For over three decades he's enthralled Canberrans, bringing to life oral histories of the Australian high-country through his popular lecture series and several best-selling books.
But who is the real Matthew Higgins?
Sure, he provided a few hints in Skis on the Brindabellas (Tabletop Press, 1994) and Rugged Beyond Imagination: Stories from an Australian Mountain Region (National Museum of Australia Press, 2009), but in his latest book the authoritative high-country historian lays bare his life-long love affair with the dramatic landscapes and rich layered heritage of the Australian alps.
In Bold Horizon: High-country Place, People and Story (Rosenberg, 2018), Higgins leads us on a voyeuristic trek from Kosciuszko to Kiandra, from Brindabella to Bimberi and beyond, a journey that began with regular family visits to the snow as a seven-year-old and continues to this day with solo adventures across Australia's rooftop.
As he skilfully weaves themes of place, people and story with concerns about environmental impact and climate change, we discover the inner Higgins, a man who has become as much as part of the mountains as they have become part of him.
Along the way, the Ainslie author reveals his favourite places, including Mt Gingera in the ACT, "a powerful place that deserves many visits", explaining that it's not just about the "big views opening out dramatically below", nor the "storm-shaped snowgums", it's also the people he meets on the track, like "on one walk a seemingly incognito walker turned out to be Sir Angus Houston".
Between listening out for the "ringing calls of lyrebirds" and "dodging wombat holes", the nature lover also shines the spotlight on some of the lesser-known critters that call the high-country home, including the endangered mountain pygmy possum, the only Australian mammal that lives solely above the snow line.
For Higgins, "the snow surface is a storybook" as his astute observations reveal: "there's the tiny footprints of the dusky antechinus with their splayed rear feet, the plodding trail of wombats, and occasionally the tracks of a wallaby doing its best to get out of the snow".
Despite admitting that "in the Snowies there is justifiable pride in the vast engineering feat of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme", Higgins believes "the mountains can instil more than a little humility".
"When, after days of blizzard blast, a tiny robin suddenly appears in the top of a storm-twisted snowgum and announces to the world not just its own survival but the return of peace and sun, you start to wonder whose is the greater achievement," he ponders.
In this 176-page, full-colour must-have, the winter skier and summer bushwalker will not only delight in his descriptions of the high-country in all weather conditions, but you'll also forgive Higgins for not disclosing the location of his secret trout fishing spot on "a waterway of pure, clean, fresh water, cold to the touch and sweet to the taste".
"Fishermen never give away their best spots," points out Higgins.
Trout aren't the only introduced creatures he has close encounters with. While you'll empathise with him about the day he carried a dead calf ("dogs had already been at the still birth-wet animal, it's tongue was gone") into the back of a Land Rover while conducting an oral history interview, you will probably react with intrigue to his response "on a particularly snowy trip up Mt Gingera in 2015 on encountering a wild dog".
"I howled exuberantly at the canine stranger (as I am inclined to do) and it bounded up the slope away from the odd (apparently human?) apparition," divulges Higgins.
If it were anyone else, you'd question their lucidity, but not Higgins - he was no doubt just getting "in-tune" with his native environment.
As the book's sub-title implies, Bold Horizon is not all about Higgins. He profiles a range of people who have worked, lived or played in the mountains. Their stories are all drawn from oral history interviews Higgins conducted for various institutions, including the National Library of Australia, primarily in the 1990s.
Many of these stockmen, skiers, brumby runners, foresters, and tourism operators have since died but their stories provide an insight into the peopling of the high-country and akin to the seasons of the snowy which swing like a pendulum from blistering hot summers to bone chilling winters, Higgins' clever arrangement of chapters provides rhythm and counterpoint.
For example, the extraordinary feats of pioneering recreational skier Bert Bennett, "who is one of the few to have pursued his mountain interests over such a lengthy period – six decades", is followed by the contrasting hard bush life of Stumpy Oldfield in what is now the rugged realms of Namadgi National Park (best you avoid the section where he recalls falling out of a tree onto a tomahawk. Ouch).
Then there's Bruce Hoad's lovely family lifestyle at Yarrangobilly (the photo of him in his prim and proper uniform drips with nostalgia from the heyday of cave tourism) which is juxtaposed with Louis Margules' often brutal existence in the mountains of the ACT.
Referring to his treatment of horses and dogs, which was harsh and unsentimental (and unfit for these pages), Higgins generously labels him "a man hardened by the culture in which he lived".
Although by comparison with many other mountain people, John and Helen Dowling of Brindabella were relatively wealthy, Higgins explains in the chapter dedicated to the farming couple, who lived for four decades at the famous mountain property, "that rural work was an equaliser in some ways".
For example, "at Brindabella when it came to marking (castrating) lambs, John and the men did it the accepted way – with their teeth," elaborates Higgins. Lovely.
Higgins says "people using oral history always have to be mindful of uncorroborated stories and inaccurate memories" but says "we shouldn't second guess our interviewees, either; truth can indeed be stranger than fiction".
Nowhere is this warning more evident than in the case of Hughie Read, raconteur extraordinaire of Naas, who Higgins explains "told me all sorts of stories, some of which had to be taken with a big grain of salt".
"One day he mentioned how a local had been hit by a train at Tralee and his body carried on the front of the engine all the way into Queanbeyan railway station," writes Higgins, who promptly "nodded and put his graphic story in the 'salt' basket".
Some years later, while reading George De Salis' diaries in the National Library's collection, Higgins came upon his 10 March 1888 entry about poor Con Grady's corpse riding the front of the loco into Queanbeyan. "So, Hughie's story was true after all!" he exclaims.
Except for Elyne Mitchell, "a significant and highly successful writer who is forever associated with the high-country," Higgins interviewed all those featured in the section titled 'Their Place'.
While Mitchell is best remembered for her wildly successful Silver Brumby books from the 1950s onward, she also wrote several pioneering non-fiction works addressing Australia's relationship with the environment. She was also a ski tourer and adventurer and in 1941 she became the first woman to descend on skis the entire western face of the Snowy Mountains and even a cursory flick through this chapter reveals it's clear that Mitchell is a role model for Higgins.
"That she saw her role as storyteller of these mountains was perhaps presaged back in 1942 in Australia's Alps where she wrote "this mountain land is our heritage and here we must build a strong tradition for those who follow on",
A tradition that Higgins himself has adeptly carried on with Bold Horizon.
While so many of Higgins' fellow protagonists have shuffled off to that big mountain in the sky, Bold Horizon enables their stories which total over 650 cumulative years of high-country life to remind us of a distinctive chapter in the Australian mountain experience – a chapter worth recording and worth remembering.
The Book: Bold Horizon: High-country Place, People and Story (Rosenberg Publishing, 2018, RRP: $29.95) is available online and at all good bookstores.
Don't Miss: Join former scientist and heritage manager Max Bourke AM, and author Matthew Higgins for the launch of Bold Horizon at the National Library of Australia on Wednesday April 11 (6pm-7.30pm). Bookings essential via the library. Ph: 62621424 or visit https://www.nla.gov.au/event/book-launch-bold-horizon
Did You Know? In the 1930s Hughie Read was paid to trap native animals – under license – for the Institute of Anatomy, which was housed in the building now occupied by the National Film and Sound Archive in Acton. According to Higgins, "tiger cats, platypus and wedge-tailed eagles were caught; and kangaroos were snared with a sapling spring-pole attached to a wire loop." Apparently Read placed specimens in a hessian bag and carried them out of the bush on horseback – though the eagle was caught live. Back home he placed them in a bath of formalin to preserve them until the institute could pick them up. "His recollections, while to an extent disheartening to me as a lover of wildlife, reflect how a former important Canberra institution gathered some of its collection," reports Higgins.
Look out for: As Higgins' historical work has focussed strongly on the post-settlement phase, most of the stories in Bold Horizon relate to the European history of the mountains. One exception is the inspiring chapter on Dean Freeman, a Wiradjuri man who has been protecting culture and country in high-country national parks for two decades. His work has included projects to safeguard indigenous remains and searching burnt areas for cultural heritage in the form of stone artefacts following the 2003 bushfires.
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Congratulations to Geoff Cameron of Bruce who was the first reader to correctly identify last week's photo as a "Kemakko games table in the Furniture and Furnishings area of the Senate Government Leader's Suite in the Museum of Australian Democracy (MOAD) at Old Parliament House".
Identifying the table proved to be tricky, with only a handful of other readers, including Anna Leeson, submitting correct answers.
According to the Kemakko Rule Book, the name of the game was derived from Kangaroo, Emu, Australia, Koala, and Kookaburra and these animals feature on the playing pieces. According to the MOAD interpretive sign adjacent to the table, "similar to checkers, the game centred on capturing an opponent's pieces and gaining status ... and it is not known how or why it was in (Old) Parliament House or what happened to the playing pieces."
This column would love to hear from anyone who has played Kemakko.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday April 7, 2018, will win a double pass to Dendy.
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