For all those Chalet honeymooners (John and Jo, Gil and Mem among them), and Bax and Ede who know a good lookout when they see one.
* * * * * * * *
From its other side, the west, the European explorers Hume and Hovell thought this looked like reclining buffalo. Its ‘Horn’ is to the left and its ‘Hump’ in the central area. A buffalo? Mmmm well no. Not really. That said I’m not a European explorer and it is no longer 1824. But according to current usage it is Mount Buffalo, one of the most interesting and certainly the most romantic of the Victorian alps. I know a dozen couples who had their honeymoon at the Chalet. That’s one reason, but there are so many more.
The Taugaurong and Minjambuttu peoples, indigenous to the area, far more appropriately called the mountain Dordordonga, The Friendly Mountain. They spent their summers on its plateau feasting on the Bogong moths which bred there gathering in their millions on rock walls and in crevices.
From time to time in the past I have wondered how you might prepare Bogong moths. In my imaginings I haven’t got much beyond plucking one off the wall, popping it into your mouth and justcrunching it up. Wrong.
First, build a fire on a flat rock then, when it is suitably hot, tip a netful of moths dipsy from smoke inhalation on to said rock stirring all the while until the wings and down are removed. Place in coolamon and winnow to remove dust and wing remnants. Pound remainder until a cake or lump is formed, ‘like unto dough made from smutty wheat mixed with fat. The bodies are large and filled with a yellowish oil resembling the taste of a sweet nut. The first time this diet is used by the native tribes violent vomiting and other debilitating effects are produced, but after a few days they become accustomed to its use and then fatten and thrive exceedingly upon it with such excellent results that aborigines assemble from all parts of the country to collect [the moths] from these mountains.’ The lump didn’t last a week without spoiling unless it was smoked in which case it would last quite some time.
For this information I am indebted to the notes of Robert Brough Smith, geologist and amateur anthropologist, who observed this happening in the mid-19th century.
Another visitor round that time as a member of Baron Von Mueller’s survey party was Russian-born artist Nicholas Chevalier. This painting, The Buffalo Ranges (1864), won first prize (£200, good money) in the very first acquisition competition held by the National Gallery of Victoria where it can still be seen.
This reproduction is a very ordinary rendering of a wonderful painting distinguished by the care and precision of its detail, brilliant control of depth and utterly reliable management of colour, none of which can really be discerned here but you get the idea.
The Argus said at the time: ‘There is an alpine chain, snowclad, dark, as belongs to the sublime and precipitous, and full of the grandest reminiscences of the old world. Clad with verdure to the line of almost eternal snow, it affords us a distinguishing feature in the varied beauties of Australia Felix. Mr. Chevalier has not before painted a better or more characteristic picture; the rich foreground surrounding the old water-wheel — especially the rock-work, with its fine lichen clothing — is a beautiful piece of painting. In the centre there is a grove, which displays in a very brilliant manner the effect of the sylvan sunlight peculiar to our clime. The mountains are almost verdure-clad to the top, and the scene as a whole, almost reminds one of Chamounix [sic]. A watercourse, most beautifully introduced, supplies a defect in Australian landscape; and life is given to the picture by the bullockteam in the foreground.’ (Quite incidentally, this review has as much to say about attitudes to mountains and being just barely ‘at home’ in the Australian landscape as it does about the picture.)
The hut is the home of a farmer, Albrecht Durer Watson (now there’s a name), and his wife Margaret at One Mile Creek let’s say oooh… about a mile out of Porepunkah. (‘Porepunkah’ is a Hindi word for ‘gentle breeze’. Thomas Buckland, the first selector of land in the area and whose cows were the first Europeans to find a way up onto the Buffalo plateau, had arrived from several years in Calcutta.)
The painting is of the view from the north, the approach, the easiest way — there is no easy way — of getting up on to the plateau. Just how accurate Chevalier has been can be gauged from this pic from the extravagantly fertile Buckland Valley behind the foothill that, from the north, usually gets in the way.
We were off to do The Big Walk — and yes that is its name, no correspondence will be entered into — which among other things includes zigzagging across the rock slabs on the right above. We can’t see its beginning but this is most of the route.
You start at the National Park entrance, the Eurobin Creek camp ground.One way is about 12 km with a height gain of 1100m in 9km. We usually go up and come down again; appropriately, a Big Day.
The walk divides quite nicely into four parts fairly equal in length if not time. The first is the climb up to 7 Mile Spur. For 2km it varies between steep and very steep, puffing around slippery creek spurs.You gain height quickly,but it’s a stiff way to start the morning. When you get to the fire track along the spur it’s a relief that section is over.Then 600m to the road crossing at the hairpin bend. The trip by road to The Chalet is almost twice as far as the walk.
The second section is still up — it’s all up — but it begins by cantering along the eastern side of the ridge the road follows through Messmate, Yellow Gum, Sallee and Candlebark forest with the first views of the alps to the east.That is Feathertop in full snow, the Razorback Ridge to Mt Hotham to its right. As you climb, these views just keep getting more expansive, better and better. You cross the road three more times and come out at Mackey’s Lookout.By this time you’ve got to 960m asl, about 2/3 of the height gain, and you’re noticing it. It’s time for a cup of tea.
The third section begins here: a series of zig-zags across the rock slabs below the top of the face. By my count, 31 corners 16 zigs and 15 zags, head out all the way, on a track that reminds me in places of the ‘road’ that the Austrians forced the Montenegrins to build so that they could haul their artillery up to the top of the cliffs above Kotor (at left).
There had been rain — and snow melt — so therefore a number of random streams, and one big one which isn’t this one, were spilling down the rock faces.And just as it looks, perfect weather. Marriott’s lookout. Who wouldn’t enjoy this?
This rock signals the the fourth section — the last of zig-zags and a long traverse west through quite dense alpine ash forest before turning sharply left back some distance across the lip of the face and around the inset of The Gorge. The track got wet,then a bit snowy,then quite snowy.This area was fiercely burnt during the last bad summer fires (2009) and is now coming back. One of the hazards here was saplings, hundreds of them, bent in a U-shape like animal traps over the track, their upper foliage trapped in snow banks. No damage to the trees, but entailing a lot of ducking and weaving to get through them, not to mention regularly going plop up to your crotch in one of the many voids under the icy surface.
We got to the highest point (Bogong on the horizon above), still about 2 km from the Chalet. It would be one hour to get there through deep snow and one hour back to where we were, even before the hour back through the snow that we had already done. Four hours through snow, and we would be doing the final hour of the walk in the dark. So, sorry but no. Thwarted but not dismayed, we scuttled/ scurried/ stumbled (Myrna’s generous choice of terms for my gait) back to the car. What a walk. You could call it a Big Walk.
But we needed to see the Chalet. You always need to see the Chalet, if only to be reassured that Australia’s largest wooden building is still there. We went the next day. (And just look at that weather!)
From the first, Europeans found something seductive about Mt Buff. Look at them at the turn of the last century. (Just the two colours available for hand colouring.)
The mountain was clearly defined — not part of a range — and visible if not necessarily accessible in a way the more remote alps aren’t.
Everyone had his or her own reason for liking it, and for that reason the social history of Mount Buff is a microcosmic version of perhaps any social history.
From his trip here in 1853 Baron Von Mueller added 78 previously uncategorised species (of the 480+ present on the mountain) to his plant collection. E.T. Dunn, who called the plateau ‘a garden of the gods’, thought it the most interesting place geologically in Victoria. Thomas Buckland (and many others) was pleased to use the plateau as a place to graze his cattle during summer. Henry Carlile thought it would be ideal for a hospice. Carlo Catani was interested in the technical problems of design and engineering associated with building and transport in an alpine environment (so comparatively rare in Australia). Hilda Samsing made a going concern and a living out of the need for hospitality as the number of visitors grew. Harold Clapp pursued his idea that the mountain would be the perfect destination for train travellers, Bert Keown and Ollie Polasek for skiers. Sir Russell Grimwade and Sir George Kerferd thought it might be an important place to preserve. Sir Rupert Clarke (and a long list of others) thought it would be a good place to develop and make some money out of.
‘Guide Alice’ Manfield (above, in her scandalous trousers) and her brother Jim just seem to have fallen deeply in love with it.
A range of interests like this is never easily accommodated. The opportunities for conflict between conservationists and developers are obvious. But it might not be as clear that they emerged as soon as Bill Weston built a log cabin on the lip of the cliff face in 1879 for a group of Melbourne doctors who were enthusiastic bushwalkers. Was this the government’s business or a private concern? Should the upper reaches of the mountain be made accessible for anyone who was interested? Could the various aspects of the mountain be ‘monetised’? Fascinating how these issues are constant over time.
Gold had been found in the Buckland Valley and prospectors searched for a time among the granite tors of Buffalo’s plateau, but mercifully they were distracted shortly after by the finds at Beechworth.
In 1898 1166 acres of the current Park around Eurobin Falls was one of the first areas in Australia to be declared a ‘temporary natural reserve’. Another 9355 acres were added in 1945 to what was then formally declared a National Park. But this didn’t put an end to cattle grazing on the plateau, ruinous to the indigenous flora. It wasn’t until 1958 that, via at best a semiformal agreement, no more grazing licences were issued. You could confidently imagine the reason would be to conserve the plateau’s indigenous flora and fauna. That would have been a factor, but the most telling reason finally was that cow shit was making a mess of the golf course!
Early in the 20th century a vituperative war broke out between two transport companies vying for the right to transport passengers up the hill: initially horse carriage vs. motor charabanc, later bus vs. bus. Under the strain of cutting prices, both went broke. (At left, bent Sir Tommy Bent, Premier of the day (1908) opens the road.) Then there were the backdoor means (‘It wasn’t even discussed’, complained Jim Neville the distressed previous licensee) by which Victorian Railways acquired the rights to the Chalet in 1924.
A Cabinet Minute of 1914 describes Mt Buff as the ‘premier tourist resort in Victoria’: more transcendent than Lorne, more accessible than Wilson’s Promontory. People came, slowly at first, fashionably in the 20s and 30s, and then, when people had private cars and the road up the hill was sealed, in a rush.
For just a look or for a fortnight, they were on their way to The Chalet.
Opened in 1910, the Chalet is the earliest surviving example of purpose-built tourist accommodation on an Australian snowfield, second only to the Kosciusko Hotel in New South Wales, which opened one year earlier but which was destroyed by fire in the early 1950s. Prior to the involvement of the Victorian Railways, the natural beauty of the area was of recognised tourist value and many dignitaries, including the Governor of Victoria, made the journey to experience its beauty and majesty or to indulge in winter and snow sports. It should be emphasised that it is not a hotel, but is a guest house, with the emphasis on shared and public, versus private, facilities. It is of the most significant heritage value to the state of Victoria. (Mt Buffalo Heritage Action Plan, Allom Lovell and Assocs for Parks Victoria. 2002.) And in fact it has National Trust Heritage Overlay.Ah The Chalet The Chalet. It brings a smile to my face just thinking about it.
Our first holiday after our first daughter was born was a few days in Bright: a pig in a very cursory poke, unknown destination, just getting out of town. During that sojourn, one of the things we found — out of the blue so to speak — was Mount Buff and its chalet, and really you do have little choice but to go ooh ahh. Still. But that was 40 years ago when The Chalet was a going concern. It’s a smile now qualified.
Our kids learnt to play croquet on the front lawn, worked over the games room, swam in the pool, did the walks round Lake Catani. I think the last time we stayed as a family we might have had the Royal Suite, spec’d up for a visit that never came from the Duke and Duchess of Somewhere or Other. For dinner we would have had the soup which started every main meal and the roast which always followed in the semi-glittering dining room. We would have looked at or perhaps just walked past oblivious the displays of cups, medals and shields, pairs of skates, crossed skis, trophies of other competitions, other times, and poked our heads discretely round into the ballroom, barely noticing the bevelled mirrors and dark panelling, ambling around the endless corridors in which to get thoroughly lost. What a place. It had it all.The family at leisure in The Chalet’s piano lounge. At its peak the Chalet had a sauna, spa, gym, billiard room with four tables, games room, ballroom, dining room, café/ canteen/ gift shop, several lounges inc a smoking lounge and a TV lounge, drying room, tennis courts, golf course, swimming pool, small oval for cricket, croquet lawn, and activities centre (ski and toboggan hire) along with accommodation for about 240 guests and perhaps 35 staff. But until 1983, no bar. No licence, no bar. Which didn’t stop people bringing their own. Norman Banks was one of the people escorted off the mountain for alcohol-induced excessively rambunctious behaviour.
It didn’t begin like that. At right is Henry Carlile’s hospice, a very early building at a site which, with its 650m sheer rock wall, was a magnet for many ambitions.
Building The Chalet proper was a major government decision. The first design was for a granite castle replete with crenellations, finials and a tower. Didn’t happen.
By 1910 a large wooden structure had been built. The exterior was weatherboard with no interior lining. The roof had been built, against all advice, of bitumen slates which tore as the green timber in the roof (just cut from the trees on the plateau) expanded and contracted, and so leaked as a matter of course. The builder, John Duncan McBride, had warned of all these issues. Before work began, he offered to correct them by adding just £500 to his initial tender of £3195, and today we would have had a granite building.
There was no electricity, just slightly spooky, in the sense of dangerous, gas lighting. No lighting at all in the bathrooms or toilets occasioning some difficulty. There was no heating except for fire places in the lounges. A regular of the day, Dr Wilkinson, recalled that, ‘…the only public room was the lounge which had sixteen doors. The present ballroom was the dining room then. Guests had to come to meals with rugs and overcoats on. They would then rush through their dinner in order to get back to the fire. The southern wing where there was no lounge was known as “Siberia”.’
Did this stop them coming? No it did not. During one weekend of the winter of 1921 it had 163 paying guests, three times as many as pictured here.
It was run by Victorian Railways from 1924 till 1985. VR’s Chair, Harold Clapp (whose father had overseen the introduction of tramcars to Melbourne’s streets) had seen the success of luxury resorts run by railway companies at the ‘end of the line’ in the US and UK — St Andrews, Banff, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone. He was sure he could make Mt Buff work for the resort, for the government and for his company. During that time for several decades staff wore VR uniforms, a train whistle blew for dinner held in what was officially designated the ‘Railways Refreshment Canteen’ where you arrived with your ticket for entrance. For some years there was also a curfew, because of the inherent lurking danger.
Who stayed at the Chalet? Well … in its day, the Who’s Who of Victoria: the Myers, the Brockhoffs, the Gadsdens, the MacRoberstons, the Grimwades, Sir Macfarlane Burnet, the Victorian Cabinet, the Prime Minister, various Governors. The German Ambassador and his staff were regulars for a time. Guests were required to dress for dinner, men in dinner suits, women in evening gowns. The photos above in the piano lounge and below in the ballroom are neither fake nor staged. That’s how it was.
There is a story in Dan Webb (yes, Danny, that Dan) and Bob Adam’s wonderful book The Mount Buffalo Story 1898-1998 —from which I’m stealing copiously — about a gang of 280 workers on ‘the susso’ (sustenance living wage provided during the Great Depression for public works) nearly freezing to death living in tents in deep winter on the other end of the plateau building the road to The Horn while High Society danced its way through the evenings at The Chalet.The evening hours, which are given over to music, song, dancing and other indoor amusements, must not be overlooked when packing for a holiday at The Chalet on Mount Buffalo, and a dinner frock or gown of the semi-evening order is necessary. It would be as well to include a costume suitable for a fancy-dress ball. Victorian Railways Magazine June 1924 illustrated with this photo.
In 1938 the Railways sought and received significant government funding for expansion and renovation of the building: another storey added to the front wing, two new major wings, some private bathrooms, carpet (!!), more effective internal lining, establishment of the ‘Royal Suite’ and so on.
After the Second World War The Chalet found a new clientele. Migrants and displaced persons from Europe, many of them Jewish, found a comforting reminder of their homelands in the mountain charms and old-fashioned service of The Chalet. Year after year families returned for their summer holidays, and ‘many courtships took place under the watchful eyes of parents and elders in the ballroom’. (It’s Dirty Dancing all over again.)
In the 1970s VR believed that old age pensioners could be persuaded to fill spare capacity during traditionally quiet times of the year. Entitled to one free country rail journey each year, many began choosing Mount Buffalo Chalet as their destination. The occupancy rate soared to the extent that in 1979 plans were drawn up for the refurbishment of the kitchen and stores, a café and better staff accommodation.
The Victorian Tourist Commission ran it from 1986 until 1993 when, like a lot of other things in Victoria, this task was put out to private tender. Several companies tried their hand.
It was during that time that I had the distinction of booking the entire complex, 235 guests for a night and two days. It was part of an effort to encourage Bright, Myrtleford and Beechworth schools to work together. The food was great, the sessions were interesting. We had a band and the ballroom shook with memories of decades of pleasure and sociability. A great time was had by all. While there were some green shoots, it failed of course because I didn’t have anything much else to offer them but a great night at the best that Victoria could offer. Their local.
And in 2007 The Chalet closed.In the 61 years VR had run The Chalet it had made an annual profit twice; in the last five years it cost the Government $2m. In the ’50s and ’60s the average occupancy rate was 70-75 percent which I would have thought was pretty good, but 85 percent was the break even point, and there was the conventional resort problem of feast (Christmas, Easter, school holidays) and famine (the rest). Staffing was always an issue because more than half had to live on the mountain and, until the 80s, staff accommodation and living conditions were quite primitive.
And then there was upkeep on a wooden building, never well built in the first place, in an alpine environment. The degree to which it decayed in the five years from 2007 to 2012 was hard to believe. One would peer in through the picture windows down the panelled walls to the ballroom and the still vaguely glamorous front lounges, past the rotted weatherboards, destroyed guttering, termites in the piers of the foundations, fire escape staircases falling off the building, galvanised iron roofing flapping.
The big tor was still just past the cafe entrance. No one had bothered to shift it.
And the warning sign was still on the pool to make sure unruly and dangerous behaviour in the water was limited.
In 2011 Parks Victoria developed a new plan which involved demolishing two-thirds of the building, new car park, day use centre including a cafe (which was to open in 2013; I’m waiting), fixed up gardens … that sort of thing. That would do me.
The front wing has now been restored to some degree. The foundations are right, the roof and cladding have been done up and that part has had a coat of paint. It looks okay.
But it needs noise inside it: chat, advice, plans, laughter, admonitions, toasts, speeches, stories of the day and of any day. Any day ever.
But that might be it. Is it history, dead history now? The idea of the guest house, finished? While Woolies and the IGA and the Bright Brewery 1300m below are swarming with customers, don’t they want to come up the hill any more? Don’t they want to test the Buffalo’s magic to see if it’s still there? Do they even know that that’s on offer? Is it on social? Has it been Insta-ed?
Why did they used to come?
They wanted to look at The Leviathan.
They wanted to climb, stand and sit on The Monolith.
(A passion appears for naming inanimate geographical features, especially rocks: Edinboro Castle, The Sarcophagus, The Piano, The Cathedral, the Monolith, Mahomet’s Tomb, Giant’s Causeway, The Leviathan, Whale Rock, The Sentinel, Og Gog and Magog and on and on. I’m calling it marketing.)
They wanted to sit or stand on any rock. (Pulpit Rock in this instance. Might be a man thing although there is one photo of Guide Alice lying down with half her body over the edge where the guy at the top is standing.)They wanted to throw snow at each other, and go tobogganingand skating on artificial Lake Catani, hectares of water a metre or two deep (which no longer freezes).
Maybe that’s over. Maybe the $86m plan for a new 99-room eco-lodge is the way to go. But maybe the punters won’t like that either. Maybe the charms of Mount Buff for the masses belong to another time, another culture. I’d hate to think so but it could be true. Not umm … interactive enough. Insufficient spectacle.‘A Garden of the Gods’. Coming back from a walk to the South Wall, The Egg delicately balanced on the left horizon, The Hump in the background.
That same day we drove down the road towards The Horn, and a climb up The Cathedral and The Hump looked distinctly inviting. Basically up a snowy track for a couple of kilometres to each point with, as customary, the views getting better all the time, until from the top of The Hump the whole of the plateau is visible.
Weren’t quite prepared. This is what the gentleman’s intrepid snow explorer wears these days. You can come straight from Collins St.Whereas the lady explorer’s today wear has gone a little more NorthFace. (At The Cathedral)
And then from the top of The Hump —
from The Cathedral to The Horn, about 5km as the crow flies, with long views to elsewhere.
You won’t run into cattle any more. The bush has swallowed the golf course utterly. The tennis courts can’t be far behind. The Oval is a lovely anachronism. A certain number of opportunities, defined by the season, remain to throw snow at each other. How much longer that will be true I can’t say.
On the flat to the right of The Cathedral where this video begins is the most important Aboriginal site on Mt Buffalo. It was a major burial ground, the most sacred of sites to the local Indigenous people, and perhaps that’s the right place to leave this excursion — a cycle perhaps, leaving this enthralling area to people who have a genuine handle to guide their appreciation of it. We’ve walked a lot here, across and around the top as well as up the front, and I can remember very few encounters with other walkers. Maybe it needs to be left for the sort of quiet meditation that walking engenders. Maybe.