Today’s weather was very different to the day before when we had warm weather and sunny skies. By contrast, this morning we awoke to find low cloud on the peaks and a bracing cold wind. Clouds were scudding across the plains and visibility was quite limited.
There were e a number of Aboriginal tribes that were the traditional owners of these lands in this high country. Europeans first explored and settled in the area as graziers seeking pastoral land for their cattle. Horses were their main form of transport and without them, access to this remote area would have been very difficult. The biggest early development for the area was the Kiewa Hydroelectric Scheme which began construction in the 1940s. Since the completion of the Scheme, the area has become much more based around tourism, particularly skiing. This area is prone to bushfires because of the large amount of native forest. The 2003 Eastern Victorian alpine bushfires devastated much of the area. Many well-known huts were destroyed. More recently the area was again threatened during the 2006-07 Australian bushfire season and more damage was incurred in the southern area because of the 2019 fires..
Our first stop, today, was at Wallace’s Hut. This is the oldest of the Cattleman’s huts still standing in the Alpine National Park. It is classified by the National Trust. The hut was built from slabs of snowgum by the Wallace Brothers in 1889 and is located along the Bogong High Plains Road, about 8 kilometres from the Rocky Valley storage dam wall. In the 1930’s its woolly butt roof shingles were replaced by the SEC when it was taken over as a workers’ hut. The walk into the hut from the carpark by the main road is about 600 metes long and fortunately it didn’t rain for me. Yesterday, the hut was the site of a fund raising ‘Long Lunch’ with over 150 people dining from tables set up underneath the snow gums. I’m glad that it was uninhabited today so that I could get some clear photos.
Further along the Bogong High Plains Road is Cope Hut. This hut was built by the Ski Club of Victoria in 1929 after the state experienced a surge in skiing in the 1920s. The hut was called “The Menzies of the High Plains” (after a luxurious hotel in Melbourne) by early skiers and walkers because of its size and comfort. I have slept in this hut on at least one occasion while bush walking in this area.
The weather cleared as we travelled further over the high plains and by the time that we had passed Mount Cope it felt like a very different day.
The next part of our drive to Omeo was along a relatively narrow road with a continuous descent though a thickly wooded area and with more bends than I could count. The entire length of the road now has a bitumen surface. On a previous trip trough her some seven or eight years ago, this entire distance was unmade road. We passed through an area that was badly burned in last year’s disastrous bush fires. Our speed was reduced and some road repairs were obviously under way.
After many kilometres of very winding road, we came to a road junction where the High Plains Road meets the Omeo Highway. Near the junction was a picnic and camping area on the banks of the Big River. We stopped for a cup of thermos coffee and watched as a group of riders saddled their horses to go off on a riding expedition. We are not sure of their destination but they clearly were staying somewhere overnight in the bush as their party include several packhorses that were loaded with swags and other camping gear. The river was very scenic.
Further along, we came to the Wills Historic Area which was rich in mining history. One of the mines – the ‘Maude and Yellow Girl Mine’ was virtually destroyed in the 2003 fires and there are just a few remnants of machinery in a shed that volunteers are gradually restoring. In 1904 the Yellow Girl mine produced about 29 kg of gold from just 24 tonnes of ore. With our current ‘cancel culture’ I doubt that anyone could call a mine by that name any more. It probably would now have to be called something like the ‘Lactating human and Immigrant from Asia Mining Corporation’.
We followed the Big River downstream and at its junction with the Cobungra River, we found the Blue Duck Inn at Anglers rest and stopped there for a beer and lunch.
This pub is in the middle of nowhere but very popular with people travelling across the high plains to, and from, Omeo. Billy O’Connell, a successful miner, bought an original timber slab building and obtained a hotel license in 1912, on the promise that the main road would pass the site, a promise that did not eventuate as the first survey submitted was turned down by the Government. So O’Connell nailed a panning dish to the front of the hotel and wrote with irony, ‘Blue Duck’ on it in large letters – a mining term for a white elephant. If you take out a gold lease and it produces no gold, it’s universally known as a ‘blue duck’.
In the early 20’s, he then transported two houses from Omeo – room by room – through the bush on horse drays. One is the main building of the Blue Duck, and the other one was used as a residence. Billy O’Connell settled there with his wife Lillian and raised 9 children.
In spite of their initial pessimism, the O’Connells’ establishment was discovered by keen anglers from the city. The O’Connells left in 1946 after which the Blue Duck passed through many hands. The Blue Duck relinquished its license in 1967 when the gold in the area petered out but it regained its license in 1998.
Near Omeo is the Oriental Claims mining area. This old mining claim is named in reference to The Oriental Company which mined in the area from 1876 to 1904 and also in memory of the many Chinese miners (‘Orientals’) that worked the area for over 50 years. The company used hydraulic sluicing to carve the land for alluvial gold and gouged the land with a network of water races specifically designed to provide maximum water pressure. You can still see some cliffs where the surface of the land was washed away in order to recover gold.
We have settled into our motel in Omeo for the night and we can hear it raining outside. Omeo has a population of just over 400 people but it is large enough have two pubs. There are a few buildings in the Main Street but the Post Office is clearly the most opulent building in town.
In 1851, alluvial deposits of gold were found in tributaries of the local creek, and by the end of 1854, over 200 men were camped along its banks digging for gold, most of it was found within a metre or so from the surface. The town is now a quiet and sleepy township servicing a district known for its cattle, sheep and timber production. It has quite a number of local attractions that tourists would find interesting.
Tomorrow, we continue our drive to the quaintly named town of Cabbage Tree Creek in Far Eastern Victoria.