The Crooked River flows all year round in the fresh Alpine region of Victoria. Gold discovered there in 1861 brought men to one of the most inaccessible places on earth. Cold, wet, and remote. Even the rugged could imagine strange things in this formidable isolation. This was the home of the Gippsland Crocodile.
The Indigenous inhabitants dreamed of Bunyips. The water spirit incarnating in creeks and billabongs. European settlers and prospectors from the Australian Alps to Gippsland spied horny-hide water creatures and feared for their lives. It was 2,000 kilometres south of the usual hot, humid habitat of crocodiles, but that’s what they saw.
In 1864 photographer G.T. Jones sent specimens to the city but they disappeared. In 1867 newspapers across the country carried more stories of sightings. Retired sea captain John William Smith of Talbotville, Crooked River, insisted the creatures populated the waterway. Rumours spread like wildfire. A crocodile almost 12 feet had been killed in the Wonnangatta River near the home of American prospector Oliver Smith. Jesse Bray claimed to have shot a monster almost as big. “Anybody feeling any interest in this subject can convince himself of the fact, by ocular demonstration on calling at my residence, that there are reptiles in our mountain streams, which, be they alligators or bunyips, are of sufficient size and ferocious-looking enough to do mischief, if so inclined is evident.”
The beast proved to be a relatively harmless Water Dragon, Physignathus lesueurii. The only lizard that can run, dive, swim, and climb. Typically growing to around 1.5 metres, it lazes on branches or rocks overhanging water in the eastern Australian bush. If disturbed, it dives, staying underwater for up to half an hour.
Accounts of mountain monstrosities and bunyips continued to propagate. As late as 1936, a “Woombye Crocodile” was reported in Queensland. It too was probably a huge water dragon.
Today is spring and wildlife abounds. This morning I saw a Yellow-faced Whip Snake sunning itself at my front porch. Yesterday a Water Dragon laying 20 eggs. Not round like crocodiles, but oblong like that of birds. She’s one of a harem of this massive male that lives by the creek. In three months time I’ll be welcoming more crocodiles and bunyips into the world.
Click here to see the mother Water Dragon immediately after laying 20 eggs
Click here to see the venomous Yellow-faced Whip Snake flick his tongue at my front door