Night vigil for the Burrawang Bunyip. Photo: Kate McClennan
It's not a good look. With a "one, two, three, pull!" a human chain of half a dozen people tightly linking arms attempt to heave me out of the mud. At first, I don't budge, not an inch. Finally, with an embarrassing squelch and a slurp, and with arms and legs flailing in every direction, I'm unceremoniously yanked out of the swamp.
You'd think I'd know better. This is my second hunt for the Burrawang Bunyip, a mysterious creature supposedly lurking in the murky depths of this Southern Highlands swamp. Seventeen years ago, a young, fresh-eyed yowie man was lured to this foreboding stretch of water by the prospect of being the first to photograph a beast which had eluded cryptonaturalists since first spotted in the early 1800s. Disappointingly, during the two-day expedition, all I uncovered were some unusual-looking droppings. They were probably just those of a fox that had over-indulged in too many waterbirds the night before, but despite sleeping with the scat-filled specimen jar next to me, it was pilfered in the dead of the night. Locals just didn't want the true origins of their bunyip to be exposed.
This time, I'm not taking risks of losing any vital evidence - I'm here with a television crew to document my every move. Further, this time, we won't be going to sleep, so there'll be no opportunity for the phantom poo pilferer to strike again.
Stealth ... On the trail of the Burrawang Bunyip. Photo: Kate McClennan
Having spent most of the afternoon regaining some respect of my crew, before the sun gets too low in the sky, we head off for some insights from two eyewitnesses. The first is Bruce Mumford who reckons he's heard the beast. Resplendent in a camouflage kaftan (in case the bunyip rears up out of the swamp), Mumford deadpans "Oh yes, it's got a deep, guttural, nasty call". Then there's dairy farmer Ken Sharpe who hasn't seen the bunyip but has heard it many times. He reckons that it's "got to be a bird and one that can move smartly for you could hear it at the western end of swamp, and then two minutes later it was half-way up the eastern end". Yet incongruously, taking pride of place in Sharpe's garden, is his prized ceramic bunyip which more resembles a small gnome-like creature than a bird, and more to the point, is sans wings.
Conflicting reports as to its appearance is nothing new when it comes to the bunyip. All over eastern Australia (it's supposed domain) if you ask a hundred people what they think a bunyip looks like, you'll get a hundred different descriptions. According to most reports, however, the Burrawang bunyip has a long neck and is covered in feathers, is the height of a tiger but half as long and stands on two legs - something like a ''feathered seal'' with legs. Although other rumours have the amphibious creature flying and sporting a long horn in the middle of its head.
Already exhausted from traipsing through the mud (bog snorkelers, eat your heart out), we head off to the nearby Burrawang Village Hotel for dinner. With its olde-worlde atmosphere, roaring log fire (yes it can get chilly here, even in late spring), and the laughter and chatter of happy people filling every corner, it is a pub where strangers (yes, even those covered in muck and brandishing giant butterfly nets) are made to feel welcome.
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Now, I know what you're thinking - bunyips and beer don't mix, or perhaps too much of the latter brings on sightings of the former? But we're here for a feed - what bunyip hunter worth their grain of salt can make it through an all-night assignment without being fuelled by good old-fashioned pub grub? We're also here to tap into the bunyip gossip mill with long-time publican Ed Woolfrey.
Before we get to quiz Woolfrey, one of the bar flies stops us to recall the day a local identity rode a horse up the pub's stairwell to divert attention away from the potato moon-shining operations of the publican of the day (not Woolfrey). I vaguely recall the same old timer telling me the very same story, word-for-word, the last time I pulled up a bar stool here.
But what about the bunyip? Well, according to Woolfrey, who finally gets a break from keeping a steady supply of liquid refreshments up to our newfound friend, "many years ago the bunyip roar emanating from the swamp was so loud that it shook all the bottles off the top shelf of the bar". Unfortunately, any hopes of standing, expectantly under the top shelf, in the hope of catching a rare bottle of Glenmorangie malt whisky are soon dashed. "Since part of the swamp was dammed in the 1960s, the bunyip hasn't been heard, giving rise to theories that its bellow was actually attributable to the noise created by the swamp's peat moss expanding and contacting with temperature variations," explains Woolfrey.
Bruce Mumford, bunyip eyewitness. Photo: Kate McClennan
Great, we're half a century late. Nonetheless, as we leave the relative sanctuary of the pub behind us, we notice a photo of the Burrawang hockey team on the wall: the ''Burrawang Bunyips''. You know a creature has permeated local lore when the village sport team takes on its moniker. In fact, going by the look of some of the big burly hockey stick-wielding blokes staring back at me, I can't help but think some of them have embraced the bunyip concept a little too much - you certainly wouldn't want to meet them in the dark of the night in the swamp. Perhaps it's something in the water here.
Back down at the swamp, it's time for the all night stake-out. Believed to be the core of an ancient volcano, the swamp is certainly no place for the faint-hearted - especially in such gloomy light. It has a reputation for copperheads and tiger snakes and despite my earlier Kodak moment, it isn't all a muddy quagmire. Rather it's a combination of water, reeds, floating peat and waterholes of uncertain depth scattered throughout. Apparently, one hole once had a 40-foot length of pipe inserted in it, without touching the bottom. Call me a wuss, but I hug the shoreline for most of the night.
Apart from accessible parts of the swamp, we also centre our search near the railway line along its western shore which leads from Robertson to Moss Vale, and where according to local legend, one night during its construction in the early 1930s strange noises heard coming from the swamp sent workers "fleeing their camp in fear." Had the workers startled the fabled bunyip? I guess we'll never know.
Dairy farmer Ken Sharpe with his ceramic "bunyip". Photo: Kate McClennan
The night pans out to be reasonably uneventful, that is until about 2am, when, while dragging my kayak back ashore, I'm charged by a frisky bull. I'm not sure what's scarier; encountering such a beast in the black of the night or the realisation that we're on a dairy farm.
Next morning as the yowie mobile rattles out of town; I can't help but think the bunyip has got the better of me yet again. Back in 1996 I had its droppings flogged from under my nose and this time I've unearthed nothing except a randy bull. But evidence of absence isn't necessarily absence of evidence. Perhaps the bunyip is more elusive than many give it credit for, or perhaps it is just a figment of over-active moonshine-induced imaginations after all. While I suspect the latter, who's to know? One thing is for sure, the fun is in the looking.
Burrawang swamp by day. Photo: Kate McClennan
Burrawang: An easy two-hour drive south of Sydney. Take the Moss Vale exit off the Hume Highway and follow the Illawarra Highway into town. Most of the swamp is surrounded by private land and access to the remainder of the swamp is prohibited. The Burrawang Village Hotel is at Lot 5 Hoddle St, Burrawang. Ph (02) 4886 4206.
The stem on this Grass Tree in Oxley wasn’t quite tall enough to claim the prize as Canberra’s tallest Photo: Daniel Wenn
Grass Tree growers all over Canberra continue to risk life and limb to clamber up ladders, measuring tape in hand to see if they can lay claim to "the tallest stem and flower in Canberra".
Despite several close calls, no one is yet to topple Tim Edward's gargantuan 5-metre high specimen which takes pride of place in the front yard of his Nicholls home (Flower Tower, November 16).
Special mention must go to Daniel Wenn of Oxley who was convinced the grass tree in his mother's garden in Oxley had the necessary height to challenge Edwards', but who unfortunately had no way to measure it. "After much mucking around with angles of the sun and shadow lengths to calculate the height, I gave up on trigonometry and went to Bunnings and bought a sturdier tape measure," reported Wenn earlier this week.
SIMULACRUM CORNER ... Donald Duck Rock at Manorburn Lake, in New Zealand. Photo: Steve Dunn
However, Wenn's late night dash to the hardware store was in vain. "Alas, we have fallen short at 4.7m. 2.3m trunk and stalk and 2.4m for the flowering part," emailed Wenn early the next morning.
Meanwhile, the triumphant Edwards is still keeping mum about the specifics behind his Nicholls giant, but when pushed did offer this general explanation. "It's situated to get the arvo sun, has excellent drainage and only gets watered by the heavens above - it's a lazy gardener's dream bush."
Mmm … can you drug-test a grass tree?
Despite my best efforts to muster an appropriate water-monster simulacrum to accompany today's bunyip expose, the closest I could find was this photo, featuring a rock which Steve Dunn of Weston believes "bears an uncanny resemblance to Donald Duck". Dunn, who stumbled upon the rock during a recent fishing trip to Manorburn Lake, in New Zealand, says, "Donald is looking left and if you look closely you should be able to make-out his over-sized left eye, elongated bill and even his trademark sailor's hat."
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @TimYowie or write to me c/o The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie Street, Fyshwick. A selection of past columns is available at canberratimes.com.au/travel/blog/yowie-man