Gustav Weindorfer – “For the people, for all time”

Excerpted from The Overland Track Guidebook

Gustav Weindorfer came to Australia looking for adventure, but found much more – a Tasmanian and her island home. 

Gustav Weindorfer — ‘Dorfer’ to his Australian mates — was born in Spittal an der Drau, Austria in 1874. An interest in the natural world led him to study farm management, but much to his frustration the only work he could find was as an accountant for a wine merchant. At 25, fed-up with the job and craving adventure, he booked a ticket to the distant, unknown land of Australia.

On first sight he wasn’t impressed: ‘The country looks dreadful’, he wrote home. ‘The gum trees, at all times wretched creatures, stood sadly in the drought-stricken country, rattling their long leaves.’ He settled in Melbourne where he soon started exploring the countryside with the Victorian Field Naturalists’ Club. Another member of the club with similar botanical interests was Kate Cowle, a Tasmanian-born woman 11 years Dorfer’s senior. In September 1902 they shared space in the Field Naturalists magazine, Gustav with a paper comparing the alpine flora of Australian and Europe, Kate’s paper discussing the geology and plants of Tasmania’s Mt Roland.

It wasn’t long before Gustav began to call upon Kate and her sister, helping them classify their wildflower collections and joining Kate at the piano where he sang Austrian folk songs to her accompaniment. Kate must have liked what she saw: a tall, strong, engaging man with thick accent and an even thicker handlebar moustache, because in February 1906 they got married. For the wedding they travelled back to Kindred, where Kate had relatives, a small town south-west of Devonport. Within hours of arrival, Gustav was fighting bushfires with his future relatives, battling all night to save the homestead in which they were married the next day. Their honeymoon was five weeks in a leaky tent on Mt Roland collecting plant specimens and subsisting on kangaroo tail soup.

Gustav was impressed by Tasmania’s rugged scenery, which reminded him of his mountainous homeland. For the first time, far in the distance, he saw the distinctive ridge of Cradle Mountain — and his curiosity was piqued. But first they settled down, buying some land in Kindred and starting a farm, growing oats, potatoes, vegetables, fruit and raising sheep and cattle. Gustav impressed the locals with his good manners, hard work and outgoing personality.

His first trip to Cradle Valley was in January 1909, when Gustav and a Melbourne friend Charlie Sutton headed off south-west, passing the last of the farms and then following their compass across trackless moorland until they entered Cradle Valley, at that time known to only a few hunters, trappers and some adventurous mountaineers. Gustav was smitten with the wildness of the highlands and the richness of its flora, with many of the plants yet to be classified. On returning to the farm he wrote an article for the Victorian Field Naturalists’ describing Cradle Mountain as ‘a veritable El Dorado for the botanist’. Impatient to return, Gustav organised a trip back to the area with Kate and his neighbour Ronnie Smith that December. On 4 January 1910 they climbed Cradle Mountain, Kate, in her long skirt and bone-necked blouse, keeping pace with the men, the first woman known to have reached the summit.

In an article 25 years later, Smith described how Gustav stretched out his arms and declared, ‘This must be a national park for the people for all time. It is magnificent, and people must know about it and enjoy it.’ It was no idle quip. Kate and Gustav had been at the opening of Mt Buffalo National Park in the Victorian Alps, and learned how the construction of a chalet had led to the arrival of visitors, then to a road, then to more visitors and ultimately the declaration of a national park. If it could be done in Victoria, it could be done in Tasmania.

Excited by Gustav’s vision, the party promptly started scouting around for a location to build the chalet, settling on a site at the edge of an ancient myrtle and King Billy pine forest about 3km from Dove Lake.

In March 1912 Gustav started building Waldheim, ‘forest home’ is his native tongue. Designed to harmonise with its surroundings, it was made from carefully selected King Billy pine from the adjoining forest, with the aim of minimising the impact on the environment.

Initially, he employed an experienced timber worker to teach him to split logs into shingles, palings and beams. He soon became proficient in the process and continued building alone. Waldheim was basic but beautiful: bunks of rough wood and hessian, mattresses stuffed with sphagnum moss, blocks of wood for chairs and a huge fireplace with toasting forks made from twisted fencing wire. His motto hung on the wall, ‘This is Waldheim, where there is no time and nothing matters’.

Visitors soon started arriving, particularly friends from the Victorian Field Naturalists’ Club, who endured the rough journey to enjoy Waldheim’s rustic charm and the area’s mountains, lakes and rainforest. Gustav was cook as well as guide and host, treating guests to his home baked bread, freshly ground coffee (a rarity in those times) and his specialty — wombat and garlic stew.

Just when custom was beginning to increase, the First World War broke out. Fear of foreigners became rife: rumours circulated that the Austrian deep in the highlands was a spy and Waldheim was equipped with a radio transmitter to communicate with the enemy. Kate’s health began to deteriorate, doctors advising her of a weak heart. Soon Kate was in and out of hospital, Gustav leaving Waldheim to be by her side. When she died on 29 April 1916, aged 52, Gustav wrote in his diary, ‘I have lost my best friend.’

Gustav retreated to Waldheim, drawing solace from hard work and the area’s beauty. He built a stable, a sledge for hauling wood, a workshop, woodshed and gathered stones to build a larger chimney. His isolation earned him the reputation as ‘The Hermit of Cradle Mountain’ — the opposite of the truth, for he was naturally very sociable and suffered terribly from loneliness.

At age 43 he volunteered for the army, but although he had been an Australian citizen since 1905, he was rejected.

By winter 1919 Gustav had completed most of Waldheim’s buildings. Visitors in October 1920 included Tasmanian photographer and mountaineer Frederick Smithies and his next-door neighbour Herbert King, another photographer. It’s to these two men we owe thanks for much of the photographic record of the area. Smithies, in particular, came to share Gustav’s vision of a national park and joined him on a promotional tour of Tasmania showing lantern slides and drumming up support for the idea, including with the Minister of Lands. On 16 May 1922, 64 000 hectares from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair were declared a ‘scenic reserve and wildlife sanctuary’.

By this time Gustav’s heart was giving him trouble, but he continued to host visitors and guide them through the area, in the evenings regaling them with fireside tales about the grand balls and buildings of Vienna. Rather than slowing down because of his bad heart, Gustav sped up, literally, buying an Indian motorcycle in 1931, which was well-suited to the poor tracks leading to Waldheim.

On 5 May 1932 Gustav was found dead. His heart had failed as he had tried to kick-start his motorcycle; he was 58.

His friends gathered to bury him in front of the chalet, his grave marked with a simple King Billy pine cross bearing the name ‘Dorfer’.

Cradle Mountain