About Mountain Men

Nic Haygarth and I have just completed our latest project Mountain Men: Stories from the Tasmanian high country. The manuscript has been sent off to the printer with copies available in late August.

Mountain Men is a collection of biographies of ten 'mountain men' who lived or worked in the Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair high country from the 1870s to the 1990s.  These men are:

Dan Griffin (1851–1925), perhaps more widely known by his pseudonym ‘The Tramp’, approached life with a picaresque Irish wit and empathy with the downtrodden. As a superintendent of police, mineral prospector, route finder, track cutter and journalist, he roamed the high country for almost 40 years, documenting its residents, folklore and history.

William Aylett (1863–1952) developed a sustainable bush lifestyle as a hunter-prospector, living all year round in the bush in a manner that probably reflected Aboriginal lineage. While establishing a reputation as a route finder during the so-called ‘Railway War’ of the 1890s, he also co-discovered the North Farrell silver-lead lode, but gained nothing from it. His subsequent career of furs, osmiridium, wild-cat claims and government petitions seems to have been lived in the shadow of this defeat.

Austrian migrant Gustav Weindorfer (1874–1932) recognised Cradle Mountain’s potential as a tourist resort and national park. Keen botanists, he and his wife Kate staked their livelihood on fulfilling this potential by establishing Waldheim Chalet at Cradle Valley in 1912. Following Kate’s death in 1916, Gustav lived full-time at Waldheim, struggling to make a living but becoming a larger-than-life nature tourism guide and host whose vision and personality are still celebrated today.

Paddy Hartnett (1875–1944) was a charismatic bushman/prospector who established hunting runs in the Upper Mersey not long after Federation.  Prior to World War One he began guiding groups into this area and down to Lake St Clair. He built a sophisticated tourism business that he operated each summer whilst hunting and prospecting during other times in the year. An alcoholic, he left the Mersey–Forth high country in 1925 to chase osmiridium at Adamsfield and spent the rest of his life as a prospector fighting mental health issues.

Bert Nichols (1878–1950) was an apparently Aboriginal bushman who settled in the Forth high country before World War One. Like William Aylett, he developed a sustainable, all-season bush lifestyle, hunting in both closed and open season in a range of runs that stretched from the Middlesex Plains to Lake St Clair.  From 1927 he used his familiarity with this area to guide groups along what would later become the Overland Track. He marked the Track in 1931 and formally cut the section from Pelion Gap to Lake St Clair in 1935, but suspicion that he was a poacher may have cost him a career as the first permanent Lake St Clair ranger.

Ron Smith (1881–1969) was an early friend of Gustav Weindorfer who developed an equally keen interest in Cradle Mountain. After many bushwalking trips in the Forth River high country, he bought land near Cradle Valley, studied the area’s fauna, flora and geology, cut King Billy pine timber and helped manage the development of the national park. The first to promote the concept of the Overland Track, he was Cradle Mountain’s unofficial historian for more than half a century.

Lionel Connell (1884–1960) hunted in Cradle Valley from 1916. Following his friend Gustav Weindorfer’s death, Connell first managed, then purchased Waldheim and successfully developed it into a successful wilderness retreat. Connell was also the first Cradle Mountain ranger and was responsible for the development of much of the infrastructure in the northern half of what became the Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park.

Dick Reed (1898–1990) was a wealthy grazier who early in his life displayed a love of wild places. When he retired he began spending two to three months each year horse riding on the southern Central Plateau. In 1969, aged over 70, he cut a track into the remote Lake Meston and built huts at Lake Meston and Junction Lake. He undertook his last trip into the mountains at 91 years of age in 1990.

Ray Miles (1918–1978) spent his early days driving cattle up to high country runs in the Upper Mersey and hunting each winter. He enlisted in World War Two and saw action in the Middle East and Java before becoming a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese. One of ‘Dunlop’s Thousand’, he worked on the Thai–Burma Railway and in Japanese coal mines before being liberated.  Physically and psychologically damaged, he sought the solace of the mountains to rebuild his life after being released.

Basil Steers (1927–1997) listened avidly to stories about hunting in the mountains as a boy. As a teenager he joined his father hunting the February Plains before ceasing as the industry collapsed in the mid 1950s. He took advantage of a strengthening in prices in the late 1970s to return to hunting. During this period he became the public face of the activity, and was responsible for passing on information of the practices and technologies of hunting.

Beyond a life spent wholly or partly in the high country, these are a diverse group of men. They are broadly representative of those who lived and worked in the mountains in terms of educational attainment, family situation, war experience and economic circumstances.

But the book is more than just a collection of biographies. Read together they create a compelling narrative of the area’s history. In Griffin’s day, for example, the high country was populated by the odd prospector trying to prove a show, and mostly ex-convict stockmen in charge of remote cattle stations whose monotonous and isolated lives were broken only when a traveller sought accommodation for the night or when they went on annual drunken spree. By World War One, however, the remoteness of the high country began to dissolve. With the invention of the skin shed offering new economic opportunities in supplying furs to international markets, hunters flooded to the mountains creating winter hunting runs, establishing huts and developing tracks. By 1913, for example, Paddy Hartnett had established a pack track from Lees Paddocks, the most southerly cattle station in the Upper Mersey, into the Narcissus Valley almost as far south as Lake St Clair.

By this time, an interest in the mountains, prompted partly by the work of pioneer landscape photographers, generated a demand for high country tourism from the urban centres. Along with Wilmot farmer Bob Quaile, and Cradle Valley tourism operator Gustav Weindorfer, hunters Paddy Hartnett and Bert Nichols met this demand by guiding groups for highland adventures. Hartnett and Gustav Weindorfer went so far as to establish lodges to accommodate people at Du Cane Range (1910) and Cradle Valley (1912) respectively. Some of those guided by these early tourism operators were among those who successfully lobbied to have large areas around Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair declared a national park in 1922. Likewise, some of them subsequently sat on government boards set up to administer the parks.  The Overland Track was formally created in 1935, the same year that funds first became available to employ rangers at Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair. These, at first temporary, rangers were hunters Lionel Connell and Bert Nichols. Connell, who took over Waldheim with his family following Weindorfer’s death in 1932, was very effective and developed much of the infrastructure in the northern half of the national park by World War Two. A lack of funds coupled with the difficulty of getting men to work in such remote locations frustrated national park administrators. For decades bushmen, typically hunters, were contracted to work in the national park cutting tracks and building huts.

Hunting, grazing and mining, banned in the national parks, nonetheless continued in large areas of high country outside them. Driving cattle up to summer pastures became an annual tradition for many northern families, as did hunting for the fur trade after World War One. While prices varied in response to international conditions, proceeds from the annual fur sales became a vitally important income source to many high country families. Following both World War One and World War Two, men damaged by the violence they had witnessed gravitated to the high country seeking solitude and quiet. Recreators seeking areas less regulated than the national parks made a similar journey. Men like Dick Reed, for instance, actively sought the space and freedom of the high country to ride horses, make tracks and build huts.

Beyond the narrative they provide of the area’s history, the biographies also demonstrate themes special to the high country, three of which are worthy of special mention. The first of these is the major contribution hunters made to the development of the Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park and the Overland Track. Bert Nichols was guiding people between Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair along the line of what became the Overland Track as early as 1927. He marked the track in 1931 and with Lionel Connell was responsible for formally cutting it in 1935 and building huts along it. Both men were appointed rangers, with permanent ranger Connell also responsible for developing the track network around Cradle Mountain. Tom McCoy, another hunter, built huts and cleared tracks in the late 1940s. And as late as the 1950s, park administrators were still using hunters, Ray Miles and Alf Walters, to build and maintain huts. Without this body of tough, practical men who had experience working in these remote locations, the historical trajectory of the Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair may have been very different.

The second is the extent to which recent representations of Gustav Weindorfer differ from the man revealed by the historical record. With Cradle Mountain now part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA), the trend to portray the creation of the TWWHA as a triumphant tale of the unfolding of an ever-more-enlightened attitude towards the environment has led to the presentation of Weindorfer as a pioneer preservationist. Weindorfer was indeed among those who campaigned for national parks in Tasmania but he was the only one who staked his livelihood on their success. Survival as a tourism operator at Cradle Mountain made it impossible for him to be a preservationist. While an important figure in the history of Tasmanian environmentalism and eco-tourism, he was but a man of his time with values of that age. Thus he believed that animals existed to serve man, thought that there should be a road from Cradle Valley along the line of what is the now the Overland Track to Lake St Clair and hoped that one day he might be able to harvest his King Billy pine forest to fund his retirement. While Weindorfer is a remarkable figure who deserves to be fondly remembered, it is a shame that, rather than being reshaped to fit other people’s needs, his memory is not granted the dignity of the time, place and circumstances in which he lived.

The third is the participation of women. Living and working in the high country in the early days was predominantly a masculine activity with women playing a supporting role by maintaining the home and looking after the children. While that is so, it is surprising the extent to which women actively participated in early high country activities. Kate Weindorfer was a partner in the Waldheim business until her untimely death in 1916, Lucy Hartnett spent three winters in a hunting camp at Pelion Gap in the early 1920s and the Connell women played a crucial role in ensuring the success of Waldheim as a wilderness resort. But perhaps more significant is the large number of women who stayed at Waldheim and who walked the Overland Track during the 1930s and 1940s foreshadowing a time in the modern age where women comprise a large proportion of national park users.

Other themes are more elusive. For most men, hunting represented an important seasonal opportunity to generate income to bankroll other activities during the warmer months. But there were some men for whom hunting was a way of financing a bush lifestyle. William Aylett and Bert Nichols were two such men. Recognised as Aboriginal in their day, their hunting activities, like those of the Bass Strait mutton birders, probably reflected a much longer lineage than that of their peers. Does the way these two men developed almost full-time bush lifestyles contribute to an understanding of their heritage?

Mountain Men tells a history of the Tasmanian high country through the stories of ten men of the European era. It is a history as rich and complex as many of the ecosystems for which the area is known.