FRONTIER MOMENT - Boldens Run 1840-43


In August 1840 Bolden Brothers brought their herd of cattle to a halt on the eastern bank of the Hopkins River. It was probably raining. But they were finally 'Here'. And they had found a relatively safe place to make tomorrow's crossing.

 North of the river's junction with Mount Emu Creek, the water ran too swift and deep, pressed narrow by steep sides. And at Hopkins Falls, a wide but uneven plateau of basalt rock, the winter rains and strong flow could prove fatal for stumbling livestock. But south of the junction and below the Falls, the river follows a long straight before being forced sharply left by a projection of ancient limestone. It was here that the river slowed, dropping some of its silt-load of sand and gravel midstream. To the brothers, experienced overlanders who had successfully staged their mob of one thousand head through the swollen floodwaters of the Murray and Ovens Rivers, this bend in the Hopkins presented itself as a natural crossing-place. 

This was no ordinary overnight camp on the long journey from Sydney. For the brothers Armyne, Lemuel and George Bolden it represented the culmination of plans and dreams that had exercised the minds of themselves and their family in England for many years. The crossing-place was their point of entry into the heartlands of an intended 'grand estate'.

Behind them, to the north and east, loomed Mount Warrnambool and its apron of jagged 'stony rises'. Like Mount Emu Creek which they had followed down, the Boldens had wisely skirted this country that was hard on the hooves of horses and cattle. Beyond them, to the south, over limestone ridges and dense forest but still close enough to be smelt, was the sea. And before them, towards the mythical west and past the rising rampart of Lake Wangoom, lay the rolling pastured plains that were to become Boldens' Run.

 They had been on the road, off and on, for months. An employee of another overlanding firm, Edward Bell of Watson and Hunter, wrote of meeting them at the flooded River Murray in December 1839.
On arriving at the Murray, we overtook several expeditions which were waiting for a favourable opportunity to cross. There were said to be 10,000 head of cattle on its banks, in various 'mobs'. Messrs. Bolden had crossed several hundreds that day, and at night we camped with their party. (1)
The Port Phillip Herald was equally in awe of the sheer volume of stock being brought south, and its reporter took the trouble to secure more detailed figures on the migration.
 During the late flood not fewer than 3,000 head of cattle on the overland journey from New South Wales to Port Phillip were detained on the far side of the Hume [an early name of the Murray River]. Two herds belonging to the Messrs. Imlay of Twofold Bay [totalling 1,800 head] were en route to South Australia; the remainder were on the way to Port Phillip. Of these latter 600 belonged to Messrs. Watson and Hunter, and have been taken to their station on the Goulbourn; 1,000 head belonging to Mr Bolden, and 300 belonging to Mr. P. Snodgrass, have arrived in the vicinity of Melbourne. Since the flood 400 belonging to Mr. Murdoch, 300 belonging to Mr. Ryrie, and 400 belonging to Mr. Hawdon, have arrived within the province of Port Phillip. (2) 
The large scale of Bolden Brothers' importation is significant enough, but the Herald puts their overlanding venture in important context. According to the colonial newspaper about 5,000 cattle had been purchased from Sydney suppliers at around the same time. It can therefore be assumed that these were also expensive cattle.

An otherwise 'canny' squatter, 'Big' Clarke of Sunshine and Woodlands, admitted as much from his own experience of buying dear cattle in a boom year.
As to cattle generally, I think they have been unproductive previous to the goldfields, having myself purchased 400 head in the year 1840 for 4,000 Pounds [or 10 Pounds each], which cattle I kept till the year 1849, and their increase, which numbered upwards of 2,200 head, when I sold the whole for 3,300 Pounds [or one and a half Pounds each], giving one, two and three years credit without interest. (3)
The cost of everything that squatters required to take up a run was at a premium at the turn of the decade. Not just livestock, but bullocks and drays, flour and tea, horses and men. It was probably with a constant sense of responsibility and anxiety then, that the Boldens had managed to bring their slow moving 'stock and plant' to the boundary of their future station. A substantial family investment was 'on the hoof' and it was no small achievement to have got it all to the crossing-place without loss.

But this was 'It'. The culmination of years of family planning, of crossing the world's oceans in small ships, of large sums of money transmitted and spent.  Tomorrow would bring the reality of all their hopes and fears. So what, with their awareness quickened to this significant moment, did the brothers actually make of the landscape around them?

The ground beneath their feet

In his book Marvellous Possessions, the New Historicist writer Stephen Greenblatt attempts to restore the emotion of amazement, of wonder, to our understanding of the European age of exploration and discovery. He wants the modern reader to be fully alive to "voyagers who thought they knew where they were going and ended up in a place whose existence they never imagined...the shock of the unfamiliar, the provocation of an intense curiosity, the local excitement of discontinuous wonders...the encounter with difference that is epitomised by Columbus's marvellous landfall". (4)

The author is not about justifying colonial imperialism and the destruction of indigenous societies. Far from it. Instead he wants us to be aware of the destabilising effect of dramatic difference in our surroundings, of the unsettling enthusiasm that first exoticises and idealises the new (before categorising and disciplining it according to the old). A similar sense of curiosity and enthusiasm, almost in spite of themselves, is present in the records of a number of the squatters who asserted dominion over 'their' parts of the volcanic plains of western Victoria in the period of early British settlement.

In the absence of the Bolden brothers' own accounts of their feelings at the crossing-place, it would probably be presumptive to try and recreate their thoughts by imagining them. However, it might be useful to stimulate our own sense of awe at this landscape, to introduce something of 'discovery' and 'wonder' into the twenty-first century reader's mind. 

For a motorist from Warrnambool who is driving up the Highway to Melbourne or Geelong, the countryside in between passes as not much more than a blur through the glass. Out to the sides of the main road, the scenery is part of of the 'known' for the regular traveler, a familiar background that usually fails to distract us from our singular purpose in getting to the city on time.

And, at first glance, the technology of GPS and does little to change this impression of unvarying blandness. The satellite image produces a patchwork of paddocks in different shades of green, the course of the Highway we are travelling on is made out, and some idea of the major rivers and creeks can be discerned. What is not immediately obvious is the underlying violence, a subterranean view, an image of the elemental force that wrought this landscape into the shapes that are recognisable on the surface.

Our ability to interpret the satellite image is considerably improved by reference to a soil map of the area. The story of the landscape surrounding the crossing-place is one of layering, of new sheets of rock laid over old, with the oldest at the bottom and the newest at the top.

At the base is Port Campbell limestone, a legacy from a time when most of the Western District was submerged beneath a shallow sea. Over this, to the north and west, is a layer of basalt rock and weathered soil that is the residue of lava flows in a period of volcanic activity dating from around 4.5 million years ago. Above this is a rich coating of blasted rock and ash that was produced from more recent maar craters, when hot emerging magma (1,400 degrees Celsius) struck a water table in the limestone and caused a massive explosion of steam and debris. At or around the same time, vents in the earth erupted with streams of equally hot lava. These poured out over the surface of the land before cooling and solidifying into the uneven black rock of the 'stony rises'.

The flat saucer-shaped craters from the maar explosions are distinguishable by their circling walls, or 'tuff rings', of shattered rock and dust at the extremity of their blast or 'surge' range. The shallow depressions in the centre became lakes and swamps, drainage basins that gradually filled up with soil and organic matter. Flowing watercourses, often diverted by the expanded area of hardened lava and assuming new routes, continued to erode some areas and deposit alluvial load in in others. It is in this manner that the two uppermost  soil types (at least in terms of geological time) were formed. 

When we return to the satellite image of the area around the crossing-place it is with a keener eye. Mount Warrnambool, combining a maar crater and a lava producing vent, is now recognised, surrounded by surviving parts of its tuff ring and an apron of stony rises to its north and west. Vague circles in the picture also resolve into volcanic features, like Lake Wangoom and its tall embankment of debris from the original explosion. Mount Emu Creek now appears to overlay an earlier volcanic landscape, neatly dissecting Dwarroon Maar and partly eroding its tuff ring. Tank Hill, itself a small crater within Dwarroon's northern wall (and today a storage for the City of Warrnambool's water supply), is now visible. So too a similarly small inverted cone, situated between Tank Hill and Hopkins River.

The feature that is most prominent from the Highway is Mount Warrnambool. Broad and squat, without an obvious cone, it is at its highest point 216 metres above sea level. Estimates of the age of its eruption have been unreliable, ranging from 570,000 (1966) to 2,190,000 years ago(1990). However, a scientific study of rock samples taken in 2010 used a refinement of Potassium/Argon dating known as (40)Ar(39)Ar and has established a more consistent reading across sites.

Five samples collected from the Framlingham Quarry, approximately 500 metres west of the central lava flow and in the midst of its stony rises, have produced a weighted mean age of 547,000 years (+/- 23,000). Another five samples taken from the base of the Hopkins Falls, an eleven metre thick slab of exposed basalt rock over which the Hopkins River flows and situated eight kilometres south west of the mount, have yielded results of 535,000 years (+/- 27,000). Taking the findings together, nine out of ten samples (one contaminated by atmospheric Argon) from the two related sites indicated an average eruption age for Mount Warrnambool of 542,000 years (+/- 17,000). (5)

The definitive dating of a familiar landmark is more than an academic exercise. It gives an almost personal confidence in the thing to provide us with a reliable story of where we live. One aspect of this is the way the new/confirmed date provides a graspable insight into the dimensions of geological time. The mountain's outskirts of stony rises have certainly been changed by agriculture in the last century or so. Scrubby vegetation has been cleared and loose stone has been picked up in the settlers' effort to obtain as much of it for growing grass as possible. Even in their original condition these formations were more decayed than the 'barrier country' from younger volcanoes in the Western District. Yet they persist. This tells us that for the process of weathering lava rock into arable basalt soils, half a million years is simply not enough.

Another prominent feature of the crossing-place landscape is Lake Wangoom, or more precisely, its outer wall that rises above the banks of the river to 73 metres. When hot magma hits a water-table, its explosion pulverises the host rock and disperses it as small particles which fall highest on the side opposite the prevailing winds. That is the case with this maar. A quarry on the inner east of the tuff ridge reveals the singular intensity of this event. The resulting layers of ash and dust are formed almost entirely from limestone (white) and charcoal (black), with little of the customary evidence of associated volcanic emissions (red-brown). This was a once only incident, unlike the more complex interaction of eruptions at Mount Warrnambool.

In 1984 a team of scientists used a professional drilling rig to extract a continuous 20.6 metre core of material from the centre of the lakebed. They analysed sections from the core for pollen residue (what plants grew), mineral composition (age of deposits), biological content (what animals lived) and charcoal deposits (contrast of dating). The maximum depth of the mined sediment was calculated at 50,000 years ago. Within this general time-frame they found the pollen counts to indicate a prolonged dry period occurring between 31,500 years and 10,000 years. After that there was a sharp increase in moisture availability, which was reflected in a change from predominantly herbaceous (drought tolerant) vegetation to mixed eucalypt and casuarina woodland (conditions at settlement). They also noted a signature varietal difference in the core levels from before and after the long dry. In the earlier period of woodland dominance there was a shrubby under-story of acacia and melaleuca, whereas during the last 10,000 years or so the under-story was nearly all grass species.(6)

Parallel to this finding from the pollen counts was a "dramatic and sustained increase in charcoal particles", a phenomenon which began about the 20,000 year mark and continued until around 9,000 years ago. The surge in evidence for environmental burning (unrelated to changes in local volcanic conditions), suggested the possibility of systematic human intervention. The introduction of a regular, repeated, regime of 'fire-stick farming', (that is, the deliberate encouragement of new green shoots to attract larger grazing mammals like kangaroo), may also explain the change in under-story species between the earlier wet period and the most recent. (7) 

In 1987 the drillers returned to Lake Wangoom to extract another core of sediment, this time going down to 41 metres. The extra depth, and the use of improved measurement techniques (uranium/thorium rather than radio-carbon), led to an expansion of dates for the crater. The previous record of 51,000 years BP was adjusted out to 95,000 (+/- 25,000) for the 20.6 metre core and 125,000 (+/- 10,000) for the 41 metre core. Nevertheless, this revision did not substantively alter the vegetation history for the past 30-40,000 years, a period for which radio-carbon dating generally remains reliable. Although the authors of this latest dating report did not specifically address the issue, the possibility of sustained burning activity by Aborigines, particularly during the period from 21,000 to 9,000 years BP, is therefore still open. (8) 

On a path already trod

Not in any doubt is that in 1840, when Bolden Brothers and their 1,000 head of cattle camped at the crossing-place, the area around the junction of Mount Emu Creek and Hopkins River was already inhabited. Pre-dating the arrival of European intruders by numberless generations, there was already in existence an established and intricately organised population of original residents.

The crossing-place was situated in an Aboriginal world. The region's features and resources were named and mapped in 'song-lines', being significantly understood and continuously interpreted as the source of identity and meaning by the people living in it. Knowledge of 'My Country' was deeply impressed in Aboriginal clans through oral repetition, ceremony, and 'walking' their respective 'story-lines' in seasonal rotations. 

Aboriginal groups regarded themselves as custodians of their landscapes. In their system of cultural validation and reinforcement, different geographical features and sites "were identified by names linked to ancestral stories, which enabled the inhabitants to travel across the country along clearly defined routes". (9) They believed 
the land was given form by ancestral beings who traversed the landscape, conferring territories and naming each locality...When asking a senior custodian the extent of his territory he will, most often, name all the localities on the territory to which the ancestral being traveled and performed all the daily activities of life in the creative epoch. The names are recited in the order in which they were visited. This naming of localities matches the order in which the names appear in the song cycle during the performance of rituals involving clans from the wider ritual group with which the clan identifies. (10)
The following map is an attempt to recreate some small sense of the multi-detailed Aboriginal world that Bolden Brothers were entering into at the crossing-place. It introduces a sample of names, places, and meanings that were innate to the local people, but unintelligible to ngamadjidj ('stranger' or 'White man'). (11) 

The junction of the Hopkins River and Mount Emu Creek marked the boundaries of three distinct clans. Gundidj means 'people belonging to' a particular locality. These clans spoke three different dialects of the one great language common to south west Victoria, Dhauwurd wurrung (or the Maar language). Wurrung means 'lip' or speech.

The Worn gundidj living on the west side of the Hopkins River were part of the Peek wurrung dialect group. The Warrnumbul gundidj to the east of the river and north of Mount Emu Creek spoke the Kirrae wurrung dialect. The Pattatkil gundidj, also to the east of the river but south of the creek, were speakers of the Wirngil gnat tallinanong dialect. This meant that while each gundidj was mutually intelligible to their nearest neighbours, they were not ritually connected for ceremony and law. (12) 

Each local territory was closely observed and densely named by its custodian clan. The yellow dots displayed along a short section of the Hopkins on either side of the Mount Emu Creek junction illustrate the detail of Aboriginal 'mapping by naming'. In most cases these represent deep waterholes along the watercourse, which might not be obvious in wet or normal years, but proved critical in long dry summers or drought. Each had its specific name (for example, Poonoong poonoong, meaning 'ti-tree'), because any one of them might provide crucial life-sustaining support for clan communities in a time of climatic dearth.

Often the place names are richly descriptive, evoking much more than a feature's physical attributes. Hopkins Falls was called Tangang punhart, meaning "eels bite the stones", because juvenile eels gathered in large numbers at its base on their migration upriver. The obstacle of the massive shelf of near vertical rock, the eels' apparent distress, and their determination to overcome the obstacle and continue their journey, are vividly portrayed in this choice of place name. Similarly, the name for a bleak and inhospitable place in the stony rises near Mount Warrnumbool was Murri mukrii burkrrakil, meaning "shivering with cold" or "middle of winter". (13) 

There are core stem-words common to many dialects, like Caark for mountain (as in Wukrnnumbul caark) and Killlingk for lake ( as in Mangoom killingk). But the main emphasis is local and specific. For example, the main rivers are not experienced as complete systems by localised clans (and being Australian, they do not always act as continuously flowing entities either, often drying up into a chain of separate waterholes). Aboriginal clans therefore named 'their' sections of the bigger streams. The name for the lower reaches of Mount Emu Creek was Gnurrar poorkn pookn. For the lower reaches of the Hopkins River (before the estuary) it was Pookarr.

It is reasonable to assume, from even this brief glimpse of Indigenous language and place naming, that the two main parties occupying the region of the crossing-place in August 1840 held very different views of that same landscape. It is not clear what the Bolden brothers were thinking at their camp that night on the Hopkins. However, economic opportunity and visions of 'taming the bush' into a grand estate were no doubt part of it. For the Worn, Warrnumbul, and Pattatkil gundidj, on the other hand, their way of 'seeing' was all about 'My Country'. This was a concept both simpler and more complicated than most Europeans were prepared to imagine at the time.


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