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‘This mountain may run your motor car’: the early struggles of the Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park

Mining in a scenic reserve? A fur farm as well? How about damming a protected lake to generate power? Bring it all on. During its first 25 years the Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park was a free-for all.

The national park might have been sparked by a sermon on Cradle Mount but its implementation was more like a meditation on patience. In the 1920s economy reigned over ecology in Tasmania. With the state considered an economic basket case, government had little appetite for funding national parks or for standing in the way of resource exploitation. The Scenery Preservation Board which nominally managed the park had only advisory powers and was, as Gerard Castles suggested, ‘handcuffed’ to this development ethos.[1] Voluntary park administrators attacked their task with a passion. However, their efforts were clouded by conflicts of ideology and pecuniary interest. The first two decades of park management were beset with challenges from the mining, fur and timber industries and the government mantra of hydro-industrialisation. Even the local experts employed to build, maintain and oversee park infrastructure and guide tourists were ‘exploiters’—fur hunters and mineral prospectors. The idea of a road from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair was entertained on the ‘bigger, better and more accessible’ social justice principle that has been used time and time again in Tasmania to justify development of natural assets. What a mess!

Waldheim in the Weindorfer era. Fred Smithies photo, courtesy of Margaret Carrington.


Getting to Cradle Mountain in 1924, the Citroen-Kegresse prototype, which Weindorfer called the ‘platypus motor’. Stephen Spurling III photo.

Origins of the park

The Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park had three starting points: Cradle Mountain, the Pelion/Du Cane region, and Lake St Clair. At Cradle Valley Gustav and Kate Weindorfer established a tourist resort called Waldhiem in 1912. The story of how they built it and almost no-one came has been told a thousand times. In the Pelion/Du Cane region hunter/prospector Paddy Hartnett had a network of huts, some of which doubled as staging posts for his guided tours as far south as Lake St Clair. Three industrial-size skin drying sheds which stood near Pelion Gap, at Kia Ora Creek and in the Du Cane Gap give some idea of the scale of hunting operations before and after World War One (1914–18). Hartnett’s Du Cane Hut remains today. Lake St Clair had been visited fairly regularly by Europeans for almost a century. It was effectively reserved in 1885 when a half-mile-wide zone around its shores was withdrawn from selection. The Pearce brothers built a government accommodation house, boat house and horse paddock at Cynthia Bay 1894–95 but the buildings were destroyed by fire in 1916.

Paddy Hartnett’s massive skin shed near Kia Ora Creek, 1913. Stephen Spurling III photo courtesy of Stephen Hiller.

When Gustav Weindorfer declared famously that ‘this should be a park for the people for all time’, he meant only the Cradle Mountain–Barn Bluff area in which he later operated. Other park proponents, including Director of the Tasmanian Government Tourist and Information Bureau ET Emmett, and bushwalker photographers Fred Smithies, Ray McClinton and HJ King, were familiar with a much greater area. They wanted to include the swathe of land from Dove Lake to Lake St Clair, making an area about six times the size of the Mount Field National Park.

The Scenery Preservation Act (1915), under which the Freycinet Scenic Reserve and National Park (Mount Field National Park) were gazetted in 1916, forbade the lighting of fires, cutting of timber, shooting of guns, removal or killing of birds and native or imported game and damage to scenic or historic features on reserved land. The Act therefore effectively forbade hunting but it did not expressly forbid mining, even though mining always included the lighting of fires and cutting of timber. Parts of the proposed national park area were already logged, grazed, hunted and mined, and to allay fears of these primary industries being locked out of a proclaimed reserve, in 1921 the Act was amended to allow exemptions from the provisions of the original Act.[2]

Stephen Spurling III photo, from file AB948/1/225, Tasmanian Archives.


The Pelion oil field

World War One (1914–18) had created anxiety about resource security in Australia and precipitated revolution and civil war in Russia. Outcomes for Tasmania included the search for shale oil reserves and a boom in the Tasmanian fur industry, with brush possum skins helping to make up for the loss of Russian fur reserves. While a lantern lecture campaign promoted the idea of a Cradle Mountain national park in 1921, about 80,000 acres of the land in question was under exploration lease in the search for shale oil (‘inspissated asphalite’). The Adelaide Oil Exploration Company used a Spurling photo to push the idea that Mount Pelion West was a motor oil bonanza. Its proponents assured would-be investors that its lease contained ‘the greatest potential amount of wealth hitherto controlled by any one concern in the British Empire, and, probably, in the whole world, outside the United States of America’. Faith might be able to move mountains, but the government geologist assured them it couldn’t put oil in these mountains. The only lasting impact of oil exploration was the Horse Track south from Waldheim, which was marked to enable pack horses to supply coal/oil operations at Lake Will.

Gustav Weindorfer hunting at Lake Lilla with his dog Flock, 1922.
Stephen Spurling III photo courtesy of Stephen Hiller.


The Cradle Mountain fur farm

The Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair Scenic Reserves were gazetted under the amended Act in 1922 but at first neither was a fauna sanctuary under the Animals and Birds Protection Act (1919). With the surge in hunting it was inevitable that fur farming on the Canadian model was proposed for Tasmania. The Fur Farming Encouragement Act (1924) reserved 30,000 acres at Cradle Mountain for a fur farm, but before local hunters could protest, in 1925 this area was dismissed as unsuitable by two of the scheme’s proponents, Melbourne skin buyers who, extraordinarily, believed that ‘furs grown at a high altitude have not the good texture of those grown on the low lying country’.[3] Nobody seems to have counselled Tasmanian hunters that high country furs were inferior. Working at Lake St Clair in the winter season of 1925, Bert Nichols reportedly made the small fortune of £500, his possum skins fetching 17 shillings 11 pence and his wallaby skins more than 12 shillings each at the Sheffield Skin Sale.[4] This was at a time when the average annual wage for a farm worker was about £110 to £125.[5]

Two subsidiary management boards

Two subsidiary bodies were appointed to advise the Scenery Preservation Board on matters relating to the two adjoining scenic reserves. One, the National Park Board, already helped manage the Mount Field National Park. Chaired by botanist Leonard Rodway, with Tasmanian Museum director Clive Lord as its secretary, it now added the Lake St Clair Scenic Reserve to its purview. The other body, which administered the Cradle Mountain Scenic Reserve, was created from nominated representatives of interested organisations and municipal councils plus several people who had campaigned for the reserve’s creation.[6] Ron Smith (Cradle Mountain Reserve Board secretary from 1930) and Fred Smithies became standard bearers for the 68,000-acre Cradle Mountain Reserve, but their simultaneous ownership of land at Cradle Valley inevitably led to a conflict-of-interest situation.

Fred Smithies’ photo of ‘a trapper’s hut near Lake St Clair’,
Weekly Courier, 8 August 1928. Courtesy of Libraries Tasmania.


During 1927 the Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair Scenic Reserves were gazetted as fauna sanctuaries.[7] Two months later the hunter/prospector Dick Nichols was nabbed for poaching at a hunting hut in the Cuvier Valley. His brother Bert was probably around somewhere too but escaped detection, and it became clear that they had a network of hunting huts around Lake St Clair and in the Cuvier Valley.[8] Fred Smithies, a member of the CMRB, was used to sleeping among the drying pelts in Bert Nichols’ Marion Creek Hut.[9] In the winter of 1928 he took a lovely photo of it under snow and this poacher’s hut in a fauna sanctuary made the front cover of the Weekly Courier newspaper![10] Nichols later duplicated the hut for the use of Overland Track walkers.

The Overland Track

The idea of threading a track through the two reserves to unite them seems to have started with Ron Smith, who in 1928 envisaged an ‘overland track’ connecting Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair, including a motor boat service on the lake.[11] Sections of track that could be linked already existed, including that marked by Weindorfer from Waldheim to Lake Will (the basis of the Horse Track), the Mole Creek Track between Pelion Plain and Pine Forest Moor, and hunters’ tracks from Pelion Plain through to Lake St Clair and the Cuvier Valley. Paddy Hartnett offered to cut the Overland Track for £440, but Bert Nichols did it for only £15.[12] He connected up sections of track and cleared others south of Pelion Plain to form the Overland Track in 1931.[13] Mining, hunting and tourism huts like Old Pelion, Lake Windermere and DuCane were adopted as staging posts along the track.

In 1934 Fergy established this dining room and associated huts at Cynthia Bay, Lake St Clair. Norton Harvey photo.


Although the official Overland Track went through the Cuvier Valley, it soon became standard procedure to cross Lake St Clair instead on tourist operator Albert ‘Fergy’ Fergusson’s motorboat. During the Great Depression Miss Velocity was an integral part of Bert Nichols’ guided tours on the Overland Track. Fergy’s tourist camp of sixteen tent-huts with earthen floors and a communal rustic dining room rivalled Weindorfer’s set-up at Cradle Valley.[14] He employed a housekeeper and owned a ‘frightful old bus’ with sawn-off cane kitchen chairs for seats, with which he drove walkers out to the Lyell Highway at Derwent Bridge.[15]

A 1929 Bert Nichols party at Windermere Hut. Marjorie Smith photo courtesy of the late Ian Smith.


Fergy’s racing boat Miss Velocity at rest in front of Mount Ida, Lake St Clair, 1929. Marjorie Smith photo courtesy of Ian Smith.


The death and wake of Gustav Weindorfer

Gustav Weindorfer died of cardiac arrest in Cradle Valley in May 1932, apparently in the act of trying to start his Indian motorcycle.[16] His name was already inscribed on his wife Kate’s headstone at Don in anticipation of him joining her there but a group of his friends arranged his interment in front of Waldheim.[17] Ironically, despite his love of the place, for years Weindorfer had been trying to sell and leave Waldheim.[18] Now he was stuck there!

The ceremony to unveil the memorial to Gustav Weindorfer at Waldheim, 1938, with Ron Smith in the foreground at right. Fred Smithies photo courtesy of Margaret Carrington.

The Austrian secular tradition of remembering departed loved ones was adopted at Weindorfer’s grave after his sister Rosa Moritsch sent a bunch of flowers and four small candles from his native land. These were placed on his grave on New Year’s Day 1933. For several decades Weindorfer’s good friend Ron Smith organised the annual New Year’s Day ceremony. The annual commemoration of Weindorfer’s life has assumed possibly unparalleled longevity among Australian public figures.

The work of the Connells

First Bert Nichols and then Barrington farmers Lionel and Maggie Connell looked after Waldheim before a syndicate of Weindorfer’s Launceston friends (George Perrin, Charlie Monds, Karl Stackhouse and Fred Smithies) bought the chalet from his estate.[19] They asked the Connells to stay on as managers. Lionel Connell had been snaring around Cradle Mountain for two decades and knew the country well. The Connells, with six sons and daughters to help them, set about making Waldheim financially viable by extending the building and improving access to it.

Lionel Connell loading up Weindorfer’s punt on Dove Lake, 1936. Ron Smith photo courtesy of Charles Smith.


Os Connell digging out his family’s Sheffield–Cradle Mountain Passenger Service, 1943. Photo courtesy of Es Connell.


In the late 1930s the Connells had a tourism package for the Northern Reserve that far exceeded that of Gustav Weindorfer, ferrying visitors to and from Waldheim in their car, accommodating visitors, feeding them with produce from the farm at Barrington, guiding them around Cradle Mountain and even guiding them on pack-horse tours on the Overland Track.

Fergy’s other tub: early rangers

Ex-hunter and Overland Track guide Bert Nichols is said to have removed Overland Track markers when they were not needed in order to snare undetected in the fauna sanctuary. Nichols did other infrastructure work and was appointed ranger for two months in 1935. However, when the time came to appoint a permanent ranger the known poacher was not considered for the job.

A Lionel Connell hunting hut built with Dick Nichols still stood south of Lake Rodway as a reminder of the former’s past. Yet Connell was considered fit for a permanent posting as ranger.[20] The Connell family demonstrated great enterprise in their work at Cradle but conflict between Lionel’s roles of privately-employed tourism operator and government-employed ranger at the same location were soon obvious. To compound the issue, Connell managed Waldheim for Smithies and Karl Stackhouse. These men, as members of the CMRB, also effectively employed him as a ranger. CMRB Secretary Smith also had a family tie with the Connells.

Cyclists arriving at Old Pelion Hut, 1936. With them (left to right) are (possibly) Os Connell, Lionel Connell, Mount Field ranger HE Belcher and Director of the Government Tourist Bureau, ET Emmett. Photo courtesy of Es Connell.


Fergy overloading Miss Velocity’s more mundane replacement at Narcissus Landing, 1940. Ron Smith photo courtesy of Charles Smith.


The other remarkable early ranger was Fergy who, like Lionel Connell, combined the job with that of tourism operator. His toughest journey was not on the lake but in an upside-down bath. While building the original Pine Valley Hut, the Lake St Clair ranger lugged an iron tub to it about 10 km from Narcissus Landing by balancing it upside down on his shoulders and head, his forehead reputedly having been reinforced to mend a war wound (his World War One record suggests only that he suffered from shell shock and deafness). Stripping off in the heat, his curses echoing inside the bath, he was stark naked when he ran into a party of bushwalkers. 

Extension of eastern and western reserve boundaries 1935 and 1939

The extension of fauna sanctuary boundaries to natural features was done with the intention of negating claims by hunters that they weren’t sure where the boundaries were. Tommy McCoy seems to have known. His Lake Ayr Hut was cheekily perched within sight of the reserve boundary. Reactions to it showed the distinction between the old-style conservationists in the park administration and the new ones of the bushwalking community. Cradle Mountain Reserve Board Secretary Ron Smith, a former possum shooter, respectfully left payment of threepence for a candle he removed from McCoy’s camp.[21] Hobart hikers, on the other hand, became conservation activists, puncturing McCoy’s canned food with a geological pick when they found his hut in 1948.[22] McCoy, like fellow snarers Paddy Hartnett, Bert Nichols and Lionel Connell before him, embraced the opportunities offered by tourism, building and repairing Overland Track huts. He was proprietor of Waldheim Chalet when he died in 1952.

Some of JW Beattie’s islands, southern end of Lake St Clair. Beattie photo, courtesy of Alma McKay.


Damming Lake St Clair 1937

The Art Deco Pump-house Hotel which juts into southern Lake St Clair, as if walking the plank for its crimes, is a symbol of gradually changing values. In 1922, in a joint lecture about ‘preserving’ the tract of land south from Cradle Mountain, Ray McClinton and Fred Smithies deplored the ‘firestick of the destroyer’ and the ‘ravages of the trapper’ but spruiked the hydro-electric potential of the region’s lakes.[23] Fifteen years later the naivety of this position became apparent when the Hydro-Electric Department dammed the Derwent River as part of the Tarraleah Power Scheme. After assuring the National Park Board that Lake St Clair would be unaffected, it raised the lake’s water level by more than a metre, sinking the golden moraine sand (the Frankland Beaches) and the accompanying islands once painted by Piguenit and photographed by Beattie.[24] A fringe of dead trees around the lake’s edge now greeted visitors. When photographers Stephen Spurling III and Frank Hurley joined the National Park Board in attacking the Hydro, Minister for Lands and Works Major TH Davies sprang to the institution’s defence, describing the damage as ‘unavoidable’.[25] This was a taste of what was to come at Cataract Gorge, Lake Pedder, the Pieman River and the Lower Gordon River.

Excision of the Wolfram Mine

With rearmament taking place in Europe in 1938, the raised price of tungsten (wolfram), used for strengthening steel, prompted an application to reopen the (Mount Oakleigh) Wolfram Mine, which was then included in the Cradle Mountain Reserve. CMRB Secretary Ron Smith penned the board’s opposition to the proposal, stating that no payable lode was likely to be found and that a successful application would set a bad precedent in terms of mining the reserve.[26] The subsidiary board’s concerns were not heeded. In a forerunner to national park and/or Wilderness World Heritage Area excisions at Mount Field, the Hartz Mountains and Exit Cave, the mine was temporarily excised from the scenic reserve as the Mount Oakleigh Conservation Area.[27] No Tasmanian reserved land ever seemed inalienable after this.

First load of logs from Mount Kate, 1943, with (left to right) George, Bernard and Leo Stubbs. Ron Smith photo, courtesy of Charles Smith.


The Mount Kate sawmill dispute and dissolution of the CMRB

The pitfalls of having vested interests on a government board again became apparent in December 1943 when Ron Smith took advantage of wartime stringency, rising timber prices and a finished access road to start harvesting King Billy pine on his property at Mount Kate. Over the next few years the definition of conflict of interest and the limits of official jurisdiction became increasingly blurred, as private land was resumed at Cradle Valley and the problematic CMRB was dissolved. Ironically, Smith and the Launceston syndicate had previously offered their land to the government but been refused. With Waldheim compulsorily acquired, Lionel Connell resigned as ranger. His sons Esrom and Wal were later reemployed in their own right as rangers at Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair. The appointment of the Cradle Mountain National Park Board in 1947 was the first step in placing the national park—as it was now known for the first time—on a sound footing, 25 years after the scenic reserves were initially gazetted. But the battle of ecology and economy continued.

[1] Gerard Castles, ‘Handcuffed volunteers: a history of the Scenery Preservation Board in Tasmania 1915–1971’, BA (Hons) thesis, University of Tasmania, Hobart, 1986.

[2] This was the Scenery Preservation Act (1921). For an example of fears of loggers being locked out of the Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair Scenic Reserves, see E Alexander, ‘Cradle Mountain park: claims of timber area’, Advocate, 22 August 1921, p.5.

[3] ‘Fur farming: Cradle Mountain unsuitable: area further south chosen’, Mercury, 17 August 1925, p.6.

[4] ‘Lure of the skins’, Advocate, 22 August 1925, p.12.

[5] Statistics of Tasmania, 1922–23, p.58.

[6] Proclamation, Tasmanian Government Gazette, 8 March 1927, p.753.

[7] Proclamation, Tasmanian Government Gazette, 31 May 1927, pp.1412–13.

[8] Gerald Propsting to the secretary for Public Works, 4 August 1927, AA580/1/1 (TA); ‘Game Protection Act: illegal possession of skins’, Mercury, 17 August 1927, p.5.

[9] Fred Smithies, transcript of an interview by Margaret Bryant, 15 June 1977, NS573/3/3 (TA).

[10] Weekly Courier, 8 August 1928, p.1.

[11] Ron Smith to National Park Board Secretary Clive Lord, 27 August 1928, NS234/19/1/20 (TA).

[12] Paddy Hartnett to ET Emmett, 26 November 1928, PWD24/1/3; Director of Public Works to LM Shoobridge, Chairman of the National Parks Board, 13 March 1931, NS234/17/1/17 (TA).

[13] Bert Nichols to Ron Smith, 26 April 1931, NS573/1/1/4 (TA).

[14] Kevin Anderson, ‘Tasmania revisited: being the diary of Kevin Anderson, in which he related the incidents of his travelling to and through Tasmania with his companion, William Foo, from 12th April 1939 to the 26th April 1939’, unpublished manuscript (QVMAG), p.27.

[15] Jessie Luckman interviewed by Nic Haygarth.

[16] Bernard Stubbs interviewed by Nic Haygarth, c1993; Esrom Connell, in writing to Percy Mulligan, 20 September 1963 (NS234/19/122, TA), claimed to possess a diary in which Weindorfer recorded the failure of the motorbike to start. The present whereabouts of the diary are unknown. For the coronial inquiry into Weindorfer’s death, see AE313/1/1 (TA). The coroner determined the cause of death to be heart failure.

[17] ‘Papers relating to Coronial Enquiry into death of Gustav Weindorfer’, AE313/1/1 (TA).

[18] On 17 April 1928 Weindorfer wrote in his dairy, ‘This is very likely my last trip on the mountain’ (QVMAG). If he had a buyer for Waldheim then, the deal must have fallen through.

[19] Public Trustee to Fred Smithies, 11 November 1932, NS573/1/1/7 (TA).

[20] Minutes of the Cradle Mountain Reserve Board meeting, 26 April 1935, AF363/1/1, p.185 (TA).

[21] Ron Smith diary, 1940, NS234/16/1/41 (TA).

[22] Jessie Luckman interviewed by Nic Haygarth.

[23] ‘Cradle Mountain’, Advocate, 31 July 1922, p.2.

[24] ‘Level of water raised’, Mercury, 12 October 1938, p.13.

[25] National Park Board: ‘Level of water raised’, Mercury, 12 October 1938, p.13; Davies: ‘Lake St Clair: high level “unavoidable”’, Advocate, 13 October 1938, p.6; Hurley: ‘Tasmanians asleep’, Mercury, 30 January 1939, p.8; Spurling: S Spurling, ‘Scenic vandalism’, Examiner, 5 October 1940, p.3.

[26] Ron Smith to Minister for Mines, 3 May 1938, NS234/19/1/4 (TA).

[27] For an overview of the Wolfram Mine dispute, see Gerard Castles, ‘Handcuffed volunteers: a history of the Scenery Preservation Board in Tasmania 1915–1971’, pp.51–52.

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A 27-year itch: Ron Smith finally tramps the Overland Track in 1940

In May 1914 Ron Smith’s former Forth mate Ted Adams invited him to go hiking at Lake St Clair. Smith, who would be one of the major figures in the establishment of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, could not make the appointed time.[1] He had business to attend to at Cradle Valley, but perhaps when that was done a cross-country short-cut would bring them together. ‘I thought … I could go overland to Lake St Clair to meet you there’, he told Adams.[2] It was perhaps in that instant that Ron Smith conceived the idea of the Overland Track between Cradle Valley and Lake St Clair. Ironically, it would take him another 27 years to walk it.


The opportunity finally came in late December 1940. Now fifty-nine years old and an invalid pensioner as the result of World War I service, Smith was also the secretary of the Cradle Mountain Reserve Board, a land owner at Cradle Mountain and the major documenter of the area’s European history, flora and fauna. The Overland Track, the southern section of which was roughly marked by Bert Nichols in 1931, had only become suitable for independent travellers in 1935–36 after additional track and hut work by Nichols, Lionel Connell and his sons.[3] Few people had then taken up the challenge of tramping a track that now attracts about 10,000 per year from all over the world.


Ron’s early trips from his home at Forth to Cradle Mountain were accomplished on bicycle and on foot, with stopovers at Middlesex Station, but in 1940 he was able to drive from his new home at Launceston to Waldheim Chalet, Cradle Valley, in less than five hours. From 1925 to 1936 the Smiths had had their own house at Cradle Valley, and they would have one again, Mount Kate house, from 1947.[4] However, in 1940 they were content to stay in the late Gustav Weindorfer’s Waldheim Chalet, then managed by Lionel and Maggie Connell. In fact it was almost a second home for the Smith family, since Ron’s oldest son, whom he called Ronny, and Kitty Connell, daughter of Lionel and Maggie, were courting. And yet, despite the stringencies imposed by the war raging in in Europe, people continued to enjoy the major holiday period of the year. On Christmas Day 1940 Waldheim was bursting at the seams with hikers, 50 guests in all. What a peaceful Christmas for head chef Maggie Connell! Ron slept on a sofa in the dining room, his sixteen-year-old son Charlie on the floor of the same room.


Ron Smith was always a formidable record keeper, and in his diary he recorded with typical precision that he and Charlie were on their way at 7.38 next morning, each of their knapsacks weighing 40 lbs (18 kg). After regular bouts of illness, Ron possibly doubted his own endurance. Two fit young men, Wally Connell and Ronny Smith, carried those heavy packs up to Kitchen Hut, sparing the hikers the full rigours of the tough climb up the Horse Track. After breakfast, Ron and Charlie continued alone, being passed by a party of five women who had started from Waldheim after them. Kitchen Hut was then only a three-sided shelter. There was no proper hut between Waldheim and Lake Windermere, making day one of an Overland Track trip a long and potentially dangerous one. Ron and Charlie reached Waterfall Valley before meeting their first fellow hikers—two young Sydney men—walking in the opposite direction (from Lake St Clair to Cradle Mountain, now prohibited).

The old miners' hut at Lake Windermere, 27 December 1940. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
The old miners’ hut at Lake Windermere, 27 December 1940. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.

A Fred Smithies shot showing the rest of the old Windermere Hut, taken during an Overland Track tramp. Courtesy of Margaret Carrington.
A Fred Smithies shot showing the rest of the old Windermere Hut, taken during an Overland Track tramp. Courtesy of Margaret Carrington.

Father and son reached the Connells’ new Windermere Hut at 4.23 pm, nearly nine hours after setting out from Waldheim. The party of five women camped outside, leaving the hut to the men—and two grey possums, which entered, in what became Windermere tradition, via the chimney in their quest for food. Next morning, Ron and Charlie visited the c1901 Windermere miners’ hut, now in ‘great disrepair; the chimney fallen down and the roof very leaky’. Ron had reached the old hut with Gustav Weindorfer in 1911 and 1914; it was the furthest south he had so far travelled on the route of what became the Overland Track.[5]


Day two, from Windermere along the watershed of the Forth and the Pieman, then around the Forth Gorge and through to Pelion Plain, was another tiring one. They boiled the billy for lunch on the edge of the forest at Pine Forest Moor, with the dolerite ‘organ pipes’ of Mount Pelion West looming large ahead of them. At New Pelion Hut they re-joined the party of five women, greeted a married couple called Calver who arrived from Lake St Clair, plus four Victorian men who were returning to Waldheim after climbing Mount Ossa. There were ten in the Connells’ new hut, which had two rooms so that men and women could be separated. For Ron every new meeting was noteworthy. Names and sometimes addresses were exchanged, and it was a chance to chat and learn. The leisurely experience was far removed from that of more recent times, when the two-way traffic could make the Overland Track feel rather like a scenic Hume Highway.

New Pelion Hut, 28 December 1940, Charles Smith in the foreground. Ron Smith photo courtesy of Charles Smith.
Flourishes of Federation Queen Anne and Arts and Crafts architecture in the Connells’ King Billy pine shingle New Pelion Hut, 28 December 1940, Charles Smith in the foreground. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.

With rain threatening, the Smiths decided to spend a day close to shelter at Pelion. Ron had now ventured further south than his departed friend, Gustav Weindorfer, who had taken the census at the Pelion copper mine and climbed Mount Pelion West in April 1921.[6] The mine manager’s hut (Old Pelion) and the workers’ hut from that period were both in good repair. Leaving these huts, Ron and Charlie crossed Douglas Creek and followed the southern edge of Lake Ayr until they met the Mole Creek (Innes) Track near the rock cairns and poles marking the then Cradle Mountain Reserve’s eastern boundary.

Tommy McCoy's hunting hut near Lake Ayr. Photo courtesy of the McCoy family.
Tommy McCoy’s hunting hut near Lake Ayr. Photo courtesy of the McCoy family.

McCoy's hut as it looked in 1951, with Mount Oakleigh and Lake Ayr for a backdrop. Photo courtesy of the McCoy family.
McCoy’s hut as it looked in 1951, with Mount Oakleigh and Lake Ayr for a backdrop. Photo courtesy of the McCoy family.

The reserve had been a bird and animal sanctuary since 1927. Yet, cheekily poised about 250 metres beyond the boundary, Tommy McCoy’s new hardwood paling hunting hut made his intentions clear. Hobart hikers would become conservation activists, puncturing McCoy’s food tins with a geological pick, when they came across his hut in 1948.[7] However, the Cradle Mountain Reserve Board secretary, a former possum shooter and a man of a different ilk, was much more respectful, leaving payment of threepence for a candle he removed from McCoy’s camp. Ron and Charlie also inspected the old post-and-rail stockyard near the western end of Lake Ayr on their way back to New Pelion. On their second night at Pelion propriety was dispensed with, as the Smiths and Calvers shared a room, leaving the other room for newcomers.

An unsympathetically cropped image of Du Cane Hut, 29 December 1940, with Cathedral Mountain omitted but Charles Smith in the foreground. Ron Smith photo courtesy of Charles Smith.
An unsympathetically cropped image of the two-room Du Cane Hut, 29 December 1940, with Cathedral Mountain omitted but Charles Smith in the foreground. Ron Smith photo courtesy of Charles Smith.

An earlier Ray McClinton or Fred Smithies shot of the original one-room Du Cane, taking full advantage of the view of Cathedral Mountain.
An earlier Ray McClinton or Fred Smithies shot of the original one-room Du Cane, taking full advantage of the view of Cathedral Mountain.

The party of five women motored past the Smiths on the climb up to Pelion Gap next day, marching right through to Narcissus Hut, a distance of about 27 km in a day. Ron and Charlie took a leisurely pace, visiting Kia Ora Falls and camping at Du Cane Hut (Windsor Castle or Cathedral Farm), Paddy Hartnett’s old haunt, which had been converted to a two-room building in keeping with New Pelion. Reflecting, perhaps, his reduced stamina, Ron elected to wait on the main track while Charlie viewed Hartnett Falls. The pair also made a diversion to Nichols Hut, the walkers’ hut Bert Nichols had erected beside his old hunting hut. For a man who in his younger days rarely left a bush setting or bush person unsnapped, Ron Smith was relatively parsimonious with his photos on this trip, neglecting these buildings, McCoy’s hut and the old Mount Pelion Mines NL huts. He appears to have been ignorant of the other hunters’ huts located near the track between Pelion Plain and Narcissus River.


Ron and Charlie were accompanied most of the way from Pelion to Narcissus Hut by the Robinsons, a Sydney couple they had first met at Waldheim. Crossing the suspension bridge over the Narcissus River, Mrs Robinson’s hat landed in the drink and disappeared, despite a group rescue effort. Narcissus Hut, the staging post for the motorboat trip down Lake St Clair, as it is today, replicated the situation at Waldheim, being full to the brim and beyond, with numerous tents being pitched outside. Among the hikers were the economist and statistician, Lyndhurst Giblin, and HR Hutchinson, Chairman of the National Park Board, the subsidiary of the Scenery Preservation Board which oversaw the Lake St Clair Reserve. Indeed, it must have seemed like the veritable busman’s holiday when the Cradle Mountain Reserve Board secretary met the Lake St Clair Reserve Board chairman on the Overland Track that united their realms.

Bert Fergusson's motorboat loading at Narcissus Landing, 31 December 1940. Seventeen to board, including the party of five women, and a tentative Charles Smith (fourth from right). Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
Bert Fergusson’s motorboat loading at Narcissus Landing, 31 December 1940. Seventeen to board, including the party of five women, and a tentative Charles Smith (fourth from right). Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.

The trip was concluded in six days. It took 1 hour 45 minutes to traverse Lake St Clair in the famous Bert ‘Fergy’ Fergusson motorboat on New Year’s Eve, 1940. This seems extraordinarily slow progress—didn’t Paddy Hartnett row the lake faster than that 30 years earlier, against the wind?— until you realise how overloaded Fergy’s vessel was! Seventeen people were crammed aboard what was certainly not Miss Velocity. Ron and Charlie slept in Hut Twelve of Fergy’s tourist camp at Cynthia Bay, where a housekeeper, Mrs Payne, was also employed. From here Fergy operated a free ‘bus’ service (Jessie Luckman called it a ‘frightful old half bus’ sporting sawn-off kitchen chairs with basket-work seats) to Derwent Bridge, where the departing tourist joined one of Grey’s buses. The Lake St Clair tourist infrastructure of 76 years ago was surprisingly well organised. Charlie having departed with family members, Ron stayed on a day more and caught a bus back to Launceston via Rainbow Chalet at Great Lake and Deloraine, using a short stopover in that town to submit a butcher’s order for Fergy. All this recreational transport at a time when petrol was rationed for the war effort!


On 3 January 1941 Ron Smith rested at home, having at last completed the journey contemplated 27 years earlier. Perhaps the experience strengthened his belief in the need for a motor road from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair, thereby conferring universal reserve access.[8] Age may not have wearied him, but maybe at that moment his swollen right foot felt more comfortable on an accelerator than in a heavy boot.[9]

[1] See ‘Ron Smith: bushwalker and national park promoter’, in Simon Cubit and Nic Haygarth, Mountain men: stories from the Tasmanian high country, Forty South Publishing, Hobart, 2015, pp.132–59.

[2] Ron Smith to GES Adams, 15 May 1914, NS234/17/1/4 (TAHO).

[3] See Simon Cubit and Nic Haygarth, Mountain men, pp.122–27.

[4] See ‘Smith huts’, in Simon Cubit and Nic Haygarth, Historic Tasmanian mountain huts: through the photographer’s lens, Forty South Publishing, Hobart, 2014, pp.36–43.

[5] For the 1911 trip, see Ron Smith to Kathie Carruthers, 29 November and 1 December 1911, NS234/22/1/1 (TAHO). The pair’s arrival at the Windermere Hut in 1914 had scared the life out of its incumbent, miner/hunter Mick Rose, who feared he had been he had been nabbed engaging in out-of-season snaring.

[6] Gustav Weindorfer diary, NS234/27/1/8 (TAHO); ‘Mountain beauties: Tasmania’s charms’, Examiner, 6 January 1934, p.11.

[7] Interview with Jessie Luckman.

[8] See, for example, minutes of the Cradle Mountain Reserve Board meeting, 25 June 1947, AA595/1/2 (TAHO).

[9] This account of Ron and Charlie Smith’s walk on the Overland Track is derived from Ron Smith’s diary, NS234/16/1/41 (TAHO).