Directly ahead, the grey volcanic mass rose up slabbed and pinnacled like a fortress from the empty yellow plain. The three girls on the box seat could see the vertical lines of the rocky walls, now and then gashed with an indigo shade, patches of grey green dogwood, outcrops of boulders even at this distance immense and formidable. At the summit, apparently bare of living vegetation, a jagged line of rock cut across the serene blue of the sky.
Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay pg 14.
The story and the history of Hanging Rock will always be inextricably linked both with Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book Picnic at Hanging Rock and with Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation.
Hanging Rock is an extinct volcano just out of Woodend Victoria that last erupted about seven million years ago. It stands 711 metres above sea level and rises 100 metres above its surrounding plain. It is largely composed of volcanic mamelon. In this particular type of mamelon there was a very high soda content so when it got rained on it was eaten away into the distinctive shapes you see today.
I have been there twice and until very recently, in fact so I could write this post, I had neither seen the film nor read the book. Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock has seeped into Australian culture. The first time I went to Hanging Rock was nearly 11 years ago with my school. We were on a creative retreat and we had a day out to explore the rock. Naturally being a bunch of 17 and 18 year olds we spent most of the time climbing over as much of the rock as we could and running around shouting “Miranda, Miranda” thinking we were very clever. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, or aren’t Australian, the reference will become clear a little later.
I went back a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to have another look. It is a place of great beauty and great history. I’ve never found it as haunting or mysterious as many do, but it is easy to become disoriented and lost up amongst the rocks which all look eerily similar once you lose your sense of direction.
Ironically enough, on this visit I actually ended up leading two groups of people back down the rock because they couldn’t find the path. I can’t claim especial prescience, I just happened to have been watching where I had come from because I knew it could be tricky, but it still felt kind of appropriate.
The sense of mystery that hangs around is largely because of the book and the movie. The story of the rock itself will always be linked with them, so I’m going to start there.
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay is at its most basic level a gothic novella, the story of a group of school girls who go on a picnic at Hanging Rock on Valentine’s Day in 1900 and three of them and one teacher don’t come back. It is however more than that. It is the story of the Australian landscape and the attempt to superimpose an European ideal onto it. It is a haunting mystery, it’s a story of friendship and obsession and it is one of the most evocative books I’ve ever read. I know it might sound odd to say that a book which is considered a classic is really very good, but too often for me I find that I read ‘classics’ and appreciate them for their craft but can’t come to lose myself in them. This was the complete opposite with Picnic at Hanging Rock. It helped that by accident I was reading a 1967 original edition. It not only has the most fabulous late 60s cover.
But also the start of each chapter has a beautifully decorated letter, and each one is different.
It is an involving, extraordinarily visually descriptive and haunting story that hangs around long after you’ve finished reading. And for the Miranda reference? Miranda is one of the missing school girls, the most perfect, the idolised one. There are a number of scenes in both the book and film where searchers are clambering over the rocks shouting “Miranda Miranda”.
This history of the book itself is an interesting one. Joan Lindsay wrote it over two weeks at her house in Mulberry Hill in Baxter Victoria and some of it came to her in a dream. There are large portions of the book that are based on Joan’s life, she went to a school quite similar to the one depicted in the novel and she also spent a lot of time around and at Hanging Rock in the early 1900s. She and her family were in fact staying in the area in 1900, when the book is set. Joan recreated the long hot late Victorian early Edwardian summers in Picnic at Hanging Rock. She also refused for all her life to say whether the book was based on a true story or not. In fact she recorded in the forward :
Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact of fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.
This blurring between fiction and reality is one of the most enduring aspects of the story and the lack of conclusion to the mystery, you never find out what happened to the girls, keeps drawing you back in. It has definitely defined the mystique of Hanging Rock itself. However there was a final chapter to the book, which Joan requested to be published posthumously, in which the girls disappearance is a supernatural event. Personally I prefer the conclusion of the original novel where nothing is really known and the reality is very blurred.
Joan Lindsay died on the 23rd of December 1984, but her work continues to live on and has settled as a mantle over the very stone of Hanging Rock.
Peter Weir’s film is a core part of the construction of the legend. While the book was known and appreciated before the film, it was the film which pushed it into a mainstay of Australian cultural history.
You can see the trailer below.
Weir’s film made the name of several well known Australian actors and in its depiction of the Australian bush and its eerie setting and soundtrack was ground breaking for the time. The most memorable part of the soundtrack was probably the pan pines. The dreamlike atmosphere of the film was created by placing bridal veils over the lens of the camera. The cast of school girls was largely amateur, which is one of the reasons there is so little dialogue. It was shot in six weeks, partly on site at Hanging Rock, but most of the scenes that were not actually on the rock were shot in South Australia. Joan Lindsay was involved in the filming and her house in Mulberry Hill in Baxter and her background as a painter was a strong influence on the film’s remarkable aesthetic. Once the film was released the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock became cemented in Australian culture (with Joan Lindsay besieged with letters and visitors and the media wanting to know what was true) and the narrative of Hanging Rock itself.
The history of the rock itself is in many ways as interesting as the story of the novel and the film.
Hanging Rock has been an important site to the local Indigenous Australians for thousands of years. The Edibolidgitoorong, a sub-clan of the Wurundjeri, used it as a vantage point, for monitoring the weather, maintaining security of the area and probably for mediations and possibly initiations. The Wurundjeri people still have strong ties to the area and the rock. When settlers began to arrive in the area diseases like smallpox and the deliberate clearing of land for grazing and mining impacted the Wurundjeri very seriously. In 1863 everyone who was left in the area were rounded up and sent to the Coranderrk Aboriginal Mission, mainly as a result of conflict with local colonists. As with all of Australia, the land was very much inhabited before the arrival of the European settlers and colonists and as with much of Australia the indigenous people suffered greatly due to their arrival.
When the settlers did arrive the name “Hanging Rock” was not used originally. Hanging Rock is technically a nickname that begun to be used in roughly the 1850s and it comes from one rock that ‘hangs’ over the path to ascend to the top.
It is officially called Mount Diogenes in line with the ancient greek theme of the surrounding area such as Mount Macedon, and Alexander’s Crown (which later came to be known as Camel’s Hump). These other names were largely bestowed by surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell, who is responsible for naming large portions of Victoria. I have written about him and his influence on Victoria’s Western District before and you can find the post here.
The name Mount Diogenes first appears, however, on Robert Hoddle’s map of 1844. Hoddle is best known for laying out Melbourne’s grid and it is quite possible that he chose Diogenes to fit in with Major Mitchell’s slightly earlier naming scheme. Some people argue that Mitchell in fact named the rock, though it was out of his way on his journey south. Hanging Rock had one other name as well, Dryden’s Rock after Edward Dryden who leased the run that the rock sat on in 1837, he was one of the area’s first settlers. Whatever the past naming issues Hanging Rock had, “Hanging Rock” had become the common usage name by the mid to late 1800s.
There has been a settlement near the rock since the second half of the 19th century, at least partly fuelled by the railway coming to Woodend in 1861. The first settlers were pastoralists and squatters who leased and then later bought the land. No one ever lived actually on the rock but there were settlements surrounding it, boasting a hotel, church, recreations reserve and racetrack.
The racetrack has been in operation since 1880, when the inaugural Hanging Rock Cup took place. You can see it today in the photos below.
Racing wasn’t the only social draw of the rock. Deciding to have a picnic on the rock was a common occurrence. There was a picnic ground beneath the rock and picnicking on the rock itself in the 1800s was a common social activity for the time. In Picnic At Hanging Rock Miranda mentions a painting of “people in old fashioned dresses having a picnic at the rock”. The picture she is referring to is At The Hanging Rock by William Ford and it was painted in 1875. You can see it below
From the National Gallery of Victoria:
The is also plenty of evidence of people climbing the rock in the 1800s, including the graffiti you can see in the photo below.
Despite its celebrity status through books and film today Hanging Rock remains surprisingly unspoilt. It still sits in its patch of pristine bush.And it continues to hold a fascination that goes beyond the book and the film. It is a truly majestic place.
And has some of the most amazing views of the surrounding area.
The walk to the top is absolutely worth it.
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay 1967
Beyond the Rock: The life of Joan Lindsay and the mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock by Janelle McCulloch
The Hanging Rock by Marion Hutton
Site visits 2007 and 2018
The photos are all mine.