Ambling in the Avon Valley – part 1

The Avon valley was officially discovered by Ensign Dale in 1830 when Governor Stirling saw that the newly established Swan River Colony was going to starve unless it found some decent arable land. Of course the Nyoongar people knew about its existence all along and the upper reaches of the Avon were very important to their dream time stories. As we drive out of Perth on the Great Eastern Highway it’s difficult to imagine how hard it was for Dale all those years ago. What takes us an hour today in a car took him nine days of sheer heart breaking slog. The going was so bad that his horses became bogged in mud and it took all day just to travel one mile or 1.6 Km and he named one spot the Vale of Misery. Ensign Dale opened up a parcel of land the size of Tasmania, although in many cases it was not until the 1860’s that the townsites were established. In the tradition of Nineteenth Century explores he named many of the places after his friends, family and places back in England where he grew up.

Standing on top of Mount Brown and looking across towards Mount Bakewell and the town of York in Western Australia’s historic Avon Valley. A 4 image stitch done in Adobe Photoshop CS5. Camera used Panasonic Lumix LX-5. Focal length equivalent to 35mm in full frame terms. Exposure: 1/800 s at f/4.0 ISO 80.

Ensign Robert Dale of the 63rd Regiment of Foot is perhaps one of the great unsung heroes of early colonial exploration. Everyone remembers Burke and Wills, and Leichhardt because they lost their lives and that heroic failure mythologized them. Ensign Dale’s exploration and surveying of the Avon Valley, the Canning River and Mount Barker region was of vital importance to the survival of the early settlers in Western Australia. His survey of King George’s Sound in Albany was considered an important work then and is seen as an important artistic and historical document today. While undertaking this achievement he never got lost, he did not loose any men and he maintained excellent relations with the local aboriginal population. In total he mounted seven official expeditions and the journals from them were published in 1833. He was appointed to the post of temporary assistant government surveyor and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. He acquired a lot of property with two town allotments in Albany, a thousand hectares in York and a further 750 hectares in the Swan Valley. But as quickly as his star had risen it fell. He was placed under virtual house arrest by his commanding officer in mid 1832. Soon after he became embroiled in the ugly saga of Yagan’s murder where he was ordered to take Yagan’s pickled head back to England and explain the situation to the Colonial Office and they stripped him of his rank of Lieutenant. Disenchanted Dale resigned from the military and went into business with his brother Thomas importing mahogany. In 1853, at the age of forty-four, he died of tuberculosis in the English town of Bath on the banks of the River Avon.

Today tourists drive out to the Avon Valley to see historic heritage towns, atmospheric homesteads, rocky outcrops and to picnic along the banks of the River Avon. A pleasant spring time trip would be to drive out to Toodyay  and then follow the Avon down through Northam, York and Beverley returning to Perth via Westdale and the Brookton Highway. If time permitted you could arrange to stay overnight in Northam or York to get the most out of the trip.

Toodyay

Connors Mill in Toodyay, situated in the Avon Valley of Western Australia.

85 km northeast of Perth Toodyay was settled in 1836 and named after the Nyoongar name for the area “Duidgee” which means place of plenty. The original townsite was prone to flooding so it was abandoned in the 1850’s and relocated 5 km and renamed Newcastle. In 1911 the name was changed back to Toodyay because people confused Newcastle in WA with Newcastle in NSW. The Heritage Council of WA list over one hundred places of historical significance in or around Toodyay. Some of these are:

  • Newcastle Gaol – this was constructed in the 1860’s using convict labour in response to Moondyne Joe’s repeated escapes .
  • Connor’s Mill on Stirling Terrace was built in 1870 and was as the name suggests a flour mill, it was then converted into an electricity generating plant, and is now the Toodyay Visitors Centre.
  • Toodyay Post Office – designed by George Temple-Poole and built in 1897
  • Toodyay Fire station – designed by Ken Duncan and built in 1938
Stirling Street is the main drag in Toodyay and is full of colonial and federation architecture.

Toodyay plays host to several events throughout the year, the major ones are:

  • The Moondyne Festival is held on the first Sunday of May and celebrates Moondyne Joe’s life with re-enactments of Colonial life.
  • The Avon Descent – see the Northam entry for more details.
  • The Festival of Food coincides with the Avon Descent and provides culinary delights from all over the world, cooking demonstrations and free entertainment.
  • Theo’s Run is a convoy of classic cars and motorbikes that starts in Midland and travels to Dowerin via Toodyay.
Black powder demonstration. On the first Sunday of May the Avon Valley town of Toodyay celebrates Moondyne Joe’s life with the Moondyne Festival and the townsfolk re-enact the towns colonial past in the main street. The Perth Volunteer Rifle and Artillery Regiment 1860 is a Living-History group that seeks to portray the military and social life of a volunteer soldier in Western Australia during the period 1860 to 1901. Canon EOS5d with Canon EF28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens. Exposure 1/80 s at f/8.0 ISO 200.

Toodyay’s  Moondyne Festival is the story of Western Australia’s favourite Bushranger, Joseph Bolitho Johns, aka Moondyne Joe is a classic case of where truth is stranger than fiction. Transported to WA as a convict, given a ticket of leave and released, some would say that Johns was a victim of society while others would see him as a recidivist, but what ever your viewpoint it is a fascinating story of a man who is hard done by, has a disdain for authority, who makes repeated escapes from custody and ends up spending his last days in Fremantle Asylum suffering from dementia.

A convivial chat at the Moondyne Festival in Toodyay.
Moondyne Joe on the run up Stirling Street in Toodyay.

The Toodyay Moondyne Festival has Joe and his gang running riot in the streets of Toodyay. He holds people up, consorts with floozies, avoids the incompetent police and the annoying temperance ladies, is arrested, put on trial and escapes. With local people dressing up in period costume the end result is a gigantic al fresco pantomime with heaps of audience participation (chants of “Free Joe” and “Behind you” ). Alongside the theatrical mayhem there are bush poets, market stalls, displays from the 1860 Regiment, vintage cars and mustache and cleavage competitions. A brilliant day out for all the family.

Northam

Hot air balloons flying over the Avon River at Northam in Western Australia.

Northam is 98 Km from Perth on the Great Eastern Highway and it is the largest town in the Avon Valley. With its central location in the valley it makes the perfect base from which to explore. Up until 1891 it was the poor relation to York, but this changed with the coming of the railway linking Perth with the Goldfields and the town became an important staging post. During the 1940’s and 50’s Northam became an important centre  for housing displaced European refugees and migrants, in fact the Northam Accommodation Centre was the third largest such facility in Australia. By the time it closed some 23,000 people had passed through its gates. There is a photographic exhibition telling the story at the Northam Visitor Centre. There is a historic town walk that enables visitors to experience the town’s history, some of the significant places on the trail are Morby Cottage  – home of the founder of Northam and built in 1836 – and the Old Railway Museum which was built in 1886. More details for both venues can be had by contacting the Visitor Centre. The town hall on Fitzgerald Street is a wonderful example of concrete carbuncle architecture from the 1970’s.

A Yellow-billed Spoonbill (Platalea flavipes) flying back to its nest on the Avon River. Northam, Western Australia.
Northam’s Concrete Carbuncle

Northam is also the eastern terminus of the Kep Track a 75 km long mountain bike and walking trail that starts in Mundaring and follows the water pipeline the engineering genius CY O’Connor built to take water out to the Goldfields of Western Australia. The name Kep comes from the local Nyoongar word for water. The Golden Pipeline Heritage Trail  follows the pipeline in its entirety all the way from Mundaring Weir to Kalgoorlie 650 km to the east, and it also passes through Northam.

The paddlers get ready to start the Avon Descent. Northam, Western Australia.

Northam is the staring line for The Avon Descent, which was first held in 1973, and there were only forty nine competitors. The event has grown so much now that this year there were over 800 competitors and 2000 plus support crew. In more ways than one it deserves the title the “world’s greatest white water event”. The 134 km two day event starts at Northam and finishes at the Riverside Garden in Bayswater with an over night stop at the Boral Campsite just outside Toodyay. For the majority of entrants the aim is just to complete the course, but for the elite athletes it is a chance of competing in a unique endurance race. The race happens on the first weekend of August every year. It kicks off on the Friday night in Northam with a float parade and firework display. On Saturday morning the event kicks off proper.

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