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 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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.