Tell me about the country that’s the setting for your books. I asked Sulari Gentill to talk about Australia because she had one of the most beautiful descriptions in an interview I did here. Gentill’s mysteries are set in the 1930s in Australia, and they feature wealthy Bohemian Rowland Sinclair. Her next book, Miles off Course, will be released in June. Thank you, Sulari.
The Snowy Mountains – Rowland Sinclair’s sojourn in the Australian high country
Miles off Course was the third Rowland Sinclair Mystery to be released. Rowland and I had, by time I began to write it, already come to know each other rather well. We’d fought injustice and Fascism together through two books, I’d answered hundreds of questions about him in the press and at literary festivals and we’d talked often about his world, his time and the people he encountered. We both knew we’d be working together for a long time yet and we were, as author and protagonist, firm friends. It is probably not surprising then that, in this third book, I wished to bring him home to my neck of the woods, to meet the family, so to speak. And so, Miles off Course is set in Snowy Mountains where I live.
The Snowy has long had a place in Australian legend and folklore. The High Country is where the great Murrumbidgee and Murray rivers begin— as trickles and streams of snow melt which gather into mighty movements of water on reaching the plains. This country is woven into the stories and traditions of our indigenous nations, the custodians of the Bogong plains and the lands around it. They traversed these mountains for 60 000 years before the first white man, and it has become our custom to seek welcome by an elder and to acknowledge the traditional owners past and present when conducting any business on their country.
But the Snowy is also iconic in Australia’s short non-indigenous history, and in its literature. Bush poets like AB (Banjo) Paterson wrote of it in verse:
…And down by Kosciusko, where the pine clad ridges raise
Their torn and rugged battlements on high,
Where the air is clear as crystal and the white stars fairly blaze
At midnight in the cold and frosty sky.
And where around the Overflow the reedbeds sweep and sway
To the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide,
The man from Snowy River is a household word to-day
And the stockmen tell the story of his ride.
– The Man from Snowy River (AB Paterson)
Australian stockmen have been taking cattle to Snow Leases to fatten on the sweet alpine grasses, for generations. The cattle would be driven up in the spring and back again before the beginning of winter. In this way Australia’s harsh dry summer in which feed often became scarce, was mitigated. The stockmen would remain in the mountains with the stock, for months, living off the land and whatever supplies they took with them. They built rough huts some of which still stand today. They caught and broke brumbies, kept an eye on stock, and enjoyed the glorious freedom of the ranges. And of course they drank at the Rules Point Hotel on Long Plain.
The guesthouse was a rustic construction, with a high pitched roof of corrugated iron. A wide verandah surrounded the main wing, around which were clustered smaller structures including a well, stables and, of course, the amenities. Rowland glanced at the last dubiously. He’d become accustomed to plumbing.
A round yard had been erected close to the guesthouse, with a rough bush fence which straddled the trees. There were a few horses within the yard. Several stockmen perched on the fence, and followed the yellow Mercedes with slow, hat-shadowed eyes.
– Miles off Course
My son, Atticus, by the fireplace in one of the Coolamine mountain huts…. pretending to read Miles off Course.
Mrs Harris who ran the Rules Point Guesthouse
I was, to be honest, initially unsure how Rowland Sinclair, in his beautifully tailored three piece suits, would adapt to the wilderness of the High County. And I was more than a little alarmed that he intended to drive his 1927 Mercedes S Class on the unsealed mountain roads, but it seems both the people and the motorcars of the 1930s were particularly rugged.
They stopped to water the horses at one of the small streams which networked the plain. Their canteens did not yet require refilling as the day’s chill had kept thirst at bay. Many of the streams were just trickles, narrow enough to jump. Occasionally it was necessary to walk the horses through the cold water.
“Rowly, look!” Edna pointed excitedly. A lone young stallion appeared on the plain ahead. The muted sunlight glistened on its glossy black coat as it lifted its head, alert but unafraid. It studied them for a moment before turning and heading on, picking its way in a jagged line across the ground.
Moran pulled up his horse. “Bog.” He pointed. “The brumbies know how to get through it, but we’ll have to ride round. Could lose a horse if we get stuck.” He turned his mount west and motioned them to follow. The detour took them on a wide berth around the boggy ground. They picked up the fence line again and rode along it to the gate and, in doing so, rejoined the trail.
– Miles off Course
Hiking in the High Country
When Rowland and his companions venture into this region, it’s autumn. The early settlers of these mountains planted oaks and ashes and lines of poplars in the towns bringing blazes of seasonal colour, but outside the boundaries of European settlement the native vegetation is evergreen, towering white-barked snow gums, gnarled and twisted by the extremes of temperature; Candlebark gums whose peeling bark provides an abundant and flammable tinder; and native bracken fern, lush and green in the undergrowth. Higher there are few trees, and massive rocks stacked in strange precarious formations are remnants of a time when the snowline was lower. The vagary of weather in the mountains is always unpredictable. Storms build and break and pass with startling speed and intensity.
When the billy had boiled he swung it in a circle to settle the leaves and set it off the fire. “Give it a couple of minutes to cool.”
Rowland looked critically at the sky. It had turned a greenish grey. “We might not have a couple of minutes, Harry.” The clouds had gathered with extraordinary speed.
Simpson glanced up and nodded. “You’re not wrong, Rowly.” He frowned. “Try and drink some tea.” He wrapped the empty hessian bag around the billy and handed it to Edna. “We’re about to get wet.”
The rain, when it started, was an inundation. There was no introductory drizzle, just an immediate downpour. It seemed to fall in icy, almost horizontal, sheets, making it difficult to see. Very quickly the ground became slippery and they were soaked. Rowland pulled Edna to him as they stumbled after Simpson.
Despite its ferocity, the deluge did not expend quickly. The rain became hail and the landscape was soon netted with rivulets and streams.
They ploughed on through the mud, trusting that Simpson knew where he was going.
– Miles off Course
The High Country was gold country. All over these mountains there are races and digs built out of roughly hewn timber and hope. Cemeteries on the slopes are a reminder that gold-fever was a multicultural contagion with Chinese graves lying beside German and British. Dwellings dug into the hills mark the settlements of the Cornish who also came in search of riches in the ground.
The original Kiandra cemetery – where old graves mark the lives of Chinese and German immigrants among the Australian born.
For over a century people have flocked to the limestone caves at Yarrangobilly, and guesthouses have catered to holiday-makers and sightseers. The most elegant of these was Caves House which still operates today. In the 1930s is was truly an island of civilization in the wilderness.
Caves House sprawled into the side of the mountain, a grand vestige of Federation civility against the rugged country that loomed around it. The limestone caves that attracted holidaymakers and honeymooners to the area were just a short stroll away, as were a myriad of mountain streams which offered the gentlemanly sport of fly-fishing to the well-to-do occupants of the guesthouse.
– Miles off Course
I have always used real historical figures in my novels and Miles off Course is no exception. Amongst the most colourful is August Eichorn who once travelled these mountains selling his cure all potion (which is still available today). A snake oil salesman in the truest sense, Eichorn would demonstrate the efficacy of his tincture by inviting all comers to bring snakes which he would allow to bite him before applying Eichorn’s Snakebite and Bloodpoisoining Cure.
The bar fell into a confused hush as Milton stared at the poised serpent.
“Don’t move,” Clyde warned.
There was a click as someone cocked a shotgun from atop the bar.
“For God’s sake…” Milton started.
“Don’t shoot! She’s one of mine.” A man stepped towards Milton. He was tall, his limbs long. A smart brown suit was tailored to his lean frame. The waistcoat was hung with a number of gleaming medallions, which jangled when he moved. His beard was grey and untamed, and seemed to have accumulated all manner of twigs and leaves. He held up a hand for quiet, and spoke to Milton “Just relax, son.”
Milton didn’t look exactly relaxed, but he didn’t move.
The man squatted, sweeping his hand slowly from side to side. The snake’s head followed, its glittering eyes caught by the movement. The bar remained hushed, expectant, mesmerized.
Milton cursed and rolled as the old man sprang and snatched the snake by the tail, holding it at arm’s length. The reptile writhed uselessly, harmless now.
– Miles off Course
Rowland Sinclair also encounters Laurie Keenan in the mountains. Now Laurie is not an historical figure in the strictest sense. He was my neighbour, and was as he appears in the Miles off Course: irascible, irrepressible, bossy, good-hearted and wickedly-humoured. Laurie had lived here all his life, and there are Keenans in all the towns hereabouts. He took Michael (my husband) and I under his wing when we first moved here, convinced that we were “city slickers who had no idea what we were doing”. He was right in a lot of ways. In time, he taught my boys to use chainsaws and split wood, and how to swear, but never when ladies were present. He told them tales of his life, some taller than others. He took them out collecting firewood for the elderly and the frail, and insisted on calling Atticus, my youngest son, “Little Laurie”. He passed away last year, but before he died he appointed his nephew to check in on us, to make sure we had wood in winter and had remembered to clean the chimney. Because someone had to keep an eye on us. Laurie typified the people of the mountains, sometimes rough, usually blunt, occasionally improper and truly kind.
Clyde introduced Rowland to Laurence Keenan, who managed the Long Plain Homestead. Keenan was an elderly gentleman who had a reputation for being willing to do anything for a price. He was a wily negotiator whose voice was none too quiet. He sized up the cut of both Rowland Sinclair and his suit, and decided the young man was not in need of a discount for the horses he wished to hire. Rowland was not concerned about the cost, but Clyde felt the need to intervene on principle. Aside from the issue of compensation, Keenan was unhappy with their plans to take Edna with them.
“The High Country is no place for women,” he warned. “The huts ain’t no gentrified country inn… all right for a bloke but it’s not somewhere I’d be takin’ my young lady! How’s a pretty lass like this going to be sleepin’ in a swag… in a camp full of men… it’s just not right… not proper.”
– Miles off Course
For me a sense of place is primarily about a sense of people and so Laurie just had to be a part of a book set in the High Country. As much as I love this place, its landscapes, its weather, its history, I confess I love its people more.
And, I love Sulari Gentill’s descriptions of her Australia. You can pre-order a copy of Miles off Course through the Web Store. http://bit.ly/2ojr40o