Victorian High Country

David Cook — 15 October 2020
Where water is more valuable than gold

The European history of the Victorian High Country is much shorter than that for much of the rest of Australia, but it exploded into national significance in the mid-19th Century after the discovery of gold and the mad rush to discover more of this valuable resource.

The Victorian High Country is the southern extension of the Australian Alps at the south-eastern corner of the Great Dividing Range. It features some of Australia’s highest landforms, and is a rich agricultural district dearly loved by the many who resort to its cooler climates in summer and its deep snowfields through winter.

Australia’s mountain ranges are relatively low in altitude compared with those on other continents. Conventional explanations have always been that the less than impressive mountains (when compared with major mountain ranges elsewhere in the world) are the result of tens of millions of years of erosion that has brought them down to their present altitudes, but recent research suggests this may not be true.

Australia’s alpine region is now believed to be the result of continental division rather than the more common explanation for mountain formation, where two land masses collide while undergoing movement, forcing of sections of land into crumpled higher altitudes. A good example of this is the Himalayas, a consequence of the collision of the Indian Tectonic Plate pushing northward into the static mass of south-western China, or the European Alps where the African plate is pushing northwards into southern Europe.

It is now thought the forces which divided the Australian land mass away from Antarctic, a process which started around 70 million years ago, began pushing Australia north and commenced the process of forcing up the landscape. This vertical uplifting, it is now argued, has now been enhanced by our continent pushing up against the land mass of New Zealand.

The absence on the Australian mainland of much in the way of historic glaciations, which created the sharp peaks and deep, broad valleys we associate with European and North American mountain ranges, has not been a feature of our geological history. The relatively recent nature of the tectonic forces which have been building our Alpine region implies, under this theory, that our south-eastern mountains ranges are not, as has been previously assumed, to be old and well eroded, but are instead relatively young in their history and still building.

The region was first seen by European eyes when explorers Hume and Hovell crossed the Murray River near present-day Albury in November 1824 and headed south-west between what would become the present-day towns of Myrtleford and Beechworth, skirting along the northern edge of the mountain range. 

Their reports of rich agricultural country brought a rapid flood of speculative settlement, with squatters rushing to grab large parcels of land and droving large mobs of cattle and sheep south.

This resulted in the rapid development of the grazing of cattle on the high alpine pastures, most especially in high summer. When the grasses became less nutritious and thinner on the ground at the hotter, lower altitudes, graziers would drive their cattle into the cooler uplands where meadows retained moisture and temperatures were less severe. This remained a standardised form of land use for the ensuing 150 years and has resulted in the many crude but — by modern eyes — romantic cattlemen’s huts throughout the regions.

The Alps are also major water catchments, and, as a region of relatively high rainfall, it feeds rivers such as the Yarra, Ovens and Buckland and the coastal Gippsland Lakes. It also is a major regulator of water flow into the Murray River and, while it represents only one per cent of the catchment area of the Murray it is responsible for 29 per cent of the river's water volume. The plant and soil types in the alpine region — particularly Sphagnum bogs — hold ice and snow long after winter is over, and water long after it has dried up elsewhere, and only releases it gradually. This sustains water flow in times when rainfall in the rest of the catchment is in short supply, most especially during the drier summer months.

The decision in 2005 to remove cattle grazing from the Alpine regions is expected in the long term to have a significant impact on the recovery of these high plateau and valley wetlands, though how quickly they will recover, and the degree of recovery, remain to be seen. 

It is not expected they will return to their pre-European settlement levels, as these are believed to have been leftovers of a much moister and undisturbed environment from many thousands of years ago, with overall climatic conditions that no longer exist. Once damaged they are unlikely to fully recover again, even over a long period of time.

The significance of these high-altitude peat swamps was emphasised by a senior research officer of the Victorian Soil Conservation Authority, who wrote in 1971:

"Alpine land in Victoria is used for a number of purposes but the most important is that of water production. For this one purpose only, alpine land would probably have one of the highest values per acre of any rural land in Australia. Because winter precipitation is held as snow and ice to be released into streams months after it has fallen and because it is situated at a high altitude which gives it a head of energy that may be utilized for hydro-electric power generation and later for irrigation, water production from these areas imparts a high value to the land…"

The lesser known Kiewa Hydro Electric Scheme, while much smaller than the better-known Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme, provides Victoria with a significant percentage of its electrical needs, another significant reason for repairing and preserving the hydrology of the Victorian High Country.

The Victorian High Country is important to all Australians who care for the overall wellbeing of our nation and determines the prosperity for millions of Australians. It’s not just because it looks ‘nice’, it’s because we need the impacts it has on our struggling waterways. 


Beneath the Surface BTS Victorian High Country Column Regular