Touchstone: the foundation of Moonbi’s magic mountain

TOUCHSTONE: Moonbi locals Fay Betts and Clarrie Betts on top of the rock at the village's celebrated lookout. Photo: Gareth Gardner 120918GGC04
TOUCHSTONE: Moonbi locals Fay Betts and Clarrie Betts on top of the rock at the village's celebrated lookout. Photo: Gareth Gardner 120918GGC04

YOU haven’t been to the lookout?

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Peter Ullman said with a laugh.

It’s a big boulder perched on top of a hill just off the highway, but the Moonbi lookout is a real source of pride for the village.

Older than Tamworth’s Oxley lookout, though engineered by the same man, Thomas McCandless, Moonbi’s vantage point paints a picture of the valley below where the vagaries of New England’s climate are laid bare.

Sometimes it’s a velvety vista swathed in green, but often it’s a dry, bristly brown blanketing the land below.

This Saturday marks 80 years since the Moonbi was opened and locals are using the milestone as a platform to draw attention to a few issues around town.

While the makeshift deck perched on top of the rock and adjoining park was officially completed in September 1938, there is ancient significance throughout the ranges.

Anaiwan elder Bob Faulkner said the Moonbi ranges marked a boundary between the tribe and the neighbouring Gomeroi people.

Mr Faulkner said the area has a very important value to the Aboriginal community.

He said there was some highly significant sites in the ranges including rock art very close to the lookout and cultural events were still held in the area.

Risen from the depression

As the 80th anniversary approached, locals have been digging into the lookout’s history.

Conceived during a tough time in Australia’s modern history, it’s believed the project was part of a federal government program to provide employment during the great depression.

The lookout, for the uninitiated, is surrounded by retaining walls made of stacked granite-like stones piled more than 15 feet high in some areas.

It would have been painstaking, back-breaking for local workers on the job armed with little more than jackhammers and dynamite.

Mr Ullman said it was time to pay homage to the workers, many of whom could still have descendants in the area, like Noreen Maher who has helped drive the celebrations. Her father, Thomas, worked on the project.

“We want to try and recognise the people involved in the construction because they did a fantastic job, it's a credit to the work they did,” he said.

There was a celebration held on the 50th anniversary of the construction, but there is another motive behind this birthday party 80 years on.

Flogging rocks

It’s hoped paying homage to the history will restore some honour in the community.

Rocks have been vanishing with locals saying people have been picking-up some garden ornaments at a five finger discount.

“The general public have been going up there and flogging the rocks for their gardens,” Mr Ullman said.

“These people who go up there and flog these rocks, I think if they knew the history, they would probably show a bit more respect.”

Mr Ullman said he would be rattling the tin at Saturday’s commemoration to raise about $500 and install another plaque to recognise the workers who built the site 80 years ago.

Enquiries have been made in the Moonbi and Kootingal communities to compile a comprehensive list of workers, but they have fallen short and it’s hoped more people will come forward with information.

“They started to build this thing in 1937, finished it in 1938 did a fantastic job, if you go and have a look at what what they've done it is truly amazing,” he said.

“All by hand, horse and cart, there were the odd vehicles up there, we could see they had jackhammers and they did some blasting.

“How they squared the rocks up is beyond us.”

Moonbi magic

There’s something inexorable about the Moonbi ranges.

It’s something that has to been seen to be believed, but the myth of a magnetic force drawing people up the hill still reverberates today.

Just after the New England Highway splits at the turn-off up to the lookout, there’s some funky forces at play.

Travellers have been defying gravity on West Caragnoo Road, the lane which connects the divided highway, for a long time.

If you put your vehicle in neutral on the connecting road it will look and feel like your rolling uphill towards the lookout. Magic.

Moonbi museum worker Joy Ballard said she would regularly take visitors to the lookout and said there was a special feeling once you got to the top of the rock and took in the view.

Mrs Ballard has written poems about the ranges and said there was something that drew people in.

“In different seasons they’re shrouded in mist, sometimes there’s snow on the peaks or it’s just the sunshine,” she said

“Whatever the season, there’s some magic about it.”

She said it was the “gateway to the north” and a landmark worthy of celebration. 

“It’s significant too because it shows the workmanship of all those years ago when they didn't have luxuries we have now,” Mrs Ballard said.