“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” -Edmund Hillary
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.