Ferdinand von Mueller was Victoria’s first government botanist. He travelled extensively through the Australian Alps during the 1850s and collected more than 200 species of plants from the mountains, at least a. third of which had not been recorded before by Europeans.
I recently discovered an old report by Linden Gillbank, called Alpine Botanical Expeditions of Ferdinand Mueller (1991) and available here on the Royal Botanic Gardens website, which gives a fascinating insight into the mountains in the mid 19th century. As Linden notes, his letters and reports are very light on in terms of describing the routes he took and the people he travelled with, however they provide some beautiful descriptions of mountain landscapes and flora.
Epic trips. He undertook seven field trips to the mountains, collecting botanical specimens as he went. He visited regions like the Buffalo Plateau (when The Horn was known as Mt Aberdeen), Mt Hotham, Mt Buller, Baw Baw, the Cobberas, and the Munyang (Snowy) mountains. These were epic journeys: his first one went for five months and covered 1,500 miles.
Where did the snow go? We all know that climate change is impacting on winter snow pack and we know that this decline started as a result of the industrial revolution. And yes, we still get summer snow. But was struck me was his descriptions of heavy snow remaining in summer months. In January 1854, while in the Cobberas, he described summits ‘covered with eternal snow’ and at the end of that year, while on Bogong he talked about ‘mighty masses of snow which lay far beneath the summits, mostly in ravines’. Then, as he walked north to the Snowy Mountains he travelled through the Main Range in January (immortalised in the famous painting), which still had snow drifts.
Rabbits and deer. Ferdinand lived in the era of ‘acclimatisation’ societies, where all sorts of environmental pests, like rabbits and deer were introduced to the landscape to make it feel more like ‘home’. But it is still strange to see that he planted strawberries in the valley below where the Diamantina hut stands near the Razorback, and blackberries in the headwater fens of the Yarra River.
Burning and scrub. One of the other things that really stood out for me are his descriptions of the density of vegetation, lamenting the ‘thick scrub’ of the approaches to the mountains. The foothill forests on the south side of the mountains was a ‘dense underwood’ stretching between the alpine tract and the lowland’ and frustrating ‘any attempt to traverse the country’ between the sources of the Yarra River and Gippsland. When approaching Baw Baw they had to cut a track through the foothill forests to be able to make progress. Pro burners often claim that all of Australia was kept open by regular burning by First Nations people. But pre invasion, the mountains appear to have been only lightly burnt in the foothill regions.
First Nations. There is no description of First Nations people in this particular report, although he travelled with Angus McMillan into the Wellington Ranges on one of his trips. McMillan is notorious for his covert war against traditional owners and involvement in a number of massacres.
Getting lost. As an aside, the report chronicles the naming he used for some of the peaks. Possibly due to anomalies in his compass caused by basalt rocks, he sometimes misunderstood where he was. He called Mt Feathertop Mt Hotham, and Mt Loch was named Mt La Trobe. Late in life he climbed the ‘real’ Mt Hotham.
The mountains were wild and beautiful then, as they are now. He describes the vivid beauty of the mountains, the ‘sublime’ myrtle beech forests on the Baw Baw plateau, and splendor of the mountains we love now. Baw Baw was a ‘wild, rocky isolated summit’ when seen from the slopes below. He considered Bogong the ‘heart’ of the Victorian Alps. He felt that the entire length of the Alps could be traversed using pack horses, as there was sufficient water and pasture when you followed the ridge tops.
More than 150 years later, it is hard to imagine the Alps as they were then – with no real roads and only the start of industrial logging and grazing. But the obvious sense of adventure that he felt being up in the mountains feels familiar all this time later.