Cradle Mountain: past and present

By Tim Dub 17 March 2010
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For the pristine peaks of Cradle Mountain, Tasmania, we can thank an impassioned bushwalking duo’s devotion to the area last century.

JUST MY HEAD IS clear of the bubbling surface. Only half of the pool is covered by an overhanging roof, so there is nothing between me and the heavy sky above. On the slopes of a small forested hill, plumes of wood smoke betray the presence of hidden chalets.

A tannin-dark rivulet flows past a lake with a small island in the middle, acting as pedestal to a solitary pencil pine, looking more like a gallery exhibit than the random hand of nature. Finger-like branches of a long dead tree point upward with the grace of a frozen ballerina, and a coal-black currawong clings to a bleached branch and fixes the scene with a beady eye. Everything else is covered in a thick blanket of snow except where leaves on the trees provide no surface for it to collect. It is still snowing gently, the slow uneven descent of countless fluffs of cottonwool, but the pool is 37°C and as the snowflakes vanish into the steaming froth the thought occurs to me: “Does it get any better than this?”. Well, yes. I am about to have a massage.

I’m at a lodge in Tasmania, a place where the sensuous will be indulged and the sophisticated can rediscover a sense of wonder. Close by is Cradle Mountain, sitting on top of the world like a gothic cathedral resplendent with turreted roofs and cascading buttresses, near the northern end of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park, an area so outstandingly beautiful it has received World Heritage Listing. One of the world’s best multi-day walks starts here, the famous Overland Track, that leads up hill and down dale through a variety of extraordinary landscapes to finish 80 kilometres to the south at Lake St.Clair, Australia’s deepest lake. That any of this is possible today owes much to the idealism and the vision, around a century ago, of one romantic and unusual man: Gustav Weindorfer.

WEINDORFER WAS BORN IN Austria and was educated at an agricultural college outside of Vienna where he developed a keen interest in farming and botany. He emigrated to Australia in 1900 at the age of 26 and though initially drawn to the cosmopolitan excitement of Melbourne, he quickly discovered a passion for the Australian bush and soon joined the Victorian Field Naturalists’ club. This interest introduced him to the first great love of his life, Kate Cowle. She had grown up in Northern Tasmania and as a lady of independent means, was living in Melbourne to pursue her interests in music and natural science. It is said they first noticed each other when each presented a research paper to the Naturalists’ club, which Kate had joined a year after Gustav. Gustav was a fine singer and Kate an accomplished musician, both were keen bushwalkers and so with several shared pursuits, the couple were clearly well suited. But Gustav was described by an acquaintance as “a tall bearded man, handsome, charismatic and genial” and Kate was known for her intelligence and prettiness, so their attraction was perhaps not restricted to simply a meeting of minds. Though Gustav was now fluent in English, when Kate began to learn German, their future together was assured.

They married on 1 February 1906 and honeymooned for several weeks on Mount Roland, a dominant peak in the central north of Tasmania. This unusually robust choice for a romantic escape attracted some mirth amongst the locals, and foreshadowed the prospect of an even closer connection to the mountains of Tasmania, that was to endure for their lifetimes. For the time being, they became successful farmers on land within sight of Mount Roland and their future seemed settled.

Weindorfer’s first sight of Cradle Mountain was in 1909 when he went bushwalking with a fellow botanist and where he was enthralled by the variety of plants and the spectacular beauty of the mountain. It was to become the second great love of his life, and one he was eager to share with his wife. In the summer of 1910, they climbed the mountain, accompanied by a friend. Kate was the first woman to make the ascent and Weindorfer made his prophetic announcement, that “This must be a National park for the people for all time” — a resolution that was to transform the rest of their lives.

THERE ARE MANY SHORT walks in the area, but if you make it to the top of Cradle Mountain you can share the view that so moved Weindorfer, or you can stop at Marion’s Lookout, on a ridge just 90 minutes from the base of the mountain. From here you will discover a diorama that few would imagine could be grander. To the south, the great fissured mass of Cradle Mountain itself rises imperious and awesome, its summit often cloaked in white. To the west is a steep cone-shaped hollow, hundreds of metres deep with Crater Lake at its base, while on the other side of the ridge is the bigger Dove Lake, far below. All around, the jagged outline of mountains on the horizon shape sawteeth in a vast sky where billowing clouds and distant rainstorms are cut though with sudden shafts of sunlight, as they race across expanses of brilliant blue.

The Weindorfers purchased 200 acres of land in a valley near Cradle Mountain. Gustav started to build an alpine chalet next to an ancient forest of King Billy pines which by Christmas 1912 was ready to receive his first guests. He called the chalet “Waldheim” meaning “forest home” and it became a place of hospitality and comfort to many visitors over the years that followed. Tragically, Kate died in 1916 after a long illness and Gustav moved permanently to Waldheim. Their poignant story is told in a series of exhibits in a replica built on the same spot as the original chalet, from which a short walking track leads to Gustav Weindorfer’s grave, where he has rested since 1932.

It is a moving tale, often of great hardship, but with the hospitality and determination of this exceptional man as a recurring theme. He was noted for his famous wombat “badger stew” liberally laced with garlic and his excellent coffee, that he ground and roasted at Waldheim.

The chalet was extended several times. In 1919 Gustav built a bath house, supplied by a wooden channel that brought freezing water straight from the creek simply by pulling on a plug. As I dip briefly into the chill of the plunge pool of my modern-day accommodation, before sweating it out in the sauna, the contrast with Waldheim is extreme. I wonder if Gustav could have imagined that such luxury would ever be possible, and I am grateful to the man whose two great loves and generosity of spirit ensured that the incomparable beauty of the mountain and its national park is preserved for all of us, as one of the great wonders of the natural world.

Tim Dub is a travel writer and photographer who has contributed to Australian Geographic and Outback Magazine. This is an edited version of a story first commissioned for Tourism Australia.