Volcanoes in Victoria - in painting

The Newer Volcanics Province is a large area of south-eastern Australia in the west of the state of Victoria. From the Wikipedia: "It has an area of 6,000 square miles (15,000 square km) with over 400 vents and contains the youngest volcanoes in Australia. The youngest eruptions in the volcanic field took place at Mount Schank and Mount Gambier about 5000 years ago, when explosive activity formed several maars and associated lava flows."

Years ago I bought a book from the Royal Society of Victoria called Volcanoes in Victoria. Although I had lived in Melbourne  most of my life, and had grown up there, I had no idea that the west of the state was a vast plain of lava flows, volcanic cones, caldera and volcanic lakes. After reading it, I felt there existed immense drama in a landscape that was most usually associated with the production of Merino wool. Subsequently, I went on two sketching tours with friends; one in 2001 to Mt Elephant, and the other in 2003 to Red Rock, Mt Leura, Mt Noorat and on the return to Melbourne, Mt Elephant again.


Between the two trips, drought had changed the landscape dramatically. Deep Lake near Mt Elephant, which had been full in 2001 was a dry, cracked bed, hard enough to walk on in 2003, and as I found out, not deep at all. All the craters on Red Rock were dry or almost so. The grass  on Mt Elephant, which had been knee-deep and green in 2001 was so dry that the red scoria surface of the volcano was visible. The lakes are now full again, although the craters of Red Rock remain dry.


The drama I anticipated I found when standing on the Red Rock lookout on a reasonably clear day without too much haze. I could see the other volcanoes, like monoliths or markers, standing out on the plain. Looking west, I could easily see Mr Leura near Camperdown. Looking north-west, I could just make out Mt Elephant near Derrinallum. From the top of Mt Elephant, I could easily see Mt Leura to the south and the Ewan Hills, and to the north the distinctive Mt Buangor, and Mt Cole; the so-called Pyrenees of Victoria. From Mt Noorat, with a clear view to the east across the Ewan Hills I could see Mt Leura and farther away to the north east, the barely visible Elephant. To the south-west of Noorat, I could make out the shore of the almost perfect circle of Lake Keilambete, saltier than the sea and rather mysterious. Itself a crater, the water line is low and being on privately owned land, the summit of Noorat is perhaps one of the few places from which you can see it. Noorat itself is completely round, if not flat, with no breach on its side. It's easy to access by car and the crater rim can be easily walked. It's a steep climb down to the bottom of the crater however, and I didn't fancy coming across snakes, or having to climb back out, so I decided against it.


The sight lines between the volcanoes felt like some kind of communication was taking place. Certainly they gave easy reference and orientation across an otherwise almost featureless plain.  Several years later in 2010, I was in visiting the National Gallery of Victoria in Federation Square and saw, for the first time, Eugene Von Guerard's View to the Pyrenees from the Crater of Mt Elephant 1858. His vantage point on to southern side of the then more heavily vegetated Elephant (bushfires in the early 20th century did much to deforest it), was pretty much the same as mine. Indeed, maybe we had sat on the same convenient rock to make sketches. Mentally flipping Von Guerard's image around (the engraving shows his drawing in reverse), I was naturally taken aback by the coincidence. Even though (or perhaps because) colonial-era art is immensely unfashionable these days, from the artist's perspective there is more than a little discomfiture in seeing one's best efforts matched and easily bettered by a stuffy old European who indubitably worked a thousand times harder and took way more risks to get to these places. No highways and motels and counter lunches for Eugene. Owned by the colonial.  Not exactly the drama I had anticipated, but all the same...

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