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The return of the Hilltop Forester - Lol Gray Tree revisited





Mallet forest at Dryandra (photo by Greg Durell)


I have been spending a lot of time in the Dryandra forest this last year or so. It is one of my favourite places – beautiful trees, wildflowers, intriguing topography, abundant wildlife, salubrious climate; it even has its own aroma, especially on a hot, still day in summer when the leaves crunch beneath your boots.

Dryandra forest also has a wonderful social and silvicultural history. In many ways it is a microcosm of the forestry experience in Western Australia. Originally scorned, then ruthlessly exploited, but eventually brought under conservation management by far-seeing and practical foresters, today Dryandra forest is a prime recreation and wildlife reserve, and a source (at least potentially) of high value hardwood timber. Like the best, and the best-managed forests everywhere, Dryandra has something for everyone.

The evolution of bushfire management at Dryandra is especially interesting.  

The first foresters arrived in the early 1920s, their initial preoccupation being to conserve brown mallet trees that were being stripped of their tannin-rich bark. But they immediately recognised that to conserve mallet they must first deal with the threat of bushfires. Mallet is one of Australia’s most fire-tender trees. The outer bark is wafer-thin, and the merest whiff of flame will kill the tree stone dead. No wonder the old bushmen had a saying “Never boil your billy within a chain of a mallet tree”.

Not only this, but Dryandra forest is an island, or rather an archipelago of islands within a sea of private property which today is mostly well-developed and prosperous farmland.  But back then, in the 1920s, agricultural development had only just commenced. The native bush was being cleared and converted to cereal crops and pastures. This process involved massive, hot fires, not all of which could be contained within their boundaries.  

A monster clearing fire on farmland adjoining Dryandra Forest, in 1930

Dryandra forest was thus doubly vulnerable: fire-sensitive trees growing within a fire-happy environment.

Hilltop Forester Stations

A unique response (for Western Australia) to this challenge was the creation of Hilltop Forester Stations. The idea came to WA from Africa and the USA, via the famous forester David Hutchins. A former Conservator of Forests in both India and Africa, Hutchins visited Western Australia on a forest inspection tour, and in 1916 submitted a comprehensive report. In it he observed:

… with forest fires, like other fires, the most important point is to be able to pounce on the fire and extinguish it before it becomes serious. And this is so easily done when the Forester sees it from his house, summons his men, and runs down hill on to it. I have known forests where, with a good system of fire-paths and fire-watchers, no satisfactory fire ex­clusion was obtained until the forest got a Hill-top Forester with his perpetual out­look. Hill-top Foresters, with the look-out against fire, have long been in vogue in South Africa and in Southern Europe. They, and simple watch-towers, are now being extensively adopted in America; we read of 18 in the State Forests of Ar­kansas, of 15 in New Hampshire, etc….


It is probable that Hutchins may also have mentioned the concept of tree lookouts when he visited Western Australia. These had been introduced in India by early colonial foresters trying to find ways of eliminating fires from the native forests.




A 19th century fire watcher on a crude platform atop a tree, in India (photograph from Foresters of the Raj)




Back to Hilltop Stations. Dryandra was exceptionally well-placed for this strategy. The landscape is mostly undulating, with some gentle hills and kwongan flats, but dotted throughout are remnants of the old ironstone peneplain, with a level plateau poised above a breakaway, usually with a good view out over the treetops to the surrounding country. The first foresters quickly identified the best of these spots and set about developing Hilltop Stations on them.


By the mid-1930s, five Hilltop Forester Stations had been established: the first was at Lol Gray in 1930, and then one each at Contine, Montague, Highbury and Congelin. Each station had a resident overseer (along with his family), and the stations were linked to each-other and to the Office in Dryandra settlement by forestry telephone.


Each Station comprised a weatherboard and iron-roof cottage (four rooms plus veranda) with rainwater tank, plus sometimes a cistern for extra storage of winter rains, a shed, a stable and a horse yard. A cleared and grassed “horse paddock” was established on the flats below the breakaway, with a small dam or soak. Most of the Station families also kept a cow.


As Hutchins described, the Hilltop Station had two roles: the first was to detect fires, and the second was to put them out. The idea was that as soon as he spotted a fire, the Hilltop forester would mount his horse, gallop downhill and put it out. The instruction in the 1927 edition of The Forester’s Manual was concise and to the point:


All firefighters must have on hand the following equipment: a plan mounted in sections, a rake head, a full water bag, and rations for self and horse.


The forester was expected to ride to the fire, tether his horse in a safe spot, cut a sapling to make a handle for his rake, and then start raking at the fire edge … coming home only when the job was done.


In time, a fully integrated bushfire management system was developed for Dryandra, encompassing fire detection, bushfire-mitigation burning, access tracks, firebreaks, radio and telephone communications, and a firefighting force, located at the settlement. By the 1940s, horses had largely been replaced by utilities and trucks.



Montague overseer Bob Willoughby with his Bedford fire truck, probably in the mid-1930s


This is not the time to go into all that. Today I want to concentrate on the fire lookouts. At the time the fire lookouts at Dryandra were unique, and to some extent set a pattern for developments elsewhere in WA forests.


Fire lookouts were constructed in the tops of trees at Lol Gray and Congelin, while at the other stations earth and stone platforms were built at the four points of the compass, onto which the observer could climb and look out over the surrounding landscape. Often the observer was the Overseer’s wife; it was her job to check from the lookout periodically all day, and telephone to HQ if she spotted a smoke.


I was told once that a particularly parsimonious scheme was instituted by the Department at that time to recompense Dryandra’s overseer-wives who also doubled as fire watchers. They were paid a “piecework” rate of one shilling and sixpence per fire spotted and reported. For a day in which no fires were seen, they received no pay. I still cannot fathom how this was thought to be either fair or efficient. Evidently nobody else could fathom it either, and the scheme rapidly disappeared.

Lol Gray Tree


Lol Gray Lookout Tree has a special place in my heart.  It is located on the site of the Lol Gray Hilltop Station, high on an ironstone ridge with glimpses to the horizon through the bush to the south and west.  We no longer know whose idea it was to construct a tree lookout there, but I imagine it was Mick Milesi, the first professional forester to work at Dryandra, and a student of forestry history – he would have known about fire management in India and read the Hutchins report.


We also know that Lol Gray Tree was the first fire lookout tree in Western Australia, setting a precedent that was later followed in the karri and tuart forests. A sturdy powderbark tree on the ridge just south of the overseer’s house was selected, a timber crow’s nest, with an alidade stand (the level tabletop on which the observer placed a compass) and a home-made bush ladder were installed. It made an impressive sight.



Lol Gray Tree, photographed in 1930, soon after construction


The Hilltop Forester at Lol Gray at this time was George Giles. His official title was Forest Overseer. He and Mrs Giles had thirteen children, one of whom, Ron, later also became a forestry overseer at Dryandra. It was Ron who told me the awful story about the time his mother, 8-months pregnant at the time, climbed the Tree to do an observation, and became wedged in the trapdoor. She had to call down to her children, who rang District Forester Jack Currie on the forestry phone. I still wonder how he managed it, but Currie hurried to the rescue and was able to free Mrs Giles and get her safely back to earth.


During the 1940s and 1950s, Dryandra’s five lonely Hilltop Stations were closed down and the houses moved to the central forestry settlement. A new modern steel lookout tower with a commanding view over the entire forest was constructed. The Congelin and Lol Gray Lookout Trees were abandoned, fell into disrepair and were forgotten. Both trees regrew their crowns and seemed to put their former lives as fire lookouts behind them.


This is where I come in. When we moved to Perth in 1980, Ellen and I found ourselves living a suburban life in the city. But the call of the bush was strong, and one answer was to go out to Dryandra on weekends, staying in a rented cottage in the former forestry settlement. On one of those weekends in early 1985, we were bushwalking and ended up in the little clearing on the top of the hill where once the Lol Gray Hilltop Station had been, with its house, stables, yards and chattering little Gileses. There were some shards of pottery, a jarrah stump and the remnants of a well. Nothing besides remained.


Glancing around, my eye fell upon a strange device up in the crown of a nice little powderbark tree. I stared, with mounting interest, and suddenly a memory flashed into my mind: it was of a photograph of Lol Gray Tree, taken in 1930, and reproduced in a departmental publication on forest fire control. Could it be? Was this … yes, it had to be.


I photographed the tree and a few days later visited the Departmental library and located the 1930 photo of the tree. That is the picture reproduced above. And here is the photograph I took on the day of its rediscovery:


 Lol Gray Tree - rediscovered

Two things convinced me I had rediscovered Lol Gray Tree. The first was the old wandoo fence post to the left of the tree; the second was the fire scar on the tree bole – identical in both photographs.

I was yarning about all this with my mate Jack Bradshaw one day, when a thrilling idea emerged – “let’s restore it!” Jack and I had both worked up the great tree lookouts of the karri country in our student days, and were fascinated by them, and in awe of the courage and skill of the foresters who constructed them. While Lol Gray tree was only about one-sixth of the height of, say, the Gloucester Tree, the rebuilding would still be a challenge for two old foresters aged in their mid-40s.  But in any case, it would be a good excuse for a few more weekends at Dryandra.

I checked with the local departmental manager, Ken Wallace, and he was enthusiastic. He would provide us with a ladder and pay for the timber and hardware. Back in those days there were no pettifogging worries about insurance, indemnification, environmental approvals or health and safety reviews and rules, the sort of things that would stymie a project like this today – we just agreed to get on with it, and then did.

The restoration

The first step was to climb the tree and inspect the remnants of the crow’s nest. This revealed that all of the old structure, the wandoo bearers, decking and rails, were past it and would need to be replaced. The original alidade stand was in perfect condition and could be retained, and the main branches in the crown were free of rot and termites.  Jack is an experienced timber man and carpenter, and he was easily able to survey, measure-up and make a list of everything we needed.



Jack doing the initial survey and measurements

Three weekends later we were back on site with all the equipment and components: timber, axe, electric drill, chainsaw, rope, pulley and hook, bolts, screws, nails, carpentry tools. We also had a small Honda generator to provide electric power. This was a boon. The original builders had used a hand augur to drill the holes in the limbs for the bolts securing the main bearers – a huge task in tough powderbark timber. We used the electric drill, powered by the mobile generator, and it took only seconds to bore each hole.

First the old crow’s nest was removed, and regrowth branches pruned. Then we began the painstaking process of hauling up and bolting in the bearers and constructing the new timber structure. Putting in the floor, and not forgetting to leave a trapdoor, completed the job.

Stages in the restoration of Lol Gray Tree

It took two days, and would have taken longer without the cheerful assistance of our wives Sue and Ellen (and young Ben Bradshaw) who helped to hook things on the rope, boil the billy for lunch and smoko and keep us amused with satirical observations.

The final result was very pleasing – almost a perfect replica of the original, only without the home-made bush ladder which we did not feel would be safe enough:


 Lol Gray Tree - restored

OK, it wasn’t much, well not compared to the great tree lookouts of the karri country, but we were still pleased with ourselves, and proud to have rediscovered and restored a unique part, however small, of WA’s forestry history.

And we now realise how lucky we were to be able simply to decide to do it, and then do it. When a proposal was made in 2022 to restore Dryandra’ second tree lookout at Congelin (the remnants still exist, and it could have been relatively easily done), so many bureaucratic constraints were raised that the project could not get off the ground. This heritage feature is now doomed to disappear.

Dryandra Forest today

There have been many great changes at Dryandra over recent years. The bulk of the forest has been converted from State Forest to national park and the area is managed primarily for recreation and wildlife conservation. There is no forestry settlement, let alone any Hilltop Stations and no resident staff of foresters, overseers and forest workmen. Indeed, there are no fire lookouts of any sort, as the department now relies on neighbours and forest visitors to report fire outbreaks. There may well be unhappy consequences of this strategy in the future.

In the meantime, it is still Dryandra Forest – a bushland remnant in a sea of farms, an area of outstanding beauty, a superb wildlife sanctuary, and with its own unique social and silvicultural history. The centenary of forest management was celebrated there on November 11th, 2023. The numbat, Western Australia’s fauna emblem, thrives there, one of the only places in WA where they can be seen in the wild.


A Dryandra numbat in all its glory

As I write in 2023, Lol Gray Tree still stands, and the former Lol Gray Hilltop Station is now a popular picnic spot, with a walking trail and BBQ. I visited it a couple of weeks ago. The tree is looking a little sad and neglected, but this is to be expected, I suppose. No tree lives forever, and this one has had a harder life than most.

But it still stands proudly, a tribute to the romance and adventure of forestry in the early days and a reminder for two elderly foresters of some happy and busy weekends in the bush, and of the days when we could still climb trees.




Hilltop foresters Roger Underwood (left) and Jack Bradshaw, at Lol Gray in 1986




Hutchins, DE (1916): A discussion of Australian forestry with special reference to Western Australia.  Government Print, Perth WA.

Forests Department of WA (1927): The Foresters’ Manual. Government Print, Perth, WA

Underwood, Roger (2013): Foresters of the Raj. York Gum Publishing, Perth, WA

Underwood, Roger (2023): Dryandra Forest – a silvicultural history. York Gum Publishing, Perth, WA

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You write: "During the 1940s and 1950s, Dryandra’s five lonely Hilltop Stations were closed down and the houses moved to the central forestry settlement. A new modern steel lookout tower with a commanding view over the entire forest was constructed"

This is incorrect. Contine is mentioned in the 1963-64 Annual Fire Report as follows:

"Contine station on watch before and after these dates (the dates on which the main fire tower was manned that season - 28/10/63 to 25/3/64) on odd days of considered high hazard & throughout the season for cross bearings". Presumably some or all of the other four may also have still been in use in the 1960s.

The original tower built in January 1936 was a…


Frank Collins
Frank Collins

Beautiful, Roger and Jack. Just beautiful.

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