A Visit To Hanging Rock, location of the Australian cinema classic
In search of a cinema classic
OK, I hadn't seen the film at that point. It had been on TV a few times, but Picnic At Hanging Rock had never seemed sufficiently exciting a prospect to lure my attention away from Racing from Haydock on a Saturday afternoon. A bunch of Edwardian Oz schoolgirls head off to a park for a picnic, and disaster strikes. What, somebody forgot to pack the Vegemite? Big thrills huh?
Still, it was only an hour or so out of Melbourne, and my collection of famous film locations was looking singularly unimpressive (the Dublin pub from The Van and Highbury, from Fever Pitch ).
So I hung around the Spencer Street railway station until sternly reprimanded by the guy overseeing queuing etiquette, and bought a ticket on the Victorian Railways suburban crawler to Woodend, nearest station to Hanging Rock.
Eighty-odd miles of unremarkable countryside, a few rolling hills, pleasantly familiar meadows and a few sheep later, we rolled into Woodend. Now maybe I should have done some research here, but I'd figured that once I got to my destination, a large, looming hanging rock type affair would be on the near horizon, perhaps best approached on a street lined with vendors selling amusing rock-related souvenirs, paperweights, inflatable replicas and Edwardian straw hats, etc.
Big mistake. Woodend looked like one of those frontier towns, the main street lined with shops selling walking boots, beef jerky, kangaroo-skin bush-hats and ciabatta with olive-oil drizzled grilled aubergine and basil filling (even the hardiest outdoor types have gourmet leanings). Side streets led off into dusty paddocks. Rocks, hanging or otherwise, were conspicuous by their absence.
You call that a Hanging Rock?
In the tourist information office, a kindly, underworked lady pointed me in the direction of the road. "You might find a taxi," she suggested, with the intonation implying that I had about an equal chance of finding a high-speed monorail.
"Actually, I'd thought about walking." "Oh, walking? Yes. I believe people did use to walk out there," she said, conjuring up a long-lost era of ox-pulled carts, homemade lemonade and £10 immigrants. Then she gave me a map.
Well it only looked a couple of miles, and it was a nice day, and there didn't seem to be any taxis around and . . . I found myself walking down a dusty track in a roughly northerly direction, overtaken every five minutes or so by hulking Holden family saloons full of corn-fed Aussie kids grinning out of the back windows at the sweaty Pom, or by rusty Ute vans piled high with agricultural equipment, the driver chewing pensively on a piece of straw as he swerved around the lone pedestrian.
There was an episode of The Sullivans once, where one of the chaps (it might have been the same bloke who tried to get out of the army by pretending he was a coconut) was droning on about the long marches the Japanese enforced on their prisoners. The words were haunting me as I wandered ever on, with still no sign of a rock.
An hour and forty-five minutes later I stumbled into the park, two stone lighter, blisters already forming on my feet, dying of dehydration. Ahead of me was a glorious sight, well worth the walk and the anticipation. And behind the cafe and cold drinks counter lay an unprepossessing hillock.
Five pints of cranberry and guava Snapple (even the drinks here are pretentious) later, I unenthusiastically scrabbled up the hill to clap eyes on . . . a pathetic boulder propped up on a grubby bit of stone. The much-vaunted Hanging Rock turned out to be the sort of natural phenomenon that could have been knocked off by a couple of Irish navvies in between pints. Frankly, Hanging Rock was more of a Perching Pebble.
Resisting the temptation to give it a good shove with a stick and force the park authorities to have a rethink about that name, I searched around for mythical taxis. Ha! My train back to Melbourne departed from Woodend at 4.19pm. It was presently 2.30pm. If I increased my walking speed slightly I might just make it.
I staggered into Woodend station at 4.20. "You've just missed yer train mate," chirped the guard with that grin Australians reserve for imparting bad news. "Next one's in two and a half hours. You can have a look at the town while yer waiting." I wandered off speechless. "Should take yer 10 minutes, tops," he cackled after me.
So there I was in a Woodend deli, eating mushroom salad with wild truffle dressing, sipping a cinnamon latte, wondering how to fill the hours, when who should enter but the lady from the tourist office. "You've caught the sun," she said, slightly anxiously. "How was the Rock?"
The painting that started it all
A clip from the film
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