sitting by the Spring

Macalister Spring is nothing short of magical. It is a hidden and sheltered camp on a ridge that runs off Mount Howitt, which in turn feels like it is the heart of the Victorian Alps. There is a little open glade where the spring pops out of the ground (still infested with worms from the grazing days, so you have to boil the water) and races off down through the trees into the very headwaters of the Macalister River. Above that is the A frame hut and on the other side of this small basin is a ridge with fine camping and views across the broad and impressive sweep of the upper Wonnangatta River and along the Cross Cut Saw and the Devil’s Staircase.

This country is rich in history, and people seem to be drawn to it and all the details hidden in the silence, from the murders in the upper Wonnangatta in the early 20th century to the remote Wonnangatta station far below and the connection to the Mountain cattlemen days (reflected in the names of many of the peaks). But when I sit in the silence of the snow gum forests on an autumn day, I wonder about the Aboriginal presence. Howitt sits on old trade routes. As I understand it, the Gippsland tribes traded into western Victoria, but because they didn’t get on with the Kulin nations of Westernport and Port Phillip, they travelled around that country, north through the mountains then down and westwards along the river systems, to meet friends on the other side.

Howitt is the top end of Taungurung country and backs onto Gunnai/ Kurnai country on the south. Gunnai man Russell Mullett, who worked for years in the mountains says that in some parts of the alps (above snow line) people lived for up to nine months of the year, where the environment was suitable – especially around the fringes of the High Plains where there were swampy areas that provided rich supplies and diversity of food. So what did this place mean to these people? The only story I have heard about names up this way that is closest to the Springs is for the people whose country came out towards what is now Mansfield and the upper Delatite, who were the ‘stone dwelling people’. To identify with your country that way, to live up in the cold country, must have made them different in many ways, in spite of the commonalities with nearby peoples. What did they do up here, what were the names of the places, where did they go and where didn’t they go?

I feel so rude sometimes, blundering around into what feels like a special place, totally oblivious to the older culture, not knowing if its was a place to camp or a place to stay away from. In my early walking days up here, I heard the stories about a ‘yowie’ type creature that lived on the ridgetops and supposedly protected some areas, ‘Aboriginal’ places people said – graveyards or sites. Where did that story come from?

In spite of the cold winters I find this country welcoming. I love how the forest closes around you at dark and the night time noises come back in as the human noises settle down. I feel good up here, and often find myself walking into an opening in the forest or onto a peak, and suddenly feeling like I have arrived somewhere special, like I have stumbled into the centre of the world, somewhere rich and unique in spite of its relative same-ness to the surrounding land. I wish I knew some of the names, that must sit there just beneath those of the explorers, the cattlemen, the miners and the government officials that came through. Every now and then, lying in my tent on a clear, moonlight night, just as I fall into the well of asleepness I feel like I can almost hear a joyful noise, of people doing business, of intent filled ceremony, somewhere just out there in the dark.