As you drive across the Western Plains of Victoria towards the Grampians (called Gariwerd by the local Jardwadjali people) the jagged ranges seem to rise like some Jurassic monster bursting from the ground. For me, part of their allure is the extreme contrast between their inaccessible ramparts and the surrounding plains. These mountains seem to me to have an almost spiritual presence. They have kept a silent watch over the region for eons and seen dramatic changes — forests and oceans and deserts come and go with the shifting climate and, eventually, seen the arrival of the first humans seeking the shelter of their creeks and caves.
I’m scanning the far horizons of the Wimmera Plains and trying to imagine what that adventurously named explorer, Major Thomas Livingstone Mitchell, saw when on the 20th July 1836 he first described the vista from this peak he named Mount Zero (presumably because of the freezing cold night he had experienced on the highest summit, Mt William, just four days previously). I doubt that the overnight temperature will plummet to anywhere near zero tonight. Though, that said, the Grampians can cop some fierce weather and I have spent a couple of nervous evenings wondering if my campsite was sheltered enough as gale force winds, gusting up to 130 km/hour, blasted the highest peaks and roared down the slopes towards me.
The local Jardwadjali people’s name for the peak on which I am perched was Mura Mura (translated as ‘little hill’), a name Major Mitchell would probably have used if he had known, since he recorded Aboriginal names where he could. The Major certainly saw no groves of olive trees, farm buildings, paddocks or roads. While he was primarily concerned with taking surveying observations to prominent landmarks he did observe that his view northwards was of open woodlands and lakes.
“Having planted my theodolite on the summit I intersected various higher points to the eastward, and also a very remote, isolated hill on the low country far to the northward which I had also seen from Mount William, and from several stations on our route. … An isolated mass [Mt Arapiles] appeared to the westward, having near its base a most remarkable rock resembling a mitre. Beyond this the distant horizon was not quite so level as the plains of the interior usually are and, as far as I could see northward with a good telescope, I perceived open forestland and various fine sheets of water”. (July 20th 1836).
A few days before while exploring the nearby River Wimmera, he also described the local terrain as an “open forest of box and gumtrees”. This broad description was commonly used by many early European explorers, travellers and settlers when describing the lands they traversed or settled: frequently with surprised comparisons to the manicured parks of England and most likely with dreams of large flocks of fat and contented sheep. However, they were not observing untouched wilderness, but a landscape shaped over thousands of years by the fires the Aboriginal people used to manage their hunting grounds.
My other commentaries on Victorian Views will undoubtedly include further reference to Major Thomas Mitchell so I should say a little more about the man and his explorations. I first became interested in the Major on a trip to the Grampians and the Great Ocean Road. I kept bumping into plaques marking the trail of his 1836 explorations. But my curiosity was particularly aroused when I was wandering around the Brumbuck Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Halls Gap in the Grampians. I came across references to his travels through Australia Felix, as he termed the country, from an Aboriginal perspective. I then became interested in him both as a man of his time and culture and as a careful and disciplined observer: both very evident from his journals.
Mitchell and his exploration party were the first Europeans to travel into what is now Western Victoria and to see the the region while it was still occupied by people whose presence and culture stretched back thousands of years. However, he saw few Aboriginal people — though they undoubtedly observed him and his party. They were most likely fearful of him and his party and would probably have heard news of the recent fatal clash between them and another tribe on the Murray River in late May.
In retrospect, their fears were to be well founded. Mitchell was indeed the harbinger of the eventual destruction of much of their rich culture and the drastic alteration of their lands — ironically, a fact he was acutely aware of, commented on, and regretted. Settlers and their alien crops and livestock followed close on his heels — indeed they followed the wheel tracks made by his wagon. One of those early settlers recalled “They had seen the tracks of Major Mitchell’s dray and were frightened as they could see no end to it. The wheel tracks they took for the footprints of the white men, and the Bullock tracks for those of white women” 1.
And finally, coming back to the present and that expansive view I’m enjoying … those ranks of Mediterranean Olive trees, so clearly visible from the summit, and so surely an alien crop, were planted in the 1940s and 1950s, apparently as a response to wartime shortages. The plantation is one of the largest in Australia, with around 6,000 trees, and is currently bio-dynamically farmed by Mt Zero Olives. http://www.mountzeroolives.com
1: Jane Lydon, Fantastic Dreaming: The Archeology of an Aboriginal Mission, AltaMira Press, 2009.
Getting there … A moderately challenging marked trail “for the adventurous family” (150m climb — 3 km return) starts at the Mount Zero Picnic area and leads to the summit of Mount Zero. Be prepared for a bit of clambering and follow the trial markings carefully to avoid wandering away from the track. Because Mount Zero marks the abrupt northern end of the Grampians range your efforts will be rewarded with extensive views far across the Wimmera plains. Behind you are distant views towards Mt Williams and the other high peaks of the range.
images & words © Keith Mallett 2016