National Folk Festival 2018
My Performer Application for the festival was unsuccessful this year, so I bought a ticket. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for ‘walk-up’ poets to perform at the festival.
I headed off with my son, Thomas, on the morning of Good Friday. It’s a long drive from Melbourne to Canberra, but fortunately I still had time to find a camping site, erect the tent, and attend “Poetry in the Round” in a new tent venue, “Festival Hall”. The MCs were Peter Mace and John Peel (see below).
In recent years, this event has been held in The Terrace, a very civilised room in the pavilion above the Sessions Bar. The great advantage of this venue is that it is very quiet and well sound-proofed. Performers in “Festival Hall” were constantly having to compete with the noise from other acts, especially the parade, heading past the front door first one way, then the other. One advantage of this year’s venue was that there is a lot more ‘passing trade’, with a greater likelihood of people dropping in casually to ‘check it out’. The tents can also get very cold at night. Fortunately, Easter in Canberra this year was quite warm.
The Poets’ Breakfast on Saturday morning was a big event, as these Breakfasts always are. There was a new award this year, the “Blue the Shearer Award” for the Best Original Poem. This is being held to honour the life of Col “Blue the Shearer” Wilson, a very popular poet and great friend of the festival, who died last year.
The “Reciter of the Year” award, which continues, is for a recitation from memory, and the reciter does not need to have written the poem. The new award can be read, but the reader must have written it. In other words, it is an award for writing, not performing.
The other new development this year was that the festival feature poets were also eligible to win the wards. The judge for both awards this year was last year’s judge, Chris McGinty, as last year’s winner of the Reciter’s Award, Len “Lenno” Martin, was unable to attend the festival.
Another opportunity to perform presented itself at “Poetry in the Park” on Saturday afternoon. The MC was John Peel (see below).
My friend, Maggie Somerville, arrived on Saturday afternoon, having left Melbourne that morning. We attended “Poetry in the Round” again together in the evening, and each performed a poem.
At the Sunday Breakfast Maggie read “A Deadly Weapon”, her poem about the hazards of trying to smuggle a tin whistle into court.
At 3.30 pm on Sunday, Maggie performed with the Billabong Band from the Victorian Folk Music Club, during their presentation of “Songs of the Victorian Goldfields” at the Trocadero. The band had been thrown into some disarray following the very sad news that the son of two of its most prominent members had died on Good Friday, and they had had to return to Melbourne. Replacements were arranged at short notice, and overall the show went well, but the situation was far from ideal.
Here is the full line-up…
(That’s Maggie in the red hat.)
A very interesting presentation took place in “Festival Hall” on Sunday night as Peter Mace and American cowboy poet Dick Warwick discussed the differences between cowboy poetry and Australian bush poetry. The takeaway message was that there are not a lot of differences, though perhaps the Americans are a little more reverential in their choice of subject matter. Then again, at least as I understand them, Ned Kelly is a far more ambiguous figure than Billy the Kid.
Here are Dick and Peter in animated conversation…
Chris McGinty announced the winners of the awards at the Monday Poets’ Breakfast. John Peel won the “Reciter of the Year” award with a poem he wrote himself, “When Elvis Came Back from the Dead”, which he performed at the Friday Poets’ Breakfast. Peter Mace won the inaugural “Blue the Shearer Award” with his poem about Kerry Stokes buying a VC medal at an auction for a million dollars to keep it in Australia, and then donating it to the National War Museum. (I haven’t found the title yet.)
Congratulations to them both!
Maggie headed back to Melbourne early on Monday morning, and Thomas and I left about midday.
Once again, the National Folk Festival had been very successful, and highly enjoyable!
Newstead Live! 2018
Last weekend I travelled with Maggie Somerville to Newstead, a small town in central Victoria, for the annual “Newstead Live!” festival that straddles the Australia Day long weekend (when we have one!), and is close to Australia Day when we don’t. Usually the last weekend in January. Just before the schools go back. Something like that.
It was a scramble for me to get home from work after a long day, pack the car, head over to Maggie’s place, pack her stuff (and re-pack the car), then begin the roughly two and a half hour journey up the Calder Highway to the festival reception office and, eventually, our camp-site. It was well after 10 pm when we finally arrived, and we knew we had to be ready, bright and chirpy, for the Poets’ Breakfast at 9 am, followed by our own children’s show at 10.30 am. (Why do we do it? Because we love it!)
The Breakfast was MC’d for the umpteenth time (excellently, I might add) by veteran Melbourne-based reciter Jim Smith.
As always, the show was of a high standard. Here is a sample of the performers.
The show, as always, was well received.
This was the first year without Andrew and Heather Pattison and their small army of friendly helpers, as Andrew and Heather have now retired from the festival. They were missed – not only because of their smiling faces, but because food and drink was no longer as accessible. We were required instead to make our way to the not-too-distant pavilion where, it must be said, the service was friendly and professional.
Maggie and I had to leave early to make our way across town to “Lilliput”, the child care centre where our children’s show was being staged. It took a little while for the audience to gather, but the show – a mixture of songs written by Maggie and songs written by me, with a couple of my poems thrown in for good measure – went well.
Swinging the billy was a big hit!
We had a chance take a bit of a rest before the “Grumpy Old Poets” at the Anglican Church at 4 pm, where I was MC, and we both performed. The highlight of this ‘come all ye’ poetry event was the thunder and lightning that raged outside. We felt safe and secure inside the little stone church. Little did we know at the time just to what extent we were in fact its victims!
We had dinner at the pub (so Maggie could watch the Women’s Single Final of the Australian Open on the TV – go Caroline!), then bumped into Suzette Herft leading the community singing across the road later in the evening.
Maggie joined in on her whistle.
We returned to our camp-site tired but happy, looking forward to a good night’s sleep before doing it all again the following day.
Alas, the scene that greeted us in front of the headlights of my car gave us quite a shock…
It turns out that my casual attitude to erecting tents had finally caught up with us! The damage had obviously been done during the “Grumpy Old Poets”. The fly had been torn off the tent, and one of the tent poles, thus unsupported, had snapped in the wind. Our bedding was soaked, and puddles of water had gathered on the tent floor. (So that’s whey they attach guy-ropes and loops for pegs to tents…)
I eventually managed to prop the tent up with the shorter pole from the annexe. Searching around for bits of bedding that were merely moist rather than soaked, we managed to get a reasonable night’s sleep. (I think I slept better than Maggie did.) Fortunately, it was a warm night.
The next day was very hot, and our gear dried quickly. The tent remained a rather misshapen lump, but it was adequate for our needs.
Highlights for us after the Breakfast and our own show for children the following day were Keith McKenry and Jan Wositzky at “Lilliput”…
… and Geoffrey Graham and Carol Reffold at the Anglican Church.
(Geoffrey snuggles up to Maggie)
(Carol is joined by Christine Middleton with her beautiful harp)
A dip in the Newstead pool was a great way to wash away a few cobwebs (and beads of sweat) at festival’s end.
In no hurry to return to Melbourne, we took time out to marvel at the Malmsbury Viaduct on our way home.
Another great Newstead Live! lay behind us, but the memories (a somewhat mixed bunch, to be honest, what with the storm and all..) will remain forever.
Mary Gilmore Festival (Crookwell, NSW)
Early on the morning of Friday, 27th October, Maggie Somerville and I headed north up the Hume Highway to Crookwell in New South Wales for the Mary Gilmore Festival.
Maggie has put a number of Mary Gilmore’s poems to music and the Festival Director, Trevene Mattox, was keen for us to attend. (There is also ample scope for a poet at the festival.)
To get to Crookwell, you go past Yass (not through it, as we did; it is a very pretty town, but does not get you any closer to Crookwell, as we found) and leave the highway at Gunning. You then climb steadily for an hour or so through open country until you reach Crookwell, at an elevation of about a thousand metres.
After erecting our tent at the Showgrounds, we drove into town for the opening of the festival at the art gallery by the local member of parliament, The Hon Angus Taylor MP, Member for Hume.
Angus made the point that, while Dame Mary Gilmore was undoubtedly a highly admirable woman, she and he differed in their political views.
The following morning, we were invited to perform to the local market goers. Maggie sang a number of her songs to an appreciative audience.
The Reserve Bank was even in attendance showing off the new banknotes, with Dame Mary Gilmore and the opening words of “No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest” on the ten dollar note.
During the afternoon we witnessed a showcase of the local youth talent, and in the evening we were treated to a performance by a women’s choir from Wollongong. The performance took place in a pavilion with a corrugated iron domed roof. Unfortunately a short, sharp rain shower completely drowned out the first item of the evening’s concert! The choir was superbly rehearsed, with numerous lavish but highly efficient costume changes taking place over the course of the show.
The following morning was the “Poets’ and Balladeers’ Breakfast” and Maggie and I had ample opportunity to perform. Maggie sang the remainder of her Mary Gilmore songs, while I performed a newish Ned Kelly poem that went down well.
At the end of the show, Maggie was asked to draw the raffle.
(I should add that this was also Maggie’s birthday!)
Alas, now it was time to leave Crookwell and begin the long drive back to Melbourne – in time to be at work at 9 am the following morning.
Maggie and I are extremely grateful to Trevene Mattox for giving us a lovely weekend. We were looked after extremely well, and had a wonderful time.
It was also great to catch up with poet Laurie McDonald and his wife, Denise, from Canberra. (Laurie and I shared MC duties for much of the weekend.) Laurie explained that the Crookwell festival used to have more of a bush poetry focus, but in recent years the emphasis has been on Mary Gilmore, and music. That made sense to me, because I have vague memories of submitting poetry to a competition in Crookwell in years past.
It was also wonderful to meet Stephen Lindsay, a local musician who owns a studio and is doing a great job recording local musicians and personalities on CD.
These rustic dwellings caught my eye as we left town.
Parliament House Launch of Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards
I had a lovely few days in Canberra at the beginning of the week.
Late last year I agreed to act as judge this year for the secondary student entries in the Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards. The awards are open to all school children, and are held by the Dorothea Mackellar Society. Last year approximately 10,000 entries were received from 655 schools. Approximately one third of these were from secondary students. (Acclaimed children’s novelist Sophie Masson will judge the primary student entries.)
Dorothea Mackellar lived much of her life in Gunnedah, in rural New South Wales (not far from Tamworth), and Gunnedah is the home of the Dorothea Mackellar Society.
The awards were scheduled to be launched at Parliament House on Tuesday, 1st March, and, as one of the judges, I was invited to attend and speak. I was keen to do so, but not sure if I would be able to make it. In the end, however, it worked out well. Being somewhat budget conscious I chose the “car and tent” option ahead of the “plane and motel”. The trip fitted snugly into the three days I had between finishing work at one medical practice, and commencing work at another. (Sophie Masson was unable to attend.)
I have become fairly familiar with the drive from Melbourne to Canberra over the years as the result of having attended the National Folk Festival on a number of occasions, and the trip now feels much less daunting than it once did. Mind you, I usually have company with me. Doing it alone was going to be a new experience.
A quick Google search revealed what sounded like a great camping ground – the “Cotter Campground” – only about twenty minutes from Parliament House.
I didn’t feel in a great rush to get away on Monday morning, though I did end up paying for this somewhat, eventually erecting the tent in rapidly fading light. By the time I was in a position to report my safe arrival to friends and family back in Melbourne it was well and truly dark and, the camping ground being in a valley, there was no phone reception! Nevertheless, I quickly learned from a fellow camper that it returned quite quickly once you started to drive up the adjacent mountain. I followed his advice, and found this to be true. All the same, it was somewhat eerie in the dark, looking out over a steep tree-covered drop in the warm, humid evening, gazing at the distant lights of Canberra, and wondering what was below me.
I arrived in Canberra next morning with plenty of time to spare, and devoted an hour or so to taking in the glory of Parliament House. It must have been almost thirty years since I had last been there, and it did rather take my breath away.
I eventually joined the “DM” contingent in the foyer, and we were led to Room 1R1, where the launch was to take place. Prior to this point, my communications with the Dorothea Mackellar Society had been restricted to a couple of phone calls and a few emails. It was great to finally put some faces to the names, and also to meet some new ones! I especially enjoyed meeting Jenny Farquhar (President) and Mila Stone (Project Officer).
The launch was well attended, went very smoothly, and was well received. Jenny Farquhar made opening and closing comments, the new Federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, officially opened the awards and, somewhat surprisingly for his staff, read a poem of his own!
The three patrons introduced children who presented award winning poems from previous years, and I was asked to introduce Amanda Walker, a computer scientist from A.N.U., who read a poem she had submitted in 1994! (The poem, “Changes”, had been subsequently published, and caught the eye of Jenny Farquhar.)
I had decided, being a poet myself, that my own speech should take the form of a poem, so I wrote the first half in the car on the way up (watch out for those trucks when you pull over to the side of the road!), and the other half in the tent that night. I felt like I was going out on a bit of a limb with this strategy but, fortunately, it went down well!
It is very impressive and encouraging to see the level of support both the Society and the awards have from politicians from all points of the political compass. The C.J. Dennis Society certainly has a lot to learn from the Dorothea Mackellar Society in this regard!
After the ceremony, we were treated to a very delicious lunch in the Members’ Dining Room!
I was too weary to do much exploring in the afternoon. Besides, it was extremely hot. However, I did enjoy checking out the Old Parliament House and the National Portrait Gallery, and driving around the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.
Later that day, and the following morning, I had more opportunity to explore – and discover – the natural charms of the Cotter Campground.
Then it was time to pack up and head home for a good night’s sleep prior to commencing my new job!
It is exciting to now know a number of the members of the Dorothea Mackellar Society, together with the patrons, personally, and to know that the poems will soon start coming in! I am looking forward to reading what I know will be a large number of very high quality pieces.
The website of the Dorothea Mackeallar Poetry Awards can be found here:
NFF 2015/MFSRF 2015
It is a little while now since I attended the National Folk Festival (NFF – Easter) and The Man From Snowy River Festival (MFSRF), the weekend after. Although I did not play a large role in either, I would like to record a few reflections of them both nonetheless.
I attended them both with Maggie Somerville. It was Maggie’s first National for many years, and her first MFSRF.
With all the build-up for Port Fairy, I had decided to take a very low key approach to both these festivals – simply sit back and let it wash over me, playing small roles now and then. Of course, it wasn’t quite that easy. Once you’ve had a taste of the limelight, it’s not so easy to slip back into the shadows again…
Nevertheless, I had a great time at both, and have no regrets.
The National is always fabulous – so much to see, and so many opportunities to be involved, even if only in a very minor way. It is very different to the country music festivals where bush poetry dominates. There is still a preponderance of rhyming verse, but there is still a fair bit of non-rhymed. (Is there a difference between non-rhymed and free verse? I don’t know.)
The Poets’ Breakfasts were well attended as always, though my feeling is that the audience numbers are a little down on, say, a decade ago. Certainly the merchandise table doesn’t seem to buzz as it once did.
Laurie McDonald, as Spoken Word Coordinator for the festival, has done a great job beefing up the programme for poetry and yarn spinning. There are now regular evening poetry shows as well as the Breakfasts, and the number of feature poets seems to increase every year. Five years ago things were definitely in the doldrums. My only criticism would be that all the shows are largely unthemed, and feel a bit aimless at times. I wonder if it is time to take the next step, and begin to build more ambitious, structured shows, with a clear sense of direction. Of course, this all takes time, and is difficult with a workforce (i.e. the poets) that is effectively volunteer.
The sign at the Stock Camp took my attention – very atmospheric. (Just don’t look too closely at the spelling.)
Of course, Andrew Pattison’s Troubadour has been replaced by the “Flute and Fiddle”, and is the new venue for the Poets’ Breakfasts. After a couple of years of resenting the change, I am gradually coming to accept the new arrangements.
The Man From Snowy River Festival at Corryong this year began on the Thursday after Easter. As this Thursday and Friday are not public holidays, one can only assume that the majority of those who attend are retired. Maggie and I both had work commitments, so were unable to leave Melbourne until Saturday morning. (Indeed, I was working until 11pm on the Friday night, so it was a bit of a scramble to get away even then.)
Corryong is a wonderful spot, tucked away as it in the Murray Valley in north east Victoria, with timbered hills rising all around. The drive to and from is a large part of the enjoyment of the weekend itself.
I must confess I have always been a little reluctant to attend this festival, as I feel fairly uncomfortable with the notion of perpetuating the myth of the mountain cattleman. I imagine they were heroic enough in their day, but I do feel it is time to remove cattle from the Alps. Mind you, a grizzled old mining surveyor very active in the Victorian Alps in the first half of the 20th century once said to me “There’s nowhere that the cattlemen went on a horse that I didn’t go on foot.” Perhaps that is even more heroic, yet we do not celebrate – we scarcely even remember – the rich heritage of gold mining in the Australian Alps.
Anyway, enough of that.
Corryong was the venue for the Australian Bush Poetry Championships this year. Jan Lewis and her army of volunteers did a great job of organising the festival, as always, and the shows were very well attended.
The format is a little awkward in that the shows are run as competitions, yet are also expected to be entertaining. It is a difficult line to tread. The biggest challenge is filling the dead time between acts, when the judges are writing down their comments. This is where the MC is truly tested. A good MC keeps the show rolling so that you are barely even aware that the judging is taking place. By and large the MCs this weekend did a great job, though you sensed a few times that their material ran out before the show did.
I also find it tough sometimes to listen to so much spoken word without any leavening of music. It doesn’t help that each poem is on a different subject, or telling a different story. There is just so much to take in. My trouble is that a good poem will fire my imagination, and I will find myself half way through the next poem before I remember that I should be paying attention to it, too. Some musical interludes would help to soften the intensity of it all. Having said that, though, it is difficult to imagine how that could be achieved within the current structure.
Here is the Saturday night crowd.
The Sunday Poets’ Breakfast was fun, and a great opportunity for Maggie and me to strut our stuff.
We left shortly after lunch on Sunday to face the long drive back to Melbourne and be back in time to be at work on Monday morning.
It was a great weekend.
2014 Maldon Folk Festival
I have just returned from another wonderful weekend at the Maldon Folk Festival. The weather was its usual spring unpredictability. It was warm when we arrived, but turned cold and windy during the night. Rain followed, after which it became warm and sunny again.
The Poets’ Breakfasts were well attended, and very enjoyable, as always. My impression is that, after the low point of a few years ago, crowds are on the up again. The Breakfast audiences seemed larger this year than last.
A small but attentive crowd attended for the launch of my new book of poetry for children, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”, published by Walker Books in May this year. Thanks to Geoffrey Graham for launching it for me, and to Maggie Somerville for singing “The Sash”, the song she has written based on my poem of the same name.
A festival highlight for me was the performance of my poem, “In Bed With My Bedsocks”, from the book, by ten year old Tahlia Heggie, during the Sunday Poets’ Breakfast. (Her mother had bought the book at the launch the previous day.) Tahlia also performed two other poems from the book – “Tidying My Room” and “When Eating Watermelon” – over the course of the weekend. It is the ultimate accolade for any poet who writes for children to have a child perform a poem he has written, so for me this was particularly gratifying. Congratulations, too, to Tahlia’s mother for inculcating in her a love of reading!
Here I am with Tahlia (and the book!) after the Breakfast.
(Thanks to Maggie Somerville for the photo.)
The Yarn Events this year were held in the Kangaroo Hotel – a first. Unfortunately, rain forced us indoors on the Saturday afternoon. We performed in the dining room, and performers at times struggled to make themselves heard above the waitresses taking lunch orders. The Sunday afternoon was much more successful. The day was bright and sunny, and the event took place in the hotel garden. As with the Poets’ Breakfasts, audiences were very sold, especially on the Sunday.
The Monday Poets’ Breakfast was very much a return to the past. When I first began attending Maldon in 2003, a poetry event was held on Sunday afternoon in the beautiful gardens of Tucci’s, then a pizza restaurant. After several years Tucci’s closed, and remained so for a number of years. It has now re-opened as the restaurant “Wicked Temptations” (with a very smart looking new back fence at the far end of the gardens), and the Monday Poets’ Breakfast was held there. Again, it was very well attended. A highlight for me was my performance with Maggie Somerville of “The Two Bees”, a poem by C. J. Dennis that Maggie has put to music.
Of course, there were many other wonderful events. To pick a few highlights – Geoffrey Graham’s one man ‘Banjo’ Paterson show at the Neighbourhood Centre on Saturday afternoon, Fred Smith at “The Troubadour” on Saturday night, followed by Martin Pearson, and Keith McKenry’s launch of his new biography of John Meredith at the Anglican Church on Sunday afternoon.
Once again, it was a fabulous Maldon Folk Festival, very much enjoyed by all!
Well, the launch of “‘The Billy Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse” was held on Sunday, and I’ve had time to come down to earth and reflect upon it all.
Without doubt, it was a great success. Walker Books, the publisher, and Readings bookshop, the venue, had done a great job to together put on a fine display. It was absolutely magical to see multiple copies of the book – a wall of “Billys” – in a grand crescent at the back counter.
I was thrilled that so many people turned up to support me. Members of my family were there (of course), old friends, new friends, friends from sailing, skiing and bushwalking, friends from work, children’s writers, bush poets and reciters, and others.
Geoffrey Graham did a fine job launching the book and acting as master of ceremonies, as I knew he would. He also said some very kind things about me, for which I am truly grateful.
Edel Wignell had been inspired to write a poem about the book, which she read. Edel has been a tremendous support to me in recent years, and it was wonderful to have her contributing to the launch in this way.
Another friend, songwriter and musician Maggie Somerville, had been inspired to write a melody to accompany “The Sash” (the poem that tells the story of Ned Kelly’s rescue of the drowning Richard Shelton from Hughes Creek in Avenel) which she sang to round off proceedings, accompanied by yet another friend, Marie Butler, on accordion. It was a wonderful way to finish the afternoon.
What was particularly gratifying, of course, was the number of people who wished to buy a copy of the book afterwards. No, I didn’t develop writer’s cramp but, yet, I was certainly at risk of doing so!
Thank you again to everybody involved in making the afternoon such a memorable success. This book really is the distillation of a lifetime of writing. There were many times when I doubted if it would ever happen. Dreams do come true!
National Folk Festival 2014
I had a great time at the National Folk Festival in Canberra this Easter, as I always do.
My mission this year, of course, was to promote and sell my new book, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”. I can safely report that the book was very well received indeed!
Laurie McDonald has done a great job in recent years, as Director of the Spoken Word Programme, in getting poetry and yarn spinning back on a firm footing at the festival, after it was all beginning to look a bit dicey a few years ago.
The National is, of course, primarily a music festival, but what with the Poets’ Breakfasts every morning, “Poetry in the Park” at 3.30 in the afternoon, and “Poetry in the Round” in the evenings, plus the occasional workshop (writing and performing workshops were both on offer this year), it can be pretty hard for us poets to find time to sample much of the music!
The highlight for me this year, apart from the reception of my book, was having the opportunity to introduce Geoffrey Graham, who resurrected his one man “Banjo” Paterson show, to celebrate the 150th birthday of Australia’s most popular bard.
Here is Geoffrey holding a large audience in thrall.
I also got some great shots of Geoffrey (in the red shirt) and three time Australian Champion Bush Poet Gregory North acting out Paterson’s “The Man from Ironbark” in impromptu fashion. (The reciter is Ralph Scrivens.)
The festival is a great chance to deepen old friendships, and make new ones. There are a number of people I only ever see at the National in Canberra.
I was pleased also that I had a chance to mention at one of the Breakfasts the terribly sad and utterly unexpected passing of Bob Markwell. I know that Bob had touched the lives of many, and we shared our shock and grief in conversation afterwards.
The weather was fine and still, though very cold at night. I find it pays to think of the National as a snow trip. I take plenty of extra clothing and bedding.
My son, Thomas, and his mate, Gus, excelled themselves, building an elaborate square-rigged pirate ship for the parade!
We elected to come home via the scenic route this year – south through Cooma and Bombala to Cann River. It’s a beautiful drive, but it’s a long one!
Bogong High Plains – Huts, Huts and more Huts!
I’ve just returned from a wonderful three day sojourn in the Bogong High Plains – near Falls Creek – with my daughter, Lenore.
My principal purpose in going was to visit Cope Hut. I’ve never got to Cope Hut before because it is so close to the road, and I’ve always planned much more ambitious walks. I didn’t mind if the holiday was a little less strenuous this time around, though.
The following information is taken from the Falls Creek web-site:
“Proposed by the Ski Club of Victoria as a ski refuge and funded by the State Tourist Committee, Cope Hut was built in 1929.”
In its time, Cope Hut was regarded as the peak of luxury by ski tourers. It earned the nickname “The Menzies of the Plains”, after the Hotel Menzies, Melbourne’s premier luxury hotel of the day.
My interest in Cope Hut stems from my research into the life of Mt. Hotham-based gold prospector, Bill Spargo (discoverer of the Red Robin Reef), a project that has now been running for many years.
Some time ago I had the good fortune to interview retired mountain cattleman Charlie McNamara. Charlie told me about a brief conversation he had had with Bill Spargo about Cope Hut a long time earlier, when he had encountered him on the road one day.
I asked him to recount it for me.
“Well, I asked him about the hut. I said “Who picked the site for it?” He says, “I did.” And I said, “It’s a wonder, Bill, as you never picked a decent place.” He said, “What’s wrong with it?” He said, “It’s a nice scene, nice view.” I said, “Yes, the view is beautiful.” He says,”There’s a spring there, running water.” I says, “Yes, that’s good, too.” “Well,” he said, “what’s wrong?” “Well,” I said, “Why didn’t you build it down where the wood is?” I said, “No wood. It’s the main thing, the wood.” I says, “Christ,” I says, “It’s a wonder you didn’t wake up to (the) wood.” “Well,” he said, “I won’t pick any more spots.” I was a bit sorry after that, you know.”
Here is Cope Hut today.
As you can see, there is plenty of wood around the hut now. If what Charlie McNamara says is true, all of these trees must have grown since 1929.
The walk to Cope Hut from the car took about 45 seconds. We weren’t looking for a long walk, but we did want something longer than that!
So we decided to head for Wallace’s Hut, past the Rover Scouts’ Hut. All of these huts were new to me.
The Rovers’ Hut, I must admit, took me quite by surprise. I had no idea it was so large. What it reminded me of more than anything was Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece “The Shining”.
Wallace’s Hut is very picturesque, as you would expect from the oldest hut on the High Plains. The hut itself is very dark inside, and rather inhospitable, but the surrounding camping area is very comfortable and pretty.
It rained on and off during the night, but we were quite cosy in our little tent.
A thick mist came through the following morning, transforming the scene.
The mist vanished as quickly as it arrived, and we followed the snow poles of the Alpine Walking Track back to the car.
I decided it would be fun to spend the next night at Edmondson’s Hut, another hut I had not visited before, so we moved the car from the Cope Hut parking area to Watchbed Creek.
This is a considerably more demanding hike, and takes you well up above the tree-line.
The hut itself, again originally a cattleman’s hut, is not as attractive as Wallace’s, but it is much more inviting. It is better lit, more modern, and generally much better equipped. Again, the surrounding camp-site is quite beautiful.
The hut stands in a small area of unburnt snow gums, surrounded by trees that were well and truly burnt in the 2003 fires that swept through the area. I can only assume that a timely dump of water from a passing helicopter saved both the hut and the adjacent trees.
The snow gums only regenerate from their bases.
The night spent at Edmondson’s was dry, but a little colder nonetheless. I was cursing myself for not having brought my long johns! Still, we got through OK. The following day was clear and warm, with a blue sky, and it was lovely walking back across the High Plains to the car. From there it was down to the Mount Beauty Bakery for a cup of coffee and a bite to eat before returning to Melbourne.
All in all, it was a very enjoyable few days up in the Bogong High Plains – as indeed it always is.
Before finishing, I want to make special mention of the modern composting toilets, which were in absolutely fabulous condition at both huts. I counted eight toilet rolls at Edmondson’s Hut! It’s a far cry from the 70s, let me tell you.
I will finish with a little poem I wrote at Wallace’s Hut. It has nothing to do with the High Plains, but I had developed the idea for it the previous week, and Wallace’s Hut was a lovely peaceful place to write it. I had not heard of Pyalong until hearing it mentioned as one of a number of towns threatened by the recent fires north of Melbourne. I hope I am right in saying I believe it was not badly burnt.
A Pie Along To Pyalong
As I was walking down the road
I met a chap I hardly knowed.
“To Pyalong,” he said, “I’m bound,
And you can join me. How’s that sound?
I’ve fruit and cheese and fresh baked rolls,
And Boston buns, and coffee scrolls,
But you can bring a pie along to Pyalong.”
I said I thought perhaps I might
Walk down the road and out of sight
To go and meet this fellow’s mates,
And feast on apples, figs and dates;
To talk of sport and share the news
And hear a range of diverse views,
And also take a pie along to Pyalong.
This bloke and me are now good friends.
It’s funny how this story ends.
There’s many twists and turns in life.
His lovely daughter is my wife.
All because I said I’d go
And meet some blokes I didn’t know,
And take a little pie along to Pyalong.
© Stephen Whiteside 16.02.2014
Sailing/Camping – Gippsland Lakes
Last night I returned from a fabulous holiday sailing and camping in the Gippsland Lakes with my son, Thomas, and two of his mates, Alex and Daniel.
We established a base camp at Emu Bight in The Lakes National Park, east of Lochsport, on Sperm Whale Head.
The plan was to head off to the Mitchell River silt jetties. These are an amazing geographical phenomenon, whereby the Mitchell River, over countless years, has carried silt into deep out into Lake King, creating so-called ‘jetties’ that create the effect of river banks in the middle of the lank. (If you go to Google Images and search for “Mitchell River silt jetties” you will see some great aerial views.) I had visited them very briefly many years ago, and thought they would be a great place to camp. (Little did I know…)
The day got off to a wonderful start. It was hot and still, and a pod – perhaps eight – of the local dolphins swam past the calm waters of Emu Bight. They were a fair way off – perhaps a couple of hundred yards – yet because of the quietness of the bay, and no doubt due in some way to how sound travels over water – we could hear their blows as they surfaced. Then they put on a stunning aerial display for us, leaping repeatedly out of the water. It was utter magic.
Eventually they moved on, and we got down to the serious business of rigging and packing the boat, and setting sail. We set off with a light breeze, which soon dropped, leaving us becalmed in the middle of Lake Victoria. It didn’t take long for the gang to realise this was a golden opportunity for a swim. Eventually Thomas returned to the boat, and I decided to have a dip myself. There is nothing like having a whole lake to yourself – especially when it is about 10km long!
Eventually the wind picked up a little, and we continued on our travels. The only real navigational decision to make was whether to go the long way around Raymond Island, or take the short cut through the very narrow McMillan Strait that separates the island from Paynesville. There was no particularly strong argument one way or another, so I made the executive the decision that we would take the long way round. I think I just liked the idea of sailing in open water.
It was indeed a long way, but eventually we rounded Point King, at the north of Raymond Island, and could just sight the silt jetties on the horizon. As we approached them, we heard thunder and saw rain clouds behind them. It was a little unnerving, and we briefly toyed with the idea of heading west to the mainland. The situation seemed to improve a little, though, so we plugged on when, suddenly (“out of the blue”, so to speak), we were hit by a massive northwester that we really didn’t see coming.
It was one of the strongest winds I have ever sailed in. There was no way we could beat into it. The best I could manage was a broad reach, with all four of us hiking out hard. We were literally being driven before the gale! I quickly realised we had no hope of making the silt jetties, and would eventually have to make a landfall in Tambo Bay, to the east. Unfortunately, this was not close, which meant a long and nail-biting ride trying to make sure the mast kept pointing towards the sky as we rode the tempest.
The next cheerful little discovery was that most of the coast seemed to be lined with rocks, but eventually I spotted a small stretch of sand, and made for that. Finally, with a huge sense of relief, we made landfall.
Tambo Bay, just to the south of the mouth of the Tambo River, is a particularly cheerless stretch of coastline. It has a very wild, abandoned, unloved feel to it. It looks like a dumping ground of sorts, as though we are by no means the first to have been washed up on its shores. It also looks very flood prone, and as though it might have once been cleared for farming, but ultimately abandoned.
We couldn’t resist this opportunity for a shot of the boys watching ‘local tele’ (Thomas left, Alex middle, Daniel right).
We had a bite to eat while the wind died down, and then decided to make the final push for the silt jetties. We reached them without great difficulty, but they turned out to be a huge disappointment. The main problem was that rocks had been placed all around their shores to stabilise them. This made it very difficult to find a place to launch our boat. Eventually I found a muddy bank inside the mouth of the Mitchell River itself, but by this time the boys had decided the whole area looked thoroughly uninviting. We eventually resolved, therefore, to try to make a dash for Duck Arm before daylight failed us. We had spent a lovely day beside this beautiful patch of water at the end of the Banksia Peninsula in Lake Victoria the previous year, and it seemed to make perfect sense to spend the night there again. But did we have time?
Duck Arm is south west of Paynesville and Raymond Island, so the island needed to be negotiated once more. This time, however, there was no real option other than facing the shorter route through McMillan Strait.
Unfortunately, we reached it to find the wind was pretty much on the nose, so we would have to tack all the way up it. It was hard work in a brisk breeze and narrow water, but we very nearly made it. Alas, however, another huge gust of wind towards the end forced us to make for shore once more. This time, the shore was very close but again, it was mostly rocks. Once more, I spotted a patch of sand, and we made another safe landfall.
As you can see, the environment was essentially suburban, with no obvious camping options on offer.
Fortunately, a very kind local gentleman gave us permission to camp on the nature strip beside his back gate. Here we are, tucked in cosily out of the wind.
The wind continued to rage throughout the night, and we wondered if we would have to spend the next day holed up on Raymond Island. Fortunately the next morning, though cold and grey, brought a much more gentle breeze, and we woke early, packed and headed off as soon as possible, before the wind had a chance to build once more.
Here we are packing once more.
We passed through the remainder of McMillan Strait without incident, then struck out across Lake Victoria to the passage of water that runs between Banksia Peninsula and Sperm Whale Head. Once through here we were becalmed once more for an hour or so – which allowed for another swim in the lake – before at last returning to Emu Bight at about midday.
It had been a fabulous twenty four hours – dolphins, swimming in calm waters, running before gales, and simply enjoying sailing the lovely waterways of the Gippsland Lakes. Next year, though, we might make life a bit easier, and simply head for Duck Arm in the first place!