Monday, 28 April 2008

Shadowing Ned Kelly

When you've had enough of travelling to tick off major landmarks, travelling to a theme becomes attractive.

Whether it's an itinerary built around food, history or a love of Elvis, a theme provides a "shaping mechanism" for the journey, livening it up and adding interest. There's also the fun of piecing together a puzzle as the fragments of the theme come together, creating understanding.

I had that feeling last week, as I joined the dots on the Ned Kelly Touring Route. Based in the High Country region of northeast Victoria, Australia, the route is a collection of places associated with the Kelly Gang.

For those unfamiliar with the legend, Ned Kelly was a young man from an Irish Catholic background, whose family of poor farmers was frequently in trouble with the law in the late 19th century British colony.

After an uncorroborated incident in which Ned was said to have shot at a policeman visiting the Kelly house, Ned and his brother Dan went on the run.

Joined by their friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, the Kellys emarked on the life of bushrangers (the Australian term for highwaymen), involving bank robberies, police deaths, a network of sympathisers, a sensational siege in their now-iconic homemade armour, and Ned's execution by hanging in Melbourne.

It's a breathtaking story, and the Touring Route takes you through some impressive places while contemplating it, from regional cities to isolated bush settings. And because I had to come to terms with the story in a "full immersion" way, actually visiting the sites personally and engaging people with what they thought of this complex man who's been called both a hero and a villain, it was a fascinating, fulfilling experience.

Some highlights, by location:
  • Benalla: Seeing the green sash the 11-year-old Kelly was presented with, after he'd saved a younger boy from drowning. He was discovered to be wearing it under his armour when captured after the siege. Seeing it in a simple glass case, still stained with his blood, was deeply moving.
  • Glenrowan: Walking around the historic sites and imagining the events of the siege: the near-derailment of the police train; the hotel alight; Kelly emerging like a metal-clad ghost in the pre-dawn light, bullets bouncing off him.
  • Beechworth: Seeing the metal gates of Beechworth Prison, the same gates which replaced the timber gates when Ned's mother Ellen was jailed, as authorities worried that she might be broken out by protesting locals.
  • Stringybark Creek: Standing in the eerily quiet clearing where the crucial gun battle took place in 1878, that led to the deaths of three policeman and the official declaration of the Kellys as outlaws.
  • Mansfield: Standing in the morning light at the local cemetery in front of the graves of the slain police, being challenged in my inclination to see Ned as a folk hero.
  • Beveridge: And finally, standing outside the humble, decaying, fenced-off house just north of Melbourne where Ned lived as a young boy, his large family around him and his father still alive.
It was an intriguing week, and I feel like I've learned so much from being there, rather than just reading about Kelly's life in a book. The facts are essential, but the emotional connection creates a lasting personal link to those historic events.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.