The Aussie towns and regions that gave rise to some of our unique folklore and icons are worthy of their own 15 minutes in the sun. So hit the beaten track and explore the places that have made their way into our national identity, from bushranger country and the sacred sites of Indigenous legends, to the homes of our four-legged icons and the birthplace of one of our sporting greats.
The Kelly Gang
While some hold up our bushrangers as heroes, the truth is that most of them were a long way from gaining Robin Hood status. Many were bloodthirsty outlaws, thieves and thugs who killed anyone who stood in their way. But it makes for some seriously good folklore and bush yarns.
Australia’s period of bushranging spanned nearly 100 years, with the first convict bushrangers active from 1790, right through to the 1880s with the famous Kelly gang, led by a gutsy young buck named Edward Kelly. Even though he was a criminal, Ned epitomised the qualities Aussies hold dear — he was an underdog, a larrikin and a fighter. He was ready to stand up for his mates, and was fiercely loyal, especially to his family.
Along with the rest of the Kelly family, Ned thumbed his nose at authority and lived by the law of the land: his law. The Kelly gang roamed the High Country of Victoria, always managing to avoid capture, even after pulling off some of the most notorious robberies in our country’s history.
You can still visit the locations they frequented today by following the Ned Kelly Touring Route, which winds from north east Victoria and into southern New South Wales.
The town with arguably the most historical significance is Glenrowan, located 235km off the Hume Freeway from Melbourne, halfway between Benalla and Wangaratta. Glenrowan is ‘guarded’ by a 6m-high Ned Kelly statue, and is home to the Ned Kelly Memorial Museum and Kellyland, where you can watch a 40-minute animated theatrical portrayal of the last stand.
You can also visit the site of the former Glenrowan Inn, where the remaining members of the Kelly gang engaged in a lengthy shootout with police. Today, a sign marks the spot of the destroyed hotel, where Ned, wearing his trademark armour, was shot multiple times and captured.
Stringybark Creek, VIC
About 80m south of Glenrowan lies Stringybark Creek, where in 1878, Ned sealed his fate by shooting three police officers during an infamous showdown. The spot where the gang surprised the police at their camp is easily found, identified by a touring route marker. A memorial to the police killed there was also erected here, and at nearby Mansfield where the police are buried.
About 55km north-east from Mansfield is the gorgeous Powers Lookout, named after bushranger Harry Powers who was a mentor of sorts to a young Ned. The lookout has spectacular views across the ranges and towards the King Valley, and gives you a real appreciation of just how isolating a life on the lam would have been.
After the Stringybark Creek showdown, Ned rode into southern NSW to Jerilderie, where he robbed the town’s bank of £2000. You can still explore the six buildings Ned visited here including the Post and Telegraph Office, which was disabled by the gang to prevent news of their robbery spreading.
There are plenty of other sites along the route to explore too, from Avenel, where Ned was hailed a hero after he saved a child from drowning, to Benalla, the closest major town to the Kelly’s family home in Greta, and the old gold mining town of Beechworth where the Kellys spent a good amount of time in custody. Guided Ned Kelly walking tours depart daily from the Visitor Information Centre and the Beechworth Gaol is also open for self-guided tours, which includes a visit to Ned Kelly’s cell.
Bushranger Ben Hall, Forbes, NSW
Arguably lesser known but no less significant to Australian history was bushranger Ben Hall. Born in Maitland in 1837, Hall carried out raids across NSW, from Bathurst to Forbes, south to Gundagai and east to Goulburn. Hall has inspired many books, films and bush ballads, including the well known and much loved folk song about Hall’s death, Streets of Forbes.
You can visit a host of heritage-listed sites tied into the legend of Ben Hall. There’s Escort Rock, about 4km north east of Eugowra on the Escort Way, where Hall helped Frank Gardiner rob a gold escort in 1862; and the Bushranger Hotel, at 24 Church Street on the Federal Highway in Collector, where Hall gang member John Gilbert shot and killed a police constable in 1865. A solemn but beautiful place to visit is Hall’s death site, on Ben Hall Rd at Billabong Creek, about 25km north of Forbes. It was here Hall was ambushed and killed by police in 1865. He’s buried in the Forbes Cemetery, on The Bogan Way, about 2km from town.
If you’re talking Aussie icons, you can’t go past Australian working dogs. Bred for the harsh Australian conditions, working dogs have been a part of life in the bush as far back as the 1870s.
The Kelpie: Casterton, VIC and Ardlethan, NSW
Legend has it that Smithfields, large English bobtail dogs, were the first working dogs to arrive in Australia during colonial times. But it wasn’t long after that farmers found that the breed just couldn’t cut it in the mustering or droving stakes, so decided to create their own.
The small town of Casterton in Victoria is officially known as the birthplace of the kelpie as it was here in 1871 that the first ‘kelpie’ was born at Warrock Homestead, north of town. At Henty Street, about 65km west of Hamilton, you’ll find the Australian Kelpie Centre, which has a visitor information centre, amenities and a display showcasing the history of the kelpie breed.
The kelpie story continues in the small NSW town of Ardlethan, in the Riverina region, where one of the female Warrock kelpies was mated with local working dogs and the progeny created the bloodlines of the kelpie breed. As a result, Ardlethan, located 100km north of Wagga Wagga, is known as the Home of the Kelpie, and they have a bronze statue of the working dog in the main street to prove it. The town itself is awfully rundown these days, but the gorgeous region is well worth a visit.
Australian Cattle Dogs: Dartbrook, NSW
When cattleman Thomas Hall couldn’t find a droving dog capable of working cattle on the long journey from his property in the Upper Hunter region to Sydney, he imported several breeds from his parents’ home county of Northumberland and set out to create his own.
The story goes that Hall crossed his own drovers’ dogs, a pair of smooth coated blue merle collies, with tame dingoes and then continued to selectively cross breed until about 1840, when he was finally happy with the result – the Halls Heeler. These sturdy, tough dogs gave Hall the edge over other cattle breeders, and it wasn’t until after his death in 1870 that the dogs were available to those outside his family.
In 1976, a monument to Hall's achievement was erected on Dartbrook Road, 12km north of Muswellbrook, at the Blue Heeler Bridge in Dartbrook, NSW. There’s also a statue in the township of Muswellbrook. This whole region is unofficially known as Blue Heeler Country, a fitting tribute to a hard-working and intelligent working dog, that’s also a loyal and gentle companion.
The Dog on the Tuckerbox: Gundagai, NSW
The legend of the Dog on the Tuckerbox began in the 1850s with the poem Bullocky Bill written by Bowyang Yorke about the partnership of the bullockies and the dogs who guarded their possessions on the road. In the 1900s, an amended version was written Jack Moses, and the legend then further immortalised in the popular Australian folk song, Along the Road to Gundagai, written by Jack O'Hagan in 1922.
The idea of erecting a monument to those bullock drovers and early pioneers and their four-legged mates had been bandied about for years until the famous Dog on the Tuckerbox was unveiled in 1932. The monument is at Snake Gully, about 8km from Gundagai in NSW. There’s a tourist centre and kiosk next door where you can pick up some souvenirs and one of the best bacon and egg rolls you’re ever likely to taste.
Some of Australia’s most intriguing, and often heartbreaking, folk tales and legends have their origins in Indigenous history.
Dreamtime Cultural Centre: Rockhampton, QLD
Arguably, one of the best places to get a thorough insight into the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures is the Dreamtime Cultural Centre, 8.5km north of Rockhampton. The centre is best experienced on a tour before you head off to explore 12ha of landscaped gardens. Set on the banks of Limestone Creek, don’t miss the many native plants and trees and the large waterfall, as well as the stunning 34m recreated display of sandstone caves.
Central Australia, NT
One of the most sacred places you can visit in this country is the red centre, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. This place is incredibly important to the traditional owners and guardians of the land, the Anangu people, who belong to the oldest culture known to man, dating back 60,000 years. While visitors are encouraged to learn about Indigenous customs and culture, it’s imperative that they respect the traditions and culture of the local people. Uluru itself is now closed to climbers after many years of conjecture.
There is much to discover through the Tjukurpa stories, the foundation of Anangu culture, and you can see first hand where some of the Indigenous legends and tales originated – the Mala walk which runs from the carpark to Kantju Gorge; Mutitjulu Waterhole where the deadly battle of python Kuniya and snake Liru took place; and Lungkata, the story of a greedy and dishonest blue-tongue lizard. There’s so much to explore from the nearby Olgas, to further afield including Alice Springs (465km north) and the nearby MacDonnell Ranges to Kings Canyon and Watarrka National Park (295km north).
Jandamarra: Kimberleys, WA
While working as a tracker for the police in the southern Kimberleys in the late 1800s, an Aboriginal man named Jandamarra from the Bunuba tribe was so incensed by the suffering of his people at the hands of colonists that he rebelled. He shot a trooper, freed captives and became an outlaw.
His extensive knowledge of the local land allowed him to ‘disappear’ into the landscape and fuelled the folk tale that he wasn’t human at all. He began to wage a series of attacks on those encroaching on Bunuba land, using the caves and ranges of Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek to hide. Unable to track him down, police enlisted the help of an Indigenous tracker named Micki from an opposing tribe familiar and in 1897, Jandamarra was cornered at his Tunnel Creek hideout and shot dead.
You’ll need a 4WD to visit Tunnel Creek National Park in the Kimberley region of WA, near the King Leopold Ranges. You can walk through Jandamarra’s 750m tunnel to the other side of the Napier Range. You do have to wade through some pools, and return the same way. At least five species of bats live in the cave, including ghost bats and fruit bats, and be careful as stalactites descend from the roof in many places.
From bush songs to sporting heroes and those who scratched out a living on the harsh Australian landscape, these classic icons will inspire a road trip or two.
WALTZING MATILDA: Winton, QLD
Who hasn’t felt the tears well while listening to Slim Dusty sing this quintessential Aussie song? An icon in its own right, Waltzing Matilda was written way back in 1895 by poet Banjo Paterson, and was first published as sheet music in 1903. The title was Australian slang for travelling on foot (waltzing) with one's worldly possessions wrapped up in a ‘matilda’ (a swag) slung over your back.
So much folklore surrounds this iconic Australian song and the process of its creation – and according to the National Film and Sound Archive, there are more recordings of Waltzing Matilda than any other Australian song. It’s said that Paterson wrote the track in January 1895 while staying at a sheep and cattle station called Dagworth, near Winton in Central West Queensland. But where did the tale come from?
The most likely origins came from a story surrounding German immigrant Samuel Hoffmeister. A shearer at Dagworth Station in the early 1890s, Hoffmeister was involved in a shearers' strike that turned ugly when the station’s woolshed was set on fire, killing dozens of sheep. Fearing the repercussions, Hoffmeister took off with the owner of the station and a handful of police in hot pursuit. Legend has it than rather than be captured, Hoffmeister shot and killed himself at the Combo Waterhole.
The music for Waltzing Matilda was arranged by Christina Macpherson, the daughter of the owner of Dagworth Station and sister of station manager Robert Macpherson. It’s widely believed that Macpherson told the story to Paterson during his visit while the two were inspecting the station and surrounds.
Dagworth Station is now owned by the North Australian Pastoral Company, but you can visit the nearby Waltzing Matilda Centre, at 50 Elderslie St in Winton, about 180km north of Longreach in outback Queensland. You can travel to Winton from Longreach along the iconic Matilda Way. The Combo Waterhole is still there today, on the Diamantina River at Kynuna, about 150km north of Winton.
DON BRADMAN: Bowral, NSW
Perhaps the greatest cricketer ever, Sir Donald Bradman is stuff Aussie legends are made of. That he only needed four runs in his last ever innings to retire with a test average of 100 – but was bowled for a duck, leaving him stranded on an average of 99.94 – has become a part of Australian folklore.
The Don, dubbed the ‘boy from Bowral’, rose to acclaim during times of hardship, depression and recovery and represented Australia for 20 years, playing 52 Tests from 1928/29-1948. Bowral is home to the Bradman Museum and International Cricket Hall of Fame which features six galleries serving as a tribute to the man, his peers, and the game of cricket. You can also do the Bradman Walk, which takes you on a 1.7km self-guided tour of Bowral, visiting some of the historic sites associated with Sir Don.
OUTBACK PIONEERS: Longreach, QLD
You can pay tribute to the pioneering men, women and animals of the outback at the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre in Longreach, in the Queensland outback.
There are five themed galleries each depicting an aspect of our pioneering history; Discovery, Pioneers, Outback Properties, Life in the Outback, and Stockworkers. This outstanding facility gives a unique insight into the life of pioneers with more than 1200 items on display including archival material, photographs, artworks depicting the lives of the store owners, smithies, saddlers, hawkers, shearers, swagmen, pilots, teachers, miners, fencers, and drivers who shaped our way of life.
The centre is on the Landsborough Highway in Longreach, about 415km west of Emerald. In Longreach, you can also visit the Qantas Founders Museum at the Longreach Airport, and take a ride on a restored Cobb and Co stagecoach through Longreach’s bush scrub along the original Longreach-Windorah mail route.