Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Tag: AAWT

Homecoming

The birds woke me, one last time. The drawn out cackle of the kookaburras made me open my eyes to narrow slits; the promise of first light diffused through my tent’s fabric. The job ahead of me was simple, yet difficult. My day’s walk would only take five hours, but with it, I would complete my 10 week journey through the Australian Alps. I felt victorious, but vulnerable, unwilling to close the book on a gripping chapter.

I struck out 73 days previously from Walhalla in Victoria, and walked nearly 800kms to end up where I was, sipping a strong coffee from the comfort of my sleeping bag at Honeysuckle Creek Campground, only a day’s walk from Tharwa, the official end of the AAWT. I had walked 35kms the previous day to set myself up for an early afternoon finish; I expected an easy day’s hike and a timely arrival to the visitor centre. I should have figured that the AAWT would throw one last challenge as a farewell present.

Old homestead in Kiandra

Historical homestead in Kiandra

I packed up quickly that morning, keen to get going; it was going to be a scorcher of a day. I checked my map; there were plenty of creek crossings, so I took less than a litre of water in my bladder from the rainwater tank. I’d collect the rest later, I figured. The sun climbed higher in the sky.

Rolling up my tent, I remembered the first week of my walk, ten weeks past, when I climbed to the Baw Baw Plateau and encountered snow that came above my knees. I remembered staggering along in the heavy drifts with my 40kg pack, wishing for warmer climate. Since then, I had watched the snow melt and the landscape transform with the anticipation of summer. Right then, as I took the first steps of my final day in the Australian Alps, I wished for winter back. Then I remembered that it’s silly to make wishes for things that are impossible.

Mt Jagungal

Mt Jagungal

The water in the creeks had dried up. It was barely the beginning of summer, and the beds were bone dry. If I had done my research, I would have known to expect this. The eastern section of the Great Dividing Range is in rain shadow; the prevailing westerly winds mean that the clouds loose most of their moisture by the time they reach these hills. I had minimal water left in my bottle and I knew it had to last a long way. I kept plodding, trying to find my rhythm, pretending my mouth wasn’t as dry as the leaf litter underneath my feet.

I wasn’t just grappling with my mounting thirst, but also the inevitable realisation that my nomadic routine would be over tomorrow. I had to say goodbye to the simplicity of waking to bird call each morning, brewing the perfect cup of coffee at my leisure, even hauling my monstrous pack over the endlessly undulating landscape; tomorrow they would all be memories.

In the mountains, my existence became aligned with the cycles of Nature; the passing of the moon, the daily gift of the sun and the shifting of the seasons. After ten weeks on the trail, I was feeling the benefits of having adjusted to Nature’s clock; I was stronger, fitter and happier than I have ever been in my life. My mind was steady, unwilling to give in to the fluctuating moods of my flitting thoughts; in short I was centred, and able to enjoy every single moment, exactly the way it was, rather than the way I wished it would be.

Eucalyptus Pauciflora

Eucalyptus Pauciflora

There wasn’t a drop left in my bottle. I turned it upside down, just to make sure. My head was aching, and my throat had been dry for hours. My only option was to keep plodding. I reduced my pace to maximise efficiency; going too fast now would only wear me out. The staircase leading me down Mt Tenant appeared endless; I kept stepping, and the stairs kept going. In my mind’s eye, I was frolicking in cool, calm waters. My reality was very different. I just had to put one foot in front of the other. Swat the flies. Bloody flies. More steps. Keep. Going.

I arrived at the Namadgi Visitor Centre unceremoniously. As I plopped my sweat soaked canvas rucksack onto the picnic bench, a dark swarm of flies lifted up, then shortly attempted to land on me instead. I barely had energy left to shoo them away. I only had one thing left to do. I grabbed my water bottle, walked over to the water tank, unscrewed the lid and opened the tap. The delicious water cascaded in. I lifted the bottle to my mouth, closed my eyes and drank…The life force traveled down my throat and within minutes, I could feel it becoming part of me. I mused about how many times I have drunk water, and had taken it for granted; then figured, to truly appreciate what we have, first it must be taken away.

The Snowy Mountains

The Snowy Mountains

“Would you like your certificate laminated?” The lady behind the counter delivered the question with a smile.

I was standing in an air conditioned Namadgi Visitor Centre. I was struggling to cope with the reality of having arrived at my destination after 74 days of walking through mountainous wilderness. The ranger’s question caught me by surprise; it all felt so surreal. A piece of paper, coated in plastic, seemed meaningless, but also, strangely satisfying.

That would be wonderful, thank you.” My words came out as a croak.

I felt like a king, riding on the bus into Canberra. It sure was an extraordinary ride back to the ordinary world. For the first time in 10 weeks, I was sitting down, and moving at the same time. It felt wonderful. The world outside flitted past, impossibly fast. The faces of my fellow humans on the bus were withdrawn, their minds absorbed in their own worlds. My eyes on the other hand, were popping out of my head. Everything felt like a miracle. Every moment was cosmic justice, and I felt amazed at simply being alive.

Arriving to the hostel was the real beginning of my internal celebration that would last many days. I dumped my giant pack in the dorm room, much to the amusement of my roommate, who exclaimed: “Where did you come from, man, Antarctica?” I laughed at his reaction, and shared the quick version of my story. He wanted to hear more, so we decided to head down to the pub, conveniently located in the basement of the hostel.

My newfound friend knew how to work a pub. Before long, he was introducing me to everyone sitting within earshot. “This guy has just walked 74 days through the mountains to get here!” I felt almost like a celebrity, answering questions and accepting genuine handshakes and congratulations. Slowly, the accomplishment of my trek began to sink in. So I bought another beer, and then another and shared the story of my adventure with everyone who was willing to listen.

I stumbled to my bed with a heavy stomach but a light heart. The novelty of crisp, clean sheets was lost on me as I passed out, and entered a deep and peaceful sleep.

A curious eastern grey kangaroo and her joey.

A curious eastern grey kangaroo and her joey.

 

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

 

My tent

My tent is not merely a shelter; it is my home in the wilderness

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Tent amongst the snowgums, near the summit of Mt Speculation

Tent amongst the snowgums, near the summit of Mt Speculation

She is elegant, strong and perfectly designed.

Three ground to ground poles give my tent an oblong, asymmetrical shape. The poles sit on the outside of the tent, to allow for an integrated pitch.

Her strength comes from not only the three ground to ground poles, but also from 18 points of attachment to the ground, including 12 guy ropes.

A cold morning of packing up.

A cold morning of packing up.

Inside the vestibule, there is ample space to stow away my gear at the end of a long day, before climbing inside and getting comfortable in the inner tent.

Feeling warm, comfortable and safe, no matter my location or weather conditions, means I can rest well during the night and feel ready for the next day in the wilderness.

High Dome Beckons

High Dome Beckons

Further reading:

For advice on choosing the type of shelter best suited to your needs, Hiking Life has detailed the pros and cons of the different forms of shelters; tarps, bivvies and tents.

For choosing a particular product, Outdoor Gear Lab has some independent and reliable reviews.

There are also a number of outdoor forums containing a wealth of knowledge. Here are three of my favourites.

Australia: Bushwalk Australia

US: Backpacking Light

UK: Walking Forum

If you have any queries about choosing the right kind of shelter for your adventure, feel free to get in touch via the contact form in the ‘About’ section.

A taste of winter on the Baw Baw Plateau

I didn’t expect the snow to be this deep.

The AAWT underneath the snow, Baw Baw NP

The AAWT underneath the snow, Baw Baw NP

I was stepping, then sinking; stepping, then sinking again. My breath was laboured and I was sweating up a storm underneath my waterproof jacket. Despite the exertion, I wasn’t covering much ground at all. I hunched forward a bit more to counter the enormous weight resting on my back and continued to trudge through the wet snow.

I have reached the Baw Baw Plateau, marking the first alpine section of my 10 week Australian Alps Walk. Situated roughly 1400-1500m above sea level, the undulating plateau had its own climate, starkly different to the lush valleys where I’ve ascended from only the previous day. Down there, the weather was calm and warm; up here it was blowing a gale and half a metre of snow covered the ground.

I was doing my best to follow the track, hidden underneath the snow. The occasional track marker would let me know that I was still going the right way, but due to the uniformity of the terrain, I could have been walking around in circles and I wouldn’t have been the wiser.

A fine mist swirled around the army of snowgums whose twisted limbs I was walking underneath. The toughness of these trees (Eucalyptus Pauciflora) is nothing short of marvel. In winter, their home sits well above the snowline, while in summer, scorching bushfires ravage their habitat. Their limbs are eternally twisted by the elements into fantastic shapes that lie on the border of the beautiful and the grotesque.

Granite Boulder covered in moss, Baw Baw NP

Granite Boulder covered in moss, Baw Baw NP

Scattered across the plateau between the snowgums were enormous granite boulders on which a variety of mosses and lichens have taken up residence. What appeared to be a uniform green blanket from a distance however, turned out to be a thriving metropolis of a variety of different species; a miniature eco system growing on nothing but bare rock.

A miniature world growing on bare rock, Baw Baw NP

A miniature world growing on bare rock, Baw Baw NP

I eventually rolled in to my night’s campsite feeling every bit like an old and overweight tortoise. Due to the formidable weight of my pack, my hips were bruised and my shoulders were sore. The excessive weight was a result of carrying over a week’s worth of food and all the equipment required for the entire duration of my walk. While it was comforting to know that everything I could possibly need for the next two months was safely stowed away in my pack, the weight slowed me down. I was covering much less ground than I anticipated and I was worried about running out of food before getting to my first food drop.

A moody snowgum forest, Baw Baw NP

A moody snowgum forest, Baw Baw NP

The routine of setting up camp lifted my spirits a little. I pitched my tent, then quickly climbed inside, seeking refuge in the cocoon of my sleeping bag. Placing my lightweight stove just outside my vestibule’s door, I was able to cook dinner from inside the warm comfort of my tent. When my cup of miso soup was steaming hot and ready to drink, I cupped my hands around my mug and drank quickly. I felt the warmth spread through my tummy. I fell asleep shortly after dinner.

A magical fabric, confining water to the outside only.

A magical fabric, confining water to the outside only.

The thunderstorm woke me not long after. The rain was coming down hard and the wind was tearing through the canopies of the snowgums overhead with a fearsome howl. Periodically, a flash would light up my tent followed closely by the crack of thunder. Although I was sheltered from the lightning bolts by the trees standing overhead, I was momentarily terrified, like any animal should be terrified in the close presence of lightning.

Eventually, the storm subsided and the rain eased to a calm patter. As I drifted towards sleep again, I was content to be exactly where I was; sheltered, but deep in the wilderness.

The Governor, Victorian Alps

The Governor, Victorian Alps

The call of the Australian Alps Walking Track

It was only last year, in 2014 that I fully succumbed to the call of the mountains. I was 26 and the promise of the unknown was beckoning me towards discovery.

Through chance I learnt about a remote and rugged walking route, the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT). The route is notoriously difficult and only attempted by about 100 people every year, roughly half of whom succeed in walking it end to end. Walkers need to be prepared to deal with extremes in weather, including bush fires as well as snow storms.

Mt McDonald, with twisted snowgum in foreground, Victorian Alps

Mt McDonald, with twisted snowgum in foreground, Victorian Alps

Upon reading about the AAWT, I was instantly hooked. Here was a challenge that I could really sink my teeth into. I began to research the walk more carefully, planning down to the last details.

I soon learnt that the key difficulty of the walk lies in its provisioning. Due to its remoteness, the AAWT does not pass by any towns where re-supply is possible. There are a few alpine ski villages encountered, but their shops are more suited to stocking up on sugary snacks than proper backpacking food.

The solution to the provisioning problem is to place food drops along the route prior to commencing the walk. This way, only about a week’s worth of food needs to be carried at any one time, which is manageable. However, considering the food portions needed to fuel a hungry hiker, even the weight of a single week’s worth of food becomes considerable. Preparing the correct food for my proposed 10 week walk was a major task that I will detail in later posts.

During my research I also discovered that most of the access roads to the AAWT are closed over the winter due to snowfall. Since I was to commence my walk in early spring, before these mountain roads are re-opened, I had to stash my food drops in autumn, prior to the seasonal road closures. Therefore, all my food had to be prepared and packaged about 4 months before I actually started the walk.

A typical 4WD track along the route of the AAWT

A typical 4WD track along the route of the AAWT

Acquiring the correct equipment needed to deal with the wild weather conditions in the Australian Alps was another element of the preparation. After much advice from fellow hikers and online forums, I purchased my shelter, sleeping bag, boots, backpack and all other gear required to be comfortable in the mountains for the duration of my walk. When my rucksack was finally packed, it was heavy but I was satisfied that it contained everything that I required to complete the walk safely and comfortably.

Physically, I felt ready for the AAWT.  Having spent the better part of the summer walking as a guide on Tasmania’s Overland Track, I felt strong and confident that my body was ready for the challenge of an extended walk with a heavy pack.

As my day of departure got closer and closer, there was no nervousness, only elation. I was about to trade my complex city comforts for a much simpler, nomadic lifestyle.
Instead of hot showers in a steaming bathroom I would enjoy swims in ice cold mountain streams; instead of a comfortable bed, I would sleep on the peaks of mountains, where I’d watch the birth and death of the sun, as it rose and as it set; instead of waking up to the sound of an alarm bell, I would let the birds wake me up with song; and instead of sinking into a couch, I would walk on lonely ridge tops and feel the solitude of a million years.

When the day finally came and I swung my pack on, I was answering the call of the mountains. I was finally going home.

Sunset on Mt Buller, Victorian Alps

Sunset on Mt Buller, Victorian Alps