Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Tag: story

The final mountain: Mt Jagungal

“Love all that surrounds you and the world will fall at your feet in gratitude; try and exert you will over it and it is likely to kick back with a vengeance.”

 

Open country

Open country

The sun was setting a blood orange in the west and the Jagungal Wilderness lay ahead of me as an open expanse, inviting.

I was on the undulating alpine plateau of the Kerries, the continuation of the Snowy Mountains to the north, and I was letting my feet guide me towards the lone summit of a majestic Mt Jagungal, as it hovered above the rolling landscape.

The gentle curves of these hills made for marvellous walking; untracked and untamed; they allowed me to pick my own route, imperfect, yet satisfying. The river valleys were clear of scrub and trees, a result of severe frosts and saturated soils. I used these valleys as my guide to bring me ever closer to my destination. The mountain stood, waiting.

The skeleton trees watched on. Twisted, gnarled, their limbs contorted in agony from drought, fire and frost, their suffering written into every wooded fibre. Survival up here requires more than pleasure. My diary details my impression of one tree in particular that was killed by the fires that swept through the high country in 2003-2006:

“The snowgum was bleached white, leaves stripped; leaving a grotesquely twisted skeletal form that was perched on top of a huge granite boulder. From a distance it appeared to be growing out of the rock itself. Its trunk was wide, perhaps a metre in diameter, though its height was no more than 3-4 metres. It was the skeleton of an ancient being, hundreds of years old whose torso was completely warped with a pattern like a corkscrew.
However, with death, new life begins: around the boulder, saplings were springing up; no doubt the offspring of this older tree, whose seeds, having lain dormant in the soil for many years, were finally allowed to germinate when the fire swept through.”- Day 67 of my AAWT Diary

You can tell which way the wind blows.

You can tell which way the wind blows.

 

Yes, it was day 67 of my walk and the memory of my departure was in the distant past. Remembering the trials of my first week, the depth of the snow; the magnitude of the challenge I have taken on, the weight of my pack, the finger numbing cold; they were all an endless series of dreams of a life I once knew.

From snowstorms, to the oppressing heat, I watched the transition of Australia’s Alps from the chill of winter to the oppressive heat of summer. I saw the spring snow melt, day by day, and the flowers spring up as the days lengthened and the temperatures warmed. Through this process, I was peering through a window not only into the heart of the high country, but also into my own heart as well.

One of the things that I noticed as the days got longer was that my mood seemed to share an inverse relationship with the temperature. The misery of my existence on these warmer days could be summed up with a single word: flies. My diary once again gives insight.

The flies like to hitch a ride on my pack and take turns harassing me before settling down, to rest up for another bombardment when their turn comes. In this way, I carry with me my own, constantly shifting cloud of flies, which only grow thicker as the day passes and their numbers accumulate, well into the hundreds. The potent poison of deet seems to keep them out of my nostrils, eyes and ears. Without the repellent, life would be unbearable. The unpleasantness of the whole affair dawns on me occasionally, about once every 20 seconds.”

Another aspect of walking in the heat was the loss of water and salt from my own body, requiring me to carry up to three litres of water per day. I also carried with me a small bag of salt, which I nibbled on the hotter days, to replace the salt I sweated through my skin. The accumulation of body odours was also inevitable:

“My feet smell like a good blue cheese, my socks like a bad one.”

View from high camp on Mt Jagungal

View from high camp on Mt Jagungal

 

Yes, it was day 67 and I plodded on towards the elevated figure of Mt Jagungal.

This mountain’s attractive stature draws the eye from a distance. Towering well above the surrounding countryside, its prominence creates a sense of regality. As I drew closer to its slopes, it got taller and taller, promising a gruelling climb to a high saddle where I intended to camp.

I filled up my water bladder for the night from a creek which I judged to be the last running water before reaching my campsite. The sun was now low on the horizon, only a couple of hours were left before it sank for good, giving way to the moon.

Eventually, I reached the exposed high saddle I have been aiming for and pitched my tent. I was tired, but not exhausted. My position gave me views to both the journey that lay behind as well as ahead of me. To the south, the impressive peaks of the Main Range were becoming barely more than a silhouette, while in the far distance I could just make out the dark shape of Mt Bogong, which lay a month’s walk behind me. With the satisfaction of the accomplishment slowly sinking in, my mind wondered, contemplating the previous ten weeks on the trail.

The horizon was a transition of colour, from a deep orange to a hazy pink and finally a dark blue, above. I saw the white streak of airliner jets leaving their mark, too far for the sound of their engines to be heard. I wondered about all those lives, sitting comfortably in the passenger seats, bored and oblivious to the wonder of flight. For a minute I wished I was the pilot, looking out over the continents from the powerful seat in the cockpit, making the world my highway, then contended myself with where I was, on a mountaintop, enjoying the solitude and an immense view.

The sun had barely sunk below the horizon when I was privy to an unusual occurrence. My ears pricked up as I heard the hum of a green bug flying nearby. Soon there were hundreds, then thousands. They must have been biding their time, waiting for the cruel sun to disappear before rising up from the grass where they must have been hiding in the heat of the day. Soon, their numbers were in the millions. To heighten the chaos, swarms of moths appeared shortly, joining in the cavalcade, all flying erratically, joyous that their time of day has finally come. Later in the night I heard the sharp calls of the bats, no doubt feasting upon this extravagant swarm.

As I sat there, near the summit of Mt Jagungal, I wondered; is there anything more mysterious than a wild setting, with a myriad different animals and plants somehow existing, in tumultuous harmony?

Sunset on Mt Jagungal's Summit

Sunset on Mt Jagungal’s Summit

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 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.

Sunset in the heart of the Alps

Dawn awoke me with a kiss of frost

The mountains around me stood silent watch

White crowned peaks, swift rivers below,

The secrets of the wind shall never be known.

King Billy I, Victorian Alps

King Billy I, Victorian Alps

The sun was setting on my left, casting a deep shadow into the valley. I was moving along Mt Eadley Stone’s ridgeline, picking my footing quickly but precisely along the rocky track. Hiking high up on the summit ridge with a blue sky, a fresh breeze and mountains all around, I felt life pulsate through my veins with great force. Camera slung across my shoulder, I was aiming to beat the sun to the summit of the Bluff and snap some photos. It would be my first sunset from a mountaintop during my 74 day Australian Alps adventure. It certainly wasn’t the last.

Spring snow on the slopes of Mt King Billy I

Spring snow on the slopes of Mt King Billy I

The double peak of the Bluff-Mt Eadley Stone massif is situated in the heart of the Victorian Alps. Here, the usually mellow Great Dividing Range shoots up from wild river valleys into some dramatically steep hills. The Bluff as such is surrounded by some of Australia’s most impressive mountains: Mt Buller, Mt Howitt, Mt Speculation, Mt Cobbler, Mt McDonald, Mt Clear, and the undulating knife blade ridge of the Crosscut Saw. The vista from the Bluff creates the effect of being surrounded by a titanic amphitheatre formed by the spine of the Great Dividing Range. The remote wilderness of the area means that even by taking in an immense view with a 50km radius, signs of the human world are minimal. The only blemish on the wilderness is on the upper slopes of Mt Buller, where the ski village can be disconcerted by the keen eye.

Dead snowgums with Mt Buller's snow capped peak in the background.

Dead snowgums with Mt Buller’s snow capped peak in the background.

In such a setting, my mind was set free, and I appreciated the surroundings with a calm disposition. Dominating the scenery along the track were the twisted figures of an incredibly tough tree: the Snowgum (Eucalyptus Pauciflora). The pain of living in harsh alpine conditions is written into every woody fibre of these plants. The age of any individual tree can be estimated by the girth of its trunk, for most of these trees stand at a uniform height. It is a rare case where gaining extra height would prove a disadvantage, for it would leave the taller plant exposed to the howling, icy winds. Tormented by wind and cold, they have twisted their trunks into all kinds of fantastic shapes, as if pleading for their suffering to end.

Snowgum, with Mt McDonald in background

Snowgum, with Mt McDonald in background

As I got closer to the summit I caught sight of an immense wedge-tailed eagle. She was hovering barely ten metres above the summit, trying to make way in the headwind, her wings spread out completely motionless as if she was levitating. She was so close I could see individual feathers being ruffled by the wind surging past. My trance of staring at the eagle didn’t last long however, the wind changed and suddenly she was lifted up and started circling, rising quickly and soon disappearing from sight.

Sunsets on mountaintops is one of the most sacred experiences we can witness.

Sunsets on mountaintops is one of the most sacred experiences we can witness.

‘I feel pretty good for day 17’ I remember thinking to myself. Although I was still less than a quarter of the way through my traverse of the Australian Alps, the nomadic routine has begun to establish itself. With each passing day, my body felt a little stronger and a little fitter. Rather than stressing about the weight of my pack or the discomforts of the weather, I was beginning to pay more attention to my surroundings. An ability to shift my focus away from my own being and extend my attention to other things around me was a key step in truly enjoying my journey through the Alps. Standing there, on the summit of the Bluff, as the sun sank a bit closer to the horizon, and a golden glow was cast across the landscape, a deep sense of calm came over me. I was amazed at the transformation that took place, as the mountains draped themselves in their night cloaks of twilight.

The golden afternoon sun on Mt Eadley Stone.

The golden afternoon sun on Mt Eadley Stone.

Eventually, my mind became free of thought, ready to accept whatever was going to fall my way. Time became irrelevant and my mind became, for those brief moments at least, unbound and truly free.

Snowgum at sunset, The Bluff, Victorian Alps

Snowgum at sunset, The Bluff, Victorian Alps