Books

Kate Legge
Kindred: A Cradle Mountain Love Story

It is the photographs scattered through the text of Kindred that grab our attention first. Two pairs of battered boots in close-up, hanging on a nail. A rudimentary bush campsite where a couple of thin ropes are tied between two trees and draped with canvas. The corpse of a wombat, strung up to be butchered. Men in puttees and a woman in full Edwardian dress, posed in an alpine heath. And panoramas of gorges, crevasses and mountain peaks in which gums twist out of boulder cracks and human figures are registered as ants with walking sticks.

This is a world trapped in gelatin silver – a visual record of the area that would become the Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park, back when it was no more than a bullock dray track that expired in a wilderness few Europeans had ever gone through. Kate Legge, a journalist and novelist, first came to know the park as a walker. She has written a love story about a pioneering couple who made a home in this wild place, Gustav Weindorfer and Kate Cowle. Kindred is also a love letter addressed to the Tasmanian high country.

It helps to know at the outset that “the sublime” was late in coming to the Australian mindset. The European fascination with nature – an aestheticised admiration observed, celebrated and codified by figures such as Edmund Burke during the mid-18th century – was based on a paradox. Our old species-terror of the wild needed to be diluted before we could relish it in the abstract. Indeed, it was only once European nature had been tamed to some degree that it was possible for tourists to surrender to its power and immensity.

Australia represented a frontier culture in which the violence of colonisation and the alienness of the antipodean milieu worked to create a massed incuriosity about the continent’s natural wonders. It was a place to survive in, and then a place to exploit for wealth. It was a rare surveyor or prospector or Anglican minister’s wife who thought to strike out into the bush for the pure love of it in the decades before Federation.

It fell to outsiders, in particular the scientifically minded, to import a sense of wonder, awe and inquisitiveness in regard to Australian place. In the latter decades of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, a rambling culture grew up around the German botanists and beetle-fanciers, Guernsey-born nature photographers and local Victorian bluestockings who made up the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria.

Among these was a young Austrian, Gustav Weindorfer, and an older Tasmanian woman named Kate Cowle. Weindorfer was handsome and intense, an inveterate bushwalker and plant collector. Every hour not spent at work as a clerk in Melbourne saw him flee for sites such as the Grampians, or the Buffalo Ranges of Victoria’s north-east. Cowle was his equal on the tramp and shared with him a fascination for native flora and fauna. She had grown up in Tasmania’s north-east, and members of her well-to-do farming family retained their holdings in the area of Kindred, south-west of Devonport.

It was to a hundred acres on the family block that the pair moved when they eventually married. Their plan, initially, was to practise agriculture as a means of living and to hunt for plants on the side. But a far from luxurious honeymoon trip in 1906 to the northern edge of Tasmania’s Great Western Tiers range, to stay at the top of Mount Roland in a tent, inspired a shift in impetus.

A subsequent visit by Weindorfer to Cradle Mountain, an even more remote and unvisited place, confirmed him in a new plan. The couple would build accommodation on the mountain, not unlike those proto-touristic enterprises already being established in Victoria, allowing naturalists and intrepid walkers to stay and experience the mountain for themselves. Gustav built Waldheim (“forest-home” in German) with local timber, using only those tools he could carry in on a packhorse. It was a remarkable effort, and an immense act of faith. This was to be the gateway to a new national park.

The story of Waldheim and Gustav Weindorfer is relatively well known; the role of Kate Weindorfer in it, less so. Legge’s achievement in these pages is to draw the woman out from beneath her husband’s cloak and credit equally her intelligence and spunk. She did pretty much everything the men around her did – the same climbs in all weathers, the same hard-headed farm management – but in petticoats and long skirts. She also bore the brunt of local gossip, married as she was to a younger man who spent months off in the bush while she kept the home fires burning.

Though Legge uses some melancholy autobiographical threads to tie her own experience to the couple, she is resolute in establishing how unique – in terms of temperament and drive, knowledge and vision – the couple was. Aside from criticism aimed at the Weindorfers for their relative myopia when it came to acknowledging Indigenous Tasmanians (who were present, according to archaeological evidence in the Cradle Mountain region, for some 30,000 years before European arrival), the biographer paints her complex subjects in a positive light.

And so she should. It was Gustav’s efforts, solo in the long years after Kate’s death in 1916 until his own in 1932, that saw a forbidding wilderness recast as an outdoor cathedral for the visiting public. Legge does not agree with the quasi-canonisation he suffered after his death and believes he would have laughed at it, too. But nor does she side with those revisionists who saw him as a vulgar tourism operator with both eyes on a shilling. He is “impossible to box”, she concludes.

In 1916, Legge adds, there were 38 guests at Waldheim. In 2017, 280,000 souls made their way to the same remote corner of the Earth. It took a century and an Austrian visionary to get there, but we discovered and revelled in an Australian sublime, at last.

Geordie Williamson

Miegunyah Press, 256pp, $44.99 (hardback)

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 23, 2019 as "Kate Legge, Kindred: A Cradle Mountain Love Story". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Geordie Williamson