Dying art of ‘old-timers’ in peril, with Tasmanian wilderness hut heritage future uncertain

NBN U.K. News

NBN U.K. News

Posted October 28, 2018 15:39:21

As Todd Blair and his brother Phonse carefully split a tree stump into slender roof shingles, they are practicing a craft that has provided shelter for generations of Tasmanians.

The Blair family demonstrated the traditional method of shingle splitting at the Mountain Hut Preservation Society’s 30th anniversary celebration at Mole Creek, in Tasmania’s central north, on Saturday.

Mr Blair said the number of Tasmanians who still split shingles in the traditional way is dwindling.

“Like most things it’s a dying art, if we don’t keep doing it and keep teaching the younger generations, it probably will go by the wayside,” he said.

The Blairs have repaired and created roofs for huts in remote parts of Tasmania’s highlands.

The people who originally built the huts — graziers, hunters and early tourists — used the materials they could find.

Mr Blair said it is getting harder to find good quality trees to create shingles.

“Splitting them is the easy part,” he said.

“Actually finding a tree, nowadays we could find one in half a day, but sometimes it’s up to a week before we find a decent tree.”

The Mountain Hut Preservation Society has restored about a dozen huts since it was founded in 1988, born out of community discontent over the dismantling and removal of what was known as Tiger Hut, by the state’s parks and wildlife service.

Since then, the members of the society have dedicated themselves to protecting and preserving the huts that are scattered around the state, noting on its website that it “currently enjoys a good working relationship and partnership agreement with the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service”.

The society’s constitution demands members use the same techniques to restore the huts as were used to build them.

“It’s reviving arts like [the shingle splitting] that are being lost, and the traditional ways of the old-timers,” founding member Margaret Howe said.

Margaret’s husband Kelvin Howe admitted learning the traditional building techniques was challenging.

“We had to learn to use the adzes, to square the timber out, we had to build them as an exact replica of what was there,” he said.

Although the society often uses helicopters to ferry in heavy materials, sometimes getting to the huts can be arduous.

“We have been in a situation of humping split timber on our backs and tools and stuff to some sites, because sometimes you’ve got to do that,” said the society’s president, Roger Nutting.

“But then that kind of gives you an appreciation of what the old fellas went through when they did it.”

Not all of the traditional activities associated with the mountain huts have survived.

Philip Miles’ step-uncle Ray “Boy” Miles built many of the huts scattered around Tasmania’s highlands to live in while he hunted wallabies for their furs, using a traditional method known as “snaring”.

The method that uses wood and string to “snare” a wallaby as it hops by, breaking the animal’s neck, is no longer legal.

Mr Miles says his step uncle often chose remote locations for his snarers’ huts.

“He always seemed at one with the mountain,” he said.

“Hence why he built so many huts, I believe, it was just his total love for the place, it was where he wanted to be.”

The Society’s history records Ray Vernon “Boy” Miles as being born in 1919, growing up in the central highlands area of Tasmania and spending cherished time in the mountains with his father and brother.

After joining the army in 1940, Ray Miles fought in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Israel before facing the Japanese in 1942, the society’s website states.

“Supplied with old rifles and limited ammunition they found themselves hopelessly ill-equipped and out-numbered to take on the might of the Japanese infantry,” the history notes.

Captured by the enemy, Ray Miles would see out the war as a prisoner of the Japanese, spending three years on the Burma Railway, where the society history records him as suffering “immense mental and physical pain and torture at the hands of the Japanese”.

He returned to Australia a broken man and spent the remainder of his life in the Tasmanian wilderness, constructing a number of huts around the central plateau.

He was building a hut at Deception Plains, in central Tasmania, when he died, aged 59.

The Society has said it applied to Parks and Wildlife to complete construction of the hut at Deception Plains, to “acknowledge the sacrifice made by Boy and to honour his name and his contribution to the local mountain heritage”, but was refused. They followed up with a request to construct a shelter over the remains to “protect them from further decay” — also refused “due to the World Heritage Status of the area”, the society said.

In 2007, “at the suggestion of PWS”, the log ruins of the hut were treated with a timber preservative “with the hope of extending their life”, the materials airlifted to the site and applied by Society volunteers.

In 2009, a plaque to “commemorate the life and legacy of Boy Miles” was erected at the site.

Philip Miles said he was grateful the Mountain Hut Preservation Society had worked hard to restore and protect several of his step-uncle’s huts.

“I’ve got the greatest admiration for the people that are keeping heritage alive and keeping things as they were.”

Topics: history, community-and-society, architecture, environmental-management, tas