Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
At the turn of the last century, two extraordinary people from opposite sides of the world fell in love, built a house in the Tasmanian forest and laid the foundation for one of Australia’s greatest national parks.
Gustav Weindorfer grew up in the Austrian Alps and migrated to the antipodes in 1900 in search of a new world. Kate Cowle was eleven years his senior and born and bred in northern Tasmania in the shadow of rugged Mount Rowland.
“Both mad botanists, they fell for each other over the piano – he sang, she played – while classifying the native plants they’d collected on excursions through bush, heathland and coastal shores”.
They were fascinated by the little known flora and fauna of Australia. Both loved the outdoors and were accomplished walkers and rock scramblers. Perhaps it was destiny that they met in Melbourne and their first common outing was a whirlwind bushwalking weekend with the Field Naturalist Club of Victoria at Mount Buffalo. They soon married, moved to northern Tasmania and decided to make a life in the alpine wilderness.
The genesis of Kindred was the author’s first trip to Cradle Mountain, during which she happened upon their former home – Waldheim Chalet. Anyone who has visited this arcadian structure could attest to its romantic draw and echoes of asperity. The original was built by Gustav and Kate, and its unique design, ancient timbers and moss-covered shingles, tucked into ancient rainforest at the gateway to Cradle Mountain National Park –is evocative of a different world. “Set beside a sheltering forest of myrtle, beech and pine on a crest overlooking the tumbling spray of Loose Leaf Creek…”
Kate Legge is a writer for The Weekend Australian Magazine and has covered politics and social affairs in Australia and America. She has previously written two novels. With a journalist’s curiosity and investigative skills, she was drawn to the love triangle of Kate, Gustav and the wild alpine landscape. The result is a book that is affectionate, yet unsentimental and gives overdue recognition to Kate’s importance in their partnership.
When Gustav, Kate and a friend, Ron Smith, climbed Cradle Mountain in 1910, it was a memorable day and Kate’s ascent was historic: “She climbed mountains, at a time when few women dared; ……Kate became the first woman to reach a rooftop monopolised by lizards and eagles”.
They established Waldheim as a guesthouse in 1911 and the future looked bright until 1914 when Kate was afflicted with an undiagnosed illness that left her frequently bedridden. She was forced to stay for long periods away from Waldheim and Gustav made the long, roadless journey regularly, trying to juggle hosting guests with tending his beloved.
For Gustav, 1916 was annus horribilis because both Kate and his mother died within a few months. World War I also heralded years of persecution and suspicion as a possible enemy. Thoroughly Austrian in his appearance and language, he became a target for the wartime wrath: “Without Kate to insulate him from links to the Kaiser, the barbs of curiosity rasped with nastier intent”.
Kindred uses a largely chronological account starting with Gustav and Kate meeting in Australia in 1903 and finishing with Gustav’s death in 1932. The writing is easy, the research painstaking and the period photographs are, at once, sublime and evocative.
The individual stories are slightly asymmetric because they omit their early lives, but include the 16 years after Kate’s death in which Gustav is single. In that sense, the love story continues but there is a certain melancholy (perhaps not intentional) about Gustav’s last 16 years without his “best friend”. A poignant photo taken by Gustav a decade after her death shows an empty chair beside a weakly smouldering fireplace.
A theme germane to modern times is the apparent dichotomy between exploitation and conservation. Gustav’s approach is practical – if museums need wildlife specimens, then kill them. To test if wombats can swim, throw them into the water. If Waldheim needs timbers, then cut down ancient king billy pine. Kate Legge dutifully notes these apparent contradictions but does not attempt to resolve them: “He befriended tamer creatures, fed them, studied them, yet he also snared them on the hunt, selling their skins when the price was good”.
This book attests to the human spirit to deal with hardship and trauma. More importantly, it reminds us of the importance of nature to humans and why pioneers like Kate and Gustav have left such an important legacy: “The Weindorfers were freaks of nature. Scientists and dreamers. Custodians of the natural world, they trod lightly in this hauntingly beautiful scape……..borne by an unshakable faith in the restorative power of the wild”.
by Kate Legge
The Miegunyah Press, MUP