Sue/Whispering Gums a year or so BC set me the task of devising a literary tour of the Mallee – the northwest corner of Victoria, a triangle bounded by the Murray River to the north and northeast, the South Australia border to the west and let’s say to the south the 36th parallel, so a line from a bit north of Route A8 to the Murray north of Echuca.
This country is all sand over limestone, rainfall around ten inches (250mm) per year, and of course mallee gums along all the roads and throughout the desert national parks which comprise probably half its area. In the towns and around farms the most common trees are sugar gums, peppercorns (introduced from South America, probably via California) and jacarandas (ditto) and along the river, river red gums. Though I should probably include red flowering gums (from WA) which schools seemed fond of planting.
I am struggling to identify the region’s Indigenous people. It seems the Wergaia occupied the main part, with a number of other groups along the river, before they were forced onto Ebenezer Mission to the south and then, later to Lake Tyers way over in eastern Victoria. The Indigenous people along the river most likely retreated to the NSW side which was much less settled.
The arable country was broken up into square mile (640 acre) blocks in the 1890s and allocated to selectors on easy terms – as long as they established a home and began clearing and fencing they could repay the government over 40 years. Most farms were mixed sheep and wheat (though my grandmother’s family, the Coxes, had a Clydesdale horse stud at Culgoa). Mum was indignant to learn at school that the Mallee was flat when she could see that it had hills, albeit gently rolling sandhills which when stripped of cover move across paddocks engulfing fences and becoming the source of choking sandstorms.
The Mallee country along the Murray, known as Sunraysia, is heavily irrigated for citrus, stone fruits and grapes. As we all learnt at school, irrigation was begun in 1887 by the Chaffey brothers. There is no other fresh water except bore water which was ok when we lived at Murrayville but was elsewhere mostly salty. During the Depression channels were built to carry water from reservoirs in the Grampians (a couple of hundred kilometres south). These were replaced by pipelines in 2010 which, as we are learning, greatly reduces water to the environment, though I’m pleased to hear Green Lake (one of a number of ‘Green Lakes’) near my grandfather’s old farm south of Sea Lake is once again being filled for recreation and to preserve the surrounding woodlands (mainly sheoaks from memory).
Sea Lake is named for Lake Tyrell, a large salt pan and one of a number throughout the Mallee, most notably Pink Lakes near Underbool, between Murrayville and Ouyen.
The tour for the Gums begins in Melbourne where they wave goodbye to younger Gums and head out through the western suburbs towards Bendigo. Bourke and Wills set off in this direction on 20 Aug. 1860, camping the first night at Moonee Ponds (about 10 kms out) so the flamboyantly incompetent Robert O’Hara Bourke could ride back into town to farewell (again) opera star Julia Matthews (Frank Clune, Dig, 1937), and maybe because a number of the wagons were bogged and/or broken down. The expedition with its 27 camels and six wagons passed a little east of Bendigo after 6 days and reached Swan Hill – where they camped at Booths & Holloway’s Station – on 6 Sept. (Alan Moorehead, Cooper’s Creek, 1963) And from there they headed north into eternal notoriety (and are much criticised for their incompetence in the first chapter of Such is Life).
There had been two earlier explorers through the Mallee. Major Mitchell in 1836 came down the lower reaches of the Murrumbidgee to its junction with the Murray (between Swan Hill and Mildura), down the Murray to the junction with the Darling (just west of Mildura) and then back up the Murray – where he attacked and killed a party of local Kureinji and Barkandji peoples at Mt Dispersion (so-named by him) on the NSW side of the river – to the Loddon, past Swan Hill, from whence he headed south. (Mitchell wrote his own account of these expeditions but there must be others).
In 1838 Joseph Hawdon drove a mob of cattle almost the entire length of the Murray River, on the Victorian side until Mildura, eventually delivering them in Adelaide (Joseph Hawdon, The Journal of a Journey from New South Wales to Adelaide, 1952).
Meanwhile, the Gums have probably stopped already to have coffee with Michelle Scott Tucker, author of Elizabeth Macarthur, who lives that way, not far out of town. In the distance they can see the looming shape of Mt Macedon, named by Major Mitchell on his way home, and just past it Hanging Rock (Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1967). Still not 100 kms out of Melbourne, we should mention Kyneton, home (for a while) of turn of the century authors Joseph Furphy and Tasma, and a little further on Malmsbury, the setting for Tasma’s Uncle Piper of Pipers Hill (1888). Closer to Bendigo, and off the highway a bit, are old gold mining towns Castlemaine (Mt Alexander in Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morrison, 1854) and Maldon, childhood home of Henry Handel Richardson. In Bendigo my cousin Kay gives the Gums a tour of the School of Mines’ famous domed library, then it’s back on the road and at last we’re in the Mallee.
From here I’m a bit lost, not as to where to go: Big Desert Wilderness Park (no glamping, sorry WG) , Pink Lakes, Lake Tyrell, the Murray River, Wycheproof where the steam trains once ran down the main street (which fascinated me as a boy); but what books I can reference.
My Auntie Win wrote an account of the early days of Berriwillock (south of Sea Lake): Winifred Nixon, While the Mallee Roots Blaze, 1965. My father’s books include another account of early settlement: Allan Keating, And then the Mallee Fringe, 1983. Fiction seems a bit light on. Two courtesy of Lisa/ANZLL are Bill Green’s Small Town Rising (1981) and Wearing Paper Dresses (2019) by Anne Brinsden. I gather Sophie Laguna’s The Choke is set on the river but further east. There must be stories set at Lake Boga, where Milly’s grandmother’s boyfriend worked on Catalinas during the War, or Mildura or somewhere. Help me out!
In 2019 I wrote a post about Sea Lake, which is when the idea of a literary tour came up, and there followed a quite extensive discussion. Sue put up Mallee Boys (2017) by Charlie Archbold, which seems to be yet another set on the river. Lisa put in the hard yards and “consulted Peter Pierce’s Oxford Literary Guide to Australia” for the following list:
Boort: (80 km west of Echuca) birthplace of poet, short-story writer and novelist Myra Morris, 1893
Chinkapook: (a tiny locality between Ouyen and Swan Hill) John Shaw Neilson’s family farmed here. Also mentioned in Douglas Stewart’s poem about the 1917 mice plague ‘The Mice of Chinkapook’
Hattah (between Mildura, Ouyen and the river): Ben Eggleton was a ranger in the national park and wrote such titles The Bull Ant Country (1980) and The Little People of the Kulkyne’(1983). Alan Marshall often visited [his The Aborigines’ Grave appears to be set there]. Mary Chandler wrote ‘Tribal Lands to National Park, 1980.
Murrabit (on the Murray, 50 km upstream of Swan Hill): Rolf Boldrewood had a sheep farm there from 1858 until forced to sell out in 1863. JJ Healy, Literature and the Aborigine in Australia (1978) makes the case that Boldrewood covers up the realities of squatter/Aboriginal confrontation in his fiction and dates this from his time in the Western District in the 1840s. But Boldrewood would also have had to deal with local Indigenous people at Murrabit.
Red Cliffs (40km south of Mildura): Site of the largest of the soldier settlement schemes after the Great War. Mary Chandler wrote its history in Against the Odds (1979). See also Marilyn Lake, The Limits of Hope (1987).
Sea Lake: John ShawNeilson and his father took up uncleared land north of Sea Lake in 1895 and saw ‘rabbits by the hundred thousand’, before moving after 5 years to 2400 acres at nearby Chinkapook (parish of Eureka).
I checked Nancy Cato’s All the Rivers Run (1958) and it’s set just outside our area, at Echuca, as are parts of Furphy’s Such is Life and Rigby’s Romance.
Picture credits: Map is a screenshot from Google Maps. Bendigo TAFE library by Kay Smith.