An Extraordinary Life

(Ernest) Roy Busby (1917-85)  
© Graeme Wheeler 2004 Readers' Stories


Ernest Roy Busby, known as “Roy” was born in 1917, the only child of (Albert) Ernest Busby (1877-1945) and his wife May (1883-1964), shopkeepers, of South Yarra.  From what is known, Roy’s childhood was a very happy one.  He grew into a studious young man, commencing his tertiary education at University High School.  Training as a biochemist, he obtained his first Diploma at RMIT before being employed at Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL), where he spent the next forty years until his retirement in 1975.  In his early days at CSL, his field of expertise was the production of cultures to counter diphtheria and typhoid, and he later worked in the development of penicillin.  As he matured, Roy’s recreational interests gelled into four main areas; bushwalking, mapping, cycling and statistics, and collecting books.  But there was much more to his life than that.


Roy became interested in geography and the outdoors at an early age, and by the 1940s, he had started a walking club among his fellow workers at CSL, some of whom followed him when he joined the Youth Hostels Association (YHA).  He enlisted in YHA as Life Member number 18, and it was not long before he was recognised as an outstanding bushman, a quietly competent navigator and a most companionable track mate.  Devoting all his recreation time to the exploration of Victoria, with a few like-minded individuals he walked in all the then wild places, carrying his pack for up to two weeks on extended trips in remote places.  Almost every weekend was spent in this manner for perhaps a decade, from the nearer Dandenong Ranges, the Grampians, Wilson's Promontory, to coastal and alpine areas.  Later, as his interest spread interstate, he climbed Mount Chambers and walked its gorge in the Flinders Ranges, and Ayers Rock, Mount Conner and Mount Olga in the Centre, in the ‘Corner Country’ and the Kimberley.  Roy had no ambition whatever to travel overseas; believing that Australia had all he wanted, and never changed that view.  More often than not, walking gave him the opportunity to achieve a greater intimacy with the land, providing an interesting, if demanding means of satisfying his curiosity about landforms, botany, geology and natural history.  One hundred and sixty-six mountains had been listed in the State; he was one of very few individuals who climbed them all.  Similarly, there were one hundred and eighty-six waterfalls; he sought them out and described them.  In answering his compulsion to record, he had taken up photography, compiling a collection of hundreds of slides from his trips.  Roy was one of rare breed who denied ‘that speed was more potent than the view, and that hills were simply there to slow you’.  In the 1950s, he joined the Melbourne Amateur Walking and Touring Club (later the Melbourne Walking Club), the second oldest walking group in Australia.  Formed in October 1894, it initially was for male speed walkers - the harriers, but with the ‘discovery’ of bush tracks and trails, it was not long before the competitive aspect was abandoned and bushwalking as we know it was embraced.  It was into this traditionally regulated, all-male club that Roy found companions there closer to his own age and capable of providing the intellectual stimulus he sought.  One such man was Noel Semple, a fellow biochemist at CSL, and of equal importance, a walker who matched him in performance and interest in conserving the environment.  It was not long before The Melbourne Walker, the Club magazine, published articles Roy wrote about his work on track measuring, mapping on Mount Buffalo and the Cathedral Range, pinpointing the location of Mount Thackeray in the Grampians, and the listing of Victoria’s waterfalls.  For ten years before Noel moved to Canberra and married, he and Roy shared their annual leave at Mount Buffalo where they spent every day on long walks, increasing their daily mileages more and more each year.  In the 1960s, Roy participated in numerous annual motor safaris into the Centre.  Bill Kennewell, who established the concept, transported special interest groups to certain points in the ranges, off-loading walkers who wished to carry their packs across country to a pre-arranged rendezvous where they would be picked up some days later.  At another time, Kennewell arranged a rare opportunity for his clients to explore the vast underground caves and lake systems beneath the Nullabor Plain, rigging up ladders to give access, providing inflatable boats for use on the water, and an improvised arrangement that provided plenty of light down in the huge caverns.  Swimming underground in that primal place was absolutely unique.  Roy brought back great photographic records of those adventures.  “Buzza” was never deterred by difficult terrain.  Being city-bred, one may be surprised that he had developed into such a ‘hard’ man, for he could handle anything the outdoors served up.  Bad weather, rain, fog, steepness of the climb, lack of water, snow, cold, heat; Roy was always there at the end, invariably with a Puckish grin.  His tolerance of pain and setbacks was abnormally high and his sense of humour inexhaustible.  He could walk fast when required - he had to when in Noel’s company - and had a gamut of interesting personal foibles out on the track that included his greeting of a growled “Ho!”, his breakfast menu of Granbits, Farex, and a heavy but moist fruit concoction that he baked at least weekly.  He called it “Ballast cake” and claimed it “stuck to him all day”.  His favourite sweet, carried with his scroggin, was Cherry Ripe. Always eager to make the most of his time in the bush, he never ‘slept in’ when on the track, and those walking with him usually, but not universally, appreciated his drawled wake-up call of ‘Six o’clarck’.  He became a legend among his contemporaries.  There were fewer places he liked more than Tasmania, and from his first visit to the Cradle Mount-Lake St Clair National Park in 1952 Roy was determined to return.  He was devastated at the flooding of Lake Pedder, but counted himself lucky he had experienced such a gem of nature before its insane destruction.


From the age of ten, Roy was consumed by maps, even making his own as a child holidaying with his parents at Hepburn Springs, or of forest tracks in the Dandenongs when on picnics.  It was a part of his intellectual make-up that demanded his recording of physical details of his environment, and persisted as an interest all his life.  He began collecting maps and became familiar with the various types, finding where to obtain them, familiarising himself with their strengths and shortcomings.  It was a subject upon which he became very knowledgeable.  In the days before Australia was adequately mapped, many individuals sketched their own of favourite areas and shared them among walking friends.  As there was nothing suitable on the Cathedral Range, near Buxton, Roy began a survey of that area, producing a first-class guide to all the tracks, peaks, cliffs and sources of water.  Visiting the short range over many months, sometimes alone, more often with mates, with an accurate compass, altimeter and clinometer, his final draft was a most useful document for walkers.  The trips done on his annual holidays on Mount Buffalo contributed to his new chart of the plateau, for the official tourist map was an imaginative depiction of a table-like structure with fluted walls dropping sheerly on all sides, the features on the top marked as little pimply excrescences.  Not satisfied with the distances shown, Roy, the scientist, continued his own measuring technique, wheeling his bicycle over every metre of the network then averaging the two cyclometer readings.  In his ongoing desire to climb all the mountains in the State, Roy came upon Mount Thackeray in the Victoria Range, the most rugged section of the Grampians.  It was marked on maps but being located in the middle of a remote archipelago of outcrops and ravines on a high range, could only be discerned from afar.  Many walkers had attempted to climb the mountain but it was a very elusive peak, and locating it proved to be the greatest obstacle to success.  In 1955, in company with his mates, Roy made his first foray into the area.  Having disposed of the initial climb of more than 1,200 feet up a cliff wall, it was discovered that the map was incorrect; Mount Thackeray was away off to the south.  When a new geological map was produced in 1961, it was hoped the task would be easier, but when Roy and his company zeroed in on the mountain’s co-ordinates, to their chagrin, they found it was still at least two kilometres to the south.  After eight sorties over as many years, Roy finally nailed its correct position, climbed it and made an accurate map.  Those who participated in all those trips led by Roy had a definite sense of achievement that their persistence had paid off, and that he had filled in another small but significant part of the jigsaw.  In 1953, Roy was asked to produce an index of maps for the Federation of Victorian Bushwalking Clubs.  An inordinate amount of work was involved in collating all the information from and about maps useful to walkers, and nine years were to pass before it was published.  It sold out within weeks.  Roy had started collecting maps at an early age and his final tally included full sets of Australian 1:100,000 survey maps, historic, mining and tourist maps, hundreds in all.  The introduction to the second issue of his Map Index sheds some light on his own progressive attitude to walking when he wrote this appeal for a more aesthetic appreciation of the environment - “Maps are often used for purposes other than navigation. For many bushwalkers, the final aim is not merely to see the view, reach the peak or traverse the stretch of country. These are the means, but the real end is to gain a sense of intimacy with the whole, and each individual experience is made richer if its significance in that wider relationship is not missed. To visit Moliagul, aware of its association with Flynn of the Inland and with ‘Welcome Stranger’ gold nugget is to illustrate this gain”.


Although this activity began as a relatively low-key, normal, youthful pursuit, it ultimately took over Roy’s every waking moment as it grew into an obsession.  When he began cycling in 1936 at the age of eighteen, he started keeping a methodical record of every ride he did, of every mile, and kept doing it throughout his life.  Initially his purpose was to use the bike just to get out into the country, his first rides being to the east, to the nearby Dandenongs, and then to the outlying lands to the north and west around Melbourne.  An ambition grew to do more than that; to see if he could claim some sort of record for distance cycled, and he began a daily routine of riding that was only broken by bushwalks with his mates, illness or accidents, of which there were a few.  By 1945 he had settled upon a scheme delineating the maximum distance he could cover out and back in a day.  He called this “boundary riding”; it was essentially an area within a radius of a hundred miles (160 kilometres) of his home and he treated the project quite seriously, planning the daily routes according to wind direction, weather, his fitness at the time and other variables.  Although the objective was primarily to notch up miles, Roy made it as interesting for himself as possible.  His weekdays began at five; he rode a few miles before breakfast, then rode across Melbourne to work.  Another ride at lunchtime; the homeward trip and an additional burst after tea soon saw his tally rising.  Writing up the log was done before he went to bed at eleven.  The statistics that came out of this routine were quite staggering and encouraged him to raise his sights, not on an Australian record, but a world one, at that time held by a Scot, Tommy Chambers.  In 1977, Chambers had pedalled nearly 800,000 miles. (1,287,440 kilometres), but at seventy-six, after a bad accident, was virtually finished.  Roy’s best day’s ride of 307 miles (494 kilometres) was in 1951.  Later he rode 511 centuries, of which 38 exceeded 200 miles (321 kilometres), 17 successive centuries including 11 on working days.  He did 500,000 miles (804,650 kilometres) in 500 months and 20,000 miles (32,186 kilometres) each year for 10 years.  He also rode 100 miles (160 kilometres) a day for 500 days, with 461 in succession.  The high point of these achievements in the saddle, made between 1935 and 1984, was in the 1970s.  Roy had lived happily with his parents and lovingly cared for his mother, who, around 1963, fell victim to dementia.  Determined to make life as comfortable for her as possible, he engaged the services of a nurse to attend her during the day while he was at work.  He was stricken when she died in 1964, sold the family home in Malvern and moved to his dream home on a treed acre, beside the Yarra at Templestowe, calling it his own National Park.  Over the next ten years he gradually regained the momentum lost during his mother’s decline, his dedication to riding taking yet more of his time.  It became difficult for even his best mates to see him.  The bike ‘stats’ kept expanding until the possibility of grabbing the prized record became a probability.  When he retired in 1975, he devoted the extra time in an all-out attack, but at fifty-seven, the going was getting harder.  He had been knocked off his bike numerous times, his ribs had been broken, as had his neck.  The writer’s wife helped rehabilitate Roy in our home more than once after a spell in hospital.  He soldiered on for another nine years, becoming a ‘metric millionaire’ cyclist in 1981, then in March 1985, was diagnosed with the cancer that ended his extraordinary career.  He was a decent, straight, human being who had lived a clean life, never had a bad word for anyone, was a conscientious scientist, neither smoke nor drank, was a rock, yet was served the death sentence of lung cancer.  The tragic irony of it all was not lost on him nor his mates.  Roy’s determination to beat Tommy Chambers was on track and came very close to being realised.  He had created an Australian record but ultimately his miss was more than a mile. 

End of a Chapter

The last few months of his life were particularly sad as blow after blow began hammering him down.  It became clear to him that all the things he had worked for were turning to ashes.  He felt frustration, helplessness and a consuming anger.  The first shock was the discovery that his prized slides had been destroyed by mould; useless.  He had no heart to look at them, even for their memories.  For years, Roy hosted an annual YHA barbeque and get-together at his home.  An ambition developed to bequeath his entire property, his home and book collection to the newer generation of YHA members, to offer it as a hostel where youthful travellers could be put up cheaply and perhaps learn to share his love of the environment.  That hope was shattered when the Association’s administrators told him they would rather welcome his altruistic gift converted into cash; the man’s bitterness was understandable.  Well into his illness but still mobile, Roy tried to recapture the happiness of the days spent at Mount Buffalo.  Driving to the Chalet, he was so disillusioned with the changes there, he stayed only one night.  That was his last outing.  Peter Ralph was a lifelong friend in cycling, railways, photography and bushwalking who stuck with him to the end, attending his every want like a brother; his Horatio.  In his last few days, Roy asked Peter to bring his bike to the hospital, and he was moved into a room where he could see it on the hospital verandah.  Roy never knew it, but to us, his friends, the bitterest pill was delivered by the executor of his estate.  Roy’s book collection was broken up and auctioned off, but before anyone could examine the all-important, leather-bound log with the meticulous records of his rides, the incredible statistics of his lifetime achievements, it was bundled up with other papers and taken to the tip.

Footnote: For Peter Ralph's reminiscences see: Reminiscences of My Close Friendship with Roy Busby 1949 - 1985.

(above) Roy Busby (centre) together with John Pinn (left) and Eric Quinlan (right) on  Mt McDonald in Victoria in the 1970s.

(Image courtesy of Graeme Wheeler)

(above) Monumental Headstone (enlarge image)


Research undertaken by Graeme Wheeler.

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Last Updated: 02-Dec-2018 11:49.