Sunday 5 May 2013

Not So Grand Designs

Around this time of the year, when the wind roars, and night eclipses day, a bushwalker’s fancy turns to huts. Yes it can be 20 degrees and sunny on the odd day, but snow and gales are also part of the mix. Despite having all the right gear, and being quite happy sleeping in a tent, when the autumn gales start blowing the dog off its chain, and soggy snow plasters the hills, I clearly see the advantages of mountain huts.

[Joe Slatter Hut nestled into the wooded slopes of Mt Rufus] 
Some bushwalkers even make hut finding a bit of a game. In New Zealand hut-bagging, where the goal is to visit the greatest number of huts possible, is a semi-serious pastime. Of course the Shaky Isles do have huts numbering in four figures, with the Department of Conservation alone managing 950 of them!

In Tasmania we’re relatively poverty stricken, having well short of 100 public structures that could – even by generous definition – be called a hut. (The Kosciuszko Hut Association, which maintains information on many eastern Australian huts, has around 100 Tasmanian structures on its database. However a number of these are are private, or no longer standing, or more shelters than huts. See for further information.)

From a practical point of view, a hut’s ability to (usually) keep you dry and out of the wind might seem reason enough to visit one. But there’s also the sheer human curiosity that’s aroused by structures that other humans build. Witness the phenomenal television success of Kevin McLeod’s “Grand Designs”, which mines both the aspirations and the deeper psyche of home builders.

When it comes to huts, there’s the whole deeper layers of its history. Who made it? When? What did they use? How long did it take? Why did they build it in the first place? It’s enough the stir the dormant historian; the nascent archaeologist; the just plain curious walker into investigating.

[The facade of Joe Slatter Hut declares its origins] 
 And so I am visiting Joe Slatter Hut, on the side of Mt Rufus in the Lake St Clair area. For years I’ve walked all around the area, and have known of, but never been to this particular hut. We’re not here just out of curiosity though. We’re on a working bee, doing some much-needed repair work on Joe’s old hut.

Burdened by ferociously heavy packs – wooden posts, car jacks, buckets of nails and pots of paint are cheek-by-jowl with all our normal walking gear – we head off uphill. It’s raining, of course. But given that our group of a dozen or more includes children who are also happy labourers, I suck it up and trudge on.

Over the weekend I get to hear many stories about the hut. It began in the years immediately after World War 2. These were the golden era for hydro-electric development in Tasmania, and highland villages like Tarraleah, Bronte Park and Butlers Gorge each housed hundreds of workers and their families, many of them European immigrants. One naturalisation ceremony in 1949 was attended by 6 000 people!

Coming from Europe, many of the villagers were used to snow. And with snow conditions far better than they are at present, skiing was a favoured recreational pastime. As there were no skiing facilities, these very practical people decided to make their own. Mt Rufus was considered the best of the local ski slopes, so they formed the Rufus Ski Club. Joe Slatter, as resident engineer in the Hydro village of Butlers Gorge and a keen skier, became president of the ski club. He was heavily involved in its planning and construction. By the early 50s the two room hut, that now bears Joe’s name, had been built. All the labour was volunteer, and done in spare time. Every piece of material was carried in by hand, albeit with some help from ponies.

[Autumn bark on Eucalyptus subcrenulata, near Joe Slatter Hut]
The club had grand designs. The lower hut could accommodate up to twenty people, with bunks, benches, cooking utensils and a fireplace. Further up the mountain, the smaller Gingerbread Hut – which got its name from the colour of its early cladding – was built as the base for a ski tow that would allow skiers access to the upper slopes.

A recent log book entry (from “Kris”, February 2011) gives a flavour of the hut in the 1950s.

My mother remembers coming here on an expedition with some friends from Tarraleah to go skiing. She remembers starting the walk at 01:00am and arriving at the hut as the sun was coming up. They were carrying their skis and all their gear through the snow. She remembers having to cross a large creek over a log which was particularly difficult with ski gear.

Despite such hardships – or perhaps because of their determination to push through them – it seemed to club members that Mt Rufus would be the next big thing for southern Tasmanian skiers.

It didn’t turn out that way. From the mid 1950s hydro-electric construction waned, and the population of the highlands melted away. Snowfall became too irregular to maintain the skiers’ enthusiasm. Admitting defeat, the Rufus Ski Club amalgamated with the Wellington Ski Club, which now maintains both of the Rufus huts.

Skiing is now a relative rarity on Rufus, and even then skiers are unlikely to stay in Joe Slatter Hut. But occasionally walkers visit the hut. They might marvel at its straw filled mattresses and pillows; wonder at the 200m hose that once delivered creek water to the hut; ponder the floor’s lack of horizontality; turn their noses up at the inevitable animal droppings; and even make a donation to its upkeep.

[Always time for a brew, even during a busy working bee] 
And just maybe they might wonder who Joe Slatter was. For there is a sad twist to the naming of the hut. It was named in honour of the ex-Rufus Ski Club president after he was struck and killed by a train in Melbourne in the 1950s.

When we 21st century volunteers learn that, it feels all-the-more fitting that we should add a lick of paint, and have a go at re-stumping and generally tidying up Joe’s old hut. It’s never going to be a palace, but it would be good to think the tradition of Joe and other hut building pioneers can be carried on a little longer, even if their grand skiing schemes have melted away.


Patricia K. Lichen said...

Oh, how interesting! I don't know of an equivalent system of huts here in the US, except for a few shelters offered by the National Park Service, or (very) minimal shelters along the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails. Hut-bagging! What an idea!

We are enjoying your departed warmth here in Oregon, USA today. Thanks for sending it our way now that you're done with it for a bit.

Nature Scribe said...

Thanks Patricia - always lovely to hear from you. I'm glad Oregon is warming at last. We're about to have one of those golden, sunny, calm autumn weeks that we occasionaly get (thanks to a lovely plump high pressure system). The snow will have to bide its time.