I'm badly jet-lagged, the mercury is pushing 42 degrees and the air is laced with acrid smoke. But before I go home to bed, I have to visit Klaus Hueneke, Australia's foremost authority on mountain huts.
Just as I was boarding my flight back from a family Christmas in the US, on January 3 this year, I'd heard that along with the heart-breaking devastation on the South Coast, that Four Mile Hut near Kiandra had been razed.
Klaus was among a small group of bushwalkers who, in 1975, 'rediscovered' the dilapidated hut built by miner Bob Hughes about 40 years earlier, and to say it's been a special part of his life ever since would be a gross understatement.
For Klaus the rustic hut was a shrine. He lobbied to save it, toiled to rebuild it, meticulously documented its heritage and, of course, bunked down in (and around) it many times. Heck, he even dragged his young family there one year to celebrate a very Australian Christmas. Flies, snakes 'n' all.
So it's no surprise that when he opens the door of his Palmerston home to greet me, the sense of grief is palpable.
When I tell Klaus I'm here to offer my condolences about the loss of 'Four Mile' he bursts into tears. We both do. I give him a big bear hug.
Klaus' partner Patricia confides he's been bottling up the grief since he first heard the hut had been destroyed by fire a few days earlier. "You've released the pressure-cooker valve," gasps Klaus, still sobbing uncontrollably.
How a little old slab hut with an iron roof could come to mean so much to one man is highlighted in the hot-off-the-press The Life of a Mountain Hut (Tabletop Press) in which Klaus chronicles the colourful history of the lost landmark from the point of view of the hut itself.
Only someone with Klaus' appreciation for the hut could even attempt to write such a biography, let alone pull it off with such aplomb.
But the fire almost proved to be the death-knell for this book, Klaus' fourteenth. After the fire, Klaus was in such shock that he stopped writing.
"I thought the hut's gone, so what's the purpose of the book but then a few months later the spirit of the hut roared back to life and told me 'I want to tell my story'," says Klaus. "At that point I knew I had to finish come hell or high water."
It's a very different book to most of Klaus' previous offerings, including the best-selling Huts of the High Country (first published in 1982) in that it's the 76-year-old's first foray into what he likes to call faction - "fiction based on lots of facts".
"Writing this book really took it out of me, I had to make judgements all along the line, it was hard going ... sure there's a background of history, but I had to make some things up using oral interviews or documents as a guide," he explains.
"In the end I'm very happy with it, but some of it is a bit risqué as I haven't held back to all things that can happen in a hut," confesses Klaus.
He definitely hasn't. As part of the fiction (or is there a bit of autobiography here?), Klaus describes a series of romantic rendezvous that take place in the hut with detail that leaves even your well-travelled columnist blushing.
Gee, if I wanted to engage in such back-to-nature activities, I definitely wouldn't choose a hut where at any moment a group of hikers could arrive to share the hut. Who knows, maybe that's part of the thrill?
It's a foray which won't going to sit comfortably with some of his regular readers. "They are generally quite conservative, but this book isn't just for them, it's aimed at a wider audience" says Klaus.
Thankfully the hut is a great observer of many fully-clothed visitors as well, including, of course, its saviour, Klaus. At one point the 'hut' reveals, "I must have pressed some deep buttons in Klaus. He took to me in a big way". Indeed.
In terms of the storyline, the January fire which destroyed the hut is an obvious yet heart-wrenching climax, but in a way it's this disaster that makes The Life of a Mountain Hut an even better read.
Sure, in the lead-up to last summer you follow with interest all the shenanigans that occur at the hut, including fictional visits by thrill-seeking nudists and budding yogis, along with historical accounts lifted straight from the hut's logbooks held by the State Library of NSW (I love one visitor's encounter with the 'ghost' of Bob Hughes), but it's when the fire hits that Klaus writes with raw emotion.
"I screamed, I flailed, I rattled my irons and I stamped the floorboards but it was to no avail. I was a mute. The fire couldn't hear. The fire couldn't care. I was rooted here, I couldn't run. I had to watch it roar over and through me. I had to feel the pain. I had to witness my own death ... In an hour or two I was no more. Not in body anyhow". Classic Klaus.
This week when a much perkier Klaus than I'd encountered earlier this year handed me a copy of his book, he explained, "Four Mile Hut lost its walls, roof, furniture and chimney but not its spirit. That spirit is alive and well in this book and in hundreds of people who loved the hut". It sure is.
Klaus hopes The Life of a Mountain Hut isn't the last chapter for his beloved hut and is leading a chorus of others, including your akubra-clad columnist, for it to be rebuilt.
The Life of a Mountain Hut ($30) is available just in time for Christmas at www.tabletoppressbooks.com
Find out more about Four Mile Hut here.
Spirit of special sanctuary remains intact
Four Mile Hut Ruins: The hut site is a 5km walk from the ruins of the Selwyn Snow Resort (also razed in the same fire that destroyed the hut). This area of the national park is currently closed to vehicles so check before planning a trip.
Sad sight: The loss of the hut in last summer's fires was felt by many, including Canberra bushwalker and photographer Stefan De Montis who recently hiked to the site. "When I came across the burnt ruins of the hut I was hit with a wave of sadness that stopped me in my tracks. As if the burnt snowgums, valleys and ridges weren't bad enough, seeing that pile of rubble was heartbreaking in different ways. I had got to know 'Four Mile' quite well over the past 14 years since my very first visit. I had spent a number of nights inside over the years when the weather was truly horrible, and my appreciation for the hut and its location grew with each visit. After a while each visit was like seeing an old friend. I would walk away happy, comforted and content. I will always associate that beautiful valley with that unique and iconic hut." Hear! Hear!
Did You Know? The hut's creator Bob Hughes attempted to reduce the winter gales blowing into the hut by hammering small leather washers under every nail used to hold the roof and walls together. Ingenious.
Acoustic mystery: At Four Mile Creek, located just below the hut site, there is a peculiar acoustic phenomenon whereby noise made near the creek is amplified. This allows someone whispering near the creek to be heard loudly and clearly at the hut, some 50 metres away. Since first experiencing this peculiar phenomenon with high country historian and bushwalker Matthew Higgins several years ago, this column has attempted to explain to amplification, but so far without any luck. Perhaps it is caused by the parabolic shape of the creek banks which somehow amplify the sound? Are there any acousticians out there who can help solve this bush mystery?
WHERE IN THE REGION?
Clue: I hope Popeye and friends can swim
Degree of difficulty: Medium - Hard
Last week: Congratulations to Jacqui Whittet of Casey who was first to correctly identify the location of last week's photo, taken by Jill Hosking, as the oven door in the bottom of the Touching Lightly art work by Warren Langley, which is next to the Canberra Glassworks (old Kingston Powerhouse). A jubilant Jacqui who claimed her first win in this competition just beat Lynn and George Nerdal of Bonner, Margaret Lester of Kambah and David Nott of Ainslie to the prize.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and suburb to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday December 5, 2020, wins a double pass to Dendy, the Home of Quality Cinema.
SOUNDS OF SUMMER
Cicadas have been in full chorus in many suburbs around Canberra this week. Have you heard them at your place? Given the number of cicadas it's likely there will be thousands of cicada shells to collect over coming weeks. Some kids like to take them to school as part of 'show and tell' while big kids (adults!) like Sarah Streatfeild make brooches with them. Really. "They are gruesome but beautiful" she says.
Meanwhile, the biggest cicada reported to this column remains this beauty found by six year-old Jamie Payne in Curtin in 2012. Can you beat it?
CONTACT TIM: Email: email@example.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick