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The Melbourne Bushies

- Fifty years along the track (1940-90)

Chapter 13 - Gear

Doug Pocock

Bushwalking equipment was fairly difficult to obtain during the war years, when the Club began. Paddy Pallin had been making gear since the early thirties, but this was not readily available in Melbourne. Army disposals shops offered ex-Army gear, but this was generally not suitable for bushwalking purposes. A few early suppliers were:
Andy Broad, 64 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne; Evan Evans, 680 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne; Melbourne Sports Depot, 55 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne; Don Smart, 2 McKinley Avenue. Malvern; John Donne and Son, 372-378 Post Office Place, Melbourne; Hartleys, 270 Flinders Street, Melbourne; Auski, 6th Floor, McEwan House, Collins Street, Melbourne became the agent for Paddy Pallin.


In those first years of the Club the best type of pack was the Bergan or A-frame, usually available in three sizes: ladies, medium or large. If the pack was not large enough for a long trip, two extra carrying bags could be carried at the front, clipped onto the carrying straps. These were called 'shebas' after the well-endowed Queen of Sheba.

Some members preferred to make their own gear, and many experiments were made in lightweight equipment. Into the seventies, Felix Harding was using a lightweight pack with a frame described as a 'lover's knot in cane'.

The shoulder straps on some of the early packs were made of canvas. Once on, these rolled into narrow strips, cutting into the shoulders terribly and making shoulder pads a necessity. The really tough walkers tended to favour a 'Yukon pack' perhaps the forerunner of the H-frame. The Yukon was a wooden, rectangular frame with canvas stretched across it. The load was carried in a canvas bag lashed to the frame.

Margaret Thompson with A-frame pack.
Margaret Thompson with A-frame pack. Day walk, probably in the Switzerland Ranges, circa 1962.
Darrell Sullivan collection

In the early sixties H-frame packs, called 'Mountain Mules', made by the New Zealand manufacturer Bevan Napper, began to appear in Australia. These, along with check woollen shirts, usually indicated that the owner had been on a New Zealand holiday. In 1962 Kimpton's in Collingwood began manufacturing Mountain Mules, available in two models: standard and tanker. The tanker had a tap in the hollow frame to enable stove fuel to be carried in it. Paddy Pallin and 'Flinders Ranges', a South Australian company, followed with H-frame models and soon A-frames were a thing of the past. The internal-frame pack developed in the late seventies.

Because heavy loads could be carried more comfortably in an H-frame pack, their advent turned the emphasis away from lightweight bushwalking. Before then it was a matter of pride how lightly one could travel. Really keen walkers would trim excess straps and would even cut down the handles on their toothbrushes.

However, in 1966 Robin Mitchell began making lightweight packs. Darrell Sullivan made a jig for bending aluminium frames, and terylene spinnaker fabric was used for the body. Ties were used instead of leather straps. The total pack weighed 1 lb 12 oz (800 g). Robin and Darrell produced about 40 packs.

Robin also experimented with making skis from spotted gum (Eucalyptus maculata), painted with Estapol. He found the experiment somewhat of a failure commercially, but extremely good experience for repairing skis. One member started the season with 190 cm skis and, after many repairs, finished with 120s.


Early tents were very simple lightweight japara affairs, japara being a closely woven cotton fabric. Japara tents worked well in wet weather, except that very heavy rain could cause some spray inside. Problems developed if the inside of a wet tent were touched. This would break the 'seal' and allow a drip to start. To counteract this, the walker could run a finger clown the tent and the drip would then run clown the finger line to the ground, thus illustrating one advantage of not having a sewn-in floor.

Tents were often home-made. One Club member obtained a roll of japara, and many tents were made from the same pattern. Some members dyed their tents, so that they could identify their own by its colour.

These early tents were simple A-shaped or tapered models. Tapered tents were excellent in fine weather, but in wet weather it was hard not to touch the walls, especially at the tapered end. The walled tents that became available later were much better in wet weather. Aluminium tent poles were not carried until the early sixties. Until then, one of the first tasks at a camp spot was to search for suitable tent poles.

In 1960 a new tent came on the market - a system of cords and eyelets in a rectangular nylon sheet. It was claimed that this could he pitched in a variety of ways as a closed tent or an open shelter. However it did not catch on with bushwalkers.

Some home-made tents featured entrance tunnels, rather than tape-tied doors. These were better in adverse weather, but the advantage of tied doors was that the tent could be 'abdulled' in hot weather. This meant pitching a tent with one side pegged down and the other side open, using two or more poles.

Built-in floors and tents with poles began to appear in the late seventies; domed tents appeared in the early eighties.

Bob Steel's 'abdulled' tent, 1964.
Bob Steel's 'abdulled' tent, 1964.
Bob Steel collection

Sleeping gear

Early sleeping bags tended to be somewhat cooler than those of today. Paddy Pallin produced a couple of models while some were home-made, with the filling done by Kimpton's Feather Mills or Purax. A cheap and bulky bag was the kapok-filled type – very heavy when wet (as they often became in tapered tents in wet weather) and very hard to dry out.

Spencer George was in the habit of retiring to a plastic bag.
Spencer George was in the habit of retiring to a plastic bag while others ate their lunch. This photo was taken by the High Plains Creek, on the Youngs Hut - McNamaras Hut trip led by Phil Taylor, 11 March 1989.
Bill Metzenthen collection

Very few bags had full-length zips. Those with zips often didn't have a covering flap and were quite cold.

Often walkers would pick armfuls of bracken for softness under their groundsheets. It was also common to sleep on several sheets of newspaper, which also provided some insulation. In 1960 a plastic inflatable mattress became available. This was fairly light but very susceptible to puncturing. Some walkers preferred the heavier but more dependable rubberised canvas lilo.

Foam rubber mats were sometimes used, but of course acted like a sponge when wet. This problem was overcome with the introduction of closed-cell foam in 1973. Self-inflating air mattresses became available in the late seventies.


Footwear has long been a contentious issue with bushwalkers. The Club has always recommended 'stout footwear' for walks. For day walks golfing shoes or similar were considered suitable, but longer walks required boots work boots or ex-Army. These were heavy, leather-soled affairs, which walkers proceeded to make even heavier by driving hobnails (usually treble hobs) into the soles and adding tricounis around the edges.

Tricounis on boots
Tricounis on boots; the boots on the right belong to Darrell Sullivan. Wilsons Promontory, probably on a track-clearing trip, 1961 or 1962.
Darrell Sullivan collection

Tricounis were steel clips about 2 cm long that were fixed to each side of the instep of the boot, the serrated edge of five teeth preventing slipping on logs. Some walkers put tricounis all around the edge of their boots, giving the appearance of a primaeval toothed monster on each foot. One certain way of causing dissent around the camp fire was to raise the subject of the configuration of hobnails in the sole. Walkers had their individual patterns, making it possible to recognise some people by their boot prints.

It was usually recommended to soak boots in water before wearing them, then to walk in them until they dried. This moulded the boot to the wearer's foot.

Slick's Shoe Service of 302 Flinders Street advertised in Walk 1954, 'Approved Federation Hiking Boots' for £2 17s 0d. These were made in Tasmania by Blundstones. Rubber 'commando' soles became common in the early sixties - so much more comfortable if a road bash were necessary. Leather laces were common in boots. These were horrible to untie in cold, wet weather. In the early seventies Loch Wilson began importing New Zealand Tramper boots. These were excellent boots and became very popular. New South Wales walkers introduced the custom of wearing sandshoes on walks, a subject that can still cause lively discussion around the camp fire.

In scrubby country ex-Army gaiters might have been worn. These were either Australian Army with buckles or the American Army lace-up type. Puttees - lengths of felt that were wrapped around the legs - were also worn.

Rain gear

One piece of gear never seen now is the cape groundsheet. Waterproof coats were rarely carried. Windproof jackets were worn instead and, in the event of wet weather, cape groundsheets (some with hoods) covered everything, including packs. Capes were usually rubberised canvas and fairly heavy. Later nylon ones were lighter. When sheets of polythene plastic became available, they were used as groundsheets - very cheap and light. A development from the American space research programme was the lightweight aluminium foil 'space blanket'. A very lightweight version was carried for emergency shelter and a heavier one for a groundsheet.

Jackets were often ex-Army khaki battledress jackets. Some walkers used anoraks (zipless, hooded jackets pulled on over the head), which were lightweight but only showerproof. From New Zealand came the Swandri coat, somewhat like a horse blanket, favoured by some walkers. In the early sixties the black, oiled japara New Zealand parka came into favour and became practically standard dress. Another development from the American space programme was Goretex material, which became available around 1980. Early coats of this material were expensive and not reliable, but they have improved and are now very popular.

Cooking gear

While stoves made their appearance in 1955 (then called jimpies, now called choofers), the open fire was still the main way of cooking. Until the seventies walkers tended to cook individually on small fires, gravitating to one fire that could be built up for an evening's singing. Few walkers carried choofers, but those who did were envied on cold, wet mornings. In the early sixties lightweight gas stoves appeared. The gas cylinders had a rubber seal that was pierced with a hollow needle and that resealed when the needle was withdrawn. (One of these stoves was purchased for Wilky in 1962 for easy tea-making.) However white spirit stoves, such as the Optimus, Primus and Svea, were the most popular. In the eighties the lightweight MSR and the methylated spirit Trangia stoves became available.

Billies have been fairly standard for many years though, for a while, home-made billies (jam tins with handles) were in vogue. In the early days a set of billies was often a bought one, a jam tin, and a peach tin, one inside the other. Ex-Army mess tins were sometimes used, but were never popular.


Early photographs of Club day trips show members in ordinary street clothes - men with jackets and ties and women in skirts. Weekend walkers dressed in a style closer to the way we dress today except for their jackets. Ex-Army trousers, being pure wool, were very popular, as were woollen ex-Army shirts. On cold-weather trips walkers would wear woollen 'long johns' (also known as 'passion busters') on the lower body and, for a while, string singlets were popular. Loch Wilson began importing and selling New Zealand woollen shirts in 1966. Clothing remained fairly standard until the introduction of chlorofibre under-clothing in the seventies. This gave us the fashion of shorts over tights instead of long trousers. Fibrepile jackets, which became available in the late seventies, were lighter and warmer than jumpers, but bulkier.

Fibrepile trousers also became available. One drawback of synthetics is the need for care next to a camp fire as sparks cause great damage.

Hats provided one avenue of escape from the uniformity of standard ex-Army gear. While many walkers wore ex-Army slouch hats, these would get bashed, sat on, soaked, decorated, cut about and generally abused until they assumed an individual shape so that one could say, 'There's John (Rex, Bob or Doug), I can tell by the hat.' For a while Canterbury Girls High School hats were popular among lady walkers because of a number of ex-pupils in the Club.

The most exquisite vision of sartorial elegance seen by our Club was probably Nick Cole on the Moomba Day Walk (as the Federation Day Walk was called from 1958-73) of 1962, when he arrived in a dinner suit, cane, monocle and straw hat. He scrounged his lunch from fellow members, as he felt that to carry anything apart from his cane would detract from his image.

Compare today's clothing with this advised for young ladies going on a walking tour in 1900: 'Two cotton dresses, one cashmere dress, one ulster, one alpaca dustcoat, one parasol, one umbrella, one walking stick, one pair of shoes, one pair of button boots, six pairs of stockings, two straw hats, one green veil and one small flask of brandy in case of faintness'.


Cereals and oatmeal were, and are, a favourite for bushwalking breakfasts. An early cereal was 'Granbits' (known to the English as 'Grapenuts'). These were small gravely cereal lumps that softened after soaking, making them easier to eat. The joy of Granbits was their ease of carrying compared with other cereals, which crushed to a powder in the pack. Oats were used for porridge, but gradually walkers began adding dried fruit and nuts to make muesli. This was more convenient as it required no cooking, which meant no dirty billy in the morning. In the seventies commercially prepared muesli became available. The powdered milk then sold had to be mixed carefully to prevent lumps. This powdered milk probably caused many a walker to swap to black tea. Instant powdered milk became available in the early sixties, first skim milk only, then full-cream milk.

Bread and biscuits were carried, but early food lists always included flour for damper-making. Meat paste, Vegemite, honey and peanut butter have been standard spreads for many years. Butter or margarine was usually carried in an 'M&B' aluminium screw-top container. Chemists were supplied bulk pills in M&B tins, and friendship with the local chemist was useful for obtaining these prized items. One of Jock Low's early food lists includes 'Polish Pudding', a forerunner of the salami and cabana available today. Chicken and ham sausages were carried, but didn't have the keeping quality of salami.

Dried vegetables onion, parsnip, carrot, cabbage and potato were available to walkers on early Club walks. These were not very appetising. Graham Errey recalls the early dried potato as, 'bad tasting, grey and sandy'. 'Deb' potato flakes were a huge improvement. The dried vegetables were marketed separately, or mixed as 'Dewcrisp soup mix'. Dried vegetables (DV) were used as the basis of stews, using packet soup or 'Oxo' cubes to improve the flavour. Bacon would be carried to add to stew being cured it would last on a long trip. Sometimes small tins of meat were carried, but they were usually considered too heavy. DV could also he made more palatable by boiling first then frying with sultanas, almonds and other additives. 'Surprise' brand freeze-dried peas, beans and carrots, being better tasting, were a welcome addition to the bushwalker's diet in 1971. 'Alliance', the New Zealand freeze-dried meats, became available in 1971, making a great difference to the walker's menu.

Rice has always been a popular food to carry - light and filling. Boiled with dried fruit, it makes an excellent dessert. Instant puddings were popular - freshly picked blackberries on the Kiewa and instant 'pud.', who could ask for more?

A mixture of dried fruit, sweets and nuts, generally known as scroggin, would also he carried, as now, for nibbling along the track. Merv Scott was in favour of a cooked scroggin. The fruit and nuts were minced, mixed with rum and chocolate, made into balls, rolled in brown sugar, then baked. Mike Stevens always claimed it looked like wombat droppings. Harald Goetz marinated the fruit for days, then poured melted black chocolate over it, forming great nuggets of scroggin, from which he would generously break off lumps to hand round.

While tea and coffee were always popular drinks when a billy was boiled, many walkers then as now carried fruit saline ('Fizz') to give a bit of zip to a drink from a warm water bottle. If water was a little brackish, Lemon and Lime crystals helped to improve the flavour. Staminade and Tang also had and still have their fans.

Dry food was generally carried in japara bags with drawstrings in the neck, and wet food in M&B tins. Plastic bags became available in the early sixties. The Club managed to get hulk supplies of various sizes and for a while had an official plastic bag seller. Snap-seal plastic containers (Tupperware) caught the imagination of bushwalkers and in 1962 the Club had a Tupperware party. The poor demonstrator was given a rough time with much heckling, especially when she guaranteed that the lids would not come off in the pack. To demonstrate this wonderful property, she turned the container upside down, spraying the sceptical bushies sitting in the front row with the liquid contents, much to the amusement of the audience.

Bushies have always been opportunistic eaters, making the most of what can be found along the track, such as blackberries along creeks, or apples at deserted houses. John Siseman and I well remember a meal of rhubarb near Suggan Buggan in 1963. Felix Harding was known to eat the odd snake - in the Barmah Forest he was seen tucking into snake and stinging nettle. Athol Schafer tells of an unintended night out when he staved off hunger with fruit from Native Cherry (Exocarpus cupressiformis). Others take fishing tackle on trips but all too often, it appears, the fish just are not biting. Occasional crayfish caught on the Southwest Coast track in Tasmania have been very welcome and, of course, who hasn't felt the thrill, on a long walk, of going into a hut and finding food left behind.

Loch Wilson

As a New Zealander, Loch was used to the gear available over there and, when he joined MBW, he became aware of the lack of some items of gear here.

In 1966 he began importing woollen New Zealand shirts for sale to members. He also visited other clubs selling shirts from a suitcase. In June 1968, as business improved, he opened premises at 692 Glenhuntly Road, South Caulfield, trading as 'Loch Wilson & Co.'. Mary Scott helped in the shop with sales. One of the strong points of this shop was the amount of rock-climbing equipment for sale, most of which had hitherto not been readily available in Melbourne. As part of the service, Loch employed Betty White (Helen Mitchell's mother) to repair gear. From this repair service evolved the manufacture of gear.

In 1970 Loch moved to 66 Hardware Street and changed his business name to 'Bushgear'. He began manufacturing a large range of equipment under this name, including gaiters, packs, woollen shirts (after he had located suitable Australian woollen cloth), cross-country skiing knickerbockers and tents. Bushgear designed and marketed tents such as the two-person 'Tawonga' and four-person 'Jagungal'. Other models were 'Razor', 'Viking', and 'Baw Baw', each named after the area where they were first tested.

Needing larger premises, Bushgear moved to 52-54 Hardware Street. In 1980 the business moved again to 377 Little Bourke Street where, from 1981, Loch made a part of the building available to MBW for meetings for several years.