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Waldheim Chalet

History

Walkers at Waldheim, circa 1930

The first recorded visits by Europeans to the Cradle Mountain area were by officials of the Van Diemen's Land Company in the late 1820s. Henry Hellyer, a surveyor with the company, is believed to be the first European to climb Cradle Mountain. Cradle Mountain was named by Joseph Fossey in 1826. For much of the subsequent 100 years, the Cradle Mountain area was primarily the haunt of prospectors and snarers.

Waldheim Chalet was originally built between 1912 and the early 1920s. It was largely the vision and dedication of Gustav and Kate Weindorfer that led to both the construction of the chalet and the creation of the national park.

Gustav and Kate Weindorfer

Gustav Weindorfer was born in 1874 in Austria and migrated to Australia, arriving in Freemantle, Western Australia in 1900. Gustav's first impressions of the Australian bush were less than complimentary. "The country looks dreadful. The gum trees, at all times wretched creatures, stood sadly in the drought-stricken country...", he wrote in a letter home following a trip into the bushlands near Freemantle.

After moving to Melbourne, Gustav became a keen mountain climber and collector of native plants and did many trips into the Victorian Alps. Gustav's long interest in the botanical world led him to join the Victorian Field Naturalists' Club, where he met Kate Cowle in 1903.

Kate was born in 1863 in the Fingal Valley in Tasmania. She and her sister, Laura, moved to Melbourne in 1901, where Kate pursued her interests in music and the natural sciences. Her expertise in the botanical field led her to present a number of papers to the Victorian Field Naturalists' Club, which she had joined in 1902. Her interests coincided with those of Gustav and the two developed a strong friendship.

They both moved to Tasmania where they married in 1906. It was during their honeymoon on Mount Roland that Weindorfer first saw Cradle Mountain. He resolved to visit the area.

In 1910 Gustav, Kate and friends Ronald Smith and Walter Black climbed Cradle Mountain - Kate thus becoming the first white woman to climb Cradle Mountain. As they rested on the summit Gustav Weindorfer proclaimed "This must be a national park for the people for all time. It is magnificent, and people must know about it and enjoy it."

Gustav believed that by making the area accessible to visitors his vision would be realised. On that day on the summit of Cradle he determined to "build a chalet and get a road and then people will come from everywhere to see this place". In the following days Gustav and Kate explored the surrounding country and selected a site on a rocky rise on the edge of a pine forest for the chalet.

Waldheim

  • Interior of Waldheim, 1922

  • Horses in snow near Waldheim

  • Exterior of Waldheim, circa 1920
    Photos courtesy of Archives Office of Tasmania

In 1910 Kate and Gustav each purchased 200 acres (81 ha) of land near Cradle Mountain. In 1912 Weindorfer began to build Waldheim using King Billy pine from the site and relying on the bush carpentry skills he had acquired from a short-term appointment of an experienced timber worker. As a horse and cart could approach no closer than 14 km, Weindorfer carried baths and stoves on his back. By 1919, after long campaigning by Gustav, the road had reached within one and a half kilometres of Waldheim.

The chalet was opened to visitors at Christmas 1912, who enjoyed the rustic simplicity of the draughty, incomplete building. The following summer, Waldheim had 25 guests.

Records of the early days are filled with the warm hospitality and friendship, of the Weindorfers’ humour and hospitality, generous serves of wombat stews, and sing-songs around the fire.

To reach Waldheim, visitors could drive in horse-drawn vehicles to the Middlesex Plains, but then had to make the rest of the journey on foot or with packhorses.

The original house had three rooms, a combined dining/living room and two bedrooms. At the southern end of the dining room was an enormous fireplace, reportedly a large as a small room. Over the years, Gustav added to the original chalet and constructed a number of outbuildings including a personal accommodation hut, a toilet, poultry shed and yard, stables, workshop, woodshed and a bath-house. Gustav also erected fences and established a garden in front of the chalet.

Following the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Gustav became the victim of some ill-founded anti-German sentiment, with false rumours circulating that Gustav was a spy and that Waldheim was equipped with a radio transmitter for the purpose of espionage! During 1916 Kate's declining health caused grave concern for Gustav. On 29 April, Kate died. Gustav recorded in his characteristically brief diary entries, "I have lost my best friend".

The year continued to bring hardships for Gustav, with his letters home facing censorship, and the death of his brother, mother and father. Gustav spent increasing lengths of time at Waldheim, his withdrawal earning him the reputation of being a hermit. The normally gregarious Gustav keenly felt the loneliness.

The Beginnings of Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair National Park

Gustav campaigned tirelessly to see the Cradle Mountain area reserved. He conducted a series of lecture tours and lobbied tourism and government officials and gained influential support from the Director of the Tasmanian Government Tourist Bureau, Evelyn Emmett and the Curator of Natural History with the Tasmanian Museum, Clive Lord. The three men approached the Minister for Lands, who was supportive of the proposal.

On 16 May 1922, an area of 158,000 acres (63,943 ha) from Cradle Mountain down to Lake St Clair was proclaimed a Scenic Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary under the Scenery Preservation Act 1915..

In May 1932 Gustav was intending to leave Waldheim to visit friends on the north coast of Tasmania. While attempting to kick start a temperamental motorbike and sidecar on the rough track that lead from Waldheim to the start of the road, Gustav suffered a heart attack. His body was found a few days later. Gustav was buried in Cradle Valley, nearby the chalet he had built. A granite cairn over his grave was unveiled in 1938 and stands today as a memorial to the man who played such a major role in protecting the Cradle Mountain area.

Waldheim after Weindorfer

Following Gustav's death, Waldheim was purchased and upgraded by Lionel Connell, who also became the first officially appointed ranger in the Cradle Mountain area. Further additions to the chalet were made.

The Connell family sold Waldheim and its land in 1945 to the government, which incorporated it into the Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair National Park.

As early as 1958 it became clear that the original chalet was becoming structurally unsound. In 1976, the National Parks and Wildlife Service demolished Waldheim and contracted a local builder, Ted Forster, to reconstruct the chalet as it has appeared at the time of Gustav's death. Foster had been taught the skills of hand-splitting shingles by Gustav himself. Those materials that were sound were saved and used in the reconstruction, including most of the doors and the ceiling, the floor and one of the large spars in the living room. The original stables still exist, and are now used as the woodshed for the Waldheim cabins at the rear of the chalet.

Further Reading

Giordano, M. (1987). A Man and a Mountain: The Story of Gustav Weindorfer. Regal Publications, Launceston.

Schnackenberg, S. (1995). Kate Weindorfer: The Woman Behind the Man and the Mountain. Regal Publications, Launceston.