out of hand, and researcher Sandra Abell, from James Cook University’s Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science, commented about the field survey in the region where the recent thylacine sightings were reported:

'It is a low possibility that we’ll find thylacines, but we’ll certainly get lots of data on the predators in the area and that will help our studies in general.' 
It was “not impossible” there were thylacines to be found, she said. “It’s not a mythical creature. A lot of the descriptions people give, it’s not a glimpse in the car headlights. People who say they’ve actually seen them can describe them in great detail, so it’s hard to say they’ve seen anything else. 
“I’m not ruling it out at all, but to actually get them on camera will be incredibly lucky.'

I'm not aware of the precise location of these sightings - it would appear that researchers are keen to keep them quiet, and for good reason - but there is a real history of reports of cryptids in the forests of far north Queensland. And unlike the cases of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, there is a genuine chance that small populations of 'Queensland tigers' or thylacines could exist. As much as we all want these animals to have survived in some form, there is a damning lack of physical evidence (bones, scats, hair, prints, decent footage) to support the idea, and the prospect of 'mistaken identity' with eyewitness accounts cannot be dismissed. Still, we can all dream...


29 March 2017

Life and Death Quiz #4: Brisbane Cemeteries

Welcome to another 'Life and Death Quiz' about Queensland history. In this fourth entry you can test your knowledge of the history of cemeteries in Brisbane.

Be warned - they're not too easy! You can find some answers in the 'South Brisbane Cemetery' website.

(Also check out more 'Life and Death Quizzes' here when you've finished).

15 March 2017

A Bit of Housekeeping

I'm currently in the middle of reorganising my online material, which means shuffling around a few articles from one website to another. Approximately half the posts here will be moved to new homes as I think the subject matter was getting too diverse for one history blog.

Some of the sites are already in place and will be linked. Others are still a work in progress, so sorry for any inconvenience with missing stories or links.