(Warning: this blog contains references to Aboriginal peoples, their ancestors, and their past history.)
“I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the Land and the Kolorer Gunditj people of whose land I walked. I pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging and extend that respect to all Aboriginal people.”
My great grandfather lived in Penshurst for a time, as did one of his sons (who owned a pub there), as does his granddaughter still. When my pendulum (yes I’m a weirdo but the best kind of one) plucked out the area from a map, along with a “must visit” intuitive message, who was I to say no?
It wasn’t until I was standing in the town that I realised why I’d come, and it wasn’t to visit my relatives’ long-time choice of residence.
After an uncomfortable night in questionable accommodation we wake to see a misty cloud descend upon and swallow Mt Rouse whole. The day before, the small extinct volcano had been bathed in late afternoon sunshine creating a golden background for this small country town in Western Victoria. Undeterred by the weather we pull on our hiking boots and parkers, and set off on foot along the Hamilton Hwy, otherwise known as Bell St, into down town Penshurst.
The main street itself is lined with authentic homes and shops from a bygone era. As the township was “declared” in the mid-1800s, there are plenty of bluestone buildings to photograph, along with an array of fallen-down and forgotten sun-beaten timber shops and homes long given over to spiders. It isn’t without its quirks either. The Jolly Roger flag fronts one house, a crafty witch hangs on the front door of another. Walk across the floor of the supermarket and you’ll think you’re on a trampoline.
The owner of one local café is, as he says, “a ring-in”. A jubilant short stout man with a towel flung over his shoulder, he fusses over our food with a joke and a smile. Gratitude is in his every movement, perhaps something to do with two years of lockdowns and not a lot of patrons.
Across the road we peer through the windows of an art gallery. The owner leaves the warmth of her shop to chat about her gallery, the town, things to see. She is nice. Welcoming. Her hair is long and flowing. The mist settles on it like a veil. She urges us to see the botanical gardens. I would’ve passed them by if not for her. I take it as a sign and we walk further down the street to see them, past the pub my great uncle once owned.
The rain heavies. I wrap my camera under my parker and continue along manicured paths of pretty plants. I give a nod to two people barbecuing under umbrellas and stroll further to a pond. A plaque states it’s a natural spring once revered by the Kolorer Gunditj clan who used it as a meeting place. I put the reference in my back pocket of facts, snap a few photos, and leave to drive up to the top of the extinct volcano, Mt Rouse.
I knew Mt Rouse had once been mined for basalt and scoria and that a large part of it had now been returned as a nature reserve open to the public, so I was keen to see its restoration.
Apparently, on a clear day, there’s a beautiful view of the Grampians from the top of the hill. We, however, have instead a beautiful view of raindrops pooling under handrails and on the tips of gum leaves. The town below is only just visible.
We drive back down the hill past a naïve-style painted shelter of an English settler woman sitting beside an Aboriginal man. I slip this picture into my back pocket of stored facts also. The emotion of the image disturbs me. I don’t know why. A shiver runs down my spine.
We pull into a carpark at the lower crater. No other soul in sight. With soft precise steps we walk amongst the wet bracken and rocks passing scarred, gnarled, distressed blackened trees. There’s no doubting the land has seen tough times. The word ‘raped’ comes to mind. Water cascading from sinewy branches reminds me of weeping. The reserve is silent. Eerie. I feel like an outsider trespassing. I’m not sure who the ancient guardians of the land are, but I seek permission to be there. It feels respectful to ask.
I can’t explain it but by asking to be there, I then feel welcomed into the crater’s folds where I become lost in a meditative crossover of time and space. In the background, I hear mobs of kangaroos grazing, hopping, curious. Beside me, the squawk of tiny wattle-bird beaks calling to be fed, reminding me that life is cyclic. In the present, I listen to the stories whispered on the wind and send out love to everything, past, present, or future, which requires it.
It's only when I’m back home, that I find out about the massacre of the Aboriginal peoples which had taken place at Mt Rouse, a place they’d traditionally named Kolor; how their sacred spring had been taken over by the settlers without negotiation or compromise; how they had tried to be educated, reformed and Christianised.
No wonder I was called there – the land and its peoples needed healing. But how do you heal a past like that? I guess it starts with respect and a loving heart. What I do know, is that standing in that crater with an open heart and listening ears is something I’ll never forget.