The Grandeur of Old Coolamine

By Klaus Hueneke

22 July 1978 The Canberra Times

There are many mountain huts, and mountain homesteads but none quite match the grandeur of old Coolamine, the former bastion of summer grazing in the northern parts of the Kosciusko National Park.

For over 100 years it was the lively social centre for those who braved ice and snow to make a living in the headwaters of the Murrumbidgee, the Goodradigbee and the Goobarragandra Rivers.  

Old timers, refer to the annual Cooleman Ball and one, bloke nicknamed 'Bunty' Morris was  prompted to write a long bush ballad about it.

He relates how pleasant it was "to dance all night till break of day on the edge of this limestone plain"

I had known about the Cooleman caves, the Cooleman Plain and Coolamine homestead for many years but until recently never managed to get there.

The way the crow flies, and rest assured they never fly straight, it is only 60 kilometres from Canberra but the way the track winds over the Brindabellas, along the Goodradigbee River flats and up to Peppercorn Plain makes it a three hour trip.

If you keep going you meet the Snowy Mountains Highway at Rules Point.  

It has always been a rough and dusty route, but if you like an element of surprise it is not hard to find. 

On one blind corner we suddenly found ourselves face to face with a joey scrambling back into the warmth of its mother's pouch and at another were confronted by a mob of woolly behinds which for some reason wanted to stay ahead of us.

Sheep are like that - the minute you think you're in front there will be a mad scramble and pounding of hooves and another dozen will try to squeeze past.

It is a delicate moment, for if you accelerate you might have "rolled" mutton for breakfast, dinner and tea and if you don't you'll be there for another eternity.

All this under the silent gaze of a craggy non-plussed face mounted a metre or so above with a stockwhip casually draped over one shoulder.

At Coolamine, things are not the way they used to be and without the human dimension the complex of huts looks forlorn and forgotten. 

Beautiful alpine ash slabs brought down from Mary's Hill across the plain over 100 years ago are slowly sinking into the earth.

Torn hessian and peeling newspapers flap gently in the morning breeze, drafts wander in and out of broken windows, loose boards creak underfoot and stone fireplaces are slowly collapsing as   the clay mortar disintegrates.

But history starts somewhere and it is appropriate to go back to the exploratory rides of Terence Aubrey Murray, the Canberra pioneer and former owner of the Governor-Generals residence.

Murray, like other landowners before and after him, had to contend with the extremes of flood and drought and was always on the lookout for greener pastures.

He found them at Cooleman Plain duing an expedition to the Tumut area in 1839.

The grass was lush and plentiful and on the then common basis of first come - first served, he decided to make it his mountain outpost.

He was one of the first to have stock in the mountains during the summer.

The first building at Coolamine was a hut made of saplings with a bark roof. It could not have been very substantial for Murray spent a wretched night there during the winter of 1842.

Gwendoline Wilson in her book about Murray tells us that "it was so cold that the comforters over their heads froze and so did the sides of their blankets, while their heads lay near pools of ice".

Murray retained control over Coolamine until 1856 when. Yarralumla was sold to Augustus Gibbes, the younger brother of his wife.

The mountain outpost was probably not freehold for there is mention of a group of selectors, the MacDonalds, squatting at Coolamine after the Robertson Land Act of 1861.

They apparently built a homestead at the intersection of four big paddocks, so that technically speaking they were living on each one.

The names of Mary, Sandy and Jack MacDonald are said to have been carved in a rock near the old homesite.

It is very likely that the MacDonalds were dummies for Gibbes and that they lived there for some years possibly as late as the 1880s when the Southwells moved in.

By then the property had been purchased by Frederick Campbell, whose family had a long association with Duntroon.

George Southwell was employed as an overseer for Coolamine and moved up to the plain in 1882. His wife rode side-saddle with a baby cradled in her arms whilst George drove the bullock team.

The waggon they used now lies half buried and lichen covered on a small rise above the homestead.

Once they got there they soon set about building a new homestead along more substantial and comfortable lines than the one Murray sheltered in.

Of the present complex of huts theirs was the long slab building to the east of the high roofed homestead.

The craft of cutting and fitting wooden slabs had a high standard of excellence in those days and is still there to be admired.

Once cut they were shaped and fitted so that each slab would slightly overlap the one below - giving a weather board effect that prevented water from seeping through the cracks.

The round log bearers that supported the wall were protected by metal flashing attached to the underside and all major joints were on the mortise-and-tenon principle.

Considering that basic equipment was an adze, a broadaxe and an auger it is amazing how tightly everything fitted together.

By the 1880s the use of corrugated iron had become more common for those who could afford it and Campbell never bothered with the cutting of wooden shingles.

Iron was of a better quality then and it is possible that what we see on the roof now is still the old iron.

The inside of the finished walls was lined with numerous layers of newspaper, possibly applied with flour and water.

Most of the paper is now gone - eaten by rats or pulled off by recent visitors who used it to light the fire.

This makes it hard to find a quotable passage or a date but after much searching I found a piece of the Braidwood Review of 1883.

Such snippets allow one to verify the approximate age of a place.

But caution must be exercised for I have discovered that slabs were known to wander from one building, to another.

The practice of recycling slabs has been mooted for the other home stead at Coolamine.

This is a very striking building with a very high pitched roof and rounded white washed slabs.

All the slabs are numbered with Roman numerals and it is possible to dismantle the building and put it back together like a prefabricated house at another site.

The numbering led people to think that it must have been built at another site originally and shifted later on. 

Some suggested it used to straddle the intersection of the four blocks where the MacDonalds used to live.

 However, there is more evidence to suggest that it was built where it stands.

Mrs Harris, a later resident of Coolamine, believes that the numbers were put on the slabs as they were cut so that it was easier to fit them together at the house site.

The home, according to her, was built for Campbell in the 1890s so that he and his wife and family could spend part of each summer up there.

This is verified by newspaper clippings of 1890 and 1892 still stuck to the walls. I searched high and low and found no earlier ones.

By 1895 the Southwell family had grown to seven children and there exists today a well-preserved photo graph of the whole family decked out in Sunday best.

Some of the winters were very harsh and Mrs Southwell and the children would often spend a few months at the family property, 'Rosevale', between Canberra and Sutton.  

For father George this would be a time to do some fossicking. There are records of him selling gold valued at 1-9-6 to the Commercial Banking Company in Queanbeyan in September 1896 and another receipt for 4-10-0 for gold from Cooleman Creek.

At the time butter cost nine pence a pound, eggs 11   pence a dozen and bacon rashers 4 pence a pound.

Canberra had hardly been thought of and stores were usually brought from Queanbeyan every six months by bullock waggon.

Peishables such as meat, milk, eggs, butter and cheese were produced on the site.

Cheese was made in the log cabin hut built on the rise above the two homesteads. It has grass thatch under the iron for insulation in the winter and to stop the roof from dripping.

Some old photographs show a large wooden cheese press just outside this hut that has now disappeared.

On Murray's first visit to Coolamine he also noted the existence of several caves in the area, one of which was named after him.

The caves became a local attraction for the Southwells and in 1903 two of the boys, Jack and Malcolm, penetrated Murray's cave for a distance of 500 metres.

They had joined other adventurous youngsters like the Sheedy brothers and Elizabeth Oldfield in an exploration of the cave and being proud of their achievement had pencilled their names on an enormous glittering stalactite about 400 metres in.

Unbeknown to them their names were not to be seen again for 65 years.

Their exploration had coincided with the great drought at the turn of the century when the parts of the tunnel that are now water traps were completely dry.

Modern day speleologists had been very intrigued by these reports but it wasn't until  the drought of 1968 that they found the names and saw the full extent of the cave. Studies by Joe Jennings, Canberra's professional "pot-holer" suggest that the cave may also have been dry in 1924-30 and 1936-41.

The Southwells left the area in 1907 and were replaced by the Taylors from Braidwood.

Mrs Irene Harris (nee Taylor), of Tumut, told me she was three weeks old at the time - "I was carried up through the snow on a horse with the other members of my family.

She showed me a photo of an Indian sikh who used to come up to the mountains once a year and sell dresses and materials. "He came with pack horses and never missed anyone".

The Campbells sold Coolamine to the Lichfields, of Cooma, in 1927. 

This family has had a long association with the Monaro and for a long time had grazing leases under the shadow of Mount Gungarten not far from Mount Kosciusko.

Two of the Lichfield brothers helped Dr Herbert Schlink in the building of Tin Hut - the first hut specifically built for ski touring in the mountains.

Mrs Harris left Coolamine as a young bride in 1933 and moved into a new house called 'Blue Waterhole' built by her husband.

It was under the shadow of Tom O'Rourke's Peak about 4 kilometres away.

New chums now call this hut Harris's. 

The rest of the family dispersed elsewhere and in 1934 Coolamine was sold to the Naughton brothers from the Riverina.

One of the brothers, Jack, had a glass eye and the daughter of Mrs Harris remembers being very curious about seeing it and how disappointed she was when she did. To her one looked the same as the other.

The Kosciusko National Park was declared in 1944 and even though Coolamine was a freehold enclave until 1975 it seems that after the 1950s little was done to maintain it.

Photos show that it steadily deteriorated and that by the late 60s some buildings like the big hayshed up on the hill and the small slab hut next to the cheese house had gone altogether.

Most of the fence posts and some of the slabs from the oldest building have now been burnt and much of Coolamine's former glory has gone.

The Kosciusko Huts Association (KHA) has been very concerned about the complex of buildings and last year had an opportunity to promote minor restoration work on the main homestead.

The Garran Venturers and Norman Robinson, a Canberra builder, took on the onerous task and over the past fewmonths have partly rebuilt one of the stone-walled chimneys, replaced and restored the broken windows, fixed the ceiling and cleared up some of the rubbish.

But these are minor tasks.

The big urgent jobs such as the restoration of slab-wall panels, the replacing of rotten piers and the making of hand hewn slabs are probably beyond the resources of the KHA.

For this we may have to look towards the National Parks and Wildlife Service of NSW.

Coolamine can be saved: all it needs is dedication and skill.