AUSTRALIAN LANDSCAPE POEMS
The Wild Country
This prose poem and excerpts from it have been published by several magazines and newspapers over the years. It is partly based on word of mouth accounts of squatters and Aboriginals as reported in articles that appeared in newspapers of the period, and of the account given in the diary of Captain Charles Swanson, in which he recorded Akers, their guide's account of the events which led up to his parting company with Gellibrand and Hesse. The dialogue in this poem between Gellibrand, Hesse, and Akers is almost word for word with the diary record. I have also accessed other historical records relating to that period (See Notes for details).
Many history books wrongly describe Gellibrand and Hesse as brave explorers who lost their way. As a result of this myth, rivers, mountains, and towns have been named after them, in my opinion, undeservedly. Gillibrand and Hesse had vast landholdings in Victoria and were members of The Port Phillip Association, a consortium of squatters and businessmen.
Both Gillibrand and Hesse were well-to-do members of British Colonial Society, who spent their time in Hobart attending their duties and occupations as high ranking civil servants and in Geelong and Melbourne, consolidating and expanding their business interests and the interests of the Port Phillip Association. Hesse was a Lawyer and Gillibrand the first Attorney General of Tasmania.
At the end of February 1837, they set off down the Barwon intending to branch up the Leigh and follow it round in a wide arc to join the Werribee River and so reach Melbourne. Refusing to take the advice of their guide, they took the wrong turn at the junction of the Barwon and the Leigh, wandered down into the Otways and were never seen again.
Stories and reports tell of a skeleton being identified by dental work after it was recovered from a settler, others tell of wild horses wearing fragments of the harness being seen in the Otways. Another story supposes that Hesse had died in the forest and that Gellibrand wandered as far as Moonlight Head, where he was discovered by an Aboriginal clan, with whom he lived for three months, before being speared to death by the members of a rival clan. Whatever the truth, the disappearance of Gellibrand and Hesse is one of the most enduring and fascinating myths of the region.
Some of the Aboriginal clans referred to in the final verse of this poem were part of the Wathaurong nation (an assortment of clans with ancestral ties). According to reports from early settlers most of these clans were hostile to each other and often fought amongst themselves, although they belonged to the same nation. The clans that lived on the opposite side of Moonlight Head, belonged to other Aboriginal nations, possibly the Gadubanud clans.
Notes: Background information for this poem can be found in the Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, Vol. XIV, ser.111. Vol IV and V; R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol II, chapter XVIII; C.R. Long, Journals of Proceedings Royal Historical Society, vol.XXI, p.306; C.H. Bertie, The Home, May 1931; Letters from Victorian Pioneers, p. 279. The Colonial Times, Wednesday, July 10, 1844. John Batman (The Inside Story of the Birth of Melbourne). Joy Braybrook. Chapter 16, 2012. A History of the Colony of Victoria. Vol I A.D. 1797-1854. Henry Gyles Turner. Chapter VII. The Diary of Captain Charles Swanson. Victorian Historical Society. The Port Phillip Herald. 1840. Sunday Advertiser. February 25, 2001.
In 1837, Gellibrand and Hesse sailed
from Van Dieman’s land across the Strait,
heading for the Swanson Station,
their destiny: to follow the Barwon
to the junction of the Leigh, and then,
through a veil, into a great mystery.
Setting out with Robert Akers, an expert
tracker and guide, they followed
the Northern banks of the Barwon
till Akers suddenly stepped aside:
I ain’t goin’ any further sirs, without
proper food and drink, for yonder lies
the wild country: Corangamite,
Moonlight Head and Blanket Bay,
and mishaps aplenty for any man,
who, by pride and arrogance,
is easily led Astray...
Of that, I have no doubt, sir,
Akers with a touch of irony replied.
But I’ll bet my poor shepherd’s purse
(providing you say your penance first)
that you’ll sooner end up in the House
of the Lord, than before the friendly fire
that burns at Pollock’s Ford.
Then be off with you you truant pilot – be off!
Gellibrand exclaimed as he reared his horse
at Aker's side, before I take this whip
to your miserable shepherd’s hide!
Then Hesse interjected, as both turned
their horses for the ride:
I’m no coward, Joseph,
but an ominous presentment
pervades my mind, concerning
the words of this truant guide.
Has your reason softened to this wretch’s
cowardice and lies? Gellibrand replied.
Would you too desert me with this glorious
park-like country before our very eyes?
Come, my chickenhearted friend,
let’s be done with doubt and speculation
and take this journey to its end.
For three days they crossed
the Birregurra plain, where optimism
finally gave way to despair,
and on the third night,
huddled around a miserable flame,
both came to realize that Aker’s directions
may have served them right.
In the East, the full pearl of the moon
was rising, in the West, the sun
was going down, soaking the sky
with a sometimes strong, sometimes
subtle blush or brush, singeing the edges
of clouds, and between their doomed
dark sails, cast intermittent tunnels of light
What a wonderful night, said Mr. Hesse,
who sat shivering and cold, his face
a glow with fear and anticipation.
And Gellibrand sighed as he looked
into the sky and said: it’s a dreadful beauty
now my friend that holds us prisoners
in her bed. But we must not attend
to melancholy, nor let the weight
of its anchor drag us down,
for tomorrow we head for those hills
and the coast, and with God’s grace
and a bit of luck, hail a brig
and sail for Melbourne town.
The next day they headed southward
into the bush, where they stumbled
across the Barret River, intending
to follow it to the coast. But on the fifth day,
Hesse’s horse bolted and on the sixth,
Gellibrand’s mare had given up its ghost.
But the smell of salt in the air
kept their spirits high, as both continued
without provisions to follow
the current of the stream,
sleeping at night where they fell,
escaping for a while into oblivion or a dream.
And as day followed night and night
followed day, they followed what became
the flow of an eternal stream,
that gradually drowned communication,
puncturing the silence between
with an occasional grunt or scream.
And at night they were tossed in a broken sleep
and were visited by spirits of the air
and trees, who scattered their thoughts
a little more, as they infiltrated their hopes
and dreams, driving out the gifts
of their breeding, and all the edifices
of a gentleman’s education,
till all that remained was instinct,
and a heightening of every sensation;
the man in each, succumbing to
the machinations of the beast.
Some say they were speared by the Karakoi
at Corangamite, others say they wasted away
in the shelter of a Warrion cave; some say
a squatter named Henry James was led by
a Koori to Gellibrand’s grave - below a midden
in the hills - that he kept his skull as a trophy,
filling its sockets with an ink-well and quills.
Some say Gellibrand made it to Ngalla Country,
living for three moons with the clan, till slain
in an ambush by Ngarowurd men
(while penning his journal on the sand),
who corked his nostrils with bracken shafts
and stuffed his mouth with river bed,
then left his body for the flies and crows
to feast on at Moonlight Head.
The Otways resonated with high winds
and the sun baked the bracken crisp,
anticipating the legacy of a flicked cigarette,
or redhead struck with the flare
of an arsonist’s intent.
On the road to Birregurra,
up at the old mill in the Marsh,
from a spark and a whiff in the grass,
sown into the sweep of an infernal wall,
that with such speed and temper
moved towards the conflagration
of the hills...
Where somewhere on a road
a family flees with all it can shove
in a boot, as on both sides
glass insulators melted down poles
like giant tears, and mountain ash
erupted upward like Roman candles.
Burning into the sky at night
from Skenes Creek to Fair-haven,
like a false vermilion dawn.
And from the air, puffed
and smoking bladders,
once cattle, sheep and roos,
and houses, like piles of cigarette ash.
And at every firefighter's venue,
half-mast flags above dusty faces,
and black, everywhere,
the color of tears.
NOTE: Within twelve hours on the day, more than 180 fires were fanned by winds of up to 110 km/h, causing widespread destruction across Victoria and South Australia.
Years of severe drought and extreme weather combined to create one of Australia's worst fire days in a century. These fires became the deadliest bushfire in Australian history, until the bushfires of February 2009.
In Victoria, 47 people died and there were 28 deaths in South Australia. This included 14 CFA and three CFS volunteer firefighters who died across both states that day. Many fatalities were as a result of firestorm conditions caused by a sudden and violent wind change in the evening which rapidly changed the direction and size of the fire front.
The speed and ferocity of the flames, aided by abundant fuels and a landscape immersed in smoke made fire suppression and containment impossible. In many cases, residents fended for themselves as fires broke communications, cut off escape routes and severed electricity and water supplies. Up to 8,000 people were evacuated in Victoria at the height of the crisis.
Ash Wednesday was one of Australia's costliest natural disasters. Over 3,700 buildings were destroyed or damaged and 2,545 individuals and families lost their homes. Livestock losses were very high, with over 340,000 sheep, 18,000 cattle and numerous native animals either dead or later destroyed. A total of 4,540 insurance claims were paid totalling $176 million with a total estimated cost of well over $400 million (1983 values).
The emergency saw the largest number of volunteers called to duty from across Australia at the same time – an estimated 130,000 firefighters, defence force personnel, relief workers and support crews.
Killalpaninna Mission 1849.
NOTE: Not all interactions between Aboriginal people and Europeans were based on "colonial oppression" much of it was caring and compassionate, which was the case with the Killalpaninna Mission Station and also tragic for both the missionaries and the Aborigines. Although the mission failed, the missionaries meticulously wrote down and preserved the entire language of the Diyari people. Christine Steven's book White Man's Dreaming chronicles the meeting between two cultures and the tragedy that eventuated. Her book is based on primary source documentation and the author's experiences. This poem is drawn from information in her book and my own research.
By the Ruins of Killalpaninna
On his last visit to the ruins of Killalpaninna Mission Station, in 1964, Pastor Proeve was told that "old Sandy" the rain-maker who for many years had camped near the ruins, had recently died. On an earlier visit Sandy had said to Proeve, "You know me, I am Sandy, me make rain." And when Proeve had responded with "God make rain," Sandy replied, "Me believe in God, too. God and me make rain." he had said. Another old Aborigine who was camped with Sandy, when referring to one of the Killalpaninna missionaries, had declared to Proeve, "That fella must have been all wrong that Jesus has been here. I have looked everywhere and have not found his tracks.
Christine Stevens/ White Man's Dreaming.
Here, the stretch of a season
can number decades,
transforming water and land
from a sanctuary
ripened with Craspedia,
snow pea and Spongiosa,
into the barrenness of a parched
and burning sand.
Where few manifestations
can stand, like an old coolabah
with its dipping branches,
or quartzite hills scoured
by the wind’s relentless hand.
Here, in 1886, the Lutherans
came with bibles,
top-hats and tails, to impose
a white man’s mythos
on the black, to pit their frail Christ
against the Dreaming.
Through heat and sand,
they raised their mission
by a lake, its tower seen
from the Birdsville track,
crowned with a little wooden cross,
around which, every day
at twilight a lantern
was lit and bound.
And every Sunday morning
its bell would sound,
summoning the Diyari
from their Dreaming.
Burnished like black marble,
naked as the full moon,
the men, with boomerangs
and mulga spears,
ochre smeared, fierce
and proud, the women,
with box - gum vessels
and digging sticks, their hair
platted and cascading,
with daisies, fire bush, and twigs.
But prayers and sermons
could not impress
what a culture out of its dreaming
had never dreamt,
and as time passed,
fewer chose to be baptized
or venture in, living outside
in Mia-mias covered
with fragments of paper and tin,
some men in top hats,
some women, awkwardly pressed
into European gowns.
Until the season imploded
to a drought, not even
a Kunkie with his rain bundle
could beat, or white
man’s prayer moisten with
its atmosphere: 22,000 sheep
dying of hunger, as one by one
the lights of the mission
went out. Below the canopies
of a beating sun,
starlight and a desert flower:
over broken pews
and splintered rafters,
where Japanese tourists
snap around the crumbling
of a bell-less tower.
© 2019 Eugene Alexander Donnini