A couple of weekends ago we had to go to a wedding at Camden, which is a smallish town at the northern end of the Southern Highlands, about an hour’s drive south of Sydney (in fact it’s basically become a commuter town due to Sydney’s ridiculous sprawl). For various reasons, the wedding was on a Monday, so we decided to make a long weekend of it and explore the region, as this is the area where I’m planning to set The Dark Before the Dawn, and I really don’t know as much about it as I should.
The Southern Highlands is a gorgeous and fascinating part of the world, and if you’re ever visiting eastern Australia I can highly recommend it as a place for a weekend away. Situated on the Great Dividing Range – the mountain range that runs thousands of kilometres down the east coast of Australia, from southern Queensland to Victoria – the environment is all towering eucalyptus forests, sandstone gorges and meandering rivers. In the autumn the foliage is nothing short of spectacular.
The region is full of historic towns, beautiful bushwalks and great food and wine. It’s also got an amazing history, if that’s your thing – these towns were some of the first settlements on mainland Australia and were at the heart of the country’s developing wheat and wool industries.
This history is one of the main reasons I chose this area for the setting of The Dark Before the Dawn – because it’s brimming with bushrangers (like highwaymen or outlaws) and adventures and ghost stories and folklore. In short, it’s a rich vein for a writer like me and I don’t know why I didn’t think of mining it earlier. I suspect there’s the good old Australian ‘cultural cringe‘ involved – one of the things about growing up Australian is that most of us remain generally ignorant about the richness of our own history, as it’s not taught much in school (or at least wasn’t in my day). This is even more true when it comes to Indigenous history – it’s embarrassing how ignorant I am of Aboriginal history and culture.
Anyway, since we were in the area I decided to visit some of the places I’d been thinking about in the context of the story, and the first stop was Bargo. Bargo was an important staging post before the railway went through, and the infamous Bargo Brush was home to the highest concentration of bushrangers in the colony (the Bargo Brush was a particularly thick type of scrubby bush, which made it perfect for bushrangers to hide out in and attack coaches). I’d expected Bargo to be a historic town like Bowral, Camden or the other smaller Southern Highlands villages, with their colonial architecture and museums, but I was sorely disappointed – there was nothing there but a meagre collection of shops and a cluster of houses that wouldn’t have been out of place in the suburbs of Melbourne or Sydney. We stopped for lunch at the local takeaway joint (which did pretty good burgers, I have to say) and then went on our way.
We spent most of the next day at the fabulous Trainworks museum at Thirlmere, which is all about the development of rail in New South Wales and is full to the brim (the site is 5 hectares/12.3 acres) with restored carriages and locomotives of various vintages. It’s a paradise for kids and fascinating for adults if you have any interest in infrastructure or history (or, obviously, trains). The coming of the railway in the mid-1860s revolutionised the colony – where it once would have taken a week to get from Sydney to Goulburn by coach (a distance of about 200km), it could be done overnight on the train. The implications for farmers in southern NSW were enormous – suddenly it was possible to get their produce to Sydney before it spoilt, opening up whole new markets.
Thirlmere is just down the road from Picton, and this is where I found the history I’d been looking for. Picton is another old staging town, at the foot of the escarpment known as the Razorback. The original road over the Razorback was hand-built by convicts and apparently there are still old milestones nestled in the forest. We stayed at the lovely Pepper Tree Ridge bed-and-breakfast and had a good chat with the host, Barry, who recommended the local historical society and museum if I wanted to find out about the region’s ghosts and bushrangers. Australian country town historical societies are an untapped wealth of records and stories compiled by people who are passionate about their districts and who often come from families who have been there for generations. Unfortunately we didn’t have time on this trip, but I feel a proper research visit is in order very soon. All my other books have been set in either fantastical worlds or areas that aren’t directly accessible to me (like northern England), so it’s quite a novelty to be able to explore a setting in my own backyard – it really brings it to life.