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Matthew Higgins, National Museum of Australia, 15 April 2009

MICHAEL PARKER: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Michael Parker and I am Vice President of the Friends of the National Museum of Australia. It is my pleasure tonight to welcome you to this latest talk in the curators’ talk series in association with the National Trust of the ACT.

Matthew Higgins is the talker tonight and he’s been exploring the Australian high country, hiking and on skis, for more than 20 years. He has worked professionally as an historian since the early 1980s and was appointed a senior curator at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra in 2004 and he has won several awards for his work. His book Rugged Beyond Imagination was written while he was a research fellow at the Museum’s Centre for Historical Research.

Before we ask Matthew to talk, perhaps Linda Roberts would like to make a welcome as well.

LINDA ROBERTS: Hello, I’m Linda Roberts from the National Trust and I’d also like to welcome you, especially the National Trust members that are here tonight. I would also point out that we are in the midst of the Heritage Festival and this event is part of that. I was very privileged to be on the Namadgi walk with Matthew back on 5 April, which was a wonderful occasion. So I feel that I have earned my stripes to be here tonight.

MICHAEL PARKER: I will now hand over to Matthew Higgins.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thank you very much, Michael and Linda. I am sure I am not the only one to say that, after that wind this afternoon, I’m glad we’re not out in a tent tonight out on the ranges because I think we have half of western New South Wales now sitting on Lake Burley Griffin, which is a bit of a worry. Obviously places further west didn’t get the great rain that we got on Monday night. Wasn’t it a wonderful relief to get some liquid falling from the sky? It is something we had almost forgotten about in this part of the world.

As Michael mentioned, the book is called Rugged Beyond Imagination: stories from an Australian mountain region. The working title was ‘Mountain days, mountain ways’ and that is how this event was advertised, as you would be aware. I might start with a couple of stories of my own. The first one is one that I told to the walking group the other week as we were driving south that I think too little is known by the general public about the ACT’s mountainous side - that other half, the half beyond the Murrumbidgee River. That applies not only within the general populace but even unfortunately with some of our political leaders.

I well remember in 1999 when Tharwa Primary School was celebrating its wonderful centenary and the then ACT Minister for Education came down to give a speech. So he was at Tharwa Primary School, the southern-most school in the ACT just across the Murrumbidgee at the foot of Mt Tennant. As he started his speech, when he first referred to Tharwa Primary School, he called it Hall Primary School, which of course is the most northerly school in the ACT. He didn’t do that once, twice or three times, but four times in the course of that speech. It was a very embarrassing effort from someone who should have known better. I think that says more than anything about the fact that too little is known about the other half of the territory. It is not just the political end of the territory that has a major story to tell us as modern Australians, but it’s that other half that has a lot to tell us about the way that people lived, worked and played in our wonderful high country. That is story number one.

Story number two concerns the phrase ‘rugged beyond imagination’ which is based on a quote which appeared in the Canberra Times in the early 1930s. Although it was written there anonymously, the person who wrote it was Dr JHL Cumpston who, with his sons, had just done this major bush walk right down the full length of the Cotter River and he called it ‘rugged almost beyond imagination’. Cumpston was the head of the Department of Health, so he had a big interest in the Cotter catchment as a source of our water supply. But he and his sons and their daughters were very keen bushwalkers and skiers. They played a major part in the outdoors recreational life of the national capital at that time and subsequently in the development of Mt Franklin Chalet.

When I came to Canberra back in 1982, I already had a personal interest in these outdoor activities and started to develop the historical side of that in my time here. I found out through a colleague that there was a garage sale in Canberra and there were some old timber skis going for sale for $5. So I headed over there straight away, and it turned out the sale was being run by Helen Cumpston who was the widow of one of Dr Cumpston’s sons, John Cumpston, who himself was a very well-known Canberran and a former ‘rat of Tobruk’. He has a land form in Antarctica named after him, the Cumpston Massif, so it’s a very interesting family.

I bought a pair of these timber skis and subsequently I met one of John’s sisters, Mary Cumpston, and she filled me in on some of the family history and the activities at Mt Franklin Chalet. By the late 1990s Franklin Chalet was being developed into a ski museum. No longer an active ski chalet, it was a wonderful ski museum telling the story of the oldest club-built ski lodge on the Australian mainland, and that development was being undertaken by the volunteers of the Canberra Alpine Club and the staff of Namadgi National Park. They needed skis, photos, pieces of clothing and other artefacts to build this museum so I decided to do the right thing and I gave these wonderful timber skis plus the cane stocks with their leather baskets to Mt Franklin Chalet and they were part of that collection. Of course, on 18 January 2003 the chalet was lost and almost everything inside it was lost as well. So that smoke that billowed over Canberra, a little part of that was those pair of skis. You try to do the right thing, but fate sometimes has other ideas. That’s a negative way of looking at it, but the positive part is that we’re still here to tell the story. This is really part of the reason for writing this book.

Despite the fact that so much of the physical fabric of our cultural heritage inexorably does disappear through time, particularly in times of major bushfire, we are still able to tell the stories of an Australian mountain region. The book and this work that I have been doing is a history of the ACT high country and its main theme is people shaped by the mountain environment just as they shaped it. That’s the underwriting thesis, if you like. We know that people went grazing out there, went skiing and went brumby running, but this link between the environment, the landscape, the topography and the weather being a determining factor, I don’t think that’s been brought out enough in the past. That’s what I have pursued.

What do I mean by the ACT high country? The focus of that is Namadgi National Park and Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, which between them account for nearly half the territory of the territory. But also I don’t want to be blinkered by boundaries because before say 1911 it was all part of New South Wales anyway. It would be a bit silly just to stop at those administrative boundaries of a national park and a nature reserve. So you need to take in the area surrounding both within the ACT and New South Wales. The northern end of Kosciuszko National Park also has a big part in this book, as do parts of Brindabella National Park, Bimberi Nature Reserve, Scabby Range Nature Reserve, etc.

It is a history of the period following the beginnings of European settlement, but nonetheless the Indigenous heritage and story of the mountains has a strong place. In fact, I have a section in the introduction called ‘A surviving Aboriginal place’. That title might be a surprise to some people, because a lot of people still think wasn’t Queen Nellie Hamilton the last Indigenous person, just as a lot of people think Murray Jack was the last Indigenous person in the Snowy Mountains. The fact that the Aboriginal flag flies today outside the Namadgi Visitors Centre, the fact that we have Indigenous elders in the community and the fact that Ngunnawal people play a role in the management of Namadgi National Park shows that that older view, that view of the Aboriginal period being a closed chapter, is not really accurate because despite great dispossession, disease and death numbers of Aboriginal people survived. Some of them went away to institutions and to reserves, but some stayed on and worked as stockmen, as brumby runners and in the twentieth century as dam builders. Through the book I pick up on some of those little stories to try to show why we have a more significant Indigenous population here today.

The main sources for the work have been archival. There have been some great archives around ranging from private diaries in the National Library through to sources in National Archives and ACT Archives etc. But the oral story, the oral record, is a major part of this work. If you want to find out the story of a hut up in the mountains, you’re hardly likely to find a development application on the files of the local council. The stories of these places are up here; they are in people’s memories; and we only have a limited opportunity to record those stories and to get them down. It is particularly important in rural Australia and particularly the mountains that that oral story is recorded.

And then of course there is the physical evidence, going out and looking at the surviving huts and finding these very subtle ruins, just a few tumbled hearth-stones in some places, or the survey marks left by the border surveyors back in 1910-15 or the brumby trap yards etc. But it is also a matter of experiencing the environment too: walking with a pack on your back, understanding what a steep mountain means to walk up and to ski down, to experience the bite of winter and to experience that climate that the people who lived there for so long experienced.

It is the stories primarily which I find engaging, and it is those stories I have tried to bring to life through the book and to tell the bigger story through that prism of individual experience.

The main themes in this ACT high country area are generally those that are found throughout the rest of the Alps, with the exception perhaps of mining. The main themes are grazing, brumby running, land survey, fire and forestry, scientific investigation, water harvesting and recreation, particularly skiing. I would like to spend some time making some general comments about each of these themes.

Firstly grazing: mountain country was essentially grazing country. It’s not cropping country; it’s not the topography, the soil or the climate that allows you to have broad acreages of wheat or whatever. It’s a place where cropping was very minor, mainly on a few properties just to provide feed for the horses on that property. It is ironic therefore that one of the greatest advances in Australia’s development of wheat was done at Lambrigg by William Farrer right on the edge of this mountain region. There he was in his laboratory doing his breeding work, while around him to the west there was very little scope for putting into application the sorts of results he was gathering.

In the nineteenth century this pastoral economy that was developing in the mountains was one revolving largely around cattle and horses. There were large flocks of sheep as well but there were problems with sheep because, for a start, you had very large dingo population, which would even attack young cattle at times. From the earliest days there was a war against dingoes. That’s a really strong theme that you see in the diaries, the newspapers and the oral record. You can understand today why the presence of wild dogs in national parks and attacks on sheep are still such a big issue because it is ingrained. It’s a cultural thing, just as the brumby running issue is still a cultural thing. It is in regard to those two issues where park managers have a very difficult job in trying to fulfil their conservation aims while still working with neighbours who are running grazing properties around the edges.

The other thing that made sheep difficult in the earlier years was the presence of fluke and other parasites on the high wet pastures, because it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that drenches were being developed that could cope with those. And also the ongoing clearing of valley floors made it possible for sheep to be introduced to areas which were previously cattle only. It is into the twentieth century where sheep start to come into the economy on a much greater scale. You will have, for example, a shearing yard being built at Orroral; and sheep being introduced at Bobeyan by the 1950s which itself is commensurate with the increase in wool prices during the Korean War. But you still have cattle being grazed. For example, Gudgenby remained a cattle property right through until the stock were removed in the 1980s. But you do have these changes with sheep becoming more and more significant and basically taking over in places like the Tidbinbilla Valley.

Nonetheless, whether you had cattle or sheep, in the late nineteenth century there were very few fences through the mountains and it was steep timbered country so horse skills, riding skills, assumed an importance all of their own. You needed to be able to ride and to ride well to survive financially on these properties. That remained true through the twentieth century with sheep as well, because if you were grazing sheep you needed to muster them to drench them every six weeks or so. So this developed a horse culture in the mountains, which is stronger than many other areas. It’s commensurate with the Northern Territory and North Queensland cattle culture but it is certainly a major part of the south-east of Australia arising out of the mountain environment, and I will talk a bit more about that when we talk about brumby running.

The initial grazing properties through this area we are talking about were huge pastoral runs, squatting runs basically, which could be as big or bigger than 20,000 acres or about 8,000 hectares, which itself is about one and a half times the size of the Tidbinbilla Reserve. So these were massive areas. They weren’t only big in space but they were big in the mind as well. What do I mean by that? Think about this for example - the perception of space was very different then from today as is borne out by this fact: if you wanted to cross the high country we are talking about, say from Queanbeyan across to Kiandra in the late nineteenth century, if you wanted to walk it, it would take about five days; if you wanted to ride it on horseback it would take about two days; and today we drive it in three hours. So our perception of space and our relationship with space is totally different from what these people knew in their own time.

The sense of space started to change when the free selection Acts came in, first in the 1860s and through other land developments in the 1880s when smaller settlers started to come in and take up small pockets of land that they were able to get access to. The lifestyle of some of these people is very revealing. For example, two of the selectors at Tidbinbilla were George Green and George Hatcliff. George Green’s fiancé, Mary Ann McCaffrey, came out from England to marry him. They got married in Sydney and then travelled down to Tidbinbilla. When they got there George Hatcliff cooked them a celebratory meal, which was lyre bird boiled in a billy. That I think says so much about the people’s relationship with the world around them. Lyre bird was commonly known as pheasant, and you will find Pheasant Creek and Pheasant Hill on present-day maps of the mountain areas. So that shows how the early name for those native birds was incorporated into the culture and the naming practices.

But while free selection enabled people to get a foothold, these people soon realised that you needed bigger blocks to survive. That is why the early pastoralists had such big blocks, because it was not high quality grazing and you needed a lot of it to make a go. So you needed to take up other holdings elsewhere. Because it’s mountain country and people need shelter, if you are working away from the home property you needed a hut on that other holding for shelter in this mountain environment. So you have these huts being built on places away from the home which are being built for temporary accommodation.

The ultimate conclusion to this sort of practice is the snow leases in northern and southern Kosciuszko National Park which people resorted to with their stock to relieve the home property during the summer and take advantage of that other grazing space and opportunity. This is a relationship across the mountains between what’s now the ACT and what’s now the northern end of Kosciuszko that’s been going on since the 1830s, when people like TA Murray of Yarralumla first set up the Cooleman lease and the Coolamine homestead. He was followed by others like the De Salises who had Cooleman pastoral lease for several decades, and Frederick Campbell later of Yarralumla and various others. So there’s a very strong relationship across the mountains. That’s why it is important not to be blinkered by boundaries but to cross those ranges in the book.

Home life on many of these properties remained largely unchanged from when European settlers first went into the mountains through to the mid-twentieth century. For example, it was still very much a horse-driven form of transport through to the 1940s and even later right through to the end of grazing as far as stock work was concerned. One of my favourite sources, Colin Curtis talks about one year where he was off his horse for only nine days in a year. That shows the amount of riding they did.

Mains electricity didn’t get to some of these places until the middle of the twentieth century and never got to others at all. Again, it was a very different lifestyle to that experienced by us in modern urban Australia. And water - water supply was quite often the local stream. You might have a race, a channel diverting the stream to the hut; there might be a well; but often the water was obtained from the stream itself. The kids would go down with a pair of the ubiquitous kerosene tins or a 44-gallon drum mounted on a slide, a big Y-shaped branch towed by a horse, and that was your water supply. Many of these places didn’t have a rainwater tank until say the 1940s-50s. So if you went through that sort of effort to obtain the water, you would be very thrifty in its use, something which we can all be mindful of today.

There is a temptation when entering national parks for people to think ‘This is pristine, it’s hands off, it’s never been touched,’ and of course we know that’s not true because Aboriginal Australians have been living there for thousands of years. But we know too that the grazing families also had an impact through these valleys, in particular in land clearing. All the major valleys of the ACT high country have experienced some form of land clearing, ring barking etc. Some of that was at the whim of the grazier, some of it was driven by government land regulations where you had to improve the property to a certain extent and you had to clear a certain portion of it each year.

It was interesting when interviewing people from Tidbinbilla when I said, ‘Which landscape do you prefer, that ring-barked one with all those standing dead grey trees that you knew or the present-day green regrown one?’ And invariably people said, ‘We really like today’s landscape but we’re not trying to make a living from it any more,’ and that’s a really significant proviso to keep in mind.

There have been a number of local extinctions in Namadgi National Park despite the fact it’s a well-recognised conservation area of high value. For example, rock wallabies disappeared. Today they are being bred in a captive breeding program at Tidbinbilla but they don’t occur naturally. Koalas had disappeared to such an extent that in 1939 when a koala enclosure was established at Tidbinbilla the koalas had to be brought from Victoria. Carpet pythons disappeared from the lower foothills of the area. I think a really interesting insight into attitudes in the nineteenth century about wild life are reflected in a quote from John Gale, a Queanbeyan newspaper editor and coroner, who did a number of trips through the mountains. He kept a wonderful account and published many articles about his trips which are a great historical source. On one of these trips in 1903 he wrote in these terms:

I had a splendid view of a male lyre bird gambolling near to me on a bare rock. He paused in his progress and pirouetted in the exuberance of his joy, bounding with long springy strides his gorgeous tail trailing train-like behind him. This was the only opportunity I ever had of witnessing the graceful action that this shy bird undisturbed in his lonely haunts. ‘Things we see when we haven’t a gun.’ A lyre bird’s tail in its best plumage would probably have been mine.

Today we still want to capture and souvenir but we do it with a camera rather than a firearm.

These are some brief statements about the grazing theme. I would now like to play for you an extract from one of my oral history interviews, and this is one of my real favourites. It’s a story told by Beryl Woods, as she was born out at Paddy’s River in 1910. She became Beryl Fisher, a wonderful woman who sadly is no longer with us. But when you hear this story I think you will agree about the need to record these stories while we have the opportunity. This is Beryl’s recollection of when she was about ten years old, so about 1920, and her first experience of snow.

[Oral history plays]

MATTHEW HIGGINS: There’s a number of things that you could say about that story. Firstly, I always consider it a wonderful privilege to have had the opportunity to record these stories and particularly to meet people like Beryl because she was so lovely. She just loved to tell that story. She told it with such relish even though at that age she would have been probably pretty traumatised as well as maybe frostbitten. But the power of recall of many of these people I find quite remarkable. It is fantastic that you can get a story like that and it can live on so that we can all learn from it and experience that journey with her on that dark night.

There are a couple of other more specific things. For example, ‘they used to burn off a good deal… We got into this burnt tree’, so a little reference there, which is picked up in other stories too, to burning off - so fire as a land management tool. Aboriginal people had burnt for thousands of years, and Europeans continued it in a different way. So fire is a shaper of the landscape just as ringbarking is. Some people are very strident in saying what the landscape would have looked like before Europeans arrived, but I think you can only really describe it in general terms because this whole question of the impact of fire is still one that we are coming to terms with.

She ‘had no boots on’. Why didn’t she have any boots on? Surely it’s a reflection of their economic circumstances and I think that says a lot too.

But also the tone of voice - people didn’t burn ‘off’, they ‘burnt orf’. The stretching of the vowel ‘o’ you find a lot in these stories - ‘off’ becomes ‘orf’ and you don’t ‘cross a creek’ you ‘corss’ it. That’s wonderful too. The nature of oral history enables you to get to the heart of that, and it’s something I have tried to bring out in the book. Of course, translating a spoken story into written form is always a challenge but I have tried to retain that initial speech and the particular use of grammar as much as possible. That was Beryl Woods, Beryl Fisher as she was when she was married.

A few comments about brumby running - whether you love feral horses or loathe them, whether you agree they should be in national parks or shouldn’t, we all have to face the fact that brumby running has had a particularly colourful place in Australia’s folklore. You only have to look at that $10 note in your wallet or purse and there you will see the face of Banjo Paterson, some lines from The Man From Snowy River and a depiction of some of those wild horses, one of which is the colt from old Regret. We have had the film, and the Silver Brumby series of novels by Elyne Mitchell and the film of that as well. So it’s been a major part of our bush folklore, especially in the south-east high country. Why? Because it was a place where people had to ride and ride well. Brumby running developed as a sport. It was a way where you could compete with your fellows and maybe get a horse, which you could sell or break in as a saddle horse or a pack horse and use it.

Although the brumby running story in the high country is associated strongly with Kosciuszko and with Victoria, the ACT had its share as well. Some very interesting aspects of that story is that the Man from Snowy River didn’t have it all his own way because there were very skilled women riders out there as well - numbers of them who worked on these properties who were out from an early age working with their fathers and mothers sometimes and developing those same horse skills. They liked to get out and ride just as much as the men did.

It is interesting that Miles Franklin, who was born at Talbingo but grew up in the Brindabella Valley, had family links with some of these leading brumby runners out here in the Brindabellas. Although I don’t think she actually chased brumbies herself, she certainly went on some of these rides and she took a little notebook with her. It is those experiences that lead to those wonderful descriptions in some of her key novels like All That Swagger.

Another thing you get a more accurate view of than is often presented in the media is the sort of clothing that was worn by brumby runners. If you look at the usual film or TV production, it looks like you couldn’t even get on a horse unless you had a drizabone. Everyone wore a full length oilskin all the time. Well of course, people did wear those clothes when the weather demanded but at other times they wore all sorts of clothes. There are photos that I have, and some of which are in the book, where people even wore a coat and necktie or leather leggings say after the First World War, war surplus gear - why not? It’s a broader, more interesting and more richly textured picture that arises from this sort of research than you might get from the average film. The full-length oil skin has been used many times, sometimes reasonably well like in the opening ceremony for the Sydney Olympics, sometimes not so well with the APEC leaders conference a couple of years ago where they were all decked out in multicoloured ones on the steps of the Opera House and they all looked a bit embarrassed. I could see that coming.

Land survey is another very significant theme, especially the survey of the ACT-New South Wales border. Again, the mountain region was shaping things because the thing that shapes the ACT is water. The Commonwealth authorities wanted to safeguard the water supply for the new national capital. So the ACT by and large is shaped by a series of water catchments, the most important one of which is the Cotter River, and that’s why it’s that really weird shape extending so far to the south-west. When I describe the ACT to people I say it’s sort of shaped like a mutant ear, because that’s the best thing I can think of. But it is water and watersheds that have shaped that.

It was a significant national survey in terms of the various state and territory surveys that were undertaken, and it was undertaken very well. There were no residual sticking points to argue over like along the Queensland-New South Wales border or the eastern border of South Australia, with the exception slightly of a part of the Cotter catchment which was inadvertently cut off by that straight line section in the north-west from Mt Coree to One Tree Hill near Hall, which had to subsequently be dealt with through a land acquisition. But apart from that, it was a job very well done.

This story is a story of three survey parties: Percy Sheaffe after whom Sheaffe House at Canberra Grammar is named and Sheaffe Street in Holder; Harry Mouat, as in Mouat Street in Lyneham; and Freddie Johnston, a Western Australian. I don’t think we have anything named after him in Canberra but he subsequently became a director-general of national mapping and a surveyor-general. These people, like the graziers around them, had to get around by pack horse and on foot because of the ruggedness of the country. But that didn’t stop Freddie Johnston, the third surveyor, from buying a model T Ford. He was a pretty dapper sort of guy and in 1915 he bought a model T Ford and he was going to drive that down to the southern border. He writes in his memoir Knights and Theodolites that when he went out to Queanbeyan to get his drivers’ licence, the Queanbeyan policeman who rode with him in the car had never been in a vehicle before and he was absolutely terrified apparently. Freddie got his licence and drove down to the border. There’s a wonderful photo in the National Archives of the model T Ford parked in its own tent at his base camp near Westerman’s homestead. There’s another tent nearby with a flue coming out of it - that was obviously the kitchen tent. But once he got to that base camp he didn’t get the model T beyond because it was just far too rugged.

These survey parties were following ranges - it might sound easy: you just follow the range, anyone can do that; but anyone who has been out on those ranges knows that you can very easily get misled down a side spur because you can’t see through the timber which way it’s going. So the local people, the mountain people who were employed as labourers on these parties, would have played a major role in doing a reconnaissance and telling the surveyor which way the ranges went because these people knew the country.

It’s interesting, too, that the surveyors had their own experiences with snow. Harry Mouat got snowed in south of Mt Gingera in May 1914 and he got a message somehow through to Charles Scrivener, the head of surveying down here at Acton, and said, ‘I’m snowed in. Can I come in, please sir.’ Scrivener said, ‘You can stop being up on the border but I want you to keep surveying the upper reaches of the Cotter River because we need to know more about the river.’ So he still spent the rest of that winter in pretty cold circumstances.

Two of the surveyors actually had their wives with them. Katie Sheaffe; Percy and Katie married during the survey and she joined him living under canvas as newlyweds amongst the tents of all the other workers - not much privacy for a newly married couple especially as Percy’s mother was also there for part of the time. I have met both of the Sheaffe’s daughters, Jean and Isabel. Jean used to bring her boyfriends home and Percy, by then retired, would immediately grab the young fellow and start telling him about all his wonderful experiences on the border. Perhaps it’s no wonder that poor old Jean never got to get married because she never had a chance. The families have given me wonderful assistance with this. Althea De Salis has been a great help through Adrienne Bradley, her daughter, in getting to know the story of Harry Mouat as well. And Harry Mouat’s wife Iris was also out on the border for some of the time.

Fire and forestry is another major theme. In 1939, as we know too well, major bushfires swept through the Victorian mountain ash forests and over 70 people were killed. Separate fires burnt in the Snowy Mountains and here in the ACT and, as a result of that, the ACT Bushfire Council was formed and various fire districts were set up. But also a new settlement was established on the top of the Brindabella Range at Bulls Head. That was a singular response to fight fire in future, that you would have a small population of rangers up there who would go about patrolling, building fire towers, do burning off etc. That was their job as well as to police the Cotter catchment which had to be kept clean for its water catchment values. These were people like Doug Maxwell and his brother Lach, Vince Oldfield and Billy Jemmett, mountain people who knew the ranges well and could ride because that was basically the only way to get around. They built several fire towers, one of which was built into the top of an ancient snow gum at the top of Brindabella Mountain. One of them was built out on Bag Range well inside New South Wales through the cooperation of the New South Wales government.

It is this threat to Canberra from fires coming from the west from forested mountain country that is again shaping the response to it because people knew then that’s where the worst fires would come from, especially as burning off was going on in an unregulated way on the New South Wales side down in the Brindabella Valley at very dangerous times of the year with hot, windy weather. The ACT Bushfire Council got the government to lease from New South Wales a massive area of over 50,000 acres on that western side of the Brindabellas running down to the Goodradigbee River so they could control that and control the burning off there to try to have a buffer between the potential threat from New South Wales burning off practices and the territory. Of course, as we saw in 2003, that is exactly where the worst of those fires came from because it always comes from the west when those howling westerlies occur.

Bulls Head was the highest and most remote and isolated settlement in the ACT and, ironically for a settlement established to deal with bushfire, it was winter which was the hardest time to endure. Many times people there were snowed in with frozen water pipes etc, but they had their own fun. They built a tennis court. You can imagine that on the top of the Brindabella Range in a good westerly like today, who knows where the ball would end up with a good forehand lob - probably in Monaro Street, Queanbeyan. Nonetheless, it was quite a significant place. In fact, tonight we have someone who was born when his parents were still living up there. You can imagine what it’s like for a woman in labour to travel by truck down to Canberra Community Hospital in the middle of the night.

After the war the role of Bulls Head changed, because Canberra was in need of building timber for post-war development. There was a shortage of timber so the decision was made to exploit the hardwood forests of the eastern side of the Brindabella Range. These are the sorts of timber you find in mountain country: brown barrel, alpine ash and mountain gum growing at a certain elevational band within a certain moisture range. So again it’s the mountain environment that is shaping these activities and these industries.

The forestry activity, the logging, took place from 1947 to 1962 and during that time 47 million super feet - that’s an old imperial measurement of volume: it’s a foot by a foot by an inch, if that means anything to us. This timber was being brought into Canberra. It was logged out there but brought into the Canberra saw mill at Kingston for sawing up into timber for house building and building construction generally. So people who live in a Canberra house of that vintage, many of you would have a hardwood frame and chances are some of that timber is from the Brindabellas initially, as well as other buildings that were built around Canberra at the time.

The period also witnessed the change in Australian forestry from the old days of axes and cross-cut saws through to chainsaws and mechanised means of getting the logs out through winches, jeeps and bulldozers coming in to build tracks. So it’s a significant period in Australian forestry history as well.

‘Plots and plantings’ is another chapter of the book. It’s really a discussion of various scientific activities, particularly on a botanical or forestry theme. One of the most important was an alpine botanic garden established by Lindsay Pryor. Pryor had been a forester out in the Brindabellas but then in 1944 he became the head of Parks and Gardens in Canberra and played a major role in the greening of Canberra, the landscaping, work which had begun under Weston in the early days and continued on. Pryor took on that mantle in the 1940s. He helped to establish the Canberra Botanic Gardens, now the Australian National Botanic Gardens, and he wanted to develop annexes in another climatic areas. So the Jervis Bay annex down the coast which is still there flourishing today - many of you have probably been there - and an alpine garden up on Mt Gingera in the Brindabellas for those alpine species and sub-alpine species, both species which were local to the Brindabellas but also some key ones from over on Mt Kosciuszko itself.

Lindsay Pryor did this work with an Austrian-born botanist Erwin Gauba. They started to plant out this plot on Mt Gingera in the Brindabellas. They built a little shelter hut nearby, put some paths around and stone bridges over streams. It had wonderful potential to take people into the high country to teach them about our wonderful high country flora. Unfortunately, the project eventually languished because of competing financial needs and the isolated nature of the site.

But the hut still survives today - Pryor’s Hut. It is one of the best huts in Namadgi National Park. In a nicely ironic way it still fulfils Pryor’s dream because, although the garden isn’t there, the hut still draws people up into the mountains and through that experience people learn about and regard the high country environment much more highly. Pryor himself was ahead of his time in many ways because since his idea these sorts of mountain annexes have been built elsewhere both in Australia and overseas: for example, the Missouri mountain annex in the US; the Mt Tomah Gardens in the Blue Mountains; and Mt Lofty gardens near Adelaide. It was a wonderful effort, a singular one in the Australian Alps which unfortunately didn’t survive.

The other side of this forestry science story in the Brindabellas is the arboreta. These were plots which were established to try to find out which species of softwood would do best in an ACT or southern Australian environment, because Australia is richly endowed with hardwood but very little softwood. That’s why these plots were set up at various elevations and aspects to trial a range of species from around the world on the slopes of the Brindabellas; about 30 arboreta were set up. They were measured right through to the 1970s so that the growth rates could be compared and decisions made about what to plant, and ultimately Pinus radiata was the supreme species. That’s why we see that in so many of our softwood plantations around the place.

By the 1970s, thinking about the presence of exotic trees in mountain country which was potentially being seen as national park country - those ideas were changing and a number of the arboreta were removed. Nonetheless, a number of them were retained as key examples of these softwoods from around the world. A number of them were interpreted for the public, like Blundells Farm arboretum, by the 1980s. Sadly, of course, the bushfires put paid to nearly all of them, and there is only one survivor today, Bendora. It’s well worth a visit to see these trees from around the world.

Water and water harvesting. Globally mountains are significant as a source of freshwater. That’s the same in Australia as it is overseas. And it’s the same in Canberra because we would not be here were it not for those mountains to our west and south-west, because simply a mountain environment is a wet environment and it is those mountains which have provided us with the well-watered Cotter catchment. There simply wouldn’t be a water supply for a city of this size, Australia’s biggest inland city, were it not for the mountains out there. So the Cotter has been a sure and pure supply like an umbilical cord between the city and the mountains for all those years ever since the first dam was begun in 1912, the Cotter Dam.

There are three dams on the Cotter, the Cotter itself known as a concrete gravity dam. Basically it’s a big lump of concrete holding the water back by virtue of its mass. Then Bendora Dam half way up the Cotter consisting of a thin-walled double curvature arch. So it’s curved horizontally and vertically, and it was one of the first dams of that type to be built in Australia. And then Corin up near the top of the valley, an earth and rock fill dam. These all have structural and engineering interest. It’s particularly interesting that they were built in parallel with the Snowy scheme, the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, and a number of workers who worked on the Snowy scheme came over and worked on these projects. For example, Theiss Brothers who played such a role in the Snowy, they came over and built Corin. There were drillers and engineers who also assisted. A lot of Snowy expertise helped to build these projects out here.

One of the particularly interesting aspects of the developments on the Cotter was that, once Bendora Dam and Corin Dam had been built, water could come to Canberra by gravity because we no longer had to pump it up hill from the old Cotter Dam via the Cotter pumping station, and a gravity main was built from Bendora to channel the water down by gravity. Today we would look at that and say ‘that makes good environmental sense so that you can avoid using thermally driven electrical pumps,’ but of course it wasn’t done for environmental reasons back in the 1960s; it was done for cost because it was costing too much to run the Cotter pumping station. But nonetheless it had a good environmental plus.

This period of development in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s is rather remote from our own time now because it was a period marked by a very strong pro-development ethos in Australia. Now we tend to view these projects through the prism of the Franklin Dam campaign and, rather than everyone immediately agreeing to these sorts of major projects, we tend to step back and think what are the natural values that might be being lost. We have seen that here with unrest about the proposed Tennant Dam. We have seen it in Queensland with the Mary River Dam. There’s been a fundamental change in people’s regard to that sort of development, so in that way we look back to these developments on the Cotter as a rather distinctive period.

But the thing that hasn’t changed is that the mountains are still our primary supplier of water, whether it’s the Cotter or the Googong system on the Queanbeyan River which starts in mountainous country to the south east, and now we are drawing water from the Murrumbidgee which of course starts up in Kosciuszko National Park and is also a mountain-fed stream.

I would like to play for you a second tape. This is Graham Kelleher who was the Department of Works chief engineer on the Corin project. We tend to think of big blokes and big machines. That is exactly the sort of impression that comes across in this extract, which gives a different light to the sort of things that go on when you are building an earth and rock fill dam.

[Oral history plays]

MATTHEW HIGGINS: So the concept of a bulldozer as a weapon is a rather novel one.

The final theme is skiing. Winter was a very different time of year because traditionally, people, whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, had always gone away from the mountains in winter. The mountains were a horrible place: all that cold, wet snow stuff. But once people started to ski they thought maybe winter does have something to offer. We made our first faltering steps on skis back at Kiandra in the 1860s, and that pioneering period extends right up until the late 1950s because it is only then that we get the resort boom and the modern developments that led to skiing as we know it today.

The story of ACT skiing, which is essentially the story of Mt Franklin Chalet, belongs in that pioneering period. The chalet developed in the 1930s and was active as a ski lodge through to say the 1970s or so. It was marked, as was skiing in so many places in the Australian high country during that time, by difficult access with rudimentary accommodation. You made your own ski runs through the trees and you often made your own skis and there were hardly any ski lifts except those you might be able to make yourself.

It’s a huge contrast to the modern mega resorts. If you go up to Mt Franklin today - of course the chalet disappeared in the bushfires - up on the top of Mt Franklin is still the Austin A40 motor vehicle installed in 1965 to drive one of the two rope tows they had on the mountain. You couldn’t find a stronger contrast between that rusting car body and the mega resorts of Perisher Blue, Thredbo and Falls Creek where you can get as many lift rides in a day as you like but you have to be able to pay for it and it’s almost $100 a day for a lift ticket. The whole approach to skiing was very different in those days. It’s been going for several decades now where there are two streams of skiing: you either skie downhill on the resort slopes or you go cross country with different sorts of gear. Well, back in the early period everyone essentially had the same sort of gear which enabled you to do the both.

By the time of the bushfires Franklin was the oldest club-built ski lodge on the Australian mainland and it had a very significant story to tell. Accompanying it historically on nearby Mt Ginini was the RMC Duntroon ski lodge too, which had some interesting aspects to its story. It was quite a novel way for military cadets, army officers of the future, to spend their recreational time and maybe develop some leadership qualities and experience with snow. (That lodge was demolished in 1969.)

They are the main themes I wanted to talk about. To close the formal part of the talk before we put on a video just a few comments about oral history: there are about 130 people listed in the bibliography of the book as having agreed to interviews, and since I started on this work nearly half of those people have passed away. So I think, more than anything, that shows why this sort of work should be done so that these stories can be recorded as you have heard tonight. Graham is still with us luckily. He went on to become the chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and he wrote the first ever environmental impact statement for an Australian dam, and that was Googong Dam in the 1970s, so quite a significant individual.

A couple of other things about oral history: you always have to try to corroborate your stories where possible because, is the person leading you on; do they have a subjective memory; or have they forgotten half the story? For example, when I was interviewing Ted Kennedy about the building of the Bag Range fire tower in the Brindabellas, he said one of the reasons it was built was because it was wartime, Second World War, and there was a lot of fear about the Japanese dropping incendiary bombs and starting bushfires. When I heard that, I thought ‘It sounds a bit far-fetched to me.’ I didn’t say that of course. But later when I went and saw David Wardle and his excellent people at the ACT Archives and started going through the files of the Bushfire Council, sure enough, there it all was. Even the Prime Minister was concerned about the dropping of incendiaries deliberately to start bushfires. That was a fantastic revelation and Ted, I am sorry that I doubted because you were right. Healthy scepticism is all very well, but don’t let it take you too far.

A secondary example, Hugh Read was a wonderful character from out at Naas and he told me about a local man who was hit by a train at a level crossing some time in the late nineteenth century and got carried on the front of that train all the way into Queanbeyan. I knew that Hughie sometimes stretched the truth. He had great stories. So I put that in the ‘possibly far out’ basket. Well, when I was going through the George De Salis diaries at the National Library, sure enough, the man’s name was Con Grady and he was hit by the train on 10 March 1888. He was carried in a sitting position on the front of that train all the way into Queanbeyan dead. Once again, you find corroboration for this story which at first seems a bit far out. So as Fox Mulder used to say, ‘The truth is out there.’

With that I might now refer to our video tonight. This is a film which I have watched heaps of times but I never tire of it. We are going to learn about the conservation of a slab homestead in the mountains. This is a film called Timbercraft and it is about the conservation of Coolamine homestead over in Kosciuszko which, of these places that are linked to the ACT because of the early grazing history, this is one of the most significant because it has that strong relationship.

This film was made by Film Australia in the 1980s and was one of the first over-the-shoulder documentaries. We have got used to that technique now. It is where you don’t see the interviewer. It is as if you are there watching the interviewees all the time. That’s pretty common now, but this was one of the first times that had been done and this film won an award in its time. This is a look at the conservation of a traditional slab building in the high country using traditional woodworking methods.

[Film plays]

MATTHEW HIGGINS: I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as I do. Of course, these sorts of projects not only keep those buildings alive but they keep the skills alive as well. Although that project was run by the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service to their credit, it’s a volunteer group called the Kosciuszko Huts Association which does a lot of this sort of work. It is almost 40 years old now working with the New South Wales and ACT parks services to bring buildings back from the grave like that one.

The masterly use of hand tools - Bill Boyd slicing paper thin slivers. Anyone who has ever handled a broad axe or any of those tools - I tried it once and was hopeless. It’s a lifetime of learning to become a master craftsman like that. It’s fantastic that Film Australia and the Australian Heritage Commission particularly had the foresight to have that film made when that project was under way.

Unlike the timber skis from Mt Franklin that I referred to at the beginning of the talk, Coolamine homestead did survive the 2003 fires. It is still there and, even as we speak, there is more conservation work going on because the job is never fully done. You have to redo it a few years later.

Just to finish, I mentioned that a lot of the work involved in this sort of research and writing involves physical fieldwork, getting out there in the boots or the skis and having a great time. But just as the book is called Rugged Beyond Imagination, I would have to be honest and say at the end of some of these trips I have been buggered beyond imagination too. Thanks very much for coming this evening.

MICHAEL PARKER: Thanks. That was a brilliant perspective on our high country and don’t forget the book is on sale in June.


Oral history extracts in this talk are courtesy of projects conducted by Matthew Higgins with funding and other support from the ACT Government Heritage Grants Program, the Institute of Engineers Australia (Canberra Division), Actew Corporation and the Tidbinbilla Pioneers Association.

Matthew Higgins, Rugged Beyond Imagination: Stories from an Australian Mountain Region, published June 2009 by National Museum of Australia Press, $39.95, available through your local book store or the National Museum Shop ph (02) 6208 5222 email [replace AT with @]

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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