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River monster keeps First Nations message alive

A popular South Australian icon on the River Murray has been connecting communities to Ngarrindjeri culture for 50 years through a story that encourages everyone to respect the river.
Published: 10 February 2022

Thousands of years ago, the Ngarrindjeri people of the Lower Murray told their children stories of a Mulyawonk – a half fish, half man creature that had been banished to live in the river forever.  

The Mulyawonk Dreaming in part says, in times long ago, there lived a greedy man who caught far more fish than he needed. The Elders were not happy with this selfish man who did not respect the Ngarrindjeri laws of fishing. Ngarrindjeri children were warned never to swim alone or take too many fish from the river, for if they did, the Mulyawonk would get them. 

The Ngarrindjeri message of caring for the river continues in South Australia today through Bertha the Bunyip (Mulyawonk), a scary mechanical tourist attraction on the bank of the River Murray in Murray Bridge.  

Bertha the Bunyip (Mulyawonk) in her river cave at Murray Bridge
Bertha the Bunyip (Mulyawonk) in her river cave at Murray Bridge celebrates 50 years. Source: Rural City of Murray Bridge.

Children today are learning the same lesson that was taught to Ngarrindjeri children while their parents relive childhood memories of the frightening monster roaring from a murky river cave.  

Bertha turned 50 in January this year and to celebrate, the Rural City of Murray Bridge hosted an anniversary event on the riverbank. People of all ages and cultures had a chance to share their Bunyip memories and learn the story of the Mulyawonk through Ngarrindjeri dance and music in honour of the past and local culture.  

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority considers strong, working relationships with Basin Traditional Owners to be a key priority across all areas of water management. First Nations people have a strong connection to water and Country, and a cultural obligation to care for it as their ancestors have done for generations. 

The MDBA actively involves First Nations people in water planning and management, including reporting on how First Nations’ values and uses are considered in the planning and delivery of water for the environment in the Murray–Darling Basin.  

First Nations Peoples’ share their river knowledge and experience through our regional community forums. These meetings allow members of the community to help improve how river water is managed by having a say on science and monitoring activities. 

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