There was but little of the habits of the indigenous fauna and avifauna of Australia that the aborigines did not well understand.
How many white people gave our native animals credit for the possession of the same senses and emotions as the human race has?
The blacks had a legend, or ascribed a reason, for all the little ways and tricks of birds and animals. Some of them, too, are very ingenious; some of them pure superstition.
Of the native bear they spoke little. Its humanlike cry awed them. It was "tabu."
They say that at one time the native bear and the fabled bunyip were close friends. Indeed, some averred that the bear is of the bunyip family. It always had the power of becoming invisible.
To prove this they tell of a black who essayed to catch a native bear that had its home in the fork of a big gum-tree somewhere near where the bridge spans the Wollondilly. In spite of the appeals and protestations of his people, he took his waddy and climbed the tree. He reached the bear, and just as he was about to club it the tree opened. The centre was rotted away, and into the hollow the man fell. His cries could be plainly heard outside, but no one dared to do anything to effect a rescue. He was left to slowly weaken and to go out in death.
Though this tale was told many times by the blacks, of course no white man credited it until somewhere in the seventies, when the tree was blown down. Then the bones of the aborigine were found in the trunk. There was no opening from the outside at the bottom of the tree. The bones were of great age.
The story says that the bunyip lived in the Wollondilly and a koala that lived near was on the best of terms with him. The koala's home was on the top of a mountain, and the bunyip made almost nightly excursions from the river at the foot, to sit with the koala and talk of ancient times. Many an aborigine had been almost seared to death by meeting the prowling bunyip.
When it was discovered that the horrible thing always travelled by the one path and frequented the top of the mountain ' no black would dare to be in the vicinity at night, and no one ever went to the mountain top. It was found that the meetings took place in the very early hours of the mornings, and it was thought for a long time that the bunyip did not leave his hiding place in the day time at all.
No other bear agreed with the friendship that existed between one of their race and a bunyip. The bunyip was hated, but the bears were loved for their gentleness, and their cry, plaintive as it is, reached hearts, and all koalas were safe. The flesh was never eaten.
Now bears argued that should the people find out about the strange friendship their security from molestation would be endangered. And they saw no chance of escape, for they could not travel fast enough. They remonstrated, but the erring bear took no notice. She heeded no warnings. She left her young one unattended while she philandered and meandered with the bunyip.
Then the bears took counsel. They had noticed the mystic markings on the sorcerer of the black men. They had-many of them-often watched the result of this peculiar painting with the clays. In watching they nearly closed their eyes. They pretended to be asleep, for they had seen that many blacks were not allowed to see the rites. The men allowed them to stay because they were "tabu."
All watchful animals, plainly wide awake, such as dingoes, native cats, the larger marsupials, snakes, etc., were all driven off; but the little koalas sitting in a fork, dozing, dozing, were supposed to see nothing.
And they were "tabu."
Yet all the time they were watching and they knew all about it. Therefore the bunyip's companion knew. Nearly all knew. One that was much larger than any other undertook to paint himself and get aid from the spirit that came to the call of the paint and the markings, and when the bear again went up the mountain leaving her young one unprotected the spirit that saw waited for her return. He caused the little one to spring upon the mother's back and to cling there night and day, so that the mother was not free to come and go and to fraternise with the bunyip as before.
The young one clung too tightly; it could not be shaken off.
The mother tried the pipeclay. She only brought the punishment to all the rest of her tribe. Therefore all young bears cling to their mother's back and she is so hampered that she never moves far from the spot where she was born.
And if you look closely into the face of a koala you may see the partially-closed eyes, and the peculiar parting of the hair on its face to correspond with the clay marks.