Movie : The Man from Coxs River

Grab a cuppa guys, this one’s a bit of an essay…

It’s pretty rare that there’s a feature film, documentary or otherwise, that aims to get to the true heart of the wild places that many of us love. Therefore, it was with a certain sense of curiosity that I entered the gorgeous Mt Vic Flicks earlier this month for yet another sold out session to see The Man from Coxs River.

Mt Vic Flicks is one of those absolutely gorgeous old style community theatres that I can imagine my grandmother saving her pennies to see Fred twirl Ginger around the dancefloors of the 1930s.

Mt Vic Flicks Man from Coxs River

I Love the Mt Vic Flicks!

With the classic red curtain and somewhat embarrassingly creaky seating (to match the floorboards) and home-made cakes from the in-theatre snackbar taking precedence over a homogenous choctop, the atmosphere was enough to set the scene. Although the film is showing in selected independent cinemas in eastern Australia, this showing was going to be a standout as it’s the local cinema to the film’s location and heroes. Looking around me, I wondered if there were friends, family or local gossips dropping in to see what all the fuss (over the last 5 years of production) had been about.

Putting aside my day job as a Producer, I was trying to see it through my bushwalker eyes only and to enjoy the story for what it was, enjoying the fact that this doco gives all of us the chance to look into what the late, great Wilf Hilder used to call Grand Country. He called it so, as the penalty for stepping foot into Schedule 1 Water Catchment Authority land is eleven grand!

View over Coxs River & Lake Burragorang from McMahons Lookout - Kings Tableland

View over Coxs River & Lake Burragorang from McMahons Lookout – Kings Tableland

Now, I’m not going to rant about issues around bushwalker access to wilderness areas. That’s just not my style. Sure, it’s a somewhat controversial issue and I know many walkers who scratch their head at not being able to walk through some of these places, for fear their wees and poos (buried 20cm down) and 100m from water, could pollute our precious H2O 50km away, but the fact is this movie actually does a good job at lifting back the covers and showing us punters just some of the complexity involved in managing our precious resources and the lands they lie within.

Detailed signage and warnings on the White Dog Track, heading down to the Coxs River towards 'the corridor'.

Detailed signage and warnings on the White Dog Track, heading down to the Coxs River towards ‘the corridor’.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been working on a project in my day job that in corporate speak, we’d refer to as having “multiple-stakeholders”. It’s been an eye opening experience for me as sitting around my project table are a handful of government departments, all experts in their own field and all with their own charter to uphold. Each opinion and agenda is valid and important. The challenge comes when any of these are in conflict.

This, to me, is the core theme of this movie. It’s not, as the trailer and PR would have us believe, a simple conflict and relationship between a horseman and a park ranger – it’s the incredibly complex and difficult task that National Parks have in being the managers for pieces of land where there are multi-stakeholders.

There’s one scene in the movie, around a boardroom table, where we get a fleeting glimpse at a sliver of this complexity. As an audience, we don’t know who some of the clearly passionate voices are, but what comes across is lots of very strong opinions and seemingly few of the non-government voices understanding the need for all sides to compromise, take a risk, test something new or find a new way.

BWRS Troop Carrier inside water catchment area Coxs River

As part of www.bwrs.org.au, I was granted access to the Schedule 1 land during the December 2006 search for missing bushwalker David Iredale. I undertook the rare drive from Kings Tableland to the Megalong Valley, via Hayes Crossing & Medlow Gap.

My personal history with the area of the Coxs River is a diverse one. Anyone who reads my blog regularly, knows that my Bushwalking spiritual home is the Wild Dog Mountains. An area of the Blue Mountains National Park that flows into the no-go water catchment area of the Coxs River. With names like Blue Dog Ridge and Buttress, Howling Dog, White Dog, Brown Dog and Spotted Dog; these are ridges that for thousands of years the Aboriginal Gundungara people have used as pathways to the Coxs and beyond. Today, Bushwalkers follow in their wise shadows seeking access to the (ironically) undrinkable flows that nestle beside isolated, sandy beach camps, rich in trout and stinging nettles.

View of Black Dog Gorge and Coxs River from Mt Cookem

View of Black Dog Gorge and Coxs River from Mt Cookem

My first experience of the Coxs River was long before I was a bushwalker. In fact, I was there to ride horses.

It was 1994 and two colleagues and I decided that a day in the mountains enjoying nature, riding horses through wild country was just the remedy for a stressful office environment. I was 22 (yep, work it out) and had little experience of the real Aussie bush. I have incredibly warm memories of that day, hazy as they are. Penny, an artist now living in Tasmania, a gutsy horsewoman with a bold style and fearless approach to our four legged friends and Helen, “Hele” to her friends, sadly, now lost to us through her own gutsy and fearless ride of cancer.

I’ve been racking my brain and toppo maps to try and figure out exactly which teeth shattering, butt jarring, ridge those *natty mountain ponies took us down. Was it Pots & Pans Ridge or Hoddles Spur? Who knows. The three of us were led by a young man (was it Luke Carlon?) up the dirt road towards Tin Pot Mountain and then down, down, down to Coxs River. There was a rough foot track, but those amazing Packsaddler’s horses did well to keep us upright down smooth tree roots, loose rocks and steep terrain.

They (and us) were rewarded with arriving at the Coxs River onto broad, sandy banks and stretched it out with a canter through the shallows. Like a slo-mo scene from a cheesy American movie of the week, we let our horses have their way and shake off the taut constraints of their steep descent.

Beautiful Coxs River near Yellow Pup

Beautiful Coxs River near Yellow Pup

The scene that opened before me was one that I never dreamed existed in Australia, let alone so (relatively) close to home. Yawning heights, with their dirty Aussie bush green velvet slopes and what looked like pine trees that would have been more at home in The American Rockies than in Australia. In fact, it was the first time I’d seen She Oaks, Casuarinas. And in that same way your brain tries to associate the new with something old, this was the closest I could come to comprehending these lovely whistling fingers. Now, the sound of the wind in their pine needley fingers is a rich lullaby that regularly lulls me to sleep.

Once at the river, our guide set about cooking each of us the worlds biggest T-bone steak (I kid you not) over an open fire. Just when I thought life couldn’t possibly get any better, it was followed with a slice of Mrs Carlon’s famous fruit cake and a strong, smokey cup of billy tea. Throughout this whole experience my mind was struggling to take it all in. How can a place such as this exist? How is it that I am blessed to see and be amongst it? Why have I never seen this before? Little did I know that it would be many years before I would experience it again, this time on foot, and learn that I could not only feel the temporary delights of it as a day tripping horserider, but could actually be a part of it and feel the Coxs River run through my veins.

I know that there are some bushwalkers, some of them my friends, who are quite against commercial activities within National Parks, especially horseriding. This post isn’t about that. In a way though, this movie brought to light a hidden truth about the conflicts between environmental voices and what on the surface could be seen as a purely commercial operation (Packsaddlers), but was actually about a family’s roots and strong ties to their land, heritage and way of life. I couldn’t help but also consider the great Aboriginal struggle against Australia’s colonial past, as well as it’s current politics.

Burragorang Lookout towards Wollondilly River.

Burragorang Lookout towards Wollondilly River. The south eastern lookout over Grand Country.

Having fallen in love with the Coxs River that first time riding and seeing just a taste of the Carlon’s deep and unexplainable connection to the place and then coming back nearly ten years later in the mantle of a bushwalker, passing through the now familiar Carlon gates on the Megalong Road, I started my real education about what this country was all about.

It’s still something I will never tire of (although the road bash from Medlow Gap to Carlons carpark does test me sometimes!) and there is no way that I will ever know all there is to learn about this country. This new education and way of thinking, like a bushwalker, caused me to become ceaselessly fascinated with the stories of this country. Some of my most treasured possessions are 3 books by Bernard O’Reilly (Green Mountains – which tells of the staunch O’Reilly Kanimbla Valley family and their journey north to start O’Reillys Guesthouse and Bernard’s subsequent adventures in the search for the Stinson plane crash, which incidentally Charles Chauvel’s 1949 film, Sons of Mathew which features in TMFCR is based), Cullenbenbong and Over the Hills. It was in these books that I first read about the mysterious Gubba Gubba.

It was only a matter of time before I learnt about another character of these wild places in the form of Myles Dunphy. Like most people, my first encounter with the Dunphy name was by being wooed by the magic of the Dunphy Maps. With my fierce imagination of adventure stories from childhood, it was hard to believe that what looked like maps from Narnia or Mordor, actually existed – especially with names like Den of the Mist Monster and Temple of the Shining Orb – and that they were drawn by man, not by hobbit or fawn.

Dunphy Gangerang Map

One of my favourite sketch maps – the wonderful Dunphy Maps

I set about getting my hands on all the easily accessible Dunphy Maps that I could – Gangerang and Kowmung being the main ones – and spent many nights (red wine, the willing apprentice at my side) pouring over the intricate hand-drawn scores, that played a rich symphony of wild places and adventures. I also headed to my local library to read all I could about this enigmatic person, as well as enjoying seeing the infamous ‘Kanangra Express’ pram and Dextre’s boots (as in Dex Creek) at the National Museum of Australia. Through this research, I learnt that there was more to the man than met the eye. With some very human failings (hypochondria anyone?), and some details about how these beautiful maps were created, it helped build a more realistic picture of the man.

So, now, cutting back to the film where the major conflict is being played out as being between Luke Carlon and Chris, the committed Park Ranger; as the advertising blurb says, “Can a mission to save a mob of brumbies in an inaccessible wilderness bring a fiercely independent horseman and Feral Control National Parks Ranger to see the world through each other’s eyes,” my attention was distracted by something that shot by quickly like a bullet from a helicopter. The revelation being, that it was the work of Myles Dunphy that led to the Carlon family loosing what was essentially everything they held dear about their lives in the Megalong Valley.

Dunphy's Kowmung Map

Dunphy’s Kowmung Map

Suddenly, the conflict wasn’t on the screen anymore. It was in me.

Suddenly, the irony of the fairly recent renaming of the campground/carpark at the end of the Megalong Road, “Dunphy Campground”, instead of it’s longstanding bushwalker’s name of simply “Carlons” – struck me. I’m only imagining that that change of name must have come as yet another significant blow to the Carlon family.

Because of this revelation, the film made a greater impression on me than I expected it to, albeit in a completely unexpected way and perhaps in a way that the Producers didn’t expect.

Certainly, my subsequent visit to the Carlon memorial plaque during my recent 3 Peaks (the lazy way) trip as portrayed in the movie was certainly more moving than any of my party expected. One of my Sydney Bushwalkers Club friends (who has also seen the movie) was moved to tears.

Young Sydney Bush Walkers Club members visit Carlon Family Memorial Plaque (April 2014)

Young Sydney Bush Walkers Club members visit Carlon Family Memorial Plaque (April 2014)

 

 

To put my Producer hat back on again, I could get all George Lucas/Joseph Campbell on you and say that in most films there are clear heroes and villains, both going on a journey together. The heroes in this film are clear – they are the Horseman and The Ranger, not to mention the unseen Parks employee who (thankfully) green lighted the filming in the first place.

The villains however, are harder to pinpoint. First and most obviously, the villain of beaurocracy. Be it paperwork, legislation or precedence; policy, procedure or complacency. But I believe that there is another villain in there as well and that is people’s inability and unwillingness to see another persons point of view or opinion.

In The Man from Coxs River, the heroes fought the villain(s) and they won.

I don’t know what the Producer’s motivation for making this doco was. Was it simply to tell a good story about a horseman and a ranger? Or did they want people to start thinking about the deeper issues involved, be it environmental, historical and to look within? Whether they planned it or not, I’ve been thinking about the ‘other’ issues a lot.

Q: Have you seen The Man from Coxs River? What did you think of the movie and how did it affect you? Do you think the outcome was a good one?

*with apologies to Banjo Patterson.

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Comments

  1. Dal says

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading that Caro. It took me to a place within. A place I discovered in my teenage years, when I first fell in love with the northern Wollemi and the feeling of isolation, adventure and vulnerability it provided. I know those days spent bush-bashing in what was then my “back yard”, was the catalyst for many aspects of my modern life. I still feel a strange sense of attachment to that place each time I return. So, thanks! Despite numerous attempts, I’m yet to see the film. I look forward to watching it even more now, as I know I’ll go into it appreciating the deeper issues at play.

  2. Mike Richter says

    Thanks for writing this piece Caro – it’s helped me to better understand the people of the country. My first real bushwalk was a Freshers Walk with SUBW from Carlons down Breakfast Ck.

  3. Jeff Rigby says

    HI Caro,
    I read your review of the Man From Cox’s River” with great interest and I agree with your appreciation of it in every way. I also love the fact that you have come under the spell of this country so completely and have taken the trouble to understand some of its more recent history, that of Myles J Dunphy and conservation and the earlier story of the River people like the Carlons and the Burragorangers.

    My parents, Alan and Enid Rigby first met in the Burragorang Valley in about 1922. Dad was a member of the Mountain Trails Club from 1923 and knew Myles Dunphy very well, as did my elder brothers and I. We attended the bi annual camps of the MTC in Heathcote Creek with all the old Trailers, and were treated to the sight of Myles arriving on Saturday mornings complete with the Dungal Swag and Dray Tent, which he used right to the end of his walking career.At night by the camp fire we heard his amazing stories and were enthralled by his ability as a raconteur. and were very conscious of the strength of the friendships of those old men.

    You made some comments about his creative naming of the Southern Blue Mountains and indeed some of them were quite over the top. Indeed, “The Temple of the Shining Orb” !! I remember even his son Milo took him to task about that. However he also put the names of many of his mates on the map too, Glen Alan, Glen Alan Creek, Glen Raphael, Rigby Rock, Cockerills Lookout, Doyle’s Deep, etc but only one instance of his own name. He also commemorated the local language and the early cattlemen as well.

    You did astutely allude to his tendency to perhaps being a little too cautious about his health, maybe thinking of the time he was carried out of the Kowmung in the mid 1930s with suspected heart trouble.
    ( he died at 93…)Dad helped carry him out and once when I protested by the sheer difficulty of this considering the route they took, he just said; ” oh well we loved Myles” and my brothers and I can certainly attest to that.

    Dad himself died on Armours range in July 1966 whilst on a photographic mission with the NPA at the hight of the Church Creek Limestone Mining dispute. I was with him at the time, as was my elder brother and also Wilf Hilder who died only last year. My last sight of Dad was silhouehetted against the blue bulk of Gangerang at a bend of the fire trail, walking slowly along. 48 years later, My elder brother and I still walk in this country where the family has walked for over 90 years and in a way we came about because of this place. So I understand a little of what Luke Carlon expressed in the film. It is very nice to know that younger walkers like yourself also feel this way and hopefully yours will also be a long and happy relationship.

    All the best and happy walking,
    Jeff Rigby
    PS Russell Kilby alerted me to your blog, it is wonderful keep it up.

    • says

      Thanks for your words Jeff and for sharing the lovely memories of your father and your family’s story within the valley.
      I was back in the Wild Dogs last weekend, slogging up an unnamed ridge (well, I named it “Rabid Chihuahua”) to Splendour Rock and yet again, the wind was whispering tales of lives and stories past.

      Please be encouraged to know that my interest in the history and stories of walking pioneers and our wild past isn’t unusual for younger walkers these days. (I did have to smile that you called me ‘younger’ as my weekend walk was to celebrate my 42nd birthday!)
      As you may know, Sydney Bush Walkers Club is thriving with young members, with over 240 people in their 20s and 30s at the moment.

      Not only that but we are slowly working through a wonderful historical project that has been pioneered by Tom Brennan a young SBW member who runs a few great bushwalking websites. It is an online Wiki project whereby he has scanned all available editions of the SBW club magazine and run it through OCR software. The project is now at the stage where each magazine is being manually edited to fix spelling, typos and formatting so that all these amazing resources from our history, can be searched online by anybody.

      You may be interested to learn that the most active group of people in the club who are doing this very slow process, are the younger members, the so called, “Tiggers”. We get together once a month for beer, pizza and laptops around a table going through issue by issue.

      I’m currently editing August 1933 and have just finished an interesting article by Marie Byles about an adventurous weekend along the Warragamba River. Being able to read all their exploits and stories, along with what would now be considered politically incorrect and quaint terms, is absolutely fascinating.

      Not only this, but another club member, Alex Allchin (in his early 20s) is working tirelessly on the Myles Dunphy map project and walk recreation with Keith Muir from the Colong Foundation.

      Rest assured Jeff… for the time being… the stories and history of our pioneering forebears in bushwalking will not be forgotten!

  4. says

    It’s a little off topic, Caro, but since I’m continually correcting it in the club’s activities program … IT’S NOT DUNPHY’S CARPARK!!!

    Myles never drove a car. Can you imagine what he would think about having a car park named after him?! He’d be turning in his grave (well, he would if he had been buried, but he was cremated).

    It’s Dunphys Camping Area …
    http://www.dingogap.net.au/pictures/tracknotes/dunphys2splendourrock/dunphy_s-camping-area.jpg
    …or Carlons

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