[Editor: Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April 1931. Part one of two articles on the Lachlan Valley (part two was published on 18 April 1931).]
The Lachlan Valley.
Its beauty and importance.
(By L. Peacock.)
It was an event of deep historic and geographic interest, as well as one of great material value, when Blaxland, Lawson, and Wentworth scaled the spurs of the Blue Mountains and looked with wondering gaze upon the open spaces of the near west. It was a call also to other explorers to plunge into the great unknown through the gate opened by way of those rugged ramparts. The new colony was fortunate in having in Governor Macquarie a man whose vision was not confined to a narrow strip of land along the coast. Two years later (1815) he sent Surveyor G. W. Evans to explore the region lying beyond the point reached by the mountaineers. Evans discovered a river, to which he gave the Governor’s surname, and on a second venture reached another stream which was given Macquarie’s christian name — Lachlan.
The Governor was evidently as keen as were the explorers to know what became of his namesakes and two years later Surveyor General John Oxley was commissioned to trace the course of the Lachlan. He was joined by Allan Cunningham and ten others, and for two weeks the party faced all sorts of difficulties in their quest. Oxley was repeatedly baffled by vast swamps, and in despair he turned back, ignorant of the fact that he had reached a point within two days’ journey of the junction of the Lachlan with the Murrumbidgee. Mrs. Sarah Musgrave, in her little book, “The Wayback,” has an interesting reference to Oxley’s venture. She writes “He camped for a considerable time near the Weddin Mountains and started to explore the Bland Creek. He got as far as Euroka and was blocked there by water. Thinking he had discovered an inland sea and that no further progress was possible by land he marked his name into a tree that was growing by the edge of the water. That tree, bearing the historic name, and marking the historic occasion stood for many years till one sad day an unimaginative free selector chopped it down and burned it.”
A fertile region.
However, Oxley’s achievement carved his name in the annals of our country, a place more enduring than the sap of a gum tree. The Main Roads Board is not likely to build an “Oxley Highway” from Cowra to Booligal, but historically it has been there for 114 years. In his discovery of the Lachlan Valley, Oxley placed on the map one of the most fertile regions in the State. One can follow the winding course of the Lachlan from a few miles below Wyangala Dam to its junction with the Murrumbidgee, a distance of about 800 river miles, without coming across an acre of really poor quality land, unless it be the hills back of Eugowra and the Jemalong and Coradgery Ranges below Forbes. But as a river the Lachlan is something of a freak. Most rivers gather strength of volume by picking up tributaries, and then spill their accumulated wealth either into a larger stream or the sea itself. In the case of the Lachlan, this order is practically reversed. Above Wyangala its chief tributaries are the Abercrombie and Crookwell rivers; below Wyangala come in Boorowa and Belubula rivers, and Milburn, Crowther, Hovells, Mandadgery, and Goobang creeks. Yet after absorbing all these feeders, the main stream limps into the Murrumbidgee little more than an outsize creek. At Cowra a bridge almost 1050 feet in length is required to span the stream safely in flood time whereas at Oxley nearly 740 miles lower down, two small bridges with a total length of 180 feet suffice to cross the river.
This phenomenon seems at first to be very disappointing. It looks like an anti-climax in natures order. But closer investigation shows the cause of it to be one of nature’s wise provisions and splendid compensations. Instead of confining its flood waters to one main channel, the Lachlan generously distributes its swollen favours through the medium of a number of effluent streams over wide tracts of splendid agricultural and grazing country. The first of these natural canals breaks away a few miles above the town of Forbes and from there, on to Condobolin, flood waters find a series of effluents by which natural storages like Lake Cowal are filled. The chief effluents below Condobolin are Willandra, Merrowie and Booberoi creeks, the latter only returning to the river. So while these effluent streams greatly reduce the river channel, they send nature’s gift of fresh water over wide tracts of thirsty land, and one of these days when the Lachlan Water Conservation Scheme is complete the real value of these minor channels will become more and more apparent.
Native names retained.
The traveller is interested and pleased to find that so many of the aboriginal names have been retained down this district. They abound all along the Lachlan Valley, and it seems a pity that the euphonious harmony has been broken by even the inclusion of the town designation “Forbes” (with all respect to the memory of the mother State’s first Chief Justice). There is something really musical about such names as Canowindra, Goolagong, Jemalong Cudgellico, Euabalong, and to the ancient race now fast vanishing each term must once have had its own peculiar significance. If we have dispossessed and dispersed the black man, the least we can do is to retain the names of places that meant something to him through countless generations.
It is a commonplace utterance to say that big things are of slow growth but this is very true of the Lachlan River water conservation scheme. Nearly thirty years ago it was first seriously discussed. Down the years since then politicians and others have thought about it, talked about it, and forgotten about it. But it was the kind of thing that could not be permanently shelved and now, whether it is looked upon favourably or otherwise by some people, it has reached the stage where there can be no going back. The general opinion among farsighted men throughout the wide region is not that the scheme is not warranted, but that it has been too long delayed. About thirty miles from Cowra and six miles below the mouth of the Abercrombie River is the site of the Wyangala Dam back of which is a catchment area comprising 3200 square miles, mostly rugged country with mountains rising to 4000 feet above sea level. Unlike the Murray and the Murrumbidgee rivers, the source of the Lachlan is not snow-fed regularly, but gaugings of the river flow have been made periodically for the past 35 years, and the type of storage has been determined in the light of this knowledge.
A significant date.
The official ceremonial act commencing the preparation for the building of the great dam was performed on December 17, 1928 by the then Premier, Hon. T. R. Bavin. This was done not by the orthodox method of “turning the first sod,” but by “firing the first shot,” for there are not many “sods” to turn in the immediate vicinity. It was the first of a series of crashing explosions that have since rent the calm of these everlasting hills where man is bending stern nature to his will. Within the concrete coffer dam the work has gone steadily forward since that time and at present there are about 300 men employed. Powerful and highly efficient mechanical equipment has stripped the foundation area to the flawless granite bed, and the first lift of concrete has raised its sturdy head indicating the direction of the wall that within the next few years will rise in its might to stand for all time. One develops a great admiration for the engineering skill that leaves nothing to chance in the setting down of foundations for works of this nature. A break-away here under the stress of flood waters to come would result in in calamity of the first magnitude. The little town of Wyangala has sprung up almost overnight and the Irrigation Commission believes in making conditions as congenial as possible for those engaged on the job. Here we find unmarried workmen’s barracks built in groups of four, married men’s cottages, recreation hall and reserve. Public school, church officers’ buildings and hospital equipment. The design of the dam is somewhat similar to that at Burrinjuck, and the capacity will be 273,694 acre feet, with a maximum depth of 160 feet.
Floods of great volume and force occur periodically in the Lachlan and its upper tributaries, and in view of this the engineers have given special attention to the construction of the spillway section of the dam. A concrete spillway wall about 1000 feet in length, is to be constructed in a depression on the southern bank of the river, with a small hill in between. Over this the flood waters will race, picking up the main stream about a mile below. This will avoid the risk of scouring the river bed close to the wall. When the dam is filled to capacity some 6700 acres of land will disappear for ever.
The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), Saturday 11 April 1931, page 9