Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Tag: camp

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.

 

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.