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 article 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 6,980 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, local man 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