By Catriona Fraser
It is difficult to resist the lure of lush countryside and winding backroads around the Orange wine region in the Central West of NSW. In autumn the trees are in fine display, decked out in spectacular orange, purple and crimson foliage and the villages and townships along the way are charming and invite exploration.
The small heritage town of Canowindra is an easy 40-minute drive from Orange. It is known for its atmospheric main street, which meanders along the winding route of an old bullock track – and for having the sort of thermal air currents that make it perfect for hot air ballooning. It also has two outstanding historical attractions – a walking tour of bushranger haunts and the Museum of the Age of Fishes.
Neither the town nor its attractions were necessarily writ large when we were planning our visit to Orange – to be honest we were more invested in indulging in the region’s exceptional food and wine experiences.
We didn’t know much about Canowindra but during our visit to the town it quickly became clear that this part of NSW has an unusual and very colourful history.
Blind Freddy’s Bushranger Tours
This is not so much a tour – but a single story – a hilarious, rollicking, engrossing 2.5 hour narrative that is recounted to you on a riverbank, on a swinging bridge, in local paddocks and town sites where events actually happened.
Our guide, Craig Lawler runs the tours with his partner Jo; he is an historian, amateur sleuth – and a master storyteller. He begins the tour in an evocative old shop on the main street, with high ceilings and dark walls, unadorned except for images and posters of various bushrangers, their faces looming out at you from the gloom.
This is where we are introduced to a cast of characters who were the rockstars of the Central West in the 1860s. As Craig sums it up: “Frank Gardiner and his acolytes held the roads, harried the wealthy, and confounded the New Police for five years. Johnny Gilbert committed over 600 robberies in his career before he was shot through the heart at Binalong. Ben Hall became a folk hero whilst his nemesis, Sir Frederick Pottinger, lurched from half-triumph to full-tilt disaster.”
We get to know them – Pottinger a son of an English baronet, Gardiner a Scottish immigrant and audacious (and gentlemanly) horse stealer, Hall a local battler and Gilbert, a jolly fellow from Canada, also known as ‘Happy Jack’.
Craig skillfully brings to life this gang of personalities as he strolls with you around Canowindra, all the time building the narrative to October 1863 when the gang took over the town, herded the whole population into an inn and held them captive for the next three days. But rather than terrorising the townsfolk – the gang entertained them – there was music and dancing, plenty of free food and drink and merriment all round.
It was the stuff of legends and certainly cast the local constabulary into a foolish light, much to the chagrin of the Colonial establishment. Fittingly the tour finished on the site of the pub – where we were also captive to entertainment, keen to know the poignant end of their stories.
The Age of Fishes Museum
This museum tells another story, unique to Canowindra. It began in the Devonian period around 360 million years ago, in a billabong. This pool teemed with ancient fishes, bizarre creatures, armoured fishes, fishes with lungs, huge predators with jaws like crocodiles. Fishes ready to emerge from the water and take their place on the land.
Then, over the course of just a few days, a natural event, possibly a flood, covered the pool with sediment, perfectly preserving the fish. The fish were fossilized into the rock and left undisturbed until 1955 when a road worker unearthed a fossilised slab.
Meanwhile an extensive collection of the Devonian fish fossils was displayed in The Age of Fishes Museum, which opened in 1998. Sir David Attenborough visited and described the specimens on display as ‘first class’ and rejoiced in the richness and rarity of the find.
Since the 1993 excavation, further exploration of the site has been impossible. Part of the problem was that rediscovering the site meant diverting the road and taking over private land – and until recently the owners of the land adjacent to Dr Ritchie’s dig priortised agriculture over fossils.
All this changed in 2020 when the 101-hectacre property went up for sale and was bought by Dr David McGrath, a surgeon with an interest in paleontology. He is currently in talks with the community and museum to see the site reopened.
The museum tells a compelling story about the Devonian period, the fishes and their significance to science. There is nothing like the scale (no pun intended) of this collection anywhere else in the world.
Bushrangers, the Age of Fishes, colourful characters and excavation of a Devonian billabong – it all makes for marvelous storytelling in Canowindra.
Blind Freddy’s Bushranger Tours – Canowindra
Age of Fishes Museum
Image Credits: Destination NSWby