Jessie Luckman was one of Tasmania’s first bushwalking conservationists and joined the Hobart Walking Club in 1936. Now in her 90s, she is still a member of the club.


Wilderness pioneer

By GEOFF LAW | “We were the lucky ones,” says Jessie Luckman. “Nowadays there can’t be the sense of exploration that we had.”

She’s reminiscing about bushwalking in Tasmania in the 1930s and ‘40s. These were the days before bushwalking became mainstream. Before the widespread ownership of motor vehicles; before the easy availability of freeze-dried foods, and before the advent of lightweight, affordable packs, sleeping bags, tents and stoves.

“There were very poor maps — just sketch maps for the benefit of prospectors and so on. They could be anything up to 10 miles out for a creek or a mountain,” she says, almost with relish.

Take Jessie’s trip to Mt Anne. It began from where the railway ended, just short of Maydena, and took 11 days. Today you can drive to the foot of the peak. In good weather you can climb Mt Anne in a matter of hours and be back watching TV in Hobart the same night.

She joined the Hobart Walking Club in 1936, before the term ‘bushwalker’ had even been coined

Jessie was one of Tasmania’s first bushwalking conservationists. She joined the Hobart Walking Club in 1936, before the term ‘bushwalker’ had even been coined. With her fellow outdoor enthusiasts, she regularly undertook long expeditions into the uncharted wilds of western Tasmania, in the vanguard of a growing band of people who went into the wilderness to enjoy the inspiration and challenge of nature.

For Jessie it was a logical step to use her knowledge of nature to advocate protection of the natural landscapes she cherished. She often found herself admonishing bureaucrats and politicians about the importance of old-growth forests, wildlife and wilderness … in fact her actions and those of her colleagues led to the establishment of the Tasmanian Conservation Trust and the Wilderness Society.

Early days — and music

Born Jessie Wakefield in the Sydney suburb of Willoughy in 1910, some of Jessie’s earliest memories are of day trips to the Blue Mountains. She moved to Tasmania at the age of four when her father was transferred by the MLC Assurance Company to head its Hobart branch.

The family bought an apple orchard on the edge of West Hobart in a little valley long since subdivided and built up. In 1929 her father bought a Harley Davidson motor and sidecar, so the family was able to go camping on the slopes of Mt Wellington or to places further afield, such as the Tasman Peninsula.

Back then their West Hobart weatherboard house had neither electricity nor a radio. The family made its own entertainment by singing around the piano, an instrument Jessie played from about the age of three. Music became a lifelong passion, and a succession of classes, exams, scholarships and performances led to a career as a professional pianist and cellist.

Jessie’s musical development coincided with that of radio broadcasting in Hobart. She performed solo piano pieces broadcast by radio 7ZL as early as 1925, and in the mid-1930s she was employed by the newly formed ABC as a concert pianist.

It was this career that rekindled her loved of the outdoors. “I realised that if I was going to sit at the piano for hours at a time, I would have to get some outdoor activity,” she says.

The bush beckons

Hobart Walking Club had been in existence just seven years when Jessie joined. Walking and music dovetailed neatly at her studio on the corner of Elizabeth and Bathurst Streets, which became the informal club rooms of the HWC. Most of the scheduled walks were in the vicinity of Hobart and made use of public transport that has since been dismantled — such as the trams up Cascade Road to the foot of Mt Wellington, trains and trams to the northern suburbs, and even a punt across to the eastern shore of the Derwent River.

Jessie’s first major walk was to the spectacular Du Cane Range — an eight-day expedition on which she and some eight companions climbed those monumental mountains at the core of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park.

Nowadays it takes only two-an-half hours to drive to St Clair. Back then it was a day-long and slightly hair-raising ride bouncing on the back of a truck to reach Bert Fergusson’s tourist camp at Lake St Clair.

She carried her gear in a canvas-box pack and had a groundsheet. No sleeping mats, just cushions of ferns or other shrubbery cut from surrounding vegetation

Bert Fergusson was one of the pioneers of track cutting and walking in the National Park. He took the party on his motor boat to the head of the lake at Narcissus River. They camped at Nicholls Hut and climbed to the Gould Plateau by way of a staked route — “more of a wallaby run”. From here they skirted Mt Gould to a saddle carpeted in cream milligania lilies and then to the Labyrinth, Walled Mountain, Mt Hyperion and the Acropolis.

Even with today’s tracks, this rugged landscape can be a challenge for bushwalkers. Imagine what it was like then with heavy canvas packs, cotton tents and having to carry food such as potatoes and eggs. “My mother made me a sleeping bag of white angora fur she’d clipped from our own rabbits, attached to thin muslin and encased in japara,” Jessie recalls. (It’s in the National Museum in Canberra.)

She carried her gear in a canvas-box pack and had a groundsheet. No sleeping mats, just cushions of ferns or other shrubbery cut from surrounding vegetation. Cooking was done on the fire, which the men lit while Jessie fetched water and helped to collect wood. “Leo could light a fire in pouring rain,” she says. [continued here]


Wilderness pioneer: Part I • Wilderness pioneer: Part II • Jessie's tracknotes

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