When Charles Darwin visited Australia in 1836, he wrote in his journal of “lying on a sunny bank” near Bathurst one day “reflecting on the strange character of the Animals of this country as compared to the rest of the World.” Darwin speculated that “A disbeliever in everything beyond his own reason, might exclaim, ‘Surely two distinct Creators must have been [at] work’”.
When the topic of the greatest Australian hoax stories is mentioned we might expect to hear of Ern Malley and other famous literary fakes such as Helen Demidenko and Norma Khouri. But Australia is not just a hoax nation in the literary sense as the entire continent teems with deceptive people, landscapes and wildlife.
Do we know even familiar native animals as well as we think? Who believes that kangaroos really do make Skippy the Bush Kangaroo’s trademark “tchk tchk tchk” noise? As TV historian Don Storey points out, the sound was “entirely fictional. Kangaroos make no such sounds. But some sort of sound was needed for the series, and someone came up with the idea of clicking their tongue to make the ‘tchk tchk tchk’ sound.” Skippy, it was thought, could not be considered almost human in intelligence without having some means of verbal communication.
It was not the first time that the kangaroo, as it were, had had words put in its mouth. Back in the early 19th century, not long before Darwin’s visit to New South Wales, the English Romantic poet Robert Southey imagined in one of his Botany Bay Eclogues that in the lonely forests of far off Australia, kangaroos emit some kind of plaintive cry: “Alone is heard the kangaroo’s sad note / Deepening in distance”.
Meanwhile, there really are many examples of Australian wildlife being smarter than they seem. In both sea and on the land insects, amphibians and fish disguise themselves for attack and defence. Katherine Fleming described recently in Australian Geographic how the bird-dropping spider in north Queensland actually disguises itself as and even reproduces the smell of bird poo in order to both attract flies and ward off predators.
For the first European settlers, and even scientists, the very hills are alive with living fakes, real or imagined. The Australian word bunyip not only applies to a certain mythical beast characteristic of this country but can refer to anything that is fake, as in “bunyip aristocracy”.
Still today there is no shortage of mysterious animals. People often claim to have seen big cats and giant feral pigs - stories which certain parts of the tabloid media will run as if they might be true. But these beasts are mundane compared with the exotic species that the early settlers discovered, or claimed to have found.
Early European naturalists were amazed not only at the variety of new species of Australian fauna but the fact that they defied the entire system of classification the scientists had brought with them.
The sunny bank where Charles Darwin lay that day in 1836 was not far from where in the Cox’s River he saw his first platypus, an animal that defied classification and whose existence baffled scientists for the best part of a century and which initially was dismissed as a hoax.
The platypus was first described in print in 1799 by George Shaw of the British Museum, who needless to say had not only never seen a live specimen (he worked from a skin that had been sent back to England) but had never been to Australia. “Of all the Mammalia yet known”, Shaw wrote, “it seems the most extraordinary in its conformation, exhibiting the perfect resemblance to the beak of a duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped. So accurate is the similitude, that, at first view, it naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation.”
Shaw’s caution was reinforced by the awareness among members of his profession that weird looking creatures had been fabricated previously. The suspicion was explained in 1823 by naturalist Robert Knox. “It is well known that the specimens of this very extraordinary animal first brought to Europe were considered by many as impositions”, wrote Knox. “They first reached England by vessels which had navigated the Indian oceans, a circumstance in itself sufficient to rouse the suspicions of the scientific naturalist, aware of the monstrous impostures which the artful Chinese had so frequently practised on European adventurers; in short, the scientific felt inclined to class this rare production of nature with eastern mermaids and other works of art; but these conjectures were immediately dispelled by an appeal to anatomy.”
If the platypus proved to be a false hoax, then the bunyip is a genuine fake. The classic European account of the bunyip is that provided by William Buckley, the escaped convict who claimed to have lived with the Aborigines in the Port Phillip district for 32 years.