Come with us inside the Mount Buffalo Chalet | Photos

FLASHBACK: Paula McEachern and sister Colleen Howard stand in Manfield's cafe, remembering their time spent there in the 1980s. Picture: JAMES WILTSHIRE
FLASHBACK: Paula McEachern and sister Colleen Howard stand in Manfield's cafe, remembering their time spent there in the 1980s. Picture: JAMES WILTSHIRE

It’s the lesser-famed qualities of the Mount Buffalo Chalet Adam Kerry has come to like best after years of walking its hallways.

There’s the ‘door to nowhere’ in a bathroom of the South Wing that opens into a wall, a reminder of how the Grand Old Lady evolved in her early days.

Or the ‘Beware, falling ice’ sign at the spot where a parked car was crushed by snow.

Perhaps the most humorous quirk is the ‘real story’ behind the huge boulder that sits just behind the main building.

Adam, who helps oversee the chalet for Parks Victoria, explains to our tour group why it’s called Pigeon Rock.

“They used to have pigeon holes underneath and that’s where they used to keep their grog, because they weren’t allowed to drink,” he says.

We laugh, comfortable now – earlier as we huddled on the verandah waiting to be let in, the anticipation was tangible.

Thousands have been enticed to this place annually, only for their curiosity to be met with closed doors. For a select few this was their long-awaited chance to get inside.

We spill into the drawing room, sun streaming in from the glass windows, so large they could not be made in Australia and were shipped from England.

“The granite fireplace is what they wanted to build it out of originally,” Adam says as we move into the main lounge.

VIDEO: Join us for a bird's eye view inside Mount Buffalo Chalet

“That would have blown the state budget, so they used local timber instead. 

“It was quoted for 4000 pounds but cost 7000 to build.

“It’s the largest timber structure in Australia – there is big grain store in the Mallee region, but we don’t count that.”

The carpet is thick – traditional red Persian Bokhara Camel’s foot. The room’s furnishing are luxurious and you can imagine the men in black and white and women in their evening gowns, reclining further into the leather seats as their socialising progressed into the night.

Formal dress was always expected at dinner, except on Sunday evenings when the men could wear lounge suits and women less elaborate frocks.

A more relaxed attire was also allowed in the smoking lounge, which we enter next.

There are cane chairs sitting in the room, and Adam points out a framed photo above them.

“It’s debatable whether these chairs are the ones on the back of the horses in that photo,” he says.

“This would have been a place to sit in front of the fire – many of the places that were more comfortable were in front of the fire and it was the warmest room in the chalet.”

It does feel cooler, standing in the rooms in the South Wing.

The roped off corridors extending past our view seem never-ending.

There’s a question about ghosts.

“This would be where your hair will stand up when the lights are off,” Adam says.

“The building’s huge – at its peak it had 138 rooms.”

The South Wing was not added until 1914, four years after the chalet was built.

In fact, the 107-year-old building wasn’t the first accomodation available on Mount Buffalo.

The first Europeans to record the plateau were William Hovell and Hamilton Hume in 1824, conservation architects Allom Lovell and Associates write in the 2002 Mount Buffalo Chalet Heritage Action Plan.

Grazers followed and so did a short-lived gold rush, which brought John and James Manfield in 1856 – the latter who built a guest house at Eurobin Falls.

In 1881 Governor of Victoria Henry Brougham-Loch visited the mountain and in 1898 the government reserved its first land for national park, 2880 acres.

Visitors were led up the mountain by The Alpine Club and one of the guides, Edward Carlile, built a hospice in 1892 at the Monolith, a rock formation 1464 meters above sea level.

James Manfield then built a lodge overlooking the gorge and Manfield’s Chalet, near where the current building stands.

The government opened a road to the plateau in 1908 and The Alpine Observer reported they intended to construct a ‘temporary hospice’.

After it was built, the government “attempted to close Carlile’s Hospice and Manfield’s Chalet”, to much backlash.

The families reached a compromise but ultimately the government reclaimed the Manfields’ site, and the structure was removed.

As noted in the action plan, “arguments over the role of private or state enterprise did not prevent the public works department leasing its hospice in April 1910 to Mr J Newton”.

In 1924 the Railways department took over the management of the chalet, converting the existing dining room into a ballroom and building a new dining room and kitchen on the first floor of the North Wing.

For some years losses were blamed on poor snow fall and a lack of a liquor licence, and during World War II  operations were scaled back further.

What followed was an influx in migrants and displaced persons from Europe – the presence of Canadian ski instructors also supported the post-war revival.

In the late 1950s and early 60s average occupancy rate per night was 70 to 75 per cent of capacity.

It was in the final years of Railways management in the 80s that Paula McEachern first stayed at the chalet, chasing the ski runs at Cresta Valley and Dingo Dell.

“All the staff were dressed in the Railways uniform,” she said.

“We used to come up with six or eight families from Albury and stay in the chalet three or four nights – it was always full.

“The reason we used to come here was because the slopes were so gentle and weren’t long, it was really safe for the kids to learn how to ski.”

In 1985 responsibility for the chalet was transferred to the Victorian Tourism Commission after reports $2 million had been lost over the previous five years.

When Jeff Kennett was elected in 1992 he offered leases, and Dean and Gillian Belle took over, ending nearly 70 years of public sector operation.

There have always been huge barriers in the cost of heating, Adam explains as we pass the parts of the building that have not been touched by current $2.8 million restoration works. 

The chalet has been closed since 2007, after fire destroyed the Cresta ski lodge, and a long-term lease agreement could not be reached between the government and lessee the Burbank Group.

Adam points to the generator behind the main building, near the accomodation wings for staff.

“Just before the chalet shut the fuel bill was $56,000 in diesel,” he said.

“They would have found a lot of times that was why they ran at a deficit.

“It’s hard to make a profit when you have to pay people and you have outlays like that.”

There are significant challenges that come with keeping a weatherboard building protected from snow – and fire.

How to keep the chalet viable will be a focus of the Mount Buffalo Destination Advisory Group as they work with consultants and government on a feasibility study for tourism opportunities at the national park.

Supporters of the chalet’s full restoration are calling for the building’s re-opening to tourists to be a first priority.

Until then, the Grand Old Lady awaits her next chapter.