Purple Thistle



Kate Birrell’s ‘Diggers Rest Landscape’


Some months ago, whilst out on one of my regular traipses up in the Dandenong Ranges, I came across a large thistle. It had a huge deep purple bloom and stood alone and upright on a chunky bristle-like stem waving about in a cool autumnal breeze.


A week later, its colour had faded to straw, it’s stem and leaves shrivelled, and its previously grand stature seemed diminished.


But something about the sight of this thistle felt familiar.


I messaged Dad with a photograph …”Dad, I associate this thistle with Diggers Rest; am I correct?”


He replied…”At Diggers Rest very tall and slender flowering late spring. On the creek flats rich soil taller than the truck. Called a Variegated Thistle. The Reddan land next door inundated with Artichoke thistle much shorter and wider.”


I thought of myself in that truck. It was an old Land Rover with Dad steering and trying to conquer the steep thistle and rock covered slopes that fell sharply towards the creek bed. Through the truck window in springtime the vista must have appeared, to my much younger self, like a rolling purple sea.


Diggers Rest is a flat and, in my mind, somewhat desolate stretch of land to the north of Melbourne. Jacksons Creek meanders through the landscape creating a valley with quite steep embankments on each side. I lived here on a ridge above the creek, below the Tullamarine flight path in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Our driveway entrance sat on a bend on the Bulla-Diggers Rest Road and cut a path a mile or so long to a rambling bluestone farmhouse that was built in the late 1800s.


Huge electricity pylons carrying high voltage wires towered above the dry-stone fences. They were built by early settlers and lined the perimeter of many paddocks.


Apart from the Reddan family, our home was without immediate neighbours in the suburban sense. My early days were spent in a blissful and carefree bubble – often playing outdoors beneath a large peppercorn tree, rummaging about the multitude of outhouses of shearing quarters, sheds, and barns, whilst always keeping a guarded look out for slithering reptiles amongst the grasses.


In January of 1972 our usually quiet Bulla-Diggers Rest Road filled with traffic for several days over one weekend. I recall standing up on the cattle grate that denoted our driveway entrance and looking out upon a slow, snaking trail of cars and people. The traffic filed, bumper to bumper, one after another as they headed west up the narrow road towards the farm of George and Beryl Duncan.


Whilst most drove along this road, Mum reminded me recently that there were also many who were walking, camping and hitch-hiking their way in. I did not know that these people were heading to the Duncans’ farm specifically. I just knew that this pilgrimage was heading towards the Pop Festival – known also as the Sunbury Rock Music Festival. (To me it was only ever the Pop Festival; after all it was clearly located in Diggers Rest and not Sunbury.)


The hosting of the festival created something of a thing for those of us living nearby. Did I glean this by soaking up talk over the kitchen table, or from listening to the adults’ chatter after Sunday mass outside the Bulla Catholic Church, or did I pick it up by watching the TV news at the time? I can’t really tell you exactly how, I just knew that it did.


The Pop Festival certainly was a thing. It carried with it the flavour of Woodstock and free love and brought to life an emerging era in Australian rock music. In the evenings our black and white television beamed images into our den showing footage of the frolicking crowds gathered on the creek bed flats. It appeared wild and unrestrained. Life, I was noticing, existed beyond the fence lines of my Diggers Rest home.


You might think that I am crazy, but if I could revisit January 1972, just for a day, I would. I would traipse across the thistle encrusted embankments of Jacksons Creek. I would admire the rolling purple sea from the window of Dad’s truck whilst soaking up the guttural sounds of Madder Lake, Chain or Deep Purple as they shook the rich soils of the creek beds, and I would take in the Oop Poop A Doo as it would have echoed throughout the valley… I would breathe in the heady vibe and atmosphere that must have encapsulated that January weekend of 1972. Just for a day.


If only we could stand on the edge of a time, any time and watch as it transitions from one era to another. Then again, perhaps I have already.



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  1. Nicole Kelly says

    An absolutely gorgeous painting, Kate and I loved your descriptions of life in Diggers Rest. It really is amazing how one single image, smell, sound, can transport us back decades.

  2. Wow, you really hit the senses with this one, Kate! Another stellar painting with an even better tale behind it, thank you.

  3. Kate Birrell says

    Thanks Jarrod and Nicole, glad you enjoyed it.

  4. A beautifully paced reminiscence. Thanks, Kate.

  5. Beautiful words, beautiful image.
    I feel lucky to be in your orbit, Kate.

  6. Colin Ritchie says

    Thoroughly enjoyed your story Kate. One of my regrets not making Sunbury.

  7. Thanks Smokie, ER and Col..

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