Up to the Baw Baw Plateau: Facing the first mountain
“To rise then to fall,
Every day has its night;
To be or not to be,
Every hero is in plight…”
At first I was jubilant. Now that I was alone, and walking in the hills, my adventure has truly begun. My social responsibilities brushed aside, my only job was to get to Canberra, one step at a time. The simplicity of it all lifted my spirits and despite my pack, I even had a slight spring in my step.
It did not last long. The day’s walk happened to contain the single biggest continuous climb of the entire length of the 660km AAWT. Leaning heavily onto my trekking poles, I commenced the climb optimistically. I figured I’d get to the summit in just under 5 hours.
After 7 hours of labour and probably only slightly less pain than childbirth, I rolled in to my campsite at Mt Erica Carpark, feeling like an overweight and elderly tortoise. My guidebook’s assurance that today’s walk would be over in under 3 hours did not boost my confidence. I was doing double time and suffering for it. In hindsight, the weight of my pack was simply too much. However, I wasn’t quite ready to admit it yet.
Nevertheless, my spirit of adventure wasn’t deflated by the arduous climb. I pitched my tent, cooked my dinner as if everything has gone according to schedule. Despite my exhaustion, I felt rejuvenated by being in the bush, and did my best to absorb my surroundings.
The forest was alive with the calls of a multitude of birds, and soon I spotted a lyrebird, scratching the ground merely a few metres away from my tent. It appeared friendly, but not quite so friendly as to let me take a good photo of it.
I also had a very different kind of visitor to my campsite later on. Out of the undergrowth, silent as a shadow, slinked out a feral cat, acknowledging me with a flick of his tail. Before I even had a chance to react, he was gone, no doubt gone to chomp down some protected native birds.
I went to bed with tired limbs but a good disposition, not suspecting the trials that the Baw Baw Plateau would throw at me the next day.
I encountered the snow line at around 1400m of elevation the next day. My heart sank. My traverse of the plateau was uniformly over 1400m. Deep snow without skis or snowshoes is hard work. I braced for a tough couple of days ahead.
It was exhausting work at best. The depth of the snow varied from knee to waist deep and although it was slightly compacted being near the end of winter, it was still soft and deep enough to allow me to sink up to my knees with almost every step. My progress crawled to a halt. I was covering less than 1 km per hour, and was sweating under my load. Underneath the swaying branches of the snowgums, I ploughed on.
Near the end of my first day on the plateau, the weather deteriorated. The sound of the wind became overpowering. It swayed millions of branches in unison, creating a menacing choir, complimented by the ceaseless scratching of loose bark against tree trunks.
Being in the belly of a cloud, visibility became very poor. The track, being hidden underneath snow, was becoming more and more difficult to follow. Occasionally I would encounter a track marker which would always invoke a sigh of relief. The weight of my pack reminded me of a constant need to rest.
For navigation, I relied on my map and compass, backed up with a gps ap on my smart phone. Once, when I suspected I had lost the track and was following a ghost trail, I checked my phone. Sure enough, the track lay 200 metres to the south. Turning my phone off, I set the bearing to South and followed the needle of my compass for 20 minutes before I picked up the track again, discernable only by a slight depression in the snow along the length of the track. It was a nervous 20 minutes before I found the track.
Despite the difficulties I encountered, I did not fail to appreciate the beauty of this winter wonderland. Scattered across the entire plateau were giant granite boulders, which created the perfect platform for a variety of mosses and lichens to grow. In this fashion the boulders became the home to minute green cities, whose diversity of citizens amazed me. Shooting up like green buds were strange lichens, while underneath spread out a lush variety of mosses, seeming to grow on bare rock.
The plateau was also densely populated with snowgums (eucalyptus pauciflora). I found a young sapling standing alone in the middle of a clearing. Though barely tall enough to reach up to the shoulders of a person, the sapling stood healthy and proud. It was surrounded only by snow.
I struck camp that night near to the remains of Whitelaw Hut, under the cover of the trees. The weather continued to worsen, until the front climaxed in a thunderstorm. The flashes lit up my tent periodically, and the thunder would follow with an almighty crash soon afterwards. For a few minutes I was afraid, as any creature should be afraid in the presence of lightning. It is truly one of the most terrifying of nature’s unpredictable powers.
The next day I commenced my descent from the plateau and was soon below the snow line once more. I felt a sense of accomplishment, having overcome my first test. My gear was solid, my pack was getting lighter every day, and I haven’t lost any more time since the second day. I knew I still had some tough days before reaching my first food drop, but I was well on my way.