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Throughout 1847, the elusive aquatic monster known as the Bunyip was causing somewhat of a sensation across Australia. It all began when famed Australian explorer William Hovell, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on 9 February 1847, announced that a Bunyip skull had apparently been discovered by a Mr Fletcher along the banks of the Lower Murrumbidgee in southern New South Wales.
As Mr Fletcher’s peculiar specimen was eagerly studied and its origins debated, the existence of another elusive creature, in some respects very similar to the Bunyip, was brought to light … albeit in a much less exuberant manner as the hoopla which surrounded the discovery of the Bunyip skull.
On 23 April 1847, the South Australian published an article titled: The Great Serpent of the North in which it discussed the Bunyip skull but also enlightened its readers with news of another beast believed by the local Aboriginals to exist in the Mallee Scrub; a semi-arid area stretching across the northwest of Victoria and northeast of South Australia.
“There is yet another brute, of whose existence the [Aboriginals] are as firmly persuaded as of that of the Bunyip,” the article stated.
“The name of this creature is the “Mindai”. He is described as a serpent of immense size and length, with a black mane, which, by the bye, is also bestowed on the Bunyip. According to some … his girth is that of a good-sized gum-tree, and his length that of a spar fit for the main-topmast of a seventy-four [sailing ship]; while others… declare him to be like a river or a road – a method of expressing their ideas of a thing without a beginning or end.”
The article noted that while no Aboriginal had acknowledged ever laying eyes on the elusive Bunyip (they knew of the creature through their oral traditions), “there are many who declare and will firmly maintain that they have actually seen the Mindai”.
Harmless serpent with a tuft of emu feathers on its head
“From the description … he is a serpent about the size and shape of a large boa constrictor, with a tuft – like a bunch of emu feathers – on his head, and the majority pronounce him to be perfectly harmless. When in the act of progressing, he carries his head in the air to the height of the shoulders of a middle-sized man, looking around him with all the stateliness and majesty of a serpent king.”
According to the local Aboriginals, the Mindai was bestowed with great intelligence and the female held great affection for its young.
The Mindai’s home was the barren plains of the Mallee Scrub on the Lower Murray. Its diet consisted of the eggs of the Lowan (or Mallee fowl) but the beast was also said to be partial to kangaroo rat, emu, kangaroo, or even a bit of tender human flesh from time to time (so much for him being perfectly harmless!).
It was also claimed that the local tribe had some years earlier killed a Mindai by baiting it with an abundance of food, and then once it had gorged itself on the banquet of kangaroo, emu and other animals, the beast was speared and the surrounding scrub and grass set alight. “And to give an idea of his size and strength,” it was reported, “when in his agony, he lashes his tail on the ground, the strokes may be heard for miles like the report of musketry”.
Nearly 20 years later, the Launceston Examiner on 2 September 1865, recounted the story of the Great Serpent of the Mallee.
Enormous in length, mane like a horse & destructive breath
“Many years ago, when very old men among the blacks belonging to the Mallee countries were alive, the whites were informed by them that it was dangerous to enter that singular scrub, in consequence of the great number of large serpents with which it was infested.
“The serpents were described as being of enormous length, and of the thickness of a good sized gum sapling – that is – from ten to twelve inches in diameter. (This differs greatly from the 1847 report in which the serpent’s thickness was compared with that of a much larger fully-grown gum tree). They were said to have a mane like a horse, enormous jaws, and a fatally destructive breath,” whatever that may mean.
Next, the article described the discovery of the bones of the hunted serpent while also recounting the story of the poor animal’s demise.
“About the year 1848, the blacks took some gentlemen to a place … and showed them a heap of snake bones, which they declared belonged to one reptile that had been killed some years previously,” reported the Examiner.
“The serpent had several times been seen by the [Aboriginals], and had caused much terror in the tribe in whose country he was found. By the advice of a famous doctor of the tribe, most native hunters were occupied for some time in killing emu and kangaroo and game of lesser size; and when a large quantity had been secured, it was laid in a heap in a known haunt of the serpent.
“The result, as anticipated by the wise man, was that the reptile, on finding such an unexpected quantity of food, completely gorged itself, and was thrown into a state of torpidity, whereupon the chiefs and hunters of the tribe stuck an innumerable lot of spears into him, pinning him to the ground. They then collected a quantity of dead timber and other combustible matter close round him, to which they set fire, and, like prudent persons, retired to a distance of some miles.
“Notwithstanding, however, the space of country that had been placed between them and their victim, such was its size and weight and strength, that the lashings of its tail on the ground in its agonies could be distinctly heard.”
Colonial encounters with the Great Serpent
The Examiner article included the following colonial settler’s frightening encounter with the Great Serpent of the Mallee:
“A squatter on the lower Murray, in riding through the Mallee, a few miles from where the two men saw the enormous monster described by our correspondent, met a snake which reared itself up to the same height as his horse’s head, and from the strike of which he states that he had a very narrow escape. Other white men have, at various times, seen extraordinarily large reptiles in the same quarter, and there can be no doubt that an unusually sized snake does exist, whose habitat is the Mallee scrub; but like the famous bunyip, it manages to keep itself very much out of sight.”
To put the Great Serpent of the Mallee Scrub into perspective, Australia’s largest snake, the Amethystine Python of northern Australia, usually grows to around 10 to 16 feet. One specimen found in Gordonvale, Queensland, however, measured 28 feet.
The largest known snake in the Mallee, nearly 3,000 kilometres from tropical Gordonvale, is the Murray Darling python, which generally grows to a modest 8 feet in length … and definitely has no mane or tuft of emu feathers on its head.
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