Outside in the paddock, morning sunlight cast shadows of red gum and yellow box trees across a broad hollow, one section of the long floodway between the Lachlan River channel and Lake Cowal. Before the construction of Wyangala Dam upstream from Cowra in the 1930s, wide floods of silty water regularly flowed more than thirty kilometres across the plains to fill the lake.
After breakfast we drove southwest through the back paddocks of Jemalong towards Lake Cowal, following the undulating blue line of the Jemalong Range, its eucalypt and callitris scrub speckled yellow with spring wattle. Near the Newell Highway we crossed an irrigation channel along which Lachlan River water is sometimes delivered to the massive gold mine on the western side of Lake Cowal.
It would take eight days, I’d estimated, to follow the creeklines upstream from Lake Cowal to the Combaning waterhole, to the site of Combaning homestead. The day before, from the window of the bus heading to Forbes, the paddocks and roadsides looked thickly grassed, dense with growth generated by a wet, mild winter. How would I ever manage to walk through that seemingly pathless cropping and grazing country, I’d wondered, where utes and tractors are the primary modes of human transport?
On the bus I’d read again Neil Murray’s essay about the ‘healing walks’ he and others had taken through his home country in the western districts of Victoria, following creeks and rivers across fertile volcanic plains to Lake Bolac. One morning in the upper reaches of the Hopkins River, walking ahead of the others, Murray crossed a floodplain to climb a tall hill:
‘An eagle soared above me. A fox slunk through bracken then trotted off the brow of the hill, its tail floating behind its body like a stiff flame before slipping below the riverbank. Three roos, probably spooked by the walkers were bounding slowly across the floodplain, lifting effortlessly one by one to clear a fence. They propped and looked back in the direction they’d come. Then I saw them too. Hominid shapes, walking upright, emerging from the tree line and starting to come across the plain towards the hill where I waited. From this distance I couldn’t tell whether they wore clothes or animal skins. I was struck with a primordial recognition of ourselves as human animals sharing the landscape with other creatures. Utterly dependent, like them, on a supply of water, food and air. That despite the plethora of technological gadgetry that cocoons us in our modern world, that is what we still are.’
What would it mean, I’d wondered, to place myself as a walking, sensing creature into that industrialised terrain of wheat crops and flowering canola whizzing past the bus window? What would it mean, at this troubled moment in time, to walk through those wide, productive paddocks that nourish and keep warm so many who do not know them, through those spaces almost emptied of people?
In the ute we turned out of Jemalong onto the Newell, and sped towards Lake Cowal, along bitumen buckling under the wet earth, over potholes recently repaired.
From the sandy driveway to Lake Cowal homestead the curving pathway of the Bland Creek appeared, graced by the solid forms of ancient red gums. Tony Duff greeted us at the door, and we sat down for morning tea. Tony had grown up on a nearby farm, and as a young man had purchased Lake Cowal station from an uncle. His wife Helen had lived as a child on Cowal North, a neighbouring property. Substantial winter and spring rains in the catchments of the Bland and Back creeks had delivered a rare quantity of water into Lake Cowal, drowning their crop sown into the fertile lakebed. But the water was shallow, Tony said, and by summer the lake would be dry again. Helen showed me photos of much wetter times, when floodwaters had turned the homestead sandhill into an island.
I’d brought a copy of this photo (from the Keast Burke collection in the State Library of NSW) showing Lake Cowal homestead in 1890, when the Donkin family resided here:
We walked into the garden to compare past and present, and I took this photo of Tony and Helen:
Beyond the garden fence we inspected this corrugated iron hut, once the home of a Chinese gardener, Tony explained, who grew vegetables for the large workforce on the station:
Towards the woolshed, Tony led us into a small cemetery planted with kurrajong trees. One grave held the remains of William Atkins, the first pastoralist of Lake Cowal, who secured 16 000 acres here in 1848.
Then we drove along the sandhill towards the lake, a short distance northwards. Helen pointed out a long hollow where, decades before, workers had excavated truckloads of sand to rebuild part of the Newell Highway nearby. Their work had unearthed a skeleton, later identified as Aboriginal. Construction of the bitumen highway, a modern solution to local constraints, had disturbed the remains, the quiet traces, of someone who probably knew closely this place and its particularities.
The ephemeral expanse of blue water in full view, Tony stopped the ute and we stepped onto the sandy ground. Scattered flakes of smooth stone suggested the usefulness of the sandhill as a campground, beside a lake brimming with fish.
According to Mary Gilmore, when Lake Cowal held water, Wiradjuri people fished and hunted one side only. They reserved the other side as a sanctuary, to ensure the maintenance of animal and fish populations (Old Days Old Ways, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1963 , p. 119). Gilmore’s father told her that the Wiradjuri name for Lake Cowal ‘could be translated almost as ‘the garden of Eden’ it was such a place of singing birds and flowers’ (Forbes Advocate, 19 July 1955). When a girl in about 1879, Gilmore camped one night on the banks of Lake Cowal. ‘I shall never forget it’, she wrote, ‘the boom, boom, boom of the frogs; the horn of the bittern; the cry of the curlew; the whistle of the plover’ (Old Days Old Ways, p. 146).
Helen and I walked down to the lake’s edge. Pairs of swans drifted across the glassy blue surface. Above, birds whirled and sang. I knelt to stir the fresh water with my hand, and felt the soft mud below.
Heading to Forbes on the bus I’d also reread Freya Mathews’ exquisite Journey to the Source of the Merri (Ginninderra Press, Canberra, 2003), an account of her pilgrimage along the Merri Creek, a waterway connecting inner city Melbourne to its rural hinterland and the Great Divide. As a pilgrim walks, Mathews explains, accepting hospitality from landholders and others along the way, an obligation arises to ‘gather in’, to gather ‘the people and places she encounters along the way into a sacred story. By journeying to her destination—traditionally a temple, shrine or other holy site—she draws the entire landscape and its inhabitants, including her benefactors, into the net of its meaning’ (p. 29).
My walk, I’d realised, was also a type of pilgrimage. To cast the walk in this way, to imagine myself as a pilgrim trekking to a sacred destination, seemed awkward and comical in country so transformed by commercial imperatives, powerful technologies and rational science. What does it mean, this difficulty to speak of our productive lands, the country that gives us life, as holding the deepest value? Might it be useful, necessary, or even possible to enable a sense of the sacred here? Now and into the future, as our planet warms and our places weaken, perhaps a capacity to revere will help us decide what to honour and protect, what to mourn and let go.
I don’t know if my watery destination on Combaning Creek was particularly sacred to Wiradjuri people when the squatters came. Francis Woolrych worked as a surveyor in this area during the squatting period. ‘When the white settlers overran the country’, wrote Woolrych, ‘they appropriated all the finest waterholes for their head stations, consequently these occupy what were at that time the chief camping grounds of the blackfellow’ (Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, volume 24, 1890). After the Comans family established Combaning station in the 1840s, it became a ‘religious centre’ for the region, according to a Catholic newspaper, ‘whose squire and lay apostle was that fine Irish gentleman, the late Michael Comans’. Visiting priests regularly held services inside the homestead of eucalypt slabs, beside the waterhole on Combaning Creek (Paul Bateman, Heffernans from Clonbonane, Canberra, 1990, p. 73).
The meaning of Combaning, the imaginative net with which I hoped to draw together the country and all those it sustained, comprised interwoven strands of stories, stories of sacred water and its life giving powers, stories of nourishment offered by land, stories of rebellion against modern forces that block relationships of careful reciprocity. ‘By harbouring the pilgrim’, writes Mathews, ‘the landholder is acknowledging an older and truer compact between human peoples and the land, and thereby helping to ameliorate the metaphysical pauperisation of our collective life’ (Mathews, Journey to the Source of the Merri, p. 36).
Helen and I started walking along the lake’s edge, towards the mouth of the Bland Creek. One night the week before, I’d lain awake worrying about the deadly brown snakes I’d likely encounter. After strolling only a short distance, there before us lay a young brown snake, well fleshed and glossy, drawn out by the warm spring sun. Helen took a photo of the snake, and told me her father used to kill them with a stockwhip. Lake Cowal was renowned for its abundant populations of tiger snakes, Helen said, though she’d seen few since a big winter flood twenty years before, when she suspects many of the hibernating creatures drowned. I told Helen about an old newspaper report I’d found about a man who worked as a snake charmer visiting Lake Cowal, where he’d collected 7 tiger snakes. One he stored under his shirt, before dying from its bite on the road to Grenfell (Argus, 24 January 1893, p. 5).
We paused at the mouth of the Bland Creek. In the air, through the shade of red gums, flocks of whistling ducks rushed past. I commented on the ruddy colour of the creek water. It was the red earth of farmland in the Temora district, Helen explained, carried down tributaries of the Bland.
Then we turned and began walking beside the Bland Creek, back towards Lake Cowal homestead. I asked Helen about her views on climate change. Weather patterns were definately changing, she said, but she doubted that the changes were due to human activity. Helen stopped to turn a stone with her foot. She’d picked up a stone axe head here a few days before. Helen told me that she often walked along here, that she loved the creek and its red gums.
Near the homestead we found Tony waiting in his ute. He climbed through the wire fence to show me the remains of a cable tied to the trunk of a dead red gum, where a punt once ferried mail, cars and supplies across the Bland.
Mal Carnegie and Kate Barrett from the Lake Cowal Conservation Centre arrived. Mal had brought his son Hamish, and they’d intended to walk for while, but a snake had just bitten a much loved family dog, and they had to get home. After our encounter with a brown snake minutes before, it seemed my chances of surviving the journey ahead were swiftly diminishing.
Kate joined me for the next leg. She talked about the work of the Centre, where visiting school groups learn about the ecological and historical significance of this area. We stopped to look inside the old Lake Cowal station woolshed.
Gordon Donkin grew up on Lake Cowal station, and some of his photos are held by the National Library of Australia, including this photo of Bundaburra Jack, a local Wiradjuri man and station worker, standing outside Lake Cowal woolshed in about 1920:
Helen had said to look out for an old headstone in the paddock past the woolshed, which marked the graves of two children who had drowned in the creek. We spotted the tilting stone, enclosed by a sturdy mesh fence, and walked over. ‘SACRED’, the weathered inscription began. Here, in the spring of 1843, William and Mary Jamieson buried their daughter Mary, aged 7, and their 2 year old son James. The relatively new steel fence spoke of active remembrance, an honouring of early settlers, their efforts and their sufferings.
At a bend in the Bland we reached Kate’s ute and I continued walking, alone under the midday sun. I picked up a red gum stick to scare away snakes by pounding the long grass before me.
Wet green paddocks. Fat merino rams. Productivity.
This lively terrain grew the robust nationalism of poets Mary Gilmore and Banjo Paterson, who both knew well the Bland and its grassy plains (see ‘Stories’ for more about Paterson’s links to the area). At a set of timber stockyards I stopped to take photos.
The scene recalled Gilmore’s well known poem ‘No Foe Shall Gather our Harvest’, written during the Second World War, in which the poet rallied those Born of the soil and the whirlwind (Gilmore, The Passionate Heart, 1969 , pp. 294-295):We are the sons of Australia, Of the men who fashioned the land; We are the sons of the women Who walked with them hand in hand; And we swear by the dead who bore us, By the heroes who blazed the trail, No foe shall gather our harvest, Or sit on our stockyard rail.
Around a bend I paused to gaze across a thick green crop of wheat. Somewhere under the crop, according to an old parish map, lay the site of Tregalana homestead. Tregalana was an early squatting run on the eastern side of the Bland, opposite Billabong, a station managed by John McGuire in the early 1850s. When McGuire was an elderly man living in Junee, half a century later, he yarned at length with a local newspaper editor, who recorded and published McGuire’s accounts of frontier life under the title ‘Early Colonial Days: The Biography of a Reliable Old Native’.
McGuire was only ten years old when he ran away from his Sydney home and school, and headed west over the Blue Mountains. He found work on Carrawobbity, a squatting run on the Lachlan, northeast of Lake Cowal. It was 1836, and Carrawobbity lay on the edge of the pastoral frontier. When a stockman abandoned McGuire and an Aboriginal boy on a distant part of the vast station, they joined a Wiradjuri clan. ’I spent three years amongst the wild blacks of the Lachlan River’, recalled McGuire, ‘without seeing a white person during the whole of that period, so that I had almost become one of themselves.’
Eventually, McGuire rejoined the pastoral workforce. His stories tell of people who walked this country during a fearful, bloody time. Once, alone in a hut on a Forbes district station, McGuire noticed ‘a wild looking black’ heading across the plain towards him, carrying weapons and a shield. When the man demanded bread McGuire stuck his musket through a porthole and threatened to shoot him. The Wiradjuri man promptly knocked the musket out of McGuire’s grip and ran away with it. Later, McGuire was killing a bullock when ‘a great big blackfellow, known as Tommy Cowal, after whom Lake Cowal was called’ approached the killing yard with his mob of beloved dogs. When McGuire kicked one of the dogs, Tommy chased him around the yard until a stockman threatened to kill the Wiradjuri man with an axe. ‘Tommy was a terrible fellow’, McGuire explained. ‘He was always having a row somewhere, and had already killed two or three whites.’
Squatters coordinated their efforts to defend themselves from Wiradjuri people. Billabong, Tregalana, Lake Cowal and Caragabal built their huts close together, in adjacent corners of the runs, ‘for purposes of protection from the blacks’, McGuire told the newspaper editor. With McGuire’s stories in my head, standing by the Bland in the still afternoon air, my eyes searched the bulky crop for the site, possibly a slightly elevated area, where Tregalana workers may’ve erected their hut. Then a sudden burst of sound and movement from the creekside grass caused me to shout. The pair of stubble quail flew a short distance before vanishing into the crop.
I continued following the curve of the creek. The buildings of Billabong station, the former home of John McGuire, appeared beyond red gums on the opposite bank (click the photo for a closer view of the station buildings):
At Marsden, where the Newell Highway crosses the Bland, there remains one building, an old house, sometimes visited an absentee farming family. Three general stores used to operate here, a Cobb & Co station, a post office, a police station with a court room and resident Aboriginal tracker, two hotels, two churches, a public school, a school of arts and a blacksmith’s shop. Wiradjuri camped on the creek, near a vegetable garden tended by Chinese (WJ English, Around the Cowal, Bland District Historical Society, West Wyalong, 1978, pp. 7-11). Before reaching Marsden, I’d met Sue and Richard Maslin in the garden of their home, Minoru, and talked to them about the history of the area. They’d showed me an old pedal organ from a Marsden church. Some years ago, the weatherboard structure had collapsed in a storm. Richard and Sue found the organ standing unscathed amid the ruins.
Cars and trucks swept along the Newell as I walked past the empty house to find a campsite upstream. When settlers erected the timber and brick structures of Marsden village, as they built shops, bridges and roads, they enabled the operation of commercial and industrial forces. They bound this place to globalised networks of trade and power. Over time, the same dynamics they brought to this place erased the settlement they strove to establish. Ideas and demands arising in distant places banished people and filled the void with technology, livestock and crops. Could the men and women of Marsden have imagined how lonely their country would become?