At one time the Kulin were in the habit of skinning the koalas prior to cooking them, as they did with all the other animals. The koalas resented this treatment, and resolved to be revenged upon the Kulin. One day, when all the people were away from their camp, the koalas seized all the tarnuks, and hid them. Then they drained all the creeks and water-holes in the country. When the people came back they found no water to drink, and were in great distress. All the women and children cried out in their agony. At length their cries were heard by Karakarook, the Woman, and she came down from the sky to investigate the cause ofthem. When she heard what the Kulin had to say, she called the koalas to hear their complaints. She settled their quarrel thus: the Kulin had to promise to treat the koalas with respect; they could kill them and eat them, but were not to remove their skin; the koalas promised that they would never again take the water of the Kulin, and that they would always assist them by giving them good advice whenever required to do so.1
Ever since the arrival on Australia's shores of its earliest inhabitants, some 40 000 years ago, the koala has enjoyed totemic status. The Dreamtime stories of Australia's Aborigines are based on observed behaviours, and it cannot be a coincidence that most of the stories featuring the koala focus on its solitary, secretive and, some could say, sly nature. Many tell of an animal that once had a tail, which it lost as the result of some accident or transgression. Other stories describe how the koala arrived in Australia and honour it as an animal that created rainbows or as a source of wise counsel. In this chapter, we explore the koala's important role in Aboriginal culture and society.
One story relates how the Thurrawal (or Thurrawai) tribe arrived in Australia to find better hunting grounds, and how the koala helped row the boat that brought them.
Long ago in the distant past all the animals that are now in Australia lived in another land far beyond the sea; they were at that time in human form. One day they met together and decided to set out in a canoe in order to find better hunting grounds over the sea. The whale, who was much larger than any of the rest, had a bark canoe of great dimensions but would not lend it to any of the others. As the small canoes of the other animals were unfit for use far from the land, they kept watch daily in the hope that the whale might leave his boat, so that they could get it, and start away on their journey. The whale, however, always watched it closely and never let his guard down.
The starfish, a close friend of the whale, formed a plan with the other people to take the attention ofthe whale away from his canoe, and so give them a chance to steal it. One day, the starfish said to the whale: 'You have a great many lice in your head; let me catch them and kill them for you.' The whale, who had been much pestered with the parasites, readily agreed to his friend's kind offer, and, tying up his canoe alongside a rock, they sat down. The starfish immediately gave the signal to some ofthe others, who assembled on the beach in readiness to sneak quietly into the canoe as soon as the whale was distracted.
The starfish rested the head ofthe whale in his lap and began to remove the lice from his head. The whale was lulled into passivity and did not notice the others quickly get into his canoe and push offshore. Now and then he would ask, 'Is my canoe all right?' The starfish in reply tapped a piece of loose bark near his leg and said, 'Yes, this is it which I
am tapping with my hand,' and vigorously scratched near the whale's ears so he could not hear the splashing of oars. This continued until the canoe was nearly out of sight, when suddenly the whale became agitated and jumped up. Seeing the canoe disappearing in the distance, he was furious at the betrayal of the starfish and beat him unmercifully. Jumping into the water, the whale then swam away after his canoe, and the starfish, mutilated and tattered, rolled off the rock on which they had been sitting, into the water, and lay on the sand at the bottom. It was this terrible attack of the whale which gave the starfish his present ragged appearance and his habit ofkeeping on the sea floor.
The whale pursued the canoe in a fury and spurted water into the air through the wound in the head he had received during his fight with the starfish, a practice which he has retained ever since. Although the whale swam strongly, the forearms of the koala pulled the oars of the canoe with great strength for many days and nights until they finally sighted land and beached the canoe safely. The native companion bird, however, could not stay still and stamping his feet up and down made two deep holes in the canoe. As it was no longer of use, he pushed it a little way out to sea where it settled and became the small island known as Gan-man-gang near the entrance to the ocean of Lake Illawarra.
The whale, exhausted after his long swim, turned back along the coast. He still cruises there today with his descendants, spouting water furiously through the hole in his head}
Another story of how the Aborigines and the koala arrived in Australia goes back to a time before there was any sea, when all was land and the animals and men were allowed to go wherever they wanted. When the water finally arrived to create the seas and oceans the koala had an important role to play.
It had been raining for days and weeks and months and years. The water ran down the hills, forming creeks and rivers that flowed across the plains and collected in hollows. The water rose almost imperceptibly, lapping gently at the feet of the hills. As the deepest depressions were filed with waters that grew into vast oceans, the land area shrank and divided into many islands. Groups ofanimals and men were divided from one another by the encircling seas.
On an island far distant from the continent that is now called Australia were men who were skilled throwers of boomerangs. They were able to split a small stone at a hundred paces or more, bring down the swiftest bird in flight, and send their boomerangs so far away that they were lost to sight before returning to the thrower.
They loved to engage in contests ofskill to show how far or how accurately they could hurl their weapons. Among them was one who was noted for his strength and also for his boasting.
He was often heard to say, 'If I wished, I could throw my boomerang from here to the most distant of all the islands.'
'If you were able to do that, how would you know whether you had succeeded?' asked one of the more sceptical men.
'The answer to that is simple,' the strong man replied. 'What happens when boomerangs are thrown?'
'They come back to the thrower, of course.'
'What happens if the boomerang hits a tree or a rock?'
'The boomerang stays there, especially if it breaks.'
'You have answered your question,' the strong man said with a grin. 'If I throw my boomerang as far as the farthest island and it fails to return, then you will know I've succeeded, won't you?'
'Yes, I suppose that is so, but what's the use of talking about it unless you actually do it?'
He chose a well-balanced boomerang. Whirling it round his head several times, he released it. The weapon flew from his hand so quickly that few could see it as it sped across the ocean. Expectantly the onlookers waited, but as the hours dragged by without any sign of its return, even the old-man sceptic was forced to agree that it might have landed on a distant island.
'But there's another possibility,' he said, annoyed by the way the strong man was strutting to and fro, winning admiring glances from the women. 'It may have landed in the sea.'
'Not my boomerang!' the strong man shouted. 'It would cut its way back to me through the sea ifit had not reached the island. You are jealous of my skill, old man.'
'There's only one way that we can know for sure,' was the reply. 'Someone must go there to see if he can find it.'
'I know how we can do it,' a small boy piped up. The old man looked at him disapprovingly.
'We've heard too much from you already,' he growled. 'It would be much better if you ate the food you're given like the other children. I've seen how you spit food out of your mouth—-food that's good for you as well as good to eat.'
'That's because no one has ever brought me a Koala to eat. That's what I like best.'
'How can you know you'll like it if you've never tasted it?'
'How do you know there's an island far away over the sea if you've never seen it?' the boy asked cheekily.
'Because I know it's there. It is part ofwhat men who lived and died before I was born have said,,' the old man replied
'I expect they liked Koala meat too,' the boy said. 'My sister's husband caught one this morning. There it is, beside that tree.'
The old man picked up the animal and threw it at the youngster, knocking him over. Picking himself up, he snatched the body of the Koala and ran with it to the beach. Taking a flint knife from the skin girdle he wore, he slit the belly and drew out its intestines. Putting the end in his mouth, he blew into them until they swelled into a long tube that reached the sky. He kept on blowing. The tube bent over in a majestic arch, its end far out of sight beyond the curve of the ocean.
'What are you doing?' the old man asked. 'If you really want to taste the flesh of the Koala, take it to your mother and she will cook it for you.'
'No, no,' exclaimed the boy's brother-in-law. 'Look what he's done. He's made a bridge to the island beyond the sea. Now we can cross it and find where the boomerang has landed. It's sure to be a better place than the one we're living in now.'
He put his foot on the bridge of intestines and began to climb the arch. Next came the boy, followed by his mother's uncle, his father and mother, and aunts and brothers and sisters. Seeing that everyone was crowding on to the bridge of intestines, the old man followed too.
The crossing took many days, days without food and in the burning heat of the sun, but eventually they came to an end of climbing. They slid down the far end of the arch and found themselves on the far away island. It was a good place. The grass was greener than in their own land, shaded by gum trees, with cooler, clearer water than they had ever seen or tasted. And no wonder, for this land to which they had come was the east coast of Australia.
When all the tribe's people were there they let the arched bridge float away. The sun shone on it, turning it to many gleaming colours which formed the first rainbow arch that had ever been seen by men. As they watched the brilliant colours, the rainbow slowly disappeared. The boy was turned into a Koala and his brother-in-law to a Native Cat. Although the other tribesmen remained unchanged, they split up into a number of groups, each with its own totem, and departed to various parts ofthe island continent. And so it was, said another old man, many generations later, that the first Aboriginals to come from another island became the progenitors ofthe various tribes which occupied the new land.3
The Dreamtime stories of several Aboriginal tribes include various accounts of how the koala lost its tail. In one story two of the first animals to be made in the early Dreamtime were the Koala and the Kangaroo. They started out as friends, but the Koala's laziness and greed resulted in the Kangaroo cutting off his tail. At the time of the story, the land was suffering under a great drought.
'I shall die of thirst,' Koala said to his friend Kangaroo.
'I know,' replied Kangaroo. 'I am bigger than you, and need more water. What shall we do?'
'There's nothing we can do except sit in the shade of the trees and wait till death comes. The sky has forgotten to rain, and there is no water left.'
'That is not a proper way to meet death,' Kangaroo reproved him. 'We are warriors. We should be ashamed to sit down and weep like women. Anyway, there is not enough water left in my body to cry with,'he added. 'Listen, Koala. Far away, by the distant hills, there used to be a river. If we went there we might find a water hole in the bed of the river.'
'Come on then,'Koala replied wearily, but his spirits rose a little at his friend's words of hope.
They plodded across the plain together. The sun beat down on them, making their fur stiff and uncomfortable. Behind them two sets of footprints stretched farther and farther into infinity. Sometimes they passed pathetic little bundles of fur and bones, which were all that was left of the bodies of other animals and birds. Their tongues were dry and swollen, and when they panted for breath the hot air seared their lungs.
At night they lay exhausted on the hot sand, and woke in the morning feeling cold and stiff until the sun rose to warm them again. Early in the afternoon they dragged themselves to the bank ofthe river. Their fur was full of dust and brittle stalks ofdriedgrass. Wherever they looked the earth was bare
'Where are the water holes you talked about?' Koala
'I didn't say there were any water holes. If you had listened you would know that I said that there might be some water here. Obviously there is none. But cheer up. I remember something my mother told me many years ago that saved her life in time of drought. Sometimes, if only you can find the right place, you can dig a deep hole and water will seep down and fill it. Let's try.'
'You begin,' Koala said. 'I'm too tired, but I'll help you later.' He curled up and went to sleep, while Kangaroo searched until he found a place where there might be some water, and began to dig with his strong claws. He threw earth and sand up in a big circle and gradually sank from sight into the hole he was digging.
After a long time he climbed out and shook Koala till he woke.
'Did you find any water, Kangaroo?'
'Not yet. In fact the soil isn't even damp, but I'm sure we'll get some if we keep on digging.'
'I'm not ready yet, Kangaroo. Please leave me alone. The and baked dry, while the river bed was as uninviting as the plain they had crossed.
sun has burnt all the life out of me. I feel sick. I think I'm going to die.'
Kangaroo looked down at his friend. Koala looked so small and miserable that he felt sorry for him. Without another word he went back to the hole, and soon handfuls of dirt flew out as he resumed his digging.
His heart gave a jump as he felt damp earth under his paws. He dugfaster, and then went and sat on the pile ofearth that he had excavated. The afternoon light was beginning to fade, but he could see a faint gleam at the bottom of the hole. The evening breeze sprang up and the water shivered
Koala was pretending to be asleep. Kangaroo bent over him and whispered, 'I have found water! Wait here and I will bring you some.'
Koala sprang to his feet, knocked against Kangaroo and sent him sprawling on the ground as he rushed to the hole and disappeared from sight.
Kangaroo limped across the river bed and peered down at the water hole. Koala was at the bottom greedily lapping water without a thought for his companion who had done all the work. At last he realised how selfish his little friend had been. Koala had left him to do all the hard work, and when success had come, he had thought only of himself. A surge of anger made his fur stand on end.
He took his stone knife and climbed silently down into the hole. Koala's tail stretched out behind, quivering in ecstasy as the cool water ran down his throat. The sight goaded Kangaroo into action. Raising the knife, he brought it down with all his strength, severing it almost to the root.
Koala jumped high in the air with a blood-curdling screech, turned around, and saw his friend brandishing the knife in one hand and holding his tail in the other. He scrambled to his feet, scurried out of the hole, and was lost to sight in the gathering darkness. Kangaroo buried his head in the water and drank life-giving draughts of cold, sparkling water. Then he threw back his head and laughed and laughed at the thought of Koala running about without a tail.
But Koala does not think it funny to go through life without a tail!4
Alexander Reed recorded a Dreamtime story in which the koala loses his tail at the hands of the lyrebird.
During a drought the animals noted that Koala never seemed to suffer from thirst. Suspecting that he had concealed a supply of water for his own use and was unwilling to share it with others, they searched high and low. Various birds and animals maintained a watch on his movements day and night, but without success until Lyre-bird saw him
'How the Koala lost its tail' by Wingla Dada. Top left: The Koala (with a tail) and the Kangaroo searchingfor water under the sun's hot rays. Middle left: The bones of animals that did not survive the journey looking for water. Middle: The five water holes along the riverbed, which were dry, together with the large hole that the Kangaroo dug to find water. Top centre: The Kangaroo's footprints. Bottom centre: The Koala's footprints. Bottom right: The Kangaroo with his stone knife, about to cut off the Koala's tail. Top right: The Koala who now lives without his tail and hides in the trees. (Reproduced with permission from Authentic Aboriginal Art)
scrabbling up a tree and hanging head downwards from one of the branches. In those far-off days Koala was equipped with a tail which proved useful in climbing and allowed him to perform gymnastic feats that his descendants are no longer able to imitate. Curious to know why the little animal had adopted such a curious posture, Lyre-bird crept close. It did not surprise him to find that Koala was sipping water that had collected in the fork of a tree.
It occurred to him that the tree might be hollow and filled with water. As he was unable to reach the branch where Koala was hanging and had no axe with which to fell the tree, he scuttled back to camp and brought a firestick, with which to set the tree alight. The result was spectacular. The trunk burst into little pieces, releasing the water in a miniature torrent. Birds and animals plunged into the water that collected at the foot of the tree and, for the first time in many days, slaked their thirst.
The events of that day left their mark on Lyre-bird and Koala. If one looks closely at the tail feathers of a lyre-bird, it will be seen that there are brown marks on the outer edges where the feathers were scorched by the flaming firestick.
The result of the conflagration had a far more serious effect on Koala. As the flames shot upwards his tail was consumed. He saved himselfby scrambling into the branches of an adjacent tree, but ever after he had to learn to live without a tail.5
One of the functions of Dreamtime stories is to convey moral messages by describing how an individual should behave towards other members of the tribe. One story tells of a greedy boy who stole his tribe's water and ran up a tree where he became the lonely koala. Some stories compared the greedy koala with those who wanted to own something personally, rather than in common with the rest of the tribe. Others held the koala responsible for droughts. Some tribes from southeastern Australia believed that if a dead koala's body was not treated properly, its spirit would cause the rivers to dry up, and everyone would die of thirst.
An orphaned koala-boy, Koobor, was constantly ill-treated and neglected by his relatives. Although he had learnt to live on the foliage of the gum-trees, he was never given sufficient water to quench his thirst.
One morning, when his relatives set out to gather food, they forgot to hide their water-buckets, so that for once in his life Koobor had enough to drink. But, realising that unless he stored some water for himself he would soon be thirsty again, the boy, collecting all the buckets, hung them on a low sapling. Then, climbing into the branches, he chanted a special song that caused the tree to grow so rapidly that it was soon the tallest in the forest.
When the people returned in the evening, tired and thirsty, they were indignant to see the water-buckets hanging at the top of a very high tree, with Koobor sitting in the midst of them. The men demanded that Koobor should return the stolen water, but he replied that, as he now had all the water, it was their turn to go thirsty. After a number of attempts had been made to climb the tree, two clever medicine-men succeeded, and, harshly beating him, threw the little thief to the ground.
As the people watched, they saw the shattered body of Koobor change into a koala,, climb into a nearby tree, and sit in the top branches, where today he does not need water to keep him alive. Koobor then made a law that, though the Aborigines may kill him for food, they must not remove his skin or break his bones until he is cooked. Should anyone disobey, the spirit of the dead Koobor will cause such a severe drought that everyone except the koalas will die of thirst.6
The fact that the koala only rarely drinks is reflected in its common name, which is thought to mean 'No drink' in several eastern Australian Aboriginal languages. Other Aboriginal names for the koala are koolewong, colo, coloo, coola, colah, koobor, koolah, koalo, and kaola.
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'Koobor the Drought-Maker' by Ainslie Roberts. (Taken from Roberts & Mountford (1965))
A well-known creature of the Dreamtime is the Bunyip, whose name comes from the indigenous Wergaia language of western Victoria.7 The Bunyip was said to haunt swamps, billabongs, creeks, riverbeds and waterholes and, according to at least one legend, has the head of a calf and the body of a seal. Most stories tell of the Bunyip's ferocity, and the loud, booming roars that can be heard at night as it devours anyone, especially female, who ventures near its lair. The Bunyip was also said to bring disease. European settlers searched for it in vain, and its legend continues to thrill children with delight or fear.
Who could ever imagine that the little native bear would ever have made friends with the cold, repellent monster of the swamps which the Aborigine calls the Bunyip? But look closer and you will see strange markings in its fur. See how tightly its baby clings to its back. You may think that these things add to its quaintness, and show its lovable nature, but that is because you do not know how a single Koala once endangered a whole tribe.
The little bear lived on the top of a mountain. Every night she came down to drink, and there she met the Bunyip who lived in the deepest, dreariest part of the swamp. Koala was not afraid of Bunyip. She was a cheerful little fellow.
'Hullo,' she said when she first saw the Bunyip. 'I thought you were part ofthe mountain, but when you moved I knew that you must be a creature like myself. What are you doing here?'
Bunyip did not answer Koala's question, but asked, 'Where do you come from, little Bear? I have never seen you before.'
'I come down from my home every night to drink water. Would you like to come and see where I live?'
'Anything for a change from this awful swamp,' Bunyip said in a hollow voice, and he followed Koala up the steep mountain side. Trees snapped under his heavy tread, and large boulders crashed through the scrub. He sank down exhausted while Koala danced round him excitedly.
'It is the first time that a Koala has ever been visited by a Bunyip,' she said. 'We must celebrate the occasion,' and she offered him delicacies from her food store. They disappeared quickly into Bunyip's capacious maw. His mouth split open in a cavernous grin, and the two animals talked together until the eastern sky paled As the sun rose Bunyip lumbered down the mountain side and hid in the swamp.
It became a nightly occurrence, and the strangely assorted pair became firm friends. The other Koalas were uneasy and remonstrated with the Koala who lived on the mountain top.
'It is not right to be friendly with a horrible Bunyip,' they said.
'Why not?' Mountain-top Koala asked truculently.
'We'll tell you why. We are all friends of Man, but Man is afraid of Bunyip. If he finds that one of us is fraternising with him he will hate us instead of loving us.'
'Why do we want Man to love us? I don't care whether he loves me or whether he hates me.'
'But we do! Man hunts Wallabies, and Kangaroos, and Wombats, and Lizards, and eats them, but he loves Koalas. If he hated us he would want to eat us too.'
'You'd better be careful, then,'Mountain-top Koala laughed, and raced away to meet her friend Bunyip.
The other bears continued their discussion.
'We will have to do something to bring her to her senses before it is too late,' they said. 'Let us see if we can learn anything from Man himself.'
They crept away and climbed quietly into the branches of the trees round the camp site of Man. It was evening, and they could not be seen among the leaves, but they kept their eyes nearly closed so that they would not gleam in the firelight.
Soon the medicine man came into the circle of Men who were squatting on their haunches. He was painted with stripes ofwhite and yellow clay to which tufts of cotton were clinging. He danced round the circle, waving his spear and using words that the Koalas could not understand.
'The magic is in the markings on his body,' one of them said. 'You must help me to put clay on my body in the same patterns, and then the Spirit of Man will come to our aid.'
Before dusk the strangely marked Bear went up the mountain and found a little Koala waiting for its mother to return with Bunyip. Painted Koala picked it up and held it in his arms until a rumbling sound told him that the mother was coming home with her Bunyip friend. As soon as she appeared he put the baby firmly on her back and whispered in its ear, 'Hang on tight. Never let go.'
The magic in the taboo markings was so effective that the baby hung tightly to its mother. Every effort she made to dislodge it failed. Bunyip grew tired of waiting while Mountain-top Koala tried to get rid of her offspring. He had been hoping for a good meal and pleasant, dreamy conversation. After a while he got to his feet and went back to the swamp in disgust.
'I am doing this for your own good as well as for the benefit of all our people,' he said. 'You will not easily get rid of your baby. To show how important this lesson really is, the marks that have been painted on me will always remain on the faces of our people, and on the fur of their heads.'
He turned and ran back to his people and, as he had said, Mountain-top Koala could not get rid of her baby, nor could she wash out the strange coloured marks that had appeared while Painted Koala had been speaking. They are a reminder to every generation of Koalas that, if they value their lives, they must not associate with Bunyips.8
Some stories depict the koala in a more positive light. The Bidgara people of the Carnarvon Gorge in central Queensland considered the koala to be a wise counsellor, from whom they sought advice on many matters. The Bidgara people called the koala Didane and said that he was responsible for transforming their tribal lands from barren desert to lush, green forest.
Back in the Dreamtime, the rugged Carnarvon area was a very hot, dry place. There were no trees or bushes, and no grass.
When the first people arrived the country seemed new and strange, with narrow gorges and the towering sandstone cliffs of Boodyadella, the main dividing range. The people came to love these craggy ranges, but were sad that no trees or grass grew.
Some animals were already living in the ranges— Ngaargoo the grey kangaroo, Waarunn the wallaby and Didane the koala. They, too, were sad about the dry treeless land.
The tribal elders met to discuss the problem. They wanted to bring trees and plants to this beautiful country. But how? One wise elder suggested they try to get seeds from the trees growing in the sky. Perhaps a strong boomerang thrower could hit the trees and knock down the seeds.
The warriors of the tribe were called together, and the elders told them oftheir plan. All the warriors wanted to help. Each thought he would be the one to knock down the seeds.
The whole tribe gathered round. One by one, the warriors moved to the centre of the group and threw their boomerangs as hard as they could.
As the people watched in silence, the boomerangs swirled upwards into the sky, but then fell back to earth.
After the last boomerang fell, the worried elders sat down again and talked about the problem. One wise old man with a white beard suggested they ask Didane the koala for help. With his broad chest and powerful arms the koala must be a good boomerang thrower.
Didane agreed to try. His friends Ngaargoo and Waarunn came with him to the place where the tribe had gathered. Didane brought his largest war boomerang. Silence fell on the group as he prepared to throw it.
With a tremendous swing Didane hurled his huge boomerang up into the sky. Its swishing sound faded away as it passed through the clouds and out of sight. All eyes were fixed on the sky as they waited for the boomerang to return.
They waited a long time. The boomerang seemed lost forever. Some of the women began to weep. They knew that if Didane's powerful boomerang could not reach the trees, there would be no hope for their land
Suddenly a shower of seeds began to fall. Seeds of every kind, large and small, rained down on the hot, dry earth.
With shouts of joy the people began to dance around Didane. He was now a hero. Soon rain came, cooling the land and filling the rivers. The seeds knocked from the sky by Didane's boomerang began to grow in the fertile soil'.9
Victorian Aborigines also saw the koala as an animal of much wisdom and, as recorded by R. Brough Smyth in 1878, often sought his advice.
The Native Bear, Kur-bo-roo, is the sage counsellor of the Aborigines in all their difficulties. When bent on a dangerous expedition, the men will seek help from this clumsy creature, but in what way his opinions are made known is nowhere recorded. He is revered if not held sacred. The Aborigines may eat him, but they may not skin him as they skin the kangaroo and the opossum.10
Smyth vouched for this belief when he recalled that, sad to say, he wanted a koala to make a cap from the skin. One day when an Aboriginal had brought in a koala to the camp before the rest of the Aborigines had returned to the encampment, Smyth inquired about skinning it and recorded that:
'Didane the koala throwing a boomerang to another land' by J. Morrison.
(Taken from Walsh (1985))
'Didane the koala throwing a boomerang to another land' by J. Morrison.
(Taken from Walsh (1985))
He refused to skin it; but at length, by giving him presents, and showing him that no harm could come of the act, because all the sorcerers and all the blacks who could communicate with the sorcerers and other chief men were absent, he took off the skin and gave it to me. I took the skin to my tent, and meant to make it into a cap; but the young man became very restless. Remorse overtook him. He could not put the skin on again, not indeed had he wished to do so, would I have given it up. He said, 'Poor blacks lose 'em all water now,' and he became very much alarmed and exhibited such contrition and terror, that the old doctors came to enquire into the cause. He told all. Much excitement followed. I said that the blacks had nothing to fear. I laughed at their terrors; but at length I was obliged to give them the skin. The skin and the bear were buried in the same manner in which a black man is buried. Though the bear was actually roasting, his body was taken away and buried in the skin. This ceremony they believed would propitiate the bears, and avert the calamity of a loss of water.11
The popularity of the koala in the Dreamtime stories of the Aborigines is reflected in the rock carvings that remain. One such carving occurs in the Berowra Waters area, north of Sydney, which appears to show koalas with rounded bodies, pointed tailless bottoms, long legs and small heads, and may depict a female koala with its young. The fact that, comparatively speaking, only a few pictures have been found of what appear to be koalas may indicate either that they were
Aboriginal rock engraving possibly depicting koalas at Berowra Waters in Sydney. (Photo by John Clegg, taken from Phillips (1990))
not as important as other species or that they were not as common as other species.12
Despite regional or tribal variations, common elements of most Dreamtime stories that feature the koala are its solitary nature, and the fact that it lives high up in its eucalypt branches, not near the ground. Even so, it is strange that the first European settlers, usually so quick to note every strange and wonderful creature in Australia's uncharted land, make no mention of the koala until ten years after settlement. When they did come across the 'quaint' little animal, they were hard pushed to know what to make of it. Was it a bear, a monkey or a sloth?
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