What better way to spend the holidays than by driving into Australia’s Gothic past? After a couple of days driving through unfamiliar terrain we reached our destination: the neighbouring districts of Junee and Wantabadgery. Our aim was to explore a slice of Australia’s queer history through both sight and sound.
This isolated farming district was the site of a bizarre bushranger siege in 1879. Captain Moonlight, having recently been released from prison for bank robbery, was travelling north recounting his tales of injustice at the hands of the colonial legal system. Moonlight’s attempts to sell his story to audiences in regional Victoria and New South Wales were thwarted by police who road ahead of him smearing his reputation to local townsfolk.
Having starved for two days and without any money Captain Moonlight and his gang arrived at Wantabadgery station where they asked for food in return for labour. The station owner refused any assistance and sent the gang on their way. Moonlight returned the next morning and took all 25 residents and workers in the station hostage.
After a number of days Moonlight’s gang fled the station with the police shortly behind them. After a shoot-out at a hut near the station Moonlight’s partner, James Nesbitt, was shot dead. At this stage Moonlight and his gang surrendered. From his gaol cell, just metres from the gallows where he was soon to be hung, Moonlight wrote endless letters declaring his love for James Nesbitt. At the moment of his execution he held the hand of another of his gang members, his last words being “we have made a sad mistake”.
After exploring the area we stopped by the Murrumbidgee River just across the road from Wantabadgery Station. A flock of cockatoos screeched from the trees above us, this the only sound other than the incongruous chatter of some Swedish tourists who appeared for a swim in the murky water. Metres away were the two wings of a cockatoo, the body missing. Their neat arrangement and cleanly cut lines implied human involvement.
A long wire fence separated the camp ground from this group of trees. Old enough to have stood during the time of Captain Moonlight I wondered if he had journeyed through this same area, the trees a living memory to this region’s Gothic past. How did he hear this environment, which sounding objects survived to this present day? I connected contact microphones onto the fence lines and listened to their eerie resonance, the tapping of grass on the wires playing at a lower frequency. The sound of the cockatoos and the wires conspired to create a haunting atmosphere informed by the story of Moonlight 135 years ago.
It wasn’t a traditional type of Christmas day but it was one whose regional sounds added depth to my understanding of Australia and its colonial past. The next stop was to the Warrumbungle Mountains, an area decimated by bushfires in 2013, this to feature in my next post …