STARTING your day with a lung-full of fresh mountain air scented with peppermint gum, while admiring a vista out over treetops and valleys to the rocky peak of Mt Buller, takes some topping. It’s the sort of view you could lose yourself in for hours, but my photographer mate Bill has other ideas and is already nudging me to get out of my swag and rattle some pots and pans.
We’d driven the two-and-a-half hours from Melbourne the afternoon before and spent the night yarning around a crackling log fire in his rustic bush cabin, set in a secluded location just a short hop from the village of Merrijig.
Best known as a jump-off point to the Mount Buller ski slopes, Merrijig hosts a popular annual rodeo each March and is home to the Hunt Club Hotel, a landmark watering hole renowned for its generous steaks, friendly atmosphere, and walls decorated with memorabilia from George Miller’s The Man from Snowy River, which was filmed on location nearby.
Some 23km west of this horsey hamlet is the thriving rural hub of Mansfield, well-known to many Victorians as the centre for all manner of outdoor adventure activities. The picturesque hills and valleys surrounding the township are crisscrossed with tracks and trails that draw hunters, trail bikers, trout fisherman, horse riders, mountain bikers and 4x4 enthusiasts like bush flies to a sweaty shirt-back. Rock up here on any given holiday weekend and you’ll find the streets abuzz with activity, as mud-splattered, swag-laden 4x4s restock fridges and fuel tanks before going bush.
It was a love of the bush and outdoor adventure that also led Bill and his wife Sally to build their bush cabin here, on a timbered ridge overlooking Buttercup Creek, some 30 years ago. Ready easy access to a vast sprawling wilderness was the bonus for Bill, a former Australian Geographic photographer of the year whose passion for trout fishing and outdoor photography has since led him and his trusty 60 Series LandCruiser (aka the Snow Leopard) to traverse many of the rugged tracks through the surrounding hills and valleys.
There’s no sign of the Snow Leopard today, however, as editor Raudonikis has asked us to put some miles on a schmick Mercedes-Benz X-Class, which we’re soon piling swags and kit into before heading to our appointment with one of this country’s most infamous bush locations.
The name Stringybark Creek will resonate with even casual students of Australian history as the site where notorious bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang bailed up a party of mounted police, shooting and killing three of them in the ensuing melee.
These days, historians consider those events as the catalyst for the ramping up of police efforts to catch the Kelly Gang, leading to the final confrontation with police at Glenrowan on June 28, 1880. Ned was famously captured during the siege there and was later tried and hanged for the murder of Constable Lonigan, while his brother Dan and associates Joe Byrne and Steve Hart perished in the ensuing hotel fire.
Despite this, Stringybark Creek hasn’t always been afforded the prominence in our national folklore it deserves. In fact, a few years ago I took some visitors there and it was only after much thrashing about through waist-deep grass that we eventually located a tin marker riveted to the so-called Kelly Tree, marking the spot where the shootout was said to have occurred.
However, the site scored a major Heritage Victoria-approved overhaul in late 2018, following collaboration between Forest Fire Management Victoria, the Department of Environment, Water, Land and Planning, and Victoria Police. So, with a couple of days up our sleeve, and Bill’s ever-present trout rod stowed in the tray, we decided to go and see firsthand how our tax dollars had been spent.
Heading back into Mansfield via dusty Buttercup Road, we pass a group of early morning horse riders, out for a canter in the bracing mountain air. Drizabones give way to Lycra out on the main road, as colourfully-attired cyclists pant their way to the start of the 17km climb up the flank of Mt Buller. The bitumen leads us back to Mansfield and we circle the main roundabout, where a handsome monument memorialises the fallen policemen – Constables Thomas Lonigan and Michael Scanlan, and Sergeant Michael Kennedy – killed at Stringybark Creek.
After grabbing a shot of locally roasted coffee at the Mansfield Coffee Merchant, we head out of town on the Mansfield-Whitfield Road (C521) destined for Stringybark Creek Historic Reserve. The reserve sits in the foothills of what was once known as the Wombat Ranges, near a crossroads of back country stock routes formerly used by horse and cattle thieves.
The isolated spot is these days part of the Toombullup State Forest and easily accessed by vehicle from either Benalla (50km) or Mansfield (40km). This is the epicentre of ‘Kelly Country’, described in the 1881 Royal Commission on the Police Force of Victoria as being that portion of north-east Victoria where, “… the peculiar characteristics of the country afforded special facilities for the operations of such lawless characters as the Quinns, the Lloyds and the Kellys, who, if pursued by the police, could seek refuge in the vastness of the mountains and defy all the attempts of the authorities to arrest them.”
It’s an apt description for Stringybark Creek, which wends through a forest of thick-trunked eucalypts, hemmed by dense bracken and wattle that forms an almost impenetrable screen. It’s overgrown and inhospitable, which is likely what drew the Kelly Gang here.
It’s also a strangely beautiful place and, as you wander about with birdsong ringing through the towering gums, you get a sense of the panic and terror that must have ensued when the bush quiet was interrupted on that fateful day by the shattering boom of Ned’s Snider-Enfield carbine.
In the space of a few hours on Saturday, October 26, 1878, the Kelly Gang went from being horse thieves and brigands to murderers and cop-killers, an event that sealed their fate and eventually led to the killing or capture of the entire gang. Constables Lonigan and Scanlan died where they were shot, near their tent, while Sergeant Kennedy was killed a quarter mile north-west while trying to flee. A fourth, Constable Thomas McIntyre, escaped and made it back to Mansfield, and it was his evidence that eventually saw Ned hanged at Melbourne Gaol in 1880.
While there has been a marked tree of some sort – variously known as the Police Tree, the Brond Tree, the Lonigan Tree and more commonly the Kelly Tree – at Stringybark Creek since soon after the tragedy occurred, the story has never been told with the rich level of historical detail that’s now on display. The entire fascinating but tragic story, including events leading up to and following the attack, is told via a series of memorial plinths and detailed interpretive signage within the Historic Reserve.
It’s a trove of historical information that’s bound to satisfy even the most ardent of Kelly Gang aficionados, but for those still curious as to why and how Ned took the wayward path he did, some of the answers lie not far away at the former hideout of another notorious bushranger, Harry Power, whom Ned was a keen understudy of in his own early days.
Long before Ned and his gang had their encounter at Stringybark Creek, Harry Power, convict and career criminal, had identified these craggy, eroded hills, with their caves and commanding views over the King Valley, as the perfect place for an outlaw’s camp. From his bush eyrie the expert bushman could see everyone and everything that came and went in the valley below.
He reportedly relied on dogs and a noisy peacock at nearby Glenmore Station – home of Ned Kelly’s grandparents – as part of his early warning system. But the critters failed Harry one stormy morning in June 1870 when police raided his well-stocked camp, helping themselves to breakfast before hauling the notorious horse thief and cattle duffer away. Ironically, Harry believed his young student Ned had dobbed him in for the 500-pound reward on his head, when in fact the culprit was Ned’s uncle, Jack Lloyd.
While the legend of Harry’s erstwhile apprentice eventually far outshone that of the crafty old teacher, Ned failed to outlive his criminal mentor, swinging from a rope at Old Melbourne Gaol in 1880 for the murder of Constable Lonigan. Harry, for his part, was eventually released from gaol in 1885, but met his end by drowning while drunk in the Murray River in 1891.
Kelly Country is laced with the fascinating histories of bushrangers like Harry Power and the Kelly Gang, but of the many sites of significance throughout the region, perhaps none are more poignant than that main street memorial in Mansfield.
Erected in 1880 while the Gang was still at large, it symbolises the momentous impact the Stringybark Creek murders had on the broader Victorian community. It was a time of such fear and community outrage that the Kelly Gang became the first and only persons in the state’s history to ever be declared outlaws. As Ned himself said in his famous Jerilderie Letter, “I am a Widows Son, outlawed and my orders must be obeyed.”