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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.