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The Melbourne Bushies

- Fifty years along the track (1940-90)

Chapter 2 - A Fifties Walker

Athol Schafer

To mark the occasion of the second decade of the Melbourne Bushwalkers, on 30 April 1950, Egon Donath took about 50 members on a re-enactment of the first programmed walk that he himself had led in 1940: Ferntree Gully Station - Mt Morton - Belgrave. Further celebration, in May of that year, was a dance at Jerram Hall; Social Secretary Marie Gillespie decorated a birthday cake baked by Edna Richards for the occasion. It was two-tiered and iced pale-green. Marie was also involved in Federation social events.

Birthday cake for the Melbourne Bushwalkers' 10th anniversary, April 1950.
Birthday cake for the Melbourne Bushwalkers' 10th anniversary,
April 1950. Baked by Edna Richards, decorated by Marie Gillespie
and cut and eaten on a Club day walk to Mt Morton.
Norm Richards collection

I first walked with the Melbourne Bushwalkers in August 1952. The trip was typical of that era. About a dozen of us caught a train to Lilydale from Flinders Street Station on Saturday midday (a lot of people still worked on Saturday mornings and banks and post offices were open). That Saturday afternoon we tramped across wet, misty paddocks to the Yarra where it flows through the Yering Gorge. We searched the bush for sticks that could be used as tent poles - no one carried the collapsible metal rods that are used today - and erected our small japara tents.

The main topic of conversation around the camp fire that night was on 'The Split' (see page 12). There was much appraisal of the respective merits of the two clubs. The Trampers had gained the reputation of being somewhat 'tough' while the MBW were known to be more easy-going or even a bit lax. The critics seemed to have good inside knowledge and it soon appeared obvious that they had dual membership or were frequent visitors to both Clubs. Time, it seemed, had already soothed the wounds. Years later, when the Trampers were going through a low phase in their fortunes, the MBW gave them room on Gronow's van to share when travelling to their respective walks.

Crossing a watercourse, Werribee Gorge, April 1951.
Crossing a watercourse,Werribee Gorge, April 1951.
Horst Eisfelder collection

On the Sunday we walked for miles through undulating wattle country, passing old mine shafts and tailings grounds until finally reaching the township of Eltham, where we met up with other Club members on a day walk. Eltham, Diamond Creek, Hurst-bridge, Kangaroo Ground and surrounding areas were very attractive to walkers, not only because of the relics from mining days but also for the mosaic of small farms and orchards cut into the bushland and overlying the surrounding hills. When the fruit trees were in full bloom you should have heard the 'oohs' and 'ahs' of visitors from staider suburbs who encountered for the first time this picturesque scene so unexpectedly close to home. It was a landscape that had attracted painter and artisan for many years (although Montsalvat, the artists' colony, had been standing for less than 20 years). Some of our walks led through or past the arts and crafts areas of Montsalvat - with its wattle-and-daub, pise and mud-brick constructions and pottery kilns - just before Eltham was destined to become fashionable.

My introduction to Gronow's van was on a November walk from Britannia Creek to the Big Pats Creek Road on the far side of Warburton. Gronow's van had its rear covered (but only when necessary, if raining or dusty) with a tarpaulin drop. After leaving a bitumen-surfaced road the van would stop, and the tarp would be lowered. Everyone inside the van would don their cape groundsheet and pull the hood well over their heads, so as to minimise the dust that still came swirling in past the tarp. When the van returned to the bitumen, or the party disembarked, there would be much slapping and shaking out of dust-encrusted gear.

Federation Weekend, circa 1950.
Federation Weekend, circa 1950.
Horst Eisfelder collection

The trip to Big Pats Creek was very popular. There was a whole van load of us - maybe as many as 30 or more, which was a good quarter of the total membership of the Club. The early summer's weather was sultry, bringing out the snakes, and on the Sunday, after climbing over Mt Bride, a violent and sudden thunderstorm scattered the party amid the head-high bracken. Everyone made their own way, or in little groups, down to the road and the waiting van. I, being relatively new to bush-walking and to the area, found myself alone until rescued by Lloyd Reynolds, a member of some years standing.

As the van sped homewards the thoroughly soaked party broke into the ballad 'The Foggy Dew' and then other popular songs of the day. Looking back, it seemed everyone could sing much better then and remember the words of many stanzas of songs with ease. Camp fire singsongs often lasted up to midnight and if you wanted an early night it was best to camp well beyond the firelight's ring and out of earshot of the singers.

In the early days of the Club train trips were mainly confined to the electric-suburban network due to post-war coal shortages and industrial unrest. In the early fifties country-excursion trains were reintroduced and with them came cheap Sunday fares. This led to a lot of new walks, and day walks were no longer confined to outer suburban areas such as Diamond Creek or Ferntree Gully. Club walks began as far afield as Bungaree, Gisborne or Beaconsfield. Excursion trains departed early and returned late, so up to 10 hours of walking were available throughout the day; walks were often therefore very long - 16 miles or so (25 kilometres). Long-distance pack carrying was more common than today. Most people received not more than two weeks' annual holiday and a dedicated walker would spend nearly all that time on the track.

Programmed Christmas walks were usually of eight days duration made up of two days of travelling, five days of walking, plus one rest day when smalls and socks were washed. These walks usually commenced on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day morning (very few started on Christmas Day) with a train ride to the railhead then a taxi ride to the 'jumping-off place' (a walkers' term harking back to before the 1920s).

A typical eight-day walk in which I took part over the Christmas period 1954-55 was led by Fay Pitt. The train took us to Mansfield then a hire car drove us up to the Mt Buller village. We walked over Mts Buller, Cobbler, Speculation and Howitt, then crossed the Snowy Plains and by the Wellington River to Licola for a last camp. The final day was a taxi ride to the Heyfield Railway Station.

My first big walk was Warren 0lle's 1952-53 trip to the Brindabella Range of the ACT. Transport was by private cars. We rattled up the Hume Highway, then mostly unmade and horribly corrugated. One car broke down at Yass and had to be towed the rest of the way to Canberra where it was left, its occupants making their way home by either train or air after the trip.

In the fifties there was little or no interest shown by walkers for the northwest of the State, but the Grampians Easter camp and the long weekends in the Otways were always popular with Gronow's van usually pressed into service. Leaders of weekend or longer walks during the early fifties included Peter Salmon, Ron Abbott, Peter Becker, Lorraine Richey, Bill Horton and Heather Stevens. At the end of the decade some of the popular leaders were Lorton Fox, Peter Ingram and Lothar Kottek. Members who led right through the decade included Frank Pitt, Fred Halls, Felix Harding and Heinz Wolff.

Country railway station waiting-rooms seemed to encourage impromptu square- dancing. It would keep the crowd warm until the train arrived. Bush dances were known as barn dances and the Club usually held one every year in one or another country hall, music provided by portable gramophone or Frank Pitt's concertina. One year a barn dance was held in an abandoned billiard saloon deep in the Macclesfield scrub. The building had been put up by a couple of billiard enthusiasts, but had since deteriorated after the owners evidently lost their initial zeal.

For many years the Club met on Friday nights: only a few trips began on the Friday evening as many people worked on Saturday mornings. Committee meetings up to 1956 had been held in a corner of the VRI Club room, with the hubbub of a roomful of bushwalkers filling the air. A more peaceful environment for the Committee was found first at Jerram Hall from 1957 to 1960 and then afterwards at the VRI on nights other than Club room evenings. Air-conditioning was less common in city buildings then, so at Jerram Hall on stifling warm summer nights the meeting would adjourn to continue open air on the Treasury lawns opposite.

Back in those days an Annual General Meeting would often attract well over a hundred members, all crowding into Room 110. Such a meeting would sometimes continue up to midnight when something contentious was debated; then there would be a rush to catch the last train or tram home.

In the early fifties there was a general meeting every month and policies and issues were often hotly debated. In August 1953 a number of newer members, who were growing tired of the frequent business

Melbourne Bushwalkers' Committee, 1950-51.
Melbourne Bushwalkers' Committee, 1950-51.
Left to right: Standing, G. Schwerin, W. 0lle, L. Richey, F. Soutter, M. Dark, W. Horton, M. Gillespie (Social Secretary), G. Coutts (Walks Secretary);
Front, Frank Pitt (Secretary), E. Donath (Vice-President), N. Richards (President), Fay Pitt (Vice-President), E. Slade (Treasurer).
Norm Richards collection

meetings, voted that they be conducted on a quarterly basis instead. The News records that the 1957 AGM was one of the liveliest meetings ever, when motions put by Frank Pitt were defeated. This was about enforcing an original rule that everyone had to complete three day walks or one weekender in order to retain membership, and a list be kept of the number of walks each member completed.

The 1958 AGM also had much 'animated discussion' over a motion (lost) to purchase the bathing box. The meeting went on for so long that the important item of fixing the membership fees had to be adjourned to a later date.

Every month the Club would offer a lecture covering some aspect or technique relating to bushwalking, or members would give accounts of walks they had completed. Among the guest speakers was Norm Wakefield, the naturalist and Age columnist. It was his vision and inspiration that led to the present great Parks in East Gippsland, centred mainly on the Snowy Gorge country. These include Little River Gorge, Tulach Ard Gorge, Boundary Creek Gorge, Stradbroke Chasm, Reedy Creek Chasm and Mt Tingaringy. Other speakers included D. Butcher of the Fisheries and Wildlife Department; Bill Wannon, author and folklorist; Ian Turner, the historian; and one night the legendary Paddy Pallin showed colour slides of bushwalking attractions around Sydney.

But it was the naturalists who aroused our interest in places hitherto unvisited - Hattah, Kulkyne, Little Desert, East Gippsland - these areas appearing for the first time on walk programmes of the 1960s.

Reference maps were contained in one expanding file (not the plethora of those of today). About half of these were home-made; not many official maps were suitable for use when walking. Since its inception the Club had made quite a number of its own maps. Sometimes leaders had to make do with the ex-Army 4-miles-to-the-inch transport maps. The larger-scale 1-mile-to-the-inch Army maps were often years out of date, a notorious example being the Ringwood map that took in the Dandenongs and foothills: its information was correct up to 1914 - important features such as the Silvan and Lysterfield reservoirs were not marked. Yet for many years it was still the best available map for the area. Perhaps a virtue of using a small-scale map was that the experience was like embarking on an adventurous exploration. In such situations the best navigational aid was to have with you someone who had been there before, retaining correctly a true mental knowledge of the terrain. Before joining the Club, I and another inexperienced walker tried a crossing of the high country using a 4-miles-to-the-inch map. We went safely up the Howqua but at Mt Howitt prudently turned back - those 300-foot contour intervals hid many a hill and vale. It was on the way back that we met some other walkers who said that the best walking club, on account of its map making, was the Melbourne Bushwalkers. I took their advice.

Commercially produced tourist maps were often simply reprints of pre-war editions, and the tracks shown on them could, on the ground, be hopelessly overgrown. I went on a Club walk in 1953 from Tidal River to Sealers Cove. It was a battle trying to deduce the whereabouts of the track as we pushed through the undergrowth. This now much-used track remained uncleared well into the decade. Some of the old tourist tracks in the Dandenongs also remained overgrown and uncleared for many years.

If some walking tracks were overgrown and hard to follow, access roads could be pretty rough, gravel roads being the norm. A trip up the Hume Highway to Albury and beyond was a bone-rattling ordeal over miles of corrugated road surface.

Up in the high country there was not the present rush of logging and tourist access roads of today. Trail bikes were unknown and 4WD vehicles few and far between. Bushwalkers of the fifties walked in an environment that gave a sense of remoteness and wilderness no longer possible today.


Val Elder

There was movement in the Club room, for the word had passed around:
'There's a book on bushie exploits to be tried,
With 50 years to chronicle, experiences must abound'.
So a call went out for writers far and wide.
And I was one who heard that call - how tell those seven years
When bushwalking was my true weekend delight?
Though thirty years ago it was, that time spent with my peers
Is still as vivid now as when in sight.

I had joined the Club in Feb'ry (and was Secretary henceforth!)
And by Christmas I was rarin' to be gone
On a ten-day trip from Kosci on its plateau to the north -
A somewhat daunting thought to a greenhorn.
We had our share of sunburn and became a little raw,
The March fly season too! That was of note!
No map for Leader Norm, not a worry, he'd been before.
Once long ago I summed and now will quote:

'Then we looked on Snowy River, down by Kosciusko's side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
We looked across at Townsend could be reached by giant stride,
And close by many other peaks and bluffs.
To the southwest were the mountains of our own familiar state,
The Cobblers, Bogong, Buffalo and The Plains,
And on the north horizon, there outlined against the sky,
Was the lonely Mt Jagungal, now our aim.' *

The Kosci trip had hooked me 'twas such a dazzy bobbler,**
'Cos next Christmas saw me coming up for more,
As leader for ten days from Wongungarra to Mt Cobbler,
With a climb (up Wombat Spur) to start - for sure.
Then an amble down the Wonnangatta and swims in water warm,
A long climb to Mt Howitt (with water cold!)
A sunrise from the Crosscut Saw (and breaking camp before the dawn),
And a fun-filled New Year's Eve by Cobbler old.

Winter '61 had been so dry - did camp site water flow?
Should it be Christmas in the mountains for this time? Scarce water at Mt
Shillinglaw, Mt Skene and Saddle Low,
Mt Macdonald, too, was such a long dry climb.
New Year's Eve among The Nobs was really rather queer
As we toasted using moss juice so hard gained.
We were worried, dehydrated, as we headed for Mt Clear,
Joy, a good supply of water still remained.

Not daunted by that awful dry - or was it just wrong head?
I joined Safari Bill for the 'Barries dry'
To have the coldest, wettest Easter for many years 'twas said,
The constant mist was enough to make one cry.
The party split, we bivouacked, conditions were quite bad
When Sam collapsed, he could no longer slog,
His pack was shared, his legs had locked, a forlorn sight so sad
With his 'bird seed' clutched tight, hobbling through the fog.

There was business in the Club room, much the same as is today
Is the in-come less than out-go? What to do?
Then we talked of Wilky's purchase, how to care and how to pay,
And what of Walk, should it come out anew?
What about the eager beavers, who gallop on so fast?
That's now been solved by offering several grades.
What tracks to clear, where logging now, who led the Fed. walk last?
'Go skiing ?!! That's not walking!' so we sayed.

Now the memories come flooding in - in Walk we did record `m:
From Stirling, Buller's bulk by Easter moon;
Ten hours for four miles following Whitelaws Creek near Jordan;
Mysterious Tali Karng; thick frost in June.
Why did we do these crazy things? For me I can't divide
My love for distant mountains, the distant view
From the friends who shared this love, who shared the tracks, walked by my side,
And helped me find the answer - forty-two! ***

(Acknowledgements and apologies to Banjo Paterson)

* Walk 1960 .
** You won't find this expression anywhere, but it does rhyme with 'cobbler'!
*** Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. The great question of Life, the Universe and Everything was given to the supercomputer (Deep Thought) to solve. It came up with the answer - forty-two.