1. Themes
  2. A to Z

Dandenong Ranges

Rising abruptly from the plain about 35 km east of Melbourne, the Dandenong Ranges have been variously dubbed 'Melbourne's playground', the 'Blue Dandenongs' (a reference to their appearance from the distant city) and 'the lungs of Melbourne'. Of volcanic origin, 'The Hills' have been a favourite retreat from the city since the late 19th century.

A loose geographic area, the Dandenongs are generally taken to cover an area stretching from the foothills around Ferntree Gully in the south-west to Mount Evelyn and Monbulk in the north, and Gembrook in the south-east. Most of this area now falls within the Shire of Yarra Ranges. Smaller areas come within the City of Knox and the Cardinia Shire.

The highest peak of the range is Mount Dandenong (633 m). Transmission towers for Melbourne's radio and television stations are perched on the adjacent Mount Corhanwarrabul (628 m). The Dandenongs include large tracts of wet and dry sclerophyll forest, cleared agricultural land and several villages and townships, including Montrose, Olinda, Sassafras, Ferny Creek, Kallista, Belgrave, Monbulk and Emerald. Snow falls on the highest parts of the ranges occasionally during winter, with the annual rainfall reaching 1400 mm (double that of Melbourne). The terrain, flora and amount of human settlement make this one of the world's most fire-prone landscapes and devastating bushfires have repeatedly affected the area.

The Dandenongs have been a source of timber, agricultural produce, leisure and tourism almost since the earliest European settlement. Before this they were significant to clans of the Wurundjeri people, who hunted possums and lyrebirds in the higher ranges during the warmer months. Clearly visible from Melbourne, it was not long before the first European exploration of the mountains began. Foothill areas were occupied by squatters, such as Rev. James Clow, from the 1830s. Timber-getters penetrated the mountains around One Tree Hill and Upwey in the 1840s. Botanist Daniel Bunce is considered the first white man to have explored the deeper recesses of the mountains. He made extensive records of flora and fauna during several visits between 1839 and 1842.

The first survey of the area in 1867 recommended the setting aside of large tracts of land as a timber reserve and to protect areas of particular natural beauty. Early forest reserves such as the Ferntree Gully National Park, Olinda State Forest and Sherbrooke Forest have since been incorporated in the 3215-ha Dandenong Ranges National Park.

Gold rushes around Emerald in the 1850s were eclipsed by richer finds elsewhere. Some land was released for farming in the 1870s, but wider settlement came with the depression of the early 1890s, when areas were alienated under the Village Settlement Scheme. Under the scheme poor families, usually with little farming experience, were granted often unsuitable allotments of 10 acres (4 ha) in settlement areas at Ferny Creek, Monbulk and Mooroolbark. The more mountainous parts of the hills grew in popularity as tourist destinations for day-trippers and weekend visitors.

A railway line from Melbourne to Upper Ferntree Gully was completed in 1889. A narrow-gauge railway was built between Upper Ferntree Gully and Gembrook in 1900, giving settlers their first reliable transport to the city markets. After its closure in 1953 this much-loved train was eventually preserved as the famous Puffing Billy line, fully restored between Belgrave and Gembrook in 1998.

Tourism and the popularity of the Dandenongs as a weekend retreat changed the district during the 1920s and 1930s. Wealthy families developed elaborate country houses and gardens, such as Burnham Beeches at Sherbrooke built by the Nicholas family in the 1930s. Guesthouses catered to casual visitors, while more humble weekend shacks sprang up in every settlement. Agriculture (especially fruit-growing and cropping) and horticulture became important in areas such as Monbulk, Emerald and Gembrook. As the suburbs pushed east from the city during the 1950s and 1960s, the Dandenongs became a more permanent residential area for those prepared to commute to the city or suburbs for work.

John Schauble

Coulson, Helen, Story of the Dandenongs, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1959. Details
Jones, Michael, Prolific in God's gifts: A social history of Knox and the Dandenongs, Allen & Unwin: in association with the City of Knox, Sydney, 1983. Details
Morrison, John, The creeping city, Cassell, Melbourne, 1949. Details