The apocryphal animal of the interior of New South Wales
The Sydney Morning Herald
9 February 1847
To the Editors of the Sydney Morning Herald.
I need scarcely observe to you that this colony is distinguished by the most grotesque variations of the customary phenomena of nature; birds without wings scour our plains, and marsupial quadrupeds, with claws on their fore paws and talons on their hind legs, like birds, hop on their tails; the moles lay eggs and have ducks' bills; we have birds with brooms in their mouths in place of tongues; fish for which it is utterly impossible to find a place in the existing systems of scientific men; and salt growing in perfection on the bushes of our forests.
Until lately, it was supposed that nearly all our quadrupeds belonged, or were intimately related to the glires of Linnĉus; but whilst it was generally known that at least two-thirds of the Australian quadrupeds made their way by springing in the air, it has been but lately that rumours have reached us of a huge animal of the ferĉ order disporting in clumsy gambols, and inhabiting the waters of the lakes and rivers of the interior.
These rumours have, however, begun to assume a more certain form, and inasmuch as during my recent trip on the banks of the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee, and through the Murray district, many details in reference to this apocryphal animal were given to me, I will, with your permission, lay before your readers such particulars as I have been enabled to collect.
The Murrumbidgee blacks assert that a large animal, "big as him bullock," exists in the lakes of that district; they describe it as having a head and long neck like an emu, with a thick mane of hair from the top of the head to the shoulders; four-legged, with three toes on each foot, which is webbed; and having a tail like a horse.
They call it the Katenpai, whilst by the Watta Watta tribe (who similarly describe it) it is called Kyenprate; by the Yabala Yabala tribe on the Edward River, it is known as the Tunatbah; whilst the Burrula Burrula tribe call it Dongus.
I have been informed that the blacks on the Great Carangamite Lake, in the Portland district, describe a similar animal, which they call the Bunyip; and I have heard various accounts from white men (shepherds and others) who profess to have seen the animal at its gambols in the water.
But the following incident has been productive of so tangible a result that, however I may have doubted the exaggerated narratives of some of my informants, I cannot but conclude that some large animal, with which we are yet unacquainted, really exists in the districts I have named.
Mr. Fletcher, who resided on the Lower Murrumbidgee, was told by a tribe of blacks, that they had some time previously killed a Katenpai, on the banks of a lake near the Murrumbidgee.
It must be observed that the blacks have a great dread of the animal, and avoid bathing or fishing in the waters where they assert that it exists.
They assured Mr. Fletcher that the remains of the creature would be found in the spot where they had killed it; and, although doubtful of the fact, that gentleman proceeded to the place minutely described by the blacks, and there found a large portion of the skull of some animal, which, to all appearance, had not been dead for any great length of time.
No traces of any more bones or other remains could be discovered, but enough was found to prove the existence of the supposed fabulous Katenpai. Every black to whom the skull was afterwards shown agreed that it belonged to the dreaded monster of the lakes; and in order to give your readers as accurate a notion as is in my power of all that can be gathered from Mr. Fletcher's discovery, I will request their attention to the following rude sketches of the skull, which was afterwards taken by Mr. Fletcher to Melbourne, and where it will doubtlessly receive the most careful examination from those skilful comparative anatomists, Dr. Hobson and Mr. Greeves.
Figure 1.-Side view of the upper half of the skull.
Length from A to B about nine inches; but, from the end of the snout, about two or three inches apparently have been broken off.
There are no incisors on the portion of the jaw which remains, but three strong grinders are placed on each side, resembling those of the ox, and nearly as large. The blacks assert that it has enormous tusks; but they are wanting in the portion of the skull represented.
Scientific examination will most probably determine whether they did exist. Length from C to D about five inches.
The summit of the head, whence the mane flows, is also incomplete.
Much of the integuments were still remaining, and traces of blood were visible in several places when I saw the skull, which, I would observe, is extremely thin near the top, increasing in thickness towards the jaw.
I have now described as accurately as is in my power, this fragment of the skeleton of the supposed katenpai.
I have casually heard that some bones of the anterior and posterior extremities of a large animal of the mammalia class were sent to Maitland some time since, with a view to their being placed in the Mechanics' Institute, and I can only express a hope that any particulars (trifling so ever as they may appear in themselves) will be made public by those who may be in possession of any proofs of the existence of an animal which has hitherto been deemed a mere superstitious creation of the native blacks.
"Are we to identify the katenpai or bunyip of the westward with the debbil-debbil of the piscatory tribes of the coast country, whose obscure references to this object of their dread have so long puzzled us?"
was a question which suggested itself to me whilst listening to the earnest accounts of the Murrumbidgee blacks, and it is on every ac- count to be desired that those of our bushmen who may discover any further traces of this animal, will take means of placing them in the possession of witnesses regularly trained in anatomical knowledge, and thereby complete another passage in the history of the animal kingdom of Australia.
Before I conclude, I would remark, that when first apprised by Mr. Fletcher of his discovery of the skull, he gave me a sketch made from memory; but that afterwards the drawings, whence the above woodcuts are taken, were made from the skull itself, under my own direction, at Mr. Gwynne's station, on the Edward River.
The exact dimensions were taken (for want of a rule) on slips of paper which I regret to say were mislaid during my journey; but the figures given above are a close approximation to the truth.
W. H. Hovell. Sydney, February 6.
Figure 2.-Internal view of the upper half of the skull, inverted.
Figure 3.-Skull seen from above.
Figure 4.-Skull seen from behind.