Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Tag: endurance

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.

Mt Hotham Luxury Resort

Sunset on Mt Buller, Victorian Alps

Sunset on Mt Buller, Victorian Alps

I was camped in a sheltered saddle; underneath the ominous bluff of the Viking. The oppressive, humid weather that’s been building towards a precipitous release had just about reached breaking point. I was listening to the howling of the wind as it collided with the escarpments hundreds of metres above, creating a violent hum that made me glad I was in a more sheltered location.

I was not entirely surprised to have around 4-5 friendly visitors in my tent after leaving the door open for only a couple of minutes. The bugs, caterpillar and beautiful green spider were all doing their best to escape the imminent rain. I placed them outside gently, underneath the shelter of my vestibule, but away from my sleeping space, where they could crawl into my ear while I slept.

When the sky eventually broke, I was satisfied to listen to the sound of the downpour from the comfort of my tent. Although I was in the wild, I was protected and safe. While the mountain peaks were massaged by the soaking rain, I sat inside my tent, warm, dry and comfortable. It was only a little victory, but one that filled me with appreciation and a childish sense of wonder.

A magical fabric, confining water to the outside only.

A magical fabric, confining water to the outside only.

At this stage I’ve walked a tough 34 days, but was only 3 days away from one of the key milestones of my journey: Mt Hotham. Reaching this alpine village would not only be the first pocket of civilisation I would encounter during my traverse of the Australian Alps but also represent the end of the most challenging section of the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT). From here onwards, the average daily elevation change would decrease slightly, and the quality of the walking tracks would improve as well. In many ways, reaching Mt Hotham would be the first real confirmation that I had a strong chance of success in completing my 11 week walk as intended.

Leaner, fitter, stronger

Having walked with a 35kg backpack every day for over a month, my body had changed considerably. I had become fitter, leaner and stronger, but my appetite had also shot through the roof. I could not seem to eat enough food to sate my constant hunger.

Yet, my focus was 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 realised that by being able to stroll through the woods and observing Nature, and all her inhabitants at my leisure, I could learn secrets that are much older than any ideas conceived by humans. Through understanding Nature, we have a chance to glimpse the eternal, the timeless and universal.

Day by day, my thoughts began to focus on my present reality. Cravings of the world outside of a civilised life awaiting me upon my return from the wilderness were slowly fading away. Hot showers, comfortable beds and clean fingernails suddenly seemed a lot less important. Like morning mist that rises from the valley after dawn, so my mind had begun to clear, the fog clearing from my thoughts, sharpening my mind with intent.

Dandongdale Falls, near Lake Cobbler

Dandongdale Falls, near Lake Cobbler

Nevertheless, the daily challenges of my walk would always bring me back to the practical matters. The overgrown tracks, lack of water and endless series of hills of the Barry Mountains represented a worthy mental challenge.

During this unmaintained section of the AAWT, there was always a branch or two hundred that required ducking under, pushing aside or simply ploughing through, aided by the momentum given to me by the weight of my pack. Every now and then, this ploughing manoeuvre would backfire and I’d find myself snagged on a cheeky branch that has hooked itself into my pack in such a devious way that I would have to reverse in order to gain freedom, feeling every bit as cumbersome as an obese elephant. Through all my wrestling with the undergrowth, I tried to remind myself that an overgrown track is exactly that; an overgrown track. Who was I to blame Nature for taking back what’s rightfully hers?

 

Tent amongst the snowgums, near the summit of Mt Speculation

Tent amongst the snowgums, near the summit of Mt Speculation

Besides the overgrown tracks and the scrambling over fallen logs, the element of the ‘Dry Barries’ that tested my resolve most was the endless series of wooded knolls, none of which were distinct enough to feel any sense of accomplishment after having reached the top, and yet, infuriatingly, the track seemed to insist on climbing every single one of these unmemorable hills. I felt like Sisyphus, attempting to complete a task that was not only infinite, but also quite tedious.

Then, quite an amazing thing happened. I reached a knoll where there was a small clearing of trees to one side, giving me a small window of a view towards the surrounding hills. As I was looking out over the endless ridges of wooded hills, coloured blue by distance and haze, the sun broke through the clouds, despite a fine drizzle; and low and behold, a faint rainbow appeared over the closest valley I was looking out over. The sudden appearance of beauty caught my breath and I looked on in wonder. Before I could fully appreciate this unexpected arch of colour in the sky, in a flash it was gone, and I was left wondering whether it has been really there at all.

Eventually, as I neared Mt Hotham, the stark beauty of this recently burnt landscape dawned on me. The skeleton trees made the hills appear as if a great curse has befallen the land; the trunks having all been turned to stone, their twisted limbs frozen for eternity. The dead snowgums gave these hills a tragically beautiful and sombre tone, and at no time was this more noticeable than during the stillness of the night, when even the breeze seemed gentler. As the moon illuminated rolling ridge after rolling ridge blanketed with the white skeletons of trees, I felt as if I’ve stepped into the afterlife, where all is eternal and nothing ever stirs.

Then the morning came, as it always does and life resumed once again in all its glory. The birds were awake, singing how wonderful it is to be alive and all the ants scurried across the grass, gathering, gathering, and gathering. With the vastness of this mountain landscape and the vibrancy of its life, how could one’s mind not be at peace? Yet, change is inevitable.

Eventually the new generation of saplings will take over and the old remnants of trees fall, one by one to the ground where they will rot and become one with the soil, providing nourishment for their offspring. This process is already well under way; I heard a mighty crash of what would have surely been an impressive tree while still alive; its fall lasted barely more than a moment, and yet it was the tree’s final farewell gesture, as its rotten roots gave way on the steep slope, its massive trunk surrendering to gravity. Thus, the death of a tree barely goes unnoticed.

From the ashes, however, life is always born; the green understorey shooting up beneath; a new generation of saplings vying for the light. Dense and full of fight, these saplings will compete with one another until only the tallest and fittest survive, founding the basis for the next phase in the forest’s life cycle.

 

Looking out from the summit of Mt Cobbler

Looking out from the summit of Mt Cobbler

Steep terrain on an adventurous side trip to photograph a waterfall

Steep terrain on an adventurous side trip to photograph a waterfall

When I eventually glimpsed Mt Hotham, it stood solemnly, its bare ridges scarred by roads. Despite the lack of wilderness, it was an imposing view. When I finally rolled in to the General Store, a pub, post office and shop all in one, I was jubilant. Despite already possessing everything I really needed, I bought myself a warm meal, and stocked up on some ‘essentials’ from their grocery store: lollies, butter, bacon, chocolate, fresh bread and some blue cheese. I nearly buckled underneath the extra load, combined with ten days of provisions that I picked up just previously, but I couldn’t have been happier. I made for Derrick’s Hut in a state of bliss, belly full of steak, beer and chocolate cake.

The golden afternoon sun on Mt Eadley Stone.

The golden afternoon sun on Mt Eadley Stone.

Although jubilant, I was also contemplative. Dealing with the ongoing challenges of the nomadic routine, I came to understand that my elevated mood would pass, like all things pass with time. In general, the things we perceive as bad or unpleasant are in fact neither of those. They could just as easily be seen as good or pleasant by another mind. Life is a series of cycles, mainly unaffected by our humble presence. Whether we label in our own minds subjective sections of these cycles with adjectives is irrelevant, the Earth will keep turning and the sun will keep shining even when the night obscures our view. It’s worth remembering that sunrise is only a victory because it follows the night.

‘The Reserve’ in Winter

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Some moments, are just perfect.

Some moments, are just perfect.

The simple title, ‘Scenic Reserve’ was bestowed on the spectacular area of Tasmania’s Central Highlands in 1922. Encompassed within the protected area were the iconic Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair as well as countless and lesser known rugged peaks.  Nearly a 100 years later, this World Heritage Area stands under a different name officially (Cradle Mt-Lake St Clair NP), but local naturalists and bushwalkers still refer to this unique and wild mountainous area fondly as ‘The Reserve’.

Paddy's Nut and Mt Pelion West, viewed from Mt Ossa.

Paddy’s Nut and Mt Pelion West, viewed from Mt Ossa.

I recently had the privilege of spending 25 uninterrupted days exploring the windswept peaks in this ‘Reserve’ at the darkest time of year, in mid-winter. With only ten hours of daylight each day and the wind chill bringing apparent temperatures down as low as minus 20 C on some days, my tolerance to the cold was well and truly tested.

Morning mist flowing over the pass between Mt Thetis and Mt Achilles. Cradle Mt-Lake St Clair NP

Morning mist flowing over the pass between Mt Thetis and Mt Achilles. Cradle Mt-Lake St Clair NP

My ambitions were to climb as many of the lesser visited peaks in the park as I was able to do, gaining spectacular views of the frozen winter landscape. By spending nearly a month in the unforgiving conditions, I came to appreciate not only the beauty, but also the bite of the Tasmanian alpine winter.

Mt Geryon and the Pool of Memories

Mt Geryon and the Pool of Memories

For more images from this trip, please have a look under the ‘Gallery‘ tab.