After World War I, recreational bushwalking experienced a boom in Tasmania, enhanced by those who kept walking journals during this era. From these pages comes a plethora of captivating local characters. One such man is Keith Ernest Lancaster.
Born in Penguin in 1910, Keith moved to Launceston as a young man and using the northern city as a base, began a 65-year-long career on hoof in Tasmania’s wild places.
Beginning his note-taking in 1932, Keith wrote a charming preface to his first journeys by describing his accounts of trips as containing “a full, comprehensive and accurate description of the adventures of myself whilst mountaineering in the Tasmanian highlands.” He lamented his lack of expertise in botany, geology or biology, but remained confident that companions would fill in a number of these gaps – especially his long-time cobber, Jeff Yates.
The earlier mountaineering adventures accounted for take place mostly in the Great Western Tiers – upon peaks such as Drys Bluff, Quamby Bluff and Ironstone Mountain – or to the northern mountains of Mt Barrow or Ben Lomond.
In fact, five reports from Ben Lomond come in the years between 1931 and 1937. The first was a successful ascent of Legges Tor, Tasmania’s second-highest summit at 1572m (5162ft in Lancaster’s measure), on a sultry November day. However, Stacks Bluff, at the southern end of the mountain’s massif, rebuffed Lancaster and Yates thrice before they finally made the ‘conquest’ in 1937.
In those earlier expeditions, Stacks Bluff – originally known as the Butts by settlers, while the entire mountain was known by the local Aboriginal population as toorbunna – was described by Keith as ‘inhospitable’ and ‘uninviting’.
Bicycling out from the suburb of Newstead on their first attempt in autumn 1932, Lancaster and Yates were drenched; they had hoped to spend their first night in a trappers’ hut at the rough settlement of Englishtown, at the base of the mountain, only to find it was burned down, with only a stone wall remaining. Overflowed creeks and tough conditions forced them to turn back after three days of approaching the peak.
They returned in winter two years later. Once again, worsening weather brought their best efforts to a conclusion. “Our attire was somewhat dampened, our spirits even more so,” Keith’s journal reads.
Alone, Keith had another go at the bluff in 1834, on September 25. Upon departure, the weather “seemed ideal for the project” – tranquil blue skies were above as they cycled out of town. He noted that he had made record time in arriving to Englishtown: two-and-a-half hours from Launceston. The weather remained fine for Day Two as he made a transmontane route across the massif – until the evening. Wild winds and consistent rain afforded Lancaster no sleep, and the young man awoke on his third day to discover that the river had risen. Once more, he had been forced to retreat.
“Stacks Bluff at last” is the title of Keith Lancaster’s entry for their 1937-38 success on the mountain. They – “the usual company” – made a reconnaissance trip in December 1937, from which they discovered an access point other than Englishtown that would make their ascent easier. Returning on January 29, 1938, they had another stroke of luck: a shepherd and his family gave further intelligence on the area, and loaned blankets and chaff bags to the bushwalkers. At 10:50a.m. the next day, Keith wrote, “we were able to add this lofty eminence to our list of mountaineering achievements”.
They spent nearly three hours taking in the immense vista. That evening, over a simple meal, Lancaster and Yates looked back “at the jagged contour of Stack’s Bluff”, as the setting sun changed the pillars’ colour from grey-blue to “a lurid red”.
These days, Stacks Bluff is normally ascended from the south; a rough 4WD track leads from the ex-mining town of Storys Creek, soon becoming a marked and cairned path over dolerite scree. The summit can now be ascended in about three hours. But wise mountaineers will still take their time at the top, and savour the view, and the tremendous experience of freedom.
Read here for reflections on bushwalking with mates around Lake Rhona.