Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Tag: Storm

Blizzard on the Bogong High Plains

Snow, snow snow. So much snow!

I spent half the night awake, being kept from a deep slumber by the gusting wind rattling my tent’s fabric. I could barely contain my excitement at the fresh snow, as it came down slowly but steadily throughout the night. Every time a sudden gust woke me, I would feel with my hands through the fabric of my tent the depth of the drift outside. The snow got deeper and the temperature got colder as the hand of my watch ticked a bit closer to dawn.

When I finally arose from my tent that morning, there was about 20cm of fresh snow on the ground. As I broke through the layer of ice that has formed in my water bottle overnight, I decided that this has definitely been the coldest morning of my trip so far. The wind was still howling and I utilised the luxury of Derrick’s Hut to stay warm during breakfast.

The irony wasn’t lost on me. Upon arrival to this campsite only the day before, I wondered how this landscape would look under fresh snow. Secretly, I wished for it to be winter, so I could see this alpine area as a winter wonderland. I never thought I’d get my wish, right before I would ascend to the highest and most exposed section of my walk up to that point: the Bogong High Plains.

The snowpoles were essential aids for navigation in the poor visibility.

The snowpoles were essential aids for navigation in the poor visibility.

The snow poles across this uniform plateau have saved many lives over the years, by guiding the traveller in poor weather. The three metre tall treated pine posts stand as guardians when the track is buried under heavy snow, creating a lifeline that is easy to follow, even in the worst conditions. Without the safety of these poles, a white out up here would be completely disorienting. The homogeneity of these plains means that when visibility is poor, the country looks similar in all directions, making it very difficult to navigate with map and compass. A number of cross country skiers have lost their lives on these plains in poor weather.

A partially frozen pond on the High Plains.

A partially frozen pond on the High Plains.

The wind was ripping across the plains as I left the safety of the tree line, carrying with it a fine, frozen flakes of snow; stinging pellets of ice that made me tuck my chin down and focus on the next step. I was geared up, with no flesh exposed at all, and despite the effort required to make headway in the wind with my behemoth pack, I was barely keeping warm enough.

I was doing my best to blitz my way across the blizzard blasted plains and arrive to the relative shelter of Tawonga Huts, a campsite often used by school groups, with its tin huts for shelter. I was thinking of a cup of hot chocolate and the warmth of my sleeping bag, as I took one step at a time, the wind pushing at me from my right, often nearly knocking me down to the ground.

When I eventually arrived to my destination for the night, I was less than impressed at the state of the hut that was to be my accommodation. It was literally a creaking tin box held together by some rusty bolts; the fireplace long ago removed, the opening for the chimney pipe a gaping hole in the wall, leaving a wicked draft to circulate in the single room. I did my best to hang a tarp over the doorway to block at least some of the chill.

While they provided me with basic shelter, I was half surprised that these huts, with their rusted bolts and creaky corrugated iron sheets held together in the blizzard.

While they provided me with basic shelter, I was half surprised that these huts, with their rusted bolts and creaky corrugated iron sheets even held together in the blizzard.

I was surprised to hear that the wind was still increasing in intensity. As I took refuge inside, the wind had become an angry beast awaken from its long slumber and was set on wrecking havoc with savage howls. The roar was constant, and my flimsy tin hut sang with it in harmony, creaking bolts and rattling roof tiles all contributing to the crude orchestra. I felt as if any moment, one of the wind gusts could lift the roof right off, and I would be sucked through a wormhole to a place of frozen wonders. I knew how Dorothy would have felt the moment before the tornado picked up her house and carried her away from Kansas to the magical world of Oz. In the end, I decided to pitch my free standing tent in the middle of the floor inside the hut, in case the roof did lift off in the middle of the night.

In the morning, I woke to a calm, frozen wonderland. The remnant clouds from the storm were still hovering around, but would occasionally clear to reveal snippets of a blue sky overhead. It was bitterly cold, with inches of hoarfrost on the boulders outside, but the day held promise. Everywhere I looked; there was a titanic magnificence at play; a bright orange cloud here, a rainbow there, a dark snow cloud hovering over there. It was incredible, watching the raw beauty in Nature’s power displayed in such a grand setting.

Frozen snowgum, near Mt Jaithmatung.

Frozen snowgum, near Mt Jaithmatung.

As I struck out to ascend Mt Jaithmatung, I marveled at the toughness and adaptability of the flora that exist on these plains. For much of the winter, the leaves of trees become frozen solid, and anything living on the ground is compressed under metres of stifling snow. Then in summer, the blistering heat sets in and the plants must survive with barely any water at all. A hardy and rugged life these beings lead. Much tougher than us, puny humans who with even all our gear and warm clothing always complain about the cold and the heat, although we spend barely a few days up here at a time, after which we return to our comfortable homes and routine lives.

Cope Saddle Hut

The snow didn’t last long,;barely a day later, most of it has already melted.

The High Plains still held a surprise for me that day. I was taking my steps carefully through the snow, doing my best to follow the track hidden underneath. The transformation that has taken place in the previous 24 hours was remarkable. From the promise and warmth of spring, to the cold heart of winter; the transition was sudden and complete. It was because of the stillness of the landscape that I was surprised to see movement through the trees.

They were large, dark shapes, with four legs. As I got closer, they lifted their heads and watched me with suspicion. I was amused at how concerned these animals were about me, when they were many times my size.

The two wild horses turned out to be a mare and her foal, grazing peacefully. I decided not to approach too closely for an intrusive photo; their lives were already difficult enough without the extra hassle. They watched me till I was a safer distance away, then meandered on to look for some more suitable, less snowy grass. I continued on my journey, elevated and warmer with every step.

A wild horse grazing after a snow storm.

A wild horse grazing after a snow storm.

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.

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