The attractive rural centre of Bairnsdale is located 280 km east of Melbourne via the Princes Highway. Only 14 metres above sea level it is one of the principal towns of Eastern Gippsland and is used as a base by people wishing to explore the rich natural charms of the region. It offers ready access to the lakes in the south; the mountains, streams, caves, snowfields and national parks to the north; the pastoral plains of the west, and the picturesque coastline of the south-east. As well as these obvious tourist attractions the region around Bairnsdale is a centre for grazing, wool, dairying, timber and fishing which are the other principal industries of Bairnsdale today.
Originally inhabited by the Kurnai Aborigines, the area was explored by Angus McMillan in 1840. It was McMillan who named the Mitchell River on which the township stands. Two years later Frederick Jones became the first European settler in the area when he settled at what is now Lucknow, using the land to breed horses for the Indian market.
Archibald MacLeod was the first settler to take up land in the area now covered by the present town. He called his run "Bernisdale" after his birthplace on the Isle of Skye. Legend has it that the name was changed to its present spelling when MacLeod was surprised by the number of "bairns" (children) which had appeared in the settlement. However, it seems more likely that the spelling was merely altered to fit local pronunciation.
In the 1850s and 1860s the town grew as a result of its location on the river and its access to the sea. It became a supply port for the East Gippsland goldfields until the railways were established later in the century. Goods were shipped into Lake King, up the Mitchell River to Bairnsdale then hauled overland. Ships were then loaded with cattle products and wool from the surrounding area for the return trip to Melbourne. The hops cultivated in the Mitchell Valley between 1868 and 1916 were also transported to Bairnsdale for shipment to the hop kilns. A bridge over the Mitchell River was commenced in 1870 and completed in 1875. A lift bridge was originally envisaged so that ships could continue along the Mitchell River to the original wharf.
A post office was set up in 1856 and the township was surveyed and gazetted the following decade. A police station was established in 1862, a courthouse, school and post office were built six years later and the railway arrived in 1888. Barges conveyed wattle bark down the river to Jackson's tannery which commenced operations in 1876. A factory producing mining tools was opened the following year, an ice and butter plant in 1891, and a fruit cannery in 1907. Attempts were also made to develop an oil seed industry between 1890 and 1910.
In 1920 the town experienced a riot as a result of a visit by the evangelist and teetotaller, Tennyson Smith. Later in the decade immigrants from the south of Italy began to arrive and, as a consequence, the production of vegetables grew in importance throughout the region. In 1942 Bairnsdale won a national competition for providing the government with the largest war loan of any town its size. During the Second World War the RAAF also established a training centre in the area. The town itself, independent of the shire, was not proclaimed until 1967.
One of Bairnsdale's most famous residents was the writer Hal Porter who spent much of his childhood in the town. He worked for a time on the Bairnsdale Advertiser and wrote of these experiences in his autobiography Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony (1963). He returned many years later to work as a librarian and, in 1977, published a history of the town called Bairnsdale: Portrait of an Australian Country Town. Contemporary playwright, David Williamson, and NSW premier Jack Lang are two other memorable figures who passed some of their youth in Bairnsdale. Lang and poet Henry Lawson married the town's Bredt sisters.
Bairnsdale Festival week is held each March and the annual show is in November.
Things to see
1. The Court House and Shire Offices
Some of Bairnsdale's architecture is also of interest. The most striking building in the town is the Court House in Nicholson St which was opened in 1894. It is recognised as one of Victoria's finest examples of late 19th century architecture and is considered of some significance to the development of an Australian style. Its geometric exterior combines gables, towers and mullioned chimneys in an intricate and unusual way and is dominated by a large cylindrical tower with a conical roof. The facade of the entrance contrasts plain brick with an arch of elaborately sculpted stonework featuring Australian flora and fauna. The main chamber retains the original cedar bench and some exceptional carved cedar panelling.
Next door are the former shire offices (c.1868) which now house the Nicholson Street Gallery. It is usually open weekdays from 10.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m., tel: (03) 5153 1988.
2. St Mary's Roman Catholic Church
Make sure you stop and visit St Mary's Roman Catholic Church. It looks more like an Italian church than an Australian one. The reason: an Italian painter named Francesco Floriani, who worked in the area during the Depression, was commissioned to paint the interior of the church. The result features murals, stations of the cross, and a ceiling which features hundreds of figures in its contrasting depictions of heaven and hell. The commission was executed by Francesco Floriani, an Italian painter who was working as a labourer in the area during the Depression. The building was constructed in two sections. The sanctuary end was begun in 1913, with the church opening the following year. The tower end was completed in 1937.
3. Bairnsdale Historical Museum and Regional Resource Centre
The Historical Museum and Regional Resource Centre in Macarthur Street contains artefacts of the past, including newspapers, machinery and other implements, postcards, photographs and other memorabilia and research material. The two-storey building was designed as a Presbyterian Church and, in 1891, functioned as one of the first local secondary schools -Bairnsdale College - later becoming St Andrews College. Direct sunlight flows down the stairwell due to the architectural design of the museum. It is open Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 1.00 p.m. to 5.00 p.m., tel: (03) 5152 6363.
Howitt Park Adventure Playground
An attractive spot for a rest or picnic is the Howitt Park Adventure Playground on the Princes Highway. There are coin-operated barbeques, toilet facilities, swings, sand pits, slides, see-saws, bridges, poles and other equipment for children of all ages. The park was named after anthropologist and politician, Alfred William Howitt, an early settler of Lucknow who headed the party that located the remnants of the Bourke and Wills expedition. It contains trees once used by local Aborigines for the construction of their canoes and it is speculated that the reserve is the burial spot of Bruthen-Munjie, a local tribal chief. A cairn in the park honours the memory of Gippsland explorer, Angus McMillan.
The Hillmay House Antique Museum, on Olivers Road (tel: 03 5156 8293), features an antique display, the Jolly Jumbuk Country Craft Centre (tel: 03 5156 8500) sells local craft work and Bairnsdale Clocks, with over 400 antique clocks, is the largest provincial clock shop in the country. They carry out repairs, operate a cafe and sell parts, souvenirs and ceramics. The shop is located at 176 Nicholson St, tel: (03) 5152 6962.
Krowathunkooloong Keeping Place and Bataluk Cultural Trail
The Krowathunkooloong Keeping Place focuses on the cultural heritage of the Gunai (Kurnai) people, past and present. There are guided tours and talks, displays, art and craft exhibitions, and cultural activities for groups. It is located at 37-53 Dalmahoy St, tel: (03) 5152 1891.
The centre is also a focal point of the Bataluk Cultural Trail which extends from Sale in the east, through Stratford, Mitchell River National Park, Bairnsdale, Metung, Lake Tyers, Buchan and Orbost to Cape Conran in the west. It follows the trails and trading routes of pre-colonial days and focuses on elements of Koorie history and culture, including Dreamtime stories, traditional lifestyles, the Den of Nargun, Legend Rock, Aboriginal Keeping Places, archaeological sites such as canoe trees and shell middens (some dating back 10 000 years), cultural centres of the region, and aspects of European invasion, colonial settlement and present-day existence. At Bairnsdale the focus is on Howitt Park, Krowathunkooloong and Mitchell River National Park.
Mount Taylor Trail Rides
The area around Bairnsdale is amongst the most varied and picturesque in the state. Horse rides and camping trips in the area are supplied by Mount Taylor Trail Rides at "Lindcrest", a property 13 km north of Bairnsdale at 918 Bullumwaal Road, past Wy Yung, tel: (03) 5157 9295.
A few kilometres west of Bairnsdale, along the Princes Highway is the turn-off to Lindenow, a grazing, dairying and agricultural area which was named after a town in India and established as a squatting run in 1842. A few kilometres away is the Grass Vale cattle parade featuring fourteen breeds of cattle, working stock horses, milking demonstrations and barbeque facilities. Vineyards in the area include the Glovinda winery on the Lindenow Road or the Nicholson River Winery on Liddells Road, 15 km east of Bairnsdale.
Mitchell River National Park
The scenic, 163-hectare Mitchell River National Park can be reached by continuing along the road, past Walpa, and taking the Dargo Road, crossing Iguana Creek and turning right into Waller's Road. The park's flora includes stands of kurrajong, yellow wood, kanooka, orchids and pittosporum. It is possible to see satin bowerbirds and one of the rainforest gullies contains the Den of Nargun, the home of a mythical Aboriginal monster said to have consumed young people who strayed too near the entrance of its cave. The Den is in fact a cavern of huge stalagmite and stalactite formations often fronted by a curtain of mist which overhangs the entrance due to the water which falls from the ledge above. It is situated in the bed of Dead Cock Creek, within a pink sandstone gorge first noted by Alfred William Howlitt. The Den features in novels such as Angus McLean's Lindigo (1866), and in Providence Ponds (1950) by Stanley Porteous who worked as a schoolteacher at Glenaladale around 1905, a small town in the vicinity which began as a station of the McLean brothers in 1846. Elsewhere in the park Bluff Lookout provides fine views of Woolshed Gully's sandstone cliffs.
Green Gates Gallery
10 km east of Bairnsdale, along the Princes Highway, is Nicholson. Green Gates Gallery is situated in a restored church set in natural surroundings on the highway. It houses a selection of paintings, ceramics, woodwork, furniture, jewellery and sculpture, tel: (03) 5156 8788.
Nicholson River Winery
The Nicholson River Winery, established in 1978, produces dry red and white wines. The cellar door is open from 10.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m., extending to 5.00 p.m. in holidays (please ring in adavance). There are picnic facilities and a children's playground. To get there follow the Princes Highway east of Bairnsdale for 12 km then take the signposted left. After 3 km turn left again to the winery, tel: (03) 5156 8241.
Bairnsdale Visitors Centre
240 Main St
Bairnsdale VIC 3875
Telephone: (03) 5152 3444