Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Tag: National Park

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.

 

A taste of winter on the Baw Baw Plateau

I didn’t expect the snow to be this deep.

The AAWT underneath the snow, Baw Baw NP

The AAWT underneath the snow, Baw Baw NP

I was stepping, then sinking; stepping, then sinking again. My breath was laboured and I was sweating up a storm underneath my waterproof jacket. Despite the exertion, I wasn’t covering much ground at all. I hunched forward a bit more to counter the enormous weight resting on my back and continued to trudge through the wet snow.

I have reached the Baw Baw Plateau, marking the first alpine section of my 10 week Australian Alps Walk. Situated roughly 1400-1500m above sea level, the undulating plateau had its own climate, starkly different to the lush valleys where I’ve ascended from only the previous day. Down there, the weather was calm and warm; up here it was blowing a gale and half a metre of snow covered the ground.

I was doing my best to follow the track, hidden underneath the snow. The occasional track marker would let me know that I was still going the right way, but due to the uniformity of the terrain, I could have been walking around in circles and I wouldn’t have been the wiser.

A fine mist swirled around the army of snowgums whose twisted limbs I was walking underneath. The toughness of these trees (Eucalyptus Pauciflora) is nothing short of marvel. In winter, their home sits well above the snowline, while in summer, scorching bushfires ravage their habitat. Their limbs are eternally twisted by the elements into fantastic shapes that lie on the border of the beautiful and the grotesque.

Granite Boulder covered in moss, Baw Baw NP

Granite Boulder covered in moss, Baw Baw NP

Scattered across the plateau between the snowgums were enormous granite boulders on which a variety of mosses and lichens have taken up residence. What appeared to be a uniform green blanket from a distance however, turned out to be a thriving metropolis of a variety of different species; a miniature eco system growing on nothing but bare rock.

A miniature world growing on bare rock, Baw Baw NP

A miniature world growing on bare rock, Baw Baw NP

I eventually rolled in to my night’s campsite feeling every bit like an old and overweight tortoise. Due to the formidable weight of my pack, my hips were bruised and my shoulders were sore. The excessive weight was a result of carrying over a week’s worth of food and all the equipment required for the entire duration of my walk. While it was comforting to know that everything I could possibly need for the next two months was safely stowed away in my pack, the weight slowed me down. I was covering much less ground than I anticipated and I was worried about running out of food before getting to my first food drop.

A moody snowgum forest, Baw Baw NP

A moody snowgum forest, Baw Baw NP

The routine of setting up camp lifted my spirits a little. I pitched my tent, then quickly climbed inside, seeking refuge in the cocoon of my sleeping bag. Placing my lightweight stove just outside my vestibule’s door, I was able to cook dinner from inside the warm comfort of my tent. When my cup of miso soup was steaming hot and ready to drink, I cupped my hands around my mug and drank quickly. I felt the warmth spread through my tummy. I fell asleep shortly after dinner.

A magical fabric, confining water to the outside only.

A magical fabric, confining water to the outside only.

The thunderstorm woke me not long after. The rain was coming down hard and the wind was tearing through the canopies of the snowgums overhead with a fearsome howl. Periodically, a flash would light up my tent followed closely by the crack of thunder. Although I was sheltered from the lightning bolts by the trees standing overhead, I was momentarily terrified, like any animal should be terrified in the close presence of lightning.

Eventually, the storm subsided and the rain eased to a calm patter. As I drifted towards sleep again, I was content to be exactly where I was; sheltered, but deep in the wilderness.

The Governor, Victorian Alps

The Governor, Victorian Alps