HUTS IN SAFE HANDS

They’re an iconic link to the early pi­o­neers of the Vic­to­rian high plains, and thanks to en­thu­si­as­tic and sk­il­ful vol­un­teers, these his­toric huts are be­ing re­stored to sur­vive into the fu­ture.

North East Living Magazine - - Contents - Words Leah Tindill pho­tos Lachie Gales, Gra­ham Gales, Allen Sk­il­ton and Chris Steven­son.

His­toric and iconic huts linked to early pi­o­neers of the Vic­to­rian high plains are be­ing re­stored and preser ved by sk­il­ful vol­un­teers.

THERE is a cer­tain ro­man­tic charm about a wooden hut stand­ing proud among the Vic­to­rian high plains scenery.

Its weather beaten fea­tures aching to tell you its unique story, the walls whis­per­ing his­toric tales into the Vic­to­rian High Coun­try air.

You can tell that these huts mark so­ci­etal de­vel­op­ment in the area and their pres­ence boasts an un­de­ni­able value to the landscape of the high coun­try.

And it is a value that is keenly un­der­stood by Wan­garatta-based builder Lachie Gales and a host of other North East lo­cals who have vol­un­teered to re­build these iconic and his­toric land­marks.

Un­der the aus­pice of the Vic­to­rian High Coun­try Huts As­so­ci­a­tion (VHCHA), and with the im­mense sup­port of Parks Vic­to­ria, the group works with na­ture and with a sus­tain­able at­ti­tude to re­store longevity to the huts.

The VHCHA be­gan restor­ing the huts after the 2003 bush­fires, but Lachie’s in­volve­ment be­gan in 2008 after a Huts As­so­ci­a­tion cal­en­dar piqued his in­ter­est.

Now, some eight years later, he and ‘a hard­core group of half a dozen’ has com­pleted these projects through rain, hail, sleet, snow and shine.

“Our lit­tle group has had a back­ground all of our lives in ski­ing, bush­walk­ing and we’ve had oc­ca­sion when we needed the huts,” Lachie said.

“So when the op­por­tu­nity comes up to give back it’s been good.”

The group has re­stored a hut at Mit­ta­gundi Out­door Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­tre, and five High Coun­try huts in­clud­ing Rop­ers, Ed­mon­sons, Wal­laces, We­stons and Youngs, with the sixth, Mc­na­ma­ras Din­ner Plain Hut, set to be fin­ished later this year.

“Wal­laces is the old­est hut on the high plains...it’s the only her­itage listed build­ing on the high plains - it goes back to 1886,” Lachie said.

“Three Ir­ish broth­ers built it in six weeks in 1886 and it’s still stand­ing.

“Peo­ple come and book it for wed­dings be­cause it’s only 500 me­tres off the road and there’s a wide path there, ac­ces­si­bil­ity is com­plete.”

The group be­gan work in March to re­store Mc­na­ma­ras Din­ner Plain Hut, which was be­gin­ning to rot away.

Due to the re­mote lo­ca­tion of Mc­na­ma­ras, the group’s mem­bers changed the way they or­gan­ised the restora­tion process, mov­ing away from their typ­i­cal week­end work party struc­ture.

They de­cided on a five day trip, with all 30 peo­ple who at­tended the brief­ing meet­ing sign­ing up for the project.

“So we had 30 peo­ple and that was scary in it­self be­cause we’re used to maybe 15, 16,” Lachie said.

“If we had an ac­ci­dent, the near­est help was Omeo, which was prob­a­bly at least two hours away.”

Mc­na­ma­ras Din­ner Plain Hut was built in 1917 by the Mcna­mara fam­ily and was one of the few huts that had con­tin­ued use as a cat­tle­man’s hut right through to the end of the fam­ily’s land lease be­fore the Alpine Na­tional Park was formed in 1979.

“Mc­na­ma­ras is prob­a­bly the one that’s the least vis­ited be­cause it’s so re­mote,” Lachie said.

“It’s on the other side of Falls Creek...there’s a bi­tu­men road be­tween Omeo and Mitta called the Mitta High­way and there’s a place called the Blue Duck, or An­glers Rest.

“That’s where we left the bi­tu­men - we drive up through the (Bun­dara) Val­ley, which is quite pretty, there’s quite a few farm houses in there.

“Then we leave the Bun­dara Val­ley and we climb up this grey hill spur through the tracks to Mc­na­ma­ras.

“There are two Mc­na­ma­ras huts up there: there’s Mc­na­ma­ras Din­ner Plain Hut which was the prop­erty of a fella named Char­lie Mcna­mara.

“There’s another Mc­na­ma­ras Hut which was burnt out and re­built by Mit­ta­gundi on the other side of the val­ley which be­longed to Roni Mcna­mara.

“They were broth­ers who had a huge fall­ing out in the 1940s and never spoke for the next 14 years un­til Roni Mac died.”

Mc­na­ma­ras Din­ner Plain Hut was orig­i­nally a log hut that was then ex­tended in the 1950s, adding a tin sec­tion and a new chim­ney.

Over time, the hut’s foun­da­tion be­gan to erode, caus­ing the struc­ture to bow which the group reme­died by lift­ing the main struc­ture and re­plac­ing the bot­tom logs with tim­ber from the area.

“Un­der­neath the roof are the orig­i­nal shin­gles and you can start to see a lot of graf­fiti in this hut,” Lachie said.

“There’s Char­lie Mcna­mara’s sig­na­ture: ‘21/11/1962 shot 14 horses’ (brumbies) - there was graf­fiti in there go­ing back to the 1950s.

“We took down the en­tire chim­ney but we left the post with the graf­fiti on it and just cut in a new base to make it struc­turally sound with­out mov­ing the post.

“We thought Wal­laces was our crown­ing glory but we’ve out­done our­selves here.

“We wanted to main­tain its her­itage, we want it to be avail­able for her­itage list­ing, so the mantra we have is that we do as much as nec­es­sary but as lit­tle as pos­si­ble.

“We’ve still got to do one and a half days or so of work... the floor has a lot of tim­ber slabs on the ground and there are a lot of oth­ers that need re­plac­ing.

“The back sec­tion of the hut has an old lean-to chaff house that won’t take us very long - we’ll pull down the iron, re­build the frame and put the iron back.

“We want to fin­ish Mc­na­ma­ras this year; we’re aim­ing to re­turn in De­cem­ber.”>>

“There are no pas­sen­gers, ev­ery­body chips in - we have a mix of skills from school teach­ers to pub­lic ser­vice clerks, a whole range of peo­ple.” - Lachie Gales

The Mcna­mara restora­tion project also at­tracted the largest num­ber of women to the vol­un­teer group, with a huge va­ri­ety of skillsets mak­ing up the per­son­nel.

“The biggest group of fe­males we’ve had was on this project, five women, and they were not in the kitchen, they were do­ing build­ing work,” Lachie said.

“There are no pas­sen­gers, ev­ery­body chips in - we have a mix of skills from school teach­ers to pub­lic ser­vice clerks, a whole range of peo­ple.”

The group main­tains a strict en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly and sus­tain­able at­ti­tude to­wards the projects, work­ing with na­ture to re­store the huts.

“When we’ve got to pick a log we’ll pick one that might al­ready have a lean or the one that will pro­duce the least waste,” Lachie said.

“Part of it is that we re­place like for like; there’s no point in us get­ting a few red gum logs here (Wan­garatta) and tak­ing them up to the high plains be­cause that’s not what they would have orig­i­nally used.

“It’s dif­fer­ent with things like Rop­ers and We­stons, which were com­pletely burnt to the ground and have been re­built as a homage to the style, but it’s not meant to be a replica.

“We do it in trib­ute partly to the peo­ple who came be­fore us - the old timers were tough, in­de­pen­dent, re­silient peo­ple that helped build our so­ci­ety and we don’t want to see what they did slip away.

“Part of it is the refuge hut - we’ve all had the ben­e­fit of these huts in those en­vi­ron­ments to keep us safe.

“Another part of it is that we have a good time do­ing it... we en­joy each other’s com­pany and the sense of achieve­ment that we get as a group.

“And, in­creas­ingly, that dom­i­nates our ap­proach. It’s not only what we’re do­ing but how we’re go­ing about it.”

And while the ut­most care is taken to re­store the huts to their orig­i­nal glory, the build­ings ben­e­fit greatly from to­day’s mod­ern car­pen­try skills.

“A cat­tle­man’s hut has this whole ro­man­tic im­age but if you can avoid sleep­ing in a cat­tle­man’s hut you will,” Lachie said. “It’s dark, dirty, it’s cold, it’s rat in­fested usu­ally. “The fin­ished prod­uct of what we’re leav­ing be­hind is a quan­tum leap from what we find.”

More in­for­ma­tion about the huts and the VHCHA can be found at www.hutsvic­to­ria.org.au.

“We do it in trib­ute partly to the peo­ple who came be­fore us - the old timers were tough, in­de­pen­dent, re­silient peo­ple that helped build our so­ci­ety and we don’t want to see what they did slip away.” - Lachie Gales

TEAM EF­FORT / Lachie Gales ( front, with axes) and the large crew of peo­ple who worked on restor­ing Mc­na­ma­ras Din­ner Plain Hut.

Mc­na­ma­ras Din­ner Plain Hut be­fore

SKILLSET / “Jim Creb­bin, from Mt Beauty, is 75, skis in Ja­pan ev­ery year and if there’s a job that re­quires a lot of phys­i­cal tough­ness and en­durance he gets it be­cause he is just amaz­ing, an ab­so­lute leg­end.” - Lachie Gales. after WOOD WORK / Jim Find­lay sets to work shap­ing tim­ber.

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