During the early 2020 bushfires that so devastated 80 per cent of Namadgi National Park, two historic huts were also consumed by the flames. The huts were Demandering, and Max and Bert Oldfield's, both located in the rugged far south-east sector of the ACT.
These are not the first historic Namadgi structures to be lost to fire. The Mt Franklin Chalet was burnt during the 2003 bushfires and has since been replaced by a public shelter with interpretive text about the chalet's history. Other huts, like Rowleys Orroral and Rowleys Rendezvous Creek, were burnt as a result of human negligence at other times.
Huts were also lost in Kosciuszko during the recent fires and in 2003. But following 2003, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service decided to overturn its steadfast opposition to reconstruction after a consultant's report concluded that these places still retained social value for the community, and that rebuilding, in a style and in materials similar to the original structures, was justified.
Since that decision, several huts have been rebuilt in Kosciuszko, and those lost in the recent fires are also set to be rebuilt.
But in the ACT, there has been no commitment to rebuild. Despite overtures by the volunteer Kosciuszko Huts Association (KHA) for Demandering and Max and Bert's to be rebuilt, neither the ACT government nor the opposition have given a clear statement that rebuilds will be approved.
The huts' stories can continue to be told.
So, what were the huts that were lost in the conflagration early this year? Both were stockmen's huts, simple structures that told of the earlier land use by pastoralists prior to the gazettal of Namadgi.
Demandering is down in the Mt Clear area in the upper valley of Naas River. It was built by Bill Cotter on behalf of his brother Jack in the early 1940s. Bill and Jack were grandsons of ex-convict Garrett Cotter who had first entered the Cotter Valley (eventually named after him) in the late 1820s. Garrett had the leasehold Demandering run for many years later in the 19th century and it passed down to various Cotter family members who selected portions. Jack purchased some of the holding in the early 1940s from his father Garry.
The Cotter brothers were based on a property at Michelago, so Jack needed the Demandering hut for shelter when running stock there. He and Bill also annually took stock through to their snow lease at Kellys Plain, now under the waters of Tantangara Dam in Kosciuszko. So the hut saw use then too as it was an important stopover point during the summer trip to Kellys Plain.
A distinctive thing about the hut was that Bill used his bullock team to haul logs to the site for part of the hut frame. Given that it was the 1940s, bullock teams were getting rare, so this is a notable feature of the place's history.
In the late 1950s Jack sold the holding to Colin and Norman Curtis and they too used the hut during stockwork until the land was resumed in the 1970s for Namadgi's predecessor, Gudgenby Nature Reserve. Since that time the hut has been visited by countless bushwalkers and saw various work parties by KHA members. In fact, major works were under way at the time of this year's bushfires.
So, the hut had a direct connection with the significant Cotter family, with the predominant grazing theme in the area's economy and way of life, and was of note for the way it was built.
Max and Bert's Hut was constructed later, in 1967. It was a simple corrugated iron hut with a skillion roof, built of second-hand materials obtained from Tharwa, which itself had been built from parts of an early Canberra house. It was little known until I conducted the Namadgi Oral History Project for KHA in 1990. Interviews revealed the existence of the hut, and when I walked to it late that year in the rugged Booth Range area, I found a time capsule. The hut still contained personal items like a shaving brush, a kerosene lantern, and a wonderful collection of paperback novels, all westerns, giving an entertaining insight into the reading interests of the Oldfields.
The Oldfield clan stemmed from convict Joseph Oldfield and his wife Mary Keegan in the 1840s. The clan became one of the most numerous in the area and played a major part in the grazing story of the area that became Namadgi. Max and Bert were cousins, and their fathers had held the Booth Range lease for several years, using a hut at The Bog near the top of the range. Max and Bert built their own hut and, like Demandering, it was a periodic shelter when doing stockwork, fencing, rabbitting and other tasks.
Since the end of grazing, the hut had been visited by small numbers of walkers, and had seen a few KHA work parties too.
Both huts had similar themes in their being: connections to significant early families of the region, connections with the grazing way of life and economy, interesting aspects of their construction and materials, and continuing importance for today's users of the area.
The question for the ACT government now is whether these places have a social value supporting a decision to rebuild. Sure, the original structure can never be brought back, but social value can be retained and maintained when lost huts are resurrected. The huts' stories can continue to be told. The ACT would be well advised to look to the Kosciuszko example.
- Matthew Higgins is an historian who has worked at several national cultural institutions and written several books about the mountains, including Bold Horizon and Seeing Through Snow.
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