John McNamee reports
One of the more traumatic experiences of my life back 40 years ago was seeing Mick Jagger play the part of Ned Kelly.
Despite being a long-time Stones’ fan, it was definitely an unsettling experience to witness the painfully skinny rock star clutching at his ill-fitting singlet and cursing in an excruciating mock-Irish accent, as he engaged in a mismatched bloody fist-fight with hulking actor Serge Lazareff playing the part of Isaiah “Wild” Wright in Tony Richardson’s 1970 eponymous movie.
It was such an outrageous piece of miscasting that most people including diehard Stones’ fans, just laughed it off and tuned back in to their beloved early Jagger/Richards classics such as Satisfaction, The Last Time, Get Off My Cloud and Lady Jane.
But the appalling movie only added to the bizarre legends which forever surrounded the life and death of Australia’s most notorious bushranger.
Even in recent years, the ghost of the infamous folk hero kept coming back to haunt us. His remains in an unmarked mass grave in Melbourne’s grim Pentrdige Gaol, were exhumed and confirmed by DNA back in 2011 but his skull had been missing, presumed stolen from a museum in the 1970s.
It was only in the past 12 months that the skull was finally returned and the Kelly descendants were able to bury poor Ned complete, next to his mother in a bush cemetery.
Maybe now the Kelly legend will rest in peace.
But it will not stop the fascination people have for the ill-fated 26-year-old Irish-Australian who took to a violent life of crime and murder which ended in his hanging at Old Melbourne Gaol in 1880.
His apologists insist the Kelly boys and their mates such as Joe Byrne were driven to their unlawful career by the grinding poverty of their existence and the remorseless tyranny of the colony’s brutal police force.
But today, Ned still stands tall and proud as you drive into the picturesque Victorian town of Glenrowan, 180 kms north-east of Melbourne.
There he is looming six metres tall, famous plough-share helmet on his head, encased in his heavy body armour and rifle in hand, the statue dominating the main street of Glenrowan.
It’s an impressive sight and the whole town is a living re-enactment of Kelly’s last stand, as he and his desperate gang engaged in a do-or-die standoff with police on June 28, 1880.
You can follow the stages of the bloody battle around Glenrowan’s back streets through the various graphic depictions culminating in a wonderfully simple wood and iron statue of the bushranger’s bullet-ridden body slumped against a tree, still firing his gun at police, before his inevitable capture.
Glenrowan is so wrapped up with the Kelly legend that it appears that the township’s main source of revenue comes from the tourists wishing to connect with the outlaw’s colourful history.
Apart from the town’s museum, numerous novelty shops carry everything from Ned Kelly T-shirts to mugs, coins, flags, dolls, calendars and, well you name it.
But don’t be fooled. Glenrowan has other attractions apart from the bushranger and their second most famous product, is wine.
The former gold mining area was amazingly enough, an historic wine-growing area long before the Kelly legend put them on the global map.
Bailey’s of Glenrowan winery for example was founded in 1870 at the foot of the spectacular Warby Ranges and has been producing high quality red wines and fortifieds ever since.
Another local winery is Booths, also in the nearby Taminick area and boasting a world-wide reputation for their heady shiraz and durif reds.
In the same area, Auldstone Cellars also has been producing full-bodied shiraz wines which rank with some of the best in Australia.
Driving along the narrow roads to get to these wineries, and meandering along the high country ranges, you also get an appreciation of how the Kelly gang were able to use the surrounding countryside to make their raids on local banks and then hide out for months in the almost impenetrable scrub.
Following the Kelly and wine trail also takes you to the historic and picturesque township of Beechworth, with its wonderfully restored sandstone buildings and the famous courthouse where Ned mounted the dock to face his legal nemesis before he was taken to trial in Melbourne.
The courtroom itself is perfectly restored and echoes with an eerie ring as you tread cautiously across its highly polished wooden floors.
The adjoining cells are so authentic you get a chill down the spine as you enter and suddenly the ethereal voice of a former inmate plays from a hidden loudspeaker.
Even the courthouse staff get in on the act and are attired in period colonial costumes and relate the history of the buildings with a fascinating appeal.
Just along the roadway from the courthouse is the old telegraph office where news of Ned’s arrest and arraignment was wired to the authorities in Melbourne.
It’s been beautifully restored with all the original equipment and they even have a trained telegraphist on call to send your own personal morse code and telegram messages.
It’s intriguing watching the faces of the computer/IPad-literate kids of today being told of the communication methods of past centuries.
Another old gold-mining town, Beechworth also boasts many local wineries and attractions such as vintage railway expeditions and its restaurants and coffee shops, many adorned with period trappings, serve delicious local produce and beverages.
We didn’t get to stay overnight in Beechworth but we checked out some of the local accommodation on offer and we regretted our decision to move on. Apart from their beautifully restored old hotels there are a number of quaint B&Bs all offering reasonable rates.
It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Beechworth would have to be one of the prettiest towns in Victoria and its amenities and people are welcoming and friendly.
No matter what you feel about the Ned Kelly legend, it’s worthwhile to follow the Glenrowan/Beechworth trail and soak up the history which has been so authentically re-created.
If it doesn’t appeal, then let me tell you more about the local wineries!
Picture: Six metre tall statue of Ned Kelly in Glenrowan’s main street.