Lake Corangamite

Bruce Pascoe, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages

Plenary session, 2005 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society

I'd like to tell a story about the Stone Country around the Western District lakes. How it feels today, what the country can tell us of the past, how the repercussions of that history are still felt. The history is modern, touchable, we can't just 'get over it'.

This is a story about a visit to the stone lakes in search of history and language. The lake country has such beauty and wildness, such stillness and silence that warm days are gentle and stretch out like a sleeping cat.

Lake Corangamite takes its name from the Colijon word koraiyn, meaning bitter or salty. These people, the people around the Colac lakes, also used the word koraiyn for the white man's alcohol. They found it bitter to the taste and to their life.

It's a curiosity that despite the antipathy white squatters held for the Aboriginal people and the contempt with which they regarded the indigenous culture they often chose to preserve local Aboriginal names for the properties they stole from those same people.

Drive through this area and you pass: Pirron Yallock, Colac, Elliminyt, Warrion, Beeac, Irrewarra, Birregurra, Geelong, Werribee, Purrumbeet, Warrnambool, Ballarat, thousands of them; you see property names: Mone Mone Meet, Buninyong, Kardinia, Gerangamete, Lal Lal, Karngun, Moodmere, Pyalong, Murdeduke, Tarndwoorncoort, Trawalla, Yan Yan Gurt, Wooloomanatta; there seems to be a compulsion to remember the original name even while trying to forget how the property came under white ownership.

It's peculiar, eerie, to have the names but almost none of the people. I took a journey to Lake Corangamite in gorgeous early autumn sunshine, a bit of time up the sleeve, ham sandwich… and an apple. The same people who kept the names also spread the seed of apples and plums, nectarines and peaches; unless the sowing was the casual beneficence of corellas and lorikeets.

Well, for whoever is responsible, thank you. The Purrumbete road through the Stoney Rises dips and bounds through the slumps and slees of volcanic jumble. In the dells there are swatches of emerald grass, on the tumbled mounds eucalypts muscle their way into the rock, probing with fine fingers for the riven fault where they might look to steal their living. And apple trees. There on a bend a fine apple tree. To be sure, a quantity of the plump fruit has been investigated by parrots in the belief that they are the proprietor of this orchard but they leave enough so that, by standing in the tray of the ute, I can pluck two for lunch.

It's great to be Australian. No-one is hungry enough to strip any fruit tree bare, there's always something for the traveller. The day is divine, the fruit is delicious, every gate post bears an Aboriginal word and yet there is a bleakness about my search that no bounty, no joy at seeing such beautiful country seems to shift.

I don't meet anyone on this day who isn't generous, warm, humorous or wry: good honest country Australians, and yet I approach my task with foreboding despite this generosity and friendliness.

For instance, there's a house on the highway near Pirron Yallock made out of local stone and over twenty years I've tried to get permission to have a look at it. It's a striking house. Gun embrasures let into the walls.

I ask members of local history organisations. They know nothing about it, seem vague about whether they've seen it or not. Argue that the slots might have been to ventilate the Cobb and Co horses that used to be stabled there but can't explain why it was called a fort. The Information Centres are emphatic that no house in the district would ever have slots in the wall, no, no, not in this town. On another occasion it was being run as a kind of nursery-museum but the proprietor took an instant dislike to me and refused entry. I didn't hold out much hope for his enterprise and sure enough it was closed in a matter of months. The next time I tried I could hear a person walking by the door. The radio fell silent but there was no answer to my knock.

Bluestone makes for a bleak house at the best of times but these rocks seemed to be infecting the residents with malice. Except on this day, this sublime day in March, the day of free apples and friendly faces, a young woman answers the door holding a child's building block and the child she's been playing with turns to look at me with that open mouthed awe with which children will scrutinize the stranger. The woman is pleasant, pretty in a country way, dressed in the coarser fabrics of forest protesters. Oh, of course, she says, go on round the back, it used to be a museum or something but we live here now, take as many photos as you like.

I ask about the slots in the wall and her face falls a little and she lowers her voice and becomes confidential. It's an old house, she says, the settlers had a lot of fights with the Aborigines, they used to shoot at them through those slots. She falls silent and brings her hands together and stares at me, seeming to wonder if I appreciate the horror. She's a good person. In her world people should not shoot at other people. Her child will be given every opportunity to exhibit the goodness of its little heart.

I take my photos at the back of her house, the garden plump with ripe fruit, a picture of the rustic paradise. But it wasn't always so even though the fruit and sunshine may have been contemporaneous with the embrasure and carbine. I call out my thanks as I leave and her voice trills from deep in the house like a bird thrilled by the fecundity of its world.

In amongst the Stoney Rises I get lost of course, I do it almost deliberately. I love being lost, the opportunities it provides, and of course I'm approached on one of these apple laden lanes by a rustic on a four wheel motor bike and the irony is on his face even before I wind down the window. He knows I'm lost and he knows I don't care. He's got sheep like that, used to correcting their errant little cloven hoofs. Because I'm in this lonely, little travelled part, his country, he treats me like a friend, a brother, and even when I ask about the fish traps in the lake his face clouds only a little and he directs me faithfully to the correct road. And when I look in the rear view mirror he's waving as if knowing I'm like a twelve year old on a lazy adventure. Good bloke, good decent Australian.

But the gate I arrive at, as he said I would, is locked, padlocked, so I drive further on and turn in to the next farm house and as I approach I notice how tiny it is, how bone grey and flaky the fibro sheets of its construction. At the back door I peer through the glass and see all the strewn boots, five different sizes, the baby's cot jammed against the window of a side room, the blatant poverty, the washing drying on a clothes horse.

He comes out, the farmer, and hears my request to photograph the lake and seems to guess immediately what I'm after, a grim line momentarily forming on his lips, but he shows me how to approach the shore by going past the smallest dairy I've seen in years, down along the fence line, through the gate, no worries. He is kind in the way of really hard up people, but at the back of his eye there's a look of shock that someone should have enough time to take photos in the middle of the day.

I don't know how he came by this farm but I can see the work ahead of him in every rotten post, every gate clinging to its hinge with nothing but the pride of being a gate, and I can feel the weariness come over him as he sees someone with no fixed list of desperate tasks, someone now strolling through his paddocks of labour to take sunny snaps.

Of other people's houses and their fish traps. The people who gave his property its name. He knows this is what I came for, saw the realisation in his eyes seconds after we met, and I can imagine the frustration he struggles to hide with his genuine good nature. Someone here to take photos of the blacks' houses and fish traps, just jumbles of rocks if you ask me, and here I am slaving my guts out on a salty farm with never enough money to buy a pair of socks without standing in the supermarket juggling the really cheap pair, a size too small and a hateful colour, against the slightly dearer pair, but in a pleasant brown and bound to last longer, but $6.50 against $4.50.

I've had years when I've stood in supermarkets like that and it's soul destroying, it can make you bitter, jealous, hate the people with time to stroll in the sun, who won't have to try and hang a gate in the gathering dark so the baby can't get to the dam. And some babies do. Soul destroying.

But this bloke doesn't hate me, goes out of his way to ensure I get where he knows I need to go but when he sits down to his dinner tonight, conscious of another three hours work ahead, he'd be inhuman if he wasn't just a little resentful.

But my concern for him soon evaporates. I can see the fish traps striding out over the shallow salty lake and I look about, trying to imagine where a fisherman might have his house, and, yes, there it is, no, there they are, on the rise from which you'd be able to see the fish coming along the concourse of stones first built by grandfathers in a time so distant their names have become synonymous with creation.

Oh, the walls are tumbled down now, you can see the shiny spots on stones where cattle have rubbed, the roof beams and thatch have long been burned, but they're there, thirty, forty, fifty, many houses and this is just the fishing camp, how many  must have lived in the Rises, those Colignon, Jarcoort, Keeraywoorong, on days like this when the sun rests on your back like a lazy cat and the pelicans glide across the water, sleepy and mesmerised by their own reflections. I can see the fish come, the giggles and shrieks of children, the smoke spiralling in perpendicular coils, the dogs dozing with their feet on their paws and I am sorry for the beleaguered farmer but I am devastated for these people, that such beauty and peace should have been stolen, that such easy bounty should have been replaced by a grinding labour of devastating grimness. I sorrow for farmer and fisherman alike but oh, how it hurts to see the waste of that generous civilization. It hurts to think Australians allowed it then and accept it now.

Hardly anyone comes here today and those who do often bear the names you see in the early history books. Schools, libraries, historians and politicians might ignore the story of this land, wanting something more cheerful and heroic: if only Bourke hadn't been such an idiot, if only Brahe had waited one more day, if only Angus McMillan hadn't been a murderer. But we can't, the truth is etched on the stones of this old, tired land. There is no need to gnash our teeth, strike our foreheads until blood flows, no need to apologise, no need to despair, but there is every urgency to know and reflect on that knowledge, to wonder what we as Australians need to do next. Often you find the answer in the wilderness, in the stone country.

Bruce Pascoe, Language Worker, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages
10 Anglers Drive, Gipsy Point, Victoria  3891. <>