Slides reveal Tasmania’s Overland Track in the 1950s

By Christina Armstrong 26 September 2014
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Christina Armstrong stumbled on a treasure trove of slides from her dad’s 1957 trek of the Overland Track

ONE OF THOSE childhood moments I used to dread was the weekend slide night – when Dad would pull out a musty box of cardboard slides for an extended and tortuous evening of old travel snaps. I would sit on the floor, bored and impatient, as he adjusted the lamp on the projector and fiddled with the upside-down and back-to-front slides.

Recently, however, I had reason to dig out a box of particularly old and mouldy slides from the back of my father’s garage. The slides were from 1957, and they documented his walk along the Overland Track in Tasmania. As a keen bushwalker myself, I had just completed a trip along this iconic route. When Dad reminded me of his photos I was keen to compare them to mine, despite my childhood aversion to those long nights when blurry pictures of unknown places were thrown up onto a white sheet pinned to the lounge room wall.

In the slides I was amazed to see my father, Ernie Armstrong, and his cousin, Athol Wilson, as young, lean men slogging up Marions Lookout wearing hobnailed boots, funny-looking gaiters and carrying aluminium framed backpacks. Now it turns out these slides are going to serve a purpose beyond my family’s entertainment. 

Overland Track images will help record bushwalking history

The photos document many of the old bushwalkers huts on the Overland Track and the original slides and digitally scanned copies will be sent to Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service to be added to their Asset Information System as an ongoing record of buildings on the track.

“We have an active ongoing program to maintain and restore, where needed, the older traditional huts we still have on the Overland Track,” says Eddie Firth, Ranger in Charge of the Overland Track. “In recent times we have completed maintenance works on DuCane Hut and this summer (2013-2014) we have completed work on Kitchen Hut. The image of Kitchen Hut from 1957 is particularly rare as it shows Kitchen Hut with a chimney, something I hadn’t seen before.”

“As someone who has been walking the Overland Track for more than 40 years I can relate to images from that period, as now some of these huts have gone completely,” he says.

The first hut on the Overland Track was built at Pelion in 1936, followed by the Pine Valley Hut in 1942. A lot of the older huts on the track burned down over the years as a result of walkers leaving their wood stoves unattended.

Walking the Overland Track in the 1950s

My father, Ernie Armstrong, now 84, says he can remember quite clearly the old bunk beds in the huts: “We just had a sleeping bag and slept straight on the boards. I can still feel every join and bent piece of wood.”

“Our packs weighed 35 pounds (about 16 kg); that was all you could take on the plane,” Ernie says. “We flew from Melbourne to Launceston in an old DC3. We carried a two-man tent and 100 feet of nylon rope, and first aid bits. Our food for seven days was BBSTJ (bread, butter, sugar, tea, and jam), then canned bully beef for dinner and dried stewed fruit for dessert.

“We saw four other people on the whole walk and they were walking in the other direction.”

At Pine Valley Hut, Ernie and Athol met two Tasmanian farmers who had heard about this new Overland Track and thought it might be worth a look. According to Ernie, the two farmers were walking south to north with a string bag full of canned food, more canned food strapped to the top of their heavy packs, knitted woollen vests, and trilby hats.

The slides have survived the vagaries of time and the back of Ernie’s garage in remarkably good condition and both Ernie and Athol are excited at the prospect that these slides will be seen and kept and used by people more appreciative of their content than their inpatient, bored children falling asleep on the lounge room floor 30 years ago as the second bulb in the projector blows and the room goes dark.