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‘A terror incognito!’: hiking Tasmania’s Central Plateau in 1908

Hikers love drama. Launceston photographer Steve Spurling (Stephen Spurling III, 1876‒1962) manufactured some in 1908 when he set out on a hike with his mates Knyvet Roberts (1872‒1959) and John Burns (Jack) Scott (1873‒1915). Their journey to Lake St Clair was ‘a terror incognito!’, since they could get ‘no reliable information as to what lay before us, and were not encouraged by rumours of precipitous valleys and impassable bogs …’[1]

In other words, Spurling didn’t know who to ask for information on his proposed route. In 1908 there were no walking clubs which later acted as a repository of local hiking knowledge. Spurling had few useful maps and no access to the shepherds and hunters who had been working the lake country for decades. Had he only known, in five minutes he could have hotfooted it from his office at Spurling Studios down to the legal firm of Law & Weston & Archer, two of the principals of which had, as schoolboys, crossed the lake country to Lake St Clair 22 years earlier.[2] Or called on Delorainite Dan Griffin, the temperamental highland journalist who had scouted the Lake Ina area for a west coast stock route, finding only a thylacine in the business of taking a leg of mutton home to her family.[3] These men could have told him where to go and what to expect.

Clean-shaven and steely-eyed, Jack Scott, Knyvet Roberts and Stephen Spurling III ready themselves for their two-week hike, 1908. Stephen Spurling III photo courtesy of the late Barney Roberts.

Spurling was then at the height of his physical powers, being instructor to the Union Jack Gymnasium Club.[4] Knyvet Roberts, a fellow traveller on Spurling’s 1905 Cradle Mountain climb, and Jack Scott, with whom Spurling had sporting connections (Union Jack Gymnasium Club, lacrosse and rifle shooting), are also likely to have been in fine fettle. They sure looked that way when Spurling photographed them gazing steely-eyed across a paddock somewhere between Deloraine and Western Creek. While his mates toted simple haversacks, Spurling, in addition to his swag and photographic case, slung a bag around his neck. How did his glass plates ever survive long enough to be processed, let alone exposed? More importantly, when did the cravat cease to be a bushwalking accessory and are we the poorer for it?

‘A pine belt, Western Highlands’, 1908, Roberts and Scott approaching a pencil pine grove on a highland lake. Stephen Spurling III photo courtesy of Stephen Hiller.
‘On the Pine River Divide, Central Plateau’, 1908, Roberts and Scott take a breather on the Great Pine Tier at one of the many tarns encountered. Brooding skies are a feature of this excursion record. Stephen Spurling III photo courtesy of Stephen Hiller.

Spurling’s purpose was to supplement the landscape catalogue of Spurling Studios. The Daily Telegraph’s Deloraine correspondent must have been suffering his own ‘terror incognito’, judging by his description of the party’s plans to cross ‘via Mount Ironstone and Lake St Clair for Cradle Mountain’.[5] The trek started inauspiciously. Alighting from the Higgs Track into a Lake Balmoral blizzard, the men set the compass for Mount Olympus, about 50 kilometres away as the crow flew. Twenty-seven-kilo packs barely provisioned them for the five days of tramping ahead, with innumerable detours around tarns, battles with bauera and dense Richea scoparia (‘gas bush’), and even a near thing with quicksand. At nightfall on Day Two they camped near ‘the lakes of the Hay Moon Marshes’ (presumably Chummy Lake and Lake Denton, near Halfmoon Marsh, Pine River) on the Great Pine Tier.

‘The Courier Lake, Western Highlands’, 1908. Stephen Spurling III photo courtesy of Stephen Hiller.
‘Lake Laura, Western Highlands’, 1908. In 1896 Beattie had taken the Sublime approach to Mount Ida’s towering form above this lake. Spurling’s elegantly framed photo instead captured the mountain reflections, belying the difficulty of access to the site. Stephen Spurling III photo courtesy of Stephen Hiller.

From here the trio must have swung around to the west.  On Day Four they approached a large, uncharted, unnamed lake ‘almost due south of Rugged Mt [a named then used to describe the group of peaks from the Walls to Mount Rogoona and those overlooking Lees Paddocks], ’ measuring about three miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide—possibly Lake Norman or Lake Payanna in the Mountains of Jupiter. This was probably the lake Spurling photographed, dubbing it the Courier Lake. Spurling’s companions also named another lake (now Lake Riengeena) after him at the time. The serrated head of the Acropolis now loomed high in the summer haze far across the Narcissus Valley. Rounding the shoulder of ‘an unnamed mountain’ (now Mount Spurling), they scrambled down the Traveller Range to camp at Lake Laura, just to the north-east of Lake St Clair.

‘From Mount Olympus, Lake St Clair’, 1908, a misty lake shot from the rock scree high on the mountain. Stephen Spurling III photo courtesy of Stephen Hiller.
‘Drifting mists, Mount Olympus’, 1908, showing the party’s campsite at Narcissus River. Stephen Spurling III photo courtesy of Libraries Tasmania.

On Day Seven Spurling’s party resettled at the mouth of the Narcissus River, a site which would find favour with future Lake St Clair campers. After a week’s exertion, the photographer was too knackered to attend the usual dawn service of his profession.  He had not stirred from his bed next morning when one of his mates roused him, ‘Steve, get up, there’s a cloud over Mount Olympus!’ By the time the lens was brought to bear, the rising mist cloaked only the mountain’s lower baffles, resulting in one of Spurling’s most striking compositions.

‘The Du Cane Range [the Guardians] from Lake Marion’, 1908. Stephen Spurling III photo courtesy of Stephen Hiller.
Spurling’s ‘Mount Gould, Lake Marion’, 1908, seems rather tame compared to Beattie’s Sublime version shot twelve years earlier.  Was the pandanus planted? Stephen Spurling III photo courtesy of Stephen Hiller.
‘Cuvier Valley and Mount Olympus’, 1908. The party pauses for the photographer on its half-starved rush to Cynthia Bay. Stephen Spurling III photo courtesy of the late Barney Roberts.

Food supplies were now desperately low. After conquering Mount Olympus, base camp was moved to the Byron Gap in hope of landing some game. ‘Hedgehog’ (echidna) stew had fed the party for a while, but their snares continued to draw a blank. Lake Marion, Mount Gould and the Cuvier Valley completed the sightseeing, before the visitors made a dash for the accommodation house at the southern end of the lake, hoping to beg provisions from other tourists. The place was empty—but for a small packet of flour. Spurling, Scott and Roberts quickly turned this into a barely edible rock-hard damper. Appetites whetted, they determined to partake of the superior cuisine available at the Pearce residence, 20 kilometres away. There the ‘three wild eyed haggard bearded sun-downers’ must have presented quite a sight hoeing into their ‘Lord Mayors Banquet’.

Homeward bound, they took the stock track from Bronte to Great Lake, reaching the shepherd’s hut at the Skittleball Plains near Great Lake on the twelfth night of their journey. The 4139-acre sheep run between the Ouse and Little Pine Rivers was stocked by Edmund Johnson of Lonsdale, near Kempton. The identity of his shepherd is unknown, but he kindly offered the party his floor. Revived by their hearth-side sleep, Spurling, Scott and Roberts pulled out all stops for the final dash along the lake and down Warners Track, taking their tally for the last three days of the tramp to 130 kilometres. The reason for their haste was that at the Pearce homestead arrangements had been made to have a driver await the party with a dray at Jackeys Marsh. ‘The luxury of driving was unspeakable’, Spurling wrote in an excursion diary which, like the 1840s survey maps that might have aided him, was never published.

Spurling’s photos from the trip featured in the Weekly Courier newspaper over many months.[6] They also appeared as postcards (they are collectables today) and in ‘bioscope’ lantern slide performances which Spurling conducted in Launceston, that is, as slides incorporated into a moving picture show.[7] In 1913 he would return to Lake St Clair with a movie camera, as Simon Cubit and I detailed in Historic Tasmanian mountain huts.[8]

Major Jack Scott was killed in action at Gallipoli on 8 October 1915, having joined up in Western Australia alongside his brother Joe Scott—who likewise lost his life during the Dardanelles Campaign.[9] Knyvet Roberts, after whom Knyvet Falls, Pencil Pine Creek, are named, became a Flowerdale farmer. His son, the writer Bernard (Barney) Roberts, treasured an album of 30 photos which Spurling had given his father after the 1908 Lake St Clair trip. Barney used these photos to introduce me to the photography of Steve Spurling, for which, 30 years later, I am extremely grateful.

[1] Spurling’s unpublished account of the trip, ‘Across the Plateau’, is held by the Spurling family in Devonport. It appears to be a typed version of hand-written Spurling notes and is wrongly dated February 1913, giving the impression that the author and the typist were not one and the same.

[2] For the accounts of this trip see ‘The Tramp’ (William Dubrelle Weston), ‘About Lake St Clair’, The Paidophone, (Launceston Church of England Grammar School magazine), vol.II, no.7, September 1887, pp.7‒8; and ‘Shanks’s Ponies’ (William Dubrelle Weston), ‘A trip to Lake St Clair’, Examiner, 22 December 1888, p.2 and 29 December 1888, p.13. For Weston and Law’s hiking careers, see Nic Haygarth, ‘”The summit of our ambition”: Cradle Mountain and the highland bushwalks of William Dubrelle Weston’, Papers and Proceedings of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association, vol.56, no.3, December 2009, pp.207‒24.

[3] ‘Lake Ina’, Daily Telegraph, 24 May 1907, p.4.

[4] ‘Union Jack Gymnasium Club Annual Meeting’, Daily Telegraph, 17 March 1908, p.8.

[5] ‘Deloraine’. Daily Telegraph, 18 February 1908, p.7.

[6] Photos from the 1908 trip appeared in the Weekly Courier on 16 April 1908, p.27; 23 April 1908, p.19; 30 April 1908, p.17; 7 May 1908, p.17; 14 May 1908, p.17; 21 May 1908, pp.21 and 22; 28 May 1908, p.17; 11 June 1908, p.24; 2 July 1908, p.17; 9 July 1908, pp.17 and 23; 16 July 1908, p.22; 23 July 1908, p.23; 6 August 1908, pp.20 and 24; 31 December 1908, pp.21 and 24.

[7] See, for example, ‘Bioscope entertainment’, Daily Telegraph, 29 September 1908, p.3.

[8] ‘Hartnett’s huts’, in Simon Cubit and Nic Haygarth, Historic Tasmanian mountain huts: through the photographer’s lens, Forty South Publishing, Hobart, 2014, pp.76‒83.

[9] ‘Major JB Scott killed: brothers make the supreme sacrifice’, Examiner, 16 October 1915, p.6.

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To the edge of the Walls: Stephen Spurling’s 1903 hike to the Little Fisher ‘Gulf’

It would be easy to dismiss hiking trips as frivolous. Urban people taking the airs. Weekenders marvelling at ‘new’ landscapes others work in all week. Spiritual awakenings in firestick farmlands. Bushwalkers are rarely explorers even in the European sense of discovering a place known to the Aborigines for 60,000 years. Generally they tread a well-trodden path.

But I do get interested when bushwalking accounts give us historical insights. They can tell us when something happened, when a structure was built or destroyed or a track cut. They can help trace the development of technology. Take, for example, the story of photographer Stephen Spurling III (1876–1962) lugging 12 x 10-inch glass plates up Stacks Bluff through snow drifts on home-made snow-shoes to take the first Tasmanian highland snow scenes.[1]

There is a charming naivety about all Spurling’s accounts of hiking the northern ranges in the years 1895–1913. These were young men plunging agreeably into what was to them the unknown. In his report of a 1908 trip from Ironstone Mountain to Lake St Clair Spurling described the Central Plateau as ‘A Terror Incognito’, his party being unable to score reliable information as to what lay ahead of them, just ‘rumours of precipitous valleys and impassable bogs dense belts of scrub and other obstacles to progress …’[2] Highland stockmen and hunters, or experienced Launceston hikers such as William Dubrelle (WD) Weston and Richard Ernest ‘Crate’ Smith could have advised him, had he known to ask them. There were no walking clubs then to act as a repository of hiking knowledge. There was no digital newspaper index to search. This was a world not over-stimulated by visual images. No internet, no TV, no neon billboards. You could buy albums of Tasmanian views from photographers like John Watt (JW) Beattie, but the era of press photography was just dawning.

Spurling could see a market for Tasmanian scenery in both albums and illustrated weekend newspapers. He loved the Central Plateau. In 1899 he and a group of friends climbed the Great Western Tiers at Caveside and crossed the Plateau to see Devils Gullet.[3] In early 1901 he was part of a group that ascended the Tiers above Meander and worked its way west past Lake Mackenzie, once again to Devils Gullet.[4] Spurling scenes of the Tasmanian highlands were a striking feature of the Weekly Courier from its inception in July 1901.

Devils Gullet was then known as ‘The Gulf’. However, Spurling had heard of a ‘magnificent’ ‘Second Gulf’ ten miles (sixteen kilometres) back from the escarpment where the Fish River—actually the Little Fisher River—made its escape to the Mersey.  Spurling’s map placed this gulf, quite correctly, in the vicinity of the Walls of Jerusalem—something of a mythic land for bushwalkers well into the twentieth century. Although surveyor James Scott had charted the Walls of Jerusalem as early as 1849, and the mountain complex was well known to highland graziers and hunters, hikers were in the dark about it.  Scott’s map was not in circulation, nor were the earlier exploratory accounts of John Beamont and Jorgen Jorgensen.[5] Launceston walkers WD Weston and probably Ernest Law had visited the Walls of Jerusalem and the so-called Rugged Mountains after Christmas in 1888, but the only copy of their account of the expedition disappeared in the Daily Telegraph newspaper office and was never published.[6]

Approximate route of Spurling party to Little Fisher Gulf 1903, map courtesy of DPIPWE.

Blissful in their ignorance, Spurling and his three mates set out for the Second Gulf one autumn weekend in 1903. This time they chose the Higgs Track up the Great Western Tiers near Western Creek. Although Spurling’s report of the trip was not his most entertaining, he observed familiar picaresque conventions of the time. A ‘Jehu’ (biblical chariot driver) delivered the party from Deloraine Railway Station to Dale Brook and back. Only one of the party, the ‘Infant’, received a nickname, that being punishment for describing photography as ‘funny business’.

Campsite on the Higgs Track below the lip of the plateau. Stephen Spurling III photo from the Weekly Courier, 4 April 1903, pp.20-21.

Moist westerly winds impeded their progress up the valley of Dale Brook. The four made base camp in a canvas-roofed shelter just below the lip of the plateau, and spent the rest of the day battling the wind as they reconnoitred around Lake Balmoral. From a hill they sized up the ‘unknown’ country to the south-west that they hoped to penetrate.

One of the Blue Peaks and its accompanying lake, Stephen Spurling III photo, from the Weekly Courier, 4 April 1903, p.21.

Next day they made their push for the Second Gulf. Leaving Lake Balmoral to their right, they reached lake Lucy Long, forded Explorer Creek and the Fisher River, and by 9 am had attained the summit of one of the Blue Peaks.  A tongue of land separating Little Throne Lake from its northern neighbour provided a bridge, and by 11.30 am, after six hours’ hard walking, the party stood near Turrana Bluff on the brink of ‘a tremendous gorge, known to a few hunters and shepherds as the Second Gulf, and which corresponds on the map with the Walls of Jerusalem’.

View of the ‘Second Gulf’ (Little Fisher River ‘Gulf’), Stephen Spurling III photo from the Weekly Courier, 4 April 1903, p.20.

Dazzled, perhaps, by his view of the Walls, Spurling described only the ‘wild, serrated form’ of the ‘Rugged Mount’, which made ‘a most impressive background’. Four long silvery streaks of waterfalls dropped over the chasm in the distance. Despite tramping from Ironstone Mountain to Lake St Clair in 1908, this is as close as he would ever get to the Walls of Jerusalem.

Mist cut short the day’s exploration. Yet, with practical ingenuity typical of the time, Spurling’s party cornered and killed a wallaby, part of which they roasted for their evening meal back at base camp. Their final day was spent revisiting Devils Gullet and exploring the course of the Fisher River above it without, apparently, finding the Parsons Hut which Spurling would photograph on his next expedition to these parts—the winter 1904 snow-shoe extravaganza.[7]

[1] Stephen Spurling, ‘Ben Lomond in winter’, Weekly Courier, 19 September 1903, pp.25–26; 26 September 1903, p.26; 3 October 1903, pp.25–26; 10 October 1903, p.35.

[2] S Spurling Junior (Stephen Spurling III), ‘Across the plateau’, unpublished account held by the Spurling family, Devonport. The account is dated February 1913, but the numbering of Spurling’s photos from this trip suggests 1908. The many typographical errors in the paper suggest that someone else transcribed it from Spurling’s handwritten original. The date may be another transcription error.

[3] ‘Union Jack’ (Stephen Spurling III), ‘A trip to the Gulf and Westmoreland [sic] Falls’, Examiner, 20 January 1900, p.7.

[4] ‘The Hermit’ (Stephen Spurling III), ‘In the highlands of Tasmania’, Weekly Courier, 20 July 1901, pp.123–24.

[5] For Beamont: ‘Copy of Mr Beamont’s journal taken on his tour to the Western Mountains, Van Diemen’s Land, Monday, 1st Decr, 1817’, Historical Records of Australia, series III, vol.III, Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament, Canberra, 1921, pp.586–90. For Jorgensen: His travels were deciphered by Arch Meston and CJ Binks, see Binks, Explorers of western Tasmania, Mary Fisher Bookshop, Launceston, 1980, pp.48–57.

[6] Weston alludes to the Walls of Jerusalem trip twice in an account of a Cradle Mountain trip in 1890–91. See ‘Peregrinator’ (WD Weston), ‘Up the Cradle Mountain’, Examiner, 4 March 1891, supplement, p.2 and 11 March 1891, supplement, p.1. Weston also appears to allude to this trip in a letter to AV Smith (2 May 1889, CHS47 2/56, QVMAG) and comments on its disappearance in a letter to RE ‘Crate’ Smith (24 September 1889, CHS47 2/55, QVMAG). For

[7] S Spurling jun, ‘On the Western Tiers: trip to the Fish River Gulf’, Tasmanian Mail, 4 April 1903, p.4. For the winter 1904 snow-shoe extravaganza, see Simon Cubit and Nic Haygarth, ‘Sandy Beach Lake Hut’, in Historic Tasmanian mountain huts: through the photographer’s lens, Forty South Publishing, Hobart, 2014, pp.84–91.

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Attack of the ‘platypus motor’

Up one side … a Citröen-Kegresse on the Kensington Sandhills near Sydney. From the Weekly Courier, 27 September 1923, p.23.
Down the other …. the Citröen-Kegresse prototype on its way to Waldheim, 1924. Stephen Spurling III photo courtesy of Anton Lade.

They don’t make Citröens like that anymore. Gustav Weindorfer of Waldheim Chalet, the highland resort at Cradle Valley, beat the snow by shooting for meat on skis when he began living there in isolation in 1912.[1] At around the same time, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia understandably ordered a grander hunting vehicle for snow conditions—with caterpillar tracks for back wheels. Hannibal’s elephantine passage through the Alps to surprise the Romans had nothing on the Citröen-Kegresse, the assault vehicle which resulted from the meeting of French car manufacturer André Citröen and the Tsar’s resourceful mechanic, Adolph Kegresse, after the Russian Revolution.[2]

The Tsar’s caterpillar-tracked hunting technology now drove a prototype that breached the Himalayas en route to China and crossed the Sahara to Timbuktu. It also took a crack at Cradle. In 1924 Latrobe garage owner William Lade publicised his acquisition of a Citröen-Kegresse in Wynyard, Penguin, Latrobe and Devonport, being fined in the last town for demonstrating its ability to climb the steps of the Seaview Hotel.[3] There were fewer rules and few police in the highlands. Rearing over hills and plummeting down the other side, Lade’s vehicle roared up to Waldhiem with ten people aboard close to midnight on 12 April 1924.[4] Launceston’s Daily Telegraph newspaper had high expectations of the Citröen-Kegresse trip:

‘It had been expected that the machine would attempt the last 1½ miles [from Waldheim] to the [Cradle Mountain] summit, but as the rain continued to fall throughout the whole of Sunday the attempt had to be abandoned’.[5]

‘An obstacle surmounter on its hind legs’. The prototype on the inaugural Cradle trip. Don’t forget to pack a newspaper. Stephen Spurling III photo courtesy of the St Helens History Room.

The effect of this visitor on Weindorfer, who may have imagined himself awakened from years of isolation from tourists and supplies, can also be imagined. In preparation for the following summer’s business, Lade then built a shed to house the Kegresse at Moina, about three-quarters of the way to Cradle Valley, the idea being to use conventional transport to bring passengers from the coast that far, swapping to the Kegresse only for the challenging final section. The prospects for tourism seemed rosy. At the time, Weindorfer’s friend Ronald Smith was building a family shack on his own land at the edge of Cradle Valley. ‘Have you finished your place?’, Weindorfer, who called the Kegresse the ‘platypus motor’, asked Smith in October 1924. ‘There might be some business for you’.[6]

Gustav Weindorfer. Photo by Ron Smith courtesy of Charles Smith.

 

Waldheim Chalet in the snow during the Weindorfer era. CF Monds photo courtesy of DPIPWE.

The ‘platypus motor’ made four further trips to Cradle in the period January–March 1925. However, tank technology did not take root on the slopes of Cradle Valley or on the road to Cradle. Snowfalls were too inconsistent to attract skiers, and the Citröen-Kegresse disappeared from service after only one further trip, in December 1927.[7] Weindorfer stuck to his skis and joined the Indian corps instead. In 1931 he acquired an Indian Scout motorcycle, meaning that, for the first time, he could motor to and from Cradle Valley at will.

At least, that was the theory. Weindorfer was found dead next to his Indian half a kilometre from Waldheim in May 1932. It appeared that he had suffered a heart attack while trying to kick start the machine.[8] Cradle’s isolation had finally silenced him.

[1] Gustav Weindorfer diary, 17 July 1914, NS234/27/1/4 (Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office [hereafter TAHO]).

[2] See, for example, John Reynolds, André Citröen: the man and the motor cars, Alan Sutton, 1996.

[3] ‘Motor demonstrations’, Advocate, 9 April 1924, p.2.

[4] Gustav Weindorfer diary, 12 April 1924 (Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery [hereafter QVMAG]).

[5] ‘To Cradle Mountain by tractor’, Daily Telegraph, 19 April 1924, p.16.

[6] Gustav Weindorfer to Ronald Smith, 2 October 1924, p.141, LMSS150/1/1 (LINC Tasmania, Launceston).

[7] Gustav Weindorfer diary, 13 December 1927 (QVMAG).

[8] See Esrom Connell to Percy Mulligan, 20 September 1963, NS234/19/1/22; and the coronial enquiry into Weindorfer’s death, AE313/1/1 (TAHO).