Mystery at Hanging Rock
Story by Richard Cornish
There is a thin layer of fog hanging over the paddocks around Hanging Rock. Its great timeless tors emerge from the mist glowing gold in the early morning light. We’re the first walkers through, in early to beat the predicted late summer heat. The great plug of volcanic rock looms some 110 metres above us, obscured by mountain ash forest. It has a presence. Something that draws you to the summit.
This is the 6.5 million year old magma outcrop that so enthralled author and artist Joan Lindsay that it became the location for her 1967 book Picnic At Hanging Rock. It was a fictitious novel that combined the pioneer settlement narrative of being lost forever in the Australian bush and what has been described as ‘Aussie Mythic Reality’. Set on Valentine’s Day in 1900 it tells the story of a group of school girls who picnicked at the base of Hanging Rock some of which were to disappear without trace while exploring the labrynthine series of caves and tunnel-like structures that honeycomb the rock. The novel included mock contemporary extracts from newspapers leaving many readers feeling that the fiction was in fact a historical novel.
The rock cemented itself in the Australian imagination with Peter Weir’s visually luscious dramatization of the novel. His 1975 film drew its aesthetic directly from the artists of the Heidelberg School with paintings such as Frederick McCubbin’s Lost In the Bush. With the haunting Romanian panpipe score and that reed-like cry as one of the girls calls out for her friend, “Miranda? Miranda!” Hanging Rock became a place of 20th century Australian artistic pilgrimage.
Its power stems much earlier than this. While there is no written record of what the local aboriginal people used the rock for there are local stories. Hanging Rock’s long-time ranger Guido Bigolin tells the story of Northern Territory aboriginal elders who came, started walking up the rock but returned running back to the car park and would not get out of their car. He tells another story of indigenous TV host Ernie Dingo coming to film at the rock and quietly excusing himself to sit quietly on a rock making amends with people from the past whom he felt he needed to reconcile with before he started filming. Locals talk of stories that it is a sacred men’s site but he says, sadly, there is not a lot of information to go on.
Hanging Rock has also been described as botanists as a living ark - an amazing biological island containing almost all species of plants found in the region. From rainforest species such as blackwood and ferns in the cool wet south facing slopes to native grasses and box gums on the north face common to the hotter, drier parts of Central Victoria. Guido says that it why perhaps it could have been a sacred site – a place that needs to be protected as it is a genetic reservoir safeguarding the survival of species after fire and climate disruption.
From the summit of Hanging Rock you have a complete 360 degree view around the surrounding plains. Here the rocks have been weathered into phallic tors, the capes between them moulded by erosion in vulvic caves. Then there is the sense of an impending event, an animal reaction to a rumbling fear, as if the rock has a deep, buried, ancient intelligence. It is, above all, an amazing natural theatre that fires your imagination to create its own dark and beautiful stories.
S Rock Rd, Between Hesket and Newham; open Daily between 9am-5pm;
$10 entry per car