Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Tag: trekking

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

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