The rediscovery of Moroka Gorge.

BACKGROUND

The Moroka Gorge and falls were discovered by the explorer Alfred Howitt and his party in 1860. Howitt was probably the most remarkable man in 19th century Victoria, among other things he was an explorer, botanist, anthropologist, geologist, mine warden, magistrate, farmer, government department head and author. Heading an urgent relief party to find the lost Bourke and Wills expedition, he discovered, mapped and documented more territory then the large expedition he was saving. Towards the end of his life he was awarded an honourary doctorate by the University of Cambridge, which at the time was a scarcer and arguably, a greater honour than a knighthood. But I digress, this is not a hagiography of Alfred Howitt, but rather a short history of the Moroka Gorge.

In 1860 Howitt led an expedition sponsored by the Victorian government to explore the mountains of northern Gippsland and to search the for possible gold deposits. Included in the party was Austrian landscape painter Eugene Von Guerard who later became director of the National Gallery of Victoria. Von Guerard published this print of Moroka Falls in 1867.

Howitt’s party found gold on the Crooked River, 20 km east of Moroka Gorge which resulted in a major gold rush two months later. No traces of gold were found further west near Moroka Gorge, and as the middle section of the Moroka River was far too rugged for cattle, no one took any further interest in it.. Thereafter the gorge and falls appear to have been forgotten, until 101 years later when Robin Bailey took a stroll down a London street.

ROBIN BAILEY’S DISCOVERIES

Wandering past the street stalls of London’s Portobello Road in the summer of 1961 I was attracted to a pile of odd prints and drawings. On going through the assortment I came upon one which really intrigued me, painted by Von Guerard and entitled ‘Moroka River Falls (foot of Mt Kent Gipps Land)’ I already knew Mt Kent and the Upper Moroka area fairly well having undertaken two long walks there previously. I had never heard of any falls however nor did I recall my father or any other club member ever mentioning them. The stall holder wanted ₤20 for the print which was quite a substantial amount in those days – certainly more than the weekly wage – but I was so intrigued that I thought it well worth the money.

On returning to Melbourne I examined the picture in detail in relation to the available maps of the area, and it seemed fairly clear that there was only one small section of the river where the falls might be located. I then made enquiries of the cattlemen whom I knew, in particular Jack Treasure when I was staying with him on the Dargo High Plains and Andy Estoppey of Briagolong, who at that time had the Moroka Hut and the cattle run in the area. Neither of them knew of any Moroka falls but Andy did suggest that I get in touch with a John Neilson who was starting on a geological survey of the Moroka area.

By a fortunate coincidence John turned out to be an old school friend and together we narrowed down the location of the falls fairly closely.

Early in 1962 I organized my first trip into the area and had a good look at all the ridges which could possibly lead down to the falls. Our next trip was from the Horseyard Flat area over the ridges and down to the Moroka River thereafter wading downstream – a route very similar to that followed by the present track to the falls. There are in fact three separate falls on this stretch of the river and by the time we reached the middle one, which is the subject of Von Guerard’s painting, time was running out. So to reach the lower one I made a third trip, this time following the ridge down Little Cromwell straight to the falls. Although the most direct route, it was a tough scrub bash all the way. [Digested from an old edition of The Melbourne Walker.]

UPDATE

In 2015, copies of this print are selling for around $1,250, so they are still priced at a little "more than the weekly wage". Von Guerard later became director of the National Gallery of Victoria. His paintings and prints remain highly prized today.

Alfred Howitt is remembered by Mt Howitt, a high peak to the north of this area and by Howittville, one of the former towns of the Crooked River goldfields which he discovered on this expedition. He was never knighted but did receive an honourary Ph.D. towards the end of his life for his scientific work. John Neilson is remembered by Neilson's Crag which overlooks Moroka Gorge.

Legendary mountain cattleman, Andy Estoppey died in 1982, but Moroka Hut which he built in 1946 (and only 6 km from the gorge), is maintained by the Victorian High Country Huts Association. Members of the Treasure family still farm property in the Crooked River area as well as their ancestral home on the Dargo High Plains where they have run grazing operations since the 1870s.

Today, a good 2WD road extends 80 km from Licola to Arbuckle Junction and Horseyard Flat. It's sealed for the first 22 km and well maintained gravel after that. From Horseyard Flat, a fairly well maintained walking track reaches the first falls. The pool beneath them has impossibly cold water, and a swim is certainly a “character building experience”, even in March. Then the track degenerates a bit and climbs over steep spurs to progress further down the gorge. It is a comfortable day walk to get to the second falls and return. But if you want to get all the way to the third falls and return to Horseyard Flat, I’d recommend an early start and not too many breaks on the walk in.

© David Sisson, 19 December 2006. Article revised and expanded February and March 2015.

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