The Candles of Mount Noorat
‘Two Miles from the Home station is a hill about 300 feet high and having an extinct Crater 250 feet deeper’, wrote the Scottish pastoralist, Niel Black, in 1843. ‘This hill is surrounded by fine forest timber and from its top there is a beautiful view of the surrounding country, probably the richest in New South Wales and presenting a noble, park like appearance.’ The hill in question was Mount Noorat on Girai wurrung country in Victoria’s Western District: a large volcanic complex with a distinct profile and notably deep, well-formed central crater.
Western Victoria is dominated by undulating volcanic plains. Its soils are a fertile and rich in nutrients, supporting grassy woodland and wetland ecosystems. The countryside is marked by stony rises, old lava flows, volcanic cones, and old eruption points. On the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887, bonfires were lit atop a string of volcanoes – from Mount Warrenheip near Ballarat and then atop Mount Elephant, Mount Noorat, Mount Leura and mountains further south almost all the way to the southern coast of Victoria. The beacons served as a dramatic reminder of the British Empire’s expansion into the region in the late 1830s.
George Augustus Robinson, appointed Chief Protector of the Aborigines in the Port Phillip District in 1839, had toured Mount Noorat in 1841, noting that ‘Trees and grass grow on its banks … kangaroos scampered along the sides, although steep’. At the time of European settlement Mount Noorat was likely home to manna gums, messmate stringybarks, black wattle and blackwood, drooping she-oak, silver banksia, cherry ballart, sweet bursaria, kangaroo apple, and a variety of other species including austral bracken, rushes, yam daisy, scented sundew, kangaroo grass and common wallaby-grass.
Even in 1841, however, Robinson had observed that he could ascend ‘Knorart’ by a path made by ‘splitters and hurdle makers in quest of timber with their drays’. Throughout the 1840s, the large eucalypts that grew on the slopes of Mount Noorat were used for firewood, posts, rails, poles, fences, and building materials on the Glenormiston property and beyond. By 1853, the crater of Mount Noorat was described as ‘thinly wooded’. Evidently the volcano was not entirely destitute, because four years later, in 1857, James Bonwick visited the mountain and remarked upon its ‘Healthy, but comparatively young, trees [which] cover all the hills outside and inside, and give to the distant view of Noorat a beauty not shared by … [Mount] Shadwell, [Mount] Elephant and most other extinct volcanoes’. In 1885, the crater, at least, was ‘occupied by a gum-tree forest and bracken all the way’.
By 1887, the description had evolved further: ‘a huge volcanic hill … raises abruptly from the side of the road. This mountain is covered with fern and rocks, which afford cover to an immense number of rabbits.’ Another in 1887 observed that the ‘mounts’ were ‘mostly covered to the top with grass and fern.’ Still, however, the crater of Mount Noorat formed a refuge for ‘large gum trees’. By 1893, however, the volcano was ‘destitute of trees … At one time the sides were heavily timbered with stringy bark and other good splitting varieties of the eucalyptus family, but the trees have long since been converted into fencing stuff or broad paling or have been destroyed by fire.’
This was a common scene throughout the Western District. Cameron Lees, a Scot who had visited his friend, Niel Black, at Mount Noorat in 1887, reported in The Scotsman:
The Western district of Victoria between Camperdown and Warrnambool has been well termed Australia Felix, and is so named in the first maps. Settled at an early period of the colony’s history, it has been thoroughly cleared and cultivated to the utmost extent, and presents everywhere a finished and civilized aspect, which is wanting in many other parts of the colony. There are large, well fenced fields, where the gum trees are few and far between.
Some decades before, however, Black himself had given a rather different description. In 1846 he lamented the ‘Miserable Bankrupt like appearance [his land] presents. The once noble forrests, now stript of their solitary grandeur, the rich soil freed from its luxuriant herbage now beaten and trodden.’
While the slopes had been stripped, some attempts at a plantation to meet the needs of the local pastoral enterprises had been made. In 1889, the homestead – Mount Noorat House – had been ‘fringed about with some fine plantations’, and in 1890 it was noted that ‘The plantations along the steep hill-sides, that form such a splendid shelter to the house, have made wonderful progress during the last three or four years, while towards the open country are many beautiful clumps of well-grown forest trees.’ Lees described “a large country mansion built of stone, and surrounded by beautiful gardens and plantations.” In all, about forty acres of pine plantations were established around Mount Noorat House, including a windbreak planted up the north-east side of the volcano that became known to locals as ‘The Caterpillar’. Today, a walking track around the crater of Mount Noorat is now well-treed at its starting point with native species; the outer slopes remain mostly bare while stands of eucalypt and acacia, and other species, are still found growing in the crater.
Restoring Volcanic Forests
The evolution of Mount Noorat’s vegetation, and the deforestation and slow reforestation of its slopes, is not uncommon across the volcanic plains of western Victoria. Many of the volcanoes in this region – there are over 400 volcanoes in the Newer Volcanics Province, which spans over 400 kilometres from Melbourne to Mount Gambier – are bare. (Indeed, there are at least eleven volcanoes that carry the appellation ‘Bald Hill’.) The European encounter with Victorian volcanoes was heralded, indeed, by the hewing of trees. When, on his 1836 expedition, Thomas Mitchell first encountered Mount Napier, or Tappoc, on Dhauwurd wurrung country, he wrote that ‘Trees and bushes grew luxuriantly everywhere.’ The next day, he ascended the volcano ‘followed by a party of men with axes to clear its summit, at least sufficiently for the purpose of taking angles with the theodolite.’ Whether all of these volcanoes were once well-forested, however, is a matter for the historical record, which is not always clear. Boswell distinguished Mount Noorat from ‘most other extinct volcanoes’ by reference to the young and healthy trees he saw growing on its slopes from a distance. In the same year he toured the district – 1857 – the artist Eugene von Guérard also visited. It is clear from the sketches he made that Mount Noorat was, indeed, distinct from its neighbours, which are shown as being largely devoid of tree cover.
These western Victorian volcanoes, whether they were always bare or whether the profound environmental changes wrought by intensive pastoralism caused them to become that way, have more recently been the subject of re-evaluation. The land on which Mount Noorat is located, still in the hands of the Black family, was bequeathed to the Corangamite Shire in 2017, after which a management plan was devised. Included is a plan to protect remnant native vegetation and embark on a revegetation programme.
Again, this is not uncommon. To wit, Mount Rouse, or ‘Kolorer’ in Djab wurrung, near Penshurst, is now a designated public reserve and has undergone extensive revegetation since the 1960s. Its slopes were once ‘lightly wooded’ with native vegetation but were cleared and grazed. In 1870, the Victorian Lands and Survey Department had written to the Mount Rouse Shire Council: the Shire would be vested as trustees of a Mount Rouse reserve ‘provided they would undertake to protect the few indigenous trees left on the Mount by fencing off sheep and cattle.’ The mountain’s slopes were later planted with Monterey Pines and buffalo grass, but erosion continued apace. In the early twentieth century, Mount Rouse was almost completely denuded. Revegetation programmes over more recent decades, however, mean that large swathes of the volcano now support dense, wooded native vegetation including drooping she-oaks, blackwoods, silver wattles, and manna gums. An understorey of bracken and herbs, as well as tussock grasses, contribute to an environment now typical of many of Victoria’s volcanoes.
There is a distinct value in the restoration of volcanic forests. Protected areas bear the historical contexts in which they were established. The oldest reserves protect that which is aesthetically pleasing or unique – more realistically, they protect areas that were unsuited to settlement, development, and pastoral, agricultural, or extractive industries. It is only recently that biodiversity, properly understood, and broad ecological processes have been the subject of protection to encourage the restoration of ecosystems and species. Thus, otherwise profoundly altered landscapes – from farms to military training areas to highway roadsides – have become the focus of de facto conservation and restoration efforts. Volcanoes, too steep to graze and too rocky to plough, and often occurring on private pastoral land but sometimes already within the bounds of public protected reserves, have presented unique opportunities for the creation of such refuges.
A Vision of the Past
A striking example – well-documented in visual materials – of the restoration process is found at Tower Hill, on the south-west coast of Victoria. Tower Hill, called Koroit by Dhauwurd wurrung people, was initially formed when magma rose and met groundwater, creating a violent hydrothermal explosion and a significant crater. Then, further eruptions occurred in the base of the crater, forming scoria cones in its centre. James Bonwick had visited Tower Hill in 1857. He wrote: ‘What a gorgeous sight must have been witnessed by unsentimental kangaroos of old when Tower Hill was in full blaze! … Flame, gas, and lava sought freedom from their caverned home, and, bursting through the roof, tore madly on till the tranquil heavens soothed their fury into rest.’ Bonwick mused that ‘At no time would the volcano have looked more beautiful than, when, after the rise of successive cones of lava, the current of burning ashes rose as a hissing stream, and, spreading out as fire spankled branches of some gigantic Palm, fell like spent meteors upon the still heaving plains.’
In the late winter of 1855, Eugene von Guérard – returning home from a tour of South Australia by steamer – disembarked at Portland Bay on the Victorian coast. After travelling to Mount Rouse and, from its summit, sketching the view of the Grampians mountain ranges to the north, von Guérard returned southward. He travelled through the pastoral station ‘Kangaton’, then owned by the Scottish pastoralist James Dawson – Dawson would later take up residence closer to Mount Leura near Camperdown. Dawson commissioned from von Guerard a painting of a local attraction: Tower Hill. He had completed the painting by October of 1855.
In his work for Dawson, Guérard captured the same vision James Bonwick beheld just two years later. Bonwick would write that a ‘stroll among the gigantic Ferns of the valley, or a ramble among the cones and craters, has peculiar attractions’. At the foot of the crater, he wrote, ‘the graceful Fern tree waves – almost tropical reeds rustle in the breeze – leafy shrubs and trees form delightful bowers and alcoves’. ‘Let the few who value sentiment in the colony, who sympathize with nature, who love an undisturbed communion with the grand and sublime, join one in all in securing for themselves and posterity the authorized declaration, that Tower Hill shall be an everlasting reserve.’ Within a short few years, however, the process of clearing the crater of its vegetation had commenced. Daniel Clarke painted Tower Hill from the same vantage point in 1867:
In 1892, the Crown reserved Tower Hill as Victoria’s first national park, reserving its right to all ‘gold, silver and coal within the park’ and its right to ‘prospect or mine there’. Under a national parks system that was entirely lacking in financial resources – as would occur in many of Victoria’s national parks throughout the twentieth century – the caretaker of Tower Hill sold scoria for road and railway works, along with grazing leases, to pay for his wages. In 1960, Tower Hill lost its status as a national park after the creation of the state’s official National Parks Authority in 1957.
In 1891, James Dawson had returned to the southern coast and to Tower Hill. There he found that desolate landscape, quarried and cleared. A prolific letter writer, Dawson wrote to the Camperdown Chronicle:
In the early days of this colony there was to be seen between Port Fairy and Warrnambool, one of the most beautiful and interesting specimens of an extinct volcano in all of Victoria … On visiting the scene lately, I was amazed and disgusted to find everything altered, the fine trees on the cones, and in the craters of the islands, all gone excepting half a dozen or so. But what a thousand times worse than this ruthless destruction of ornamental timber, the larger portion of the lake is made into a setting, stinking mud pool full of fermenting malarious matter, sufficient to poison the whole neighbourhood and enough to prevent any sensible person settling near it.
Having visited the volcano in its ‘primitive state’, however, Dawson said that ‘fortunately for future generations, I commissioned a celebrated artist to paint the scene in oil on a large scale, and he carried out my wishes faithfully and beautifully.’ Indeed, in 1967, Dawson’s granddaughter gave von Guérard’s painting to the Victorian Fisheries and Wildlife Division. Botanists inspected the painting, extracting from it a planting scheme for grasses and ferns, tea-trees, wattles, she-oaks, banksias, and eucalypts. By 1981, 25,000 trees had been planted at Tower Hill.
In 1985, one author described this new landscape as ‘a strange projection, a vision of the past reconstructed on the basis of a painting. This is a special place where dream and reality meet. A landscape which is pregnant with the romance of lost Arcadias and with a nostalgic yearning for times past.’ It is a landscape where ‘traditions of the past have resurfaced and stand around and beside us rather than behind us’. Indeed, Tower Hill today is a landscape conjured from the canvass and imagination of a Viennese painter; despite the certainty of botanists in the 1960s, von Guérard’s fidelity to nature has since been questioned. To stand at the edge of the crater of Tower Hill, one writer has put it, evokes a sense ‘that some God is in this place…and lingering in the back of our minds is the knowledge that it is all a man-made chimera, a stage set in which we can walk around, but behind which lies not the reality of an eternal nature but the dream of a painter.’
It is difficult to say whether Tower Hill has been restored to its original state or recreated from the mind of Eugene von Guérard: at the very least, where trees once were, now they are there again. The historical record has been of great utility in the restoration of forests and other ecosystems, but it has also, clearly, led us astray in some respects. Volcanoes represent an opportunity for the restoration of other under-protected ecosystems, a significant part of which is tree planting. As the fate of forests on the slopes of Mount Rouse and Mount Noorat show – and even the continued protection of trees on volcanoes such as Mount Buninyong and Mount Warrenheip – it may yet be possible to reclaim many of these otherwise denuded mountains and craters across western Victoria.
About the Author
Ben Wilkie is an Honorary Associate at La Trobe University’s Centre for the Study of the Inland. He is the author of The Scots in Australia 1788-1938 (2017) and Gariwerd: An Environmental History of the Grampians (2020), along with many other essays and articles on colonial and environmental history. Ben has a special interest in western Victoria and is currently researching the Newer Volcanics Province and its histories. Contact: [email protected]
Esther Anderson, Victoria’s National Parks: A Centenary History, Melbourne, Parks Victoria, 2000.
A. A. Brady, A Centenary History of Tower Hill, Melbourne, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, 1992.
James Bonwick, Western Victoria; its Geography, Geology, and Social Condition, Geelong, Thomas Brown, 1858.
Christina Davidson, Tower Hill: A Landscape of Dreams and Revisions, Warrnambool, Warrnambool Art Gallery, 1985.
Margaret Kiddle, Men of Yesterday: A Social History of the Western District of Victoria, 1834-1890, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1961.
George A. Robinson [edited by Ian D. Clark], The Journal of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, 1 January 1839 – 30 September 1852, self-published, Clarendon, 2014.
Kerry Vickers, ‘The Mount’: A Natural and Social History of Mount Noorat, self-published, Kolora, 2018.
Benjamin Wilkie, Fred Cahir, and Ian D. Clark, ‘Volcanism in Aboriginal Australian oral traditions: ethnographic evidence from the Newer Volcanics Province’, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 403 (2020).
Benjamin Wilkie, ‘Volcanism in Aboriginal Australian oral traditions’, Geology Today, 36:5 (2020), pp. 183-187.