Gustav Weindorfer arrived in Melbourne from Austria in June 1900 and later met and married Tasmanian Kate Cowle. Their love of the natural and wild led them to Cradle Mountain where they eventually built a chalet for guests to stay. Their Waldheim or “home in the forest” was built of King Billy Pine. The couple mapped and created trails around the area. After Kate’s death in 1916, Weindorfer took up residence full time at Waldheim and began seeking support for a national park around Cradle Mountain. Today, the world celebrates Weindorfer’s trailblazing efforts in the pristine wilderness of Cradle Mountain – an Australian treasure. Kate Legge is a journalist with the Australian and the author of a number of books – most recently Kindred – A Cradle Mountain Love Story. To reflect on some of the story of Cradle Mountain and Gustav Weindorfer and Kate Cowle’s contribution to its pristine preservation, Kate Legge addressed the Sydney Institute on Monday 11 March 2019.
ESCAPING FROM THE RAT RACE – A CRADLE MOUNTAIN LOVE STORY
Years ago, after we’d been bickering cheerfully over why on earth I’d put a piece of cheese too small to save back in the fridge, my husband made a bold prediction. He imagined I would wind up retreating to a corrugated hut in the bush amidst yellowing newspapers, socks around my ankles, and hairs growing out of a facial mole. The older I get the more this prospect fills me with delight. Melbourne is growing at a phenomenal rate. The traffic is snarled beyond belief and the ordinary graces of “you first” are forgotten in the crush of people competing for elbow room. Everyone dreams of escaping the rat race, more so than ever, because the more remote we are from nature in our daily lives, the more disconnected we are from its touch, the more reverently we seek it out.
An historic redwood plantation at Warburton 70kms from Melbourne is attracting such crowds that Parks Victoria has built a larger car park for weekend pilgrims flocking to walk amongst these giants. They craft nests from dead boughs on the forest floor. Trees are also enjoying a literary resurgence with Richard Powers’ book The Overstory, shortlisted for the Booker, and Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, an international best seller. Forest bathing, a Japanese tradition of immersion in nature to soothe the mind and soul, has found its way here. Victoria has forest therapy guides.
An historic redwood plantation at Warburton 70kms from Melbourne is attracting such crowds that Parks Victoria has built a larger car park for weekend pilgrims flocking to walk amongst these giants.
Walking trails are expanding in national parks as private operators compete for a foothold. Their target demographic is women in the 50 to 60 age bracket prepared to splurge on a guided walk around capes, along overland trails, through rainforest, relishing a respite from crowded lives, hand held technology, and congested freeways. Tasmania is at the epicentre of this explosion in rat-race escapees with its spectacular world heritage listed wilderness areas, particularly Cradle Mountain Lake St Clair National Park, now an international drawcard.
I went there to do a bit of escaping myself after the husband of the half-eaten piece of cheese announced that he’d run out of puff. This was an apt metaphor since he was always complaining I walk too fast. Our adult sons now confess they were terrified of being lost, or left behind, in shopping malls or suburban streets. They had wanted to put me on a leash. The youngest took me to Cradle Mountain to distract me from my emotional upheaval as I entered a new phase of life.
When we got to the park, I headed out alone in the fading afternoon light of a wintry June day, humbled by the wonders of its forests. To stand here is to feel the past. Gondwanan vegetation, ancient trees, decaying logs tapestried in ruffles of orange lichen and luminous green moss. I followed the snaking curves of Dove Creek upwards through Suttons forest to Crater Lake, a still fathomless pool gouged from the earth by the slow movement of glacial ice and grit over passages of time too vast to comprehend. Its steep smooth cliffs rose upwards, carpeted in bonsaied myrtle and beech. Above, on the windswept plateau, were small ponds frozen beneath a thin crust of ice like a string of lustrous pearls. Nearby, cushion plants, spongy green plants that look deceptively voluptuous yet are hard as rock for only by hunkering down can they endure in this cold place. My mood echoed the melancholic key of this sculptured landscape. I felt something shift inside of me. I felt my imagination unfurling from the tight -isted foetal position I’d adopted as a holding pattern.
When we got to the park, I headed out alone in the fading afternoon light of a wintry June day, humbled by the wonders of its forests.
The next day I walked in a different direction and came across the replica of a chalet built by Gustav and Kate Weindorfer, a pioneering pair of adventurers and botanists. The rat race had barely begun when these two stood on the summit of Cradle Mountain in 1910 and sketched aloud a vision for a tourism chalet and a national park open to all. I was struck by their pluck and passion and, when I went home, I devoured as much about them as I could find.
The rat race had barely begun when these two stood on the summit of Cradle Mountain in 1910 and sketched aloud a vision for a tourism chalet and a national park open to all.
Initially, I thought I’d bring them to life in a fictional narrative but the more I learnt of their enterprise, their scientific endeavours, their fascination with Australian flora, their prodigious collecting, preserving, and describing of native plants and trees, their far sighted vision for preserving this wilderness as a park, the more I determined that they deserved to be better known for who they were.
Gustav was an Austrian bred in alpine heights. He came from a country where walking outdoors was a popular pastime. As a boy he’d read about Australian anthropologist Alfred Howitt, who was in the search party for Burke and Wills; he’d devoured Wide World magazines full of tall tales of travels through the Amazon River, the Khyber Pass, Tibet, and New Guinea. Given his passion for botany he must have been aware of German naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt’s siren call identifying the subtropical forests of the great southern continents as the crucible of botanical diversity.
At 26, he got on a boat and sailed to Australia. When he disembarked, in the searing summer heat of Fremantle, he was bereft at his first glimpse of eucalypts, describing them as “wretched creatures with rattling leaves”. But he roamed widely, studying our flora and fauna, and he soon fell in love with all we have – acacias, banksias, mountain ash, red river gums – even the Mallee scrub he found to be “far from destitute of charms”. His letters to his German speaking parents in Michelhofen gushed with enthusiasm for where he’d been, often sprinkling his accounts with new lingo that perplexed them. “Was ist ein billy?” they begged.
His letters to his German speaking parents in Michelhofen gushed with enthusiasm for where he’d been, often sprinkling his accounts with new lingo that perplexed them. “Was ist ein billy?” they begged.
He soon met his match. Tasmanian botanist Kate Cowle had conquered Tasmania’s Mt Roland twice before they met – her ankle length skirt and beribboned hat – no obstacle to climbing high. She described the mountain’s tug on her heart as that “silent outreach of the soul towards eternal beauty” in a paper describing its botany and geology that she presented to the Victorian Field Naturalists Club in 1903 – the only woman to do so that year. The men present commented admiringly on her daring in such rough terrain. Gustav was in the audience. He was a catch of a man. He could recite poetry, sing opera, identify the stipule, pedicels and lobes of a native orchid as finely as he could swing an axe or coax a cup of his beloved coffee from a candle’s flame. She was a most unconventional woman. They were kindred spirits, soul mates. They fell hopelessly in love and together they awakened Australia’s newest arrivals to the majesty and grandeur of our backyard.
Indigenous Australians have always had an intimate and intense love of the land but in the early twentieth century newcomers clung to the coastal veranda. We regarded the bush with foreboding, afraid of venturing too far for fear of getting lost or bitten by a venomous snake. Kate and Gustav felt no such trepidation. They relished the peril and thrall of nature’s grasp. They had been amongst the first wave of visitors to Mt Buffalo, the second national park to be declared in Australia, travelling with members of the Victorian Field Naturalists Club, the first camp in the club’s history to include women in a small triumphant rip to the canvas ceiling.
Indigenous Australians have always had an intimate and intense love of the land but in the early twentieth century newcomers clung to the coastal veranda
The times suited them. A story often told around Buffalo’s opening reveals a turning point in the national psyche. An adventurer who’d walked here was asked by his daughter on his return whether he’d seen any snakes. “No snakes,” he replied. “But I saw glory.” Glory and the idea of wonder and the sublime made the landscape less forbidding. It lifted the scales from our eyes and encouraged us to venture into the wild. Across the Pacific, naturalist John Muir, who is saluted as the founding father of Yosemite National Park, had published a best-selling book singing nature’s delights, drawing heavily on his hero, Henry Thoreau, of Walden fame, who wrote that “from forests and wilderness come the bark and tonic that braces mankind”.
An adventurer who’d walked here was asked by his daughter on his return whether he’d seen any snakes. “No snakes,” he replied. “But I saw glory.”
This was the air Kate and Gustav breathed. Talk of national parks, the restorative health benefits of walking for body and soul, and growing interest in Australian flora and fauna. They honeymooned for six weeks atop Mt Roland in a tent on the plateau enduring blizzards, rain storms, mosquitos, in a state of utter bliss. By day they collected armfuls of specimens, delighted at finding five new styphelias. They also met a party of picnickers on the plateau one day, another sign of a shift in the pulse of a nation heeding the call of nature. Later, when they walked through Cradle valley and stood on the mountain’s summit, they emboldened each other to embark on a dream that completely absorbed them, stepping out in the valley the very next day, beside a forest of myrtle, deciduous beech, and pines and a tumbling creek that sang. They called their chalet, Waldheim, German for forest home.
Like most dreamers they were deaf to the obstacles and hardships, they were deaf to the naysayers and doubters, the people and there were many, who were unable to fathom what on earth they’d found in this remote forbidding haunt. Locals understood the value of timber and minerals and possum skins precisely, but science and scenery did not occupy a column in their ledgers. Tasmanians knew of Cradle Mountain as a menacing place. In 1905 a young trapper, Bert Hanson, had died, freezing to death on its slopes, his loyal kelpie by his side. Even getting there in the early days was gruelling. Gustav built their chalet while Kate ran the farm at Kindred on the lowlands. She would often travel down the mountain alone, once in a ferocious storm that battered the north of the state. Her letter recounting this journey dances with the exhilaration of survival. She tells Gustav how her hands were chafed raw from the reins as her horse tried to bolt in the thunder and lightning, with timber crashing across her path. “Any moment I expected a tree on me,” she trilled, describing how she’d helped a terrified Singer salesman down the mountain in her wake.
Like most dreamers they were deaf to the obstacles and hardships, they were deaf to the naysayers and doubters, the people and there were many, who were unable to fathom what on earth they’d found in this remote forbidding haunt.
This was a joint venture. Not only did Kate bring the bonus of a small inheritance enabling them to buy the farm that subsidised the Cradle dream, but she worked just as feverishly, bringing provisions back and forth, nails, carbide, coffee beans, flour, powdered milk, vegetables from their garden. She made mattresses out of ticking, while he split palings from native King Billy pine. At the centre of the living room they built a cavernous inglenook fireplace with a wombat rug on its hearth, where guests would warm frostbitten toes, dry their wet damp woollen clothes, and talk into the wee hours of mountain adventures and national parks. There was a sense of books and learning, Beethoven on the gramophone, and the aroma of brewed coffee and home-grown garlic which they used to flavour “bush pork”.
At the centre of the living room they built a cavernous inglenook fireplace with a wombat rug on its hearth, where guests would warm frostbitten toes, dry their wet damp woollen clothes, and talk into the wee hours of mountain adventures and national parks.
A local lawyer and bushwalker who came across Waldheim after getting lost in the valley on a ramble in 1914, when the chalet had barely opened for business, was spellbound by its beauty. Afterwards he wrote to Gustav and Kate lamenting his return to town and the paperwork of petty conflicts. Like Banjo Patterson’s clerk dreaming of Clancy’s freedom, he pined for this idyllic refuge. Cars had begun to honk and rattle in Hobart streets, kindling a desire for travel, and though there is a thread of discontent with urban growth it is barely discernible. The rat race in Tasmania was a picnic beside the gridlock of the M7 motorway in peak hour.
The Weindorfers were carving a path through unchartered territory. There was no road beyond Wilmot, the tiny dot of a township, 40 kilometres away. Guests caught rail and coach to get to Wilmot and then they were ferried by local legend Bob Quaile in his wagonette and team of horses over a mostly boggy mire called Middlesex Plains. There were no bridges and many streams to ford. Quaile owned a wagonette and a team of horses and a droll sense of humour. This story is veined with colourful characters and he was one. He kept the spirits of guests from flagging with stories of his misadventures along this track. “Is the path better up ahead,” one of them once pleaded. “This is a carpet so far,” he roared.
“Is the path better up ahead,” one of them once pleaded. “This is a carpet so far,” he roared.
Mountaineers, explorers and prospectors, would always be drawn here, but enticing the rest of us was trickier. Gustav and Kate were deft at fudging the difficulties of getting to their remote eyrie. An early draft for a brochure advertising Waldheim wisely deleted their reference to the downsides of heavy rainfall that turns “harmless creeks into raging torrents that only experienced buccaneers can ford safely.” They were masterful at playing down the negatives. Though winters are bleak, they always imagined Waldheim as a place for all seasons, so they waxed lyrically about the exhilaration of gliding over fresh snow and the musical sound of the wooden skis as they broke through the crust, and didn’t mention cold wet feet. Most Australians hadn’t met snow, let alone skates and skis, and the idea didn’t catch on.
They certainly had me fooled. I knew I would have to climb the summit in order to write about them. I’d convinced a friend to accompany me. When we met up at Launceston airport she was terribly anxious because she’d been reading Trip Advisor with its hair raising accounts of the steep precipitous terrain. I’d had my head in Gustav’s advertorial. “Access to the summit is easy,” he’d written, “there is no danger except for those who look for it.” On my hands and knees, crawling over slippery icy pinnacles of dolerite, keeping my eyes upward because if I dared look down thousands of feet below I’d have fallen, I thought I might die. I was wearing light weight fleeces and high-tech boots. I still don’t know how Kate did it in her cumbersome gear.
I’d convinced a friend to accompany me. When we met up at Launceston airport she was terribly anxious because she’d been reading Trip Advisor with its hair raising accounts of the steep precipitous terrain.
Physical exertion was part of the experience. “Cradle Mountain district is not the place for holiday-makers intent on lazing away the days in easy chairs with books and iced drinks,” they wrote. “Rather it is a spot for those whose energetic souls long for a brief respite from the cares of civilisation and the daily newspapers and to spend their holiday in the wholesome open air among unspoilt nature…virgin territory untouched by human hands.” Waldheim was a place where as Gustav coined it, “there is no time and nothing matters”.
But it was never just about tourism. What distinguished them was their novel idea of a place for science and scenery. Gustav called Cradle “a botanists El-Dorado”. They knew in their bones the significance of the Precambrian dolerite millions of years old, the glacial moraines in the valley, and the Gondwanan vegetation, long before the international machinery existed to recognise its world heritage values. And the most enthusiastic visitors in the early days were scientists. Gustav and Kate were like Sunday and John Reid who attracted modernist painters to their home Heide in Victoria, only instead of surrounding themselves with artists they welcomed nerds. Waldheim was an outdoor laboratory as scientific disciplines previously the pursuit of amateurs became fields of professional research and study. These academics were setting up inaugural departments of botany, biology and zoology at Australian universities or joining the CSIRO then in its infancy. They came with blotting paper, nets, and jam jars, to source specimens for study.
But it was never just about tourism. What distinguished them was their novel idea of a place for science and scenery. Gustav called Cradle “a botanists El-Dorado”.
Errol Flynn’s father Professor Theodore Thomson Flynn was a regular guest, a biologist who was fascinated by the reproductive biology of marsupials, always keen for specimens of wombats and echidnas. Not only was there coffee, music, books, and garlic, but there was unrivalled biodiversity of flora and fauna and a pair of hosts who could enlighten uninformed guests as easily as they could stretch the minds of experts. Gustav was an avid meteorologist who constructed a weather station in Waldheim’s front yard, cadging instruments for fellow scientists or crafting them from whatever he had to hand. He took 30 different readings daily bombarding the Commonwealth meteorologist with more information than the bureau could accommodate. He also wrote prolifically for academic journals and the popular press. His forensic account of native fauna includes priceless insights into the mating habits, breeding, sociability, and behaviours of wallabies, possums, currawongs, quolls, and his observations were most recently quoted in a 2014 peer reviewed zoology paper.
He took 30 different readings daily bombarding the Commonwealth meteorologist with more information than the bureau could accommodate.
Shortly after their first visit to Cradle he articulated their belief in jimmying nature’s secrets loose in a wilderness …
where every walk appears to be the contents of a book which stimulates innumerable thoughts and pictures. From the rock whose weather worn surface is covered with mosses and lichens; from the alpine flower gardens where the gentle kangaroo grazes with its young, up to the gnarled and stunted pines and gum trees and the crystal glittering snow fields over which the stately eagle soars are the leaves of this writing of nature to be seen. The one will read of this book more, the other less; but all the art of reading rests in this; to analyse and recognise out of the superabundance of appearances and the individual occurrences the eternal law of the whole and the ingenious arrangement of things.
Waldheim was also an outdoor photographic studio for a brilliant crop of wilderness photographers who discovered the chalet in 1920. Known as the Launceston crew the group included Fred Smithies, Stephen Spurling, and Florence Perrin. They called Waldheim Liberty Hall. Writing in the Waldheim guest book after a visit to photograph the landscape in winter, one of the Launceston crew summed up their joyous mood: “Glorious night last. We got to bed at… Coffee was wonderful. Brandy even better. The limburger cheese smelled. The gramophone played. And everything in the forest was lovely.” They couldn’t believe what they had found and they came here in all kinds of weather to capture the drama of its sweeping panoramas as well as intimate close ups of crystallised trees in black and white. Their enthusiasm and photography were pivotal to the push for a national park, which had lost momentum in the years after Kate’s early death in 1916, and Gustav’s isolation during the Great War.
They couldn’t believe what they had found and they came here in all kinds of weather to capture the drama of its sweeping panoramas as well as intimate close ups of crystallised trees in black and white.
Words no matter how finely wrought do not pack the punch and the power of pictures that gingered public support for Cradle’s preservation, just as Carleton Watkins’ images of Yosemite brought this landscape to the attention of Congress and the public. When Gustav travelled to the mainland in 1929 to promote Cradle’s wonders he took a box of 200 lantern slides, many of them his own. He would use the ingenious bath house he’d built for guests as his darkroom.
Kate did not live to see Waldheim’s influence grow. Nor did she live to see the park proclaimed. The day she died in Gustav confided in his daily diary: “Today I have lost my best friend.” Then, because he couldn’t help himself take the measure of the weather, he wrote, “Glorious day.” He never found another with Kate’s spunk to share his home in the wild. Neither of them could have conceived of upwards of a quarter of a million visitors coming through the turnstile, nor could they have imagined the twenty-first century rat race where people are almost surgically attached to their mobile phones, making escape virtually impossible. The day I walked with my girlfriend up the summit she was fielding calls to manage her great Aunt Hillary’s broken hip while I was handling another domestic crisis by remote.
Kate did not live to see Waldheim’s influence grow. Nor did she live to see the park proclaimed. The day she died in Gustav confided in his daily diary: “Today I have lost my best friend.”
In the early 1900s escaping from the rat race did not involve helicopters or puffer jackets. There was no such thing as glamping. Gustav and Kate believed a certain amount of discomfort made the rewards of warmth and food at the end of the day all the richer. I hate to sound like my Presbyterian Scottish grandfather but how can you appreciate these simple blessings if you expect them on speed dial like Uber eats. For me, the whole idea of being outdoors is the roughing it, the dirt under your fingernails, the calf aching weariness, the wind in the trees, the prospect of a snake or a reptile in your path, even getting caught in a storm without an umbrella or a roof overhead makes you feel alive.
I hate to sound like my Presbyterian Scottish grandfather but how can you appreciate these simple blessings if you expect them on speed dial like Uber eats
I sometimes think the very notion of escaping from the rat race is almost as quaint as beribboned hats and ankle length skirts. Since the early shepherds, we have longed for arcadia. This yearning for a simpler existence drove the tree changers and sea changers seeking tranquillity. Now with daily reports of the earth’s fragility, we are on a more serious quest for survival. Tasmania’s central highlands with its guaranteed rainfall has become the life boat attracting high fliers who identify as climate change refugees.
Recently I was asked what it is about wilderness and nature that speaks to my soul. It’s a humbling mix of curiosity and awe, a communion with powerful forces that we are only beginning to unpick. I have seen land for sale near Cradle Mountain, many hectares of old growth forests and feathery sphagnum beds, going for the price of a one-bedroom studio apartment in Paddington. Best of all there is a corrugated hut with no running water, no bathroom, and a higgledy stone chimney. It’s got my name written all over it.
Best of all there is a corrugated hut with no running water, no bathroom, and a higgledy stone chimney. It’s got my name written all over it.