Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Tag: Hike

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.

 

The Viking-Wonongatta Circuit: steaks and a bottle of beer…

Every solo adventure needs an intermission, a break in the routine of self discovery; often it’s in the form of shared company that so often leads to the creation of new stories and camaraderie.

The Viking, Victorian Alps

The Viking, Victorian Alps

The intermission in my journey through the Australian Alps was brought to me by my friend Jimmy Harris, who is a keen alpine walker and photographer himself. Along with his good spirits and easy-going attitude, he brought with him two premium rump steaks and a bottle of single malt scotch.

We were sitting around the campfire we conjured from the bountiful scatterings of dead snowgum branches. It was the end of winter, and the lack of visitors to the Mt Speculation campsite meant that firewood was plentiful. Sitting near the roaring fire, we toasted with the scotch to our good fortune. We were out in the mountains, away from the noise and hassles of the city.

We choose a large and mostly flat rock as a hot plate, cooking our steaks to perfection, complete with a smoky flame grilled taste. After three weeks of dehydrated meals, the first bite into the juicy steak was a mouthwatering moment of pure joy. We washed it down with another cup of scotch, and after many good yarns, went to sleep relatively early in anticipation of our upcoming Viking-Wonongatta Circuit, which would take us the next four days to complete.

View from the Crosscut Saw, Victorian Alps

View from the Crosscut Saw, Victorian Alps

I had met Jimmy on one of my work trips on the Overland Track in Tasmania. I guided him and his wife along with an adventurous group of punters only the previous summer, where Jimmy and I agreed to undertake a walk together in the Victorian Alps, if we got the chance. As it turned out, the dates happened to line up to suit both of us, and he agreed to join me for the challenging Viking-Wonongatta Circuit during my Australian Alps Traverse, which involved going off-track in some very remote country.

“How do you know we’re going the right way?”-he asked during a particularly steep section of the descent from the rocky summit of the Viking, towards the Wonongatta River.

As I began rattling off various techniques about how to follow a heavily wooded ridge, when visibility is reduced to a less than a hundred metres, I suddenly realised we were no longer following it. Amidst all my confidence in my navigational ability, I had lost our lifeline-ridge through the dense forest. Although we picked up the correct ridge shortly afterwards by sidling the slope, it was a wake-up call to both of us not to be overly complacent.

“I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to undertake this circuit on my own.” Jimmy said shortly afterwards.

“I don’t know if I would’ve been comfortable doing this solo either” I replied.

We both laughed and from that point on Jimmy undertook the role of secondary navigator, with gps in hand. He fulfilled his navigational role with great prudence for the rest of the trip, correcting my lead where it was necessary. I wonder whether he saw his role as a matter of pure survival, as I continued to drag him further and further into dense undergrowth, days away from any chance of rescue.

The Devil's Staircase, near Mt Howitt.

The Devil’s Staircase, near Mt Howitt.

The beauty of walking in the Victorian High Country in spring is that most of the access tracks which are often overrun by vehicles in summer, are still closed, leaving the walker to enjoy the surroundings in serenity.

The Viking-Razor area (the two most prominent peaks in the area) is a declared wilderness zone, meaning that there is minimum track maintenance and signage, adding to the sense of adventure. The ruggedness of the terrain also makes for a sense of isolation and immersion into Nature that is so hard to come by these ‘modern’ days. During my three weeks spent in the region between the Bluff and Mt Hotham, I only met three other people besides my friend Jimmy. It is remote country and any traveller needs to be completely self sufficient.

The cross cut saw after some fresh snow.

The cross cut saw after some fresh snow.

The hills here are also much more prominent than most other parts of the Victorian High Country, which are often characterised by densely vegetated forests and have a gentle, rolling nature. Here, the dominant peaks of the Viking, Mt Howitt and the Crosscut Saw rise well above the tree line. The alpine grasses become the primary vegetation and many wildflowers bloom in summer. Some of the mountains also have steep escarpments, which again set this area apart from many of their smaller and less spectacular cousins. This section of the high country has been and will be a mecca for bushwalkers, not only for the awe inspiring views and challenging terrain but also due to its lack of vehicular access. In Victoria, this is as close as you can get to true wilderness.

Of course, even in wilderness one may find traces of civilization. During our ascent out of the Wonongatta Valley towards Macalister Springs, we picked up numerous tins of beer cans, crushed and broken under countless tyres of four wheel drivers that drive through here in summer. While these access roads allow appreciation of this area for a wider audience, vehicular access often invites those who do not respect the pristine beauty of these hills adequately. Entering wild places should be a sacred privilege, not an entitlement to hoon, destroy and not give a damn.

Then again, we were glad to find one particular item during our walk. Lying in front of us on the track was a full bottle of unopened beer, pre chilled in the brisk spring air. Jimmy picked it up just as we were nearing Vallejo Gartner Hut near Macalister Springs. We’ve had a long day of climbing and some very bleak clouds were approaching. We were puzzled by the unopened bottle and wondered about the story of how it got there. Did someone leave it there on purpose, hoping that a thirsty hiker may quench their thirst or did it simply fall out of someone’s pack? Either case, we picked it up and took it with us to the hut.

Mt Speculation, from the Crosscut Saw.

Mt Speculation, from the Crosscut Saw.

Just as the clouds opened up and frozen snowflakes started plummeting from the sky, we reached the hut and quickly set a fire inside. We cracked the beer open with a satisfying twist of the cap. It was a surreal experience, being in total comfort and bliss while the sky caved in outside.

We stayed up late that night, swapping stories of our respective journeys that have brought us to that particular point in time. As is always the case when we open up to others, common ground was found and the foundation for a strong friendship was laid.

Vallejo Gartner Hut after a snow shower.

Vallejo Gartner Hut after a snow shower.

As for me, the temptation to experience the storm outside was simply too great to resist. Just as Jimmy got ready for bed, I strapped on my boots and with all the relevant safety gear in my day pack, left the hut to climb to the nearby summit of Mt Howitt. It would be nearly midnight by the time I had returned to the hut.

The storm has abated and a dense fog sat in the air as I ascended. It was still, quiet and freezing cold as I reached the summit. I stood up there, staring out into the darkness. I didn’t particularly mind that I couldn’t see much. Some things are invisible to the naked eye.

A resilient snowgum survives even in the most exposed conditions.

A resilient snowgum survives even in the most exposed conditions.

‘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.

Lost and Found in the Thompson Valley

The helicopter flew overhead, high and fast. It was from search and rescue. I wondered who it may be looking for. I hoped that there hasn’t been a tragedy.

The hills in this section of the Australian Alps were remote; it’s been four days since I’ve seen another person. My phone has been out of range for three days and I was relying on my satellite messenger to check in daily with my emergency contacts. My device allowed me to send an OK message out, but not to receive any messages in. I could only hope that my messages were getting through. As far as the outside world was concerned, I was completely in the dark.

I was 6 days into my 74 day solo trip across the Australian Alps and was traversing the catchment area of the Thompson River in the Victorian Alps. This section of the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT) was characterised by monotonous forestry roads, 4WD tracks and plenty of elevation change.

Steep 4wd tracks characterized this section of the AAWT.

Steep 4wd tracks characterized this section of the AAWT.

It didn’t take me long to realise that I underestimated the difficulty that the hills would present me due to the bulk of my pack. The climbs were proving grueling and I was covering less ground than I anticipated. I knew that the walking would eventually get easier as my body adapted to the weight of my pack, but I wondered how long exactly this process might take. After six days on the track, I was only getting wearier, not stronger. I was looking forward to my first rest day.

While putting one foot in front of the other during the endless climb up to Mt Victor, I was day dreaming about reaching my first food drop; 4 days of walking away. Hidden in the scrub near Rumpff Saddle, in tightly sealed containers were the provisions required for the next leg of my journey. Reaching this location would represent hitting the first real checkpoint of my walk. I was looking forward to celebrating this occasion with a couple of beers, which were treats I placed alongside my food and fuel in the tubs four months previously.

An old trig marker on the summit of Mt Easton, one of the steeper climbs of the AAWT.

An old trig marker on the summit of Mt Easton, one of the steeper climbs of the AAWT.

I was brought out of my reverie by the appearance of the first person I’ve seen in four days. He was an older man, rolling down the hill towards me on his motorbike. Rifle slung across his shoulder, the old hunter was riding an old Honda with a well worn sheepskin draped over the seat. As he came to a halt next to me I wondered which one was older, the man or the motorbike. He squinted at me through his glasses and said:

‘You’re not the fellow they’re looking for, are ya?’

Suddenly, there was a cold pit where my stomach was only a moment before.

‘Who are they looking for?’ I asked intently. My words felt unnatural. I haven’t spoken in four days.

‘Young fella, walking the alpine trail. They haven’t heard from him in two days.’

I knew it had to be me. I haven’t seen any other hikers in days.

I said goodbye to the old hunter and wished him luck with the deer. As I continued to trudge up the hill, the pieces of the puzzle slowly began to fit together in my head. The helicopter I saw the previous day started making sense.

My satellite messages must not have been getting through to my designated contacts, triggering the alarm. It was our arranged plan after all. Should they have no contact from me for 48 hours, their job was to alert search and rescue. This would account for a scenario where I was unconscious and unable to set off the SOS message on my satellite messenger. My contacts could not have possibly known that I have been sending the OK messages and they simply weren’t getting through. To them, my life could have been in grave danger.

My suspicions were confirmed three hours later, when I gained the peak of Mt Victor. Up there on the summit, I received phone service for the first time in days. My phone began buzzing furiously as the influx of messages came through. I had over 20 missed calls and a number of text messages saying that search and rescue has been initiated. I was horrified at the extent of the effort that was taken to locate me, while I was blissfully enjoying my walk through the hills.

After a number of lengthy phone calls, the situation was cleared up. I spoke to the coordinator of the search effort, who orchestrated the police and volunteers. He was understanding and said he wasn’t particularly concerned for me, upon seeing my background and preparation for the trip. The police at the time however, saw it differently. And so the search was initiated. It was called off the next day, when one of my check in messages eventually went through. To prevent another false alarm, we agreed that the period of no-contact should be longer than 48 hours before emergency services are alerted. This would allow for the failure of technology, as any emergency plan should.

I spoke to my friends and my family and assured them I was well and intent on continuing with my walk as planned. We changed the time of no contact from 48 to 168 hours. While this minimised the likelihood of triggering another false alarm, it also meant that if anything did happen to me and I was unable to use my satellite messenger, it would be a full week before a rescue effort was initiated. No solution is ever perfect.

A flower at the sight of the abandoned Violet Town in the Jordan River's valley.

A flower at the sight of the abandoned Violet Town in the Jordan River’s valley.

It was three days later, when the emergency scare was already turning to a memory, that I reached the location of my first food drop. I had walked a long way that day and the light had long since faded into night. I began looking with a single minded determination, despite the lack of visibility. At first, I couldn’t find my plastic tub and for the better part of half an hour I believed my supplies have disappeared; that someone had found it and knocked it off. Then, to my elation, I spotted it amongst the scrub and patches of snow; intact and undisturbed. The stress of the last week escaped me with a single exhalation. With fresh supplies, I could continue my journey as planned.

I cracked the cold beer open and sipped with satisfaction. I had walked for 10 days and had 64 to go. The world was literally at my feet. For a brief moment, anything seemed possible.

The author, on top of Mt Victor, with 10 weeks remaining of the Australian Alps traverse.

The author, on top of Mt Victor, with 10 weeks remaining of the Australian Alps traverse.