Hilligei – the story of Hilda Geissmann-Curtis

Hilda Geissmann was an ordinary woman who, for a short period of time, lived an extraordinary life by becoming one of Australia’s first significant photographer/naturalists.

Descended from German immigrants, in the latter part of the 19th century Hilda moved with her parents and six siblings to Tamborine Mountain, then a remote and isolated rainforest plateau in south east Queensland. They were a hardworking pioneer family who built the mountain’s first guesthouse as well as a general store. These were managed by Hilda’s mother, the redoubtable Elfriede, because her father, Willem Felix Geissmann, soon departed for the ill-fated Cosme colony in Paraguay, never to return. Hilda and her sister worked in the guesthouse while her brothers felled the mighty rainforest trees and ran a timber mill, with one brother also operating a transport business to get visitors from Brisbane and the hot coastal plain up to the cool green heights of the mountain.

The Geissmann children soon learned the secret ways of the mountain, with its deep gorges, lush rainforest, waterfalls and steep cliff faces. Hilda, in particular, studied the habits of birds and plants until she got her first camera, a huge and cumbersome Thornton-Pickard with a wooden case and silver plates which had to be processed with the greatest finesse. Hilda first did this in the guesthouse bathroom until she received a darkroom as an engagement present from her husband-to-be, local farmer Herbert Curtis.

Hilda’s photographs and articles were soon published in various newspapers and magazines, earning her a modest fame which led to her being much in demand as a local guide to visiting naturalists from around the world. Her exquisite orchid studies were particularly prized and she corresponded regularly with orchidists and ornithologists of the day.

And then, she gave it all up! Nobody knows why, but she stopped taking photographs and seems to have maintained only a distant interest in natural history after World War 11, concentrating instead on her role as farmer’s wife and mother, growing cutflowers to make ends meet. Fortunately for birdwatchers, orchid lovers and rainforest enthusiasts her work lives on in her articles and photographs.

Hilligei tells Hilda’s story, using local history, family recollections, letters and articles to reveal what little we know about a modest woman whose achievements, though equally modest, were ahead of her time.

I was first introduced to Hilda by a friend who had known her in extreme old age and who thought her story deserved to be told. She was right. I was privileged to have access to a small collection of letters, photographs, diaries and writings as well as undertaking research in the Queensland State Library and the University of Queensland’s Fryer Library. I hope people who read this book will come to love her as much as I did!

Hilligei is available as an ebook on Amazon and in print form from Under the Greenwood Tree bookshop on Tamborine Mountain. All proceeds go to Tamborine Mountain Landcare, which I am sure is just the way Hilda would have wanted it.