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.
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.