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Koo Wee Rup

(3981, 75 km SE, Cardinia Shire)

Situated at the mouth of the Bunyip River, the Koo Wee Rup Swamp, with its peat soil, was highly fertile, but masses of decomposing reeds and thick tea-tree and the swampy nature of the ground restricted early settlement and pastoral activity. The name Koo Wee Rup is derived from the Aboriginal expression for plenty of black fish and the area was used by the Boon wurrung people as a major food source, particularly in summer. From this group is derived the legend of the Bunyip (or Tooroodun) which they believed inhabited the centre of the swamp.

Robert Jamieson took up the first pastoral lease in 1839, naming his run Torbinurruck, Yallock, later Tobin Yallock. In 1854 William Lyall and John Bakewell took up the Great Swamp run and held it until the licence was cancelled in July 1874 in anticipation of land sales. Lyall's Harewood homestead, built in the late 1850s on the nearby Tooradin estate, became the social centre of Westernport. In 1875 9000 acres (3600 ha) of marginal land in the area was auctioned for a price that included a drainage fee. After inaction by the Lands Department, landowners undertook the drainage work themselves, hiring labourers who cut drains by hand. However, these attempts were no match for even minor flooding of the Bunyip River.

The Great Southern Railway, which opened in 1890, crossed the swamp on pile bridges. The station at Yallock was named Kooweerup. Attempts to construct the main drainage canal were halted by flooding in 1891 and 1893. In 1894 the drainage works engineer, Carlo Catani, started a Village Settlement Scheme offering 20-acre (8 ha) blocks to unemployed married men who were expected to maintain and improve their land while working on the drainage scheme. Drainage works, assisted by a steam dredge, continued into the 1930s, but severe floods remained a problem, the worst being in 1934 when an area of 390 square kilometres was under water and the township was flooded to a level of 1.8 metres. The town's population rose to around 1000 as a result of a soldier settlement scheme after World War I, but there has been no further growth.

Today, Koo Wee Rup is a service and railway centre for the surrounding dairy and agricultural farms. Australia's largest producer of asparagus and a major potato-growing district, it holds an annual potato festival.

Jenny Coates