Travel: Not exactly a picnic, climbing Hanging Rock: Simon Calder finds the reality of Victoria's landmark as mysterious

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The Independent Travel
AS LESLIE NIELSEN, the star of the Red Rock cider commercial, would say, 'It's a different kind of rock altogether.' It does not hang, and the story about it is make-believe. Yet many people still believe that the fateful picnic at Hanging Rock took place, such is the power of the setting. Hanging Rock is a singularly odd place.

Joan Lindsay's only well-known novel is set in a supernatural slice of the state of Victoria. It is a sinister tale of disappearing schoolgirls, laced with touches of other- worldliness gleaned from Aboriginal folklore. The story was turned into a beautifully observed film by Peter Weir. Its location is highly photogenic - a dramatic volcanic outcrop on a rugged plateau - but only half an hour from Melbourne airport.

The tale begins on St Valentine's Day, 1900, in a young Australia still organised along strict British class lines. Twenty schoolgirls and two mistresses from a boarding school in rural Victoria set out for a picnic. Lunch is to be taken in the shadow of Hanging Rock. The headmistress, Miss Appleyard, describes it as 'a geological marvel on which you will be required to write a brief essay on Monday morning'.

After lunch, five of the party slink off to climb the rock. Four of them disappear. One girl staggers back to raise the alarm, but a massive search fails to find any trace of the others. Enter Michael Fitzhubert, an English adolescent on a Grand Tour who has a fearful crush on Miranda, one of the missing boarders. He climbs the Rock, finds a girl and, with a single bound, sheds his upper-class wimp image. Sadly he fails to rescue the love of his life and comes back with one of her classmates - Irma Leopold. She is alive but (you've guessed it) unable to remember anything. A series of further catastrophes proceeds to wipe out most of the remaining characters, then the school building itself.

This grisly tale does not deter the carloads of picnickers who drive up from Melbourne to enjoy a Sunday afternoon barbecue. A hulk of a hill, Hanging Rock rises half a mile above the plain. Picnic grounds fan out like a shabby apron beneath it. The harsh sun is filtered through the leaves of a sprawling eucalyptus tree. In the boughs, just beyond beer-can- hurling range, sit a couple of koalas, oblivious to the constant chirruping of kookaburras and city dwellers. Despite the crowds, and the music of Crowded House blaring from portable hi-fis, the air is heavy with mystique.

Climbing the rock is no picnic. It is a steep ascent on stones ground smooth by a million pairs of feet. Near the top, a fellow straggler pointed out the Hanging Rock. The whole massif, it turns out, takes its name from a single boulder - a portly chunk of lava pinched between two standing stones. Every climber heading for the summit has to duck through this archway. You emerge to a plateau wracked by a jumble of geological formations that look like the aftermath of a particularly violent divine squabble.

In the local vernacular, Miss Appleyard must have had a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock to bring a carriageload of schoolgirls here. I was terrified. Even on a hot, busy day, visitors find it easy to lose their bearings amid the towering crags and deep crevices. Anxious eyes emerge blinking from the undergrowth draped over the rock. Two of them were mine.

The view is worth the fright. Victoria is Australia's smallest mainland state, yet it is still the size of Britain. From the top of Hanging Rock it looks even bigger: ragged grassland marches off towards an apparently infinite horizon. The land has an austerity, a silent stoicism broken only by the noise of 747s flying into Melbourne airport - and the rowdies at the foot of the hill. If the background is epic poetry, the foreground is squalid prose.

In 1900, the book relates, the picnic grounds 'consisted of several circles of flat stones to serve as fireplaces' and a 'wooden privy in the shape of a Japanese pagoda'. Now there are built-in barbecues and car parks and the Hanging Rock Tea Rooms, selling Hanging Rock teaspoons and tea- towels. Most of the visitors seem to be shunning tea in favour of Ballarat Bitter - the brand of beer that refreshed the search party in 1900. But loutish behaviour is dwarfed by the majesty and mystery of the rock.

Anti-Gravity Hill, two miles away, is an excellent supporting act for this tableau of the paranormal. It is a country lane surrounded by a lop-sided landscape. A spirit level would show a slope going downwards, but your senses tell you it runs upwards. The best way to show the illusion is to stop the car, release the handbrake and say 'wow' when you start to roll apparently uphill. So popular is this pursuit that it has created one of the most dangerous stretches of road in Australia - anti-gravity experimenters run the gauntlet of trucks and tractors going about their normal business.

A narrow track leads up (or is it down?) to the top of Mount Macedon, where you can glance down at a large Victorian house. This was the model for the boarding school in the story, and recently became the Australian Counter-Disaster College; any irony in its new name is lost on the dour gatekeeper.

Away from the picnickers, it is hard to imagine that Australia's second city is just down the highway. This is the outback, the depopulated silent majority of a huge island continent. The land wanders expansively in all directions. Only an occasional huddle of gaunt farm buildings hints at the encroachment of man.

Return to Melbourne on a back road through the middle of nowhere. The Coach and Horses pub in Clarkefield (population 10) is resplendent in Victorian wrought iron, originally imported as ballast for the 19th-century clipper ships. The landlord adminsters Abbotsford Invalid Stout to a dwindling clientele in a frontier town from which the frontier has long since moved. The pub is reputedly haunted by a seven-year-old girl who drowned in its well. The landlord, perhaps anxious to keep the customers he has, dismisses the story: 'It's a fairytale, mate.' Close by is the station. It looks as if the last train from Clarkefield left years ago; in fact, four services a day from Melbourne still call at its ghostly platforms.

The original version of Joan Lindsay's novel dabbled inexpertly with the higher philosophical reaches of the universe. Hanging Rock - the book - was saved from obscurity by a smart editor. He realised that an ordinary story could be turned into an outstanding novel, simply by cutting the final chapter. The author acquiesced, but instructed that the missing Chapter 18 should be published posthumously.

She died in 1984, leaving the world an unhappy little ending. The 'sequel' is dismal; all the mystique of the original is destroyed in 20 preposterous pages of a desperately tacky quasi-supernatural ending. The finale disappoints, but Hanging Rock itself never will.

Go to Victoria and be amused.

DOWN UNDER: THE BEST AT A GLANCE

THE following list is far from exhaustive, but here are some of the activities you might contemplate while in Australia and New Zealand, and some of the favoured places in which to do them:

Beaches: Byron Bay, New South Wales; Golden Bay, South Island, NZ

Bungy-jumping: Hamner Springs, SI, NZ

Bush-walking: Heaphy Track, SI, NZ; Blue Mountains, NSW

Jet-boating: Buller, Balclutha, Hamner Springs, SI, NZ

Kids' day out: Sea World, Queensland; Antarctica Exhibition, Christchurch, SI, NZ

Marine life: Whitsunday Islands, Queensland

Nightlife: Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland

Seafood: All over, especially Sydney, Auckland

Surfing: Greenmount, Queensland; Piha, North Island, NZ

Tropical reef: Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Whale-watching: Kaikoura, SI, NZ

White-water rafting: Buller, Balclutha, Hamner Springs, SI, NZ

Wilderness: Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory; Fiordland, SI

Wine tasting: Marlborough, SI, NZ; Barossa Valley, South Australia

Getting there: Fares to Melbourne - and the rest of Australia - are extremely competitive at present. In February, Bridge the World has a deal with KLM via Amsterdam for pounds 645, while Travelbag (0420 88724) sells flights on Qantas for pounds 739, dropping to pounds 635 from March.

Car hire: Of the car hire companies at Melbourne airport, Thrifty has the best rates: the author paid pounds 25 inclusive for 24 hours. To reach Hanging Rock, drive north from the airport on Calder Highway. Turn right at the signpost to Mount Macedon. At the junction for Woodend, a sharp right turn takes you along Anti-Gravity Hill; turn left at Straw Lane for Hanging Rock.

Further information: Australian Tourist Commission (081-780 1424).

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay is published by Penguin. Peter Weir's film is not available on video in the UK, and the BBC - which holds broadcast rights until 1996 - has no plans to show it this year.

(Photograph omitted)

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