[Eugene Von Guerard, 1862: ‘Mt Abrupt and Mt Sturgeon’]
The Grampians are the southern end of the Great Divide which runs for more than 3000 kilometres down the east coast of Australia, separating the fertile coast line from the more challenging interior. In contrast to the massive shield in Western Australia where the earliest evidence of life on earth dated from 3.5 billion years ago can be found in Pilbara rock , the mountains of the Great Divide are fresh young things, and the Grampians younger again.
Unlike most of the rest of the Divide the dominant landform in the Grampians is the cuesta, a long slope with a sharp scarp, the result of folding and faulting. Except for a couple of granite outcrops in the Victoria Valley the Grampians are all sandstone, in geological time not long from the sea bed. [The pic? I’m on the peak of the highest mountain in the Von Guerard looking north. The hump on the horizon to the right is Mt William/Duwil.]
Growing up first to their south in Hamilton and later to the north in Horsham, I was a familiar. Picnicking and walking in the Grampians was a staple of domestic entertainment, just as it was for Myrna who grew up in Horsham. Sunday afternoon? Mt Zero and Flat Rock.
I have always been struck by the way they spring out of the surrounding plane, without topographical warning. There are few foothills, so there can be sublime ‘whole’ views like the one west from Carroll’s cutting just out of Ararat on the way to Moyston, north across the paddocks from Glenthompson, south from the Laharum turnoff or in any direction from the Glenelg Highway.
[The Glenthompson view. Von Guerard again, same time but really ‘Grampians viewed from Mt Rouse’]
From above (in the dry, this area can be greener than this) they are shaped, broadly, like a saucer with two tails. A large cutlet of fish perhaps. The fin at the apex is shaped like a nose (in Jardwajali, ‘gar’, see Peter Bellingham’s fabulous pic) and is capped by Brigg’s Bluff from the top of which eternity appears just beyond the horizon.Lake Wartook, dammed in 1886 but probably a very long standing body of water, is in the middle of the saucer (‘syncline’ to its intimates). To the north are the chocolate soils of the Wimmera plains and to the south the volcanic soil pastures of the Western District.
Less than 100 k.s from north to south and not much more than 50 east to west (ignoring the Black Range, a small outlier further west), they have always struck me as fragile and small. Since I walked from Dadswell’s Bridge to Mt William as a callow youth of 14, the development of roads, tracks and other infrastructure has made them a lot smaller. Some of the Victoria Range might be considered isolated but when I hear of people getting lost in the Grampians (as they do from time to time, very occasionally fatally) I am puzzled.
They were named ‘Grampians’ by Major Thomas Mitchell, leader of the first group of Europeans to visit the area. He thought they looked like the Grampians in his native Scotland. Hard to know what he was thinking really, although it had been very cold and wet. The bullock drays carrying the expedition’s baggage were being pulled through the soil almost axle deep just here and they were only making a few miles a day. When he and his party climbed Mt William (or Duwil, the range’s highest peak at 1167m.) on July 14 1836 they were completely fogged in. The view next morning on a clear day must have been a revelation.
In the early 1980s there was a move to rename the ranges and their features (and in this heavily weathered sandstone country there are many more features than you can poke a stick at) with their original Koori names. [‘Koori’ = Indigenous Australian term used in Victoria for ‘people’; ‘Jardwajali’ one of the many local tribes or groups.]
Instead of ‘Grampians’ for example, ‘Gariwerd’, a rendering of the Jardwadjali generic term for ‘mountain’, and Gar (‘nose’) instead of Mt Difficult, Wudjub-Guyun instead of Hollow Mountain, and Djibilara rather than Asses Ears, Galbidj rather than Birge’s Nose. I was interested to discover that the ‘Billy wing’ of my childhood was actually ‘Billawin’, and the ‘Cherrypool’ where I’d spent time looking for the cherries was actually ‘Djarabul’. For several months the letters pages of the ‘Wimmera Mail Times’ shimmered with choler and bile. This clunky state government initiative produced a reaction from the locals which set the cause of Indigenous recognition and reconciliation here back years.
Indigenous people lived in the Grampians for more than 20,000 years before the first whitefellas appeared — Jardwadjali to the west and north and Djab wurrung to the south and east. Billawin, a most unusual sometimes marshy area full of heath and head-high ti tree with an increasing number of lumpy and exotic rock formations as you close in on the Victoria Range, was an important ceremonial meeting place. This area, like much of the Grampians out of the tourist swarm, has a very particular and striking flavor. It resonates with something that is difficult to describe. It’s incredibly particulated but of a piece; it works; but it’s not you, or me anyway. Both fragile and resilient; scrubby but graceful; worn out but enduring; brimming with life a lot of which is crepuscular or nocturnal.
There are more Indigenous rock art sites in the Grampians than in all of the rest of south-eastern Australia combined, many of them near Billawin. These pics are from Buandik and Billimina shelters where the sandstone is polished and the art more than 10,000 years old.
Four years after the Major’s first visit almost all the land around the Grampians and beyond to the southern coast had been colonised by Europeans. Four years. So very fast. Eight years later around 3,200 members of the two Gariwerd tribes, about 70 per cent of the total, had died or been killed. There is no doubt about the scale of the deaths; the circumstances are foggier. Introduced infections (like colds) certainly killed many, but there are also stories about massacres one of which may have taken place on or near the site of the current Hall’s Gap football ground, and there are other equally repellant stories about the activities of the ancestors of some of our erstwhile neighbours.
Further to issues of naming, here’s proof, of a type, from a Government of Victoria Department of Survey and Mapping map (Northern Grampians, 1994) that our property did exist. The area is called Wartook. When we were round there were nine (9) little black squares: four at ‘Rosebrook’ home of Peter Carter’s family, three at ‘Rain Acres’, Bernie Caelli’s holiday property, and two at ‘Girin Flat’. No others. No knives and forks, no petrol bowsers, no (public) beds. Our property was bounded by the road, the creek and the two black lines. ‘Joan’s paddock’ is the area containing the ‘200’ contour line mark.
Proof also that we have contributed to the named features of Victoria. ‘Girin’ is the Jardwadjali word for sulphur-crested white cockatoo. It seemed appropriate. Every evening hundreds of them would gather in our trees and chatter — hawaack waak waak hhhaaawaak qwaaaack waak waak poi poi poi WAAACK waak waak waak — until sundown after which you might hear a lonely cry from stragglers flying home.
The birds were and are a spectacular feature of life in the Grampians. The variety of environments, the plentiful flora and insects and the mild climate mean they are there in profusion. Geoffrey ‘The Twitcher’ Ainsworth began this list. Think of it as a poem.
Blue wrens, crimson rosellas, eastern rosellas, grey thrush, emus, eastern shrike-tit, southern yellow robins, willy wagtails, yellow-tufted honey-eaters, yellow-winged honeyeaters, wedge-tailed eagles, white-browed babblers, sulphur-crested cockatoos, Major Mitchell cockatoos, southern magpies, chestnut shelducks, kookaburras, brown and grey tree creepers, brown flycatchers, orange-winged sitellas, pied currawongs, long-billed corellas, lorikeets, crested and bronzewing pigeons, rufous whistlers, welcome swallows, crows, spotted and striated pardalotes, yellow-tailed thornbills, galahs, kestrels, whistling kites, screech owls, southern lapwings (I say spur-winged plover), gang gang cockatoos, yellow-tailed black cockatoos, noisy miners, magpie geese, bronzewing pigeons, white-faced herons, ibis, pipits, flame robins.
And dozens more. More than 240 species of bird have been identified in the Grampians and I suspect we would have seen at least a third of them on our land.
The Grampians are also alive with animals. There are more species of kangaroo living here than anywhere else in Victoria and they’re not difficult to find. This is one place in Australia where the tourist dream of kangaroos loping up the main street is realised. They particularly enjoy grazing on pasture, or lawn for that matter if it is available, and that was one reason why groups of hundreds of roos were common in Joan’s paddock. When the trees in our orchard started to grow kangas also proved to be partial to young fruit tree growth.
And flowers. Flowers are one of the reason why the Grampians are overrun by tourists in spring. Unexpectedly prolific, diverse, florid, sometimes tiny like the orchid on the right, but gorgeous among the standard khaki, grey and dusty greens.
One other thing you might note about the map and the location of Girin Flat is the blue hatchings, the err … ‘subject to inundation’ information. We didn’t look at this or any other map when we tried to buy it. We got things under way in early summer, signed up (after a fashion) in mid summer, and anyway knew the western side of the Grampians is far drier than the eastern side. It has a Wimmera climate: hot summer, beautiful winter with freezing clear mornings warming up to 25 or so, shirtsleeves if not shorts. It rains from time to time but not very often and not very much.
Except when we moved there.
In July 1974 the rain began and it kept raining. Four inches (100mm) in three days, then six inches over a week, then it just rained continuously during August — the wettest month on record. I tried to plant fruit trees but the holes I dug would fill with water as soon as I sank the shovel in.
Quicksand has struck. There is sort of a crusty surface and very paddly sticky stuff underneath. Cam [a nephew, young at the time] got his foot and leg into a patch near the creek and went straight up to his groin which was rather exciting. And today when, as is my custom, I got bogged next to the shed, I was able to watch all four wheels slowly sinking into the dirt until the body was more or less resting on the ground. A job for P. Carter’s tractor that one.
Talcum powder, quicksand, bogs, washaways, puddles, frogs, lakes, swamp, marsh, floods, night noises, taddies, water birds, creeks. We’ve bought a creek, a wide one. By judicious and careful calculation one can conceive that this might be what happens every year about this time.
As the floods tore through our first garden, Myrna wrote:
Floods in the vege garden nearly broke my heart yesterday. It was so depressing. I came close to understanding how the farmers feel. It is a very different thing to be dependent on the weather. For the first time ever the Grampians seemed really quite hostile. … There were hundreds of kangaroos at Zumsteins busy grazing. The looked quite prehistoric with their enormous backbones extending out to the end of their tails and their tiny heads. I’ve never looked at them like that before. They seemed to belong to the rugged hardy trees and the prickly complicated mountains. The Grampians didn’t seem to be sympathetic to us at all. It made me see how nature can stop or destroy things so easily. …
That’s the way it is when you want to be in touch with living things. It isn’t all beautiful and fresh and invigorating. It is often trying and bewildering and hurtful and very very harsh. Living here isn’t going to be a lovely time in the country. It will be sometimes. … But we will have to keep reminding ourselves about all the animals and plants which have evolved tough strong durable systems before we ever arrived and started doing things. … We should respect what is here and not try to do too much.
The water finally receded in early November. The water table dropped about 90 cms. We moved the garden and the site for the house up onto a modest rise. The native grasses came up in profusion. Hundreds of emus populated Joan’s paddock. And, because it’s Australia — ‘a sunburnt country of droughts and flooding rains’ — the country browned off after six weeks to the point where we were watering hours a day.
[pic: not Billawin, but typical. Looking south to Sentinel Rock from Mt Rosea ridge]
The alien quality of much of the Australian physical environment to its European settlers is a commonplace if not a cliché. I thought about this when we were walking through the Ardeche in southern France a year or two ago: picturesque stone houses in a rolling green countryside that seemed to be the very embodiment of fecundity, an ecology apparently in fine balance, a landscape so palatable I could just loll around in it permanently without thought. But is this some atavistic memory, some throwback, some chocolate box archetype of how things are supposed to be? Myrna has always been more fond of the Grampians than I have. I like them very much. She might say they were part of her identity: I wouldn’t. I can remember times, just as she describes above, when I’ve been shaken by them.
If we’d been doing this at Molyullah, a softer and more settled landscape, it would have been different. Girin Flat wasn’t virgin country; it had been logged by sleeper cutters and there were remnants of a camp half way over to the creek. But it wasn’t that far off. At Molyullah we would have been starting with cleared land (surrounded by national reserve), we would have had sheds, a garage, sewerage, a phone, water and power. At Girin Flat we had none of those things, which was partly the point. (Or was it? I don’t remember thinking about it much).
We spent endless hours trying to clear the bracken from around the house, and from the orchard and the garden. Bracken grows from extremely hardy rhizomes (underground rooting systems) which are very hard to remove. We didn’t want to poison them so we had a permanently available job cutting bracken. And look here at the first thing coming back after the fire.
There is no shelter in the bush. I knew that, and that was one reason why we valued the shed so much. It had a roof. But there wasn’t anywhere to put building materials or other stuff which might become rain-affected. We established a sewerage system after a while which worked very well, except for some reason we needed twice the length of runoff piping than was standard. I doubt whether runoff would have got much past the first few metres.
We used tank water to drink (after we had a roof to collect it). To wash and to water the garden and orchard we pumped water to a header tank from the creek (Horsham’s water supply but 40 k.s cleaner). Our pump was much better at blowing than sucking so we moved it over to the creek 500m. from the house which meant that you had to go (usually walk) over there to start and stop it. This was not always convenient.
This morning I was running late. I tear into the bathroom, tramp round the ice-encrusted tiles, leap in the shower and turn on the tap. Nothing. Nada. Rien. Zilch. No drips. No noise. Nothing. Thinks: no water. Bloody hell blooody hell. The wife has emptied the tank with all her watering.
So without further ado I stick on boiler suit and slippers jump in the ute and drive heedlessly through native vegetation. (I did stay on the track.) Got there and had a real struggle trying to get the aluminium-flavoured ice block that was the trusty Honda 4-stroke to fire. As I casted through all the things that could have gone wrong, rusty water was coming out the drip line, always a bad sign.
Then, lo! Bonzo the idiot wonder dog appears at the side of the clearing with infuriating Jack Nicholson grin. Then even more lo!, glamorous wife appears in pyjamas on Space Ranger bicycle and tells me the whole pipe is frozen. I’ve been trying to drive a 50mm x 500m. icicle through the house. I will read this in few years and, no doubt, marvel at nature. But I was pissed off this morning. Minus 6 degrees.
And for most of the time we had no electricity. We used wood for heating, cooking and hot water and had efficient technology for each. Both our slow combustion stove and our hollow-backed open fire place were brilliant performers. You did of course need wood. I found a great pile of red gum sleeper offcuts somewhere up the creek and cut them up using Peter Carter’s docking saw. That lasted a couple of months. Wood goes fast.
Our fridge ran on gas. (See ‘In Memoriam #4’ for its exotic source.) It mostly worked okay. Entertainment came from a battery-powered cassette player which turned over a set of batteries a week. I tried to hook it up to a car battery, swapping them over, but never succeeded. For light we used a kero pressure lamp which as I have complained elsewhere hissed relentlessly and six or more Aladdin lamps (see pic. Ours weren’t just like that, but same principle.) which gave a lovely light but not enough to read by and their mantles were very fragile. And no phone. Never thought about phones then. Imagine.
When Jessie came along we bought a small generator, enough to drive the record player and one light to read by. (Not reflecting very well on me at this point.) But you had to start its motor and leave it running for anything to happen. The Pykes (see below) had a large, and quiet, diesel generator which was automatically activated by turning any switch on. That was too complicated for us.
Not having electricity wasn’t a matter of ideology. We were more than a kilometre from a pole and it would have cost as much as the land did, more than $6000, to get connected to the grid. And for a good while we seemed to be getting on all right. Except for the matter of actually buying the land.
It took forever. The stages: hope, wonderment, mystification, fury, disdain, fatalism.
It was a subdivision which made it more complicated. It needed to be surveyed for a start. Before it could be surveyed we had to cut a clear eye line about a kilometre through ti-tree which we did quite promptly.
31/2/74 First visit from Noel Ferguson the surveyor. Seems like a good bloke. We may be getting a little closer to fixing things up. It looks like the survey will be taking place before Easter.
25/5/74 Despite the fact that we’ve cut a clear line for more than half a mile Noel says he won’t be able to survey it for another month. Needs new equipment or something.
27/6/74 Today I had a rather cathartic visit to Bob Stewart of Power and Bennett, solicitors and vile bodies of Pynsent St Horsham. Nothing has happened. Nothing. He suggests, from behind his professional mask, worn threadbare from overuse, that it might be 6-8 months before we are able to finish buying the land. That’s just crazy. There is a whole collection of misunderstandings combined with the slowness (indolence, sloth, sluggardliness) of the surveyor. I hate this.
15/8/74 Ferguson is now in a position of even lower esteem. Joan has been in touch and he’s fobbed her off, told her he’d finished the job but he hasn’t been anywhere near the place.
2/9/74 It is certainly not a matter of being patient and having your expectations pleasantly fulfilled. The right date, the right time or, as a delightful surprise, a fraction earlier, a good job, that extra mile — NO WAY. It always seems to turn out crazily rushed at gunpoint, shoddy work, things missed or mucked up. Anyway after all this time Noel F, our poster boy, has finally confirmed we are going to buy 23 hectares of finest Grampians land.
Seven months. What a rat. And that was just the surveying.
In July, 1974 we became official holders of Crown Grazing Licence No. 302.130 with ‘the transfer from Joan Carter to yourselves duly endorsed thereon. Signed: E. Kennedy, Secretary for Lands.’ Five dollars per annum allowed us ‘to enter with cattle, sheep or other animals upon parklands to depasture same’. This was the slice of land between what we wanted to buy and the creek. But it didn’t allow us to build anything.
I spent a long time trying to talk Fred Heinz, the building inspector for the Shire of Arapiles, in long distance control of our area, into considering plans for a building under Joan’s signature.
12/9/74 I had a long talk to Fred Heinz yesterday when it was so wet and miserable it almost guaranteed that everybody would be home. Noel F. had at last, a pleasant surprise, got off his bum and done the prints for the survey map. So all the stuff is sitting at the Shire of Arapiles. Fred says that —
1) There is absolutely nothing to do before 100 days. Hi ho. Same old thing.
2) He will not look at the plans even under Joan’s name until the sub-division is approved.
3) He was all over the place about whether or not we would be able to build here! It might be ok … probably. And we won’t know that until we have bought the land and completed an Interim Development Order which may be subject to a number of conditions.
4) I was a land developer. I said I wasn’t. I was a teacher who wanted to live on the land. He eased off a bit after that was established.
In the end he did agree to look at a building submission signed by Joan. And finally, after a good deal of the house had been built —
9/8/75 Today we signed some dubious looking papers that apparently indicate that sometime in the future the bank will buy the land from Joan and that we owe them $6310.50 for that particular privilege. This has occurred an offensively long time since this game began. I’m past caring.
Nearly two years in fact. That was as hard to manage as anything. Not least because Fred was based in Natimuk an hour’s drive away, so regular contact was difficult and in his mind pointless. There was no basis to have contact with the Councillors of the Shire (we weren’t rate payers till we owned the land) and Fred ruled with an iron fist anyway. Short, very blond, cropped hair (can I say Germanic? I think I will), he was exceptionally keen on the letter of the law. But his Wartook confidants were also the dark side of the Carter family.
We were the first of the new settlers (which 20 years later multiplied egregiously as the Carter boys found there was very comfortable money to be made from land sub-division). There were three families besides us. Ron and Gwyneth Taylor, a few k.s away, had come from (‘been driven out of, by development’) Vermont, an outer suburb of Melbourne. He was a retired solicitor and Gwyn was a gifted naturalist (plants. native) and they were staunch ‘greenies’, I think the first formal versions of the genre that I encountered. Ron was an irascible crock, Gwyn a lovely person. Further round towards Zumsteins were the Raleighs, Royce and Zhan and their three young kids. He was a primary teacher working in Horsham too, but they wanted to quit and set up a native plant nursery which they eventually did. Then back towards Horsham and more remote than any of us on a glorious and large block, several hundred hectares with a great view, were the Pykes. Will was an ag scientist and good at a lot of practical things and Prue was a TAFE teacher before they began producing children.
Fred had made the Raleigh’s pull down their shed frame and insert new reinforcing plates on the slab. That helped our relationship.
But our immediate neighbours were Peter and Denise Carter and their young kids Bradney and Genene. Peter was Joan’s nephew. The only stipulation Joan asked of us when we started buying the land was to keep our gate shut so that, and I quote, Peter’s lice-infested sheep wouldn’t get into her paddock. He was thoroughly amiable, dreamy in a sort of orotund way, enjoyed a drink, was keen on the races and not so much on work. He had a well-rehearsed theory that good farms looked after themselves. His brother Don owned the land adjacent to the national park nearest to Zumsteins. He was another sort all together. I thought he was sharp, mean and hard and he quite evidently didn’t like us and our ilk.
The back to the earth literature is full of the presence of wise ancients who can advise you of the ways of the land and guide you through the thickets. They may have among their skills an ability to talk to the wind or to call emus at will. They know knots, how to baffle wasps and at their finger tips have 32 practical uses for (traditionally refined and organic) sump oil. Old Justiney or Black Beardy James. Joan and her man Jack Smith were a bit like that, but mainly we were embedded in quite a large colony of red neck arseholes (for whom of course we were fly-by-night drug-infested hippies).
Three things gave me a sharp fright when we were on the land.
One was the first and every subsequent time I heard a screech owl. You would swear that someone was being murdered. The second was the time a possum dropped on us when asleep in the shed. It didn’t like it; we didn’t like it. There was a ruckus. The third was again in the shed, again asleep, but home from school sick as a dog. The door was crashed open and the two Carter boys — men, how old? probably 40 — stood over me, demanding to know all sorts of extraneous things that were none of their business. Was I building on Crown land? Where did those bricks come from? Who gave me the right to … Were there drugs on the property? (I think they might have been drunk themselves.) I was physically shocked and utterly nonplussed. How and why that happened is still a mystery.
This event coloured our relationship somewhat which may already have been coloured by the Horvath affair, something to which there is no reference in the journals and about which I had completely forgotten till last week.
Here’s a note to self that is in the journals: A good thing to do after we own the land and have a building permit, would be to get Royce and Ron and the Pykes, all the people round here we could muster and people who don’t want shooters crawling over their properties. Could set up an organization devoted to conservation causes.
This admirable notion was pushed ahead because a Mr Horvath, who we never met, purchased some land on the other side of the creek up the hill in order to set up a theme park full of Disney characters. This, like most things, infuriated Ron who in short order sought an injunction to stop any such thing happening.
This is a classic land use issue of course. If we could do what we liked with our land, why couldn’t he? Whose values should prevail? What notion of amenity applies? Is there any role for the idea of ‘appropriateness’? Oooo land development, what a Sargasso Sea of untethered rights and cravings.
So, long story short, we hooked up with Ron; and the Carters (with, I would have to say, an eye on their own subdivisions) went with Horvath. I set up a public meeting in Horsham to try to establish a Grampians Conservation Society. It started nasty and got much worse. I think the whole Laharum Football Club — players, relatives, friends and acquaintances — led by Bruce Lamshed whose son I was teaching (as if that means something), turned up to yell and catcall. There were no fistfights because there was no one on our side. It was the most abject of disasters. I would have done better if I’d played footy for Laharum, but I was too busy building the house.
I could talk about the garden and the orchard and how we were trying to woo plants to grow in sand that had been scoured by the creek for centuries, maybe millennia. Great for mortar and foundations, useless for vegetables and fruit trees. How we used to spend days collecting manure for these enterprises: on one day alone 17 ute loads of aged sheep shit were dug from under Bernie Caelli’s historic shearing shed and carted off. And, despite all, how things did grow. We never had any fruit off the trees but they blossomed and some of the 40 or so thrived. Myrna’s garden was a major source of food.
One meal I noted: three fish from the creek, mushrooms from Joan’s paddock, broad beans, zucchini, brown rice and homemade bread. Yum. I don’t know where the fish came from. I’m not a fisherperson. But the garden did flourish, maybe hydroponically.
There’s so much more. But the subject is the house. Let’s return to the topic in hand. In Memoriam #4 and 5: How do you build house.
living on the land -wonderful piece, and flashes of H Lawson
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