Herders. Helpers. Hunters. Heroes. The admirable characteristics of Australia's most popular working dog are many, but whatever you do, don't call Whisky the Kelpie a dingo derivation.
It took less than 50 years from the arrival of the First Fleet for farmers to work out that the dogs from Mother England were not what they needed down under, and so the long search to find our perfect working dog began. Along the way numerous uniquely Australian breeds developed, including the Cattle Dog, Australian Terrier, Koolie, Tenterfield Terrier and the Bull Arab, but it's the Kelpie that has gained admiration above and beyond all others.
And for more than a century we were fed a furphy - that kelpies were bred from dingoes. You can understand why given the shared pricked ears, short coat, colouring and build. They look like cousins in every way. Yet DNA testing at the University of Sydney finally laid that lie to rest in 2019.
So from where did this spirited hard worker that has been immortalised in a mighty mega mural (more on that in a minute) come? In short, a farmer near Casterton in western Victoria had some u-beaut collie dogs. The story goes that a bloke named Jack Gleeson swapped a young, healthy and well-trained horse in return for one of that dog's puppies. He called his new girl 'Kelpie - Gaelic for 'water spirit'. Jack soon moved on to what's now Ardlethan in NSW. Along the way he met up with an old mate who gave him a black dog bred from Scottish stock named 'Moss'. It was a dream romance worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster - a 'When Kelpie Met Moss' showstopper that resulted in a pairing from which the best all-round working dogs in the world have been bred.
And while they are tenacious, hardy and intelligent, it's there loyalty that has cemented their success. Just ask the servicemen stationed in Darwin during WWII. In February 1942 a young kelpie stray was found whimpering with a broken leg under the ruins of a mess hut after the first Japanese raid. He was taken to a field hospital, where the medical officer refused to treat any patient without knowing their name and serial number. 'Gunner', 'Serial Number 0000' officially entered the records of the RAAF that day and he was determined to repay the favour. Thanks to a kelpie's acute hearing and a desire to keep his new family safe, 'Gunner' learned to warn his RAAF mates up to 20 minutes before Japanese enemy aircraft descended - that's even before the planes were detected by the air force radar systems!
What happened to 'Gunner'? His RAAF handler, Percy Westcott, was posted to Melbourne in late 1943. 'Gunner' did not receive the same transfer and the heroic pup's fate is unknown.
While I think Casterton, Ardlethan and Darwin should all be on your future wish list, there's a fourth place - in a fourth state - that has made the kelpie an art superstar and become a 'must see' experience.
Karoonda, in the heart of SA's Murraylands, is a town of 500 or so who feel grateful that their sheep industry has been enjoying good returns on both meat and wool. That's all thanks to the commitment of the families whose farms encircle the town, 150 kilometres east of Adelaide.
And on one of those farms, home to the Phillips family, you'll find 'Whisky'- a kelpie who must quietly ponder what all the fuss is about on the rare occasions that he goes to town. That's when visitors can flock like sheep around 'Whisky' to meet the dog made famous by internationally renowned street artist, Heesco.
He has crafted a mammoth portrait of 'Whisky' alongside a sheep named 'Diamond' and two others on the seven-stack Karoonda silo art. Oh, I love the way 'Whisky' (the painted one) watches you, the onlooker, intently while placing a proprietorial paw over a stick that he has no intention of sharing. So very kelpie-like!
The green brush that surrounds 'Whisky' and 'Diamond' gives way to a vibrant orange sunset scene depicting the town's once pivotal train and railway station. While Karoonda, like the rest of the Mallee, was historically a wheat area, the early 20th century's big dry and rabbit plague turned the area into a land of sand and bunnies. Then wheat prices plummeted thanks to the Great Depression. The Korean War then generated a new need for wool and Karoonda farmers responded.
So while this silo art is first and foremost a nod to the Mallee that encases the town, it's also an important tribute to the sheep and the sheep dog breed that transformed Australia into a global economic powerhouse in the mid 20th century.
And in addition to the mural by day plus silo projections that run every night and change monthly, there's also other artistic masterpieces in this down-to-earth super friendly town. So where are you heading for your next road trip? Give me a K! Give me an A! Give me an R! You get it... so go live it.
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