Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Month: November 2015

The final mountain: Mt Jagungal

“Love all that surrounds you and the world will fall at your feet in gratitude; try and exert you will over it and it is likely to kick back with a vengeance.”

 

Open country

Open country

The sun was setting a blood orange in the west and the Jagungal Wilderness lay ahead of me as an open expanse, inviting.

I was on the undulating alpine plateau of the Kerries, the continuation of the Snowy Mountains to the north, and I was letting my feet guide me towards the lone summit of a majestic Mt Jagungal, as it hovered above the rolling landscape.

The gentle curves of these hills made for marvellous walking; untracked and untamed; they allowed me to pick my own route, imperfect, yet satisfying. The river valleys were clear of scrub and trees, a result of severe frosts and saturated soils. I used these valleys as my guide to bring me ever closer to my destination. The mountain stood, waiting.

The skeleton trees watched on. Twisted, gnarled, their limbs contorted in agony from drought, fire and frost, their suffering written into every wooded fibre. Survival up here requires more than pleasure. My diary details my impression of one tree in particular that was killed by the fires that swept through the high country in 2003-2006:

“The snowgum was bleached white, leaves stripped; leaving a grotesquely twisted skeletal form that was perched on top of a huge granite boulder. From a distance it appeared to be growing out of the rock itself. Its trunk was wide, perhaps a metre in diameter, though its height was no more than 3-4 metres. It was the skeleton of an ancient being, hundreds of years old whose torso was completely warped with a pattern like a corkscrew.
However, with death, new life begins: around the boulder, saplings were springing up; no doubt the offspring of this older tree, whose seeds, having lain dormant in the soil for many years, were finally allowed to germinate when the fire swept through.”- Day 67 of my AAWT Diary

You can tell which way the wind blows.

You can tell which way the wind blows.

 

Yes, it was day 67 of my walk and the memory of my departure was in the distant past. Remembering the trials of my first week, the depth of the snow; the magnitude of the challenge I have taken on, the weight of my pack, the finger numbing cold; they were all an endless series of dreams of a life I once knew.

From snowstorms, to the oppressing heat, I watched the transition of Australia’s Alps from the chill of winter to the oppressive heat of summer. I saw the spring snow melt, day by day, and the flowers spring up as the days lengthened and the temperatures warmed. Through this process, I was peering through a window not only into the heart of the high country, but also into my own heart as well.

One of the things that I noticed as the days got longer was that my mood seemed to share an inverse relationship with the temperature. The misery of my existence on these warmer days could be summed up with a single word: flies. My diary once again gives insight.

The flies like to hitch a ride on my pack and take turns harassing me before settling down, to rest up for another bombardment when their turn comes. In this way, I carry with me my own, constantly shifting cloud of flies, which only grow thicker as the day passes and their numbers accumulate, well into the hundreds. The potent poison of deet seems to keep them out of my nostrils, eyes and ears. Without the repellent, life would be unbearable. The unpleasantness of the whole affair dawns on me occasionally, about once every 20 seconds.”

Another aspect of walking in the heat was the loss of water and salt from my own body, requiring me to carry up to three litres of water per day. I also carried with me a small bag of salt, which I nibbled on the hotter days, to replace the salt I sweated through my skin. The accumulation of body odours was also inevitable:

“My feet smell like a good blue cheese, my socks like a bad one.”

View from high camp on Mt Jagungal

View from high camp on Mt Jagungal

 

Yes, it was day 67 and I plodded on towards the elevated figure of Mt Jagungal.

This mountain’s attractive stature draws the eye from a distance. Towering well above the surrounding countryside, its prominence creates a sense of regality. As I drew closer to its slopes, it got taller and taller, promising a gruelling climb to a high saddle where I intended to camp.

I filled up my water bladder for the night from a creek which I judged to be the last running water before reaching my campsite. The sun was now low on the horizon, only a couple of hours were left before it sank for good, giving way to the moon.

Eventually, I reached the exposed high saddle I have been aiming for and pitched my tent. I was tired, but not exhausted. My position gave me views to both the journey that lay behind as well as ahead of me. To the south, the impressive peaks of the Main Range were becoming barely more than a silhouette, while in the far distance I could just make out the dark shape of Mt Bogong, which lay a month’s walk behind me. With the satisfaction of the accomplishment slowly sinking in, my mind wondered, contemplating the previous ten weeks on the trail.

The horizon was a transition of colour, from a deep orange to a hazy pink and finally a dark blue, above. I saw the white streak of airliner jets leaving their mark, too far for the sound of their engines to be heard. I wondered about all those lives, sitting comfortably in the passenger seats, bored and oblivious to the wonder of flight. For a minute I wished I was the pilot, looking out over the continents from the powerful seat in the cockpit, making the world my highway, then contended myself with where I was, on a mountaintop, enjoying the solitude and an immense view.

The sun had barely sunk below the horizon when I was privy to an unusual occurrence. My ears pricked up as I heard the hum of a green bug flying nearby. Soon there were hundreds, then thousands. They must have been biding their time, waiting for the cruel sun to disappear before rising up from the grass where they must have been hiding in the heat of the day. Soon, their numbers were in the millions. To heighten the chaos, swarms of moths appeared shortly, joining in the cavalcade, all flying erratically, joyous that their time of day has finally come. Later in the night I heard the sharp calls of the bats, no doubt feasting upon this extravagant swarm.

As I sat there, near the summit of Mt Jagungal, I wondered; is there anything more mysterious than a wild setting, with a myriad different animals and plants somehow existing, in tumultuous harmony?

Sunset on Mt Jagungal's Summit

Sunset on Mt Jagungal’s Summit

Australia’s Giants: The Snowy Mountains

The top of the hill I’ve been climbing towards laboriously, knees creaking, back groaning, appeared to be getting closer; and through the opening of the canopy, a view began to reveal itself. I plopped my pack on the ground, with the familiar motion that I’ve been practicing daily for the past eight weeks, and peered out over the treetops, towards the white glow of Australia’s giants. There they stood, towering above, still capped in snow then, in late spring, barely a few hours walk away!

Looking towards the Main Range from Watson's Crag,

Looking towards the Main Range from Watson’s Crag,

Australia’s tallest mountain range, the Main Range, is elevated two kilometres above sea level and is colloquially known as the Snowy Mountains. Its sprawling alpine plateau is the climax of Australia’s greatest mountain range, the Great Divide, and is also the birthplace of one of our great rivers, the Snowy. The unpredictable and often severe climate on these high peaks has sculpted a unique and fragile alpine environment that contains some of Australia’s rarest ‘feldmark’ plant communities.

It also stands as a place rich in history, having provided a meeting place for the local Aboriginal tribes for hundreds of generations, and having served as roaming ground for the early mountain cattlemen whose culture has since become an integral part of our national identity. These mountains are also home to one of our country’s greatest engineering marvels: the Snowy-Hydro Scheme, built by nearly 100 000 workers post WWII. More recently, since the protective hand of national park status has been extended over the ‘Snowies’, it’s become a playground for outdoor enthusiasts, both in winter as well as summer.

The Main Range, viewed from near Mt Tate.

The Main Range, viewed from near Mt Tate.

For me, it was a real relief to finally reach them, after 8 weeks of trekking along the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT). The vehicular tracks that I have been following leading up to the Snowies were about to be replaced by untracked country that offered marvelous walking. Furthermore, my good friend, Robert Vandali was to join me for this section of my journey. After nearly 8 weeks of solitude and dehydrated meals, my stomach and I were looking forward to the rendezvous at Dead Horse Gap.

Rob, in his reliable fashion, turned up to our meeting point with a car full of food. Looking at the bounty in his boot, I felt ravenous. He offered me an endless selection of treats; sticks of salami, blocks of chocolate, fresh fruit, but I think his crowning achievement was the preparation of bacon and eggs that day for breakfast. If my eyes didn’t water, it was only because I was too busy eating.

Loaded up with a week’s worth of food, our packs felt heavy on our climb up to the plateau. On our way towards the Rams Head Range, we spotted two wild horses, grazing peacefully on the grass that had lain underneath snow until only a few weeks previously. Having survived the winter, these brumbies must have been overjoyed with the sun and the freshly revealed grass. Ears flicking, eyes staring, they eventually trotted away when I got too close with my camera.

Wild horses on the Rams Head Range

Wild horses on the Rams Head Range

As we gained elevation, we emerged from the scruffy snowgum forests onto a barren, alpine landscape; dominated by yellow grass, scoured boulders and large snowdrifts loitering on the southerly slopes. The scale of the landscape made us feel like we have entered a land of giants, where the eye may see for an awful long distance, and the legs have much trouble keeping up with the imagination.

Looking back down towards the Threadbo River

Rob looking back down towards the Threadbo River’s Valley

Lake Albina, one of four glacial lakes on the Australian Mainland.

Lake Albina, one of four glacial lakes on the Australian Mainland.

From a natural high point, standing on a particularly prominent boulder, we spotted our night’s accommodation: the bright red Cootapatamba Hut. Nestled in a river valley just south of Mt Kosciuszko, this hut serves as a vital emergency shelter for those that get caught out in ferocious weather. Although we were lucky enough to get mostly clear days for our days high up on the range, the air was crisp; the windchill contributed to an apparent temperature of -10 C. We were grateful we wouldn’t have to pitch our tents that night with icy fingers, and instead could sleep in the womb-like nest that was the hut.

Cootapatamba Hut

Happy to arrive to Cootapatamba hut. The trap door on the top is for winter use, when the bottom door is snowed in.

From Cootapatamba hut, we continued in a northerly direction, towards Mt Kosciuszko. When we picked up the steel walkway that formed the main track, we also met an endless line of day walkers and tourists, all heading to the top of Australia. I received some odd looks from passers-by, no doubt wondering why I was choosing to carry such a hefty load of supplies when the ski-village was only a quick cable-car ride away. Further ahead, a motorised crane was clearing the track, wiping away the snow and with it, the memories of winter.

The road to Kosciuszko

The road to Mt Kosciuszko

The ‘road’ to the summit of Mt Kosciuszko spirals gently around the peak; my footsteps were equally unhurried. The scale of the journey I have undertaken to arrive at the climax of Australia’s greatest mountain range was beginning to dawn on me. As we drew close to the summit cairn, I could clearly see the distant but unmistakable shape of Mt Bogong to the south west, over 100km away, where I had stood three weeks previously. Far beyond Mt Bogong and invisible to my naked eye stood the Cross Cut Saw, Mt Howitt, Mt Clear, Mt Selwyn and eventually, near the start of the AAWT, the Baw Baw Plateau. Close to two months of walking had brought me to this point. Although the objective at first seemed unfathomable, I was finally here. As I stepped up onto the summit cairn, the words that escaped me were spoken like a true Australian:

“I have walked a bloody long way!”

Rob and myself, on the top of Australia,

Me and Rob, on the summit of Mt Kosciuszko

On a high point, near Mt Tate, the Main Range behind.

Me, on a high point, near Mt Tate, the Main Range behind.

Our next day on the Snowies gave us a real taste for mountain weather; a relentless wind dried out our lips till they were cracked with blood, forcing us to hide our heads underneath the hoods of our jackets. As we followed the track across the climactic ridge of the Great Divide, our boots tread upon the path lined by ‘feldmark’ communities, the hardiest of the alpine flora. These highly adapted survivors live on the most exposed ridges, where the wind whips away the protective cover of snow during the winter storms. Yet, life triumphs through hardship, and as we strode past, we saw that quite a few of these plants were flowering, bringing with them the promise of a warm summer and sunshine.

Rob, geared up against the wind.

Rob, geared up against the wind.

Spring Flowers, Rams Head Range

Spring Flowers, Rams Head Range

The landscape rolled by underneath our feet, a relatively barren plateau dotted with the occasional wildflower. The undulating terrain had great boulders strewn across it, like a bad tempered giant has had a tantrum and scattered dinosaur eggs everywhere. The power of the landscape dwarfed our tiny footsteps, freeing us to observe our surroundings with neutrality. Here is what I wrote in my diary that day:

“Up here the eye is attracted to the horizon that is far and distant. It’s this sense of openness that I love about walking in the mountains; the wide horizons that appear as an endless chain. It creates a place of perspective, where one may observe the world objectively, without influence. A place to weigh up one’s existence against all that is eternal. Herein lies the power of mountains.”

 

An adventurous glider pilot, he swooped right over our heads!

An adventurous glider pilot who swooped right over our heads!

White’s River Hut became our next night’s haven. Nestled in the valley of the Munyang River, the hut was more like a house inside, with insulated walls and sheets of board inside that were painted white. The focus of the main room was a large, cylindrical and very stocky wood fire heater set in a stone lined, semi circular fire place. Two glass windows brightened the room that was both clean and spacious. A side room contained a bunk bed where we set up our mats and sleeping bags. Being early afternoon, I made the most of the opportunity and promptly took a refreshing nap after lunch. The bed sagged and the wire springs creaked when you moved, but it was mid afternoon and I was napping in a bed! Unbelievable luxury!

We played cards after an oversized dinner. The loser’s punishment was sitting on a rather uncomfortable wooden stump that served as a rudimentary chair. It was a strong motivator to play well. It was a jovial evening, wiping away any sense of hardship of the last couple of months while we laughed and munched on chocolate, the full moon shining over the serene valley outside our hut.

As I closed my eyes that night, the creaky springs of the bed playing a gentle chime, I couldn’t help but feel that I was close on the home stretch of my journey. A quiet satisfaction was growing in me, as a successful completion of my walk was appearing more likely with every passing day.

Meanwhile, further north, the lone figure of Mt Jagungal waited for me, patiently, quietly…

Looking towards Mt Jagungal

Looking towards Mt Jagungal

 

Welcome to the Wild Wild East: Mt Bogong to the Murray River

“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” -Edmund Hillary

The view towards Mt Beauty, from the summit of Mt Bogong, the top of Victoria

The view towards Mt Beauty, from the summit of Mt Bogong, the top of Victoria

The sun was setting herself up for another showdown, her rays dancing a spectrum of colours with her cousins, the cumulus clouds, promising a sunset to remember. I was labouring up Mt Bogong’s alpine plateau, the summit cairn taunting me from only a hundred steps away. The only sounds on these grassy plains nearly two kilometres above sea level were the stroking hand of the wind flattening grass, and the mournful craws of the white eyed ravens, letting each other know that a traveller on two legs was passing through.

Reaching the top of Victoria was a tipping point for my journey through the Australian Alps. The circular view from here allowed me to survey the route of my walk that lay both behind and ahead. Far to the south, I made out the mammoth shape of Mt Hotham, and the forbidding Crosscut Saw, whose sharp ridge I traversed three weeks prior; and to the north-east my breath was caught in my throat as I beheld the white giants of Australia, the Snowy Mountains.

Quartz Ridge, the approach to Mt Bogong.

Quartz Ridge, the approach to Mt Bogong.

Tied to the journey behind me were some of the greatest challenges I had overcome: slogging through the winter snow and some of the most notoriously overgrown tracks; while ahead lay the promise of easy going fire trails and warmer weather. Far to the north, I could just make out the sacred stature of Mt Jagungal, its call undeniable, representing the most memorable mountain I would climb before reaching Canberra. Thus seeing a key landmark on the horizon that signalled my journey’s end, I gathered strength and courage that would sustain me for the remaining month of my walking trip along the AAWT.

Standing on the summit of Mt Bogong, I was also able to observe the next immediate section of my hike, the far-eastern hills of Victoria. Following the dark blue shadows of the setting sun, I saw an endless series of heavily forested hills stretching far into the distance, towards the Snowy Mountains, and with them, the awaited border of New South Wales.

It would take me two weeks to journey through these undulating hills, challenging me in unexpected ways, as the track took me across some truly remote regions, where mountain settlements are sparse and the local’s lifestyle is dictated by the bush. When I was having a rest day near the Mitta Mitta River, at Taylor’s Crossing, I met a local hunter who was also doing a solo stint in the wild. Upon learning of my endeavour to walk across the Australian Alps, he handed me two cold cans of beer as a wish-you-well. With a broad grin across his sun tanned face, he welcomed me to the ‘Wild Wild East’.

Standing on the summit cairn of Mt Bogong.

Standing on the summit cairn of Mt Bogong.

As I descended from Mt Bogong, I found lush woodland at the height of spring. Opposed to the heart of winter, when all life slows and hunkers down against the storms, all the forests’ inhabitants were out and about, hustling and bustling about their business. I saw a myriad bugs flying through the green undergrowth, butterflies displaying their brightly dotted wings, fish chasing one another in the mountain streams, with the croak of the frogs giving a mournful backdrop to their play. I even woke a sleepy eastern grey kangaroo from a blissful nap with my tramping boot falls. Unhappy, he bounded away lazily, annoyed at the inconvenience.

Mt Bogong, viewed from Mt Wills

Mt Bogong, viewed from Mt Wills

During my journey through the ‘Wild Wild East’, I encountered not only native Australian animals, but also a number of introduced species, whose existence within these wild and delicate eco-systems pose a serious threat to the High Country’s natural diversity. The tragic sight of a fox whose hind leg was caught in a steel-jaw trap, struggling to break free to no avail; a wild dog carcass hung on a fence post to deter his cousins from poaching livestock, and thousands of wild horses that were starving due to booming populations were only some of the natural struggles that I witnessed first-hand. With ample time to consider the consequences of what I observed in my surroundings, my mind wondered into the realm of ideas that are often flagged as taboo in ‘polite’ society.

I even found an abandoned bus, decided my tent was preferable!

I even found an abandoned bus, decided my tent was preferable!

Inevitable questions with elusive answers plagued me for a large portion of my journey through the Australian Alps. Why do we ravage our planet, when our livelihood depends on it? When the destruction of our natural environment brings with it the disappearance of our own values of equality, justice and humanity, why do we continue as if nothing was wrong? We work our jobs and celebrate on our weekends, drink to the demise of a lesser existence, with each passing day we fail to own up to our failings as individuals and as a global community. Forgetting that our roots lie in the wilderness, we are beginning to lose ourselves in a fast moving world of gadgets, promotions and mortgages.

One lonely night, camping deep in a river valley, I awoke to the sound of a wild dog howling. It wasn’t a proud, fearless howl like that of a wolf, but rather, a gaunt and unhappy howl of a hound that has lost his pack,. I closed my eyes and imagined a time when the proud call of humans echoed through this valley, deep with mystery; when we were still wild, and somehow, more alive. Eventually, I nodded off, into a dream where the wild dogs were sniffing around my tent, and I was clutching my knife in white knuckled hands.

An afternoon lightning storm brewing.

An afternoon lightning storm brewing.

After seven weeks on the trail, my walking routine had become an effortless way of life. Each day I would rise and fall with the sun, adapting to the cycles of Nature and listening to my own body and moods to determine the outcomes of each day. Some days it would take me three or four hours, and multiple cups of strong, black coffee just to get out of my tent, knees creaking, back groaning. Other days, I would pack up camp efficiently, quickly and with haste, unable to contain my excitement for the day’s walk ahead.

I remember getting to my sixth food drop, by the Omeo Highway, near Mt Wills. I ripped the lid off my plastic bucket with shaking hands, but was relieved when I found the parcel’s contents intact. To celebrate my good luck, I sat by the edge of the highway, drinking the beer I placed in my tubs four months previously, waving to the endless chain of motorcyclists riding past. The block of chocolate I provisioned for the following 10 days also disappeared in a matter of minutes. My dinner that night was crowned with a delicious serve of Christmas pudding, from a tin, served with instant custard. To complete the ritual, I bathed in the creek, and felt that I had received a new skin. The simple things of comfort become divine in the mountains.

A wild horse flits through the trees.

A wild horse flits through the trees.

As I became more comfortable with my physical reality, my time and energy could be diverted to the noble quest of musing. The luxury of daydreaming was one of the greatest gifts of my entire journey. The following diary entry gives insight into the wanderings of my mind during this time:

“My thoughts are consumed with my present reality. Cravings of the world outside of a civilised life awaiting me upon my return from the wilderness are slowly fading away. As my awareness grows, I realise the things that truly matter. Like morning mist that rises from the valley after dawn, so my mind has begun to clear, the fog clearing from my thoughts, sharpening my mind with intent. My focus is 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’m able to stroll through the woods and observe Nature, and all her inhabitants at my leisure, learning secrets that are much older than any ideas conceived by humans; and through understanding Nature, I’m able to glimpse into the eternal, that which is timeless and universal. Can there be a nobler goal than to conceive and preserve ideas of truth, in order to share with my fellows of today and the morrow?”

Up in the Cobberas

Up in the Cobberas

 

One of my highly awaited side trips was the walk to the summit of the Cobberras, Victoria’s tallest untracked wild peaks, overlooking the headwaters of the Murray River, just south of the Snowy Mountains. While the regeneration of eucalypt saplings made for some arduous walking through some heavy undergrowth (despite the assurances of my guide book that the ‘forest is clear of scrub’), reaching these wild peaks was a sacred moment in my journey.

The appreciation that the surrounding landscape is the entirety of my present reality; that the sun is a blinding plethora of colours, and the rivers far below are roaring with fury, and that the clouds threaten, even as they yield; all contribute to an acceptance of reality as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. To observe the serenity of Nature, through the powerful vista of a mountain top view, is to peer inside our own Nature, and see the resemblance to every single thing surrounding us. In acceptance of the common link, lies our redemption.

I reached the Murray River later that day, a trickling stream with an ugly sign next to it declaring the state borders. With one leg on each bank of the mighty river, I snapped a photo, to record the milestone moment. I have made it to New South Wales, the land of easy going vehicular tracks, fire trails and open walking. No more overgrown, scrubby tracks, or indistinct pads to follow. From here, my greatest obstacles would eventually become the hardness of the walking surface and the approaching summer heat.

Crossing the mighty Murray!

Crossing the mighty Murray!

The sprawling, grassy plains of Cowombat Flats stretched for hundreds of metres around me, a herd of wild horses gracing peacefully as the sun sank low in the sky over their heads. Being flight animals, they raised their heads and watched me intently as I drew closer and closer. When I was about a hundred steps away, one of them bolted, the others following quickly. The thundering of their hooves would have been enough to wake the mountain trolls, had they not been turned into stone many, many years ago. I watched as they galloped as a unit towards the safety of the trees. When they were gone, I stood, firmly rooted in the same spot, until the sun disappeared from the sky and the chill of evening reminded me that I was in the wilderness.

Afternoon sun playing in the grass, near the Mitta Mitta River.

Afternoon sun playing in the grass, near the Mitta Mitta River.