The small bush memorial isn’t easy to find but Rob Isaacson knows the way. He turns his four-wheel drive off the rough track and, using a borrowed key, opens the first of several gates. A crane slowly takes off into a darkening sky as we bump across fields of golden stubble. Fat drops of rain send a fox scurrying for cover. Further off, tangled scrub snakes alongside a dry creek bed, and it’s here, among some crooked gums and clouds of pale butterflies, that a plaque marks the place where three children were found 150 years ago, huddled together after being lost for nine days in country so tough it was known as Blasted Heath.
Like most Victorian students of his generation, Isaacson, 66, encountered the Cooper-Duff children alongside the poems of Coleridge and chapters on Christopher Columbus and Cinderella in his fourth-grade reader. Far more thrilling to the young Isaacson than lost glass slippers was ‘Lost in the Bush’, the true story of Isaac, nine, Jane, seven, and three-year-old Frank, who went to collect broom bush on 12 August 1864 in the mallee scrub of western Victoria, and vanished. By the time a search party, led by three Aboriginal trackers, found them barely alive – Frank wrapped against the winter frosts in his sister’s lilac dress – the siblings had wandered more than 100 kilometres, often in hopeless circles, famished and licking dew from leaves.
A grazier’s son who has lived most of his life near where the children’s family had their one-room bark hut, 35 kilometres west of the town of Horsham, in the Wimmera farming district, Isaacson can’t remember not knowing the story. “You can’t get away from it out here, really,” he says cheerfully. There are other local tales passed down like heirlooms – of bushranger Captain Melville’s billy-cans of gold, hidden on Mount Arapiles, or of the ghost of a woman murdered more than a century ago who’s said to roam the paddocks. But none resonated like the ‘Lost in the Bush’ tale, which even in its name laid bare the great fear of the early settlers as they tried to master the hostile wilderness around them. Getting lost in the bush wasn’t unusual, but surviving was, and news of the children’s incredible return rippled across the country and beyond. In England, illustrators fervently depicted their bravery, verses were written about them, and Jane was sent a marble statue by a London well-wisher. Even Queen Victoria was told the happy news.
The broom bush the children had gone to gather so they could sweep their dirt floor still thrives in places, but much of it was consumed long ago by patchwork fields of crop and sheep farms. Isaacson, who has bright blue eyes in a weathered face, and a way of bending his knees when he laughs, lives on 310-odd hectares, most of it scrub. He can pull a tick from a blue-tongue lizard’s ear with the tip of a knife (“That’ll feel better, mate”), has a bush yarner’s flourish (“I once knew a copper who was like a snake after you run over it – not very straight”) and has never wanted to live anywhere else. He has a plot picked out in a little cemetery close by.
One evening when he was 14, Isaacson followed a mob of emu into the bush. He hoped to souvenir an egg; instead, he “got whacked”, lost in a patch of scrub he’d been roaming all his life. In the dark he turned around and headed north, or so he thought, until he emerged from the scrub at its southern edge. “It was a very late tea that night,” he says. He leads me now into the broom bush, following a winding kangaroo track. Within a few minutes, all landmarks are gone and the dense shrub, unpleasant to push through and growing high above our heads, stretches in every direction. Clouds slide over the sun and flies drone hypnotically. Then Isaacson’s mobile rings, the sun reappears, and the spell is broken.
The children took weeks to recover physically from their ordeal. Their escape, wrote Reverend Patrick Simpson after visiting them as they convalesced, illustrated “more remarkably than any other story which this country has yet produced the providential care and guidance of God”. All were feted for their endurance, but Jane was particularly celebrated as a motherly figure who kept her two brothers both alive and devout, saying their prayers for them every night. Although Jane married, had 11 children and lived until the age of 75, her gravestone still eulogises her as “Jane Duff, Bush Heroine”.
In 1864, Melbourne was six days’ ride away from the frontier village of Horsham; it was locals who followed the trail for days in wet weather, searching for clues on their hands and knees. As hope faded, one of the group, Peter McCartney, rode through the night across the neighbouring Little Desert – no small feat – to fetch three Aboriginal trackers. Their skill at reading the land would save the children’s lives. McCartney’s great-granddaughter Betty Goodwin, 73, says her mother told her McCartney would reminisce about their talents. “He’d say the black trackers could tell when the children were tired, or when one was being carried. They would lie on the ground and listen for vibrations.” One of those trackers was Jungunjinanuke, also known as Dick-a-Dick, a tribal leader who four years on became a member of the first Australian cricket team to tour England. “How I love his memory,” said Jane of him in later years.
To honour that rare display of colonial co-operation between black and white, and to fix the story in the minds of younger Australians, the 150th anniversary was marked with nine days of commemorative events, staged by the Wimmera and Horsham councils, and the local Barengi Gadjin Land Council. More than 2350 people, including 1450 school students, joined in. Though a plan to take them out bush was abandoned for fear they’d wander off, schoolchildren visited the Cooper-Duff replica hut, which Isaacson built 20 years ago near his house. (He even retrieved the hut’s original chimney stonework from the local swamp, where it had been dumped.) They were also shown his prized collection of memorabilia, including one of his greatest treasures, the original hut’s metal poker, given to him by Isaac’s youngest daughter before she died.
The wilderness that so daunted the first Europeans is corralled now on these dry plains by fences and firebreaks. But its power is far from spent. When some of Isaacson’s sheep escaped into the scrub a few months ago, he took off in pursuit. Even after a lifetime exploring the bush, he couldn’t find the sheep for three days, and had some nervous moments choosing his own path. “There are still corners which are new to me,” he says, bending to pick a small golden flower. “But I happen to like it here very much.”
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