Tuesday, October 21, 2008
So who was Strzelecki anyway, I started to wonder? It turns out he was quite some guy.
Paul Edmund Strzelecki (1797-1873), also known as Count Strzelecki, is a figure to be admired. A Polish national, arriving in Sydney aboard the French barque Justine on 25 April 1839, he spent the next four years travelling some 7000 miles on foot throughout eastern Australia and Tasmania. A number of books and articles have been written on this subject (e.g. Havard, 1941; Rawson, 1953; Heney, 1961; Paszkowski, 1997), yet Strzelecki remains an enigma.
Strzelecki arrived in Australia in 1839 looking for minerals to sell and to investigate the 'geognosy' of Terra Incognita (Physical Description, p.51). He had spend the previous decade travelling through Europe (1829-30), Africa (1830-1), the United States and Canada (1834-5), South America and Mexico (1835-8) and the Pacific Islands (1838-9), including New Zealand (1839). He was by the end of this period an experienced geologist and natural scientist with aspirations in that area, though also more businessman than philanthropist. The discovery, collection and sale of rocks, fossils and minerals had occupied him for many years and provided his livelihood.
An initial lack of success in finding minerals within New South Wales, and the rapid development of the geological sciences in Great Britain during the 1830s, led Strzelecki to quickly set geognosy aside and widened the scope of his activities to include a more general geological and geographical survey. He was, for example, forced to carry out a trigonometrical survey whilst in Australia as much of the country he passed through was only recently settled and poorly mapped by colonial authorities. Fortune may have proved ellusive, however he was compensated with fame, becoming the first European to officially climb and name Australia's highest peak - Mount Kosciusko. His role in the discovery and opening up of the Gippsland region of eastern Victoria in 1840 brought notoriety, and his many subsequent geological and geographical investigations and revelations were of some significance.
How did the LaTrobe valley look to the Count and his companions ? The LaTrobe River ran through a morass three miles wide (!) in places, full of thick scrub and rushes. But on the higher ground there was a beautiful red gum forest, and plenty of kangaroo grass. And all the ranges were covered in forests of big gum trees like the few we have left in Bulga Park. There were not many aboriginals in this part. There were more eels, fish, ducks and kangaroos around the Gippsland Lakes, and that is where most of the aboriginals lived, although they would visit the Traralgon area at times. They called themselves the Briakolung or "Men of the West" , and their leader was named Bungaleene. Their dreaming included a spirit called Loo-errn, who lived on Wilson's Promontory, and that deadly yellow snakes lived near Mount Baw Baw where there was also a boiling pit into which you would be sucked if you went too far in that direction.
This is particularly telling of him getting lost in the soon to be named Strzelecki Ranges:
If we go out on the Princes Highway three miles on the way to Rosedale, we will find a monument on the right side of the road. It marks the place where Strzelecki, McArthur and Riley passed through back in the year 1840. Pushing on to the south, Strzelecki and his companions soon found themselves climbing the hills near Koornalla, and it was quite impossible to get through the huge trees and over the big logs with their four horses. They had to leave them here, and the Count decided to make straight for Western Port where they knew they would find settlers. He guided the party in a straight line up and down the ranges, and they were all very lucky that they did not die from starvation and exhaustion before they reached Western Port at last, after twenty two days in the forest. They even ate koalas when their food was all gone.
Strzelecki was very human, but also extremely humane. His concern over the widespread deforestation of eastern Australia and its effect upon climate marks him as an early environmentalist. His commentary on the Australian Aborigines within Physical Description included a heartfelt plea for recognition of their humanity and rights to the land, whilst at the same time reflecting an attitude of European superiority over the race. He therefore presents as a mass of contradictions, and is all the more interesting for it. It is clear that during his time in Australia he carried out - substantially unassisted - an extraordinary amount of original research into local palaeontology, meteorology, mineralogy, physical geography, geology, ethnology, biology and the agricultural sciences. His travels on foot over 7000 miles in 4 years were a notable feat of exploration and Physical Description stands as a monument to this flurry of activity.
* Strzelecki Ranges, Victoria, in which is located the township of Strzelecki. The Strzelecki railway line runs through the ranges to the township.
* Mount Strzelecki, Northern Territory
* Strzelecki Peak, Flinders Island
* Strzelecki Creek, South Australia
* Strzelecki Highway, Victoria
* Strzelecki Track, South Australia
* Strzelecki Desert, east of Lake Eyre in South Australia
* Strzelecki Scenic Lookout, Newcastle, New South Wales
* Strzelecki Harbour