Australia is riddled with black panthers, jaguars and pumas. They are skittish and seldom seen. Deadly dangerous and fiercely secretive. Some claim they are a myth. But, if that were the case, how could so many people know so much about them? I visited Lancefield because it is a town that has added their own small dollop of bullshit onto a pile as high as nearby Mt Macedon. They have a black panther and I wanted to see it.
Lancefield is a small town. It has a short main street with a handful of shops including bakeries, cafes, book stores and galleries. At the end of the street is a disproportionally large and very grand hotel. A common fixture of towns of or near the goldfields.
As far as small out of the way country towns go it seems better than most. There are also some important ties to history, Wikipedia tells me, but, ultimately it is like a lot of other places.
What makes Lancefield different and why I’ve visited, will visit again, will even take unwitting overseas or city friends for trip to get a neenish tart is because Lancefield has a black panther sculpture. The sun is already beginning to take its toll upon it and the lustre of black is quickly fading to grey. The sculpture isn’t necessarily worth the visit, it’s not very big and it’s not very impressive. There is a similarly not quite impressive story behind it. As the Midland Express writes, the sculpture mysteriously appeared overnight one weekend back in 2015.
No one knows who made it or how it was delivered.
Except the same article does go on to quote the mysterious creator. He or she details how they had three people help and a forklift to install the piece. In a town with a population of less than 2500 it seems likely the mystery is a little bit of a conceit. But, be that as it may, the sculpture exists. It was supposedly installed without the sanction of the council. In this area that is enough of an accomplishment. Plus, that there is any level of mystery even it seems a little forced is truly in the spirit of the Australian black panther.
Every year there is a big cat sighting in different parts of Victoria or different parts of Australia. There has been photos and video footage, but they are not considered definitive proof. Naysayers are quick to discredit witnesses. Claiming they are drunk, that the footage of black beasts only shows overgrown feral domestic cats.
I remember hearing stories of large cats ever since I was a child. Variously described as panthers, jaguars, pumas or leopards the popular theory in my town was they were the mascots of, and had escaped from, American military training bases during WW2.
This ABC article posits the theories of other districts and eras. That the large cats escaped from zoos or could have been brought back as souvenirs with troopships returning from Africa. The article is surprisingly reasonable about the existence of the large cats though also points out that the appeal of the rumour is that it allows us to imbue the landscape with a sense of mystery.
It’s not just the cats that are the mystery though but the origins of the stories. In my story of escaped military mascots, I questioned why the American army would allow their soldiers to have such dangerous mascots. I took for granted that there were mascots, and that there were enough American military bases to sustain a breeding based of escaped Pumas. I’ve since never been able to confirm the existence of such bases or mascots (although perhaps that’s because covered it all up – seriously though).
I think it’s the stories of the large cats are the most enthralling part. Because they have been passed on so effectively for so long, decades, without the help of internet or television. The stories have different local flavours and are imbued with embellishments to suit different districts. In the mountains the cats are shadows which retreat to the peaks at night, leaving little but the occasional paw print behind them. The large cats of farming districts are responsible for the mysterious mutilations of livestock.
The Macedon ranges are an area which trades heavily upon the invented mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock. It is also a place which is increasingly at war with itself on whether to allow or prohibit development as people move into the area from Melbourne.
Whether it came mysteriously or not. Whether it was sanctioned beforehand or retrospectively by a council often paralysed by the paradoxical needs of its constituents, the black panther of Lancefield is great for its homage to drunken sightings and fear of the bush. The chance that we don’t really know what roams the vast countryside and deserts. That there still might be mysteries hidden in folklore.