Short Story: Cowombat Flat

By Alan Hewett

Short Story: Cowombat Flat
Short Story: Cowombat Flat
Life was simple but magical for a family of six who were camping, fishing and brumby catching on Cowombat Flat back in the 1950s. An emotional return visit 70 years later conjures up some of those treasured childhood memories.

I woke to the familiar morning sounds of the bush. The plaintive cries of currawongs, the laughter of kookaburras. But there were other noises. The stamping and snorting of horses. Dad and my elder brother Jack were adjusting saddles, tightening bridles, talking in low voices to calm the skittish animals. I could hear Mum cooking breakfast on the open fire, the damp red gum spitting and crackling. She banged pots as she stirred the porridge and boiled the billy tea. My younger brother Wally slept quietly beside me and our kid sister Shelley lay swaddled in blankets, only the tip of her nose visible. It was a cold morning with a layer of mist. It was 1956 and we were camped at Cowombat Flat, way up in the high country and we were brumby running.

To be truthful, it was Dad and Jack who were going to chases brumbies. Wally and I were still too young; he was eight and I was 10. It was a dangerous business if you didn’t know what you were doing.

Wally and I shared a pony that dad had caught. She was called ‘Head Butt’. If you didn’t keep an eye on her she came up behind you and knocked you over. We had two dogs, Bluey and Mack. At night the dingoes would howl and those dogs would answer with their own mournful cries. Dad would chuck his boots at them to shut them up while we kids snuggled deeper into our blankets.

We came from Buchan. Dad and Jack worked in the local mill. Over Christmas the mill closed and we packed everything we could into an ancient Mack truck and a battered Land Rover Ute. To earn some money and enjoy a bit of a holiday, we journeyed into the mountains where we hoped to catch a few brumbies. Dad broke them in on our small property and sold them on.

Getting there was an adventure in itself. We headed north over rough mountain roads. We passed through Butchers Ridge, Gelantipy and Wulgulmerang, over Mts Seldom Seen and Wombargo and along the Black Creek Road passing through Native Dog Flat. The old bangers creaked and groaned up the steep inclines. The radiators would constantly overheat, hissing and belching steam. On the downhills, to save fuel, Dad and Jack would slip into neutral and freewheel, much to the delight of us kids but horrifying for Mum, who closed her eyes in silent prayer.

Eventually we hit the dirt road that saw us roll into Cowombat Flat. How it got that name, no one knows. The mighty Murray River has its source there. We kids used to straddle the infant river, one foot in Victoria, the other in New South Wales. All around us were the mountains. They had funny names too, Cobberas number one and two, Cleft Peak and Moscow Peak. To the north was the Pilot. From there you could see over open plains towards the Snowy Mountains.

Our camp was rough and ready. We had a couple of canvas shelters to sleep in. In the trees, Dad made a rough corral out of fallen timber and fence wire. Saddles, ropes and harnesses hung from branches. Around the campfire was Mum’s domain, where she had all her pots and pans laid out. She never stopped cooking. A billy was always on the boil. Besides the huge meals, she was always whipping up scones or damper with lashings of homemade jam. We were always hungry because we were on the go from dawn to dusk.

We’d catch cicadas and tie them on to homemade fishing poles and trawl for yellow belly. We’d beg a piece of meat from Mum and tie it to a wire frame and leave it overnight in the river. We’d catch a dozen or more yabbies, big ones too, and they’d be fried on a grill over the open fire. We even tried tickling trout. Dad showed us how.

Wally and I would explore all day. Mum kept Shelley close to her. We would take Head Butt with us, one riding, and one walking. Sometimes both of us rode and he hated that. We found an old marble quarry on Stony Creek and chipped and knapped pieces to make ‘jewellery’ for Mum and Shelley.

On Limestone Creek one day, we found a cave. We went back the next day with candles. We had to wriggle through the small opening and crawled along a narrow passage until it opened up and we could stand. We held up the candles and it was real scary in there. The light threw our shadows against the walls. Bats were hanging from the roof of the cave. Water ran down everywhere, forming stubby limestone deposits. We gazed around in wonder until Wally spotted a pile of bones. They were probably animal bones but our nerve gave out and we were out of there.

Further up the river, there was an old hut. We peeked inside and someone was obviously living there. A fire was smouldering and there was the smell of cooking. Next minute this old coot started hollering at us. He was pushing a barrow with all sorts of tools in it. Then he pulled out a rifle and started to load. We jumped on Head Butt and took off. We were well clear before he got off a couple of bullets. When we told Dad, he took some of Mum’s tucker and a couple of bottles of beer and rode over. When he came back, he sat down and shook his head. “Poor soul, he’s not too right in the head. Lonely too. He’s fossicking for gold along the river, best leave him be.”

Dad and Jack would go out and chase down brumbies. They were only interested in mares and foals. Stallions were only good for pet food in Jack’s opinion. They were dangerous and protected their mobs with a vengeance. Once Dad was riding through a forest and a big black stallion raced out and bit him on the thigh. It was a nasty wound and Jack wanted to shoot him but Dad wouldn’t hear of it. “He’ll keep giving us good stock for years, let him alone.”

Truth is, we didn’t benefit from that stallion. Dad began to suffer from a bad cough. The sawdust in the mill was bad and Dad didn’t help himself by smoking about 40 rollies a day, which he’d done since he was 12. He got worse and went into hospital. Lung cancer. Fortunately he went quickly but Mum was forced to sell up and we moved to Lakes Entrance where she had rellies. Jack went driving log trucks and me and Wally finished school and both got apprenticeships. Shelley eventually became a nurse and moved to Melbourne.

I soon married and had kids and before you knew it they had kids too. A few years ago we had a big family reunion. We started reminiscing about the holidays at Cowombat Flat. One of Wally’s grandkids, Ethan, suddenly perked up when he heard that name. He began to ask all sorts of questions. Now he’s a nice kid and all but he’s … well … a Greenie. Not that they’re all bad but some have got real funny ideas. Anyway Ethan said him and his girlfriend were going to do a walk there. I’d had a few beers so I said I wanted to go. Everyone started to laugh, well, I was pushing 70. But Ethan and his girl Sarah said they would carry everything; all I had to do was get fit.

And I did. I walked my backside off. Wally and my missus thought I was mad but I kept at it and one sunny March day we set off.  Then the shocks began.

First of all there was a gate across the road. I looked questioningly at Ethan. “It’s a National Park, we can’t drive any further, and we have to walk.”

“How far?”

He looked sheepish, “About 18 klicks.” Christ, 10 miles. The kids threw the big packs on their backs while I looked at a board. It announced that we were entering a ‘Wilderness Area’. Wilderness! Once I’d known every rock and bush, I couldn’t have got lost if I’d tried.

It was a beautiful day. There were still wildflowers growing amongst the snow plains: silver daisies, billy buttons, waxy bluebells and everlastings. I remember how we used to pick them for Mum and she’d put bunches in empty jam jars around the camp. Shelley used to splice them together and hang them around her neck.

We continued along the track and soon the familiar mountains came into view. The Cobberas still stood high and proud and I remembered how Wally and I had climbed every peak without any of the fancy gear they have now. The view from the tops was magical. No sign of civilisation in any direction. To the west were the Bogong High Plains, to the north the Snowy Mountains, and east and south were never-ending rolling hills.

We stopped for a break under some weather-beaten snow gums. I nibbled on some native celery that was growing there, much to Ethan and Sarah’s amusement. We continued on and hit a rise and there was the Flat. I have to say the memories came flooding back, it hadn’t changed. There were even brumbies grazing. I fought back the tears.

We walked down to camp by the river. The kids set up the tents while I wandered around picturing our camp and the corral. I couldn’t stop reminiscing about Mum and Dad.

I persuaded the kids to light a fire. I told them I was unhappy about how it had all been locked up and people couldn’t drive in. Sarah patiently explained how it was important to protect these areas from overuse. It was a lot different from the ’50s, everyone had a 4WD now. The brumbies were overbreeding and causing massive erosion, and polluting waterways. I could see they loved this country as much as I’d done. I suppose that’s the difference between us. We thought we could do anything we liked here, that it would last forever without ever changing, that we could take what we wanted and use what we wanted without any fear of the consequences.

The next day was a ripper. Cool at first but clear blue skies. The sun soon warmed us up and the kids took me on a walk. Two wedge-tailed eagles circled overhead riding a thermal current. Wally and I found a huge eagle’s nest once and watched as the parents fed their chick. Farmers used to poison wedgies then, a terrible thing.

Ethan produced a device he called a GPS. He tried to explain what it did but I just shook my head. The kids smiled and told me to follow them. We headed east along an old brumby track and then down into a valley. Ethan kept looking at the instrument and changing direction. We entered a patch of tea trees and found a small creek with a marker over it.

“This is the source of the Murray,” said Ethan proudly. I admit I was impressed but I had something to show them.

I made my way up a nearby hill and showed them the big stone cairn there. Wally and I had found it while exploring once. Ethan explained it was built by the original surveyors, Black and Allen and there was a whole heap of them all the way to the sea. I wouldn’t have fancied that job.

We went back to camp. I wandered around by myself most of the afternoon. I found the remains of the hut where the old hermit lived, what a life he must have led. Winters were really bad in those mountains and you could get snow at any time. I remembered the year it snowed on Boxing Day. We kids couldn’t contain our excitement. We threw snowballs and built a snowman. The dogs were beside themselves, they’d never seen snow before. The next day it melted quickly, we always called it our ‘White Christmas’.

We packed up early the next day. The kids planned to come back and really explore the area. They’d just indulged me on this trip. We started walking and when we hit that rise, I looked back once more. This time I couldn’t stop the tears. Sarah hugged me. “Come on, let’s get you home.”


Author: Alan Hewett

Alan Hewett is retired and lives with his partner Joan in Wodonga, Victoria. They lived on a 53-hectare property in the nearby Indigo Valley for 18 years. The property was covenanted with Trust For Nature to protect native flora and fauna. A keen bushwalker and gardener, he has contributed many articles pertaining to the environment for the local paper and online forums. He has written several short stories with moderate success and is determined to finally finish a novel he has been thinking about for some years.


Print Recipe


Let us keep you up to date with our weekly MiNDFOOD e-newsletters which include the weekly menu plan, health and news updates or tempt your taste buds with the MiNDFOOD Daily Recipe. 

Member Login