The drive to the far south coast from Canberra via Cooma passes through a wide range of landscapes. There's the lush green Bega valley, the rainforests of Brown Mountain and perhaps the most stark of them all - the vast plains of the Monaro.
These days, apart from a lone tree with a queue of soft toys curiously lining up to get in its hollow, there's little reason to stop between Cooma and Nimmitabel.
However, that hasn't always been the case. About 15km the Nimmitabel side of Cooma just where the Monaro Highway passes over Rock Flat Creek, is a small puddle of water with a build-up of calcium around it, the only sign there was once a popular attraction here - a spring bubbling out of the ground. A spring that for many years produced mineral water that was shipped all around Australia, and at one stage received the royal seal of approval.
Although there is sadly a paucity of details about the significance of the waterhole to First Nation People, Polish explorer John Lhtosky, who travelled through the Monaro in 1834, firmly put the spring on 19th century European maps.
In his account of his expedition, A journey from Sydney to the Australian Alps, Lhotsky reveals the taste of the water was similar to "that of the most valuable mineral springs, as Seltzer and Cheltenham, a pleasant, slightly acidulous taste, prickling upon the tongue". When stockmen camping nearby told Lhotsky that the water was also "very beneficial for syphilic disorder, constipation of the bowels and sore eyes" Lhotsky's imagination went into overdrive. He suggested the site could one day become an international drawcard with "long rows of buildings and hospitals, wherein numbers of sick from all adjacent countries were relieved and restored to health".
It was a vision that almost 60 years later in 1891, Ludwig Bruck, the founder of the Australasian Medical Gazette, shared when he recommended "a well organised and thoroughly equipped sanatorium" be built at the site. In his article on the little-known spring in the Canberra Doctor of November 2017, Dr Bill Coote states that Bruck's plans also included "a large concert and ball room, hotels, cafes, restaurants [and] pavilions". Gee, talk about the Bath of the Southern Hemisphere!
While the fanciful sanatorium and bathhouse never eventuated, bullock teams made Rock Flat a regular camping place and used the water for both a refreshing drink and as a substitute for yeast to make dampers and johnny cakes.
There was renewed interest in the spa around the beginning of the 20th century when Rowlands Pty Ltd, a renowned manufacturer of "public beverages of the highest class", decided to bottle the water. Branded as Koomah Spa, it was marketed as a health drink. The Sunday Times (Sydney) of December 20, 1908, reported "it is a pleasant and palatable water for table use, and can be taken freely either in milk, wine, or spirits. Owing to the absence of lime in most drinking water, it will benefit young people in the preservation of their teeth".
Some, like visiting Hungarian Sacco-Homan, went to extreme lengths to test the water's health and dietary qualities. In 1909 the self-titled "living freak" attempted to live for 53 days entirely on Koomah Spa and Malkah cigarettes.
Locked up in a glass chamber at the Melbourne Waxworks to enable the public to gawk at his exploits, the Hungarian (how ironic!) not only survived (and in doing so lost 26kg) but soon after, repeated his efforts to much fanfare in several other other cities around the world.
This celebrity exposure resulted in the spring becoming a must-see for anyone travelling in the south of NSW. A travelling correspondent for The Catholic News reported "by parting with the silver coin most commonly found on the collection plate, the traveller may drink a glass of the water", while the Camden News, of March 2, 1922, reported "few tourists visit the district without seeing the springs".
However, some time in the 1930s, Koomah Spa ceased commercial operation. One miffed correspondent to Smiths Weekly of April 23, 1932 bemoaned that he couldn't find any "Koomah Spa" within cooee of Cooma. "All I could get was mineral water that had been brought from Sydney. It reminded me that the worst place to buy fish is at the estuaries where fishermen ply their nets".
Despite the bottling of Koomah Spa stopping long ago, members of the Monaro Pioneers Facebook page recently answered a call by your Akubra-clad columnist to share memories of the spring, which remained accessible to the public into the 1970s.
Ian Weston, formerly of Cooma and now of Dalmeny, was quick to respond. On regular visits to catch fish in the nearby creek, Ian "used to take lime cordial and mix it with the spa water to make a sort of a poor man's soft drink". Meanwhile, Phill Robinson recalls that "as kids in the 1950s, we would ride our bikes out there have a drink [and] fill up a bottlle ... but by the time we rode all the back to Cooma there was very little fizz left".
I wonder how many coast-bound Y-platers stop at the Nimmitabel Bakery for a refreshing drink, oblivious to the fact that just 20 minutes earlier they'd sped past Rock Flat, the source of a drink that in its heyday was known as "amongst the world's finest".
Oh, and don't be tempted to take an empty bottle on your next trip down the Monaro, the remnants of the spring are on private property and no longer accessible to the public.
Century-old love message found etched in glass
Following this column's exposé on the landmark Squatters Arms at Bunyan (near Cooma) last year, a curious missive from Bill Willis of Queanbeyan lobbed in my inbox.
"One of the front windows of the Squatters Arms has the name of a young fiancé scratched in the glass by her suitor to prove that the ring was a diamond ring. The suitor was John Byrne, a relative of my grandmother Alice Byrne of Queanbeyan's Royal Hotel, Byrnes Mill and Woden Station fame. I wonder if it's still there."
The story sounded a bit far-fetched, even for your open-minded columnist, so during a recent trip to the high country I stopped in at the former drinking hole, now a private home-cum-Airbnb, to have a look around.
Incredibly, the etching is still in the window pane. In fact, the probing fiancé must have wanted to be extra sure for it's etched in a couple of glass panes.
The date of the etching is unknown but it's likely to be well over a century old, making it some of the oldest "graffiti" in the region. There have been a number of John Byrnes in the Queanbeyan area, and Marshall Sanderson and Raelene Forbes, owners of the Squatters Arms, would love to know which one it was. "It might help us narrow down the year when the etching was made," Marshall says.
If you end up bunking down at the Squatters Arms, which has been almost completely booked-out since opening in May, the clearest etching is on the northern side of the front door.
Did You Know? Historically, one of the most common techniques to test if a diamond was real or synthetic was to scratch the gem against glass - if the glass is scraped or scratched, the diamond was deemed real. However, according to website livescience.com this method is far from foolproof, as some faux diamonds can also scratch glass.
WHERE ON THE SOUTH COAST?
Clue: Much more than just muffins
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Geoff Wardrobe of Gordon who was first to identify last week's photo as the former helipad located just adjacent to the Batemans Bay marina. Geoff just beat Gillian Mitchell of Kaleen to the prize.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and suburb to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday January 9, 2021, wins a double pass to Dendy, the Home of Quality Cinema.
While many of its iconic kangaroos have been missing in action from Pebbly Beach since last year's fires, the lack of crowds on the beach resulted in the first Pied oystercatcher nest (with two eggs) in over 30 years. "One chick fledged, but we don't know what happened to the other egg," reports John Perkins, convenor of the Friends of Durras who for several decades have been monitoring the nesting habits of the endangered shorebird, which nests in sand above the high tide mark, often amongst seaweed, shells and small stones.
However, the fires have led to a renewed threat of foxes who like to eat the eggs. "Foxes have increased in numbers this season which we attribute to them being displaced by the bushfires," explains John.
CONTACT TIM: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick