Monday musings on Australian literature: Let’s get physical – The Monaro

For my second Let’s Get Physical post, I thought I’d stay in my local region. The Monaro is a large region in southeastern New South Wales, extending from the southern and eastern boundaries of Canberra down to the Victorian border, and bounded on the east and west by mountain ranges. Much of it is treeless plain, but there are also rolling hills, rocky outcrops and jagged mountains. In summer it takes on a golden hue and I love it, I love the sense of clarity, openness and freedom I feel when we drive through it on our annual trip to the Snowy Mountains for some summer bushwalking.

Monaro Region, NSW

Not at its best, but you get the picture

As its main agricultural use is sheep and beef, I used to think, like many people, that its treelessness came from clearing for grazing and/or overgrazing, but in fact the first white people in the area found it in that state. The Austrian naturalist and artist, John Lhotsky described it in 1835:

The scene all around was composed of undulating downs, long projected hills among them, covered with very few trees.

Lhotsky, though, wasn’t the first white man to write about the region. In his book Discovering Monaro: A study of man’s impact on his environment, which is excerpted in Canberra’s centenary anthology, The invisible thread, historian Keith Hancock quotes English naval officer, Captain Mark John Currie. In 1823, Currie also saw, as Hancock describes it, “open, undulating, ‘downy’ country”. It was Currie who learnt the name of the region from the indigenous Australian inhabitants. He wrote:

Passed through a chain of clear downs to some very extensive ones, where we met a tribe of natives, who fled at our approach, never (as we learned afterwards) having seen Europeans before … by degrees we ultimately became good friends … From these natives we learned that the clear country before us was called Monaroo, which they described as very extensive …

Currie and his party, though, decided to call it Brisbane Downs after the Governor of the time. Hancock continues:

Mercifully, that new name did not stick. The white settlers, as they moved in, called the country Monaroo, Monera, Maneiro, Meneiro, Meneru, Miniera, Monera, and – in the fullness of time – Monaro.

What’s in a name, eh? One of the things I love about the region is, in fact, its names. The towns include Nimmitabel, Adaminaby, Bombala, Michelago; and the rivers include the Murrumbidgee and the Goodradigbee. I love how they roll off the tongue.

The Monaro is well represented in Australian literature. It is where  Miles Franklin was born and set some of her novels; the poet David Campbell was sometimes called “The man from the Monaro” and poet Judith Wright lived for many years in the region. Current authors associated with the region include Roger McDonald whose historical Miles Franklin Award winning novel, The ballad of Desmond Kale, is set in the region. When that book came out, he said

In my adult life I always wanted to live back in the country and I was able to do that from about 1980 onwards when I bought a farm in Braidwood [in the Monaro]. I’m never completely myself unless I’m in the Australian countryside. It’s my vocabulary of self somehow … I think it’s in all my books.

I rather know what he means. I live in a city, but its nickname is “the bush capital”. The countryside is never too far away – and I like it that way.

Back to Braidwood though. It seems to be a bit of a mecca for artists. This is where Judith Wright lived for many years, and it’s also where Julian Davies, author, potter and painter has lived for over three decades. He wrote about it Meanjin’s Canberra edition, which I reviewed earlier this year. In his piece, “Out of town”, he describes how he built his hut and established a semi-self-sufficient life there. “The irony” in this, he says, “is self-evident”:

the stubbon pursuit of a relatively isolated life has been an attempt to marry what might be irreconcilable: I moved to the forest because of exactly what it is, but tried to bring a level of comfort and civilisation with me.

If you’d like to know more about Braidwood, and its little corner of the Monaro, do read author Nigel Featherstone’s piece, “Naturally inspired”, in which he considers whether a place can be “creative”. Or read Irma Gold’s post on and interview with Roger McDonald for The invisible thread.

Finally, just in case I haven’t convinced you of the significance of the region, I should add that it has a car named after it, the rather dashing Holden Monaro!

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Let’s get physical – The Monaro

  1. Good musings on a fascinating landscape. Having lived on the Monaro I was happy to see the mention of the Monaro car. Readers please note nothing irks the folk on the Monaro more than the two words being pronounced the same.
    The car is a Mon-ar-ro.
    Following white settlement the region has been known as the Mon-air-ro.
    There is huge difference.

  2. Of course the first thing that came to mind was the Holden Monaro (my brother’s favourite car) and Miles Franklin. I’d love to spend some time down that way and, having lived in the country for nearly ten years after way too many big cities, I don’t think I could live without grass under my feet, some cherry trees and the changing seasons at my doorstep!

  3. As an ex-Californian as well as an ex-Canberran I miss the Monaro landscape and, beautiful as it is, I do feel somewhat hemmed in here in Sydney. Odd, because for the 30 years I lived in Canberra what I missed was the sea.

    • The other grass is always greener perhaps Sara?! Sounds like you agree that the Monaro is somewhat reminiscent of Southern California … More in feel, sense, perhaps than in detail, but it’s there I think isn’t it?

  4. In 1852 my great-great grandparents migrated from England to the NSW South Coast and their descendants spread into the Monaro. My father was born in Nimmitabel in 1895. A desire to walk the landscape of my ancestors’ lives has been growing inside me, and your guide to Monaro writing will help me prepare for that exploration. Thank you.

  5. It would be a good time to mention the readings from the book “The Invisible Thread” at South Hill Gallery, Goulburn, on 20 October 013. A number of authors in that book who are strongly linked to the Monaro will appear including, but not limited to, Marion Halligan, Roger McDonald and John Stokes. It would be interesting to try to establish whether the recent blink of history since 1830 was a true picture; or whether aboriginal firestick management was a factor. Certainly I have seen some regrowth in pockets in the 1960’s – and later of course the inland sea of serrated tussock.

  6. Hi Sue, I enjoyed this post, because I too love the Monaro (though my town is just north of the Monaro, my father lives in a town in the district, a town you mention). And Lhotsky got it right with his description of treeless ‘downs’.

    One of the things I love most about this part of the world is that it’s really quite an amorphous thing – try drawing a boundary on a map and no one will be able to do it, at least with any accuracy. Where is its centre? How far does the place extend? It’s all a bit of a mystery.

    Also, an author that does need to be included in a literary survey of the Monaro is Patrick White. His ‘Happy Valley’ (1939, though pulped on White’s wishes, until it was republished in 2012) is set in and was written in Adaminiby (though is that more Snowy country?), and his ‘The Twyborn Affair’ (1979) was also set in an around the Monaro.

    Finally, the Monaro reminds of The Conamara in Ireland, partly because of its rolling ‘treeless’ character (though the Monaro certainly has more trees) but also because its boundaries are indistinct. According to Wikipedia it is ‘a district in the west of Ireland, the boundaries of which are not well defined’. I’ve been there and it’s true.

    • Thanks Nigel. How could I have forgotten White and Happy Valley which I have read and reviewed here. I tend to think of him as Sydney but of course he had those jackaroo days.

      As for Conamara/Connemara, thanks on two counts. First for equating it to the Monaro … I’ve been there too and take your point. But secondly for reminding me of it’s name as I’ve been trying to think of it. We’ve just travelled near the Camargue which is known for its horses, and I was … As one does … Reminded of the Chincoteague ponies and those horses near Galway also starting with C! The Connemara Ponies! Now I have it! Silly but words and patterns, eh.

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