The Melbourne Bushies
- Fifty years along the track (1940-90)
- Fifty years along the track (1940-90)
Egon Donath, a founder of the Melbourne Bushwalkers (MBW), has a saying that if it weren't for Adolf Hitler the Melbourne Bushies wouldn't exist. Egon arrived from Austria in September 1939, just escaping the outbreak of war. He had neither money nor job so he went to Melbourne University to see if he could obtain a teaching post. It so happened that a German language teacher, Erich Ventur, with a language school in Little Collins Street, had been interned. Erich, being a good teacher, had built up a class with a considerable number of students who were eager to continue their studies. So, in 1940, Egon started up the Donath School of Languages at 117 Collins Street and many of these students, including Marjorie Elmore (then White), transferred to him. Egon mentioned to Marjorie that there were many German and Austrian refugees living in Melbourne who missed the outdoor recreation they had had in Europe, namely walking in the mountains during the weekends. So Marjorie went to the newsagents and bought a small book titled Fifteen Walks Around Melbourne. She asked Egon to invite the refugees to join up with the students so that the latter could practise their German and they could all walk together.
From a small beginning of about twelve people these day walks at weekends became very popular and more people attended as the word spread around. In those days areas around Melbourne that are now densely packed suburbs were quite remote, beautiful wooded areas, rich in birdlife - Rosanna, Eltham, St Helena, Wattle Glen to Hurstbridge, the Dandenongs, Mitcham, Ringwood, Warrandyte and Lysterfield all provided lovely walks. The great urban sprawl started in 1949-50. Few had cars so the walkers always travelled by public transport, predominantly train.
'Enemy aliens', or 'reffos' as they were affectionately called, initially had the problem of having to ask permission to travel if they were going more than 10 kilometres. And when on such an excursion, they had to check in at the local police station. Egon always thought it an amusing sight, seeing twenty or so young people lounging around outside a police station in the middle of nowhere while about three went in to sign. Fortunately, after America came into the war, these people were no longer seen as a danger to Australia and the ruling was dropped.
In those very early days the bushwalkers often sang German songs as they walked along. This must have been regarded as odd to any passers by; and indeed Marjorie remembers that entrenched attitudes took a long time to break down. She was regarded by many as being quite eccentric. Bushwalking itself was regarded as a bit anti-social, and then to go walking with foreigners - well!
Marjorie also says of those early years: "I believe the wartime group provided a useful service to all. The Europeans had their outdoor exercise in a pleasant environment and were able to socialise with Australians of their own age group. They learned to appreciate the landscape that was different from their own familiar scenery, but that had its own special beauty and fascination. They made many firm friendships. The Australians, too, gained a great deal by obtaining insights into European culture from which our geographical isolation had cut us off. In particular, some of us were delighted that many of them shared our love for classical music, and we enjoyed the many concerts that were available in Melbourne during those years. Sometimes we would meet at someone's house and play old 78 records. For some of my friends it was their first experience of classical music, and for this they were always grateful."
The Quaker Society of Friends regarded it as their duty to make refugees welcome and assist them where possible. Egon made contact with them and they kindly supplied the first Club meeting rooms in their premises at 20 Russell Street. In the winter of 1941 they also supplied the venue for the first Melbourne Bushwalkers' concert. At this occasion Egon remembers knowing everyone - the audience were all parents and friends of his little band except for two male strangers sitting at the back. Who were they? Men from the Secret Service .. .
The first official walk, led by Egon Donath in April 1940, was from Ferntree Gully Station and went up Mt Morton. In the early walks programmes (1944 onwards) the MBW always had a 20-kilometre walk as well as one of 13 kilometres; the easier ones were often led by Egon, which he cheerfully refers to as his `sissy' walks. In the height of summer when it was deemed too hot to walk, they took the last train out on a Saturday night and went on night walks. These sometimes included seeing the lyrebirds at dawn in Sherbrooke forest. A swim was often the order of the day and certainly a stop by water was a feature on many walks. At the beginning of every walk they formed a circle and introduced themselves, just as we do today. Cakes would be taken to share and a billy always boiled at lunchtime.
Favourite walking places emerged and traditions were set up. Canadian Bay, Mt Eliza (train to Frankston), was a place much visited. Another popular walk was from Greensborough to St Helena. The latter was a small settlement started by pioneers and had an old picturesque church which still stands. The walkers would study the tomb-stones. The place was completely isolated; it was also among the very few that had a village pump, a great asset to bushwalkers.
Perhaps the most famous early tradition was set up by Egon, the annual `cream hunt'. Cream in wartime years was almost unobtainable but at Waldheim, a guest house at Bayswater (still standing as a Greek club), accessible from Ringwood, Mitcham and Bayswater Stations, an old German fellow called Busch kept a couple of cows and was keen to develop his daytime trade. Some walkers would go on a long walk that ended there, while others were happy just to stroll in gently to Waldheim; all would then have afternoon tea together. The MBW, being mindful of the relative prosperity in which they lived, contributed to the `Food for Britain'. Alan Patching organised the monthly parcel that was sent off to individual members of the Sheffield Rambling Club. The latter were extremely grateful and sent many appreciative letters.
In the summer of 1944 the Club first tried to get a bathing box on Sandringham beach. They failed that year but tried again and eventually succeeded. The bathing box, number 799, at the bottom of Southey Street, was a great focus for years.
Egon, not one for Germanic regimentation, was happy to let the Club drift along in its informal way. Marjorie Elmore was of like mind: `At the time I felt that the informal nature of our gatherings added to their appeal. Nevertheless I was prepared to concede that some formalisation might he desirable at a later date. Actually, I was influenced by the very transitory nature of life and society during wartime. Everything seemed temporary and there was an air of uncertainty.' However there were other influences in the Club, such as Percy Woodman. He had bush-walked with the Sydney Bushwalking Club an older, more formalised and in some ways quite political organisation (they were instrumental in forming several National Parks). Percy was a tireless and very strong walker. He expanded the MBW's knowledge of bushlore and often led interesting walks that took them further afield. After some time he broached the subject of the Club having a more formal arrangement a constitution, rules and so on.
Percy was made Chairman in 1944. Membership fees were 5s per year and the fee per walk was 6d. In 1945 a proper constitution was formed and Norm Richards became the first formal president; he retained the post for seven years. The philosophy was to lay good groundwork for a club so that it could thus function for many years; in this they succeeded admirably.
The Club motto was: 'For bushwalking among friends and conservation of bushland and bushlife'. In the winter walks programme of 1944 a code of behaviour for bushwalkers read as follows.
From the very start a proper committee was formed and all Club members were actively encouraged to have their say. It was decided to have some sort of gossip sheet - a newsletter - as well as a quarterly walks programme sheet. The News first came out in 1948; until then circulars were irregular. It was printed on a gestetner by Gordon Coutts for many years. Egon wrote the News until March 1950 (No.18). Until spring 1945 walks programmes (layout designed by Frank Pitt) were hand-done on a gestetner. The following three issues were printed in booklet form with delightful coloured covers. The coloured card, with three folds, came out for winter 1946. During 1947 it took a four-fold form then later reverted to its present three-fold form (see also pages 162-4).
Gordon Coutts was Walks Secretary for two years, 1950 and 1951. His job was, as now, to collar people in the Club room, persuade them to lead walks and also ask for suggestions of new places to go.
The Club was now meeting at Room 110 in the Railway Institute, Flinders Street Station, on Friday nights. (From January 1945 it was on a permanent basis.) As most people travelled by train this was very convenient. Trains were used extensively by the Club. Only suburban electric trains ran during the war, and country trains were solely for country passes, that is, people who lived in the country. At Christmas in 1945 there were a few special excursion trains. During 1945 petrol rationing for commercial purposes had loosened up (lifting entirely by 1949), so petrol for a hired van became a possibility.
Membership rose to close to the Club's aim of one hundred in late 1945 to early 1946. The YHA Bushwalkers, an older club, became
managers of 161 Flinders Lane, which had been bought by the National Fitness Council, and wanted other clubs to come in as tenants. But no, members liked the arrangements as they were. It was decided that Room 52 in the Railway Institute could be hired if something bigger was required.
MBW regularly had speakers on a Club night. Once Alan Marshall came. So too did famous naturalist broadcaster Crosbie Morrison. Events like this were strongly supported. Among others, Felix Harding organised theatre nights. Grand opera was especially popular. In October 1946 Club members saw the Borovansky Ballet. A regular annual event was a dance, just before Christmas, held at Jerram Hall, a Church of England girls hostel in the city (on the corner of Flinders Lane and Spring Street). These dances were well attended.
Norm Richards felt a visual identity for the Club was needed - a logo. So Daphne McPherson (nee McDougal) drew the little man with a day pack striding up a hill. Initially he had a staff, but that was felt to he inappropriate so it was left out; however the poor man is left with his arm forever raised. Initially 80 badges were made of solid silver - cash had to be produced for that. Frank Pitt, another tireless worker, remembers having to get the necessary A£90 together smartly and transport the sheet of silver from Little Collins Street, opposite the Victoria Hotel, to Little Bourke Street, where the badges were made. These and those made thereafter always remain the property of the Club, and for a small fee they were issued to people who were accepted by the Committee as members. The badges also appeared on sugar bowls and were given as wedding presents when members married. This practice continued only for a short while; the badges next appeared on sugar spoons and then only on teaspoons. These are treasured items in many homes. The tradition lives on.
In those early days people didn't travel overseas very often, so prior to a Club member's departure a small dainty plywood boot was manufactured, complete with laces and 'stitching', and was lacquered. Everyone signed it and it was given as a bon voyage present. This practice, alas, has long since gone.
The Club founders, and Norm Richards in particular, strove hard to keep the 'cream walkers' and the harder weekend walkers together, despite their different styles of walking. There was room for everybody. They saw bushwalkers as a small group in a hostile environment: the outside world did not understand the philosophy of bushwalking. It was important to be and stay together.
Percy Woodman, with his knowledge of bushcraft, of maps and map-making, was keen to take Club members on longer trips. In fact, from 1941 the MBW went further afield. Most people worked on Saturday mornings so trips commenced at 1.00 p.m., 'meeting under the clocks' at Flinders Street Station.
At first weekend walks were at Warburton, Gembrook, Woori Yallock, Powelltown, Gladysdale, Macclesfield, Cockatoo and the Brisbane Ranges. Walkers took the train to Healesville (which was a holiday place then), to Lilydale and walked to Christmas Hills, to Yering Gorge and to Kangaroo Ground.
First-time walkers made mistakes as we still do. A female member's first long Christmas trip from Buller to Cobbler and return was memorable as she had a 56-pound (22.5-kilogram) pack that was just too heavy for her. So other members of the party unpacked it and found everything was being carried in glass jars. One wit said, 'She'd have her sleeping bag in a glass jar if there were one big enough'.
Leaders emerged from among the ranks: Fay Pitt, Gordon Coutts, Norm Richards, Paul Lederer, Bill Buchanan, Ken Middleton, Ken Grant, Edna Richards, Tess Maddison, Lorraine Richey and Stuart Brookes, to name a few.
To get to more inaccessible places a van from Gronow's was hired (see 'The Van', page 119). On occasion the van had been used for day walks too as some Sunday rail services were being closed down, for example the Sunday train to Whittlesea. During the week it was a furniture van; the seats were bolted in at the sides and up the middle for the weekend. Don Smellie, a most obliging fellow, was the driver who subsequently joined the Club and was an active member for years. There was singing on the van to while away the long uncomfortable hours; musicians joined in. Frank Pitt had a wooden whistle, someone else a mouth organ and Felix his piccolo. (There was always singing around the camp fire, but not while walking. It was a stated principle of the Club that there should be no noise and no brightly coloured clothing; the wildlife must not be disturbed.)
Signing up for a walk and paying for a seat on the van was a problem then, as it is now, when people dropped out at the last minute. The Club took the van to the Baw Baws for a three-day Christmas trip in 1946; in March 1947 for another three-day trip to Phillip Island. In February 1947 the van was taken to Werribee Gorge on a day trip and by the autumn of that year was used for day trips at least once a month. Thatsummer, 1947-48, the van took a group to Kosciusko, the first of the very long trips. Edna Richards's trip to Tasmania at Christmas in 1948-49 was the first using cars as transport.
Egon, never a tough walker, did go on one weekend trip to Wilsons Promontory in 1948. The van was used. It was a night drive; they left at midnight and took six hours. Everyone had tents except Egon, who didn't really fancy camping. There were still two old wartime training huts that had been used by the Australians and Canadians. Egon was friendly with the ranger and managed to make use of a hut, a move viewed with amusement by the rest!
Sketchy inaccurate maps were always a problem and from time to time the MBW got lost. In December 1945 Norm Richards took a Club trip into the Tali Karng area, and another group was going in too; when they didn't rendezvous at a specified time and place the alarm was set off back in Melbourne. But Edna Richards (Norm's wife) said not to worry, and sure enough the group met up with the Women's Walking Club soon afterwards; the latter reassured those in Melbourne when they got back. They eventually reached the point of rendezvous where there was a cache of food that had been brought in on packhorses by Julius Sweetapple, a cattleman from Glen Cairn. The group was very hungry. Gordon Coutts remembers his 21st birthday well: a dry camp, not even enough water for his oatmeal to make porridge. Always a slight man, his mother was shocked on his return, he had lost so much more weight than is usual on a long trip.
Jock Low and Jack Morrison 'lost' their party on the Blue Rag Range - or at least they wouldn't tell their group where they were for two days. The lie of the creeks and valleys did not match up with the map. Fay Pitt remembers this, and Jack making beautiful damper. This trip was also remarkable for the lyrebirds, dozens of them, up on the ridges and not in the gullies where they are usually found.
The cattlemen were of great assistance in those early days, taking the carefully packed food in boxes; each box contained two 'kero' tins soldered up. The horse carried two boxes, one on either side, up into the mountains; thus walks could be extended. Packing for such trips, back in Melbourne, was notorious for the meticulous weighing and exact allocation of space that it entailed.
Bushwalkers became very ingenious in overcoming obstacles. On one occasion they found that the train they wished to use had been cancelled from Warragul onwards. An elderly Club member, Charlie Greenhill, was a builder and knew the timber millers in the area. So the walkers travelled by timber jinker from Warragul to Heyfield.
Sometimes the walkers seemed deliberately to bring hardship upon themselves, or was it an extra challenge? Commando weekends were organised. No one brought a pack but some wore American air-crew jackets. The capacious pockets were originally made for armour plates and now were stuffed with food.
Fay also remembers another Tali Karng trip on which Emil Slade brought his marvellous new air-bed - even though he'd forgotten his sleeping bag! It rained for three days and the group was holed up in Guys Hut, together with some cattlemen. Every now and then someone would check on the rain. No! still more rain. There was lots of conversation to pass the time. At last the sun came out. Fay remembers humming `After the Storm' from Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony as she left the hut. They went up Bryces Gorge and walked 27 kilometres on the last day out from Crooked River to Dargo.
Mighty trips around the Alps, Licola, Howitt and the Bogong High Plains were undertaken. Edna Richards remembers staying at the Wonnangatta Homestead so many times that it was almost like home. The cattlemen were using it as a base. There was much support from the cattlemen and their families and the friendships made then have lasted a lifetime. Edna and Norm still attend important events of these families.
Hotham was a `resort' even then, with the Hotham Chalet and Diamantina Hut. Rocky Valley Creek is under water now, but then it had over it a wonderful bridge made of intertwining boughs. Built by Joe Holston, a Norwegian working for the SEC, it was called the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and was a local landmark. Once Edna Richards and her friend Tess Maddison were walking in the area when the construction work had just started. There was a temporary camp of 1000 men. Edna and Tess thought they'd just drop in. The men almost had a fit, seeing two females out of the blue; nevertheless they invited them in for dinner.
Skiing was in its infancy of course. Those who could afford it put screws in their boots, made their own skis, took patterns from genuine imported bindings and away they went. However it was only partially a Club activity.
At Easter the Club often went to the Grampians. The roads and camping areas were less developed but not unlike they are today.
In October 1945 the first 'Field Weekend' took place, later to be renamed the President's Weekend. It was in Kallista; 18 people camped the night and 42 more came in next day. 'On Saturday night an enjoyable evening was spent around the camp fire, additional interest being lent by a talk by Perc Woodman on the stars.' (Summer walks programme, 1945-46)
Also at about this time the first trips to Tasmania were undertaken. In 1946 Felix Harding remembers being on one starting from Cradle Mountain - a favourite area of his. The walkers stayed in huts mostly. He remembers seeing 'the country moving towards you' that was the leeches. Being an enterprising man he caught about 200 of them, cooked them up and ate them with rice. A bit disappointing though they tasted like sausage skin. Not so a brown snake that he caught on another occasion. He coiled it up, put it between sheets of newspaper and cooked it for about ten minutes in the ashes. That tasted wonderful. On the Christmas 1948-49 trip a group of MBW found an old possum at Pelion Hut. It was called Percy and was of considerable fame; it was enormous and had great cunning. They tried to keep it out of the hut, but it got down the chimney when the fire was out and caused havoc. While climbing Cradle Mountain Felix inadvertently dislodged a rock that struck Edna on the leg. When they got to Lake St Clair she was very reluctant to have it seen to, through modesty. She also tells a tale of a woman, not from our Club, who was bitten on the bottom by a snake while relieving herself. She was far too embarrassed to say anything about it. Alas, she died. In those days, that was how it was.
The MBW supported the Federation of Walking Clubs. Norm Richards was the treasurer for two years(1946-48) and the president from 1948-52. The Club turned out in force for the Annual Federation Day Walk or Weekend Walk and also helped with track clearing.
During the war maps, such as they were, were severely restricted. But the bushwalking fraternity made the most of resources available. Among our ranks were several draughtsmen coming from Fishermen's Bend Aircraft Corporation. Stuart Brookes, Norm Richards and company took an interest in mapping and the MBW added a lot to the sum of knowledge in those early days. The Scouts had a Jamboree in 1935 and Bill Waters (not an MBW member but from the Men's Club -Melbourne Amateur Walking and Touring Club) did a lot of mapping for this. He was a very capable walker, a modest bloke with a sterling character. The Club acquired the maps and brought them up to date. In 1945 the King and Howqua Rivers were 'straightened up' using prismatic compasses. Eventually National Mapping brought out grids.
Prismatic compasses were a great help; with them everything speeded up. They were genuine war surplus; the leaders often carried them, even though they were heavy.
As the weekend walks became harder and more adventurous, a feeling developed among some members of the Club that they wanted to cast off from the 'cream hunters', the rambling day walkers. Some wanted it to become an exclusively athletic club. A motion was put forward at a monthly Club meeting to amend the constitution and make the Club mainly for weekend walkers. This motion was never carried. Too many members were happy about the blend of people; it was a very friendly club. A lot of people saw it as an asset to have overseas visitors, although as time went on the majority of members were Australians. But the rumblings went on. Then in 1948 a small group of hard weekend walkers up and left to form the Victorian Mountain Tramping Club. This was a great blow to those who were striving to keep everyone together. It didn't help that the first walks programme produced by the VMTC was exactly the same as that of the MBW. It nearly broke the President Norm Richards's heart. But within a year the Club gathered the momentum it had had before.
Two major events in 1949 were to have long-lasting effects for the MBW. One was very much planned, one was not.
The Walk magazine was one of Norm Richards's babies. He worked long and hard on it, initially coercing and cajoling members to write articles and when all else failed writing some himself. Editing was a problem too. A lot of members had perfectly good spoken English, but with the German speakers writing was another matter. Much had to be almost rewritten. But Norm was determined, and with the help of others got out this first issue, which was to start a tradition that lasted 38 years.
'With the ceasing of hostilities we hope to be able to get more films so that the camera will once more be an "essential" on walks (what! another pound and a half to carry)! We ask members to loan the negatives of any snaps of interest to the Club so that we can put a copy in our album.'
'Speaking of our Friday evening gatherings, we remind you to bring something to eat for supper, and when your ration permits, a donation of sugar. Coffee only is provided by the room rent.'
Summer and autumn walks programmes, 1946
The other event was the search on Wilsons Promontory in May for Alfred Howie. Six Club members were involved. Although many others were there too, Alfred Howie was never found. A police report praised the bushwalkers as capable searchers who also carried all the necessary equipment. From this grew the Search and Rescue section of the Federation of Walking Clubs (see: 'Search and Rescue', page 136). Fay Pitt became the first Club contact person for Search and Rescue.
Every decade produces `characters'. Perhaps the greatest from the 1940s was Emil Slade. Everything happened to Emil. If there was a stick coming out of the fire they'd warn him: 'Emil, watch that stick!' But whoops, he'd go over. During a day walk at Kangaroo Ground Emil was lying bare-chested in the sun. With a magnifying glass someone meanly set fire to his chest. Emil had been given a beautiful new white umpire's hat for a trip to Kosci. The last orders from his wife were to keep it nice. This was too much for everyone - they played frisbee with it. Charlie Carter was a tin miner and ex-drover who stayed on at the Pilot Creek tin mine huts; MBW would visit him and he would kill a sheep occasionally. On one visit Charlie had everyone in for dinner for a `leg of sheep'. Emil stayed quiet about this for a long time but eventually the worry got too much. If they'd eaten a leg off the sheep what had happened to the rest of it? On another trip it had rained a lot; when it stopped the group had to cross Whites River. Who was sent first to test it out? You guessed it - Emil. During a weekend walk to Werribee Gorge a group of MBW came across masses and masses of enormous mushrooms. Everyone was very wary but Emil knew about the European varieties and said they were edible. So he ate them and everyone stood around to see if he would drop dead. He lasted until July 1991 and is sadly missed.
The end period of the 1940s was known as the Era of the Long Hard Walks. Weekend and extended walks were in full swing. Long distances were covered and the walkers were young and tough. With only rudimentary maps available, there was great enthusiasm and a spirit of adventure going into the unknown. The `unknown', of course, had limited access and perhaps the remoteness of walking areas meant that bushwalkers came closer to nature. They'd come a long way in ten years from European-style rambles in the bush. They lived harder in those days and the extra adversity was accepted as par for the course. Equipment was much more primitive, food and clothing always cut to the minimum on these long trips. And despite the Split, the Club still incorporated the more light-hearted day walks with the sterner stuff. The Club had firm foundations and strong bonds of friendship to carry it safely into the 1950s.
With thanks to: Egon Donath, Norm Richards, Edna Richards, Fay Pitt, Frank Pitt, Gordon Coutts, Felix Harding, Marjorie Elmore.