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The Melbourne Bushies

- Fifty years along the track (1940-90)

Chapter 6 - Wilkinson Lodge

Doug Pocock

The State Electricity Commission built Wilkinson Lodge in the summer of 1932-33 to house staff on the Bogong High Plains who would carry out research for the proposed Kiewa Scheme. The first resident engineer, Mr O. T. Olsen, with his wife and son, took up residence in April 1933. SEC staff occupied the hut until early 1947.

In 1948 the Ski Club of Victoria (SCV) bought, for £1 from the SEC, 'Trimbles Cottage', as it was then known. They renamed it Wilkinson Lodge after an early skier and SCV president. It was only used for a couple of years when interest in staying at the lodge waned, largely due to the establishment of Falls Creek ski village. During the fifties the lodge was used sparingly and gradually fell into disrepair. Groups reported that only two rooms were habitable.

In 1957 Jack Coffey had heard that the SCV was no longer interested in maintaining the lodge and that the SEC would demolish it if no maintenance were carried out. A group of three MBW members Jack Coffey, John Fitzgibbon and Gwynnyth Taylor visited the lodge in Easter 1957 and saw its potential as a base for walking, especially for family groups. (Gwynnyth had first visited Wilky in 1936 while staying at Cope Hut on a skiing trip.) Despite the lodge's poor condition, a suggestion was made that MBW acquire Wilky. The Club eventually leased the lodge from the SCV for a year, with first option to buy. The lease period was intended to give members an opportunity to use Wilky on a 'try before you buy' basis. Meanwhile a questionnaire was circulated to members to determine their views.

While many liked the idea of owning Wilkinson Lodge, its distance from Melbourne seemed a great disadvantage in the late fifties. Those members who owned cars generally had small, slow models such as the Morris Minor, Standard Cadet or Hillman Minx. Drivers using the Hume Highway had to contend with Pretty Sally Hill a very slow section. The present Melba Highway did not exist so the options from the eastern suburbs were either the Maroondah Highway over the Black Spur or the very rough Mount Slide Road. Having reached Wangaratta, the choices were Bright and the Tawonga Gap (notoriously rough) or the Yackandandah route, as the Dederang Gap Road was not as yet constructed. At Mount Beauty it was necessary to report to the SEC before beginning the slow, rough trip up to Falls Creek. There was a barrier at Langfords Gap and often people would have to walk from there. It could easily take over eight hours to reach Wilky from Melbourne.

The Club decided not to buy Wilky, but a group of thirty or so members came together independently, bought Wilky for £50 and then donated it to the MBW, still leaving some money in kitty for repairs. The sale was ratified on 10 September 1961.

Wilky was weatherboard clad and caneite lined, with a malthoid (tarred felt) roof. The living room had an open fireplace and a partitioned bunkroom. Opening from the living room was another bunkroom, now the storeroom. This was dank and mouldy, with an earthen floor. The bathroom had a bath and toilet, the toilet flushing into a wood-lined septic tank. The kitchen was divided into two rooms, one being a pantry. The stove, measuring 56cm by 40cm and in poor repair, was in a small alcove. A water pipe from the spring above Wilky, which fed into a header tank in the attic, was not working well. There had been a hot-water service in the fireplace, but this had burst or rusted.

Many of the first parties to make trips to Wilky during the lease period were for cleaning the lodge. Gwynnyth Taylor recalls shovelling sodden mouldy caneite out of the entrance hall and cleaning up piles of tins and bottles from the bushes around the lodge, where they had been dumped by winter occupants. There are many references in the log book to rat damage and dirt around this time. The first 'official work party' in March 1959 made repairs to the roof, investigated the water supply and septic tank, and began painting. The roof still had some leaks. In December 1960 Alan Bennett went up to the area in the hope of obtaining roofing iron from the Rocky Valley camp, then being demolished. Unfortunately the iron had already been taken down to Mt Beauty. Alan finally tracked down the supply and was able to buy some at 7s 0d per sheet. During the next (Christmas) work party, Alan made two return trips to Mt Beauty, bringing back the roofing iron, which was then fixed to the roof. The iron proved to be in 2-foot widths instead of the usual 2 foot 6 inches, so the party was short of 13 sheets. These were obtained for the Foundation Day (Australia Day) weekend work party of 1961 and the roof was finished. During this work party the local P.O. delivered a letter to one of the members of the work party - civilisation on the High Plains!

Bob Steel with chairs scavenged from old SEC work sites near Basalt Hill, circa 1965.
Bob Steel with chairs scavenged from old SEC work sites near Basalt Hill, circa 1965.
Bob Steel collection

During 1961 and 1962 Gerry Harant spent a great deal of time repairing the plumbing system. The feeder pipe was dug up and the blockage was cleared. The toilet could then be connected, which was done with due ceremony. The pipe for the spring was blocked with a cork to allow drainage of the system. Later a tap was put in the line to allow the water to drain from the lodge.

As the stove was in poor repair an advertisement for another one was placed in the Herald and Weekly Times. A lady in Kensington who was renovating her house replied. She had a model identical to the Wilky stove, so this was purchased and installed. The top of the stove was only 56cm by 40cm (less the area of the flue) and the fire box was quite small; however it proved quite adequate for large parties, with a bit of juggling of saucepans.

In 1963 the first MBW ski party used the lodge. The group of 11 was organised by Stan Mizon and also contained members from other clubs. The green-painted bath was rather battered and worn because, when originally brought in, it could not be packed on a horse, so was dragged up from Hotham. During the week John Bach, Stan Mizon and Barry Short installed a bath heater much to the delight of the group.

In November 1963 John Bach and Bill Hordern began a heavy programme of renovations. They removed the pantry wall in the kitchen, thus making one room. They then removed the bunkroom wall in the lounge, which very effectively extended the size of that room. The bath and toilet were taken out of the bathroom and concrete floors poured in the bathroom and the boiler room (now the storeroom). In place of the previous bathroom, a separate shower and toilet were built. John Bach had obtained a kerosene-operated hot-water service, which was installed in the boiler room. A radiator was also installed there to provide a drying room. A hand basin was fitted in the entrance hall. This programme continued over summer and included painting the lodge. Debate took place over the colour scheme - whether to go for inconspicuous privacy or brightness and safety. Safety won the day and Wilky thus gained a silver roof and orange walls, with green and white trim. I specially prepared the orange in the laboratories of BALM paints (now Dulux) to withstand the harsh conditions. The work parties threw out the old camp stretchers and blankets inherited from the SCV.

The start of 1965 saw a party gathering at Wilkinson preparing for a trip over Bogong, but this never eventuated as it became evident that the septic tank had to be repaired. In the course of their exploratory digging, Darrell Sullivan and Ken Sharpe discovered that the pit was wood-lined and the lid rotting. They repaired the lid, cleared the blocked outlet, and the tank gave good service for more years. This summer brought much road-building activity on the High Plains, as the road to Shannonvale was put through. The trees knocked down in the process provided firewood for many years.

Wilky, circa 1964.
Wilky, circa 1964.
Fred Halls collection

One weekend in May 1965 a group at Wilky to gather wood experienced snowfalls. In cases such as this, when the weather turned bad on the High Plains, it was necessary to move cars to Langfords Gap because the Country Roads Board (CRB) would close the barrier at that point. On this occasion one of the group experienced mild frostbite to his knees while walking out.

In 1966 the lodge was also used by groups from the Melbourne Herbarium, under the guidance of Rex Filson.

The hot-water service was somewhat temperamental and an overhaul was carried out in 1966. At the same time a new pipe was laid to the spring. As the stove was rather small for large parties and the hot-water service rather erratic, it was decided to buy a new stove. A second-hand slow-combustion stove with hot-water jacket was bought at the end of 1968. The old stove and chimney were pulled out and the new stove was manhandled from the trailer into the kitchen. A base for a new stove alcove was prepared using rocks and concrete, the sand for the concrete being shovelled from the aqueduct. It took several work parties over summer 1968-69 to build the alcove, get the stove into place, build the chimney, install the hot-water tank and completely re-plumb the lodge. On 15 February 1969 the new stove was lit and, with showers all round, declared a success. The open fireplace was made much larger and a concrete hearth was installed. The window in the gable end above the stove alcove was fitted with a lock at this time, to enable access in heavy snow conditions.

Construction of the kitchen extension, February 1969.
Construction of the kitchen extension, February 1969.
Tim Dent collection

A Warmray heater was obtained by John Brownlie and installed in the lounge room in the middle of the north wall, to allow the open fire to be used as well. It was found to take up too much space in this position, so was removed and installed in the open fireplace - a good fuel-conserving measure. Late in 1969 Peter Carlyon fitted the bench seat along the north wall.

Work parties in 1970 reworked the hot-water service plumbing - an ongoing saga. Many groups commented on having troubles with the plumbing, others were not bothered. As cattle had been making a mess in the spring, the SEC was approached by the Club, and given permission for a fence to be erected around our lease area. During Easter, under Merv Scott's direction, a fence was built around Wilky and the spring, and fitted with a sliprail gate. In later years it was found that horse-riding parties were using this as a convenient yard while camping at Wallaces Hut, so a locking chain was included with the sliprails.

Slowly Wilky became more popular. It was used by three winter parties in 1970 and Christmas to New Year 1970-71 saw the start of the Mascas family's regular Christmas visits, with 110 visitor nights recorded from 25 December to 10 January in that period. In 1970, up to 13 December, there had been 93 different visitors staying at Wilky.

Painting had been one of the time-consuming chores of Wilky and, as the external orange paint began to flake, it was decided to clad Wilky with colour-bond steel cladding. To raise money for this, vouchers for using Wilky were sold to members. Work began on cladding with the fawn-coloured sheeting on Australia Day weekend 1971; Peter Carlyon, Rod Mattingley and Geoff Kenafacke slaved over the job. The entrance alcove and boiler room were left in corrugated iron and painted a matching colour. The boiler room, long having lost the hot-water service, finally became a locker room when mouse-proof lockers were built in February 1972. This had a great tidying effect, clearing the lodge of various trunks and crates that previously had been used for storing winter food. Shutters were made to prevent window breakage from snow build-up.

The SEC removed the pipes from the aqueduct in 1972, thus preventing vehicles from gaining access to the aqueduct track from the Wilky road and, of course, vice versa. The Club, on the SEC's directive, had earlier erected a barrier on the lower track - it was either that or a properly constructed track to he built at MBW's expense. The Club was still allowed to use the lower track, if necessary, for work parties. Members still usually brought their own cars down the main road, as the Club had a key to the harrier; however, the road was in very bad condition. The CRB barrier had been removed from Langfords in the late sixties, so if weather turned bad, members only had to worry about getting their cars out to the main Omeo Road.

During John Chennell's time as Lodge Manager (1962), a small pressure-pack gas stove was bought for the lodge. It was quickly realised that this was fairly useless, so a primus gas stove and cylinder were bought. In December 1974 the present gas stove was installed with its larger cylinders.

Painting and cleaning inside were ongoing jobs at Wilky. During Anzac weekend, 1975, tiles were laid in the lounge and kitchen, which helped to keep the floors cleaner. Stove cleaning and adjusting the flue were common tasks. Water problems occasionally occurred, caused by burst and blocked pipes or dam leakages.

Despite the Club ruling that no dogs should be taken to Wilky, they were still being brought in during 1976 and 1977. Winter usage was slowly increasing, with five parties in 1976 and six in 1977.

During Australia Day, 1977 a new fibreglass septic tank was installed that, it was hoped, would eliminate problems with flushing the toilet. A large supply of wood was also collected alpine ash from SEC clearing near Falls Creek, which was much easier to cut and split than snow gum.

Early heavy snow falls in May 1977 caused chaos for a party putting in winter food. They decided not to leave the cars at the barrier on Friday night; it then snowed heavily and much of Saturday was spent by Rod Mattingley towing cars up to the barrier with his Land Cruiser. More snow prevented them from going further. The group eventually walked out to Falls Creek on Monday, as even Rod's Land Cruiser couldn't get through the drifts. Most of the party went home to Melbourne leaving the drivers behind, hoping to organise a snow plough. This did not eventuate, so the drivers also returned to Melbourne. The police next informed them that the road had been cleared up to the parked cars so the drivers were able to return on Thursday morning to pick up their vehicles.

Wilky in winter, 1976.
Wilky in winter, 1976.
Bill Metzenthen collection

In April 1978 Ken MacMahon and party built a woodshed to reduce the amount of wood stored inside Wilky. Winter parties were required to supplement the wood with briquettes. That winter Wilky was heavily used: there were seven week groups and three four-day groups. The stove Mark III, installed in 1969, had finally given up so the Club proudly purchased Wilky stove Mark IV, a brand-new shiny Everhot. This was installed over Australia Day weekend, 1979. The Pococks arrived on Thursday, dismantled the old stove and removed the back of the alcove. Jim Marsden brought up the new stove in his trailer. This was duly man-handled into the kitchen and the old stove back-loaded onto the trailer. With Rex Filson in charge, the stove was installed on the Saturday, in time for a ceremonial lighting and hot showers all round.

The winter party of 29 August to 5 September 1981 was invited by the Rover Scouts, our neighbours, to a 'Pot White' snooker tournament. A snow stadium had been built with a snow snooker table and throne for the warden, Mick Scarff, to celebrate his visit. The area was under lights for the contest and trays of biscuits were delivered to the stadium down icy chutes. Drinks were delivered similarly and served by waiters in dinner suits. Jan Llewelyn and Brian Troke represented MBW but the contest was easily won by the Rovers, who had been practising on the far-from-even surface all day. The evening finished with a singsong.

In 1983 Ken and Joan MacMahon organised the first of the National Park work parties. Australia Day weekend was spent removing all the old fences from around Wallaces Hut and doing maintenance work on Ropers Lookout track. The following year MBW dug a pit for the toilet at Wallaces Hut.

For some time some members had been concerned about the unwelcoming appearance of the fence around the lodge and, in 1984, it was removed to be rebuilt around the water supply. The upper track to Wilky was becoming badly eroded, so measures were taken to prevent further deterioration. In the March long weekend that year the sewer pipe to the septic tank was replaced. Painting was done, as usual, and a battery-operated lamp was installed in the toilet. As wood-gathering had often been a case of 'so much owed by so many to so few', it was decided to buy a load of cut wood for Wilky. This was delivered and barrowed into the woodshed with much less effort than the previous gathering parties had taken. In 1985 the wood delivered was too long for the stove but, luckily, a chainsaw had been brought up, so enough wood was cut to length for the stove.

In late 1985 a National Park ranger rang the Lodge Manager to inform him that the lodge had been broken into. While tools and equipment had been stolen, including the barrow to wheel these away, not much damage had been done except to the inner door latch which was replaced. November 15-17 was a Halleys-comet-watching weekend - no doubt members are looking forward to the next one!

A National Park work party on Australia Day 1986 was somewhat abortive, as the ranger could not organise any work for the Club, apart from collecting some wood for Cope and Wallaces huts - a rather frustrating activity as members felt that this could only result in larger fires at those huts. The group also barrowed in a load of cut wood for Wilky and repaired the kitchen floor. Late that year a mouldy smell around the lodge was investigated and it was discovered that the sink and hand-basin pipes had rusted through, so these were replaced with PVC pipes.

Over the years there have been many visitors to Wilky. In 1978 Pauline Wilkinson, 'Wilky's' grand-daughter, called in. In 1980 Colin Wright, who brought in the Wilky building materials in 1932, visited and in 1987 Lasse Olsen and his wife, Hilda, visited - Lasse was the son of the first resident engineer at Wilky and lived there for two years, 1933-34.

The lounge-room chimney had been developing a leak over the years that finally became known as 'Mattingley's Waterfall'. In 1987 this was repaired by forming a new concrete shoulder on the chimney.

The battle against rats had been raging for years, despite efforts to make the lodge rat-proof. Setting traps was accepted as a matter of course (some people even left traps set on their departure so that the next party was likely to discover a pool of evil-smelling jelly). Some members began to query the nature of the rats and David Hespe, using Elliott traps, showed that these were either antichinus or native rats, so the rat-traps were disposed of and members took more care not to leave food scraps to attract the animals.

With the declaration of the National Park the Club's position in regard to Wilky changed. Instead of dealing with the requirements of the SEC, it became necessary to deal with those of the National Park. The Alpine Planning Project required that an emergency shelter be provided, so Mick Mann arranged an on-site meeting with rangers and planners to discuss this. Hugh Duncan drew up a plan to extend Wilky and thus incorporate a shelter, but this was rejected. Ultimately the National Park Service agreed to our building a new woodshed, with the entrance hall storage area becoming the emergency shelter. Once again Ken MacMahon took the matter in hand and prefabricated a treated-pine woodshed, which was taken up and erected in January 1990.

The Warmray heater, having given many years good service, was finally pensioned off and a new Maxiheat installed in 1988.

During the work party of Australia Day 1989 Bob Steel and Rob Ayre visited the Rover Lodge to find that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had inspected both the Rover and Wilky septic systems. The Rovers were required to carry out extensive modifications to their septic system. In March the Club organised that the septic tank be pumped out as a temporary solution and a new enlarged system be built after the ski season. However, just before the first parties were due to go in, the Club received an EPA directive requiring the connection of a pipe to our septic outflow taking all waste to a point below the aqueduct, to flow down to Middle Creek. Apparently we were being blamed for the bad water pollution at Falls Creek. The EPA solution was patently ludicrous on many points so, after many fruitless discussions with the EPA, the Ombudsman was approached. Eventually the EPA allowed the Club to continue using Wilky during that winter on condition that the septic system was not used and a chemical toilet was installed. The Porta Potty was brought in by a sled towed alternately by Trevor Brooks and Barbara Day, an heroic effort as the top-heavy sled overturned every few hundred metres in the soft snow. It seemed a little odd to members that we were required to empty the chemical toilet into a pit dug near Wilky.

During this winter one week was officially allotted to the Maroondah Bushwalkers.

After a false start due to had weather, eventually in February 1990 all conditions were right for the new septic tank to be installed. The huge 3-tonne tank was brought down on a trailer and a tip-truck dropped 6 cubic metres of screenings for backfilling. A back-hoe was used to dig the hole, and the dispersal lines dug after the new tank had been lowered in. All the spoil was put on plastic sheeting to protect the vegetation. The contents of the old tank were pumped into the new tank, then the old tank was smashed and backfilled. The dispersal lines were backfilled with screenings, then the soil was put back and the site made good. Covering the shrubs with plastic meant that the site was clean and damage minimal, which impressed the National Park staff. A heavy down-pour made the final shovelling of backfill a very heavy and cold task.

Two weeks later Sue Forrester and her mother, Gwynnyth Taylor, on her first visit for 20 years, planted some 67 plants that I had propagated from material gathered at Wilky especially for revegetation.

Finally in March 1990 Jill and Graham Breen, Dave Hespe and Rod Mattingley built the emergency shelter required by the National Park plan.

During Easter 1990 Martin Pocock explored the area and noted that Joe Holston's hut, below the aqueduct, and the Wilky tennis court were still easy to find, but that Martin Romuld's ski jump on the hill above the lodge had all but disappeared. (Joe and Martin were SEC employees living on the High Plains until 1941 and 1942, respectively, Martin Romuld at Wilky.)

In winter 1990, two of the eleven parties using the lodge were outside groups, Maroondah Bushwalkers and VMTC; each had a week. A member of the VMTC group suffered a bad injury when she fell off the aqueduct bridge on the way in, gashing her eye. A Search and Rescue skidoo was called and she was taken to hospital for stitches. Winter groups in 1991 included the Bayside Bushwalkers; three outside groups used Wilky that year.

Graeme Thornton, as Lodge Manager, introduced a new winter rubbish scheme that required all groups to remove their own rubbish. This meant that the first people in after winter did not have to remove bags of rubbish accumulated over winter. He also decided that briquettes were not to be used, as the disposal of ash was a problem; the only fuel should be wood. With a new large woodshed this policy did not present any problem. Wood ash was collected in drums and disposed of away from the National Park.

In 1991 Wilky was painted an environmentally-friendly shade of green at the National Parks Service's suggestion. The roof had been looking somewhat the worse for wear for some time and, on Australia Day 1992, a work party screwed it down and painted it in the new green colour scheme. Labor Day long weekend was allotted to a National Park work party and track maintenance was carried out on some eroded sections of the snow-pole line between Cope Hut and Wallaces Hut.

The Rover Scouts and MBW have maintained close contact for many years. MBW has had to use the Rover radio phone to summon assistance on occasions such as that when Stan Attwood broke his hip. The Rovers were invaluable, using their Akja sledge with great skill to bring Stan safely over the patchy snow back to Wilky to await the Search and Rescue skidoo. Many groups have been invited around to the Rover Lodge for dinner, a social evening with a night-time ski home. The Rovers have checked on the security of Wilky on occasions and there has been liaison between the groups on our status in the area, plus at least one romance.

In the years that MBW has owned Wilky, many hours of work have gone into its maintenance and restoration. Club members have willingly given their time to work on the lodge, or to negotiate behind the scenes with various bodies, such as the National Parks Service and EPA. It has not been possible to name everybody who has worked on Wilky, but the Club is indebted to them all. The lodge is well used by the Club, both summer and winter, including the family groups originally envisaged and even some honeymooners. Above all, the Club is indebted to those members who had the foresight to purchase Wilky 30 years ago.

Members who donated Wilkinson Lodge to the Club

Alan Bennett, Joy Bennett, Fred Bravington, John Brownlie, Jack Coffey, Helen Downing, Bruce Draper, Betna Dryden, Lorton Fox, Val Goldsmith (now Elder), Helen Gordon, Fred Halls, Jim Hester, Bill Hordern, Rose Kinson, Noel Maggs, Margaret Manley, Graham McKinney, Barbara Muir, Bruce Muir, Isobel Muir, Warren Olle, Ian Phillips, Frank Pitt, Athol Schafer, Emil Slade, Gwynnyth Taylor, Bill Thompson