President of the Dorothea Mackella Memorial Society Pip Murray at Kurrumbede Photo: Andrew Pearson
On the highway linking Tamworth and Gunnedah in northern NSW, there’s a moment straight from a My Country stanza. Atop a rise, the full glorious sweep of the bountiful Liverpool Plains – an agricultural expanse extending 12,000 square kilometres – dramatically reveals itself.
Here, deep in the state’s Northern Tablelands, you’re dead set in Dorothea Mackellar country where the poet’s memory is being immortalised like nowhere else in Australia, even though the inspiration for My Country almost certainly emerged from her drought-stricken family property in Maitland, 300 or so kilometres to the south.
However, Gunnedah did figure prominently in many of Mackellar’s poems, such as Burning Off, written in 1911 and referencing an adjoining property, the Rampadells. And the town now boasts a bold mural by Melbourne street artist Heesco Khosnaran emblazoned on the side of a maize mill.
Dorothea Mackellar in 1955.
It serves as a tribute to My Country, Mackellar’s most cherished poem, so famous that it’s even been co-opted into a TV supermarket commercial in recent times. Elsewhere in the town there’s a bronze statue of the young poet sitting side-saddle on a horse as it drinks from a stream.
On Saturday, June 12, the attention on Mackellar, who was born in 1885 and died in 1968, will turn from the mural and statue to “Kurrumbede”, her wealthy family’s other homestead on the outskirts of Gunnedah.
“The Mackellar family built an imposing homestead and outbuildings which still remain and Dorothea visited the property, run by her brothers, Malcolm and Eric, on a regular basis,” says Pip Murray, president of the Dorothea Mackellar Memorial Society, which runs an annual poetry competition in honour of its namesake. “Some of her poetry refers directly to the Gunnedah landscape.”
Mackellar, the daughter of prominent late 19th and early 20th century politician and surgeon Charles Mackellar, regularly holidayed at the Edwardian-era homestead from her home in Sydney.
Kurrumbede was designed in 1905 by the Sydney architect John Reid, known for his commercial banks and wool stores. It was an atypical Australian country homestead, and its somewhat austere and less than romantic facade is rendered in stone and includes a slate roof. It was completed around 1908, and it also features extensive gardens and now tumbledown but still imposing station outbuildings.
Mackellar wasn’t the only famous Australian to call the property a home away from home. Andrew “Boy” Charlton, the gold medal-winning Olympic freestyle swimmer, worked as a jackaroo at the property and also trained for the 1924 Paris Games in the waters of the nearby Namoi River.
By all accounts it entertained many visitors over the years. In 1934 The Sydney Mail reported on a garden fete held there for 2500 people to raise money for World War I returned servicemen and their families.
Kurrumbede is today owned by Whitehaven Coal which controversially plans to mine the area surrounding the homestead. But on June 12, its gates will be flung open, offering a unique opportunity for fans to honour the life and works of a poet who was among the first homegrown writers to unconditionally celebrate the fearful majesty of the Australian landscape.
The inaugural Dorothea Mackellar Kurrumbede open day on Saturday, June 12, will run from 10am-3pm. Courtesy buses will run from the Mackellar Centre in Gunnedah (the former Visitor Information Centre across from the town pool in Anzac Park.) Parking available. Entry free. Kurrumbede is about 25 kilometres from Gunnedah.
The Dororthea Mackeller mural at Gunnedah in northern NSW. Photo: Alamy
Tamworth, the best base for exploring the region, is under five hours’ driving time from Sydney with Gunnedah one hour to the west. There are also regular daily flights of one hour and five minutes between Tamworth and Sydney.
The recently renovated, five-star Powerhouse Hotel Tamworth has king rooms from $229 a night. 248 Armidale Road, East Tamworth NSW, phone (02) 6766 7000. See rydges.com
The writer visited Gunnedah as a guest of the Powerhouse Hotel Tamworth and at his own expense