An odd cast of campers beside Bumbuggan Creek for New Year 2016: two cultural astronomers, Trevor and Bob; Tina, a textile artist; Robyn, a water colourist who had never been this far west; Russell, a local bushman who knew all the best fishing spots; his four irrepressible hounds; and me, your blogger, with my ever-faithful notebook and a brand new telescope I was bursting to use.
We were expecting a couple more astronomers too, but one of them, Duane, was moonlighting as a drummer in a heavy metal band and had another gig in Sydney for New Year’s Eve. So six humans, four dogs and a collection of scopes to investigate Mount Mulguthrie’s stellar alignments.
The night sky is wondrous in summer this far inland, with the Hyades and Pleiades sparkling like jewels; Canis major, the Big Dog constellation, with his red hypergiant VY Canis Majoris and blue binary Sirius, Betelgeuse and Rigel in Orion The Hunter, and Aldebaran in neighbouring Taurus all riding high; and the Milky Way, that great celestial river in Wiradjuri cosmology, flowing with a luminosity beyond words. And, sometime after midnight, Jupiter would be smooching up to the moon in a visually compelling conjunction. So a lot to see with our telescopes after dark … if only those high clouds would clear.
But they didn’t! And our scopes remained in their cases.
Cultural astronomer and Big Skies Collaborator, Trevor Leaman, had organised this trip as part of his Wiradjuri Astronomy Project to test an hypotheses about a possible relationship between this little mountain and a particular star constellation. He wanted to answer the question posed in this post’s heading: Could Mount Mulguthrie have been a Wiradjuri astronomical site? Bob Fuller, whose research includes extensive work on Kamilaroi and Euahlayi sky knowledge in northern NSW, was here to support him. Like other astronomers, they had faced cloudy skies many times before, so shrugged this one off with practiced nonchalance. I was really disappointed though, because I’d wanted to learn more about my new telescope from these two experts. But this too would have to wait.
So, instead of gazing at the night sky, we wined, dined and chatted under an ancient river red gum while darkness fell, listened to Russell’s bush yarns, and speculated about where all those big twin cab utility vehicles raising dust on the road past our camp were heading. Their front-mounted spotlights and the steel-barred dog cages on their back trays marked them as pig shooters’ rigs. ‘Piggin’ is both a blood sport and a licenced way of reducing the growing feral pig population out here in Central Western New South Wales. Typically the shooters are young men, but increasingly young women, or ‘piggin’ chicks’, like to get a bit of blood on their hands too. These contemporary Orions, with their rifles, hunting knives, ammo, dogs, and cartons of whatever they like to drink before, during and/or after the hunt, were, I imagined, all hyped up in anticipation of a night of gruesome sport as they sped past us. Their destination must have been much further west though, because we didn’t hear any shooting that night. Wild pigs, yes, but Jasper and Evie, Russell’s bulldogs, kept them away from our camp.
But why am I telling you about pig shooters in a post about cultural astronomy?
The reasons will, I hope, soon become apparent, at least metaphorically. Something to do with the deadly impacts of a global phenomenon historian Marilyn Lake and others have identified as the ‘Marauding White Man’. To be called henceforth in this blog the MWM.
I slept on a mattress on the ground that first night so I could experience the full horizon-to-horizon wonder of this place, and woke sometime after midnight to see the moon and Jupiter conjoining inside a perfect refraction halo. The next time I stirred, the eastern sky was a blaze of orange, pink and burning red. A dawn chorus of native birds, a warm breeze, the creek chuckling beside me, and Mount Mulguthrie, that hulk of metamorphosed sediment from the bottom of a Gondwanan sea, sulking in silhouette against, yes, another cloudy sky.
We assembled slowly beneath the old eucalypt for the first breakfast of the year: croissants with bacon, eggs, and multiple cups of tea brewed in a big blue enamel pot. Russell and his dogs disappeared in his ‘tinny’ and returned mid-morning with our main meal for the day, a Murray cod, which, at 75 cm, was just within the maximum size limit allowed for this species. He also hooked a large carp but knocked it on the head, he told us, and threw it back for the shrimps to eat. Carp are invasive exotics, the feral pigs of our inland waterways. They grub through the mud like wild boars, stir it up, and do great damage to the aquatic habitats that native fish and other species depend on. The carps’ feeding habits also tend to make their flesh taste muddy, so most locals refuse to eat them. The Murray Cod, a native perch, is delicious, however, and highly prized by local fishers. Russell filleted his, put one side away for a mate he always shares his catch with, cut the other half into small pieces, dusted them with flour, and, that evening, sizzled them on the barbecue for our dinner. A perfect compensation for the cloudy sky.
With the increased probability of rain, I reluctantly erected my tent for our second night. A bathe in Bumbuggan Creek, more cups of tea, and a quick survey of a midden on the other side of the road.
People have been camping around here for millennia, of course, but this midden clearly dated from a more recent occupation: a rusting horse shoe; a large, heavily rusted axe head; a few rough kiln-fired bricks; pieces of blue and white porcelain; a rusted flat-iron; broken green glass bottles with distinctive dimples, or punts, at their bases; shards of opalescent pink and once-clear glass; part of an old cordial bottle embossed with the last four letters of the name of the next town west, Condobolin … The remains of a nineteenth century grog shanty or pub you reckon? A somewhat salubrious one too, judging by the broken Champagne and Bordeaux wine bottles.
A plaque on a large rock identified the assemblage as the site of a Cobb and Co. changing depot and inn, one of ten along what had been the mail and passenger route between Forbes and Hillston. From 1876 the inn was known as the Mulguthrie Hotel. Its last licensee, Alf Reynolds from Condo, was there from 1886 to 1895. The memorial honoured ‘the men and women who handled the mail and looked after the travellers’, and referenced a still-popular bush ballad, Clancy of the Overflow, by ‘Banjo’ Patterson, first published in The Bulletin in 1889, and a popular novel, When Cobb and Co. Was King, by Will Lawson, serialised in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1936. It also specifically named the three coach collectors responsible for erecting this material memory–David Walker, Len Auld and Ben Hall–who undertook a Cobb and Co. re-enactment run along this old mail route in 2002 (the Year of the Outback); and the then-Mayor of Forbes, Alister Lockhart, who probably said a few words at the unveiling.
Given the still-deeply discriminatory nature of mainstream Euro-settler culture in the bush, it’s no coincidence that all the people named on this plaque were privileged white men. Nearly two decades after the Cobb and Co. re-enactment and its speechifying what most interested us, however, were the omissions, gaps and silences, or lacunae, in both the plaque’s text, and in local histories of the inland: all the people who weren’t ‘honoured’ in the 2002 re-enactment.
No reference on the memorial, for example, to the probable significance of Mt Mulguthrie as a sacred Wiradjuri site, nor to the people who created the ancient pathways and trading routes used by the Cobb and Co. coach drivers, the first British explorers, the ‘squatters’ or pastoralists, their dependants, and the stock workers, drovers, shearers, merchants, and multiple others who serviced and maintained these isolated communities. No reference either to the people who, with their deep knowledge and well-adapted land and water management skills, created the native grasslands and open woodlands the squatters claimed as their own for their sheep and cattle. Nor any acknowledgement of the many other non-‘white’ and non-male people who travelled this track before, during and after the Cobb and Co. era. The countless women, both black and white, who kept the Mulguthrie pub and local homesteads going as managers, mothers, wives, lovers, daughters, nannies, governesses, domestic servants and sex workers, for example. The hundreds of Cantonese men who produced most of the fresh vegetables, cleared much of the land, and hand-built many of the dams on the stations. The Syrian hawkers, Indian hakims and Ayurvedic doctors, Afghan cameleers, and other non-‘whites’ who visited and serviced the pastoral stations and settlements in the nineteenth century. Or the hundreds of usually unpaid Wiradjuri men, women and children who continued to live and work on the stations well into the twentieth century, and without whom the pastoral industry would have failed.
By the time Cobb and Co. coaches were using this old track past our camp site, Mulguthrie and Burrawang stations were already integrated into the global economy, and Wiradjuri people had, depending on your point of view, either been ‘pacified’, or had pragmatically accommodated the MWM to ensure their own survival as a people or nation. But their contributions and achievements were rarely acknowledged or documented by whitefellas. Their knowledge, including their understandings of the cosmos, was generally dismissed and ignored, and their material cultural heritage was purposely destroyed or ‘lost’, as I describe in the Seven Sisters posting. The pastoral industry has a lot to answer for on this part of Planet Earth.
It was not the pastoral industry that brought Cobb and Co. to western New South Wales though. It was gold. In 1861, the richest alluvial goldfield in the colony’s history was discovered near the boundary between two large pastoral runs at the present-day site of Forbes. In just a few months, the population of this isolated place exploded from a few Wiradjuri clansfolk and stockmen to a canvas Babel town of 30,000 people from all over the world. Cobb and Co. opened an office the following year, and stayed even after the new settlement’s population plummeted when all the easy gold was gone.
The discovery of gold also generated an explosion in the demand for fresh meat, and a corresponding increase in sheep and cattle thefts. The local squatters demanded more police protection, but, as one colonial commentator noted at the time, no government could ensure law and order when ‘a semi-civilised race of nomads’ was overrunning the countryside and rushing from one goldfield to the next.
Some of these ‘nomads’ were also mining their fellow travellers. At a bend in the road between Forbes and Eugowra in 1862, for example, a gang of bushrangers, including Frank Gardiner, Ben Hall, and Johnny Gilbert, held up the Lachlan gold escort and got away with 2,700 ounces of gold and bank-notes. In today’s money their haul would be worth well over $A12,000,000 by some estimates. There’s a local connection to this story too, because some of that stolen gold was found in a bag on the back of one of Mulguthrie Station’s most prized horses, the aptly named Goldfinger. According to local legend, Ben Hall and his mates held up the Mulguthrie homestead before the gold heist and took Goldfinger when they left. The horse was recovered by Sir Frederick Pottinger, an English baronet and the Western District’s most controversial police inspector.
‘Marauding white men’ continued to disrupt the peace even while Cobb and Co. passengers were sipping imported wine and Condo cordial at the Mulguthrie Hotel in the 1890s, a decade of shearers’ strikes, deep drought, economic depression, bankruptcies, and, let’s not forget it, the consolidation of the ethno-national narratives that were enacted in 1901 as the White Australia Policy. A loose collective known as the Monwonga Push was especially notorious at this time and were known throughout the colony. (I suspect they acquired their sobriquet because they drank at the Monwonga grog shanty not far downstream from our camp.) ‘The push are the terrors of the road, and travellers are in dread of these hoodlums of the Lachlan,’ the Sydney Truth sensationalised in December 1895. Other newspapers of the era reported that people were so fearful of being robbed on the Mulguthrie road that they travelled on the south side of the Lachlan River to reduce their risks. A contributing factor, surely, to the demise of the old Mulguthrie pub.
The push are the terrors of the road, and travellers are in dread of these hoodlums of the Lachlan …
The Lachlan police thought they’d cleared the ‘marauders’ out of Monwonga after four Push members were sentenced to prison terms by the Forbes police magistrate in 1895 for shooting the mailman’s horse. They were wrong! One evening, a police magistrate–who may or may not have been the same bloke who convicted the four horse killers–stopped at the Mulguthrie Hotel on his way home to Forbes from Condobolin. He left his buggy out the back of the pub, his horses in the adjacent paddock, and went inside to, I imagine, book a room for the night, have a drink, and order a meal. A couple of Monwonga lads were also drinking at the bar that night, and probably fairly loudly. The magistrate ‘remonstrated’ with them for ‘using profane language’, then went to bed. Soon after, he was woken by a noise outside. Two men on horseback were towing his buggy away! They’d already taken his horses. The miscreants—who may or may not have been the same blokes the magistrate ‘remonstrated’ with at the bar— galloped off and fired a couple of shots into the darkness as they disappeared. The magistrate woke the publican, probably Alf Reynolds who was mentioned on the plaque, then went looking for the horses. He found one of them dying from gunshot wounds down the road. The other was already dead.
If the person most affected by this series of events, the police magistrate, had not been an influential white man, the incident might never have been reported and would therefore never have entered the historic record. But countless other crimes of far greater consequence to their victims did go unreported, unacknowledged, and unpunished out here, as we can infer from circumstantial evidence, including stories that have been passed on as cultural memories. These blank spaces in Australia’s official histories, and the violence, dispossession, subjugation and trauma they occlude, help to explain why so much of the knowledge accumulated over perhaps 4,000 generations of human habitation on these inland plains has been lost; and why today neither Wiradjuri descendants nor the cultural astronomers working with them, including my fellow campers Trevor Leaman and Bob Fuller, can know, with any confidence, what Mount Mulguthrie meant to the people who lived here before the advent of the MWM.
Other crimes of omission and commission also help to explain why present-day Australians, myself included, do not (yet?) know how the Cantonese men who cleared so much of this land in the nineteenth century, the Indian hakims, Syrian hawkers, and Afghan cameleers understood these southern skies as they travelled along the old Mulguthrie road and camped, like us, beside the Lachlan River’s many creeks.
It was with such thoughts that I rose at dawn on the second day of the New Year, pulled on my walking boots, slung a water bottle over my shoulder, crossed the old Cobb and Co. track and the midden where the Mulguthrie Hotel had once stood, crawled through a hole in a wire-netting fence made probably by feral pigs, and headed up the mountain alone. The sun had not yet risen, and the earth was dusty and dry. I passed through a regrowth forest of spindly Callitris, or Australian Cyprus pine, around lichen encrusted monoliths with hidden caves and cavities, the homes of small marsupials, and slowly, with much scrambling and the support of a sturdy stick I picked up as a trekking pole, reached the top of the ridge … And ah, that primeval thrill: seeing, for the first time, from Mt Mulguthrie, the great alluvial flatness stretching out before me.
As a non-astronomer, I felt certain that this extraordinary protuberance bursting unannounced from its plain, was, like the Seven Sisters Ridge on the horizon, of great spiritual and calendrical significance to the people who have lived around here since time immemorial. And I felt overwhelmingly sad that all this knowledge, all these once-deep layers of meaning, had been stripped from this mountain by the implacable forces of colonisation.
If the ancestors were to return, what would they think? Their great riverine plain and its meandering waterways have been so physically modified over the past 170 years, and so many exotic species have been introduced—cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, carp, foxes, wheat and other cereal crops, for example—that only this distinctively shaped mountain and its sibling ridges on the horizon would, I suspect, be recognizable to them. And, of course, their Sky Country, which, even with the presence of satellites, spacecraft and anthropogenic debris, would still be unerringly familiar to them.
But what stories would they have told about this mountain, and the celestial phenomena they saw from it? We don’t know. Such has been the damage the MWM has wrought.
 Colonial Summary, New South Wales, The Moreton Bay Courier, 25 April 1861, p. 4.
 Burrawang Station, by The Hermit, Lachlander and Condobolin and Western Districts Recorder (NSW : 1899 – 1952), Wednesday 31 August 1910.
 Terrors of the Road, Hoodlums of the Lachlan, The Truth, Sydney, 15 December 1895.
For more on this project, click on About on the top menu.
Page created 3 January 2016. Text and photos added 16 January 2016. Last revised 26 January, and 4 February 2016, when I linked this page to Trevor Leaman’s new Wiradjuri Astronomy front page on this site: see https://bigskiescollaboration.wordpress.com/wiradjuri-astronomy/