It’s fitting that the crucial twist in the most Australian of stories happened in the most Australian sounding place: the Wombat Ranges. Here, among the wombat burrows at Stringybark Creek, the police came to ambush Ned Kelly and his gang.
It’s now a campground. And a weird pilgrimage site for the hordes of documentarians and authors churning out films and books about Australia’s infamous bushranger.
Before Stringybark Creek, Kelly and co had their run-ins with police. Prison time had been served, horses were being stolen, brawls were fought and the cops tried to pin Kelly to just about any incident. Here, the Kelly gang saw them coming and reversed the ambush. Police officers were shot dead, and very shortly afterwards the outlaw Kelly had the biggest reward in Victorian history placed on his head.
Around 90 minutes north, in the Victorian High Country, is Beechworth, the epicentre of the ever- strong Kelly industry. It’s a town of bakeries and handsome colonial, goldrush-era buildings. Tours take in the grim cells where his sympathisers were locked up, the courthouse where he was first tried and the offices of the newspaper that got behind Kelly, much to the annoyance of the police. It’s now, incongruously, a wine bar.
One of those handsome old buildings, however, is the former sub-treasury. It’s been transformed into the Ned Kelly Vault, which has been crammed full of Kelly paraphernalia. This includes the helmet worn by Heath Ledger in the 2003 Ned Kelly film, plus all manner of documents and photos from the late 19th century.
Particularly attention-grabbing is the photograph of Ned in his boxing gear, fists ready to fly. Seeing it is the moment he goes from myth into real human being.
There’s also one of Sidney Nolan’s simplistic but striking Ned Kelly paintings. The quintessential Aussie artist painted 27 of them during his career, and they played a large part in building the Kelly story into folklore.
But, as the tours of Beechworth demonstrate, all the ingredients of a cracking story were there. An Irish immigrant family facing much the same discrimination they faced in Ireland, police of dubious moral fibre and a disgruntled local population prepared to get behind the outlaw all combine with betrayal and daring plans.
And it was the latter that finally came to a head in Glenrowan, where an absurdly huge statue of Ned Kelly stands outside the post office, while a series of smaller statues in Siege Street behind the station give a good indication of what happened.
In June 1880, the Kelly gang took over the Glenrowan Inn, taking everyone inside it hostage. It was a trap to lure in as many police as possible on a train they planned to derail. Had the plan worked, they intended to declare an independent republic in North Eastern Victoria.
But the police were tipped off, leading to a bloody shootout, the burning down of the hotel and Ned somehow surviving a storm of bullets in his rudimentary armour. Totem pole-esque figures show where everyone supposedly stood as the siege took place, and nobody really cares whether they’re accurate or not.
Ned Kelly was eventually hanged in Melbourne Gaol, but what happened to the man is far less interesting than what happened to his legend. What Kelly did during his short life — whether you believe he was a freedom fighter or murderous thug — is less important than what happened afterwards. He was the first Australian story to reach a worldwide audience, and the origins of that story live in the quiet towns and campgrounds of the Victorian High Country.