The Story of the Aardvark, the highest ski lodge in Australia

I was there from the start and this is my version of events. As I was there, some latitude must be afforded for reasons that become clear as you read on.

Aardvark Alpine Club Inc
Mt Hotham

Before the beginning … 

Through the 1970s, a group of mainly biology students at Latrobe University would go up to Mt Hotham and ski themselves silly. This was perhaps because they were showing more enthusiasm than skill or perhaps because of their nocturnal habits that kept them up carousing until long after bedtime. Whatever the reason they enjoyed the snow and would plot and plan for spending more time up there.

They hatched an idea to buy a Snowtel Apartment, after staying there on the mountain for two consecutive years, jamming far too many people into the two bedroom units. A unit in Snowtel was on the market in the mid-70s for $16,000. Spread across ten people this was only $1,600 each and, with a 10% deposit, they would see their names on the title for $160. Alan Carter was a prime mover in this venture. He had grown up as member of Wangaratta Ski Club with a lodge at Mt St Bernard. The snow there was unreliable as the altitude was 1,540 metres, compared to Mt Hotham’s 1,790 metres.

In the final bout of due diligence, conducted before many of them knew what those words meant, the prospective purchasers had pointed out to them by some apparently reliable third party, an engineer it was believed, that there were looming and serious maintenance issues and that this would not be a prudent purchase. The idea was dropped. The apartments are still there, standing proudly and available for much more than $16,000. So much for their due diligence!  The reliable third party had been encountered at the bar at the Mt Hotham Pub.  The Pub has since burnt down. And the reliable third party? Never seen again..

The idea of owning close access to Mt Hotham was not dropped however. In the next few years talk centred around buying a block of land in Harrietville and building some sort of accommodation on it for the ten and their friends to use. In fact the ten had grown as more of us had become skiers.

In 1978, one of our number, Ken Norris, was up at Hotham carrying out wildlife surveys for the state’s wildlife department. After work he’d retire to the Hotham pub and enjoy a contemplative beer or three.

On one such occasion he was chatting to a fellow on the next bar stool who asked “What are you working on up here?” “Wildlife surveys”, replied Ken, returning the question as to what had brought his bar companion to Hotham. “I’m doing land surveys”, he said. “What for?” asked Ken. “For the last release of club sites for ski lodges”, he replied. “Which clubs will get the sites?” Ken, the persistent questioner, asked. “Which ever club applies, they aren’t allocated yet”, was the response.


As soon as Ken was back in Melbourne, he gathered us together and said that it’s now or never, if we wanted to ski Hotham from our own lodge, we have to get moving. Our group of by now 25 people drafted a letter to the then Lands Department to ask for the allocation of a site. They wrote back and said, in effect, ‘Get real’. Are you a bona fide club? What’s the name of your club?  Where is your constitution? Where are your club minutes authorising the application for a site. Where are your business plans?

In short, we had to grow up, become a formal entity and enter the process. As luck would have it, one of our growing number was a lawyer and Pete knew his way around officialese and formal grown-up processes. We soon found ourselves forming a committee, drafting a set of rules, preparing a business plan, finding a friend of a friend who was an architect – doing all of the things that a bunch of larrikin uni mates thought that they’d never be doing.

Committee meetings aren’t sombre or serious, but only cups of tea here

We needed a name for the club, a long-held idea in our respective minds that none of us ever thought would come about. We’d referred to the idea as the Rhubarb Ski Club, Wheelbarrow Ski Club, Aardvark Ski Club – all variations on ‘Ya Dreamin’ Ski Club’.  Philip Jackson, who was not an ex-biol student or even a skier but who did have a thing for aardvarks, suggested that there was our name and by the way, it would put us at the top of an alphabetic listing of clubs, if ever that was to be a good thing.

The name Aardvark was intended as a holding name till we found a better one .. but as so often happens, the name stuck. Thus we have Aardvark Alpine Club, the Ark, and we are all Aardvarks to this day.

We didn’t have much money, most of us only being fresh out of university and twenty-five times what we had was to be nowhere near enough to build a lodge above the snowline. We were all despatched to build our numbers to forty-five. We reckoned that we’d need this number, calculated by dividing what we thought the lodge would cost by the most likely amount the average ex-uni student could contribute, topped up by some borrowings available from a state government program to support public-interest community sports activities. We formed a cooperative to get access to a government-backed loan available to ‘public good’ cooperatives – we’d provide low-cost skiing to underprivileged members of the community. You see, a strong streak of social justice coursed through our socialist veins even then. Either that or we were not above sharp practice. The cooperative had forty-five shares and owned the Aardvark Alpine Club Incorporated.

The bank was initially reluctant to lend us money and possibly the only one of us who owned property, Alan Carter, was able to convince the State Bank of Victoria that we should get a hearing. Whatever it was that they said at interview, Ken and Pete gave the Loans Manager enough reason to take a punt on us and we had a loan. There was now a good chance we’d have a lodge. 

In moving from twenty-five instigators to forty-five members, recruitment was required. If you knew someone at your workplace who was a likely starter, the soft-sell would begin. Staff at one school drank at a pub on a Friday night as did that of a nearby school where one of the twenty-five worked. Someone’s boyfriend knew a bunch of south-of-the river private school skiers that proved a source of Aardvarks. The needed number of shareholders was found.

The south-of-the-river lot weren’t too sure of the bona fides of the ex-Latrobies and to assuage their doubts, a Trust Fund was established by another lawyer member so the money that comprised the initial contribution was quarantined should the enterprise fall over. The doubts were also reciprocated and to ensure that the private school set shouldn’t have too much influence, a limit was set on the number of shares any one individual could have. In flagrant disregard of this, the cashed-up Frank Mitchell, who’d dropped out of university to work in the mines in WA, purchased the last two memberships of the 45.  He was the only person ever to own three Aardvark shares before selling them on when two later buyers were found.

Ideas and reality

Frank knew an architect who he said was pretty good. He’d never been to the snow and he didn’t ski, but he was an architect and we needed one. A trip to the mountain was organised to show John Nicholson what snow was like and introduce to him the importance of drying rooms, ski storage, snow clearing etc, to ski lodge design.  They were in a 260C Nissan in a blizzard late at night, they bounced into a snowdrift at Mt Blowhard and in the effort to push the car out, the greyhound-like architect (John Nicholson was all rib and dick) lost body heat to the point where he became disoriented.  During the attempts at extrication, a snow chain snapped and wrapped itself around the drive shaft. They spent the rest of the night in the car with a “goon” and a loaf of bread until, with snow up to the windows, the snow plough arrived and pulled them out just after sunrise.  This may explain why the observations made the next day weren’t incorporated into the lodge design.  

All the same, John Nicholson designed for us a very schmick-looking lodge. However, and this is a very big however, he did not keep to the brief that he was given. He was to design a building that even the least-skilled person could build; straight lines, right angles, utility itself. His response to this brief was itself brief, ‘If you want a plain box, get yourself a new architect’.  

Consequently, we have a lodge with beautifully-proportioned overhangs on the upper floor, cunningly-designed intersecting, angled planes on the bedroom ceilings and opera-house walls, buttresses to the building to the south and east. Their only purpose is aesthetic; they fulfil that purpose admirably as the building looks balanced and complete with them.

Aardvark Alpine Lodge nestled into the hill

The constitution was adopted by all members, John Nicholson’s design was agreed to, the necessary plans were drawn up and submitted. We had been allocated a sloping site on the Davenport Estate, with a steep drop a long way down to the valley of the Wonangatta River. The views would be stunning, we knew. At the last
minute, some switch occurred in the bowels of the bureaucracy and we were allocated a different site, the highest and only flat piece of dirt on the hill. The cascading floor levels that were to follow the steep slope and give everyone glorious views had to be interleaved to stack up above the flat base. This meant no valley views but, when there is no snow sliding off the roof to pile up in front of the windows, there is a view down to the road.

The lack of views is also a result of the orientation of the lodge on the block. The work crew had been on the mountain waiting to do the set-out when the weather allowed. After some time up the hill, the set-out just had to be done, but up till this stage the cloud had not lifted. Whatever view there might have been over the slopes was missed, because no one knew what was there to be seen.

This might explain in part why the best views, to Mounts Loch and Feathertop, are those through the upstairs windows in the showers.

Mt Feathertop—looking like a real mountain

We eventually had no real problem with the site allocated as Aardvark is perhaps the best-positioned lodge on the mountain. Ski out in the morning, across the road and down McColls or the Hogsback and hit Davenport Access Trail, up the Village Lift and arrive at Hotham Central in very short order. At the end of the day, take the Big D and ski down to the front door. It’s only on a Friday night that a site on the Davenport Estate across from the road might be better.

But this is getting ahead of the story.

A consequence of having a skimpy budget was a requirement that all forty-five members had to contribute one hundred and forty hours of work to the building. This was an inadvertent master-stroke. In having to be the labourers to the few skilled builders that we had on site, we lifted, grunted and sweated with people we did know and didn’t know alike and after a week or two of hard physical labour, we all knew each other rather well. For those of us who were indoor workers and unskilled in the practical matters of erecting a building the term ‘drongo hour’ was coined. This was the hour of grunt work performed by the large number of us unskilled drongos.

Not all Aardvarks were unskilled though.  Architect John Nicholson visited from time to time to see his plans being given effect, other members who did know their way around tools did more than their share in building the lodge. For example, plumber Jeff Hunt plumbed and Paul Gottlieb, who knew about circuits and power points but was not an electrician, wired the place prior to a bloke with a certificate doing the sign-off. As it was, Paul had many, many arguments regarding the standard of wiring to install. Lodges on the mountain were powered by diesel generators prior to 1985 and relatively cheap wiring could suffice. ‘Mains power’ll never come to Hotham’, was the argument against the profligate use of high standard wiring. Luckily, Paul eventually won out, thus saving the club an expensive rewiring job when mains power came just a few years later. Oldest Aardvark Ron Norris, a retired technical school principal, loved a project and he adopted the lodge as an exercise in complex and technical problem-solving, advising on heating and scoping the boiler system, for example.

The build

We hired Trapdoor, a twelve-bed lodge at the other end of the village, for the entire summer for a roster of the forty-five Aardvarks. Many of us had stays of much more than two weeks. Andy Butterworth, our building foreman, found himself between jobs, for reasons we needn’t go into. Well, he wasn’t really a builder, his last job had been as a nurse. But he was an incredibly competent bloke at renovating, he understood power tools, he knew which tools were for which jobs and he understood building principles. Even more importantly, he understood people. He was there for the entire build and his unique combination of sheer skill, ready affability and capacity to get work out of the biggest drongo was fundamental to Aardvark rising from the flat earth.

We’d start each day fuelled by a cooked breakfast. We’d be roused from our deep sleep by a raucous call of ‘’GET UP, GET UP, GET UP’ by the slightly-less drongoish Aardvark who had a full-time job
cooking for the work squad. When Kate Schoeffel shrieks at her maximum decibel level, having a sleep-in is not an option. We’d walk up to the site and work from 7am to around 5 pm every day, having delivered to us a cooked morning smoko, an extremely hearty lunch, a substantial afternoon smoko and then back to Trapdoor for some beers and wacky-baccy before a major cooked dinner. 

We’d get out the plans, argue over which way to hold them up, we’d argue about where the decimal point might be on the scale, whether this symbol meant up or down – we’d argue about many things really. Whether smoking a joint to fuel the arguments was a good idea or not was beside the point – we did anyway. The interpretation of the plans was somewhat creative as we finally resolved which bits we’d need to undo the first thing the next morning.  The Aardvark way was characterised by five steps forward and a number of steps backwards, depending on how creative had been last night’s interpretation of the plans.

Meanwhile we drongos continued to lift concrete blocks for the walls, push barrows and wield picks and excavate a cavity within the footings to become a wood storage room. This had been overlooked in the original scope. Also omitted was ready access to a toilet from the lounge room, and it was realised in the nick of time that Aardvark’s habits would be well-served with a toilet close by the main drinking area. This was another unforeseen addition.

Poofteenths and bee’s dicks

A new vocabulary arose through the building program. Units of distance were devised to assist in the
construction; the bee’s dick was a very short unit, as was the poofteenth (we were in pre-awareness times of course). In typical Aardvark fashion, there was great argument as to which was the shorter and in typical Aardvark fashion, this argument was never resolved. A new verb, to Aardvark, was coined to describe the innumerable stuff-ups through the building program and many times there were many instances of things being Aardvarked.

Aardvarks built the beds at a factory in Hawthorn, with a radial-arm saw borrowed on the promise of future accommodation. The well-known and well-heeled saw owner has still not claimed the accommodation, possibly as his standards will have gone up considerably from bunk rooms. It was found after the beds were built that they were all 50mm and a poofteenth short. Responsibility for this trifle was never allocated but suffice to say, the beds were Aardvarked.

Corners were cut … and the cheaper option often won out.  Digging of the trenches was carried out by a machine operator still in training so he could be hired at a reduced rate. The slight curves on the longer trenches had to be later straightened and adjusted with pick and shovel,  but then drongo hours came cheap.

Aardvarks earned a good reputation on the mountain in those early days. There were four other lodges under construction at that time and there was always at least one just ahead of where we were up to. ‘Need a hand with your concrete pour?’ Andrew would volunteer. A gaggle of us would turn up and throw in willing hands. They all thought we were fine helpful folks and oh so altruistic, when really we were just learning what we had to do when it came our turn in the process and we were less likely to stuff it up if we had at least some experience.

On one occasion to cover a shortfall, Andrew lifted 150 small cement blocks from a pallet at a nearby site. He left a note ‘Have taken 150 of these little fuckers. Will fix you up soon’.  It was about a year later when that other lodge presented the battered little note for payment – which was promptly handed over. After all, an Aardvark’s word was the club’s bond!

Not everyone on the mountain smiled kindly upon the Aardvarks. Neighbouring ski club, Ormond, wanted to build a new generator shed on their patch of land quite close to Aardvark’s. They didn’t have the required labour up there to have it built for winter and we had people on the mountain waiting on the next activity in our building program. We had capacity and they had need so we were engaged to build the generator shed. Plans were handed over and a price agreed upon for the build. A modification or two was required as issues arose in the process but the shed was completed and handed over and Aardvark waited for payment.

Ormond claimed that they didn’t get what they asked for. We said they’d changed the plans. We wanted our money and that would be that. Bad blood built up as arguments flew back and forth. Eventually, Aardvark received some money and Ormond received a shed, at least close to the one they wanted. To this day, look carefully at the drawing that hangs above the lounge-room fireplace showing of Aardvarks at aprés ski activity. Upside down on the welcome mat, in the stippled coir matting, what Aardvarks thought of Ormond is revealed.

Where we had an absolute shortage of the skilled trade needed at a time in the build, careful husbanding of the cash reserve allowed the club to hire in a sub-contractor, to build the chimney or to plaster the walls.

We had some characters among the specialist trades that we brought in. Heinz, the block-layer, had a little truck that we commandeered to carry building materials from Wodonga, even though it could barely make it up The Meg when fully laden. I can recall rolling backwards and downhill some way for a better run-up on the steep climb.

On another occasion, a 5-tonne tray truck was hired in Melbourne to collect and bring building materials up the hill. At one steep point, a large RSJ started to slide off the vehicle. Unfazed, driver Paul solved this by backing the truck into the face of a cutting to push the steel back into the load. There was always a way to solve a problem, the challenge was to find it.

Heinz had brought along his offsider Peter, who would only eat meat and eggs. When asked before he came if he had food preferences, he had said he was vegoid ….  This had been interpreted at first as vegetarian. But no, when he arrived on-site he told us it meant “meat ‘n eggs only, mate”.  For a roast dinner, there was no need to put potatoes, pumpkin or peas on his plate – he only ate meat. Vegoid meant that veg was to be avoided. There was too much conjecture over the state of his stools.

We had a tiler who was an alcoholic but imagined he could keep his drinking from his wife, who also stayed with us, the better to keep her eye on him.  As we’d gather over an after-work drink and a loud dinner, he’d be slyly pushing his opaque coffee cup forward for a refill. If we were driving down past the Genny (the General Store and Hotel), there was the obligatory stop as he’d dash in for a couple of quick double shots.  

Young Sammy was a chippy who gave his name to the wood store, “Sammy’s Room” as another of the cast of skilled workers Andrew attracted to put the Aardvark Ark on the mountain.

Stacking wood in Sammy’s Room

End of the tunnel and party time

The summer of 1980/81 seemed to go on and on and in early April, instead of being at lock-up stage for completion next summer, it looked possible to have the building ready for the 1981 ski season. All stops were pulled out and the pace of the construction accelerated such that the building was issued with a Certificate of Occupancy in June 1981. Of course we thought it quite appropriate when we received mail addressed to Hard Work Ski Club.

The fit-out saw both the beer budget at work and the champagne ambition we had for Aardvark. We managed to scavenge carpet for the whole lodge following a city office building refurbishment. Then member Tony Legge’s wife, Karen Rosales, daughter of Vincent Rosales of Maxim’s Restaurant, fitted out the kitchen with crockery, cutlery and utensils.

The lodge was ‘christened’ with a party on the first of occupation in July, 1981. The snow was piled up high against the building as 1981 was a snow year that is still talked about in hushed tones. A couple of Aardvarks, who must remain nameless, drove down to Omeo and ‘liberated’ an 18 gallon keg of beer that was left out on the veranda of the Golden Fleece Hotel. Rather than risk Aardvark being accused of wrongdoing, they were thoughtful enough to hide the keg along the road for collection just prior to the party. The plan sounded good but the execution didn’t take into account the heavy snowfalls. No amount of probing the deep snowdrifts where they thought it was resulted in the satisfying clunk of pole on metal. The workers doing road maintenance
in the spring thaw would have had a good time.

Frank Mitchell’s band, the First and Last Bush Band, provided the party soundtrack. A number of the musicians had not been to Hotham and they’d not seen snow. Even so, on Friday night they set off. They knew that going to the snow involved partying and drinking so they entered into the spirit and
started early, well very early, on the way up. The Harrietville road was closed due to heavy snow and so access was out through Gippsland and via Omeo. They reached Morwell and stopped for a few beers. They figured by the time they hit the next town the pubs would be shut so they’d better stay in Morwell until closing for a few more. Then, with a few travellers, they’d be right to get to Hotham.

The going was slow as the heavy snow meant very careful driving but, sometime after midnight, they did arrive at the village. The next problem was to find Aardvark. Frank was already at the lodge and none of the others had ever been there so there was a lot of trudging up the slopes through deep snow to see if anyone knew where they should be. This was all pre-mobile phone of course. Aardvark, being a new lodge, was not well known and they were sent to many different places and well into the early hours they had still not arrived. As carousing Aardvarks were considering bed, a forlorn, fearful and frigid face appeared outside a fogged kitchen window, its owner too close to hypothermia. The relief of recognition was palpable.

Glorious fresh snow in front of the lodge

Soon after, all was well, the rest of the band were guided up and it was yet more beers by the fire. On the Saturday night, the band played a treat and the party went off – Aardvark was duly christened. Later, one band member’s car had to be carried off the mountain as it had no anti-freeze. What’s antifreeze?’ he asked.

In those early years, the consequences of having little money were ever-present. Luckily, we had, in Treasurer Henry Kata, a chartered accountant whose day job entailed working in insolvencies. He knew every sharp practice followed by the companies about to go under and he could sail as close to the wind as was possible. Repayment arrangements were agreed the day before the knee-cappers were to call around and invoices were scheduled for part-payment in chronological order of threatened foreclosure. Never had so little money been applied to such great effect.

With a completed and functioning 30-bed lodge, Aardvarks settled down to enjoy the rewards of their hard work. We solved problems as they arose. For example, after a day’s wild skiing, there was always the dilemma – beer first or shower first. If the answer was beer, it was so easy to open the first, settle into another three or more and the shower might not occur. If a shower was first, there remained a thirst that called out for slaking. The answer – beer holders in the shower.  Another example – the empty beer cans would fill the waste containers very quickly as a result of the rate of consumption by thirsty Aardvarks. Alan Carter found a can crusher that did the trick and meant we didn’t have get up off the couch nearly as often. Moreover, the kids loved to crush a can and we were all urged to drink more to give them the power of the crush.  The kids would stand next to the can drinker who looked like being the next to finish, in order to get that can and crush it. It was an incentive for fast drinking and Aardvarks usually proved equal to the challenge.

Frank Aardvark—delighted to do what he’s done before

The kitchen worked a treat, the couches in front of the fire fitted our respective bums and the showers were the best on the mountain. Aardvark was a very comfortable lodge and it all worked. Aardvarks coined a motto to suit the use of the lodge, ‘There’s always more’. This applied equally to everything that gave Aardvarks pleasure – and I mean everything.

We don’t have separate cooking and eating areas, we share cooktops by consensus and we dine together at the tables. Our rooms don’t have en suites and there is no spa. The couches in front of the fireplace are available to all. In short, we operate a communal lodge, so don’t come for a reclusive weekend of isolated introspection.

We maintain the communal spirit with an annual work requirement of 10 hours of labour, often on designated weekends. Group of us gather on the mountain as a work party, with both words, ’work’ and ’party’ applicable. Whether stacking the wood room ready for the season, painting the internal and external walls for aesthetic or protective reasons or upgrading furnishings, we rekindle friendships over shared work. We are in the process of inducting the next generation of Aardvarks, for though most of enjoyed years of sociability before family, we did reproduce. Our kids, who grew up skiing together, are increasing their involvement in the club.

Work Weekend chain gang stacks wood into Sammy’s Room
Work weekend dinner

Skiing the giant

There’re always Aardvarks and friends of Aardvarks to ski with by day, to talk to and drink with by night. We built the lodge so that we could ski together, talk together and eat and drink together. We are not shy and we are house-trained. Many of us are active observers of national and international politics and we are environmentalists who are hopelessly compromised by having a ski-lodge above the snowline (we are the highest ski-lodge in Australia). We deal with this hypocrisy with sheer pragmatism – we love skiing!

We gather each year in a Members’ Weekend, when Aardvarks book in to free accommodation (with our nightly member’s bed charge of not-much-at-all that is really of no consequence) with paid catering and a chance to ski together. The Saturday Night Members’ Dinner recalls those earlier times of licentious behaviour, even if we have settled and slowed quite some. The President’s Oration, given these many years by Alan Carter is more ‘President’ and less ‘Oration’, liberally sprinkled with ‘Righty-Ohs’, ‘the Job’s Right’ and repeated expletives. He almost went too far one year in quoting the Bible but it was something to do with water and wine so he was excused.

President Al reads from the book

The lodge continues to provide Aardvarks, their friends and members of the public who like the club style many years of happy skiing. May there be many more years to come.

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