May 6, 2021

Mount Donna Buang: The Lost Ski Resort

If you think skiing in Victoria you think: Mt Hotham, Mt Buller, Bright. But before those, Victoria’s most popular ski resort could be found on Mt Donna Buang, near Warburton.

A photo of early skis
Primitive skis

Skiing has a long history.

The oldest ski-like artefacts that have been discovered, date to around 6 000 BC, from central Russia. These early skis were used for hunting and travel, and were large, cumbersome, and awkward to use. And by the middle of that millennium, are thought to have been widespread across northern Europe.

Other applications for skis are more recent, and can also be traced to that region.

An 18th century Norwegian soldier on skis
An 18th century Norwegian soldier on skis

In the 18th century, the Norwegian Army began using skis for manoeuvres. The frigid climate was perfectly suited to them, and it provided their troops with an advantage during winter fighting.

This lead to both a higher profile for skiing, and a greater number of people proficient in it. Cross country skiing soon took hold as a recreational past time.

By the 19th century, Alpine skiing, featuring curated runs down designated slopes, had become popular with wealthy Europeans. Ski resorts and lodges sprung up across the continent, wherever there was reliable snow fall.

The 'Buffalo Chalet', circa 1919.
The ‘Buffalo Chalet’, circa 1919.

It was also a Norwegian who brought recreational skiing to Australia.

In 1919 Hilda Samsing, a former Norwegian nurse, settled in Victoria and took over the lease of a hotel in the north east of the state, at Mount Buffalo. Samsing’s ‘Buffalo Chalet’, still the largest wooden building in Australia, offered up-market accommodation to tourists looking to explore the region’s national parks.

Visitor numbers were greatly reduced during the winter months, and so, to try and bring in new business, Samsing began offering recreational skiing on the local slopes. Prior to World War I, skiing in Australia had been utilised by famers in cold areas, who used skis to traverse their properties.

Now this new sport quickly found an audience.

Hilda Samsing: nurse and ski pioneer
Hilda Samsing: nurse and ski pioneer

In the early 1920s, following the example of Samsing, other resorts opened in New South Wales and Tasmania. Ski clubs were formed, and businesses began selling equipment to local enthusiasts.

But Mount Buffalo, and other early Victorian ski fields like Mount Feathertop, were relatively distant from Melbourne. Automotive travel was primitive, and regional public transport limited, these shortcomings compounded by the difficulties of travelling during winter. Accessing these early ski resorts was difficult.

Mount Donna Buang, the closest mountain to Melbourne with consistent winter snow cover, offered a possible alternative.

Warburton, circa 1908
Warburton, circa 1908

At the foot of the mountain, the small rural town of Warburton.

Warburton had been founded in the 1860s during the gold rush, and at its peak had been home to a few thousand prospectors. But the gold ran out fairly quickly, the prospectors moved on, and the town shrunk to a small supply hub, servicing the timber industry that worked the local forests.

Hoping to revive the town’s fortunes, the Warburton Progress Association hit on the idea of using nearby Mount Donna Buang for skiing. Warburton was close to Melbourne and accessible year-round by train; the town needed the business, and Melbournians needed a place to ski.

View from the summit of Mount Donna Buang, present day
View from the summit of Mount Donna Buang, present day
Similar viewpoint, winter 1929

In June 1924, the Association invited several skiers to inspect the mountain.

At 1250 metres, Donna Buang is not tall enough to guarantee regular snow, but the snow cover was sufficient that the idea gained momentum. Backed by the Victorian Ski Club, one ski field was cleared, and made available for use from the winter of 1925.

‘The snow was lightly packed, but after a few runs over the same tracks the pace was much accelerated. It has been established, that suitable snow does lie on the mountain for many weeks during winter.’

-Mount Donna Buang skier, 1927

These early attempts also uncovered a host of problems.

While Mount Donna Buang is not especially tall, it is thickly forested, and only the area close to summit was suitable for skiing. Accessing the ski field proved difficult: the walking track was too steep to manage with equipment, and the road was small and frequently inaccessible, either due to snow or fallen trees.

And this first ski slope was amateurish; narrow, short and dotted with debris.

Skiing on Mount Donna Buang, 1929
Skiing on Mount Donna Buang, 1929

Nevertheless, the project’s backers were persistent, and raised funds to improve both the road, and the ski slope.
By 1931, they appeared to have been successful. The ski slope was cleared of debris each summer, and Mount Donna Buang now featured other comforts to improve the visitor experience: a ski lodge, overnight accommodation, a kiosk, and a first aid station. Ski equipment was available for hire.

The road to the summit was still impassable at times, but a large carpark was built just below, at a spot called ‘Ten Mile Turntable’, and a short walking track cleared to the ski run.

Now properly set up, the mountain surged in popularity.

'The Argus' reports on Donna Buang's popularity, in 1932
‘The Argus’ reports on Donna Buang’s popularity, in 1932

Newspaper reports from the era note increasing numbers of visitors to Mount Donna Buang when there was good snow coverage.

2 000 visitors were estimated on one day in August 1932, and 5 000 in August 1934. The Argus reported a peak of 12 000 visitors in July, 1935. These impressive numbers stretched the capacity of the facilities; many people had come not to ski but to sight see, and spilled over onto the ski runs due to overcrowding.

Large fences were built to separate spectators from participants, and new ski runs were opened to manage the traffic. The mountain featured six separate runs, by 1937, and had become Victoria’s most popular ski destination.

The snowbound summit observation tower, 1930s

But one issue that could never be resolved was the erratic snow coverage.

Some winter’s were better than others, but most year’s Mount Donna Buang received only intermittent snow, which greatly reduced the ski season. Other factors also combined to reduce its importance.

Map showing the spic scale (red) of the 1939 bushfires
Map showing the spic scale (red) of the 1939 bushfires

In the summer of 1939, Victoria was hit with its worst ever bushfires.

Starting on January 13, the ‘Black Friday’ fires raged out of control for months. Two million hectares of bush would be consumed, thousands of buildings destroyed, and 71 lives lost. A number of regional towns were completely destroyed.

‘It appeared that the whole State was alight. At midday, in many places, it was dark as night. Men carrying hurricane lamps, worked to make safe their families and belongings. Travellers on the highways were trapped by fires or blazing fallen trees, and perished. Throughout the land there was daytime darkness.’

– Royal Commission report into the 1939 fires

The Yarra Valley was impacted, with forests burnt out and timber mills consumed. Most of the ski buildings on Mount Donna Buang, built of wood, were destroyed. Only some would be rebuilt.

skiing on Mount Donna Buang in 1947
Near the end: skiing on Mount Donna Buang in 1947

Skiing, and recreational activities more generally, declined during World War II.

A large portion of the population was overseas on active duty, and the country’s mood correspondingly sombre. After the war, skiiers returned to Mount Donna Buang, but its days were numbered.

Improvements in transport infrastructure, roads and rail lines, were making it easier to access ski destinations with more robust snowfall. From the late 1940s, the Victorian Alpine region, centred around Bright, would gradually become the epicentre of skiing in the state.

An abandoned snack kiosk, 1960s

Ski clubs began moving their headquarters away from Mount Donna Buang; the Victorian Ski Club was the last to leave, in 1951.

The effort required to keep the ski runs clear ceased as people stopped coming, and the forest began to reclaim the cleared areas. The buildings that had been reconstructed after the fires fell into disrepair, and then ruin. Only a few small remnants remain, hidden in the bush, away from the current walking trails.

Skiing had ceased on the mountain by the middle of the 1950s. It would later be outlawed entirely, viewed as a danger to the hikers and sightseeing families, that now made up the bulk of the mountain’s visitors.

More MUSUEM OF LOST

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