The Peppercorn Area

12 March 1995 The Canberra Times

The Peppercorn area of the northern Kosciusko National Park is a place of great natural beauty but there's a human story there too as Matthew Higgins discovered.

It was March 1991, and a huge plume of bushfire smoke swept across the Canberra sky from the south-west. Residents of the national capital could have been excused for thinking that their beloved Namadgi was on fire, for it sure looked that way.

But the fire was actually on the slopes of Peppercorn Hill in Kosciusko National Park.

We tend to think that Kosciusko is quite some distance away, but as that smoke so clearly demonstrated, as the crow flies the northern part of the park is a very close neighbour.

To drive to Peppercorn today, via the most popular route of Cooma, Adaminaby and Kiandra, it's a journey of 250km. The crow flies only 60.

What is Peppercorn? Immediately north of aptly named Long Plain (among the biggest of the open frost-plains of the park), Peppercorn is at once a hill, two streams (Peppercorn and Little Peppercorn), two hut ruins again, Peppercorn and Little Peppercorn) and a Little Pepper corn Flat.

Peppercorn Hill (almost twice as high as our ambitiously named Black Mountain) was formed by volcanic action more than 400 million years ago, and both the Murrumbidgee and Coobarragandra rivers are born on its flanks. A low, almost imperceptible rise at the end of Long Plain divides the watersheds of the Murrumbidgee and Peppercorn Creek.

Two raindrops falling from the same cloud would, if blown on to either side of that rise, have very different journeys.

One drop, running into the 'Bidgee, has to put up with that river's peripatetic whims, for like the old walking song, the Murrumbidgee "likes to go a-wandering", and a-wander it do. It heads past Adaminaby and on to near Cooma where, as if suddenly aware of its real destiny, it turns hard left and flows north past Canberra (its route not so different to the road route mentioned above) and on through Burrinjuck Dam.

Our second drop has a more direct journey via Peppercorn Creek. Cascading over Pepper-corn Falls it tumbles down to the Goodradigbee River and north ward past Brindabella to meet its brother at Burrinjuck.

The first watery traveller has gone in excess of 350km, the second a mere 90.

This northern part of Kosciusko is renowned for its frost plains. Long, Cooleman, Blanket, Nungar, Tantangara and Currango plains all display that distinctive phenomenon where cold-air drainage inhibits tree growth leaving the plains floors naturally clear.

Peppercorn displays, the same thing, and in summer the grassy flats and the slopes dipping down to the creeks are a beautiful wild flower garden. Everlastings, daisies, bluebells (the ACT's floral emblem, incidentally,) trigger plants, billy buttons and many other varieties spread out before you.

Down in the valley floor the creek noisily threads its way over rapid upon rapid.

The breeze brings the water's song up to you in fits and starts, and also the calls of pallid cuckoo and magpie from nearby trees. Beyond the creek, your gaze is lifted by rising peaks clad with snowgum, mountain gurri and alpine ash.

It is almost an Eden, but not quite. The area's aesthetics received a severe dent when the, 330kv powerline from Cabramurra to Canberra was pushed through around 1960.

The line is an integral part of the national grid and we need its electricity, but whenever I am over there I cannot help wondering what the place was like before the huge pylons were erected and the cables strung across the plains and peaks.

And then there are the flies - in summer there's millions of 'em. If you haven't been stung by March flies you haven't been to the high country in summer.

Of all the themes in this area's European history, grazing is predominant.

Stock were first brought into these high plains in the 1830s, and many of the runs were at different times held by leading graziers of the Canberra region.

Terence Mur-ray, squire of Yarralumla, first established the Coolamine run at Cooleman in 1839, and subsequent owners last century were Leopold De Salis of Cuppacumbalong and then Frederick Campbell of the Duntroon Campbell family.

The Peppercorn lease was owned by John McDonald of Uriarra, late last century, and Little Pepper-corn earlier this century, was owned by Bert Reid of Tidbinbilla. Through until the closure of the snow leases in the 1960s a number of them were held by ACT graziers.

Today we risk being side tracked by that state border which runs along the Brindabellas, administratively cutting off the present ACT from the NSW high plains.

We need to remember that that border had little impact on the summer grazing ac-tivities of men and women living in the region.

The decision a few years ago to manage our high country ACT, NSW and Victorian national parks cooperatively as the Australian Alps National Parks reflects this need to look holistically.

McDonald had a couple of slab walled huts at Peppercorn for his workers, and these were replaced by a new slab structure around the time of World War I for new lessees Harry and Ted Bullivant.

Later, other leaseholders grazed their stock here until grazing was terminated.

Sadly, just before Christmas 1974, the substantial hut was burned to the ground.

Today some of the old sheets of roofing iron have been made into a lean-to shelter among some snowgums nearby.

Over at Little Peppercorn the old hut here has succumbed to nature and collapsed on the ground.

Like so many of the earlier huts in the mountains, this one too was built of hand-crafted slabs.

A short distance away on the slopes of Peppercorn Hill is a good stand of alpine ash which, being the desired type of timber for slab-splitting, was the likely source of supply for this stockman's hut.

Not long before his death in 1990, Jack Reid (a son of Bert) was interviewed by the Kosciusko Huts Association (aided by heritage funding from the ACT Government). Jack said the hut had been erected around 1920.

The stock route from Tidbinbilla ran via Uriarra, over the Brindabellas, across the Goodradigbee and then up the steep slopes out of the deep valley via Concertina Flat and Diamond Hill to the lease.

It wasn't all hard work, for Jack recalled also how trout fishing in Little Peppercorn Creek was wonderful. Just upstream from the hut a gold miner, possibly Jack Morrissey, lived a lonely existence while working an alluvial claim.

Reids had the grazing lease from about 1925 until Bert's death in 1945. Other graziers, including the Hainsworths, held it subsequently.

The remains of huts like these are relatively common reminders of the past in the mountains.

A less common one is also found at Peppercorn, in the form of a grave - in this case the grave of Francis Dunn. The simple grave with its fascinating story offers a number of insights into bush life in the late 1800s.

Dunn was a hutkeeper of John McDonald's at Peppercorn.

Of the six men who buried him, none of them knew of his family connections, and the entries for the names of mother and father on his death certificate read sombre-ly "Unknown".

Dunn's body was found by the creek at Peppercorn Hut on Thursday, September 11, 1890, by George Southwell, Campbell's manager at neighbouring Coolamine.

Southwell wrapped the body in a blanket and set off to tell McDonald and the police.

As it turned out, the Queanbeyan coroner had to attend, and that man was none other than Queanbeyan newspaper editor John Gale.

Gale wrote up the story in his paper in 1903, and a few years ago it was rescued by Canberra author Graeme Barrow.

Gale had to take with him a jury of five to officiate at the in-quest. Accompanied by a Constable Loughlin, he rode to Brindabella and set about finding five local men from the nearby gold diggings who could act on the jury.

But as soon as he arrived word spread and the diggers, not wanting to get involved, cleared out! Gale had to serve summonses and threaten fines in order to get his jurymen; they were to make their own way up to Peppercorn in the wake of Gale, Loughlin and guide Thomas Franklin, owner of Brindabella Station.

It was September and snow lay thick on the ground. Upon arriv-al, Gale was astonished to find no-one about, not even the dead Dunn.

He soon picked up some clues, two slabs were missing from one wall of the hut, there were freshly adzed woodchips on the ground, also pieces of timber from a gin case, and footprints and wheel tracks in the snow.

The three quickly concluded that a rough coffin had been made and that Dunn had been buried. It was a good guess.

Soon a group of bushmen, plus Southwell and the Kiandra senior constable, appeared.

The Kiandra policeman saluted Gale and informed him that Dunn had just been buried, in accordance with instructions that he had received at Kiandra.

Gale was furious and demanded the body be exhumed. As both men's tempers frayed further, the policeman explained that raising the body would be impossible -Dunn's "coffin" had been dropped into a mineshaft and boulders had been dropped on top of it.

Gale then relented slightly and suggested they all have a meal in the hut.

There was only billy tea and bread, but it was better than nothing and was shared among the nine men. Because the jurors would have to have seen the corpse, Gale knew there was only one solution: to empanel as jurors the men who had buried Dunn.

One can only imagine the tempers of the Brindabella diggers later that day as they trudged to Peppercorn only to find they were not wanted after all!

"An improvised court room was prepared under the iron roof of the verandah," Gale wrote later, "as there were reasons affecting our personal comfort why it was not expedient to sit indoors." Just what he meant is unclear, but either Dunn's hut was on the nose, or perhaps the bushmen, who probably hadn't bathed in a good while and had just been working up a sweat disposing of the body, were more than Gale could tolerate.

The inquest took place on the veranda as the snow thawed in the sunlight.

Southwell described his discovery of Dunn's body. There were no marks of violence.

The verdict was death by natural causes.

One curious aspect was that Dunn had evidently waded through the creek and collapsed on the other side on his hands and knees.

It was concluded that he may have sensed his approaching death and been making for a "plant" of valuables near a large tree nearby.

Apart from a 5 note, a crucifix and some other meagre items found in the hut, no such haul was able to be discovered, then or since.

Rumours like this may, have been common in the bush. A little further south, at Long Plain, goldminer Joseph York is said to have died with a pickle bottle full of nuggets hidden somewhere. That pickle bottle has never been found either.

In all the reports on Dunn's death there is repeated emphasis on Dunn having been old. By our own standards he was not so very old - 68 - and while life expectancy may have been a little shorter in 1890 perhaps the comments are an indication of the degree to which Dunn had been worn down by a hard bush life.

As darkness approached, before Gale and the others could leave Peppercorn there was one matter remaining. Right through the in-quest Dunn's two cattle dogs had sat patiently by their deceased owner's hat and coat which lay on the ground, departing only once to briefly chase away some brumbies which suddenly appeared. With Dunn dead, who now would look after the dogs?

The men decided it was best to poison them, for they would only starve otherwise.

No thought seems to have been given to tak-ing the dogs back with the men. With that, two pieces of bread were laced with strychnine and given to the unsuspecting animals. The men rode off.

Francis Dunn's grave can still be seen today. Two of the four posts around it have fallen down as has the wire on the posts, but the headstone still stands. A piece of undressed limestone, it features a cross above the man's name. The carving has been done with a surprising degree of skill and care, the precision of the lettering in marked contrast to the jagged edges of the stone.

Peppercorn's grazing lifestyle is today but a memory. Yet while stock have been banished for several decades now, a gazetted stock route still runs through the area.

Just the other day I thought I had gone through a time warp, when, travelling up the Long Plain Road, I came upon a mob of herefords.

I stopped and had a brief chat with the stockman. My car provided the only shade on the open plain, and within seconds the two cattle dogs had lain down beside my tyres.

Steve explained that owing to the drought he had been on the move with the cattle since last March. But he'd had enough and was returning to Adaminaby for a short break.

Peppercorn is now the responsibility of park authorities and it was they, with State Forests staff and members of the Tumut and Yarralumla Shire brigades, who attended that fire back in 1991. It burned from March 8 until March 21.

Tony Baxter, then Kosciusko's fire management officer, recalls how the strangest part was the fog. "It was so thick you couldn't find the fire!"

At one point a vehicle moving at 2km/h ran into a fuel trailer. The fog was thick but shallow, and three metres up it finished.

If Francis Dunn's spirit still walks abroad on starry nights at Peppercorn, perhaps it was part of that will-o'-the-wisp that so be-mused the fire fighters, an event that took place almost exactly one century after the stockman's lonely death among the snowgums.

Matthew Higgins is a Canberra historian. His book, Skis on the Brindabellas, was launched in November.