By 1901, when the Australian colonies federated, the British Empire had shifted its focus from grand expedition and cryptid scavenger hunts to international treaties and the prolonged security of its infrastructure. The veil of mystery, which had once encircled Australia’s coasts and settled upon its interior like a half-opaque fog, was lifted; regional governments were installed and the population began to increase. The bunyip’s roaring call was drowned out by metallic pounding and ANFO ignition from prospering mines, and the creature returned to its home in Aboriginal Dreamtime mythology, which itself was slipping away like vapor as the indigenous people were slowly absorbed into modernity.
Around the same time, amid the economic depression of the 1890s, Australia became host to a growing population of swagmen, or “swaggies” – itinerant workers roving the countryside in search of manual labor. First appearing during the gold rush of the 1850s, swaggies remained a gruff, tattered fixture of Australia’s social landscape through the 1930s. Often taking to the swamps to live unencumbered, solitary lives between jobs, swaggies were frequently mistaken for bunyips. In the evening especially, with the sky fading from a tentative orange to an assertive purple, swaggies bathing among the reeds, their ragged silhouettes stuttered and blurred by splashing water and waving plant fronds, inhabited the bunyip’s form – and maybe always had.
Meanwhile, as Australia was mapped, its animals catalogued and its wilderness demystified, people began to notice that fur seals, usually confined to the southern river systems, frequently swam upstream during floods and subsequently found themselves trapped in the interior swamps. Before long, their similarity to the supposed bunyip – the dog-like face, furry body and barking vocalizations – was recognized.
Reality tends to inure itself to unexplained creatures. Cryptids burrow down into newsprint, gambol through songs and hibernate in dreams until something fundamental, the burden of proof maybe, gets twisted around, so that Bigfoot and Nessie and the Mothman are all living, breathing entities, cavorting the globe, waiting for a piece of definitive contrary evidence to wipe them away. Meanwhile, the bunyip is waiting to exist. After more than a century without a major sighting, what was once bunyip debunking has grown up into bunyip explaining and the creature, though alive and well in stories, has been sucked off the Earth like water drained out of a swamp.