Colac – Living the Life
The plains around Colac are the third largest volcanic plain in the world. Consequently, the land is rich and fertile and, coupled with fresh water in the many lakes, this area has been perfect for animal and human habitation over many thousands of years.
Prior to European settlement, the area around Lake Colac was occupied by the Kolijon or Coladjin Aborigines and the town’s name is thought either to derive from this tribal name or from a Kolijon word referring to the ‘fresh water’ of Lake Colac. Accounts of the number of Aboriginal people living in the area when European people arrived vary, but there were most likely several hundred living in tribes camped around the resources offered by the lake. John Co-Coc-Coine, known as ‘King of the Warriors’, was the last chief of the local tribe and died in 1865.
‘Explorers’ meet their fate
The first European to settle in the area was the pastoralist Hugh Murray, who arrived on The Gem at Geelong in 1837 after first trying Tasmania. It was also in 1837 that the explorers Joseph Gellibrand and George Hesse went missing in the area. Their bodies were never found and they were presumed to have been killed by Aborigines. Their names are commemorated in the township of Gellibrand, a river, and as Colac street names.
Send the rabbits back in cans!
With other pastoralists Murray headed west from Geelong. Thomas Austin stopped to establish Barwon Park near what is now Winchelsea. Twenty years later Austin would make the fatal mistake of releasing rabbits onto his estate. In a few years they reached plague proportions and prompted the construction of the stone walls which distinguish the area. A canning factory built in 1871 canned millions of rabbits for export to the United Kingdom.
The Duke of Edinburgh visited the Colac area in 1867, but left scars of resentment caused by his snubbing of Colac with an abbreviated visit cut short by extending a stopover with Thomas Austin at Winchelsea when hunting parties slaughtered thousands of rabbits. In 1880 the First Rabbit Act was passed, making landowners responsible for the destruction of rabbits on their own property.
With the first bridge over the Barongarook Creek built in 1855, business was booming. There were hotels, a wheelwright, blacksmith, carpenters, butchers, general stores, hotels, a brickmaking works and the first flourmill started in 1852 and the first bank in 1864. Some enterprises failed to meet expectations, such as gold and coal mining, a salt works at Beeac, and an unsuccessful attempt in 1865 to extract sugar from grass-tree plants.
Colac, population 12,000, is now the key industrial, commercial and service centre for the Colac Otway Shire and supports a network of over 1200 businesses and over 800 farms. The main industries are dairy, beef, sheep, crops, specified pastures, horticulture and organic farming; timber, manufacturing and service, construction, retail and wholesale. Tourism, centering on the Otway Ranges and the coastline, is growing every year.
Information sourced form the following sites: