During the 1800s a beast unknown to science haunted the waterways of southern Australia. Like the saltwater crocodile of the north, the creature was said to ambush and devour its victims.
A few years before he became the first lieutenant-governor of Victoria in 1851, Charles La Trobe wrote of being “long convinced” of the bunyip’s existence, and lamented he didn’t have to time to hunt for proof.
None ever emerged. That is, nothing credible. The beast, it seemed, was apocryphal.
But now the bunyip has been found – or ancient rock drawings of it at least – in a shallow cave atop a cliff in the Mt Difficult Range. Four bunyips, to be precise, lurking in a sandstone shelter on an outcrop that commands sweeping views of the plains of north-western Victoria.
It was a find that would shine new light on an age-old story – that of a cosmic struggle between creator spirit and his monstrous enemy – purport to explain why mother- and son-in-laws should never mix and forever change the way you see a double rainbow.
Though recently rediscovered, the red-ochre bunyips are possibly tens of thousands of years old. But in the decimation of people and culture which was colonisation, memory of the cave and its rock art was snuffed out.
That was until May 27, 2016, when park ranger Kyle Hewitt – marking a new track that will form part of the Grampians Peaks Trail – entered the sandstone shelter and brought its bunyips back from oblivion.
Since then the rediscovery has been kept secret. Only a handful of traditional owners, park rangers and archaeologists have been allowed to enter the cave.
Even now, its exact location cannot be revealed.
The cave was the latest and most significant of about 40 rock-art sites to be rediscovered in the last seven years in the Grampians – or Gariwerd as they are called by the people whose ancestors drew those bunyip.
That has taken the tally of rock-art sites in Gariwerd to about 140 – or 90 per cent of all the known such sites in Victoria.
To archaeologists, they are part of a new wave of rediscoveries, one which is expected to reveal many more ancient treasures over the coming decade.
To traditional owners, the bunyips cement Gariwerd’s status as a sprawling sandstone cathedral, every bit as significant as St Paul's in London – only much, much older.
Jake Goodes began his life as a park ranger in Gariwerd hunting goats. Now, 15 years later, he hunts rock art. As Parks Victoria’s Aboriginal Heritage co-ordinator for western Victoria and, at 36, an archaeologist in training, Mr Goodes was among the group that first recorded the bunyip cave.
But old habits, like feral goats, die hard. On the edge of the cliff outside the cave, the Adnyamathanha-Narungga man bleats and put his ear to the wind. If they have kids, he says, the goats will bleat back.
Cicadas hum and a sulphur-crested cockatoo screeches – no bleats.
Which is just as well. Goats are one of the primary threats to these ochre bunyips, as they are too all Gariwerd’s rock art. Like people, goats are drawn to these shelters, and like to scratch their coarse and oily hides against the sandstone.
On the hike to the bunyip cave, Mr Goodes points out signs that indicate the bunyips survived another close encounter. It’s there in the blackened stringybark trunks, the thick regrowth of leaves and the fields of white everlasting daisies.
“Fire has the potential to destroy the whole site,” he says.
“It heats the air within the rock and then it pops the rock like popcorn.”
The other existential threat to the bunyips is presaged by small pieces of pink tape tied to the branches of trees and shrubs. These mark out what will be the Grampians Peak Trail, set to open next year and designed to sit alongside Tasmania’s Overland Track as one of the country’s iconic walks.
“People are the ones who do the most damage to any site,” Mr Goodes says. “Which is unfortunate.”
Damein Bell describes the rediscovered sites as “revelations”. For the Gunditjmara leader, it’s a small miracle any rock art has survived in Gariwerd at all.
“With all that we've been through, all that country has been through, with invasion and colonisation, let alone natural disasters, there's always intense storms and fires up that way, we're lucky to have what we do,” he says.
Mr Bell heads the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, which has jointly lodged a native title application for 1672 square kilometres of Crown land at the Grampians national park as part of a coalition of First Nations people.
Gariwerd, he explains, was always a place of both “immense spirituality” and “gathering”.
“It connected countries,” he says.
Now he sees it playing a key role in reconciliation. Mr Bell wants to see some of that knowledge shared with the broader community.
“We really need to do everything we can to best protect, not only the rock art, but the knowledge that comes from the rock art,” he says.
“From my own personal perspective, you have to share the stories to protect the stories.
“And what's revealed to us today is going to teaching us for the next hundred years."
The story of the bunyip cave, as Jake Goodes tells it, links that cliff-top lair with a billabong – said to be bottomless – and the area’s most striking and famous works of rock art: Bunjil’s Shelter in the Black Range near Stawell.
But it begins with the creator spirit, Bunjil, atop the cliff in the Mt Difficult Range.
“The story was Bunjil resided here with his family: wife, two kids and mother-in-law,” Mr Goodes says.
Bunjil jumped from the cliff with his wife and sons safely in his arms. Then it was his mother-in-law's turn.
“He didn't have the time to, sort of, catch her and she fell and broke into pieces when she hit the ground.''
Still alive, however, she made her way to the nearby Mokepilly waterhole. There she was set upon by its resident bunyip.
“He was going to eat her, but she offered up her strong son-in-law,” Mr Goodes says.
And so the mother-in-law lured Bunjil to the waterhole, where the bunyip tore the creator spirit to pieces.
During the dreaming, people took the form of birds. Finding the fragments of their broken creator spirit, the bird-people set about gathering him up. A small bird used a little rainbow as a net, but it was too small. So another bird used a bigger rainbow to gather the pieces.
“I don't know if you've ever seen the dual rainbows before? Well that's what was used to put Bunjil back together,” Mr Goodes says.
Looking out from the cliff, he traces out the tree lines and roads that lead to Mokepilly and then to Bunjil’s Shelter as he talks.
On this day there is not a cloud in the sky. But the weather bureau predicts flash-flooding and severe storms the next. Perhaps then, the rainbows will reappear.
Mr Goodes calls this tale a lore story. Its survival too, is a small miracle. It came to him by way of research done by historian Ian Clarke, who dug up a newspaper article published in 1925 by a reverend, who was told the story by an Aboriginal source he refers to only as "a woman from the Wimmera".
Who knows how those intermediaries shaped and coloured that story.
What matters is that now, both story and the art belong to the traditional owners of Gariwerd once again, Mr Goodes says.
Jamie Lowe recalls living and working on his country in Gariwerd and seeing the fingerprints of his ancestors as one of “the most cathartic experience” of his life.
That was about 10 years ago. Now, Mr Lowe is the chief executive officer of the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, also part of the Gariwerd native title claim.
He says it was not so much the grandeur of the art, nor the detail of the story, which impacted him so powerfully.
“It’s knowing that your ancestors have been there, basically, forever,” he says.
Because when you’re talking anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 years of occupation, it may as well be.
Despite that ancient, living connection, Mr Lowe says the devastation of colonisation fragmented the cultures of many First Nations. Like the birds in the bunyip lore story, they are now piecing together lore stories, art and sacred places.
“My people, the Djab Wurrung people’s population got down to as little as around 50 people,” Mr Lowe says.
“So if you take 90 per cent of people out of any society what goes with them is a whole lot of cultural knowledge and power.”
Mr Lowe says his journey, and that of many other Indigenous Australians, was to both hold onto and to re-imagine those ancestral stories for today.
“And any time there’s a significant rediscovery or a discovery of artefacts or sites such as rock art, it helps us put one more piece of that puzzle together.”
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