Sometimes they did it for fun but usually to lop off the tops so fire lookouts could be built high in the forests.
The mesmerising sequence above shows, at left, Dick Sprouge balanced 180ft above the ground swinging his axe to chop the top off the trees. In the centre photograph he clings closer as the top begins to tumble, whipping the trunk back and forth. At right daring Dick stands relaxed and unaided on the top of the sawn trunk, calmly surveying the view.
We discovered the story of the karri and the crazy tree climbers at the Pemberton visitors’ centre. Three of trees to the lookout towers can be climbed by the public, with a safety cage around the spiralling steel pegs, and I was keen to feel the experience.
I dragged Tony to the famous 72m Gloucester tree a few minutes away and we surveyed the giant. I assured Tony, who has nursed me through more broken bones than we can remember, I would not try to go to the top – I only wanted to see what it was like.
An inkling of that was gleaned from a sobbing young Asian teenager being helped off the bottom rung by her father. She had, apparently, climbed some of the way up but found the descent paralysingly scary.
An English couple in their late 60s sat quietly. They had been to the top, she said, but she had been terrified and sobbing on the descent.
I went up about a third of the way before acquiescing to Tony’s hollering that that was enough. The little experience left me even in more awe of Dick, Jack and the crazy karri climbers who scampered up, topped and pegged the giants.
Apparently only about 20% of the visitors climb the 153 spikes to the Gloucester top, where the wooden lookout cabin was replaced in 1973 with a safer steel and aluminium cabin and visitors' gallery.
Jack Watson set a world record for the highest climb up a tree by man when he shimmied up the Gloucester so the lookout tower could be built in 1947. He took six hours – a hell of a climb. The tower was officially opened in 1948 and named Gloucester after the Governor-General, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester.
The idea of lopping of karris to build lookouts came to the first foresters in the region because the temperate rainforest had few high spots, such as mountains, where fires could be quickly spotted.
In 1937 a marri tree near Alco was climbed and pegged and a small crow’s nest built in the upper limbs. The view was terrific so the karri climbing feats began the following year. Forestry officers Don Stewart and Jack Watson did most of the daring and brilliant work 200ft in the air.
Before that Dick Sprogue had begun climbing karri trees for the fun of it. One of the first trees he climbed and topped was for the amusement of the annual bush picnic crowd at Five-mile Brooke, northwest of Pemberton.
He merrily climbed and lopped trees leaning over bush railway lines or log landings and in 1939 topped and pegged the 1939 120ft Pemberton Tree, a small fire lookout tree at the back for of the Pemberton Forestry Office. The tree still stands but hasn’t been used since the Gloucester Tree was opened.
On his retirement Sprogue bought land at Manjimup, where he pegged several trees and happily retreated to the top of one on hot summer days.
The other two trees that can be climbed by the public near Pemberton are the Bicentennial and the Diamond. The Bicentennial, at 75m and reached by 165 spikes, was pegged and opened for Australia’s 200th birthday in 1988 and is the world’s tallest fire lookout tree.
Karri gum grow only in WA and are now protected. On the west coast above Hamelin Bay we wandered through groves of grandeur and thought it would be fun to find Boranup Beach.
It was fun, in a way: Isabel bumped and crawled over a rocks and sand, valiantly thrusting through bushes before deciding the elusive beach was just too elusive.
Boranup is on the “never mind” list but I still have a hankering to climb to the top of that Gloucester tree.