Kindred – A Cradle Mountain Love Story by Kate Legge

  • The Miegunyah Press 2019
  • ISBN:9780522874518
  • RRP $44.99 (hb)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

The cover of Kate Legge’s Kindred – A Cradle Mountain Love Story, says it all. Two figures in the black and white photography of the early twentieth century stand in a snow covered wilderness on the slope of a mountain peak, a mountain they climbed both physically and metaphorically.

The man looks towards the camera, dressed in hunting boots and riding breeches, his pickaxe under one shoulder and his camera hanging from his neck while the woman with him is decked out as if on a Sunday outing with her long skirt and wide brimmed hat. Around them the peaks of the Cradle Valley and surrounds frame their not quite silhouette images. They are the Weindorfers.

More than a century after botanists Gustav Weindorfer and his wife Kate Cowle began their dream of opening up Tasmania’s Cradle Valley, its lakes and peaks, its flora and fauna, its exhilarating experience of ancient and wild nature, Kate Legge has written the story of Australia’s greatest natural wilderness and the “giants” who brought it to the nation. Her exposé is both intimate and transforming – bringing the experience of wilderness and the human part in it to the world beyond.

As Gustav Weindorfer himself argued in his often futile attempts to persuade local, state and federal governments to build a passable road to his chalet before his death in 1932, Legge reminds us that “The Blue Mountains in New South Wales have cliffs and waterfalls but no peaks. The Buffalo Mountains in Victoria no lakes or forests to compare. The Cradles towered over both yet drew fewer than 150 people every year, compared with thousands going to Buffalo and the Blue Mountains.”

Two years after Weindorfer’s death, visitors would gain a passable road to the Weindorfer chalet Gustav and Kate had named Waldheim (meaning forest home) and not have to walk the final four to five miles through bush landscape where many could find themselves knee-deep in the mud of the peaty soil – often in the dark.

In her chapter “The Road” Legge illustrates not only the quagmire of a track that local Bob Quaile and his mountain horses guided and transported visitors along but also how the Cradle kept itself remote for so long, describing how for Gustav the idea of a passable road “shimmered like the biblical Tower of Babel” for he “knew precisely its grading and topography, for he had trudged back and forth that many times he could find his way blind”.

Ironically, today, such wilderness areas are under the threat of becoming tourist parks. Recent images of mountaineering crowds lining the peaks of Mount Everest – some even dying as comrades walked on – are warning enough that understanding the precious nature of “wilderness” is part of the ongoing custodianship humans have inherited.

It is Legge’s achievement that Kindred creates the ambience needed to fully appreciate the dream that Gustav Weindorfer and Kate Cowle held. They did not seek to keep others out – they worked tirelessly to bring people to see what they had found. They could never have imagined any overuse of their site or any threat to its continued wilderness isolation.

Legge is conscious of the need to bring the whole experience to others – that they will also recognise the unique but fragile wonder Cradle Valley remains. As Legge says of her book: “This is my homage to them. This is not history. This is a story. Not his-story or hers. The story of their love and their legacy.” A legacy others, Legge makes clear, must continue to preserve.

Gustav Weindorfer was an immigrant to Australia from Austria who bided his time in a clerical job while hoping to find employment as a botanist. Gustav met Kate Cowle at a meeting of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria in Melbourne on an evening when she presented a paper in 1903. Kate was then aged 40 and Weindorfer 29.

A woman presenting a paper to the club was rare indeed and Kate Cowle attracted Gustav’s interest immediately for what Legge describes as “her vivid account that … spoke to him in a vernacular they made their own. Fear of heights or inclement weather didn’t bother her as she sashayed upwards in ankle-length skirt, high-collared bodice and beribboned hat, noting the purple heath and dwarf beech, artichoke and yellow thyme colouring the summit.”

Kate, from Tasmania, was educated in Hobart, but in 1903 was living with her sister in Melbourne having been left a comfortable inheritance from her father’s estate. Gustav and Kate bonded over their mutual love of naturalist study and excursions, and soon enjoyed treks together in Victoria’s Mount Buffalo region. Weindorfer later made field trips in the Grampians, Mount Bogong in the Victorian alps and regions in Gippsland.

But it would be Tasmania where the couple would settle – married on 1 February 1906 in northern Tasmania. They spent their honeymoon climbing Mount Roland in Tasmania’s Great Western Tiers and returned to make a home at Kindred, south of Devonport, on a farm they hoped would finance their dream of a home in the wilderness. The Cradles were beckoning.

In the first days of 1910, Kate and Gustav with a support team of one – local Ron Smith – set off to explore the Cradle Valley and its peaks. Mine owner Walter Black joined them on the last few kilometres – going back for food and gear at one point when they were struggling for supplies. It was a successful trip – the Weindorfers climbing the Cradle Mountain summit. As Legge records: “The men reached the summit first after a further hour of exertion, cheering Kate’s arrival soon afterwards at the highest point.”

A special feature of Legge’s Kindred are the photos. Photos had inspired Gustav’s interest in the Cradles from the time he had viewed Stephen Spurling’s photos of Cradle Mountain as early as 1905, published in Tasmania’s Weekly Courier. Throughout her book, the black and white photography – taken by naturalists including Gustav Weindorfer and Stephen Spurling among many others – reveals how many advanced records of a frontier landscape were left by talented individuals devoted not only to adventure but the record as well.

The Weindorfers were by no means the first to discover the Cradle wilderness – but they brought it to the world. Legge gives a chapter to Australia’s first people in “Welcome to Country” tracing the steps of Indigenous Australians in the Cradles left by accounts of early explorer George Augustus Robinson who knew the Indigenous Trugannini and her husband Wooreddy and had them guide him through Cradle Valley in 1829.

Legge muses at how the Weindorfers never wondered at the “footprints of those who had visited Cradle Mountain tens of thousands of years before them.” Yet, as her story unfolds and she describes the rigours the Weindorfers experienced in building their lodge and taking supplies into the Cradles, one can imagine how the terrain had for millennia kept human presence away. Ironically, perhaps, such a landscape could only be opened up to human habitation with the modern facilities of the twentieth century.

For all that, the Weindorfers’ crusade was made against excruciating odds. From 1911, Gustav’s isolation, but for his beloved dog Flock, as he built his first walls and roof of his lodge was extreme with tools and materials being brought in slung over a pack horse for the four-mile trek into the valley. Kate spent months at Kindred, farming to pay for their shared dream. Her letters to Gustav and his to her their only contact – hers “delivered to Middlesex Station or the packing-case post office nailed to a tree near Daisy Dell”. By December 1912, Gustav had built a watertight chalet of three rooms – one a cavernous sitting and dining room. In time, a vast inglenook fireplace would become the heart of the chalet.

Kate would pre-decease her husband by some two decades and leave the legacy seeming very much his. Her death in April 1916, probably from undiagnosed breast or lung cancer, was a riveting blow. The chalet was just beginning to take its first full load of summer naturalists. Kate had barely had a couple of years of broken residence to take it in.

In telling this story, Kate Legge does more than resurrect the woman who made Cradle Mountain’s chalet possible but also reinstates her as an equal partner in the dream. And, as if to make real her own account of the Weindorfers, Legge and a woman friend finally make it to the summit with Legge feeling her admiration for Kate Cowle “flying blind without poles or paths, hindered by her long skirt and leather boots”.

The message to the world from both Kates is, however, that we are custodians of this wilderness. Its survival rests in our hands. Kate Legge’s magnificent retelling of this story, should make that survival all the more likely.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History