Passages to the North West Plains by Michael O'Rourke.
Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
PASSAGES TO THE NORTH-WEST PLAINS P.5
Oxley’s Liverpool Plains cont.
In the warmer half of the year it seems that large ‘super-bands’ of several hundred people came together on one stretch of their major watercourse to exploit the fish, yabbies and mussels. Fish net-traps, often very large, were made from the fibre of kurrajong bark. The early settler Bucknell remarked that a single net-haul sometimes yielded enough fish to feed a group of 40 people for one day. Short excursions away from the rivers and major creeks gave them access to ‘woodland foods’ such as possums and honey, while the women in particular would also gather plant foods. A very important food was grass-seed, ground on grindstones and cooked in the form of tiny loaves or cakes. It was collected and threshed as a communal effort.
In the cooler half of the year it seems that the communities separated into ‘hearth-groups’ (one to two families: 10 people or fewer) and travelled into the back-country to allow the men to hunt land mammals and the bigger birds, i.e. kangaroos, wallabies, possums, emus, bustards, and so on. Again the women would collect lesser animals, e.g. bandicoots, lizards and snakes, and plant foods, yams and roots including the famous yam daisy, Microseris lanceolata.
For convenience, we will posit that the Gunnedah community or “super-band” had 500 members in the period before the smallpox pandemic (see the discussion in O’Rourke 1995: 136-38). If they have separated into small groups, we have about 50 ‘hearth-groups’ averaging 10 people each, or about 100 bands averaging 50 people each. For comparison, Cunningham in May 1825 (cool season) surprised a group of about 15 people. By contrast, he estimated that some 80 people could be accommodated in a scattered set of Aboriginal huts that his party found on the lower stretch of Cox Creek in May 1825 (see later in this paper). But he judged that these dwellings had been constructed several months earlier, in high summer.
Noting that more than half of the territory of the ‘Gunnedah people’ lay south of the Namoi, we will posit that over 300 people dispersed onto the plains in the cooler half of the year. Continuing our thought experiment, we imagine that 100 were still residing in bands (two bands of 50), while 200 had broken into hearth-groups (20 ‘families’ each of 10). In this scenario there were, at any one time, Aborigines at just 22 sites or localities on plains that extend 50 km x 50 km. Noting that there are few perennial creeks on the plains, they may not have resided in the hinterland, but only visited the plains on day-trips. That is to say, they may well have been camped along the large watercourses: say 10 groups along Coxs Creek and 11 groups along the Mooki.
To sum up, we can say that if one had wanted to meet an Aboriginal band, the best place to go, especially in the warmer half of the year, was down a watercourse, above all to where a major tributary joined a river. This is precisely where Oxley’s party did not go. It may have been just happenstance that, by travelling ‘transversely’ across the back country, they did not come upon even one hearth-group. One would expect, however, that they would have seen smoke from at least one Aboriginal camp. That they didn’t is quite puzzling. This leads to another guess: perhaps there were no Aborigines on the plains because they had all briefly travelled away to a Bora (Buurra, the inter-communal religious and marriage-making festival). But this of course is no more than a guess.
* * *
Back to our explorers in 1818. Their camp on 26 August lay just eight km east of the “fine stream of water” today called Coxs Creek, a major tributary of the Namoi, which they duly discovered on the morning of 27 August. This was south of today’s Mullaley:
The three main branches of these immense plains were clearly visible to the east by SSE, and north-east. Of the extent of the two former [in the direction of Quirindi] we could only judge from the lofty bounding chains of hills in those quarters [presumably the Melville Range near Werris Creek], and which we could not estimate to be nearer than from 45 to 50 miles [75 km]. Hardwicke’s Range [the Nandewars] bounded these to the north-east, with many intervening beautiful hills and valleys [the view to Boggabri and Gunnedah and the Nandewar Range behind]. … Chains and ridges of low forest [lightly wooded] hills which gradually rise from the horizontal are scattered over these plains and stand for the most part detached like islands, varying the scenery in a most picturesque manner … (27 August).
From Coxs Creek, they proceeded east and camped beneath a hill that Oxley called View Hill, today’s Dimberoy Hill (west of Goran State Forest). The treeless grassland extended some 10 km beyond Coxs Creek before giving way, east of present-day Pine Ridge, to open woodland. There seems to have been no Aboriginal population: “we have seen few signs [of them] in this neighbourhood”, presumably meaning some foot-prints or walking tracks. But in the course of the day they saw hundreds of kangaroos and emus (27 August).
At View Hill, Oxley’s deputy George Evans made the famous sketch that constitutes our earliest image of the Liverpool Plains. The view is to the west, showing the various mountains behind their line of travel, the most prominent being Mt Mullaley [590 metres]. Although exaggerated vertically, and looking too cone-like, the various mountains are easily recognised. Of special interest is the open look of the country, with concentrations of trees showing only as lines and clumps in an otherwise mostly treeless expanse. As we know from other sources, the vegetation of the open grasslands was, or is, plains grass (Austrostipa aristiglumis), Panicum spp. including native millet, windmill grass (Chloris truncata) and blue grass (Dichanthium sericeum) on black earths with occasional myall (Acacia pendula), white box (Eucalyptus albens), yellow box (Eucalyptus melliodora), bimble box
(Eucalyptus populnea) and wilga (Geijera parviflora). River red gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) are found along the streams such as Coxs Creek.
Continuing NNE through “a fine open forest country” [woodland], the party crossed the line of the Wandobah Road at a point between Goran State Forest and Wondoba [sic] State Forest (probably the “forest hills” noted by Oxley). In general, the country here was “by no means thickly timbered”. The later 19th centiry rexords reviewed by Lang (2008) confirm that the area around Curlewis was open woodland.
While still west of Curlewis, “we saw the great plains [Breeza Plains] which extend along the line of our course and are separated from us by a rich open country of hill and dale, distant four or five miles. A branch from these plains led to the north-east across our course [i.e. the view across the Mooki or Conadilly River towards Carroll] …” (28 August). The records reviewed by Lang again show a great stretch of treeless plains along the Mooki floodplain from above Breeza down to Gunnedah.
The Namoi catchment west of Tamworth is generally flat, a fact disguised for car‑travellers along the New England Highway by the prominence in the near west of the small Melville Range with its landmark peak, Mt Duri (pronounced dyoo-rye or jew-rye).
The flattest segment is the Mooki-Namoi segment running from Breeza through Gunnedah and on to Boggabri. Indeed fully 85% of Gunnedah Shire has land slopes of less than three degrees. But, because of this, the 15% that is hilly country appears prominent: the “sweeping plains” of Dorothea Mackellar's famous phrase.
On 29 August Oxley’s route took him past the site of what is now the village of Curlewis. Seeing an “extensive flat”—the Breeza Plains—ahead of them, they decided, in case there was no water on the treeless plain, to go only a short way, and camped some four km east of Curlewis, as John Whitehead (2004) has measured it. “The horizontal level of the whole appeared to warrant the supposition that at some (perhaps not distant) period these vast plains formed chains of inland lakes which the washings from the hills have now nearly filled up”. This was an interesting observation, as a local Aboriginal creation myth (or so I read it) has the plains originally covered with water and being drained (no doubt by Higher Powers).
After a rest day on 30 August, they commenced the journey again on the 31st. They had travelled only about 10 km when they came upon “a considerable stream”, the Mooki or Conadilly River, another main tributary of the Namoi, that runs on to Gunnedah. Here the plains are, at least today, dominated by plains grass (Austrostipa aristiglumis) and couch (Sporobolus mitchelli); with river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis), river oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana) and rough-barked apple (Angophora floribunda) along the Mooki itself.
The relative abundance of the various grass species seems to have changed since the 1800s (discussion in Lang 2008). William Telfer junior wrote thus of the wild grassland of the Liverpool Plains in the era before paddocks were fenced off:
In 1858 I saw grass on those plains [Breeza Plains around ‘Long Point’ station] 10 feet [over three metres] high, -which you don't see [these] days [after 1900] - now the country has been fenced in and overstocked - of the wild oaten variety - and a few inches from the ground. In the middle of this forest of long grass were wild carrots, crowsfoot [sic: crowfoot] and a splendid lot of herbage of all descriptions of the most fattening kind.
Grass seed from “native millet”, Panicum species, was a major food source in inland NSW. As we have said, Panicum and other seeds were ground on a stone mill and cooked in the form of tiny loaves or cakes. But meat, especially possum, and river foods including fish were at least as important; also yams and roots. Thus it is quite wrong for Idriess in his Red Chief to say that the Kamilaroi depended “largely” on grass-seed.
But back to Oxley. At the Mooki there were again signs of a recent light flood or fresh. “The abundance of game such as emus and kangaroos, and of wild ducks on the stream, was wonderful”. And here for the first time since they had entered the Liverpool Plains, they saw evidence, albeit distant evidence, of a substantial Aboriginal population: “A great many smokes, arising from the fires of the natives were seen to the north-east and north”, i.e. along the stretch of the Peel River below Tamworth and around its junction with the Namoi River in the Carroll district east of Gunnedah.
Having crossed the Mooki, they passed through “a very fine open forest flat” (north-west of our Piallaway). Again the 19th century records reveal that this was open woodland. They camped at the foot of the hills that border the Melville Range. The high point in these hills is today’s Thunderbolts Mountain, named for the bushranger of the 1860s (Fred Ward, ‘Captain Thunderbolt’) who used it as a hide-out. Looking east from this peak, they could see from the thick haze that a further river (today’s Peel River) lay ahead. “To the south-east, south and south-west [towards respectively Goonoo Goonoo, Werris Creek and Breeza] our view extended over that vast tract of level champaign [open] country intermingled with hills sometimes rising into lofty peaks, as has already been described” (31 August). This was the upper section of the great treelesss plain that ran on to Gunnedah.
Next they passed through the Melville Range via a pass known today as the Oaky Greek Gap and then made a “gentle” descent into the Peel Valley west of Tamworth. They made camp only a few kilometres out from the gap, or still about 18 km WNW of Tamworth (1 September). Here “the valleys [watercourses] and levels [were] excellent”. As we know from other soruces, the vegetation of this region included river oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana) in higher sectors of the channels, merging with river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) as the floodplain widens. Rough-barked apple (Angophora floribunda) and yellow box (Eucalyptus melliodora) are found on the floodplain.
They reached the Peel River (the name chosen by Oxley) a little downstream from the nub of our Tamworth. More specifically this was at Byamee, NE of the suburb of Oxley Vale. As Thomas Mitchell later reported, it was two miles (three km) below the site where ‘Wallamoul’ station was later situated, i.e. below the Tangaratta Creek-Peel River junction.
In 1818 the Peel was “a deep and rapid stream”, too deep to be forded: “the largest interior river, with the exception of the Macquarie and Castlereagh, which we had yet seen.” Accordingly they made a rough bridge by felling trees across a narrow part: their supplies and equipment were carried across the bridge and the horses were swum across.
Once across they made camp on the eastern bank. Platypus and turtles were seen but no fish could be caught. Oxley was very impressed. The Peel Valley was “well watered; the grass was most luxuriant; the timber good and not thick; in short no place in the world can afford more advantages to the industrious settler than this extensive vale” (2 September).
The expedition pressed on into New England, but that takes us away from our region of interest. So we will leave Oxley at Tamworth and move to the Hunter Valley.
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30. Mitchell 1839: 100; Greenway 1910: 15; and Bucknell 1933: 34.
31. The primary and secondary literature is discussed in O’Rourke, Kamilaroi Lands, 1997: 148 ff; also by Keen 2004. It is not clear where grass-seed fitted into this seasonal pattern, except that Allen (1974: 313) reports that Panicum species (Native Millet) yields seeds between December and March. Perhaps foraging trips were made away from the river camps, specifically to collect the seeds? Communal gathering and threshing: see in Parker 1905. Yam daisies: see notes by Suzanne Prober and Kevin Thiele at http://users.tpg.com.au/
32. O’Rourke 1995: 181 ff.
33. Whitehead 2004: 224 ff. Open woodland: Lang 2008.
34. See the recent photograph matched with Evans’ sketch in Whitehead 2004: 231.
35. Lang 2008 argues that Austrostipa species were not dominant before 1850, the main grasses at that time being Native Oatgrass = “tall oatgrass”, “kangaroo grass” (Themeda avenacea), Silky Browntop (Eulaia aurea) and Curly Mitchell Grass (Astrebla lappacea).
36. Namoi CMA 2009.
37. Ridley 1875: 27 (also Ash et al.) say the name was “biridja”, meaning ‘place of fleas’.
38. Less than three degrees in slope: www.infogunnedah.com.au (accessed 2009).
39. Telfer, ed. Miliss p.54.
41. Telfer 1980: 128, emphasis added. The tall grass was Native Oatgrass (Themeda avenacea) (Lang 2008).
42. See O’Rourke 1997 pp. 150-54, citing Greenway, Ridley, Dunbar, Allen and McBryde. Greenway 1910: 16; and Bucknell 1933: 35. Also Tindale 1974: 98 ff, 104-106.
43. Whitehead 2004: 244-46. He emphasises that some earlier writers placed the line of travel though the Melvilles as running north of Thunderbolts Mountain; he shows that the route ran to the south of it, which is to say: on the same latitude as Tamworth.
44. Namoi CMA 2009.
45. Mitchell 1839: 33: photograph from 1918 reproduced in O’Rourke 1995.