Writing by Helen Barclay
Alice Manfield Collection, State Library of Victoria
The Mt Buffalo National Park in Victoria, Australia, bursts with natural wonder. Its steep mountainside is littered with granite tors and striking rock formations. Tall forests of ash and eucalypt trees carpeted with lush green ferns climb forever upwards, only to be taken over by seas of ghostly white snow gums at the mountain’s peak. The rugged mountain is battered by heavy storms that send cascades of water racing down the granite rock faces into creeks and rivers in the foothills. Bush fires rage during the summer, spurring the alpine flora on to regenerate and thrive.
At the age of 12, Alice Manfield felt this wondrous, untamed place take hold of her when she accompanied her father as he led groups of tourists up the mountain on trekking expeditions. At this time, around the turn of the 20th century, the only way up the mountain was on horseback or by foot.
Alice soon began venturing up the mountain on her own. She would spend weeks and months on-end in a log hut perched on the mountain’s misty sub-alpine plateau. The dangers and harsh weather conditions of the mountain were regarded as thrilling adventures by Alice. She survived bush fires in the summer and heavy eight foot deep snowfalls in the winter, when the only access she had to her hut was through the chimney.
Alice shared her love of the mountain with everyone who came to visit it. She became a tourist attraction in her own right, providing guided tours and sharing her unparalleled knowledge of the flora and fauna of the area. Her work as a passionate mountain guide and naturalist grew the popularity of the mountain; it was instrumental in the establishment in 1898 of Mt. Buffalo as a National Park.
Alice was also an avid photographer. Her love for the natural world shines through her extensive collection of photographs taken at Mt Buffalo. Her published book titled “The Lyre-Birds of Mt Buffalo” was the first ever pictorial record of the exotically plumed and musical Lyrebird, unique to Australia. Alice went to great lengths in order to capture the precious photos of the Lyrebirds. It is said that many of the pictures were taken at risk of a dangerous fall, as she climbed along high rocky ledges in order to reach the crevices where the birds built their nests. The secretive and cautious male Lyrebird was most difficult to capture on film, and Alice was forced to take up residence in a hollow tree for many hours before a photo opportunity arose. In this painstaking fashion, Alice managed to capture beautifully clear photos of the male Lyrebird that would be hard to achieve even with today’s advanced technology.
During Alice’s lifetime, the realm of mountaineering was primarily reserved for men. Despite Alice being as daring a mountaineer as any man, suitable clothing for a woman to wear while traversing a mountain was simply not available. Alice found her own way around this conundrum by designing and sewing her own clothes. Instead of a dress, Alice controversially wore a pant suit that allowed her to maintain her activities despite the rigours of life on the mountain.
The way that Alice chose to live her life continues to serve as an inspiration for women today. Her life was characterised by a strong sense of independent thought and courage to pursue her passions regardless of the gender norms of her time. The fact that Guide Alice achieved so much in an era of severely limited rights for women is a credit to her strength of character and the strength that dwells within all women.[share]