A Literary Tour of the Mallee

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).

Poems set in the Mallee generally, include: CA Sherard, Lost in the Mallee (1884), Nancy Cato, Mallee Farmer (1950), and Tractor Driver in the Mallee; by Cyril Goode (ADB).

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.

42 thoughts on “A Literary Tour of the Mallee

  1. I clicked on all of your links to see what these places and plant life look like, and I have to say I respect the red flowering gum. It’s a gorgeous plant, but it also looks like it means business, like it has set boundaries and demands you comply. Basically, it looks pretty but pokey!


  2. Floweing gums are a wonder to behold actually. I love them to bits – indeed that’s the pic in my little WordPress gravatar.

    Thanks so much for this Bill. I am going to commit it to memory! Seriously though I am wondering if we might head out to at least the eastern edge of this next week en route home to Canberra. Depends on the weather and how much time we think we can take. Love this little map so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never crossed the river at Barham which has an old narrow bridge with a lifting section for paddle steamers. Or, if the weather warms up I can recommend the swimming at Echuca.


      • Yes, I’m thinking we could go to Sea Lake, then Swan Hill and back to Echuca for this trip … but maybe that’s silly and I should wait until we can do more. We’ll see.


      • I don’t travel at tourist speeds, in fact I may never have gone on a driving holiday. I drove the family to Perth a couple of times but we weren’t hanging around to look at stuff. But I guess you could do all that in a day or so and sleep somewhere along the river – you might even be able to bnb a houseboat.


  3. Aah…this is the edge of my early teaching days in far south western NSW – Hay and Deniliquin – visits to Mildura (just down the road) Echuca (nearby to the NSW side terribly-run Mission of Cummeragunja – Episode 3 of “Women of the Sun” – Hyllus Maris/Margaret Tucker) and the famous 1939 walk off), Swan Hill – Quambatook, Chinkapook – Sea Lake – Yorta Yorta to Muthi Muthi country up along the Murray (NSW side at least) -and famous Indigenous footballers (Aussie Rules). And back in the early 1970s much of the frontier wars/massacres of that region yet to properly come to light… A road trip up along the Murray from Chiltern (“Lake View” also HH Richardson) to Wentworth back on the NSW side from Mildura – in 2012 – including the Botanic Gardens on the NSW side was a marvellous opportunity at every small town’s tourist information centre to uncover First Nations stories. The idea of a literary tour is really exciting. Recently a trip north to Lawrence on the Clarence (between Grafton and Maclean) threw up stories of Archie Roach’s father from that Bundjalung country district and connections to artist illustrator Bronwyn Bancroft. We stayed at an AirBnB – our host the journalist Marcus Cato – a kinsman of Nancy – of course. All The Rivers Run…


    • We were wondering at one stage whether HHR’s father was Mary Gaunt’s doctor. Now I don’t remember whether the dates line up.
      You obviously know the Indigenous situation better than I can work out from Perth, but I feel like, with these sort of posts, I have to say something.
      Anyway thanks for a comprehensive Comment.


    • I think we’ve talked about those places before Jim – my grandfather (whose middle name was Hay) was born in Hay, and my sister’s first teaching post (1976 I think) was Deniliquin.

      I love the idea of literary tours too (or course!)


  4. As the passengers make their way through the suburbs of Melbourne the tour guide could reference The Dig Tree, the late Sarah Murgatroyd’s brilliant novel about the Burke and Wills expedition…
    (If you think that nothing more could be written about B&W, you’d be wrong. If you haven’t read it, it’s available in Text Classics, I think.)


  5. I found these two fiction titles on the Prahran Mechanics Institute Catalogue to add to your list Bill plus there are many non-fiction titles listed on the PMI catalogue when I searched under Mallee. PMI is a wonderful source of Victorian history.

    The princess of the Mallee: a typical story of Australian life in the Mallee / by B. Cozens.
    A story of the Elphington family and their life in the Mallee country of Victoria during the 19th century. Whilst fictional it is a very good representation of life at that time in that place.

    The sun is up: memories of country school days / Cliff Green, illustrated by Geoff La Gerche
    Short stories set in the Mallee and along the Murray.
    For several years in the early 1960’s, Victorian teachers enjoyed reading in their monthly union journal a charming series of sketches about the adventures of one of their younger colleagues, working in tiny one-teacher schools in remote parts of the state.


    • Thanks for those suggestions, when I’m home next week I’ll look them up. The only gazette I remember dad reading in the 60s was the list of vacancies so he could once again move up a level by moving schools. He could recite the ranking of every teacher who might be ahead of him.


    • I remember well the Education Gazette with its promotion and vacancies lists. Green’s teaching sketches were published a few years ahead of my time – late 1960s – but I do remember Bill that your father was the primary school’s DI in inner Melbourne where I taught in the 1970s. Often tough assignments! I don’t recall that he “inspected” me during that time though.


  6. My whirlwind tour through the Mallee this time last year, in our attempt to be back in NSW before the State borders closed thanks to Covid, Mr Books and I both were enchanted by our quick taste of the region. We can highly recommend crossing the Murray River at Tooleybuc!

    Is Horsham considered part of the Mallee or is it too far south?

    I was also reminded of a book I read a few years ago that may or may not have been set in Hopetoun called The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you, Bill, I very much enjoyed this armchair tour. I’m very fond of that part of Victoria – many happy Easters at the Mildura rowing regatta, trips up to the Murray with family and friends; and lots of time spent there when I was working in river management for the (then) Department of Natural Resources. My most recent trip there was a few years ago – we stayed in the area for a couple of days before crossing the border for a few nights at Mungo National Park.

    In terms of the books you’ve referenced, don’t forget Carrie Tiffany’s debut, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living – it’s a novel about the Better Farming Train that travelled through the Mallee during the Depression (basically a moving field day!). Carrie’s writing about landscape is, as always, superb.


    • I remembered it, I just couldn’t think of its name. I didn’t know about rowing but I road crewed a couple of times when my daughter did the Murray Marathon (Double kayak/relay) lots of fun though the girls were totally embarrassed by their fathers’budgie smugglers

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Also, I love Cato’s All the Rivers Run (admittedly I haven’t read it for decades but is one of those books I won’t reread, I’ll simply remember it as wonderful). Took the kids to Echuca a few years ago – made them ride the Emmylou and watch a bit of Sigrid Thornton in the miniseries 😀


  9. This is such a fun post. And I can appreciate all the work that must have gone into it!
    I don’t know anything about Australia (except that it’s on the other side of the world, it has good beaches for surfing, the Great Barrier Reef, marsupials, and lots of forest fires). I love learning about the different trees – whenever I hear “gum” tree I picture really rubbery looking trees, but really from a distance they just look like trees. Lol
    Do you have any favourite books from this list?


  10. I can relate to your mum’s frustration with hearing the land she grew up in being described in one way, whereas her personal experience of it was quite another. It’s such a gentle reminder of how small our worlds were when we were young, how little experience we had to compare things to, and how much work it requires of us to widen our horizons in an age which affords those opportunities just by clicking on a few links and doing some reading. Thanks for the peek into a new corner (to me) of the world and I’m sure you’ll continue to uncover more information about indigenous communities and homelands as you continue to “explore”.


    • The first time I was in Europe, Denmark in the late 80s, I caught a train up to ‘Elsinore’ (Helsinborg?) and I was disappointed at how familiar the countryside was from all the European movies I’d seen, which advantage Mum of course didn’t have (they didn’t even have electricity). I love mountains though, movies or not, they are still strange and beautiful.
      I wrote on Naomi’s blog that I was selecting a Canadian book on Audible from her reviews, and I will do the same from the Canadian Indigenous books you have named (on your site and Lisa’s). It’s not just political, the writing (and painting) brings a freshness to Eng.Lit and new perspectives.


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