Bert Nichols, noted Tasmanian bushman, fur trapper and Cradle tour guide, is a well-known name around the Cradle Valley – Lake St Clair area, but what do we really know about him, and how many people know his real name wasn’t Bert? It was Ethelbert.
Ethelbert Nichols didn’t like being called ‘Ethelbert’, so from an early age he called himself Bert instead. He was born in 1878 at Campbell Town, from where his father James worked as a shepherd in the highlands around Lake Leake. He was one of 13 children. Later on, the Nichols family moved to Latrobe, and finally settled at Devonport.
Had his mates at school known his name was Ethelbert, they probably would have teased him relentlessly. As it was, Bert’s quietness and bush skills marked him out as being different anyway, and in the coastal towns of Latrobe and Devonport where so many descendants of Tasmanian Aboriginal woman Dolly Dalrymple-Johnson lived, he acquired the nickname ‘Darkie’ Nichols. In their eyes, Bert was one of them.
Being the second eldest when his father died in 1908, Bert was expected to help his mother Rachel provide for the family. So he took up trapping as he loved the wild untamed hinterland country his father had introduced him to, and, with a bit of luck, he could sell his luxuriously thick possum and wallaby furs for a premium price at the local pub.
When the Great War broke out, ‘Bert’ enlisted. Officially, he became Private ‘Herbert’ Nichols, 4th Infantry Battalion, Naval and Military Forces. He served in the Special Tropical Corps, and as driver with the 6 Forward Company 14th Field Artillery Brigade. He was 36 years old when he embarked from Sydney on the HMAT Te Anau.
Upon his return from the war, Bert moved to Lorinna. The isolated township proved to be a convenient base, as it was within easy reach of Cradle Mountain, via the Five Mile Rise to Middlesex and Cradle as well as the upper catchments around Brown Mountain.
A newspaper report in 1925 made reference to this “wary trapper who auctioned his own skins at the Sheffield Hotel and secured the highest price paid in Tasmania. His possums brought with the royalty, 17/11 each, and his kangaroo skins over 12/-. He received a cheque for £500 for three month’s work.” Excellent pickings.
Having bush skills and knowledge of the area, he was engaged by the Cradle Mountain Reserve Board to work on the Overland Track. He was paid eight shillings (equivalent then to a week’s wages) for the track work from Cradle Valley to the southern end of Lake St Clair. His job entailed marking blazes on trees in the forests and erecting stakes over the plains. He also repaired some of the rudimentary bush huts that were constructed earlier by fellow fur trappers, for the use of tourists.
Bert advertised himself as “a guide for walking parties” and, with his deep respect for the mountains, he wrote to the Director of Tourism (E T Emmett) and convinced him on the splendour of the Cradle Mountain area.
During the summer of 1931, Emmett and a party of eight from the newly formed Hobart Walking Club (HWC) undertook to walk the ‘Overland Track’ with our Bert as their guide, leaving from Crater Creek House.
This trip, arguably the first official Overland Track trip, was reported in the Advocate newspaper (10/1/1931) and in a series of articles written by Emmett and published in the same year in Launceston’s Weekly Courier . These reports, together with that of another early trip in the second edition of the HWC’s Tasmanian Tramp, published in 1933, inspired many readers to follow.
In 1935 the position of ranger was established in both the Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair Reserves. Lionel Connell was appointed to Cradle Mountain and Bert was temporarily appointed to Lake St Clair, a position that he held for about 12 months. He was also engaged to put a rough bridge across the Cuvier River suitable for packhorses, to construct a track around the western side of Lake St Clair (to replace the route over Byron Gap and through the Cuvier Valley) and to build a new hut to replace the one he’d used for trapping near the Narcissus River.
As the Overland Track gradually improved, the walking parties gained greater confidence in the route, and a guide was no longer required. So Bert promoted walking holidays in the Pelion, Lake Ayr area where he knew a few good huts.
During the Second World War, he held the contract for fur trapping at the Middlesex cattle station, where his prowess in the trade attracted the attention of the State authorities, who were keen to find out if he was hunting outside of the Government-regulated trapping season or without a licence.
The Police raided his house at Lorinna, but Bert was much too clever for them, keeping his stash of furs well away from the house in a hollow log.
When he died in 1950, aged 72 years, Bert was apparently still working as a trapper at the Pardoe airport near Devonport. He was unmarried and he was buried in the Devonport General Cemetery, oddly enough, under the name of ‘Ethelbert Nichols’. I can recall staying at Nichols Hut on the way to Pine Valley back in 1961, but this relic is sadly no more. It was burnt down soon after my visit by careless campers.
Written by Peter Sims, Nov 2014, with minor updates
Additional note: The Bert Nichols Hut, built at Windy Ridge on the Overland Track in 2008, commemorates Bert’s work.