Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Tag: Wilderness

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

Australia’s Giants: The Snowy Mountains

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!

Looking towards the Main Range from Watson's Crag,

Looking towards the Main Range from Watson’s Crag,

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.

The Main Range, viewed from near Mt Tate.

The Main Range, viewed from near Mt Tate.

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.

Wild horses on the Rams Head Range

Wild horses on the Rams Head Range

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.

Looking back down towards the Threadbo River

Rob looking back down towards the Threadbo River’s Valley

Lake Albina, one of four glacial lakes on the Australian Mainland.

Lake Albina, one of four glacial lakes on the Australian Mainland.

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.

Cootapatamba Hut

Happy to arrive to Cootapatamba hut. The trap door on the top is for winter use, when the bottom door is snowed in.

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 Kosciuszko

The road to Mt Kosciuszko

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!”

Rob and myself, on the top of Australia,

Me and Rob, on the summit of Mt Kosciuszko

On a high point, near Mt Tate, the Main Range behind.

Me, on a high point, near Mt Tate, the Main Range behind.

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.

Rob, geared up against the wind.

Rob, geared up against the wind.

Spring Flowers, Rams Head Range

Spring Flowers, Rams Head Range

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.”

 

An adventurous glider pilot, he swooped right over our heads!

An adventurous glider pilot who swooped right over our heads!

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…

Looking towards Mt Jagungal

Looking towards Mt Jagungal

 

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.

Updated Gallery!

Firstly, a huge thank you to all my followers who have subscribed recently!

Over the next few weeks I will be working hard to write some more content for Mountains of Australia. I will be aiming to complete the story of my Australian Alps adventure undertaken last year, as well as multiple shorter adventures in the wild mountains of Tasmania. If you are a follower, you will automatically receive updates as I post the new content.

For the time being, please check out my newly updated Gallery for the complete selection of photos from my 74 day Australian Alps adventure as well as my more recent winter trip to Tasmania’s Highlands.

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– A.S.

Please, click on this image of an ancient snowgum to proceed to the gallery

Please, click on this image to proceed to the gallery

Lost and Found in the Thompson Valley

The helicopter flew overhead, high and fast. It was from search and rescue. I wondered who it may be looking for. I hoped that there hasn’t been a tragedy.

The hills in this section of the Australian Alps were remote; it’s been four days since I’ve seen another person. My phone has been out of range for three days and I was relying on my satellite messenger to check in daily with my emergency contacts. My device allowed me to send an OK message out, but not to receive any messages in. I could only hope that my messages were getting through. As far as the outside world was concerned, I was completely in the dark.

I was 6 days into my 74 day solo trip across the Australian Alps and was traversing the catchment area of the Thompson River in the Victorian Alps. This section of the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT) was characterised by monotonous forestry roads, 4WD tracks and plenty of elevation change.

Steep 4wd tracks characterized this section of the AAWT.

Steep 4wd tracks characterized this section of the AAWT.

It didn’t take me long to realise that I underestimated the difficulty that the hills would present me due to the bulk of my pack. The climbs were proving grueling and I was covering less ground than I anticipated. I knew that the walking would eventually get easier as my body adapted to the weight of my pack, but I wondered how long exactly this process might take. After six days on the track, I was only getting wearier, not stronger. I was looking forward to my first rest day.

While putting one foot in front of the other during the endless climb up to Mt Victor, I was day dreaming about reaching my first food drop; 4 days of walking away. Hidden in the scrub near Rumpff Saddle, in tightly sealed containers were the provisions required for the next leg of my journey. Reaching this location would represent hitting the first real checkpoint of my walk. I was looking forward to celebrating this occasion with a couple of beers, which were treats I placed alongside my food and fuel in the tubs four months previously.

An old trig marker on the summit of Mt Easton, one of the steeper climbs of the AAWT.

An old trig marker on the summit of Mt Easton, one of the steeper climbs of the AAWT.

I was brought out of my reverie by the appearance of the first person I’ve seen in four days. He was an older man, rolling down the hill towards me on his motorbike. Rifle slung across his shoulder, the old hunter was riding an old Honda with a well worn sheepskin draped over the seat. As he came to a halt next to me I wondered which one was older, the man or the motorbike. He squinted at me through his glasses and said:

‘You’re not the fellow they’re looking for, are ya?’

Suddenly, there was a cold pit where my stomach was only a moment before.

‘Who are they looking for?’ I asked intently. My words felt unnatural. I haven’t spoken in four days.

‘Young fella, walking the alpine trail. They haven’t heard from him in two days.’

I knew it had to be me. I haven’t seen any other hikers in days.

I said goodbye to the old hunter and wished him luck with the deer. As I continued to trudge up the hill, the pieces of the puzzle slowly began to fit together in my head. The helicopter I saw the previous day started making sense.

My satellite messages must not have been getting through to my designated contacts, triggering the alarm. It was our arranged plan after all. Should they have no contact from me for 48 hours, their job was to alert search and rescue. This would account for a scenario where I was unconscious and unable to set off the SOS message on my satellite messenger. My contacts could not have possibly known that I have been sending the OK messages and they simply weren’t getting through. To them, my life could have been in grave danger.

My suspicions were confirmed three hours later, when I gained the peak of Mt Victor. Up there on the summit, I received phone service for the first time in days. My phone began buzzing furiously as the influx of messages came through. I had over 20 missed calls and a number of text messages saying that search and rescue has been initiated. I was horrified at the extent of the effort that was taken to locate me, while I was blissfully enjoying my walk through the hills.

After a number of lengthy phone calls, the situation was cleared up. I spoke to the coordinator of the search effort, who orchestrated the police and volunteers. He was understanding and said he wasn’t particularly concerned for me, upon seeing my background and preparation for the trip. The police at the time however, saw it differently. And so the search was initiated. It was called off the next day, when one of my check in messages eventually went through. To prevent another false alarm, we agreed that the period of no-contact should be longer than 48 hours before emergency services are alerted. This would allow for the failure of technology, as any emergency plan should.

I spoke to my friends and my family and assured them I was well and intent on continuing with my walk as planned. We changed the time of no contact from 48 to 168 hours. While this minimised the likelihood of triggering another false alarm, it also meant that if anything did happen to me and I was unable to use my satellite messenger, it would be a full week before a rescue effort was initiated. No solution is ever perfect.

A flower at the sight of the abandoned Violet Town in the Jordan River's valley.

A flower at the sight of the abandoned Violet Town in the Jordan River’s valley.

It was three days later, when the emergency scare was already turning to a memory, that I reached the location of my first food drop. I had walked a long way that day and the light had long since faded into night. I began looking with a single minded determination, despite the lack of visibility. At first, I couldn’t find my plastic tub and for the better part of half an hour I believed my supplies have disappeared; that someone had found it and knocked it off. Then, to my elation, I spotted it amongst the scrub and patches of snow; intact and undisturbed. The stress of the last week escaped me with a single exhalation. With fresh supplies, I could continue my journey as planned.

I cracked the cold beer open and sipped with satisfaction. I had walked for 10 days and had 64 to go. The world was literally at my feet. For a brief moment, anything seemed possible.

The author, on top of Mt Victor, with 10 weeks remaining of the Australian Alps traverse.

The author, on top of Mt Victor, with 10 weeks remaining of the Australian Alps traverse.

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

The call of the Australian Alps Walking Track

It was only last year, in 2014 that I fully succumbed to the call of the mountains. I was 26 and the promise of the unknown was beckoning me towards discovery.

Through chance I learnt about a remote and rugged walking route, the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT). The route is notoriously difficult and only attempted by about 100 people every year, roughly half of whom succeed in walking it end to end. Walkers need to be prepared to deal with extremes in weather, including bush fires as well as snow storms.

Mt McDonald, with twisted snowgum in foreground, Victorian Alps

Mt McDonald, with twisted snowgum in foreground, Victorian Alps

Upon reading about the AAWT, I was instantly hooked. Here was a challenge that I could really sink my teeth into. I began to research the walk more carefully, planning down to the last details.

I soon learnt that the key difficulty of the walk lies in its provisioning. Due to its remoteness, the AAWT does not pass by any towns where re-supply is possible. There are a few alpine ski villages encountered, but their shops are more suited to stocking up on sugary snacks than proper backpacking food.

The solution to the provisioning problem is to place food drops along the route prior to commencing the walk. This way, only about a week’s worth of food needs to be carried at any one time, which is manageable. However, considering the food portions needed to fuel a hungry hiker, even the weight of a single week’s worth of food becomes considerable. Preparing the correct food for my proposed 10 week walk was a major task that I will detail in later posts.

During my research I also discovered that most of the access roads to the AAWT are closed over the winter due to snowfall. Since I was to commence my walk in early spring, before these mountain roads are re-opened, I had to stash my food drops in autumn, prior to the seasonal road closures. Therefore, all my food had to be prepared and packaged about 4 months before I actually started the walk.

A typical 4WD track along the route of the AAWT

A typical 4WD track along the route of the AAWT

Acquiring the correct equipment needed to deal with the wild weather conditions in the Australian Alps was another element of the preparation. After much advice from fellow hikers and online forums, I purchased my shelter, sleeping bag, boots, backpack and all other gear required to be comfortable in the mountains for the duration of my walk. When my rucksack was finally packed, it was heavy but I was satisfied that it contained everything that I required to complete the walk safely and comfortably.

Physically, I felt ready for the AAWT.  Having spent the better part of the summer walking as a guide on Tasmania’s Overland Track, I felt strong and confident that my body was ready for the challenge of an extended walk with a heavy pack.

As my day of departure got closer and closer, there was no nervousness, only elation. I was about to trade my complex city comforts for a much simpler, nomadic lifestyle.
Instead of hot showers in a steaming bathroom I would enjoy swims in ice cold mountain streams; instead of a comfortable bed, I would sleep on the peaks of mountains, where I’d watch the birth and death of the sun, as it rose and as it set; instead of waking up to the sound of an alarm bell, I would let the birds wake me up with song; and instead of sinking into a couch, I would walk on lonely ridge tops and feel the solitude of a million years.

When the day finally came and I swung my pack on, I was answering the call of the mountains. I was finally going home.

Sunset on Mt Buller, Victorian Alps

Sunset on Mt Buller, Victorian Alps