High country huts of the Australian Alps

By Klaus Hueneke 15 June 2009
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Hundreds of huts scattered across the Australian Alps are living history and essential shelter for alpine adventurers.

I’M RESTING AGAINST THE stump of a charred old snow gum as I munch a sandwich. About 100 people are gathered in small groups doing likewise. The air is brisk below an icy blue sky and tufts of snowgrass are about to burst into seed.

It’s 15 December 2007. We’re here to celebrate the opening of a sparkling, golden-walled mountain hut called Broken Dam, the first of seven huts in Kosciuszko National Park (KNP) to be rebuilt by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) after the 2003 bushfires.

Just off the main walking and ski-touring route between the old goldmining town of Kiandra and Mt Kosciuszko, Broken Dam Hut is about 90km south-west of Canberra and 9 km south of Kiandra. It’s probably my favourite hut; I’ve skied and walked here many times, brought my children and friends here and watched their love of the high-country blossom.

In 180 years of hut history, today’s event is on a par with the second coming of Christ. Not long ago NPWS wanted to remove half the huts in KNP; now it wants to celebrate their unusual history and heritage. When Rex Cox – a passionate octogenarian ski-tourer and lover of all things Kosciuszko – stepped up to address the assembled crowd, he was clearly moved.

“Please protect it,” he implored, before cutting the ribbon strung between the new verandah posts.

Skiing in Australia: pre-Perisher and Thredbo

The story of my obsession with high-country huts starts, like so many good yarns, with a journey in a Kombi van. In August 1958, not long after my family migrated to Australia from Germany, Dad drove us all from Orange, on the central tablelands of NSW, to Thredbo in the State’s south. We parked where the Alpine Hotel now stands, pitched a tent in which to dry our parkas and went skiing for a week.

On a day so bright and cold it seared our eyeballs and burned our nostrils, Dad and I went to the top of Mt Crackenback via the clanking chairlift and lethal old rope tow, and without map or compass, but in the company of well-versed locals, took off for a day tour to the large white mound that was 2228m Mt Kosciusko (the “z” was added in 1997: it’s the correct spelling of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish patriot for whom the mountain was named by its European ‘discoverer’, Pawel Edmund Strzelecki, in 1840).

I felt small and unprotected, yet terribly excited to be moving across a snowy vastness that seemed to have no edge. I was a vulnerable teenager and the devious spirits of the high country went straight in, and stuck.

In the summer of 1967 I was back in the mountains with a group of university students. We drove – yes, drove, you could do that back then – to the same summit and took off northwards on a trek along the highest spine in the land to a far-distant mountain called Jagungal. Passing Muellers Peak we spied a little hut perched above the glare of Lake Albina. It was one of several built by the energetic, bratwurst- and sauerkraut-eating, post-war migrants who, like my father, had fond memories of alpine huts built for old-style ski-touring in Europe.

They also built Kunama Hut, near Mt Clarke on the eastern side of the Kosciuszko Main Range, and modified Pounds Creek, an old NSW Department of Tourism hut from the 1920s, into what became known as Illawong Lodge.

In the 1950s, it was possible to tour from one hut to another, enjoy slalom ski races on the slopes of Mt Townsend at Christmas and have a hot shower before a sumptuous dinner. On 12 July 1956 the idyll came to a cruel end. A freak avalanche knocked Kunama off its stone foundations, killing 20-year-old Roslyn Wesche, who was asleep in the basement, and injuring several others.

Pioneering ski-tourers continued to use Albina and Illawong, but by the 1970s their focus had turned to resorts like Perisher and Thredbo. NPWS took over management of Albina, which fell into disrepair and by 1983 had been pulled down. Today only Illawong survives, lovingly maintained by the Illawong Ski Tourers club.

Victorian Alps – the old alpine huts of Kosciuszko

When our 1967 trekking party got to Mt Tate, we called it a day and, like a pack of panting wild dogs, lay down among the alpine shrubs without pitching tents. We felt euphoric, despite the cold. We were too mesmerised and tired to talk.

Next morning we went on to Schlink Hilton Hut. More of an industrial barrack with 10 small rooms (hence the “Hilton” part of the name), some filled with electrical transformers, cabling and ladders, it was still being used by the burly men of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. So was our next stop, the fairy-bread cottage Valentine, with its distinctive coat of red paint, and dunny perched within sight of fast-flowing Valentine Creek. A flying fox and small concrete weir on the creek showed that Valentine was built for stream gauging. These huts, some with standing room only, were located across the mountains from the 1950s until the ’70s. Valentine is the sole survivor.

Similar huts were built in the Victorian Alps in the early 20th century as part of the Kiewa Hydro-Electric Scheme; most of those are gone too. Wilkinson Lodge, one of the last, was built in 1933 and originally known as the Main Station or the SEC (State Electricity Commission) Cottage. Later it was a base for the Melbourne Bushwalkers Club, only to be accidentally burned down in 2004.

We continued from Valentine, and approached Grey Mare Hut from the east, across the grassy plains that surround Back Flat Creek – one of the most remote and beautiful parts of KNP. In Grey Mare I thought I’d seen my first dinkum graziers’ hut, only to discover from the machinery, concrete foundations and creek washings strewn nearby that it had been built for goldmining.

Raised in 1934 by men more familiar with sheep and cattle than mining, it had all the classic attributes of a graziers’ hut – facing east into the rising sun, looking over the grazing lease, sheltered by the hillside from cold south-westerlies, close to a burbling brook and within throwing distance of fuel from tough old snow gums. Inside its one-room shell was a fireplace, some bunks and benches, a wooden floor and a meat safe.

On our return from 2061 m Mt Jagungal we spent a night at Mawsons Hut – the real grazing deal at last. Horse collars, worn-out bridles, rusting tins of bully beef and horse-hair-stuffed mattresses on wire stretchers filled the corners. It was as though high-country riders like Lindsay Willis and Tom Taylor had just left. When years later I started compiling oral histories I found Lindsay, still hale and hearty, living in Cooma. I asked him to recall his most dramatic night at Mawsons.

“There were five of us and several horses there already,” he said. “Then another three stockmen came in. It was snowing heavily and they had to abandon 1200 sheep they were bringing in for the summer. Just before dark, with the whole place deep in snow, four beanie-covered heads filed past the window. Then another four. We didn’t know where to put them all and were much relieved when only one lot burst in.”

They’d done two laps of the hut exterior. “The first time round they couldn’t find the door.”

In the end there were 12 warm but smelly men in the hut, 17 frozen dogs that had crawled in beneath the floorboards, 11 shivering horses in the paddock and 1200 snowed-in but still breathing sheepskin coats a mile up the hill. All survived.

In that one six-day walk in 1967 I saw huts from four different eras – ski-touring, summer grazing, mining and hydro scheme. On subsequent journeys I discovered that huts built for grazing between the turn of the century and the 1940s were the most common. That was the height of the grazing era, at least for Kosciuszko, with up to 5 million sheep and cattle in the high country every summer. Over time, on ski and foot, I visited a flock of grazing huts: compact Brooks, welcoming Happys, romantic Mackays, draughty Teddies, cold Whites River, comfortable Wheelers and isolated Vickerys.

Then there are the huts for fishing, tourism, memorials, film sets and year-round living. The more I learned about them and the people who’d built and used them, the more I wanted to know, and the more involved I became.

A passion for protecting Australia’s alpine huts

In 1981 I was elected president of the Kosciuszko Huts Association (KHA), a voluntary body set up 10 years earlier to look after the huts’ interests. A few months later the NPWS floated the idea of preserving only a selection of different types of huts, and removing the rest. It seemed that the wilderness movement with its scorch-all-structures credo had won the day. We mounted a big media campaign, received much public support and only lost two sacrificial lambs – Albina and Rawsons, both on the Main Range within sight of Mt ‘Kossie’.

In 1985 I parked the car at Diamantina Hut below Mt Hotham and, via the dramatic Razorback, my companion and I walked towards 1922m Mt Feathertop. The whole mountain seemed to be in flower. We took in bright-yellow buttercups, gently swaying billy buttons, vast fields of starry-eyed snow daisies and big red patches of sorrel.

Feathertop seemed to beckon and overpower at the same time, and we were torn between making a dash for it immediately or keeping a respectful distance until morning. Staying put in a romantic, secluded dell won out. Next morning Federation Hut came into view, but the real gem, and total surprise, was the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club Hut on a western ridge: a geodesic dome, a la Buckminster Fuller. Built for bushwalking and skiing during the hippy ’60s it had, over the years, become a memorial and shrine to club members who’d died climbing in New Zealand and other parts of the world.

On another trip, a tough climb from the Howqua River over 1742 m Mt Howitt led us to another memorial, the Vallejo Gantner Hut at McAllister Springs. Gantner, 19, died from an accidental rifle shot while rabbiting on a low-country property, but he’d spent a lot of time in the mountains near the Crosscut Saw, a jagged ridge north of Mt Howitt that tops out at 1705m. Well-heeled members of the Melbourne arts and business community put up the funds, an architect completed the design and locals built it in 1970. Shaped like a triangular prism with a northern wall of mostly glass and a central fireplace, it is the antithesis of the rectangular cattleman’s box.

The other huts raised as memorials were all built for people who perished in blizzard conditions. Bluff Spur Hut on Mt Stirling celebrates the lives of Xavier Clemann and Robert Harris, who were overtaken by bad weather in 1985, while Cleve Cole Hut is named for a ski-tourer who died coming off the wrong ridge on Mt Bogong in 1936.

Cleve Cole and Seamans Hut, in New South Wales – a memorial to Laurie Seaman and Evan Hayes who perished near Mt Kosciuszko in 1928 – are the only huts in the Australian Alps with thick, solid rock walls. In comparison to the light, almost transient touch of a grazing hut, their footprint is more like that of a Sumo wrestler.

The two huts built as film sets are both in Victoria, and the films for which they were used both celebrate timeless work set in the high country by popular Australian authors. The hut used in The Silver Brumby, the 1993 film of Elyne Mitchell’s children’s classic, is below Mt Hotham on the banks of Swindlers Creek.

Craigs Hut, at Clear Hills, east of Mt Stirling, is the centrepiece of The Man from Snowy River, based on ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s famous poem. Hundreds of people make the pilgrimage to Craigs every year, and if the hut deteriorates or is burned in a bushfire – as happened most recently in 2006 – another replica soon appears.

Alpine huts: scenes of Australia’s heritage

I crisscrossed the Bogong High Plains, stopped at every structure along the Great Alpine Road, searched for lost huts near Omeo and found just about every old hovel on the Howitt High Plains. Once again, graziers’ huts were most common. What stood the Victorian versions apart from their Kosciuszko equivalents was their long-term association with particular families. In some cases, up to six generations of the same mob had held the same grazing lease and maintained the same hut. Names like Guy, Lovick, Treasure, Tawonga, Weston, Blair, Ryder, Wallace, Maddison, Faithfull, McNamara, Fitzgerald, Kelly, Batty, Roper and Roger were deeply etched into the psyche of the place.

On a 2002 visit to Ryders Huts (there are four), on the edge of the Bogong High Plains, I met the whole Ryder mob. Family matriarch Sue was there to greet me. “You haven’t seen any riders on the way, have you?” she asked.

“No, I haven’t seen a soul today.”

“I hope they come soon, ’cause I’ve got a pan full of eggs on the fire. Come in and make yourself at home.”

I was an unshaven, sweaty stranger, yet she greeted me as though I dropped by every other weekend. Sue, Harry and their two sons were members of an old mountain family that had been taking cattle up there for years.

I asked them to pose for a photo without their hats, but soon realised that, for them, hatless was the same as naked. An old book – The Mountain Men, by James Cowan – featuring Wally Ryder, Harry’s father, supported my observation; Harry even wore his hat during the charged atmosphere of helping a cow through a breech birth.

In February 2003, a once-in-decades tragedy struck. Fire swept over vast areas of the Australian Alps and more than 80 huts, a quarter of the total, were lost – 20 in the ACT, 20 in KNP and 40 in Victoria. It was a disaster. I feared they were gone for good. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Now, with the help of hundreds of volunteers in numerous caretaker groups, the huts have never looked so good. Knowing this has made my gradual withdrawal from the mountains a little easier. I’m silverbacked now, relishing quieter, meditative times, and lugging a heavy rucksack into the back country on foot or skis isn’t as easy as it used to be. Gently propelling a kayak on a coastal lake or searching for orchids on the Canberra hills is more my cup of tea.

Mountain huts stir something quite primal in our hearts: a universal need for shelter, safety in an emergency, warmth in a cold climate, identification with a hardy, pioneering era and a desire to preserve structures and skills from the past. As I leaned against that old snow gum stump last summer and surveyed the crowd waiting for the opening of new Broken Dam Hut I was suddenly choked by emotion – sorrow at not being able to use the new hut on long treks, joy at sharing it with so many familiar souls, and a strange emptiness.

The journey had been more eventful and significant than the final goal. Immersing myself in huts and high country had given my life a calling and purpose far beyond what I might have dreamt as an impressionable new-Australian kid climbing Mt Kossie. I was no longer quite so small and unprotected.

Source: Australian Geographic #93 (Jan-Mar 2009)