Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Month: August 2015

Blizzard on the Bogong High Plains

Snow, snow snow. So much snow!

I spent half the night awake, being kept from a deep slumber by the gusting wind rattling my tent’s fabric. I could barely contain my excitement at the fresh snow, as it came down slowly but steadily throughout the night. Every time a sudden gust woke me, I would feel with my hands through the fabric of my tent the depth of the drift outside. The snow got deeper and the temperature got colder as the hand of my watch ticked a bit closer to dawn.

When I finally arose from my tent that morning, there was about 20cm of fresh snow on the ground. As I broke through the layer of ice that has formed in my water bottle overnight, I decided that this has definitely been the coldest morning of my trip so far. The wind was still howling and I utilised the luxury of Derrick’s Hut to stay warm during breakfast.

The irony wasn’t lost on me. Upon arrival to this campsite only the day before, I wondered how this landscape would look under fresh snow. Secretly, I wished for it to be winter, so I could see this alpine area as a winter wonderland. I never thought I’d get my wish, right before I would ascend to the highest and most exposed section of my walk up to that point: the Bogong High Plains.

The snowpoles were essential aids for navigation in the poor visibility.

The snowpoles were essential aids for navigation in the poor visibility.

The snow poles across this uniform plateau have saved many lives over the years, by guiding the traveller in poor weather. The three metre tall treated pine posts stand as guardians when the track is buried under heavy snow, creating a lifeline that is easy to follow, even in the worst conditions. Without the safety of these poles, a white out up here would be completely disorienting. The homogeneity of these plains means that when visibility is poor, the country looks similar in all directions, making it very difficult to navigate with map and compass. A number of cross country skiers have lost their lives on these plains in poor weather.

A partially frozen pond on the High Plains.

A partially frozen pond on the High Plains.

The wind was ripping across the plains as I left the safety of the tree line, carrying with it a fine, frozen flakes of snow; stinging pellets of ice that made me tuck my chin down and focus on the next step. I was geared up, with no flesh exposed at all, and despite the effort required to make headway in the wind with my behemoth pack, I was barely keeping warm enough.

I was doing my best to blitz my way across the blizzard blasted plains and arrive to the relative shelter of Tawonga Huts, a campsite often used by school groups, with its tin huts for shelter. I was thinking of a cup of hot chocolate and the warmth of my sleeping bag, as I took one step at a time, the wind pushing at me from my right, often nearly knocking me down to the ground.

When I eventually arrived to my destination for the night, I was less than impressed at the state of the hut that was to be my accommodation. It was literally a creaking tin box held together by some rusty bolts; the fireplace long ago removed, the opening for the chimney pipe a gaping hole in the wall, leaving a wicked draft to circulate in the single room. I did my best to hang a tarp over the doorway to block at least some of the chill.

While they provided me with basic shelter, I was half surprised that these huts, with their rusted bolts and creaky corrugated iron sheets held together in the blizzard.

While they provided me with basic shelter, I was half surprised that these huts, with their rusted bolts and creaky corrugated iron sheets even held together in the blizzard.

I was surprised to hear that the wind was still increasing in intensity. As I took refuge inside, the wind had become an angry beast awaken from its long slumber and was set on wrecking havoc with savage howls. The roar was constant, and my flimsy tin hut sang with it in harmony, creaking bolts and rattling roof tiles all contributing to the crude orchestra. I felt as if any moment, one of the wind gusts could lift the roof right off, and I would be sucked through a wormhole to a place of frozen wonders. I knew how Dorothy would have felt the moment before the tornado picked up her house and carried her away from Kansas to the magical world of Oz. In the end, I decided to pitch my free standing tent in the middle of the floor inside the hut, in case the roof did lift off in the middle of the night.

In the morning, I woke to a calm, frozen wonderland. The remnant clouds from the storm were still hovering around, but would occasionally clear to reveal snippets of a blue sky overhead. It was bitterly cold, with inches of hoarfrost on the boulders outside, but the day held promise. Everywhere I looked; there was a titanic magnificence at play; a bright orange cloud here, a rainbow there, a dark snow cloud hovering over there. It was incredible, watching the raw beauty in Nature’s power displayed in such a grand setting.

Frozen snowgum, near Mt Jaithmatung.

Frozen snowgum, near Mt Jaithmatung.

As I struck out to ascend Mt Jaithmatung, I marveled at the toughness and adaptability of the flora that exist on these plains. For much of the winter, the leaves of trees become frozen solid, and anything living on the ground is compressed under metres of stifling snow. Then in summer, the blistering heat sets in and the plants must survive with barely any water at all. A hardy and rugged life these beings lead. Much tougher than us, puny humans who with even all our gear and warm clothing always complain about the cold and the heat, although we spend barely a few days up here at a time, after which we return to our comfortable homes and routine lives.

Cope Saddle Hut

The snow didn’t last long,;barely a day later, most of it has already melted.

The High Plains still held a surprise for me that day. I was taking my steps carefully through the snow, doing my best to follow the track hidden underneath. The transformation that has taken place in the previous 24 hours was remarkable. From the promise and warmth of spring, to the cold heart of winter; the transition was sudden and complete. It was because of the stillness of the landscape that I was surprised to see movement through the trees.

They were large, dark shapes, with four legs. As I got closer, they lifted their heads and watched me with suspicion. I was amused at how concerned these animals were about me, when they were many times my size.

The two wild horses turned out to be a mare and her foal, grazing peacefully. I decided not to approach too closely for an intrusive photo; their lives were already difficult enough without the extra hassle. They watched me till I was a safer distance away, then meandered on to look for some more suitable, less snowy grass. I continued on my journey, elevated and warmer with every step.

A wild horse grazing after a snow storm.

A wild horse grazing after a snow storm.

Mt Hotham Luxury Resort

Sunset on Mt Buller, Victorian Alps

Sunset on Mt Buller, Victorian Alps

I was camped in a sheltered saddle; underneath the ominous bluff of the Viking. The oppressive, humid weather that’s been building towards a precipitous release had just about reached breaking point. I was listening to the howling of the wind as it collided with the escarpments hundreds of metres above, creating a violent hum that made me glad I was in a more sheltered location.

I was not entirely surprised to have around 4-5 friendly visitors in my tent after leaving the door open for only a couple of minutes. The bugs, caterpillar and beautiful green spider were all doing their best to escape the imminent rain. I placed them outside gently, underneath the shelter of my vestibule, but away from my sleeping space, where they could crawl into my ear while I slept.

When the sky eventually broke, I was satisfied to listen to the sound of the downpour from the comfort of my tent. Although I was in the wild, I was protected and safe. While the mountain peaks were massaged by the soaking rain, I sat inside my tent, warm, dry and comfortable. It was only a little victory, but one that filled me with appreciation and a childish sense of wonder.

A magical fabric, confining water to the outside only.

A magical fabric, confining water to the outside only.

At this stage I’ve walked a tough 34 days, but was only 3 days away from one of the key milestones of my journey: Mt Hotham. Reaching this alpine village would not only be the first pocket of civilisation I would encounter during my traverse of the Australian Alps but also represent the end of the most challenging section of the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT). From here onwards, the average daily elevation change would decrease slightly, and the quality of the walking tracks would improve as well. In many ways, reaching Mt Hotham would be the first real confirmation that I had a strong chance of success in completing my 11 week walk as intended.

Leaner, fitter, stronger

Having walked with a 35kg backpack every day for over a month, my body had changed considerably. I had become fitter, leaner and stronger, but my appetite had also shot through the roof. I could not seem to eat enough food to sate my constant hunger.

Yet, my focus was gradually shifting, from centering on the physical challenge and the practical routine towards taking advantage of the mental stillness and freedom that accompanies solo wilderness travel. I realised that by being able to stroll through the woods and observing Nature, and all her inhabitants at my leisure, I could learn secrets that are much older than any ideas conceived by humans. Through understanding Nature, we have a chance to glimpse the eternal, the timeless and universal.

Day by day, my thoughts began to focus on my present reality. Cravings of the world outside of a civilised life awaiting me upon my return from the wilderness were slowly fading away. Hot showers, comfortable beds and clean fingernails suddenly seemed a lot less important. Like morning mist that rises from the valley after dawn, so my mind had begun to clear, the fog clearing from my thoughts, sharpening my mind with intent.

Dandongdale Falls, near Lake Cobbler

Dandongdale Falls, near Lake Cobbler

Nevertheless, the daily challenges of my walk would always bring me back to the practical matters. The overgrown tracks, lack of water and endless series of hills of the Barry Mountains represented a worthy mental challenge.

During this unmaintained section of the AAWT, there was always a branch or two hundred that required ducking under, pushing aside or simply ploughing through, aided by the momentum given to me by the weight of my pack. Every now and then, this ploughing manoeuvre would backfire and I’d find myself snagged on a cheeky branch that has hooked itself into my pack in such a devious way that I would have to reverse in order to gain freedom, feeling every bit as cumbersome as an obese elephant. Through all my wrestling with the undergrowth, I tried to remind myself that an overgrown track is exactly that; an overgrown track. Who was I to blame Nature for taking back what’s rightfully hers?

 

Tent amongst the snowgums, near the summit of Mt Speculation

Tent amongst the snowgums, near the summit of Mt Speculation

Besides the overgrown tracks and the scrambling over fallen logs, the element of the ‘Dry Barries’ that tested my resolve most was the endless series of wooded knolls, none of which were distinct enough to feel any sense of accomplishment after having reached the top, and yet, infuriatingly, the track seemed to insist on climbing every single one of these unmemorable hills. I felt like Sisyphus, attempting to complete a task that was not only infinite, but also quite tedious.

Then, quite an amazing thing happened. I reached a knoll where there was a small clearing of trees to one side, giving me a small window of a view towards the surrounding hills. As I was looking out over the endless ridges of wooded hills, coloured blue by distance and haze, the sun broke through the clouds, despite a fine drizzle; and low and behold, a faint rainbow appeared over the closest valley I was looking out over. The sudden appearance of beauty caught my breath and I looked on in wonder. Before I could fully appreciate this unexpected arch of colour in the sky, in a flash it was gone, and I was left wondering whether it has been really there at all.

Eventually, as I neared Mt Hotham, the stark beauty of this recently burnt landscape dawned on me. The skeleton trees made the hills appear as if a great curse has befallen the land; the trunks having all been turned to stone, their twisted limbs frozen for eternity. The dead snowgums gave these hills a tragically beautiful and sombre tone, and at no time was this more noticeable than during the stillness of the night, when even the breeze seemed gentler. As the moon illuminated rolling ridge after rolling ridge blanketed with the white skeletons of trees, I felt as if I’ve stepped into the afterlife, where all is eternal and nothing ever stirs.

Then the morning came, as it always does and life resumed once again in all its glory. The birds were awake, singing how wonderful it is to be alive and all the ants scurried across the grass, gathering, gathering, and gathering. With the vastness of this mountain landscape and the vibrancy of its life, how could one’s mind not be at peace? Yet, change is inevitable.

Eventually the new generation of saplings will take over and the old remnants of trees fall, one by one to the ground where they will rot and become one with the soil, providing nourishment for their offspring. This process is already well under way; I heard a mighty crash of what would have surely been an impressive tree while still alive; its fall lasted barely more than a moment, and yet it was the tree’s final farewell gesture, as its rotten roots gave way on the steep slope, its massive trunk surrendering to gravity. Thus, the death of a tree barely goes unnoticed.

From the ashes, however, life is always born; the green understorey shooting up beneath; a new generation of saplings vying for the light. Dense and full of fight, these saplings will compete with one another until only the tallest and fittest survive, founding the basis for the next phase in the forest’s life cycle.

 

Looking out from the summit of Mt Cobbler

Looking out from the summit of Mt Cobbler

Steep terrain on an adventurous side trip to photograph a waterfall

Steep terrain on an adventurous side trip to photograph a waterfall

When I eventually glimpsed Mt Hotham, it stood solemnly, its bare ridges scarred by roads. Despite the lack of wilderness, it was an imposing view. When I finally rolled in to the General Store, a pub, post office and shop all in one, I was jubilant. Despite already possessing everything I really needed, I bought myself a warm meal, and stocked up on some ‘essentials’ from their grocery store: lollies, butter, bacon, chocolate, fresh bread and some blue cheese. I nearly buckled underneath the extra load, combined with ten days of provisions that I picked up just previously, but I couldn’t have been happier. I made for Derrick’s Hut in a state of bliss, belly full of steak, beer and chocolate cake.

The golden afternoon sun on Mt Eadley Stone.

The golden afternoon sun on Mt Eadley Stone.

Although jubilant, I was also contemplative. Dealing with the ongoing challenges of the nomadic routine, I came to understand that my elevated mood would pass, like all things pass with time. In general, the things we perceive as bad or unpleasant are in fact neither of those. They could just as easily be seen as good or pleasant by another mind. Life is a series of cycles, mainly unaffected by our humble presence. Whether we label in our own minds subjective sections of these cycles with adjectives is irrelevant, the Earth will keep turning and the sun will keep shining even when the night obscures our view. It’s worth remembering that sunrise is only a victory because it follows the night.

The Viking-Wonongatta Circuit: steaks and a bottle of beer…

Every solo adventure needs an intermission, a break in the routine of self discovery; often it’s in the form of shared company that so often leads to the creation of new stories and camaraderie.

The Viking, Victorian Alps

The Viking, Victorian Alps

The intermission in my journey through the Australian Alps was brought to me by my friend Jimmy Harris, who is a keen alpine walker and photographer himself. Along with his good spirits and easy-going attitude, he brought with him two premium rump steaks and a bottle of single malt scotch.

We were sitting around the campfire we conjured from the bountiful scatterings of dead snowgum branches. It was the end of winter, and the lack of visitors to the Mt Speculation campsite meant that firewood was plentiful. Sitting near the roaring fire, we toasted with the scotch to our good fortune. We were out in the mountains, away from the noise and hassles of the city.

We choose a large and mostly flat rock as a hot plate, cooking our steaks to perfection, complete with a smoky flame grilled taste. After three weeks of dehydrated meals, the first bite into the juicy steak was a mouthwatering moment of pure joy. We washed it down with another cup of scotch, and after many good yarns, went to sleep relatively early in anticipation of our upcoming Viking-Wonongatta Circuit, which would take us the next four days to complete.

View from the Crosscut Saw, Victorian Alps

View from the Crosscut Saw, Victorian Alps

I had met Jimmy on one of my work trips on the Overland Track in Tasmania. I guided him and his wife along with an adventurous group of punters only the previous summer, where Jimmy and I agreed to undertake a walk together in the Victorian Alps, if we got the chance. As it turned out, the dates happened to line up to suit both of us, and he agreed to join me for the challenging Viking-Wonongatta Circuit during my Australian Alps Traverse, which involved going off-track in some very remote country.

“How do you know we’re going the right way?”-he asked during a particularly steep section of the descent from the rocky summit of the Viking, towards the Wonongatta River.

As I began rattling off various techniques about how to follow a heavily wooded ridge, when visibility is reduced to a less than a hundred metres, I suddenly realised we were no longer following it. Amidst all my confidence in my navigational ability, I had lost our lifeline-ridge through the dense forest. Although we picked up the correct ridge shortly afterwards by sidling the slope, it was a wake-up call to both of us not to be overly complacent.

“I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to undertake this circuit on my own.” Jimmy said shortly afterwards.

“I don’t know if I would’ve been comfortable doing this solo either” I replied.

We both laughed and from that point on Jimmy undertook the role of secondary navigator, with gps in hand. He fulfilled his navigational role with great prudence for the rest of the trip, correcting my lead where it was necessary. I wonder whether he saw his role as a matter of pure survival, as I continued to drag him further and further into dense undergrowth, days away from any chance of rescue.

The Devil's Staircase, near Mt Howitt.

The Devil’s Staircase, near Mt Howitt.

The beauty of walking in the Victorian High Country in spring is that most of the access tracks which are often overrun by vehicles in summer, are still closed, leaving the walker to enjoy the surroundings in serenity.

The Viking-Razor area (the two most prominent peaks in the area) is a declared wilderness zone, meaning that there is minimum track maintenance and signage, adding to the sense of adventure. The ruggedness of the terrain also makes for a sense of isolation and immersion into Nature that is so hard to come by these ‘modern’ days. During my three weeks spent in the region between the Bluff and Mt Hotham, I only met three other people besides my friend Jimmy. It is remote country and any traveller needs to be completely self sufficient.

The cross cut saw after some fresh snow.

The cross cut saw after some fresh snow.

The hills here are also much more prominent than most other parts of the Victorian High Country, which are often characterised by densely vegetated forests and have a gentle, rolling nature. Here, the dominant peaks of the Viking, Mt Howitt and the Crosscut Saw rise well above the tree line. The alpine grasses become the primary vegetation and many wildflowers bloom in summer. Some of the mountains also have steep escarpments, which again set this area apart from many of their smaller and less spectacular cousins. This section of the high country has been and will be a mecca for bushwalkers, not only for the awe inspiring views and challenging terrain but also due to its lack of vehicular access. In Victoria, this is as close as you can get to true wilderness.

Of course, even in wilderness one may find traces of civilization. During our ascent out of the Wonongatta Valley towards Macalister Springs, we picked up numerous tins of beer cans, crushed and broken under countless tyres of four wheel drivers that drive through here in summer. While these access roads allow appreciation of this area for a wider audience, vehicular access often invites those who do not respect the pristine beauty of these hills adequately. Entering wild places should be a sacred privilege, not an entitlement to hoon, destroy and not give a damn.

Then again, we were glad to find one particular item during our walk. Lying in front of us on the track was a full bottle of unopened beer, pre chilled in the brisk spring air. Jimmy picked it up just as we were nearing Vallejo Gartner Hut near Macalister Springs. We’ve had a long day of climbing and some very bleak clouds were approaching. We were puzzled by the unopened bottle and wondered about the story of how it got there. Did someone leave it there on purpose, hoping that a thirsty hiker may quench their thirst or did it simply fall out of someone’s pack? Either case, we picked it up and took it with us to the hut.

Mt Speculation, from the Crosscut Saw.

Mt Speculation, from the Crosscut Saw.

Just as the clouds opened up and frozen snowflakes started plummeting from the sky, we reached the hut and quickly set a fire inside. We cracked the beer open with a satisfying twist of the cap. It was a surreal experience, being in total comfort and bliss while the sky caved in outside.

We stayed up late that night, swapping stories of our respective journeys that have brought us to that particular point in time. As is always the case when we open up to others, common ground was found and the foundation for a strong friendship was laid.

Vallejo Gartner Hut after a snow shower.

Vallejo Gartner Hut after a snow shower.

As for me, the temptation to experience the storm outside was simply too great to resist. Just as Jimmy got ready for bed, I strapped on my boots and with all the relevant safety gear in my day pack, left the hut to climb to the nearby summit of Mt Howitt. It would be nearly midnight by the time I had returned to the hut.

The storm has abated and a dense fog sat in the air as I ascended. It was still, quiet and freezing cold as I reached the summit. I stood up there, staring out into the darkness. I didn’t particularly mind that I couldn’t see much. Some things are invisible to the naked eye.

A resilient snowgum survives even in the most exposed conditions.

A resilient snowgum survives even in the most exposed conditions.