Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Mr Umpherston's legacy

While we were on holidays we visited Mt Gambier in South Australia, famous for its beautiful crater lakes. The lakes were indeed beautiful, and we had fun walking around them. They are the visible part of a much larger water system, most of which is underground in limestone caves and aquifers. It forms the main water source for the 23,000 residents of Mt Gambier town, and the amount of water taken out, along with falling rainfall, means that the water table has dropped and many places which were lakes when Europeans first came here are now dry craters with trees growing in the bottom.

I’m tired of worrying about climate change, and besides I was on holidays. So instead, what caught my imagination were some of the other human interventions. Just up the road from our caravan park is a stone and concrete causeway, running along the side of the road cutting and looking out over Blue Lake. It’s a bulky structure, built entirely by volunteer labour straight after the Great War. A plaque there records that 500 men volunteered their labour and 300 women brought refreshments throughout the day. Most of the structure was built in one day, with subsequent working bees over the next 12 months completing the structure including a set of steps, a 2 metre high retaining wall running for a few hundred metres, a graded pathway and a solid little turret overlooking Blue Lake. Aside from visitors scratching their names in the stone at every available spot it’s weathered remarkably well – no sagging or crumbling after 100 years. How many more recent professional constructions will weather as well?

However, I was most fascinated by Umpherston Sinkhole. A sinkhole is basically a big hole in the ground caused when the roof of an underground cave collapses. There’s lots of them around Mt Gambier, including one on the middle of town, right across the road from the town hall. Umpherston Sinkhole is so called because the surrounding land was once a cattle property owned by the Umpherston family in the mid to late 1800’s. It’s a roughly circular hole about 20 metres in diameter and maybe 30 metres deep, with rough rock sides that slope inwards so that the walls overhang the floor. The fascinating thing about it is that Mt Umpherston decided to improve it, building walkways down into it, creating a little island in the lake at its bottom (now dry) complete with tiny cabin and planting a wide variety of native and exotic plants on every available surface.

If this site were being managed now, it’s possible we may have got the walkways, but otherwise it would be seen as a precious natural site and steps would have been taken to preserve it in its original state. Visitors would be encouraged to understand the natural forces that created it, the delicate ecology which is maintained within it, and the (generally negative) impact of human activity on this ecology.

None of that nonsense for Mr Umpherston! Good Victorian gentleman that he was, he had complete confidence in his capacity to improve on nature. The barren cave could be made to bloom, new varieties of plants could be introduced, human constructions could be added, and the whole thing could be made much more productive and entertaining than mere nature could do unaided.

After Mr Umpherston’s death the property changed hands and the cave was neglected. However, his spirit has survived in surprising ways – after the site was acquired by the SA timber authority in the 1970s its staff got excited about the sinkhole, and the staff social club put a lot of time and effort into repairing his work, fixing the walkways and steps, replanting the sink floor, and erecting fences, seats and BBQs.

To our more tentative, less flamboyant eyes the result looks rather awkward, even gaudy. The variety of plants, the criss-crossing walkways and the viewing huts at different levels seem to be trying too hard to impress. Even the magnificent curtains of creeper than hang from the lip of it sink almost the whole way to the floor seem to be hiding the true grandeur of the rock walls. Yet it’s hard not to feel the loss of the optimism which created it. For us, nature has become once again the frightening force it was to humans in earlier ages, a capricious beast with which we meddle at our peril. The cavalier interventions of the past two centuries are now seen to have created a monster, to have unleashed forces of nature which have the potential to sweep us away. Perhaps, while we learn from the Victorians’ mistakes, we need to recover some of their optimism and “can do” mentality to fix the problems they created.

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