Sunday, 29 August 2010

John Béchervaise

As I sat in his lounge room in Geelong on a winter’s day twenty years ago, sunlight streamed feebly in through the large windows. John Béchervaise was showing me some of his magnificent photographs. He was telling of the time he discovered the Prince Charles Range in Antarctica:
We skied for nine days over featureless snow plain. Then one day, as a result of the effects of refraction, we could see mountains high in the sky.
He looked at me. I was willing myself to be there.
It was as if we had created those mountains out of our own minds.
The peak that he first saw is now called Mt Béchervaise. It is twice the height of Kosciuszko.
Explorers are of an age gone by, and today there are adventurers. But Béchervaise went to new places. He led three ANARE expeditions to Antarctica, and it was during the 1953 tour that he discovered the Prince Charles range.
As a 17 year old boy living in Murrumbeena he had never seen snow which featured in so many of the books he read. One day he walked out the door and headed east, determined to continue until he got to snow. He eventually found it at Mt Torbreck.
What did he think of it? “After having imagined snow for so long it seemed familiar even then.”
The following year he was chosen as a teenager to join a party going in to Tali Karng with the governor, Lord Somers. In those days it was a major undertaking. The group included people like Hoadley (who accompanied Mawson to the Antarctic), Bill Waters, Crosbie Morrison, and Alan Moorehead - later a famous writer. John showed me a photograph of a biscuit on which all the participants had carved their names.
Here in Australia he is particularly well known for being the first person to climb Federation Peak in South West Tasmania, taking a party of schoolboys in 1949 to claim the coveted summit. The plateau around the peak is named Béchervaise Plateau.
But there are many other feats. In 1947, using half track army surplus vehicles, he took a group of Geelong College students to Uluru (Ayers Rock). It was the first time vehicles had travelled there. The road now follows the route he took on that trip, their tracks being scooped out when the road was fashioned shortly afterwards. During that trip he climbed Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) a difficult climb which may not now be done. He did it unroped and it was a climb which took almost all day. He thought he would be the first to have reached the summit but he found a bottle with a note in it from a Katherine policeman who had made the climb in the early 1930s. He subsequently met the policeman.
He learnt his rock climbing in England. John Béchervaise (the name is from the channel islands) was a conscientious objector during World War II, a position readily accepted in England, where he happened to be, and which was received much less sympathetically in Australia. During the war he worked in ambulance activities, and was able to pursue rock climbing, a sport which had not really begun to develop in Australia.
For some years John Béchervaise was the editor of Walkabout, a marvellous Australian magazine of the 1940s to 1960s.
There were many other trips. He landed a group of students on Rodondo Island, the visually striking granite outcrop off Wilson’s Promontory - the first people recorded to have been there. They lived there for a week surveying the island and even distilling their own water.
The trip he remembered most fondly was a month on the D’Entrecasteaux Islands off Western Australia, during which the group landed on many pristine islands and discovered a new species of plant.
He showed me a photograph of a group of students at Mt Ellery in East Gippsland. He told me it was a three week walk to Mt Ellery from the nearest road when the photograph was taken in the early 1950s. Now it is half an hour from a logging road.
I went walking with John Béchervaise when he was 80 years old, but still active. He took me along the river on which he lived in Geelong, showing active interest in certain favourite trees, in small leaves, and in memories of places he used to camp at with students.
The Béchervaise legacy has been significant. Many students he introduced to the bush and especially to climbing were inspired by his example. A notable example is my late friend Chris Baxter, the founder of Wild magazine with Mike Collie and myself, who, as a student at Geelong Grammar, was introduced to rock climbing by John Béchervaise in the first ascent of Tower Hill at the Grampians.
His life saw many changes. As a boy he remembered hansom cabs at Flinders Street Station, and in the end he lived in an age of space travel. An inquisitive, adventurous, disciplined person, he helped to seek out those places no one had been to before, and was forever drawn to blank spots on maps.

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