by Ian Ross
This is indeed an unreliable memoir.
Forty years on, it is not easy for me to be quite clear how SUBW began. Certainly, I was not the instigator. Rather, as a student of obvious seniority – why, I was in fourth year – I was seen to be a suitable front person, as president, for a group of activists who were mainly still in second year.
Mind you, second year is an elastic notion, for prominently in the thick of it as Walks Secretary was Fred Doutch who was perpetually in first year. It wasn’t that Fred had any ordinary reasons for being in first year all the time. His difficulty was that he kept falling off things – like a waterfall in Dex Creek, when alone; he walked out with a broken arm some days later. Also he had this habit of going on walks in the break before final examinations, and then getting lost – such as down at Bendethera one time. The upshot was that when the bells rang for the end of year trials of strength, Fred had difficulty being there. If you would care to know how Fred finally got his degree, via Antarctica and British Somaliland, you should ask him; but I can say that it seems but yesterday that a small party of balding friends came together to celebrate one of the most prolonged journeys yet recorded through the thickets of academe.
The real instigators were a lively group of second year Science students, and certain erratic associates from Economics and Engineering.
The circumstances: well, for various diverse reasons numbers of us – and by us I mean people spread over a wider age span than I’ve suggested hitherto – had done a fair bit of walking on our own, but we were conscious that we lacked three things: good information, good maps, and any form of transport (no one had a car and petrol was rationed to four gallons a month if you did have one). True, there were already bushwalking clubs, and some of them still exist, but they seemed rather stuffy and regulated. There were tales going about that you actually had to follow the walks leader. One club in Victoria was said to have equipped the leader with a whistle.
Thus SUBW happened – a club born of free spirits, not very disciplined, but not inexpert either. Just younger than the established clubs with walks discipline and leaders who had whistles.
On Information, Paddy Pallin was the guru. He ran the shop to which we all repaired, he made the best gear and had the only maps. But he was more than that. He was a counsellor, guide, conservationist and friend. Is it not time that there was a Paddy Pallin national park in a wilderness somewhere, of the kind he motivated us to explore and value?
Maps: well, actually there weren’t any for many purposes. The standard area for walks (other than less than serious efforts in the Royal National Park, the main purpose of which was to meet girls), was the Blue Mountains, for which the so-called Tourist Map was the sole source of truth. In one sheet, everything from the Colo to the Wingecarribee, Camden to Abercrombie Caves, and the topography depicted as cliff lines, woolly caterpillars and white spaces. The latter included the Wild Goat and Nattai plateaux. Intrigued by the absence of information, SUBW once went across them and reported that they were blank for good reason. No one would ever want to go there again.
We walked over most of that map, but never, except for the Grose and Newnes, north of the railway. The canyon country was unknown and barely accessible, for Bell’s line of road, up through Kurrajong, was but a rude byway and while there were ancient and commodious settlements at Mt. Wilson and Mt. Irvine they were out of our ken and out of our logistics.
Yerranderie, though, was accessible. Higlett’s mail car ran out there from Camden, and there was enough traffic on the road for hitchhiking if time meant less to you than money. And the pubs at Yerranderie and Wollondilly (near the Tonalli junction) were watering holes worth getting to.
SUBW did venture further afield, of course. We knew about the Warrumbungles, the MacPhersons, Kosciusko and (barely) the Budawangs (but it was Reg Meakins, who was much older then we, who first found that The Castle had a way up). We located Tasmania around 1947/48. We tried to get to the Flinders in the same year but were unable to find any petrol at Hawker or points north.
Perhaps the most notable excursion was one of several days, led by Fred Doutch, to the Hunter range. There were no maps at all in print. All the information was sketched in advance from aerial photographs at Victoria Barracks.
In 1948, SUBW decided to conduct a Marathon. The concept was: take three points A, B, C where A = Katoomba. Start when the 6.23 pm train arrived at A, and choose your route. Teams could be two or more, but to win all members had to finish (no leaving your mate behind). A playing card, sliced, had to be completed by picking up the other part at checkpoint B, in order to qualify. There would be food at checkpoint B.
The first marathon had B = Kanangra Walls (the dancing platform), C = The Silver Mines Hotel at Yerranderie. Routes chosen differed wildly. Remember the first nine hours from Katoomba would have to be done in the dark. The long distance runners (Twid Robinson and his mates) chose the clear track down Kings Tableland; most others gambled on finding the route down one or other of the Wild Dog ridges and most regretted their choice. Bill Woof was last heard of baying “help” when barely onto Narrow Neck. Jak Kelly effeminately took his boots off to cross the Cox, and lost one in midstream. Your author and Frank Walker still blame each other for a dreadful navigational mistake halfway up the Kowmung. One crew from the Rucksack Club swanned into Yerranderie in daylight, less than 20 hours from the start, but were disqualified for having lost a member. The official winners, Bill Taylor and Alan Jackson, had a time of 25h 27m. The rest, halt and maimed, drifted in thereafter, in darkness. Those who had done the whole bit complained that the Kanangra outpost team had quit early, leaving for them the most inedible food in the world. This prompted an inquiry later. It was practice of the day to carry a gritty, but compact and sustaining, breakfast food called Grainut. Another product then on the market, from Army rations, was dried mutton, which came in pellets of similar appearance. The latter, taken raw, even though treated with milk and sugar, does indeed qualify as one of the more inedible foods.
The next marathon had A = Katoomba, B1 = Guouagang (without nitrogen), B2 = Mt. Jenolan, C = Jenolan Caves. The winning team, those same men from the Rucksack Club, creamed the field so convincingly, in a time so outrageous as to be sinful, that the zest for future Marathons was all but extinguished. Also the Federation of NSW Bushwalking Clubs frowned on the whole business. However, I am assured that there WAS a 1950 Marathon, from Katoomba to Yerranderie to Wentworth Falls Sanitorium, where fellow founder Vern (Moose) Gilbert was incarcerated. Frank Peters and Leo Delroy won that one, but it is unclear whether there was anyone else in the race.
Equipment: participants in any outdoor activity love to vie with each other in the matter of equipment they choose to take with them on their endeavours. Here I will include food as well, but I’ll start with the head and feet. Upon the head was a hat. The purpose of the hat was to support the flyveil. This necessity of life became an unnecessity later, but the incidence of flies in the mid 1940s was daunting. Perhaps it had to do with the long drought of those years when every domestic cistern had a brick in it, to reduce it’s volume, and a sticker said discreetly “Flush only when necessary and not after each minor use of the toilet”. In any event I recall camping on the Cox one summer and being unable to handle a meal – billy to plate, plate to mouth – without first crawling with lidded impedimenta into a netted tent. the flies went away a few years later, without the benefit of dung beetles or Aeroguard, but I doubt that anyone knows why.
Upon the feet were army boots. What you did with them once you’d bought them was an issue in high technology and high fashion. The treatment I favoured was to nail another leather sole onto the basic leather sole and then to stud it, with artistry born of experience, with hobnails. The ones I favoured were square headed, but they were hard to get and sometimes I had to settle for a flatter, fluted kind with a shorter, less secure shank. This apparatus could be counted on to survive for anything from five days to three weeks of accumulated walking, depending on how much river wading had been done. The extra sole was then discarded and rebuilt.
Within the boots were woollen socks. You wore two pairs and your mum knitted them. She deplored their condition when you returned.
Between the neck and the ankle there was little scope for innovation. The zippered lumberjacket or windcheater had yet to arrive. Rain protection was effected by the waterproofed japara groundsheet, slung over the pack and joined in the front by press-studs most of which had been accidently deformed and so did not marry properly. Below the waist, jeans had yet to escape from the cow country of the American west. We started with shorts, dabbled in lace-up canvas leggings released from Army disposal stores, and then were gradually won over by other Army equipment designed for jungles with an ingenuity which persuaded us that even Paddy Pallin hadn’t thought of everything.
We turn now, dear friends, to that which was carried upon the back, and its content. The rectangular back-pack of today is an import I presume from the Sierra Club of the US. Whether it works better or not I don’t know because I prefer to rely on the low slung theory, the sprawling Pallin pack with, to quote his blurb, “four capacious hold-a-bit-more pockets”. The upmarket model had an A-shaped iron frame; the model more adaptable for hitchhiking didn’t. The problem was to remember which pocket contained the salt and sugar and which one the map.
Somewhere in its middle, or on top, was the sleeping bag. Sleeping bags, down-filled, were the big capital item (three weeks salary). Plastic objects were very late arrivals to bushwalking technology. Calico bags held milk powder, tea and sugar, not without misadventure if it was raining. The big high-tech breakthrough came with the arrival of very light screw-top aluminium canisters, in a range of sizes to suit salt to rice. They had “May and Baker” embossed on the lids, and were used for marketing penicillin preparations. They were non-commercial but there was a fervent underground traffic.
The aluminium cooking pot made its appearance too, and gained rather quick acceptance, at least for small pots, over the traditional tinned iron billy (despite the ease with which the aluminium model deformed when stepped upon). The reason I suspect was partly chic, but also it’s a lot easier to get burnt porridge out of a rounded bottom than a right angle one.
We turn to comestibles. During and just after the war there was an abundance of army-type dried foods. An Army iron-ration pack, that had three meals in a can with an amazingly compact tin opener that walked towards you when you thought it would walk away, was the mainstay. I’d be pleased to be reminded of the contents: my memory only recalls carrot biscuits. Also there was dried mutton, previously mentioned. But I consider the most valued addition to our repertoire to have been salami. The early kinds to reach Australia were imported from Poland and were as tough as old boots. A real meat product that could be carried for days in midsummer and still be free of maggots was a liberation, and salami porridge was a culinary dream.
Ah yes, there was one other valued product. It was carried in a flask, and had its essential origin in a University laboratory. It was called PRA, which stood for Peters’ Rum and Alcohol. The recipe can now be disclosed: three parts purified absolute alcohol (potable, benzene-free), seven parts Old Soldier Rum. Great with salami porridge.
I appreciate that modern technology, especially mountaineering technology, has overtaken all this. But spare a thought for the innovators. Around 1948, Mike Ney got hold of the first plastic sheet we’d ever seen. Our eyes popped. Like rubber sheet it was and yet it wasn’t : you could fold it and it was waterproof, and yet you could see through it and it was featherlight. He’d had it made up into the ultimate one-man tent just big enough to cover himself and his sleeping bag and be his ground sheet too. It was wedge-shaped, highish at the head, and tapering to the feet. While we pegged out our old fashioned japaras, whose weight we’d carried all day, he settled into his three-ounce pre-Sputnik answer to all that. Curiously through, next night he was begging for an inside berth in a conventional tent. His own condensation had saturated his sleeping bag.
There comes a time in the history of every organization, and most of all of clubs in Universities, that an initiating group disperses and, perhaps after a dull patch, a new group take over. During on of the lacklustre patches, the Club can disappear. Most indeed, unless they are linked to some external ideology like a political party or the Church, do disappear. It astounds, and gratifies, me that SUBW has not done so.
The originals of SUBW disappeared around 1949-1950. Travel to parts foreign had opened up then. The USA was still fiscally inaccessible (no dollars), and Asia unknown, but you didn’t need a visa or a work permit to try England. The line from Tilbury Docks to St. Pancras Station was scarred by the boots of SUBWs, arriving to see Life. Except that Quentin Burke got a job as a cook’s offsider on a tramp steamer, filled his pockets with shillings (which fit 25 cent US slot machines), landed in Seattle, made a fortune in small change (Coke then cost 5 cents), and arrived in England by a more original route. He and I went to Iceland that summer of 1950 and planted a small SUBW token on top of Mt. Hekla.
Much valued among my objets d’art is a pewter tankard, handed to me in Blue Gum Forest in the winter of 1949 when I was about to leave Australia. It says “Presented to Ian Ross from SUBW”, and then “Press on regardless”. This fine motto just happened, mostly I suppose when we were lost. Nobody claims to have originated it, but I cannot think that SUBW could have a better motto, and I hope that having survived its first forty years, SUBW will do just that.
Let me finish, though, with an appreciation. In late 1956, ten years after the formation of SUBW, there was an anniversary walk. It was conducted by a band of originals; it started at the hotel at Marulan with more ouzo than was good for us, and we recovered on the Shoalhaven. SUBW knew nothing of it, because even after so short a time we knew nothing of the club and none of its members. I am sure I speak for all my contemporaries when I thank the 1986 crop for their interest in what went before, and for their friendly diligence in unearthing us.