28 December, 2015

Making tracks - through the slough of despond

...and so the journey continued. With the longest part of the trip behind them and keen to reach the fabled gold fields of Ballarat, the aspiring diggers faced what was probably the most difficult part of their journey - Scott's Marsh (or Scott's Swamp as it was also known), a low-lying area at the foot of Mt Buninyong.
At the outbreak of the gold rush this land formed part of the 16,000 acre cattle then sheep run held by the squatter Andrew Scott and his wife Celia along with other Scott family members which became the Mt Boninyong Estate.
An 1862 view of the Mt Boninyong Estate. Image held by the Victorian State Library
Today, over 175 years later, the property is still owned by the Scott family and features one of the district's more stately homes. The elegant structure which stands today however, was not even a consideration as the first of the diggers headed to the Mount in 1851. It was not built until 1884, instead, the original Scotts made do - initially at least - with a bark slab hut.
Mt Boninyong Estate, November, 2014
Whilst the new house was built on the site of the old, the new road from Geelong to Ballarat did not follow the line of the original track, but instead passed almost through the middle of Scott's pre-emptive selection. The new road stayed on the higher ground to the north of the springs which feed Williamson's Creek at the foot of Mt Buninyong. The survey maps from 1855 on the other hand show the old track, continuing along a route to the south of Williamson's Creek as mentioned in my previous post. The image below shows the Midland Highway running through Scott's surveyed land with the old tracks marked in red. The lower track is marked "from Ballaarat".
Section of an 1855 survey map showing part of Buninyong Parish between
Clarendon and Scotsburn overlaid on Google Earth. Red lines indicate old
tracks marked by the surveyor, the Midland Highway is shown in yellow.
Click to enlarge
It is worth noting at this point that surveyor A.J. Skene's 1845 map of Victoria (which I have referred to previously), shows the track following a similar path to that depicted on the 1855 maps but staying south of both Scotsburn and Buninyong as shown below.
Section of Skene's 1845 map showing the track (lower dotted line)
between Clarendon and Buninyong overlaid on Google Earth. Click to enlarge
Of course, in the earliest days of the colony, tracks through the bush developed according to need and the restrictions of the surrounding terrain, consequently the early survey maps show that Buninyong could be approached from several different directions. If a track became impassable, those travelling light would simply go around or head into the bush, looking for a better route, but for the larger vehicles, this was not always possible.
This situation was illustrated in Henry Mundy's biography (Henry Mundy: a young Australian pioneer, Les Hughes, 1988) where he gave the following description of crossing Scott's Swamp:
The roads were anything but good. The men walked over bad places and rode on favourable occasions. Horse drays having light loads could best pick their way by shunning the main bullock track by taking to the bush for it. There was a dreadful slough of despond called 'Scott's Swamp', near the foot of Mount Buninyong about three hundred yards across of black sticky mud. Many a bullock lost the number of his mess there; one team by itself never attempted to cross it. Two teams and sometimes three would yoke together and take over a load at a time. Sometimes a bullock would fall, but no stopping to get him up again. The poor brute was dragged along by the neck to the other side dead or alive, very often choked. Horses could not travel at all through the sticky mud on account of their flat feet, bullocks had the only chance.
Looking south along Platt's Rd today, there is no sign of the quagmire which
confronted the earliest diggers heading to the gold fields
Another journey in 1854 was recounted in the Geelong Advertiser of 27th January, 1904 which painted a similar picture to Mundy's:
 We eventually arrived at Scott's Marsh, where, it being the rainy season, a scene presented itself suggestive of John Bunyan's "Slough of Despond" to my untutored mind and inexperience of travelling. I thought we had come to the "place of despair." Dante could not improve the picture in his "Inferno" for unrestrained profanity heard on every side.
Dozens of vehicles were bogged axle deep. It was no use unloading here. It had to be faced and got through somehow. We were fortunate in being able to induce a bullock-driver to hitch on his team to our spring cart and for this friendly help he let us off on payment of 10s. We were then told that the worst part of the journey was over...
Whilst none of the descriptions I have seen give an exact location for Scott's Swamp, the section of 1855 survey map above shows an area of marshy ground at the south west corner of Scott's pre-emptive selection. The old track is also shown passing through the swamp in the vicinity of today's Platt's Road, joining the current highway just west of the little township of Scotsburn.

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