Aboriginal People are believed to have inhabited the Pyrenees Region from at least 13000 years ago. There were several clans in the area, all falling into the Djadja Wurrung language group.
European settlement began after explorer and Surveyor General of NSW, Major Thomas Mitchell, crossed the area in 1836. Observing the great hills which formed the a southern extension of the Great Dividing Range he gave this distinctive portion of the Range an existing name: the Pyrenees, having campaigned as a young soldier in the foothills of the European Pyrenees. He similarly named another natural feature of the area. The river ‘Avoca’ was named after the Vale of the Avoca in Country Wicklow, Ireland. The chain of events that were to follow has a common thread running through the north and the south of the Pyrenees.
Mitchells glowing report on the grazing land in the Western District resulted in squatters from Sydney travelling south using his wheel tracks as a guide. Squatters from Tasmania were also looking for new pastures, travelling to thw Wimmera via Geelong. Their paths crossed at what was to become the township of Lexton.
The area was settled by 1833 and the townships of Lexton (then known as Burnbank), Percydale and Beaufort were established over the ensuing years. By 1850 there were several large sheep runs across the region, and pastoral settlement was established. There are still a number of the original homesteads in use today, some of which are open to the public, and still run as grazing properties. Some of the best wool growing country in Australia can be found within the Pyrenees.
Like Ballarat and many other Victorian towns, Avoca sprang into action in the 1850s with the discover of gold. Gold was first found in Victoria in 1849 in the Pyrenees Ranges near Avoca. In 1853 gold was found at Four Mile Flat, near Avoca, and the main lead at Avoca itself was opened up a few months later. By June the following year, Avoca, with a population of 16000 was regarded as one of Victorias more important gold rush districts.
Beaufort contained the area known as Fiery Creek and it is recorded that the area had a population of up to 100,000 people and produced 450,000 ounces of gold over a two-year period, 1855 – 1856.
Both towns provided ever-increasing opportunities for a range of goods and services to the local population and beyond. In 1868 a James Frazer Watkin established a vineyard on his property “Belmont”just outside of Beaufort and had a wine licence, no doubt to supply the remaining towns people after the gold rush. In Avoca, Edwin Mackereth planted a vineyard and built a winery that operated between 1887 and 1929. In the case of J.F Watkin his venture was short lived with his return to engineering in the 1870’s, although “Belmont” is still there today as is some remnants of the original grapes.
Agriculture and forestry continued as the main activity in the Pyrenees until 1963 when a vineyard was planted just outside Avoca that became Blue Pyrenees Estate which reflected a unique Australian involvement of French expertise and international and locl backing, and an enthusiasm that continues to this day. Currently there are over 30 wineries with cellar doors in the region.
The package of natural scenic beauty, some extraordinary examples of early Australian and European influenced architecture, gold history, and the wine industry the Pyrenees should appeal to almost every traveller. A range of up to date goods and services that are expected by the community at large compliments these attributes. Since it is possible to experience such a wide range of activities in the Pyrenees the traveller needs to return a number of times to appreciate the full experience of the Pyrenees.