Tag Archives: Snowy Mountains



Robinson-Smithson Click to view larger image

George Augustus Robinson (1791-1866) was a key figure in the story of relations between European and Aboriginal Australians in the 19th Century. He arrived in Hobart in 1824, and from 1829 to 1834 he undertook a number of journeys around Tasmania, ‘persuading’ the indigenous people to move to settlements in Bass Strait, ultimately settling on Flinders Island. He was personally responsible for the Flinders Island settlement from 1836-39.

As described in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, “he first set out to provide adequate food supplies and to improve housing; but his greatest change was to root out Aboriginal culture and to attempt its replacement with a nineteenth century peasant culture.” (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robinson-george-augustus-2596)
We now know the outcomes of that project. He presided (if unintentionally) over a tragedy in Tasmania, and is now a figure of some controversy – whatever his intentions. Described by some as a ‘Victorian do-gooder’, he was very much a person of his time.

From 1839-49, he was ‘Chief Protector of Aborigines’ for the Port Phillip District, during the course of which time he travelled widely, including an 1844 journey up through Gippsland and across the Monaro. The text in this image is an extract from his official report on those travels. In it he records that:

It was a fine clear day in July when I first saw the Maneroo County. The immense Downs with their undulating grassy surface stretching out before me as far as the eye can see, a park of great magnitude and beauty studded with copses of Banksia, Casuarina, Mimosa, shrubs and small belts of Eucalyptus with bare and isolated mamillary shapes and flat toped hills which compares with the Country I had passed through was exceedingly enchanting. The large isolated Granite Bolders (common on the Downs) have a singular effect. The country is well watered and in places the soil is impregnated with munate of Soda. The Grass grows in tufts, and Sheep and Cattle thrive amazingly. Catarrh a fatal disease among sheep has occasionally broken out within the last seven years; prior it was unknown. Coldness of climate is the cause assigned. The wheat crops have in general failed. The Altitude of Maneroo is from three to four thousand feet, its length from North to South, seventy to 80 miles and from East to West forty. The Bimmer mittong are the original inhabitants, they are a fine race of people well spoken of and have never been troublesome. Syphilitic and other European disease among the Natives is prevalent and their numbers are rapidly decreasing: they are in general useful and frequently employed by Settlers.

The American artist Robert Smithson (1938-73) is most well known for his ‘land art’, and for his critical and theoretical writings. In the course this he produced his pencil drawing A Heap of Language (1966), a work of ‘language to be looked at’.

Robert Smithson. A Heap of Language (1966)

Robert Smithson. A Heap of Language (1966)

Because I’ve recently been researching both Robinson and Smithson, it seemed somehow logical to connect the two in this image. In the process Smithson’s ‘Pile of Language’ has become ‘A Pile of Yabber’, forming a new mountain amongst the rolling hills south of Jagungal.


Doubtful Creek

Doubtful (Click to view larger image)

The place names of the Snowy Mountains region have always seemed very special. For me at least, they have a romantic, even magical resonance in their sounds and the feelings that they evoke. Names like ‘Bogong’, ‘Monaro’, ‘Crackenback’, ‘Dead Horse Gap’, ‘Perisher’, ‘The Dargals’, ‘Pugilistic Creek’, ‘Dicky Cooper Bogong’, ‘Sue City’ – they conjure up images and stories of times past, and the various narratives of the Aboriginal peoples, the early European explorers and pastoralists, the workers of the Snowy Mountain Hydro Scheme and the skiers and hikers of modern times.

But the contemporary names, which are now fixed and codified by the Geographic Names Board (for NSW) conceal a history of confusion, change, and contention as European society struggled to impose a set of names onto the landscape which had managed to exist quite satisfactorily without labels on every locality and topographic feature.

There are many difficulties in establishing the names used by the Aboriginal peoples in the Snowy Mountains region (and similar problems in many other places too). The Indigenous naming system was not like that of the Europeans colonists.

There were more than 300 different language groups across the continent prior to European colonisation, and several groups that converged on the Snowy Mountains (especially for the summer Bogong moth migration), probably including speakers of Ngunawal, Ngarigo, Yuin, Walgalu, Bidawal and Jaithmathang languages. So one place may have had different names in different languages. One place (especially rivers) may have had several different names. A name may have been applied to a particular geographic feature as well as to the surrounding region, and some names may have had a secret or sacred dimension, and be known only to particular members of the group. Place names were often used to indicate the value or resources available from that location (‘Bogong’ is probably a good example of this). And further, land and mythology are inextricably related, and place names were often used to access the spirit and ancestor stories about places to which they are attached. (See the Our Languages website for further discussion of indigenous place names.)

When Europeans arrived in the region they generally sought to learn the local names for places from its inhabitants. This attempt was fraught with potential for error, however, for all of the reasons above. In the Monaro and Snowy Mountains regions, it soon became difficult due to the rapid decline in the indigenous population, and the disruption of their culture following the colonial settlers’ appropriation of their land. Also, Aboriginal words were often poorly transcribed into English text, and descriptions of places (e.g. ‘pretty’ or ‘resting place’) could be erroneously recorded as place names. The early European visitors themselves delighted in giving their own new names to places in the Snowy Mountains, blithely unaware of other names that may have been applied by earlier visitors.

A contest of names ensued, which can be also seen as a contest for dominance between the narratives and interests of the groups who supported different names. One result is that it can be quite difficult now to reconstruct the journeys of travellers to the region in the 1800s, as the place names they used may not have been recognised by anyone other than themselves! Our ‘modern’ “Mount Jagungal”, for example, has been variously referred to as ‘Bluff Hill’, ‘Big Bogong’, ‘Targil’, ‘Teangal’, ‘Jar-gan-gil’, ‘Corunal’ and ‘Coruncal’.

In my Doubtful image, I wanted to allude (perhaps somewhat obliquely) to this state of confusion and the contested history of place names in the region. “The Doubtful” is in fact the ‘official’ name of a real creek near Mt Jagungal. The Geographic Names Board describes it as “a watercourse about 19km long. It rises about 2 km NNW of North Bulls Peak and flows generally N into Tumut River.” For me it has extra significance as it runs adjacent to (my grandfather) Archibald Rial’s hut at Farm Ridge. Family legend has it that he (or his workers) panned the gold for my grandmother’s wedding ring from that creek.

Alan Andrews, in Kosciusko: the Mountain in History (O’Connor, Tabletop Press, 1991) suggests that its name might derive from the surveyor Thomas Townsend’s uncertainty in 1847 as to whether it flowed into the Tumut or Snowy River systems. (I haven’t looked too hard for a more definitive derivation of the name, as I rather like the uncertainty.)

In the Doubtful image, the letters of the word ‘Doubtful’ are not embedded in the landscape but placed on top of it. The letters are widely spaced, and in mixed case so as not to appear overly authoritative. The landscape itself was photographed with very shallow depth of field, to further accentuate the sense of uncertainty.