Two young explorers set out on an historic 1824 journey, forging the link between what would become Australia’s two greatest cities.
Story By John Dunn
It’s a crisp, clear morning in that lovely valley that slopes away to the south of Yass, NSW, along the road that heads to Canberra. Despite the drought there’s a tinge of green after some recent, light rain and it provides a perfect frame for the sand-coloured building that stands with some justifiable importance just short of the river that flows benignly behind.
This is Cooma Cottage and it was once the home of Hamilton Hume who settled here after he and his colleague, William Hovell, had made their historic journey from New South Wales into what was to become Victoria and to pioneer the link between what would be Australia’s two largest cities – Sydney and Melbourne.
Cooma Cottage is now the current focal point of that long ago but substantially significant journey. Many obelisks and monuments have been erected, and remain today, along the route the duo took, but it is here in this delightful house – some of it restored and the rest added through the years – and its accompanying gabled coach house and stables that people come to honour the memory of Hume and learn about the contribution he made to Australia’s early development.
Jackie Armes manages the cottage for its owners, the National Trust, and she is busy on this morning unlocking the doors, opening the shutters and generally tending to tidiness – very little is required because she keeps the rooms in perfect order – because there’s a bus due at 11am. The visitor stream is steady – tour groups, students from the Australian National University in the nearby national capital, families on holiday. Many are travelling the Hume Freeway and are keen to know something about the man after whom it is named.
Jackie can tell them his story and describe the house where he came to live for some 30 years after his exploring days were over. She says there is a strong sense that he remains, that his spirit is still here. She adds, “On misty mornings when the house is shrouded in white it has quite an ethereal feeling … it is as though he walks again through these rooms”.
The original section of the cottage is among the earliest remaining rural homesteads in New South Wales. To this colonial bungalow Hume added his own version of Palladian style wings and a Greek revival portico. The immediate landscape is virtually unchanged since the 19th century although fast-developing Yass spreads nearby and busy roads inevitably intrude. Cooma Cottage was initially owned by the O’Briens who came to Australia from Ireland in the early 1800s and took up land in the area. Hume bought it from them in 1939 and lived there until his death in 1873.
Through the years it fell into disrepair until the National Trust took it over in 1970. Architect Clive Lucas described it then as “a tragedy … with collapsing ceilings, sagging verandahs and crumbling brick walls”. However the Trust set about a restoration program which made it habitable for visitors but at the same time retaining some fascinating early construction features such as the shingle roofing, iron tiles, split weatherboards of eucalypt hardwood, some of the original Camden cedar and inside glimpses of the original wallpaper imported from London.
Hume, whose parents lived on a small land grant at Appin, near Campbelltown 65 km south-west of Sydney, had done some early exploration in this area as early as 1814 when he was just 17, and in the years following. He was keen to go further and teamed up with Hovell, an English sea captain 11 years his senior who lived not far from Hume’s home. Hovell had no experience of the Australian bush but he brought to the venture considerable navigational skills although, ironically, their expedition ended up at the wrong destination.
They set out from Lake George station on October 17, 1824, for Westernport Bay aiming to discover what agricultural and other potential lay to the far south-west of the fledgling first colony. Their travels were most promising. After crossing the Tumut River Hovell wrote in his diary of “a sight such as no white man in Australia had before beheld. Away to the south, set against the blue sky, rose snow-capped peaks, a range of lofty, majestic mountains glistening in the sun”. This was Kosciuszko and its associated alpine area.
A little later, according to Hovell, they came across “a broad, beautiful stream which abounded in fish and its banks were crowded with wild duck”. They were not to know they had discovered Australia’s greatest river.
This story excerpt is from Issue #54
Outback Magazine: Aug/Sept 2007