Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Hanging Rock: It's No Picnic

North and west of Melbourne, the Macedon Ranges are perhaps best known as a wine-making area, and also boasts Australia’s highest concentration of mineral springs making it classic spa country too. Our journey (in convoy, our Honda following Katharine and Pete’s campervan) had as its destination the famous Hanging Rock, a mysterious place where a group of young female students disappeared without a trace way back in 1900 (or did they? Some say it was fiction). The movie Picnic At Hanging Rock told this chilling tale – I remember being taken to see it years ago as a birthday treat.

We parked under the gum trees and spied a lone wallaby or small kangaroo lounging in the shade. He lay quietly and allowed us to pet him; even so, I noticed his powerful rear quarters and the razor-sharp nails on his front paws. Cuddly, but not so cuddly.

The sign said it was a forty-minute return walk to the top of the rock formation. We had plenty of time before the park closed and we headed off up a well-defined footpath. Elderly couples strolled along and children chased each other through the rocks as the path climbed up through the volcanic rock formations.

We were glad of the shade offered by the gum trees. Part way up the actual Hanging Rock crossed the pathway, a huge plinth making a roof for the path and presenting an excellent photo opportunity for those who wish to be seen using amazing strength to keep the rock in place. (Yes, we did).

From the top of the rock formation we had spectacular views in every direction, except that the Macedon Ranges obscured our view of Melbourne city in the distance. Dull gold-coloured fields were littered with copses, and country roads cut dead straight lines through it all. No winding laneways here in this big country.

Time was passing on and it was time to make our descent. Three of us were wearing sensible footwear, while one of our party (OK, it was me) wore fashionable cream-coloured suede flip flops. But this place is a well-trodden tourist attraction and our walk to the summit had been easy and uneventful. There would be no problem.

Then the menfolk saw two teenage girls taking a slightly off-piste path down a tricky bit, and decided not to be outdone. Being ill-prepared shoe-wise for this, and my companion being dressed in a knee-length skirt, we chose the more sedate and modest route and followed the original path. Or so we thought. False start after false start saw us ascending more often than we descended. At one point we found ourselves in yet another dead end, cut off by a sheer descent on one side and a wire fence on the other. So much for taking the less intrepid route, I mused. Not less intrepid, quoth Katharine, just differently trepid.

Eventually, and not after we had both seriously begun to regret our lack of emergency flares and water supplies, we spied something vaguely man-made through the rocks and scrambled down until we found ourselves on tourist ground again. I strode along with my handbag relegated to my neck, rather like (as Katharine kindly pointed out) a St. Bernard dog's brandy barrel. Charming. By this time it was less than ten minutes to the park’s closing time, and we could only hope that our beloved partners would not leave without first raising the alarm of yet more luckless females disappearing on the rock. Would they make a movie about us this time?

We strode along as quickly as we dared, finally reaching the café and shop with moments to spare. In typical country style, they were only tidying up and there seemed no danger of us being locked in for the night. Our men were lounging under an umbrella with cold drinks, looking suspiciously unworried about our plight.

Hanging Rock: it’s no picnic.