When Joan Lindsay sat down to write her highly acclaimed novel 'Picnic at Hanging Rock', in the 1960s, surely she never expected that she would achieve the near impossible ... to persuade people that fiction was indeed truth.
In summary, the story narrates an eerie tale about three teenage school girls and their teacher who go missing on a school picnic to Hanging Rock on Valentine's Day 1900 and the tumultuous events that are unleashed by their disappearance. The book was subsequently made into a beautifully photographed movie by Peter Weir in 1975 which remains one of the classic Australian movies of all time.
Having visited Hanging Rock and experienced its brooding, otherwordly atmosphere, it was only too easy to imagine the events that had unfolded there at the dawn of the last century ... and so, it came as a complete shock to me to discover during the course of researching this tip that the incident on which the book is based in fact never happened.
On her request, the final chapter of Lindsay's novel remained unpublished until 1987 - three years after her death and 20 years after the book was first published - in order to preserve the sense of mystery.
Drawing on the Castle of Mysteries website (see link below), the following lines of evidence indicate why these events never happened:
* In the book, Valentine's Day, 1900 is a Sunday - in reality it was a Wednesday.
* There is no documentary evidence (birth or death certificates) to indicate that the characters in the book ever existed.
* Similarly, there are no police records or press articles relating to the incident, which would have been an enormous story in Victorian-era Australia had it actually happened.
* The school in the book (Appleyard College) also did not exist.
Fascinatingly the exhibits at Hanging Rock are ambiguous on whether the disappearances happened or whether it is just an urban legend ... thus further preserving the sense of mystery and suspense that Lindsay wove half a century ago. If I were a writer, I would consider this the ultimate accolade!
Hanging Rock - more correctly known as Mount Diogenes - is located in the Macedon Range north of Melbourne and makes a lovely day trip from Melbourne, Bendigo or Ballarat. As a tourist attraction, it has it all: stunning scenery, marvellous natural history, Aboriginal heritage and a world famous mystery - yet is just that little bit too far off the beaten track for mainstream tourists. In other words, pretty well the perfect tourist destination!
Hanging Rock is one of the best preserved examples of the geological feature known as a 'mamelon' - a term derived from the French word for 'nipple' that will need no further explanation if you look at photos of it from a distance!
This rather racily named feature is geologically very recent - only six million years old - and was formed when an extremely viscous form of lava (solvsbergite, or soda trachyte, in case this is being read by fellow geologists) was erupted on surface from a narrow volcanic vent. Because the lava was so stiff, it was unable to flow very far once it reached surface and solidified almost immediately on contact with the atmosphere.
Vesicles - holes in the rock generated by trapped gases trying to escape from the lava - have subsequently been infilled by mineral growth, leading to the characteristic 'pockmarked' surface of the rock and erosion and weathering has created the dramatic outcrops.
Hanging Rock has well preserved indigenous vegetation and is home to a wealth of native plant and animal species. It is an excellent place to go bird watching, and also has a group of about 30 resident koalas that you may be lucky enough to spot - look for them asleep in the fork between tree branches as they are not a species known for their frenzied activity!
On a hot day, the dense vegetation and abundant shade of Hanging Rock make it the perfect place to retreat from the sun. Needless to say, this is a winning location for family day outs ... most of them bearing picnics ... let's just hope that they keep a close eye on their children (see my other tip for clarification on this cryptic reference)!