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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!”
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.
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.”
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…