In building the retreat we tried to use as much recycled and sustainable materials as possible. Hardwood timber for the walls, beams and flooring was logged on site using a portable saw mill. The corrugated iron for the buildings along with the louvre windows was taken from the old army barracks at Wacol and towed up the mountain.
The main structural beams for the cabins was logged on-site and put into place by the use of a crane which just managed to negotiate the tracks and slopes coming in. The logs are about 8m long and have a diameter of 200mm which gives much added stability and overall strength to the cabins. The poles for the cabin platforms were logged at a property near Boonah. We decided to use Grey ironbark as they are renowned for great strength and durability. Rainwater captured off the roofs is pumped to holding tanks further up the slope. We have 63,000 litres of potable water stored this way ready to be used for drinking and hot showers. Both gas hot water systems have also been recycled and have been retrofitted to take cylinder gas.
For over 100 years the surrounding countryside know as the Fassifern has seen timber used in the development of the district. Timber getting and milling was the primary activity of the region and there is a long history of timber related industries in the region.
Most of the forest now in the Retreat is classified as regrowth though no timber has been taken out of the Yamahra Creek catchment for over 50 years. There is evidence of bench marks associated with the felling of trees by hand on our property. Felled logs were skidded down Yamahra Creek from the high ridges adjoining the national park and then taken out by bullocks, most of these "snigging" tracks can still be seen on the property.
There were five types of trees selected for the construction of the buildings and all except the Grey ironbark (Eucalyptus siderophloia) were found on the property. The land around the Retreat is not ironbark country - ironbark is more suited to dry stony landscapes or on top of ridges. Grey ironbark was selected for the cabin foundation poles because of its highest specifications possible regarding durability, preservation and seasoning. It is also most impervious to attack from any of the bugs and critters abounding in the forest. The other trees selected were renown for their strength and durability and are less susceptible to attack from the Lictid beetle, borers and termites. They are: Tallowood, Grey gum, Grey box and Queensland Brush box - a very valuable timber prized for its hard wearing ability and pink blush appearance and which you can now see on the flooring of the communal hall.
The timber was cut down, snigged by bulldozer and then milled using a mobile saw mill operated by two local landholders from Boonah. Once this was done and about after a month the milled timber was used "green" - that is before it had time to season as Sam the builder realised that if it was too long in the air it would be almost impossible to work with. So the timber was left for a while and then construction began. Not long after the work was finished it was almost impossible to drive a nail into any section of the framework without having to drill it first.
After the siting of the cabins the next stage was to select the right timber for the cabin platforms. I approached John who has spent over 40 years working in the forests of the McPherson mountains and the Great Divide. His knowledge of the area and where to get the best type of timber for each of the specific construction requirements was critical to the success of the Retreat. The infrastructure he brought to the operation was very helpful: two tractors, trailers, post hole diggers, bulldozers and the large professional chainsaws - tools of his trade- were some of the main items.
John was a one-stop-shop for the getting and milling of the timber. Very soon he tracked down a sizable parcel of Grey ironbark and was allowed to select and cut down the required amount - 108 poles in all. Once they were selected and felled came the next job of taking the bark off them. Debarking is done to stop the bark rotting off the timber and leaving a gap in the post hole thereby creating over time a loose structure. It also allows a much better surface to connect to when securing the joist and beams.
There is no easy way to debark the logs. Under John's instruction I started using the back of the axe to go down one side of the pole by striking it with a glancing blow so as not to damage the wood but of sufficient force to start a peeling away effect - then going back the other side. Once that was done I had to roll over the pole and start again. As a result of the drought the bark was very dry and almost welded to the trunk so it was less inclined to come away cleanly. Some times it needed the long handled crow bar to lever the bark off. All up I guess I debarked about 50m of the 260m of ironbark .
Once the poles were cut and debarked they were taken to the base of the mountain loaded onto a tractor trailer and dragged up the track. The track in places was steep and at one stage two tractors were needed to snig the laden trailer up one section of particularly steep hill. Once the holes were dug and the poles cemented in we were ready for the next stage of constructing the platform.
After the trees were felled and trimmed the next stage was to mill the logs into the types and quantities required. All the logs were snigged to the milling site and were stacked ready to be milled. The local mobile mill operators charged by the cubic meter so before any of the logs were milled they were measured to determine their cubic meterage. After that the bulldozer driven by my neighbour John arranged to have successive logs placed between the rail guides and secured in place. As each successive log was milled the planks were taken off by hand , stacked into a fltch and strapped tightly by a metal strap to prevent any warping. The first cut of the log was usually quite thick and this was set aside to be used later for benches in the hall. Occasionally the mill was stopped and the saw checked for balance and sharpness. It was owned and operated by two local landholders and came on the back of the usual traditional bush ute. It was set up in 30 min though the tricky part was continually maintaining the sharpness and balance of the circular saw. Although some of the timber certainly deviated from the true dimensions it gave them an authentic rough bush look and feel. Once each flitch was finished they were stored well away from the mill ready for use.
Why did I do it this way? At the end of the day the price quoted by the saw millers turned out to be more than what was quoted by the local timber companies. However when the cost of transport and the inaccessibility of the Retreat location was factored in the figures came out about even. Also there was a good surplus of milled timber left over which was utilised for unplanned construction jobs as they surfaced. So this project came out well ahead. I really enjoyed the experience of helping to fell the trees, snigging and milling them.It rewarding and fulfilling and when I look around the Retreat today I see this wonderful story. Most of the surplus timber has now been used. The area where the trees were felled is well on the way to recovery and the timber cast offs have been used for many other works and repairs including fuel for the wood stoves.
My first attempt at building the cabins was to import three safari tents from South Africa and they looked fantastic! That was until the first serious spell of bad mountain weather occurred. An Autumn low pressure system (usually associated with summer cyclonic systems) developed off the South East coast of Queensland in early March. It generated winds of over 110km/hour. The winds swept up the Yamahra Creek valley funneled in on both sides by the surrounding mountains and then powered through the Retreat. It had a devastating effect on the tents which were wiped out in a very efficient manner. The platforms were all that remained. And so I went back to the drawing board and designed a much more solid cabin capable of withstanding any the type of weather event that could be experienced in the mountains. Needless to say all the cabins now have high structural integrity and have been certified accordingly.
I was still able to incorporate the exiting platforms into my revamped design. I made sure that strength and resilience was a major design criteria. Sam the builder had many years of experience building in the North West of Australia - where cyclones are a seasonal event and his knowledge and experience he brought to the project was a critical factor in a successful construction. Today the centrepiece of the cabins is a 200mm diameter tree pole going the length of the cabin which ties down the roof, the walls and the platform. Also the timber used for the cabin is from on-site hardwood trees and forms a very strong framework for the attachment of the corrugated iron walls and roof.
The two cabins can easily accommodate up to eight people. They are basic but comfortable - shady and cool in the summer aided by the louvre windows but they a tad chilly in the winter! It is dormitory style accommodation with bunk beds, a changing room and locker room in which to store items. The cabins have been named, appropriately enough after the mountains of the Retreat: The Ballow and the Mowburra.