Delatite Days

Gordon V Cleary & Geoffrey H Westcott


The authors are sons of FCV Foresters. Their fathers worked together and within the fraternity of foresters so well represented on this website. They have drawn upon recollections of parental conversations, published articles, FCV reports, scrapbooks, family photograph albums and newspaper clippings to offer this story.

The FCV Annual Report of 1944-45 reflected a rising focus on eastern Victoria as a timber source. It stated:

"If the demands for timber for post-war purposes are to be met, it is most necessary that measures should be taken immediately to secure to the State the reservation in perpetuity of all those areas at present carrying milling quality timber or which have in the past carried such timber and can be regenerated. In this connection, attention is again directed to those extensive areas in the eastern portion of the State carrying excellent stands of millable timber, but which have not yet been dedicated as permanent forest. These forests are expected to play an important part in the post-war development of the State.

The completion of salvage operations in the areas killed by the 1939 fires necessitates the transfer of a considerable number of mills within the next three years, and it is to these at present unreserved forests that the State must look for its future supplies of milling timber. The expenditure of a considerable amount of money on road construction and fire protection works will be necessary, and the Commission is of the firm opinion that permanent dedication of the areas should be effected without delay in order to protect the assets thus created."

These imperatives were already a key part of the mission statement of FCV Foresters of that era, including our fathers, whose particular remit included operations in the North Eastern district of Delatite.

Jim Westcott (VSF 1929-1931) was appointed DFO Delatite Forest District, Mansfield, on 20th April 1940. Val Cleary (VSF 1940-1942) was appointed to Mansfield as Assistant DFO on 28th January 1943, at 20 years of age, direct from graduating from the VSF in the previous year. Back then, even before the war was over, there was much FCV activity taking place in the Delatite District. Jim explained these activities in an unattributed local press item dated Friday, June 30, 1944 and headed “Huge Timber Project”.

Road Construction Plan


"Mansfield and Merrijig residents are no doubt becoming aware that something is doing in the general direction of Forests Commission activities generally, and much interest has thus been aroused, leading to the usual flood of rumors and contradictions. In order to get the truth of the whole matter, we interviewed Mr JC Westcott, of Mansfield, who is the Forester in charge of the Commission’s interests and activities in this part of the State, and we have his word for the authenticity of the following information:-

The vast amount of timber killed and otherwise ruined by the 1939 bush fires caused a very serious reduction in the amount of log timber available for future supplies for sawmills. Then, on top of this came the present war, and people not versed in the industry of forestry would be amazed if they knew of the tremendous and insatiable demands made by our defence needs on the forests of Victoria for all kinds of sawn timber, peeler logs for match manufacture, timber for paper manufacture, and so on.

Gippsland has long been the chief timber centre of Victoria, but supplies of timber there have dwindled, due to the fires and the war, far more rapidly than expected, with the result that virgin forests in the North-East will have to be looked to for supplies in the near future. Accordingly, to be prepared for this, the Delatite Forest District, the headquarters of which are at Mansfield, has been marked down to be the next exploited for log supplies to keep Victoria’s sawmilling industry going.

As logs can be extracted from a Victorian forest only by rail or road, and as rail propositions are impracticable in the virgin alpine country to the east, north-east and south-east of Mansfield, the Forests Commission is instituting a vast programme of logging road construction in the mountains comprising the upper reaches of the Delatite, King, Howqua and Jamieson rivers, in the vicinities of Mt. Buller, Mt. Stirling, Mt. Howitt, The Bluff, Mt. McDonald, etc. In these localities occur large areas of valuable Alpine Ash previously known as Woollybutt or Red Mountain Ash, which are at present almost entirely inaccessible, and, broadly speaking, situated between the 3000 feet and 5000 feet levels of altitude.

The Commission’s road construction programme is aimed at tapping these timber resources by providing first-class metalled roads capable of carrying the heaviest of motor traffic. The technical side of these works is under the direction of the Commission’s Chief Engineer, Mr. W. J. Lakeland, and Assistant Engineer, Mr. P. Avery, while the works location and actual management comes under the jurisdiction of Mr. Westcott and the Inspector of Forests at Wangaratta, Mr. W. J. Zimmer.

Since the beginning of February, a surveying unit of about sixteen men, under Surveyor J. MacDonald, has been camped in the Mt. Buller locality carrying out the necessary trial surveys, and it is expected that construction work will be able to commence in about two months time.

For some time past the nucleus of a highly-trained team of specialists has been in the process of formation, and the road foreman (Mr. L. K. McHarg) and head bulldozer operator (Mr. O. H. Grant) are already living in Mansfield.

The country to be traversed by these roads is, of course, very rugged, and the work will call for a high degree of skill on the part of all concerned. The job will be essentially one for heavy machinery, the main items of such being the much-heard-of and remarkable bulldozers. Mr. Westcott is anticipating the early arrival of the first bulldozer, which will be used to prepare a camp site and carry out various preliminary jobs.

Mr. Westcott expects that the main through road to the upper Howqua river country will leave the present Mt. Buller road near Christensen’s sawmill and run on the north side of the Delatite river on a ruling rising grade of 7% to pass through The Gap, which is the lowest saddle on the main Mt. Stirling – Mt. Buller ridge, while the main through road to the King river country will branch off this road at a point about five miles from the mill and go to the north through one of the low saddles on the main ridge between Mt. Stirling and Razorback.

Mr. Westcott went on to say that these roads will ultimately join away to the east of Mt. Stirling, near localities known as Clear Hills and Stanley’s Name. Mt. Stirling will thus be ringed by roads running through the Alpine Ash belt which surrounds the mountain. Many minor and spur roads will be constructed off these two main through roads to enable motor trucks to penetrate all parts of the timber belt.

When asked his opinion on how many timber concerns would be drawing their log supplies from the area to be opened up, Mr. Westcott said that it was impossible to give an estimate at present, but he would hazard a guess that thirty would not be an excessive figure. He pointed out what a big difference future Forests Commission works would make to Mansfield, and he said that civic authorities would be well advised in planning for the future to allow for a big increase in trade and business generally, population and railway and road traffic (in timber especially). He says further that Mansfield will probably be the biggest timber centre in Victoria in ten years time, depending a good deal on the duration of the war.

Departing from the Delatite-Howqua-King-Jamieson rivers road construction programme, Mr. Westcott gave us some very interesting and, we are sure, relatively unknown particulars concerning his district, and forestry works therein. He told of how his forests are particularly deficient of track of any sort, and thus very hard to cope with as regards the arch-enemy of forests, ie. fire. To overcome this, a widespread scheme of fire-protection road construction has been carried on in spite of war-time difficulties.

In Delatite Forest District (which extends along the Melbourne-Albury railway from Avenel to Wangaratta, and south to the Goulburn river as far upstream as Kevington, thence south-east and east to the Dividing range between Mt. Skene and the Barry Mountains, and taking in Rose river, Whitfield, Edi Upper and Carboor on the north-east) such fire-protection roads are in various stages of construction, between Barjarg and Strathbogie East, Dry Creek and Strathbogie East, Strathbogie North and Lima East, Tatong, Molyullah amd Toombullup, Toombullup and Myrhee, Whitfield and Edi Upper, Tolmie East and Merrijig, and along Buttercup creek from Rowan’s to the top of the range at No 3 Mount. In addition to these motor roads, horse patrol tracks have been constructed for many miles in the more inaccessible mountain country.

The foregoing, we were told, represented only a part of the fire-protection activities being carried on. Then, apart from fire-protection altogether, the Commission’s workmen were required to produce firewood for Melbourne, boat timbers for urgent priority defence works, and fencing timbers for burnt-out settlers, as well as perform various other duties. To the work involved in all this is added the supervision of the operators of hundreds of licensees, such as sawmillers, firewood contractors, timber hewers and so on scattered over the whole district."

During the 1940s, FCV road construction in the Mt Buller–Mt Stirling area greatly enhanced access to the skiing areas on these mountains. The Ski Club of Victoria (SCV), formed in 1924, had built its first hut near Boggy Creek in 1933 (SCV Hut Run) and subsequently constructed the first lift, a rope tow on Bourke Street, in 1949. Jim was instrumental in establishing the first Management Committee for the development of the Mt Buller Ski Resort.

High Country Reconnaissance

In January 1945, Jim, with F Jones and Val Cleary, undertook a horseback reconnaissance of the forest areas to Mansfield’s east, starting from the Howqua Hills, where they met their guide, Fred Fry, along with his brother Steve and their horses. Fred carried out a number of contract tasks for FCV at the time. Reinforcing that the bush community was about people, not just policy and roles, the first thing Jim did was produce several sets of false teeth from which Fred chose a suitable replacement. Fred then decided to test his new dentures with a rainbow trout lunch. “Somehow”, road-making gelignite was produced and duly lobbed into the Howqua River, with predictable results. The youngest member of the party was called on to retrieve the “catch” – a lifetime later, Val still remembered the coldness of that mountain stream.

Once the reconnaissance began in earnest, the focus became reconciling the geomorphology and forest resources in front of them with the road and track construction necessary to meet the growing demand for timber, and to allow for effective fire protection. They pushed out east along the Howqua River from Fry’s Hut to Pike’s Flat. En route to Bindaree Hut, Fred’s roman-nosed packhorse Mick took a dislike to Val and pulled him from his mount. From Bindaree, they reached the higher ground around Mt Howitt, walking out along the Cross-Cut Saw to view Terrible Hollow. The ranked purple ranges stretching east to the Wonnangatta and south to Tamboritha confirmed that road and track construction would need to be the first priority if any of those ample timber resources were to be accessed.

Years later, Jim said that after the war, the FCV built more miles of roads than the Country Roads Board, and a major factor was that FCV took delivery of large amounts of ex-army earthmoving equipment and trucks immediately after the war finished. This equipment was vital in enabling FCV to build the roads which were so desperately needed for logging.

He also said that the pharmacist in Mansfield was intrigued why the FCV was bulk buying bottles of ether with a standing order. He may have conjectured that it was being used to subdue irate sawmillers, but Jim mischievously never did let on that one of the bulldozers they had was American-made and, to start it cold, the operator had to put a measure of ether in the inlet manifold.

By 1950, logging roads and tracks were pushing closer towards the headwaters of the Howqua and Jamieson Rivers where extensive belts of valuable E. delegatensis forest existed in very rugged terrain. Assessment and wildfire technology had also moved with the times.

Rotary Airtime

The 1949-50 Annual FCV Report noted:

“For the first time in Australia, a helicopter aircraft was used in connexion with fire suppression work. This machine, seconded for this duty by the RAAF, was employed on general reconnaissance flights and for the transport of men and equipment at fires which broke out in the extremely rugged and inaccessible country in the vicinity of Mt Howitt at the head of the Howqua River in the latter part of the summer. Judging from its performance on this occasion, this type of aircraft offers distinct possibilities in connexion with fire-fighting activities in the future.”

In March 1950, Jim and Val took off from Mansfield in Australia’s first helicopter, a Sikorsky S.51 Dragonfly, A80-1, flown by RAAF Squadron Leader KV Robertson, to overfly 12 fires in the Mt. Buller-Mt. Howitt area. The intent was to assist in fire suppression efforts by monitoring the location, extent and direction of the fires and reporting these by radio to the ground crews approaching the fires. Landing on Mt. Buller and on the Howitt Plains, they gained a very favourable view of the pilot’s skills, and described a precipitous cliff-top drop during one takeoff as follows:

“The impression gained most vividly by the passengers was of one moment moving along the landing surface and rising at a moderate angle of about 30 degrees, and the next gazing at a sheer rock wall below the cliff edge and floating out in space with the crowns of the trees some 500 feet or more below."

They survived the flight and noted in their report that:

“Fire crews from both Mansfield and Heyfield Forest District Headquarters were dispatched on March 7 on the trip to the scene of the fires, some 30 airline miles from Mansfield. As an indication of the difficulty of the terrain and the inaccessibility of the site of the outbreaks, 75 hours elapsed between the reporting of the fires and the first contact with them by the ground crews… ”

The absence of fire access roads was proving as costly to fire suppression efforts as their absence was for timber-getting, so road construction remained a foremost consideration as newer forest areas of Victoria were opened up.

Transfer South

As part of the growth in utilization of these newer forest resources, foresters were frequently re-assigned to new District positions, according to FCV needs and their own developing skills and experience.

In July 1951, Jim was transferred to Bruthen in Gippsland and his position in Mansfield was taken by his VSF Class of 1931 contemporary Kingsley (Ken) Gibson.

Val spent the summer of 1950/51 as Assistant FPO to Reg Torbet, the FCV Fire Protection Officer in Head Office, before being abruptly assigned to replace the departing Alf Leslie at the Otway West FO in Beech Forest. He worked in the Gellibrand Forest District for 14 months until he was transferred in 1952, with customary abruptness, to Heyfield in the new Macalister Forest District, on the resignation of his VSF Class of 1942 contemporary, Ian McDonald, who joined the SEC.


Walter Zimmer (l) and Jim Westcott
Mansfield Forest Office
Source: G Westcott


Val Cleary (middle)leaving Mansfield District
Jim Westcott at left
Source: G Cleary


RAAF Sikorsky on Howitt Plains
March 1950
Source: G Cleary

See also:

The Friendly Forester.
Val Cleary - Oral History.
This site has images relevant to this article.

Years later, Val recalled that, as he settled his family into the FCV residence at Heyfield in 1952, he didn’t anticipate the extent to which his knowledge of the timber and the roads heading east from Mansfield and south-east from Jamieson and his experiences with Jim in and above the intervening terrain would help him in carrying out FCV’s plans for new timber roads and tracks north of Licola, in particular, that connecting Mansfield via Jamieson with Heyfield via Licola.