Hanging Rock is the name of a large geological formation which rises out of the plain roughly 70km north-west of Melbourne. In 1967 it provided the setting for what was to become a popular cult novel: Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
I watched the film adaptation of Lindsay’s novel when I was 10 years old – and was mesmerised by the hypnotic visuals, the open-ended mystery of the young girls who went missing during a school trip to the rock.
When I visited Australia earlier this year I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit the rock for myself – seeking out this lonely promontory in central Victoria, to stage my very own picnic at Hanging Rock.
There was a classic car show being held at Hanging Rock on the day we visited. I had travelled by car with a Canadian friend, herself a resident of Melbourne. As we sat in the queue for the car park, something large and grey bounded past between the stationary vehicles ahead. Anywhere else I would have guessed it was a greyhound, though it seemed far too large – too muscular – to be a dog.
“Was that a… a kangaroo?” I asked, hesitantly.
Nowadays Hanging Rock is surrounded by an enclosed recreation reserve, featuring picnic areas, forests and a racetrack encircled by a chain-link fence. We parked up on the grass, and made our way towards the looming rock formation.
Walking through the rows of parked cars, past ambling enthusiasts and proud motor hobbyists, we seemed to be the only ones who’d come here for the rock itself. As ridiculous as it felt to ask directions for the towering mass of solidified lava up ahead, we were separated from the rock by a ring of fences, and the confusion of cars obscured any view of the gate.
Stopping to ask two locals for the path to the summit, they picked up on our foreign accents and decided to make sport of the gullible tourists.
“You don’t want to go up there, mate,” one of them warned. “Didn’t you hear about the murders? There’s still bodies up there on that rock.”
His friend nodded sagely, adding:
“And drop bears, I reckon. Head for that gate over there, if you’re still keen.”
The ‘drop bear,’ for those who have never been mocked by an Australian, is a form of carnivorous koala that drop from trees onto the heads of their prey. Invented purely for the sake of winding up outsiders, commonly suggested deterrents for drop bear attacks include smearing vegemite in the armpits or urinating on oneself.
I didn’t want to spoil their fun, and so I tried to look nervous as I thanked them. We made our farewells, then headed off to begin the ascent.
The Murders at Hanging Rock
On Saturday 14th February 1900, St. Valentine’s Day, a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College in the State of Victoria headed out for a picnic on Hanging Rock. Three of the girls, along with a teacher, never made it back.
One girl reappeared a week later, sans corset, yet seemingly unscathed – she had lost her memory though, and was unable to recall any of the events on the day in question.
Over the course of the ensuing search and investigation, there were accusations of murder and child molestation, of kidnapping, and even references to the Ripper Murders in London. Meanwhile, Lindsay’s use of existential poetry, red clouds and stopped clocks seemed to invite a more esoteric explanation.
Of course, all of the events above constitute a work of fiction. In interviews however Lindsay was coy with the facts, hesitant to dispel the myth she had created. The inclusion of a pseudo-historical prologue and epilogue to her novel also added to the intrigue, and numerous readers were inspired to climb Hanging Rock in search of evidence.
Public interest in the ‘case’ was so strong, that in 1980 a response came in the form of Yvonne Rousseau’s The Murders at Hanging Rock; a collection of hypothetical explanations for the strange disappearances in 1900.
Few theorists managed to grasp the author’s true designs though, as became apparent in 1987; when Lindsay’s missing final chapter was posthumously published as The Secret of Hanging Rock.
In the missing Chapter 18, we cut back to the scene of the disappearance. The girls climb the rock in a daze, beginning to feel increasingly nauseous the higher they get. Removing their corsets they throw the garments from the top of a cliff – only to see them hang, suspended in the air. The rock appears to be frozen in time, and the girls encounter what is described as a “hole in space,” before being swallowed up by the very rock itself.
It should be noted however – the fabled eighteenth chapter was published after Lindsay’s death, and no records can be found that link her to the manuscript. As the very idea of offering a “solution” to the story appears to negate the wilfully open-ended and hypothetical nature of the novel, this has led many to doubt whether or not this “missing” chapter was in fact penned by Lindsay herself… or rather, perhaps, by her publisher; who enjoyed a renewed interest – and revenue – following the missing chapter’s release.
Climbing the Rock
Hanging Rock was formed roughly a million years ago, a so-called geological wonder resulting from volcanic activity in the region of Mount Macedon. In the novel, prim tutor Miss McCraw explains it as, “soda trachytes extruded in a highly viscous state, building the steep sided mamelons we see in Hanging Rock.”
The rock rises to a height of 718m, offering clear views across the surrounding plains. It was once an important spiritual centre in Aboriginal folklore, and a pilgrimage spot for male initiation ceremonies; until Western colonists relocated the last of the Wurundjeri tribesmen in 1844, and claimed the land beneath the rock to create a racecourse and fashionable picnicking spot. The surveyor Robert Hoddle gave the rock its official name, ‘Mount Diogenes,’ that same year.
Our own visit to the rock was on a hot summer afternoon, just nine days after Valentine’s.
The approach was steep, but a well-trodden path wound up through a crease in the rock. Near the bottom we passed the grave of Travis Le Clezio; a real life victim of the rock, the Le Clezio family lost their 13-year-old when he fell from the mountain in 2002.
Rising up past the formation known as Vampire Cliff, a few times I ventured off course; squeezing my way between massive boulders, beneath ancient lintels, to find hidden passages through the stone. There were enough cracks in the rock face to allow regular footholds, and at one point I scaled my way up the side of a natural chimney, emerging onto a plateau high above.
Once or twice we passed other climbers, although these became fewer as the afternoon drew on. There was a thick silence hanging over the place, and the rock betrayed no sign of life. Even the spider webs which hung from its scorched trees appeared old, dusty and disused.
Several lookout points on Mount Diogenes take their name from the rangers who had once favoured these spots. Other formations feature more poetic names, such as the Colonnade, the Eagle and the UFO. Approaching the top I climbed a large, protruding boulder to the highest point. The flat landscape opened up beneath me, allowing a 360 degree view of the vast, open plains. The hot sun caused a heat haze to ripple through the still air, while the sky hung over us; dry, blue and impossibly big.
It was late in the afternoon, but the sun was still beating down hard. I began to feel a little dizzy up on the peak, so scrambled back down to level ground.
Reaching the base of the boulder, I spotted a couple of lizards nearby – skinks, as far as I could tell – creeping out from a rocky crevice to bask in the sun. We followed their lead.
In fairness, it wasn’t much of a picnic: dry red wine and – well, that was it actually. Just red wine, hot sunshine and perhaps the best view in the State of Victoria.
There was something I found peculiar about the rock. Strange to think that it had emerged onto this landscape so recently, relative to the rolling plains, to Mount Macedon in the distance. The eerie stillness gave it an otherworldly quality, making it easy to picture this as the backdrop to Lindsay’s novel; and to the generation upon generation of Aborigine rituals which dated back longer still.
Mobbed by Roos
The sun was just beginning to set by the time we’d made our way back down.
What had looked like a short cut at first turned out to be anything but – as we found ourselves scrambling and sliding down a series of scree slopes. It had been a while since we’d seen anyone else, and we were surrounded by the chirruping of cicadas, the chatter of kookaburras in the trees overhead. It felt as though we had the rock to ourselves.
As it turned out, we did. Coming round the final corner of the path, we approached the visitor’s centre, the café and, beyond that, an empty field. Empty, that is, except for one car: ours. The car show had finished while we were on the rock, and in due course the crowds had left for home.
Ambling across sun-bleached grass towards the solitary vehicle, I spotted a sign warning of snakes. A wine-fuelled curiosity took over, and I couldn’t resist having a rummage about in the undergrowth for a sight of my first Australian snake. I didn’t find any though, and after a few minutes I turned back – noticing, as I did, a grey stranger in the bushes.
For a split second I thought it was a mannequin, a motionless dummy, standing at roughly the height of a human being. It had the face of a rabbit though and just as I realised what I was looking at it turned its back and hopped away. When I came out of the bushes again, they were everywhere; a troop of roos several dozen strong, spread out across the rolling grasslands.
It was the first time I’d seen a kangaroo outside of a zoo. I was entranced by the way they moved, as they foraged for grass; a clumsy lolloping motion, flanks rippling with solid muscle, before lifting their tails and surging forward in massive bounds.
I was so preoccupied that I didn’t register what was happening. My friend had made it to the car already, and while I stood watching the mob had divided around me. The females, bearing joeys in their pouches, had moved to the far side of the car, while several of the larger males – each one of them taller than me – had began to circle around me.
I began recalling the things I’d heard about these creatures: that an adult male was as strong as a bull, and had razor-sharp claws on its forearms; that it could lean back onto its tail in order to disembowel victims with a kick of its powerful hind legs; that they were fiercely protective around their young.
While I suspected some exaggeration, I knew I didn’t want to fight a kangaroo. I made for the car, swiftly and cautiously, locking the door behind me for good measure. If we thought we were simply going to drive out of the park though, we were in for disappointment.
We soon found out that the last person to leave had diligently locked and chained the gates behind them. We tried checking one field over, dodging the roos, and then the field after that; but to no avail. Eventually we drove the entire circumference of the rock and its attendant recreational grounds. Nothing.
Though the fence was climbable, without the car we’d be stranded in the middle of nowhere. We were stuck.
As night fell, the vegetation around us came to life with rustles and cries; the sounds of Australia’s nocturnal wildlife. I tried banging on the doors to the café and visitor centre, hoping in vain that a ranger would be posted at the rock overnight. There was a phone number pinned to the door of the ranger’s hut, but when we tried it the call went unanswered.
We started weighing up our options.
I was still optimistic about escape. There were a couple of golf buggies parked on the edge of the racecourse and I hatched a cunning plan to hotwire one, before using it to ram the gate. I sat down at the wheel – checking beneath the seat for spiders – only to remember that I had no idea how an engine worked.
Our remaining options were to sleep in the car, or call the police.
We called the police.
The squad car took an hour to arrive, and then another thirty minutes as the officer went looking for keys to the heavy padlock on the gate. As he fumbled with the lock, he chided us for missing the curfew.
“People go missing here,” he reminded us. “You should be more careful, or they’ll make the sequel about you.”
It was almost midnight by the time I finally got back to Melbourne. The day had been a fantastic disaster, memorable despite the wine. I’d seen my first wild kangaroos, as well as climbing the infamous Mount Diogenes: that mystical site which has been inspiring imaginations since time prehistoric.
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