Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Tag: Camping

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

 

Bivvy and dry powder on Mt Wellington, Tasmania

I hit the snowline much sooner than I had expected. There was slush on the road and the chain of cars driving up towards the mountain slowed right down in the treacherous conditions. The snow was only dumped the night before, transforming the forest on the lower slopes of Mt Wellington into a frozen white wonderland. The branches of the shrubs and trees were bowing down under the weight of the snow sitting on them, and there was close to a foot of the dry powder built up on the ground. Due to the maritime climate, powder in Tassie is rare and should be revered almost as much as a campfire on a really cold night!

The weight of the snow on the branches made them hang over the track, creating quite a barrier!

The weight of the snow on the branches made them hang over the track, creating quite a barrier!

While most of the town dwellers were shivering in Hobart and contemplating the oncoming winter, I figured that the rare snow conditions would be a perfect opportunity to rack up some snow experience before my upcoming 25 day off-track, mid-winter trip to the Reserve (aka Cradle Mt-Lake St Clair National Park). I had some new snowshoes and a bivvy that needed testing out. So I packed the bag for an overnighter and hopped in the car to drive up to ‘The Springs’, a picnic site set about two thirds of the way up the mountain, which also acts as one of the main trailheads from which Wellington Park may be explored.

Mt Wellington is a remarkable place. Set 1271m above sea level, it overlooks the city of Hobart and the estuary of one of Tasmania’s largest rivers: the Derwent. Viewed from the summit of kunanyi (an indigenous term for Mt Wellington, translating to ‘the mountain’), the city and the bay appears very far below, almost as if belonging to another world. To be able to follow a sealed road all the way up to the summit of such a special vantage point is a real privilege. On a ‘good’ day, the viewing platform on the summit is crawling with people, happy tourists and town dwellers enjoying the vista and the sacred experience of being on a mountaintop. Of course, after heavy snow dumps, the pinnacle road is closed.

Some of the icicles were 50cm in length.

Some of the icicles were 50cm in length.

I left my car at ‘The Springs’ and started the hike to the summit, some 550 vertical metres above. The snow weighed heavily on the saplings and shrubs lining the path, forming constant barricades across the walking track. The only way to get through was to try and duck under, which would consistently result in my pack hooking on some of the branches and promptly dumping snow right over the top of my head. I pulled up the hood of my jacket and continued trudging through the fresh powder that often came up to my knees.

The sun trying to break through a snow squall near the summit of kunanyi, Tasmania

The sun trying to break through a snow squall near the summit of kunanyi, Tasmania

I was amazed at the transformation of what was a familiar landscape into a foreign world. Icicles up to half a metre in length hung down from the dolerite boulders; the snow sat heavily and silently on everything. The city of Hobart could just be made out nearly a kilometre below, shimmering through the snow squalls and mist. I was anticipating reaching the wind swept summit plateau, where I would feel the full brunt of the elements and encounter the deepest drifts.

The distinctive radio tower emerging from the mist!

The distinctive radio tower emerging from the mist!

Ground blizzard on summit of kunanyi, Tasmania

Ground blizzard on summit of kunanyi, Tasmania

I was not disappointed. The summit plateau was transformed into a frozen wonderland. The drifts covered most of the vegetation, with the occasional shrub or boulder sticking out. The relentless wind carried the drift with it, creating a haunting and biting beauty to the landscape. I have never seen so much snow in my life. I tried to make a snowball, but failed. The powder was dry, and wouldn’t stick. It was cold (-20C accounting for windchill). It was time to take shelter in the lookout building and have lunch.

The frozen wonderland of mt Wellington's summit plateau. The effects of the wind are clearly visible!

The frozen wonderland of mt Wellington’s summit plateau. The effects of the wind are clearly visible!

The summit shelter, with about a metre of snow blowed in.

The summit shelter, with about a metre of snow blowed in.

The aim of my walk was to reach the summit of Collin’s Bonnet by sunrise the next day. Collins Bonnet is the second most prominent peak in Wellington Park, after Wellington itself, and takes a solid 4-6 hours of hiking from Wellington in the conditions I encountered. The depth of the drifts and the overhanging branches onto the walking tracks under the weight of the snow made it slow going. After tripping many times over my snowshoes on the uneven walking surface, I arrived at my campsite in a relatively sheltered saddle. I set up my bivvy and crawled straight in. My hands were cold, as I was waiting for my water to boil. The stars would occasionally peak out from behind the clouds. The gusts would howl through the grove of snowgums I was surrounded by. I set my alarm for 4am, and fell asleep.

Magic!

Magic!

It was still dark when I started for the summit of Collin’s Bonnet (1240m,). The snow poles made it possible to follow the track that was obscured by the snow sitting over it. The clouds have relentlessly set in, and the wind was howling when I reached the summit at 6:15am. The sun didn’t show for our date. With thoughts of a warm breakfast, I headed back to my campsite.

In the end, my mission to Wellington was a success: I got to trial my bivvy, snowshoes, and got to experience some rare conditions on kunanyi (the mountain). I feel just a bit better prepared for my 25 day adventure in June!

Sunset in the heart of the Alps

Dawn awoke me with a kiss of frost

The mountains around me stood silent watch

White crowned peaks, swift rivers below,

The secrets of the wind shall never be known.

King Billy I, Victorian Alps

King Billy I, Victorian Alps

The sun was setting on my left, casting a deep shadow into the valley. I was moving along Mt Eadley Stone’s ridgeline, picking my footing quickly but precisely along the rocky track. Hiking high up on the summit ridge with a blue sky, a fresh breeze and mountains all around, I felt life pulsate through my veins with great force. Camera slung across my shoulder, I was aiming to beat the sun to the summit of the Bluff and snap some photos. It would be my first sunset from a mountaintop during my 74 day Australian Alps adventure. It certainly wasn’t the last.

Spring snow on the slopes of Mt King Billy I

Spring snow on the slopes of Mt King Billy I

The double peak of the Bluff-Mt Eadley Stone massif is situated in the heart of the Victorian Alps. Here, the usually mellow Great Dividing Range shoots up from wild river valleys into some dramatically steep hills. The Bluff as such is surrounded by some of Australia’s most impressive mountains: Mt Buller, Mt Howitt, Mt Speculation, Mt Cobbler, Mt McDonald, Mt Clear, and the undulating knife blade ridge of the Crosscut Saw. The vista from the Bluff creates the effect of being surrounded by a titanic amphitheatre formed by the spine of the Great Dividing Range. The remote wilderness of the area means that even by taking in an immense view with a 50km radius, signs of the human world are minimal. The only blemish on the wilderness is on the upper slopes of Mt Buller, where the ski village can be disconcerted by the keen eye.

Dead snowgums with Mt Buller's snow capped peak in the background.

Dead snowgums with Mt Buller’s snow capped peak in the background.

In such a setting, my mind was set free, and I appreciated the surroundings with a calm disposition. Dominating the scenery along the track were the twisted figures of an incredibly tough tree: the Snowgum (Eucalyptus Pauciflora). The pain of living in harsh alpine conditions is written into every woody fibre of these plants. The age of any individual tree can be estimated by the girth of its trunk, for most of these trees stand at a uniform height. It is a rare case where gaining extra height would prove a disadvantage, for it would leave the taller plant exposed to the howling, icy winds. Tormented by wind and cold, they have twisted their trunks into all kinds of fantastic shapes, as if pleading for their suffering to end.

Snowgum, with Mt McDonald in background

Snowgum, with Mt McDonald in background

As I got closer to the summit I caught sight of an immense wedge-tailed eagle. She was hovering barely ten metres above the summit, trying to make way in the headwind, her wings spread out completely motionless as if she was levitating. She was so close I could see individual feathers being ruffled by the wind surging past. My trance of staring at the eagle didn’t last long however, the wind changed and suddenly she was lifted up and started circling, rising quickly and soon disappearing from sight.

Sunsets on mountaintops is one of the most sacred experiences we can witness.

Sunsets on mountaintops is one of the most sacred experiences we can witness.

‘I feel pretty good for day 17’ I remember thinking to myself. Although I was still less than a quarter of the way through my traverse of the Australian Alps, the nomadic routine has begun to establish itself. With each passing day, my body felt a little stronger and a little fitter. Rather than stressing about the weight of my pack or the discomforts of the weather, I was beginning to pay more attention to my surroundings. An ability to shift my focus away from my own being and extend my attention to other things around me was a key step in truly enjoying my journey through the Alps. Standing there, on the summit of the Bluff, as the sun sank a bit closer to the horizon, and a golden glow was cast across the landscape, a deep sense of calm came over me. I was amazed at the transformation that took place, as the mountains draped themselves in their night cloaks of twilight.

The golden afternoon sun on Mt Eadley Stone.

The golden afternoon sun on Mt Eadley Stone.

Eventually, my mind became free of thought, ready to accept whatever was going to fall my way. Time became irrelevant and my mind became, for those brief moments at least, unbound and truly free.

Snowgum at sunset, The Bluff, Victorian Alps

Snowgum at sunset, The Bluff, Victorian Alps

My tent

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

.

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.