As you drive into Kongwak, you can’t miss the stand of bushland on a ridge overlooking the village that stands in such stark contrast to the rolling hills and cleared pastures that dominate the landscape.
But most visitors are unaware that this is a public reserve with well laid-out tracks.
An important example of remnant vegetation from the western flank of the Strzeleckis, Pioneer Reserve is home to wallabies, koalas, wombats, owls and many other bird species.
The 42-hectare reserve owes its existence to the foresight of Stan Miles, a local farmer and Korumburra Shire councillor for more than 18 years. In the early 1970s, he was responsible for the land being retained as a council reserve, a memorial to the original settlers who contended with this landscape.
In the early 1960s the council bought 41 acres of land in Kongwak to quarry rock for road building. At its meeting in December 1961, it endorsed the actions of the shire engineer (Mr O’Connor) and the shire president (Mr Pinkerton) to buy 41 acres at Kongwak from a Mr. F.S. Pinkerton, the price to be determined by a sworn valuation.
Unfortunately, the land “did not appear to be suitable for quarrying” (although some councillors believed detailed geological surveys might prove otherwise), so the council lease the land for grazing to Mr. E.L. Anthony of Korumburra for 20 shillings an acre a year for three years. The lease was later extended.
Whether or not detailed geological surveys were undertaken, by 1970 the quarry proposal was finally abandoned. Amid moves to sell it, Cr Miles made a persuasive speech to his fellow councillors, advocating that the Kongwak “scrub” should be preserved in memory of the original settlers who had struggled to harness the land. The motion was carried and the park was named Pioneer Reserve.
Stan Miles’ nephew Bob Newton, a current councillor in the South Gippsland shire, believes his uncle’s foresight in preserving Pioneers Reserve is a legacy of growing up in the Tarra Valley, near Yarram, where his family cleared land for their small farm.
“Because he’d witnessed it at Tarra Valley, he had an understanding of trying to preserve some of the bushland.”
He recalls his Uncle Stan – his mother’s brother – as “a big man, a lovely old fellow. “I’m absolutely ecstatic that they’re honouring Uncle Stan’s contribution to Pioneer Park.”
Stan Miles’s son, Neville Miles, says his father was a typical farmer of the time in believing that “if you wanted to farm, you got an axe, a horse and pegged out a farm and set about clearing the land”.
But he also did his best to preserve examples of the past, such as the Ritchie Reserve on the outskirts of Korumburra and Pioneers Park at Kongwak.
“He’d be very proud to see that the reserve has not only been preserved but has been upgraded.”
In his memoir Lateral Thinking, Neville Miles writes that his father grew up on a farm in the Tarra Valley Road about one mile downhill from what is now the Tarra Bulga National Park.
Stan’s father and uncle cleared 70 acres each on their adjoining farms, mainly mountain ash about 50-65 metres feet tall with trunks up to a metre thick at stump height. After the burn there was ash three inches thick over the whole farm.
Stan told Neville that as a child he and his brothers and sisters could reach out their bedroom window and touch a log then crawl or walk along the tree trunks covering all of a 70-acre paddock without touching the ground.
In 1923 the family bought the “Bonnie Vale” property at Moyarra, near Kongwak. Aged 15, Stan and a Mr Higgity, together with the family dog, drove the dairy herd from Tarra Valley near Yarram to Korumburra. The trip took six days and five nights. They carried their food and chaff for the horses in a jinker.
He says a photo of the clearing of the Tarra Valley farm has been widely used in publications. “It’s now featured on a pillar at the Melbourne Museum in the forest section probably depicting ‘environmental vandalism’ of the early settlers.
“A photo of the Tarra Valley farm is or was also hanging on the dining room wall at the Middle Pub at Korumburra, incorrectly depicting a woodcutter’s cottage near Korumburra. History can be confusing.”