In The Beginning . . . .

by Denis Robinson

These notes are a supplement to Ian Ross’ description in the 40th anniversary magazine of the early days of SUBW. They also serve to assert that the early members, now 50 years on and grizzled and balding, are still around and indeed some of us still sling a pack on our backs when life in retirement lacks zest.

The forerunners

Staff and students at SU were arranging walks since at least the mid – 1930s. The primacy for developing a (loose) association of walkers lies with the Chemistry Department (see Allan Maccoll’s paper on pre-history) but Erik Shipp tells of walking with his father, George, and others from the Arts faculty in the late 1930s.

Des Brown recalls that in the early 1940s the Chemistry group had expanded to some 20 walkers as others joined from Science, particularly the field sciences, from CSIR (as it then was) and from other faculties. Many of these were drawn from those graduates who had been prevented by the war from going abroad to undertake post-graduate studies (Australian universities did not offer Ph.D.s until around 1950)

I can discover no link between these first walkers and those contemplating the setting up of a formal club. A reason for the absence of any connection may be that in September 1946, one month before SUBW was born, most of the aspiring Ph.D.s departed the university when they were at last able to board a ship for England.

What is important about the ‘pre-history’ period is that the bushwalking tradition at SU is much older than the 50 years we are celebrating. And the treks that these first walkers undertook were no less exacting than those taken by the next generation.

The midwives

That SUBW came into existence one year after the end of World War II was not chance. During the war thousands of troops had been stationed in what was then remote and largely unknown parts of Australia. They had returned with tales of the back of beyond which excited the imagination of young city dwellers. Also, the Great Depression was over, there was a sense of widening horizons, an urge to explore.

There were two groups which independently concluded that a formal university body was needed to promote their commitment to exploration. One group was the Junior Science Association, formed in 1944 to expand the interests of second year Science students. The JSA had a social program, including dances (one of which was advertised as a ‘frivolic bollock’) and in May and August 1946, it arranged walks to Blue Gum and St Helena (near Faulconbridge). These walks stimulated some participants to wish for a body which would concentrate on walking.

The other group was the SU Rover Crew. It had members who found its activities program to be lacking in adventure and sought an organisation which was less constrained by protocol.

It was the conjunction of a number of students from these two groups, including importantly 4 or 5 who were associated with both and had walked together from schooldays (the ‘Biksticks’), which led to a decision to call a meeting with the objective of establishing an SUBW club. If key players can be singled out, they were Vern Gilbert (now of Toronto, Canada) and Bill Taylor (now of Pangbourne, England) but there were half a dozen others who also lent their weight.

The large Botany Theatre was largely filled with 130 to 150 students on 22 October 1946. Paddy Pallin was a guest speaker and it was said that the sight of such a number of enthusiasts brought tears to his eyes. SUBW was born, with Ian Ross as president, Vernon Gilbert vice-president, Marie Naylor (Shelston) secretary, Fred Doutch walks secretary. A balanced team which did the fundamentals of giving the Club a sound administrative footing and providing an enterprising walks program.

The Club constitution the executive drew up had, as I recall, one memorable objective of ‘promoting social intercourse among members’. The first walks program, put together in the midst of exams and designed to cover the 1946-47 long vacation, was a gem. Most walks had as their leader Fred Doutch or ‘contact walks secretary’, that is, Fred.

The members

Membership increased rapidly, with a healthy leavening of female members (although it was not until 1971 that the first female president, Lynsey Welsh, was elected). The early members were a nice mixture of the responsible and the carefree. Frank Peters could develop a code of waste disposal for the NSW Federation of Bushwalking Clubs. Mick Hammond could spy a small tunnel off Wynyard tram platforms, enter it that night and proceed to a steel ladder leading upwards, which he climbed until he reached a manhole cover. He pushed the cover up and found his head poking into York Street with a car bearing down on him.

Or a group could climb to the top of the Harbour Bridge at night, where Sam McKay blithely vaulted into one end of the painters’ cradle which promptly tipped sharply downwards and caused the rest of us to hug rivets on our bellies as Sam’s despairing cry echoed around the girders.

The walks

By Trinity term (June – September) 1947, the walks programs had at least one walk scheduled for every weekend. The programs set down the departure time from Central of the train, and the station to which tickets should be bought. Walks from Katoomba were the most numerous and headed in all directions. Remember, at this time Warragamba storage occupied no more than the gorge above the dam wall and a walk down the Cox past Harry’s Humpy and out through Burragorang Valley was pleasant indeed, with a campfire every night.

Naturally, the horizons of our walks extended. Bill Taylor took 22 to Tasmania in January 1948 for the Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair walk. It was the last section of this party that was with Taffy Townsend of the Rucksack Club when she died of snakebite in Pelion Hut.

The 1948 programs were including trips to Lamington Plateau, the Nandewars, Barrington Tops, the Hunter Range, Kosciusko and the Bogong High Plains, Tasmania again, together with caving trips at Colong. Bungonia, Tuglow and Borenore, canoeing on the Nepean and Tumut. The child had grown lusty.

Within 4 years, the early members were to be found from Heard Island (Hugh Doyle), Macquarie Island (Erik Shipp, Bill Taylor, Fred Doutch), to Canada (Vern Gilbert) and Nordkapp, Iceland and South America (Quentin Burke), with a veritable mob wandering around Western Europe.


I recall no member before 1950 who owned a car. Government financial assistance to students was limited to a few groups and most worked long vacations in the G.P.O., the railway goods yard at Darling Harbour or wherever to sustain ourselves during the academic year. The boundaries of the early walks were therefore defined by how far one could walk from and to a railway station.

When destinations were beyond train lines, a truck could be hired. For our first snow trip, on King’s Birthday weekend 1949, a Mr Liddy, Wood and Coal Merchant of Chippendale, hired a truck to us for 18 pounds ($36). Onto the tray was strewn a bale of straw and onto this 18 persons crammed themselves body to body for the drive through the night – the bitumen ceased at the southern end of Canberra – to Smiggin Holes where we pitched our tents on the snow (Jim Tedder gave a description of this frozen camp in the 40th anniversary magazine).


Above – Hitching down from Mt Kosciusko, where “any lift is a good lift” – 1949. L to r – Leo Delroy, Roger Fitzgerald, Denis Robinson. Photo – Denis Robinson.

A mode of travel fitting closely to the hearts and pockets of independent but impecunious students was hitchhiking. During the war it had been the patriotic duty of the few with cars to give a lift to servicemen trying to reach home on leave. This friendly feeling towards hitchhikers lingered on, especially where they were clean shaved and wearing khaki shirt and shorts or alternatively had a female companion. Petrol rationing for private vehicles meant short hops in cars, longer ones in trucks which were mostly ex-army Macks and Blitz Buggies, grossly overloaded.

It was a joy to climb into your sleeping bag on top of a load of warm cement bags when given a lift home on a Sunday evening by a truck from the Berrima or Kandos cement works. Damaging incidents were few. Dave Howell got a lift up the New England Highway on top of a load of galvanised iron; when the truck passed under one railway bridge, it is said that the top of his nose was but a splinter’s length below the bottom beam. Mick Hammond and I freewheeled down the bottom third of Victoria Pass when the Mack’s brakes failed, doing no more harm than smashing the side out of the bridge at the bottom.

Others were less fortunate. Ian Wallace broke a collarbone when his cement truck rolled over on one of the notorious bends on the old Hume Highway between Mittagong and Picton. Liz Seeman (Stuart) hitched a ride in a semi-trailer in North Queensland. A wheel came off, the truck mounted an embankment and overturned, pinning her in the cab. She escaped with a permanent reminder of the event in the form of battery acid burns to an arm and a leg.

It was sometime possible to hitch to places off the beaten track. Diana Temple relates in our 40th anniversary magazine how she became separated from her two companions on Misery Ridge but made her own way out to Yerranderie some days later. Meanwhile her companions had summoned search and rescue.

Quentin Burke, Bob Shelston and I answered the call and hitched to Hartley where the Jenolan road leaves the highway. It was dark, a touch of snow, and the chances of a lift that night to Caves House, the search headquarters, looked remote indeed. Within five minutes a new Dodge, a luxurious car in those days, came by. It ignored our anguished thumbing at first, then stopped and backed. “You guys know anything about this lost dame? You do, well get in and keep your mud off the seat’. We had just settled back in warmth and comfort when the question came: ‘Now listen. Two blokes and a sheila go out into the bush. Give us the love angle!’


Above – SUBW Search and Rescue Team – called out in the search for Diana Temple in 1949. L – R Quentin Burke, Denis robinson, Bob Shelston, Mike Ney, Peter MacGregor, Frank Peters, Alan Tapsell. Photo – Denis Robinson.

We were in a press car with a reporter and photographer from the Daily Mirror. To have denied truthfully any such angle would have been beyond the credulity of a Daily Mirror reporter and could have seen us ejected into the night. Quentin’s inventiveness came to our rescue: a hint here, a suggestion there, nothing definite or damaging mind you, but sufficient to keep the reporter intrigued and the wheels turning. When we arrived at Caves House, the reporter noted the coating of frost on the ground, shoved his arm down a rabbit burrow and declared six inches of snow. Whatever story he may have written was overtaken by Diana turning up safely the next day.

Offshoots of SUBW

Within its first years of activities, the Club included canoeing, caving and skiing trips in its programs. Some members found they preferred to specialise in these activities. Each had its own dedicated equipment and particular requirements and began to develop its own ethos, its tales strange and sometimes true.

Inevitably, members wanting to develop further these activities decided that their interests would be best served by forming a separate club. In 1948, Jak Kelly led a group in setting up the SU Speleological Society which went on to establish a reputation for itself. In 1951 Russ Wilkins was a prime mover in forming the SU Alpine Club. It was necessary to be a registered organisation to obtain a snow lease and as the University could not condone ‘Sydney University’ being used in the name of a registered company, the ‘Sydney’ was dropped. The foundations of what is one of the oldest ski clubs at Perisher were put down by club members in January 1952 (they had subsequently to be dug up but that is another story). The canoeing enthusiasts found it convenient to tap into a broader, wealthier group such as the River Canoe Club for canoe transport, and a separate University club did not develop.

Today’s walkers are more mobile, are better and more lightly equipped, and are able to reach more remote places. What is common across the years, I think, is the sense of adventure, the desire to explore and achieve distant heights through one’s own efforts. May SUBW continue to Press On Regardless.