TALES OF BURRUNJOR
The tribespeople of pre-European Australia had traditions that described saurian-type reptiles centuries before they ever had access to European textbook illustrations of dinosaurs.
Aborigines of Arnhem Land believe that a vast region hereabouts, which they call Burrunjor, is the habitat of a terrifying, nightmarish, mammoth-sized reptilian monster, which they also call Burrunjor and whose description can be said to resemble that of Tyrannosaurus rex.
Campfire stories substantiating Aboriginal claims are commonplace across the far north.
In 1978, a Northern Territory bushman and explorer, Bryan Clark, related a story of his own about an event that had taken place some years before. While mustering cattle in the Urapunji area, he became lost in the remote wilderness of that part of Arnhem Land. It took him three days to find his way out of the region and back to the homestead from where he’d originally set out.
He didn’t know it at the time, but his footprints had been picked up and followed by two Aboriginal trackers and a mounted policeman. On the first night of their search they camped on the outskirts of the Burrunjor scrub, even though the two trackers protested strongly against doing so. The policeman hobbled his horse, cooked their meal and then climbed into his swag and went to sleep.
Later that night the two Aborigines, shouting unintelligibly and grasping for their packs and saddles, suddenly woke him up. The policeman realised at this moment that the ground appeared to be shaking. Hurriedly getting to his feet, he, too, gathered up his belongings. Shortly afterwards, the three galloped away.
The policeman told Bryan Clark later at the Urapunji homestead that he also had heard a sound, somewhat like a loud puffing or grunting noise, certainly loud enough to be coming from some large animal. When asked if he intended to include this incident in his report, the policeman replied that he would not because he feared that no one would believe him.
The policeman warned Bryan never to return to that area, because if he got lost there again he’d be “on his own”: the police would not come looking for him.
The region’s cave art, thousands of years old, depicts these monstrous animals. Many Aborigines of the Arnhem Land region believe these monsters wander back and forth across the Gulf country and Cape York to this day.
Regardless of what outsiders may think of these tales, the locals—both Aborigines and scattered European settlers—take them seriously.
Bushman Allan Ritchie, who conducted lapidary rock hunting safaris to some pretty remote parts of the far north during the 1970s, came to believe that there is some kind of dinosaur-type reptile inhabiting the Northern Territory jungles and scrublands.
“I found the Aborigines terrified of these animals. Some tribesmen showed me ancient rock paintings depicting the monsters, which they called Burrunjor. They describe Burrunjor as a Tyrannosaurus-like reptile. There is one region of jungle in Arnhem Land beyond which no horse will go willingly—nor will most Aborigines. Horrific sounds are heard by night and day, and the crashing of foliage in the jungle as the monsters move about. Some Aborigines and Europeans have come across enormous tracks in the soil, more than enough to keep most people out of the region,” Ritchie told me in 1982.
Tracking and measuring footprints
In the coastal border country between the Northern Territory and Queensland and west of Burketown, there is another region where, like Arnhem Land, no Aborigines, horses or cattle dogs will go—for there, too, Burrunjor is said to roam.
Back in 1950, cattlemen lost stock to some mysterious beast that left the mutilated, half-eaten remains of cows and bulls in its wake over a wide area, stretching between the border country and Burketown. Searchers on horseback found huge reptilian tracks of some bipedal-walking beast. They followed the tracks with their cattle dogs through some rough jungle terrain until they entered swampland, beyond which was more dense scrub.
It was at this point that the cattle dogs became uneasy and ran off. The horses were also uneasy and obviously did not want to cross the swamp. Most of the cattlemen decided that their animals knew best, but two men set off on foot with their carbines.
The story goes that they soon came across further tracks in an open area beyond the swamp. While his mate searched about, the other man briefly spotted the dark form of an enormous creature, perhaps 30 feet (9.14 metres) in height, further off in dense timber. The men left the scene in haste.
Johnny Mathews, a part-Aboriginal tracker, claimed to have seen a 25-foot-tall (7.62-metres-tall) bipedal reptilian monster moving through the scrub near Lagoon Creek, on the Gulf coast, one day in 1961.
“Hardly anyone outside my own people believes my story, but I know what I saw,” he said to me in 1970.
In June 1999, huge bipedal reptile-like tracks were found in sandy soil southwest of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory by Aborigines shooting wild boar. Similar, huge, claw tracks—a set of two dozen or so three-clawed footprints—were found in a dry creek bed north of Mount Isa, Queensland.
Some residents of the Normanton, Queensland, district on the Gulf of Carpentaria believe Burrunjor lives deep in the mountains far to the northeast of there, occasionally emerging into the more open country to carry off stock. They say these creatures roam at night hereabouts, and the thumping of their powerful legs has been heard by campers.
One day in May 1980, Max Field, a dingo shooter, was following freshly made tracks through scrub in the Kanuma district near Walker River, about halfway between Karumba on the Gulf coast and Normanton, when he came across a number of indistinct, giant-sized, three-clawed tracks of a bipedal animal in grass, extending across open hard ground and a dry sandy creek bed and then on into dense scrubland. Max forgot about the dingo and began looking for more of these footprints.
Max, a part-Aboriginal, knew that only one animal could have been responsible, and after counting at least 50 footprints he then left, but returned later with two mates. They measured a couple of the footprints, which were two feet 71⁄2 inches (80 centimetres) in length by two feet five inches (73.6 cm) in width across the outstretched claws. The footprints were indistinct or did not register in the hard stony ground.
The indistinct impressions left in the dry creek sand were at least three inches (7.62 cm) deep. The centre toe was at least 141⁄2 inches (37 cm) in length, and the outer toes measured 10 inches (25.5 cm) in length. All were at least 43⁄4 inches (12 cm) in width.
The men measured the distances between six footprints over a length of 19 feet 10 inches (6.05 m). The left-to-right impressions were three feet 11 inches apart (1.2 m), leaving an average stride of nearly 32⁄3 feet (1.1 m).
The animal had stridden across quite open country to enter the area where the footprints were found, so, unless this had occurred at night, the Burrunjor responsible could not have helped but be seen by property owners and others.
As the men judged the impressions to be only a day old and heading west to east, they wondered if they should attempt to follow the monstrous creature but their common sense prevailed. The men decided that the maker of these footprints had to be at least 19 feet (5.8 m), perhaps 20 feet (6.1 m), in height.
My wife Heather and I arrived in the Gulf country in October 2002 to investigate the Burrunjor personally. I had heard that fresh tracks of an enormous reptilian beast were claimed to have been found by people in the Burketown district, inland from the Gulf, on the Albert River in 2001, and again on the Leichhardt River, south of Floraville, in August 2002.
North of Burketown, across Pascoe Inlet at Point Tarrant, fresh tracks of a “two-legged reptile” were claimed to have been found on a mud flat by Aboriginal fishermen in 1979. Soon afterwards, fresh mudflat Burrunjor track impressions were found in that district and Aborigines began avoiding the area. In early 1992, Aborigines found more large three-toed impressions of the enigmatic Burrunjor in the same area.
In the past, its huge tracks have been claimed found over a wide area of the inland, in places such as the Croydon district and the Gilbert River near Mount Clark, Queensland. They turned up in the Weipa area in 1990 and in the Aurukun region of western coastal Cape York Peninsula in 1998.
Gulf bushmen have many tales to tell of mystery animals seen hereabouts and in the Gulf waters. But when it comes to Burrunjor, the height and proportions of this reptile increase depending upon the pub in which you meet these hardy fellows!
Yet despite the tall tales the researcher has to put up with, there are stories deserving further investigation, such as that of Jack and Jane Mulholland, who in 1970 were driving in their four-wheel-drive vehicle from Floraville to the Flinders River. The date was 9 September and the time about 11 am as Jack was driving along a dirt road, when suddenly they both spotted a large shape moving through the roadside scrub. Jane later described the creature coming into view as “a fearsome animal”. Jack, on the other hand, described it as a “20-foot-tall ‘Tyrannosaurus-like’ monster with a mottled skin colouration”.
Back in 1922, in the country north of Cloncurry, south of the Gulf, stockmen claimed to have seen “a big lizard monster” that was standing upon two legs and observing them while moving its tail from side to side. The beast began moving in their direction, so they “rode off quick smart”.
The Gregory Range, southeast of Normanton, is a region of Burrunjor folklore extending back generations, and an ancient Aboriginal rock engraving of the giant is known to a few people in the Mount Surprise area.
In 1977, an Aboriginal couple chanced upon a Burrunjor, up to 20 feet in height, feeding upon a black bullock it had carried off from a cattle station in the Normanton district. The grey-skinned monster resembled a Tyrannosaurus, they claimed later. They ran from the scrub they were in, screaming in terror. Reaching their four-wheel-drive vehicle, they drove out of that place as fast as they could.
A man-sized, blackish-brown-coloured bipedal reptile was claimed seen deep in the Gulf scrub somewhere near Arnhem Land’s eastern base country in 1982 by several Aborigines and whites on a cattle muster. It was seen to bound through scrub at a considerable pace, parallel with the direction of the horsemen. It did not show any fear of them but disappeared into the scrub. No one dared pursue it!
During a dust storm in 1961, in a remote Gulf scrubland area north of Mount Isa, a party of six ‘roo-shooters had to shelter in their truck in the bed of a dry creek. Amid clouds of swirling dust as three men sheltered inside the driving compartment and the other three sat inside the canvas-covered back, the men in the front spotted a dark object emerging from trees some distance ahead of them and then moving across open ground, oblivious to their presence. It was perhaps eight metres tall and moved on two legs, its large head a dark form amid the dust.
One of the men, Tom Geoghan, a stockman, told me this story in 1971:
“Visibility was bad but we are sure it was no normal animal; certainly not a kangaroo, like a scientist later told us after I reported the incident.
“The storm of dust eventually subsided, but there was no sign of the mystery giant monster. In any case, the group got out of the area pretty fast.
“Back in 1950, an eerie discovery was made: a lengthy ‘trackway’ of bipedal reptilian three-clawed footprints was found and followed by a lone buffalo-shooter in Arnhem Land, some miles east of Darwin. They led across sandy soil, into and over and along the bank of a dry creek bed, through scrub and into more open ground.
“The shooter, Jack Peckman, said later to me that he had never before seen anything like them. They were, he said, ‘about 15 inches [38 cm] in width and length, and seemed to keep on going’.”
Jack followed the tracks for about a mile, rifle at the ready, before feeling uneasy about going any further.
“The tracks were about a day old, but what if their maker was somewhere just ahead?” Tom asked.
Jack was on foot and far from his camp, so he turned back. Returning to his camp, he packed his truck and drove out of there.
“Others have told me they have heard the sound of some huge beast ‘huffing’ and ‘puffing’—but not any buffalo—in the same region, and also at one spot in the Gulf coast west of Normanton over the years. These incidents have been at night and include the sounds of crashing foliage as some tall, large animal moves through the scrub,” Tom informed me.
Mounted policemen and black trackers in the 1940s and 1950s reported similar sounds, day and night, and the finding of large bipedal, three-toed tracks. Photos taken of one such set were sent to a university scientist in Brisbane, but these were unfortunately “lost” (or, should we say, “swept under the carpet”?). Similarly, plaster casts made of two other large footprints sent to an Adelaide scientist in the 1940s also vanished without trace.
There are old tales of the Aborigines about hunting parties having speared these monsters long ago. A tribe was forced to scatter when one of these monsters entered their desert camp in the country northwest of Ayers Rock (Uluru). A lubra had to flee from a swamp while picking water plants when a taller-than-man-sized reptilian monster approached her from out of the bush in the Gulf country; warriors saved her by spearing the creature.