The high country, though a small percentage of our continent, seems like a big place. It is beautiful, but can be intimidating. Many people would not go into it alone. But some lived lives of solitude there.
There have been some intriguing loners in the mountains.
In The Snowies, one loner was Charlie Carter who has been written of extensively by Canberra's Klaus Hueneke. Carter lived alone at the Tin Mines south of Thredbo, where he caught wild horses, warred with neighbours the Freebodys, and dreamt up weird cures, even for cancer! He died alone too. You can read Klaus's books for more on him.
Closer to home in what is now Namadgi National Park, there were men who spent long periods on their own. When brothers Ted and Tom Oldfield acquired the 7000-acre Booth Range grazing lease in the 1920s, they had home properties elsewhere and so needed someone to look after Booth Range. Somehow they got a truck onto the range and built an iron hut, then they got George Gould to be their hut-keeper.
George was apparently from the Kenmore Asylum at Goulburn and was intellectually handicapped, but he was happy working up on the big range for the Oldfields. George lived at the hut ("colourfully" known as The Bog) for many years. Visitors were almost nil. George rode the lease boundaries, maintained the fences, killed dingoes and kept watch over the sheep and cattle. Remarkably he grew some vegetables despite the depredations of wallabies. His garden was at about twice the elevation of most Canberra backyards. As former Michelago grazier Jack Cotter quipped to me over 20 years ago, "they wouldn't have been early vegetables!".
Down south at Bobeyan lived Richard Brayshaw. Born in 1865, he was the last of the large Brayshaw family to remain living in the big old homestead built in the 1800s. A bachelor, he did have visitors like brother David, and neighbours the Lutons who eventually bought the property in the 1950s. But he lived a fairly solitary life.
Dick read at night by firelight in the old kitchen wing of the homestead and his chair was actually scorched on the front legs by the heat of the fire from all those long winters. He was known for his superstitions. According to Noel Luton who knew him well, Dick would decide what sort of a day it would be by the direction the magpies flew of a morning. He believed it was bad luck to start a new task on a Friday. Once he set out on a trip he would not turn back, even if he had forgotten important papers (as Noel's father Morris once found out after driving Dick all the way to Cooma - they got back and Dick said they'd have to do the trip again!). When he died in 1954 aged 89, still a bachelor, there was a book about matrimony on his bookshelf.
Bob Reid was at Brindabella. He had suffered a terrible head wound (perhaps a Great War veteran?) and had a metal plate in his skull. He suffered pain - weather changes were said to affect him - and liked alcohol. Originally from Victoria, by the time he came to Brindabella he was elderly. Not long after Mt Franklin Chalet opened in 1938, Bob was offered the job of Chalet cook.
Bob moved his simple slab hut from Brindabella up to the Chalet and got to work. But he was temperamental, and known as "Old Bob" he aroused both fear and humour among Franklin skiers. A contemporary report said that "all who crossed the threshold stepped warily lest they incur the displeasure of the club's bearded cook, philosopher, and weather-prophet".
One night at the chalet a major argument broke out between Bob and some members. Bob pulled a breadknife on them, threatened to burn his hut down, and stormed off down into the Brindabella valley in the dark.
Bob then lived in simple huts for years, working for landowners like John Dowling of Brindabella Station. He died from pneumonia in his hut. Dowling and Yass police battled to get his stiff body into a coffin. "Every time you let go," recalled Dowling, "he'd bounce back up again!" The sadness of Old Bob's passing was leavened with a little humour, at least.
'Old Bob' aroused both fear and humour among Franklin skiers.
Tom Gregory was the last of the upper Cotter Valley catchment rangers prior to Namadgi National Park. Like his predecessors Jack Maxwell (a ranger from the late 1920s to the early 1950s) and Jack Silk (mid 1950s), Tom had a lonely outpost, responsible for 40,000 hectares of country. Maxwell clearly was well suited to the isolation of life at Cotter Hut, spending months at a time there, but he had friends and family visit and was sociable. Tom contrasted in his temperament.
In his 1990 interview with me, Tom said from his Ainslie home how he liked being alone (even after his marriage!) and although brumby-running friends would sometimes visit, Tom enjoyed the solitude. "I actually didn't want to see anyone. You sort of got sick of people. They was in your road," he said. He was certainly a tough ranger; he is recalled carrying a Winchester shotgun when confronting people entering the catchment without permission. It was loaded too: "An empty gun's no good in the bush," he used to say. Trout and rabbits formed part of his diet, a break from the mostly tinned food available.
It was mostly the peace and quiet that Tom loved about the upper Cotter, and he became a little emotional when he told me that towards the end of our time together. We were lucky to have that time; he died only a few weeks later.
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