Australian Alps Walking Track, October/November 2009
This adventure really began way back in 1999. Sam, my youngest son, and I were bushwalking in the Snowy Mountains, and had just left the burned out shell of Broken Dam Hut to return home. Somewhere between there and Four Mile Hut we had come across a party walking south. And, as you do, we stopped for a brief chat.
It turned out that one of the party was walking from Canberra to Melbourne along the Great Dividing Range. This, they told us, was the recently created Australian Alps Walking Track, 660 km long.
The others were part of his support team, just walking a short distance with him.
This intrigued me. It was many years before I did anything about it, though I had, without knowing it, walked part of the AAWT with a party of friends with whom I've since done a lot of walking. The walk I did then was from Dead Horse Gap, near Thredbo, south to a peak called the Pilot. Over the next few years, mostly with the same mob of walkers, I have walked many sections of the track.
In 2007 I walked from Tharwa, the village at the northern end of the walk on the outskirts of Canberra, to Thredbo. I did this walk solo because none of my mates could get away for more than a few days. I wasn't in the least bit worried at the thought of walking alone, though Wendy, my wife, was quite worried about it. However, it really is more dangerous to cross a city road than to bushwalk solo in Australia, as long as you are sensible.
That walk took me eight days of walking (I took a one day holiday at Schlink Hilton because I was way ahead of my schedule, and because the weather was lousy).
The day I started that trip, I was told that the author and the publisher of the old (up to the 3rd Edition) guide to the Track had left Tharwa the day before with the aim of producing the fourth edition; they were going to survey the whole walk again, so presumably they would be slower than I was likely to be, and I was looking forward to meeting them.
You can read the log of that walk elsewhere. (http://sites.google.com/site/micheldignand/canberra---thredbo-nov-2006---250-km-solo)
I started in mid October that time, too. It's the obvious time to begin a long walk, particularly in the Victorian Alps which are prone to bushfires from November onwards. I preferred to leave after the October school holidays, as well, because the huts in Kosciusko National Park are not so likely to be crowded out... I always carry a tent, but it's nice to have the hut to yourself in the evening and the morning.
Most years spring has come to the mountains by mid October, but this year there were still blizzards raging in October 16th when I drove to Kiandra and Dead Horse Gap to lay food drops. And at Falls Creek, where I was going to leave my last food drop, there was knee-deep snow on the 18th.
A big part of my preparations was the food drops. I had decided on three of them, one at Kiandra which I should reach on day five, another at Dead Horse Gap just south of Thredbo, which I would reach on day ten, and the third at Falls Creek, which I was scheduled to reach on day seventeen. That should last another seven days, which would get me to Walhalla and the end of the walk, if I was able to meet my schedule.
Some of my French Conversation group, Malcolm and Helen Allen, and Margaret and Alan Nichol, had volunteered to form a sort of support group. They were going to the southern part of the Victorian Alps on a 4x4 camping trip, and would take a box of supplies along with them in case I needed them.
Each of the three drops would consist of an unused 10 litre paint can, one of those with a clipping ring around the top-seal, and a handle. If I was careful, this would hold up to seven days' supplies, including maps, batteries, metho and everything else I might need. Stuff from it that I decided I didn't need would be left at the drop, and I'd have to go back and pick them up later.
My wife Wendy is a psychologist, and she drives to Tumut, just short of the Snowy Mountains, every third Wednesday to carry out a clinic there. I often go with her for the day, either to go fishing or perhaps just for a walk. Fortuitously, she was due to make one of these trips the week before I was due to start my walk, so I took the two cans with me, and we headed south.
I had also planned to pick up an EPIRB from the Tumut office of the Department of Parks and Wildlife, which they hire out at an impossibly cheap rate. Having dropped Wendy off at her office in Tumut, I went to the Old Buttery, wherein the Department have their offices.
It was there that I discovered that my trip to Thredbo that day might be impossible. Snow had been falling heavily in the mountains for three days, and it was snowing still.
Surely, I reasoned, there wouldn't be much snow at this time of year? They suggested caution.
So I headed south, slightly concerned. Sure enough, it was snowing at Kiandra. Not much, and neither was there much snow on the ground. I parked the car at the bottom of the hill not far from the road, grabbed the drum and a six-pack of beer which I planned to leave under a small copse of trees fifty metres from the track leading up Dunns Hill.
I've often been asked about food drops. I always paint the cans a sort of camouflage, brown, green and black; then I find a clump of bushes some way from a nearby track, and put the cans under it, maybe covering it a little in case of prying eyes, but not really bothering too much about it. The chance of someone leaving the track at that point and wandering over to the hiding place must be incredibly low: I've never had a problem with it, anyway. I do, however leave a note inside the can imploring any chance finder to leave it as it is.
So I had perhaps four hundred metres to carry the drum and the beer. The snow was driving horizontally under a stiff, freezing wind. My hands were icy. My leather bomber jacket was getting soaked. I pulled out my cape (you'll hear about this cape later), and pulled it on. It certainly kept the wind out, for which I was grateful. During this short walk the plastic device holding the beer cans together broke, and several of the cans fell out. Three of them starting hissing and spurting like fire extinguishers - bugger!
I was frozen by the time I reached my copse. I shoved the can and the beer into the bushes, piled a few bits of bark over them and set off back to the car.
Kiandra is the furthest north of the various skiing centres in Australia, with Mount Selwyn, just a few kilometers away, the lowest resort. Well, it's not a resort - no-one other than the operators live there. So it gets less snow than the other centres. But as I continued my drive south I came across plenty of snow on the road, though not enough to cause me any serious problems. By the time I had reached Adaminaby the day had cheered up, the sun was out, the countryside looked fabulous, and all seemed well again. As I went further south and finally entered the Thredbo Valley, the grey overcast had returned, and the higher slopes were once again covered in snow.
To get in to the ski resort I had to pay the daily fee, even though, as I explained to the woman in the kiosk, I wasn't planning to stop. $16.00, which I suppose isn't much, but it seems ridiculous to have to pay anything.
As I drove up the valley things started to look bad. By the time I reached the village of Thredbo it was snowing again, and when I finally pulled up at Dead Horse Gap there was 30 cm of snow on the road, soft but there nevertheless. Where to leave the drop? I decided on a group of granite rocks forty metres or so from the road, half way up the hillside. All very well, but with the snow so deep I was leaving a line of footprints behind me, screaming 'Here, this way, come and look!'
I stuffed the can and the beer into crevices between the rocks. I suppose I could have made a series of confusing tracks up and down the slope in all directions, but I reckoned that the falling snow would cover my tracks before long. And besides, I had to be back in Tumut to pick up Wendy in just a few hours, and I had a long way still to drive.
There had been a big element of keeping my fingers crossed about all this, but I was reasonably confident it would be okay.
That was the Wednesday.
On the Sunday before I left for the start of the walk I drove the last food drop to Falls Creek in Victoria. This is way to the west of the other two drops, and to reach it you take the road to Albury, through Mount Beauty and on up the mountainside. I guess it takes about three and a half hours each way, so I left early. By the time I was approaching Mount Beauty, I was again a bit worried. From the road along the valley you can see the mountains ahead - Bogong to the left, Mount Feathertop dead ahead. The whole of the high country was covered in thick snow.
Keeping my fingers crossed I started climbing the long and winding road up to the resort, one of my favourite places when I used to ski. The road was pretty much clear all the way to the resort, and as I circled the village it still looked okay. The plan was to get up to Rocky Valley dam at the top, and to hide the food drop somewhere close to either Johnston or Edmonson huts. By the time I reached the top car park, I knew my chances of achieving that were zilch. Thick snow started right there, and of course it would be deeper the higher I went.
The drum held seven day's food, and I couldn't carry it any distance in the drum. It was just too clumsy. I had emptied the contents into an old rucksack, and had the drum, empty, tied to the outside. Off I went, tramping through the snow, a tough task as I'll explain later. There were one or two cross-country skiers about, and the sun was shining and everything looked great. To me it was simply a bit of a problem. I got as high as I could in knee-depth snow, then struggled off the track towards a group of pines. Recognising the same problem about footprints, I wallowed between the trees and worked my way into the middle of them. There was less snow there, and the branches swept low to the ground. I pushed my way towards the trunk of the biggest tree, and took off my pack. I was sweating and uncomfortable. I quickly undid the drum and filled it with the supplies, pressed the lid into place, then tried to snap the clip around the top. I hadn't pressed the supplies down hard enough, and couldn't get the surrounding clip in place. I took the lid off again and repacked the contents, settling them into the drum a little better than I had before, placed the clip around the top once more, and pulled the clip tight. It wasn't quite right, but I pressed the clip harder... and it snapped off!
I immediately though of possums smelling the food inside and pulling the lid off, foxes sniffing around, mice and rats getting in. Damn. I'd have to do something. The clip was important part of holding the lid down, and I couldn't just leave it as it was. I had my Leatherman with me, so I used the pliers to bend the end of the clip back, cut some of the cord from the rucksack and threaded it through the clip in such a way that it would pull the clip reasonably tight around the top of the drum. I gave it a shake or two and it held. I could do no more, I reckoned.
So, feeling a bit insecure about it, I drove back down the valley and home to Wagga. If I reached Falls Creek and the supplies were gone or ruined, I always had my support party to rely on.
The following morning I drove to Canberra to begin the walk.
I had been making preparations for the walk for months. Years, really, if you count gathering navigation gear, solar chargers, PDAs to write on, and all sorts of lightweight equipment. I fancy myself as one of the new-breed of lightweight bushwalkers. My base load, that's the weight of my pack before adding food and water, is usually around eight kilos, including the rucksack. I go pretty light for food, too, so that I can get by for ten days with 3 kilos of grub.
I guess I'd better mention, too, that when I walk I like to write a fairly extensive log. That's what I'm doing now. It's the first evening of the walk, and I've walked 15 ks since leaving Tharwa at lunchtime, straight over the top of Mount Tennent and down the other side, then up a few valleys until arriving at Honeysuckle Creek campsite.
I'm typing on a PDA, a Personal Digital Assistant. The one I'm using is a Palm TX, and I have too a folding keyboard for it, which makes it possible, if you wanted to, to write a novel on it.
The only snag, these days, is powering the damn thing. My trusty old Palm Pilot, which I have used for the past what, eight years? suddenly died on me a month or so before the start of this walk. The beauty of the old one was that it used replaceable batteries, and would run for a month on two AAAs. None of the modern ones do that; they all have built-in lithium ion batteries. And, needless to say, they chew through the batteries with large colour screens, bright as day.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I bought this one, the keyboard and lots of bits and pieces, on Ebay, and paid about a tenth of its value for it, too; of course it is second hand.
The next job was to find some way of charging it, and of course solar batteries seemed to be the best way to do that. So I found and bought a device called a Free Loader, which can be charged from two solar cells attached to it. Once it is charged, you can plug a number of different devices to it, and the charge is transferred to the device.
I also have another solar cell which I bought a few years ago.This one was designed to charge only AA batteries, a task it performs quite well. I decided that I would experiment. I cut the battery-holder off and soldered in its a place a plug compatible with the Free Loader. I found I could use this much larger solar battery to charge the two important devices, my phone and the Palm, reasonably well.
So with all this gadgetry, I was set.
I always find the first few days of a walk to be quite difficult. Obvious, really, because it's almost impossible to get fit enough to simply start walking all day carrying everything you need. And of course like most walks, this one, if you're heading North to South, starts with a whacking great mountain.
I deliberately kept the first day fairly simple, firstly because I had to get from home, Wagga Wagga, to Canberra before I even started.
It was a great walk, except that there was almost no movement of air on the rather steep climb up the mountain. It took nearly two hours to complete the climb, but this was followed by a long downhill section into one of those lovely old valleys that must once have been farmland, meadows stretching away between stands of eucalypts, Eastern Grey Roos everywhere standing up to watch me walk by. The weather was perfect, a few clouds in the sky but nothing much to mention. Perfect temperature.
After a couple of kilometers of meadow the track leads away to the west through a valley wooded with small trees, winding upwards, quite steep sometimes. I found myself having to stop and get my breath from time to time, and started to get quite tired. But around five o'clock I got in to the Honeysuckle Creek campsite, the sort of place that spoils a foot-slogging camper with free gas barbecues, roo-cropped lawns to camp on, toilets, water tanks, log tables, the lot.
So I pitched my tent, boiled some water on the gas barbecue, made some soup, then boiled a billy for an all-over strip wash, made dinner and started writing, having given myself a fright when, for a few minutes, I thought I had left the charging cables at home... I hadn't, but hadn't yet got used to where everything was in my rucksack.
Anyway, I was happily writing away when this bloke came running over. Dave, he said his name was, and he was very sorry but they had booked out the campsite to make a horror-film this evening... there would be screaming, chainsaws, blood everywhere, the whole shebang, possibly going on until midnight.
I told him I didn't mind at all. I told him about Sam and his mate Nick who make films too, and he told me he was making his film as his final work for his degree, so I assume he's doing the same course at ANU as Nick had been.
Anyway, I thought I might wander over and have a look after a while, and then go to bed. Hoping, naturally, that the murders would be only acting.
Wednesday 21st October - 11.40 am - Oldfields hut.
My first night at Honeysuckle Creek was very comfortable. I had three thermal tops and my long johns on, and used my down jacket as a pillow. Slept well, I thought, and got up at about six am. I was disappointed to find that the gas barbecue, very efficient at boiling billies, worked for only a few minutes before going out... out of gas?
So I was glad I had had my strip wash with warm water the night before.
Anyway, I was out of there and on the road by 7 am, and slogged up the long hill to the top of Orroral Ridge, where, as I found before, there was a weak telephone signal. I messaged Sam and sent a brief voice message to Wendy. That was at nine am. By the time I had reached the bottom of the hill into the Orroral valley, I was buggered. I could have gone to sleep there and then, sitting beside the road. On every walk I've ever done I've had at least one bad day, but it's usually day 3 or 4. However, my schedule was to do the 24 ks to Cotter hut, and I decided I had better drag myself along.
At least, I had plenty of time in which to do it, no matter how slowly. Did I say that I had forgotten to pack any breakfasts at all for this first five days? No? Well I had. I don't really think that it was hunger making me so buggered, but something was - probably unfitness. I struggled on, resting every half hour or so. I don't think I've ever walked so slowly.
I met a rogainer setting controls further along the valley. It has always seemed a slightly mad pastime to me. So is long distance walking, probably.
I stopped for lunch half way up the long drag out of the valley, every bit of it delicious. I hoped that it would convert to energy real fast, but that hope was dashed when I struggled to my feet to continue the climb. I got to the top eventually, though it seemed enormously difficult.
With eight km still to do I turned off onto the bush section over Cotters Gap, which wasn't too bad, though I found myself having to rest regularly, and even went to sleep for short periods during these rests. I arrived at the Gap with four km still to do, and found even going downhill was really difficult, requiring further rests (though not so often).
I finally got to Cotters hut at around four. Decided to hell with the rules and camped beside the hut, filled up with water from the river, pitched the tent, had some soup and dinner and went to bed at around six pm - still light!
However, in my preparations for bed something odd occurred: I urinated on the grass some twenty metres from the tent, and immediately a female roo came right up to me (the place is overrun with roos, most of them females with joeys), and before I had even zipped up was voraciously eating the grass where I had urinated. Several others came over and tried to join in, but the first frightened the others off with growls. She carried on in this manner for ages, even going so far as to dig up all the affected grass, leaving the ground bare. That was odd, I thought, but when I got up in the night the same thing happened, much closer to the tent. I guess the nibbling and digging, and even the growling, went on for at least half an hour. I was slightly worried they might start eating the tent.
Anyway, I was up again at six to find the tent completely frozen inside and out. I ate and packed as quickly as I could, leaving the tent til last. It hadn't even begun to melt or dry out, so I rolled and packed it as it was, having shaken off as much of the ice as possible. I was on the road by seven.
My plan was to make Oldfield hut by ten, where I knew I could light a fire (to save my meagre metho supplies) and boil a billy to wash properly. I got there at 10.15, which wasn't bad. I was, by then, feeling a million times better than the same time the day before. The weather was good and warm by then, so having unpacked everything I spread it all out on the lawn, drying in the sun. I estimated that I would reach Hainsworth hut tonight, but that was twenty km ahead, making 30 km for the day. I ate, packed and was on my way by 12.30.
Caption: looking a little 'Eccentric' at Murray's Gap
Caption: Boiling billy at oldfields
Thursday 22nd October, day four.
The rest of of that day turned out to be pretty tough. The weather was good except for a strong wind against me for much of the day. Stupidly, I dropped my glasses somewhere near the SMA valve house on the plain beyond Oldfield's Hut, not noticing they had gone from the pouch strapped to my rucksack harness.
Fortunately I had included a spare pair, or I'd have had to drop out of the walk: without glasses I can't read the guide-book, nor my GPS. The spare glasses had a neck strap attached, and I was very careful to make sure they were secure for the rest of the walk. Despite that, the neck-strap attachment snapped off during the last few days of the walk, but I was careful about that, too, and didn't loose them.
I chose the long route, ie the proper AAWT route around the Gurrangorambla range, which took ages, not exaggerating the role of an extra six km because, would you believe it, I obviously got up from a rest and started going back the way I had come and didn't realise it until had gone three kilometers in the wrong direction... an extra six km! I was amazed that I hadn't recognised the land I was traveling through, but looking at it from the opposite direction it looked completely different. The oncoming evening light had something to do with it, but I still find it amazing. To be honest, it was only when I came to the track junction which said 'Blue Waterholes Track', a sign that I had thought about when I saw it the first time almost an hour before, that I realised what had happened, even though my GPS had given me a clue half an hour earlier.
It was obvious that I wasn't going to cover the eight km I then had ahead of me to Hainsworth Hut before dark, particularly as I was already very tired. So I decided, in light of the time, to make for Old Currango, which turned out to be a very good move - lovely hut, lovely spot, some food left behind by someone and a spring bed!
You can see Old Currango hut from some distance across the plain, though I had never visited it before. The AAWT guide book suggests that there is no reliable water there, so advises against staying there. As I left the main track and headed for the hut I took notice of water as I walked, lest I should have to return to fill my bag and my billy.
I had never visited Old Currango, though I had seen it often across the plain, standing stark and pale, almost like new timber, against the background. As I approached I realised that it is much bigger than I had thought, with many rooms and a couple of fireplaces. There was a mob of brumbies feasting on the lawn as I arrived, and they watched warily as I approached. As far as water was concerned, there were several streams running strongly across, and sometimes under, the track. I hadn't realised it yet, but the high country was to prove saturated, with more water running and lying on it than I had ever seen.
The hut, too, turned out to have a very unsophisticated water-source of its own, a simple 40 gallon barrel upended to catch the run-off from the angle behind one of the chimneys - couldn't have been simpler.
In front of the house was a roo-nibbled lawn and a double-row of daffodils, quite thick and obviously untouched by wildlife - I was very surprised at that. It made the whole aspect of the house quite... domestic, which in my experience is rare in the mountain huts. Most of them look no more than shacks, built by lonely men for lonely men, with hardly a woman's touch between them.
Caption: Old Currango hut, one of the few in the mountains that shows any
sign of a womanly touch.
In the kitchen I discovered a pack of one those supposed 'gourmet' meals, this one purporting to be Paella - hard crystalline fragments. It came with the usual simple instructions though - add boiling water and wait a while. So I did, and lo and behold it was actually very nice. Far too much to eat in one meal, though, so I wrapped the remainder and resolved to have it for breakfast, slightly re-heated. It was good for breakky, too.
There was a bed frame in one of the bedrooms. If you put down first a close-cell mat then a self-inflating mat, these frames, ex-army cots by the look of them, are very comfortable, even though they all sag like a baby's cot.
I had a warm and comfortable night, and in the morning I took time to bathe and wash knickers and socks. One problem yesterday that I've never had before: the cheeks of my bum had been rubbing together with sweat which had made my bum very sore indeed. It seemed better in the morning.
I left at 7.30, aiming for Witzes hut, 31 km again... a big ask, but I thought perhaps I'd make it. Would I never learn?
It was both a great day and an exhausting one. Part of the exhaustion was caused by KNOWING it was going to be hard, so that every little setback seemed to damn the whole day.
I left Old Currango and hot-footed it to Hainsworth - 9 km, roughly. I stopped not at the hut but at the junction, inspected hurting feet to discover a blister on the ball of the left foot: bugger!
I taped it and went on. I was receiving ABC National fairly clearly on AM... Dick Francis' son was being interviewed, and talked about the way the whole family actually wrote the books. Dick is now in his nineties, his wife has died, and he hasn't written for more than five years. The son is taking over the Dick Francis name, and has published a new novel.
One of the difficulties I was anticipating for the day was the ten km of cross-country before arriving at the Murrumbidgee - navigation is easy, but being without a track always slows you down, maybe by as much as fifty percent. That's what I always allow, anyway - 2 km an hour. Another way to look at it is that 1 km of cross country uses the same effort as two km on a track. Seen in that light, this section adds the equivalent of ten km to the trip.
It's a lovely stretch of country, rolling grassland and lightly treed. A bit up and down, but not too bad. There was an old telegraph or phone line stitching its way across the landscape, and many old fence-lines. This was brumby country with a vengeance, and sure enough, there were several herds grazing the valleys and hillsides. However, with such a long and distant day, it was a great relief to hit the saddle of the hill at the end of it, with the rest of the way downhill to the 'bidgee.
And here came the next challenge: the river was in spate.
The last time I crossed it it was a pretty simple matter, an easy wade. This time there were deeply muddy banks (I filled my boots with mud and sand when incautiously approaching the river), and then a tempestuous crossing.
I wandered up and down the bank, indecisive: where was the best place to attempt the crossing?
It wasn't just the depth (up to my belly button), but the force of the water that threatened to drag my feet from under me.
Before I entered the water I took off my shorts and underpants, putting everything high on the top of the rucksack. I left my already-soaked and muddied boots on, and my gaiters too, as there was no point in taking them off. Cautiously I started across. The safest spot was shallow at first, deepening on a bend. By the time I was in up to my knees, the force of the river was very difficult to deal with. I dared only move 15 cm or so at a time, using my walking pole to steady me. Even so, I was nearly tipped over many times, and I feel it was more good luck than skill, notwithstanding years of fly-fishing, which at least gave me some experience of wading this sort of water.
At the deepest point the water came up to my lower ribs, but I didn't even notice the temperature of the water, which must have been very low: the mind is excellent at prioritising sensations.
Thankfully I climbed the opposite bank, stripped off wet boots, socks and gaiters, wrung them all out as best I could, then faced them into the growing wind while I had lunch. It had taken a huge physical effort to get across. As I was eating lunch a few spits of rain landed, and I looked up to see a massive band of rain clouds... but a few spots were all that fell. However, it continued to threaten for most of the afternoon.
One km later I had the Tantangara to cross, and blow me down if that wasn't in spate too. Last time I crossed it, it was on the sole remaining log of what used to be the bridge, but this has been burned out. There was nothing for it... I waded. I didn't even think of taking off my boots, though did the rest of the previous procedure - shorts and knickers off, place everything high in rucksack.
This one was easy, though, no drama at all. It still meant all the palaver, though, though I didn't even bother with my boots - just left them on and squelched my way ahead.
Another ten km to Witzes, a lot of it uphill, and I was dead tired once again. Let there be a bed frame, I said to myself; a bed frame and a billy. A bed frame would make me comfortable, and I wouldn't have to pitch my tent. A billy would allow me to boil lots of water on a fire, without the horrible mess of cleaning my own billy before putting it back in my pack.
And lo and behold, there was a bed frame, and there was a billy, and I had great time cooking, drinking tea and other drinks (coffee, Milo, soup).
Everything was clean, everything was tidy. I was tempted to spend tomorrow there, to recuperate; but I would have hated to make myself late on my schedule, which was already proving a killer to keep to; though I was, actually, still on schedule.
Slight amendment to plan if I proved to be too tired tired the following day: stop at my old friend 4 Mile hut, unless I felt a hundred times better. We would see. 4 Mile Hut was only twenty km.
There was a dead brumby, a foal, about forty metres from the hut, behind it. The smell of decomposition had only just started to filter in, once the cross-wind had stopped blowing.
Friday 23rd October - day five
A great night. By that I mean that I had plenty of time to wind down and get stuff organised, and felt really excellent by the time I got into bed. Even read for an hour - half a novel that had been used for fire-lighter, pages 1 - 230 gone!
I was up at 5.45, and could be easily away by seven - aiming for 4 Mile Hut (20 km) or broken Dam hut (29 km), depending on how I felt.
Also I had a food drop to collect at Kiandra, probably at lunchtime.
Four Mile Hut, Friday 23rd October. 7.30 pm.
I left Witzes hut in high good humour, and soon gobbled up the kms to Kiandra. I hadn't had a telephone signal since leaving Honeysuckle Campsite, so I was keen to use the telephone box there to ring home. I had first, of course, to cross the Eucumbene and the other tributary, just metres apart. They weren't too deep, just boots off jobs, but the stony bottoms of both creeks were very painful on the soles of my feet, especially with the blisters that were already there.
Anyway, I did that and then climbed the hill to the telephone box outside the old Council building, only to find the telephone box gone!
That was a blow.
There was, however, a woman driving a bobcat, lifting huge chunks of pine-tree trunks onto a truck. She explained later that because the Council building was going to be renovated, it was suggested that the trees, a row of huge pines, would have to be removed before the renovation, lest they drops boughs or themselves on the building. She was a uniformed NPWL employee.
So I asked her if her mobile could summon up a signal, and she checked and said no. Could she ring Wendy later and let her know I was okay? Fair enough, she said. As it turned out, she did, leaving enough of a pause in her message between identifying herself and the rest of the message for Wendy to assume the worst, expecting the message to be that my body had been found.
Anyway, I sauntered down to the bottom of the hill and up to the little copse where, half a kilometer from the road, I had stashed my cache of supplies. No problem, there it was, untouched.
Of course, it contained far more than I would need for the next six days: that's the point of it, for me to take what I need and leave the rest. But then I got to thinking, if I took everything, including the paint bucket it was stored in, I wouldn't have to come back and collect it, the tin would be exceedingly useful in whichever hut I left it, and the spare supplies, metho, firelighter, food, batteries etc would also be usefully donated to other walkers. So I crammed everything into and onto my pack, tied the big bucket on too, and set off. This, you'll note, was AFTER I had drunk two cans of beer from the ten I had left there. Oh, I should add that after making the second food drop at Dead Horse Gap I bought some more beer to replace those that I had dropped and had burst open, and added it to the others on the way home.
I should have thought it through better: that first hill from Kiandra up onto the plain is a killer. It took me ages to stagger up there, and from there to Four Mile hut. It was rather like day two, when I just wanted to rest every ten minutes, and I slumped down heavily, the big bucket getting in my way and scraping against everything. It took me forever to get to Four Mile hut, and I clearly wasn't going to go the extra 9 km to Broken Dam hut.
I plonked my rucksack down on the bed (not a proper bed frame, just a solid planked affair), and started to unpack.
Disaster. I had lost the small connector between the USB and the solar battery. Before leaving home I had made careful preparations so as not to loose any of these small parts. I had used epoxy resin to attach small loops of very strong line to each of the connectors, and also to each part of my Freeloader solar battery. The connectors were all stored in a small linen bag, attached by their loops to a safety pin inside the bag. The only part left unprotected in this way was the connector in use at the time, the most crucial, and in this case it must have caught on something and been dragged off my pack without my noticing.
This meant I could no longer charge my PDA. So I was going to have to keep each entry short, memory joggers only.
(I'll just note here that on my return to civilisation I found I couldn't buy one of these femal USB connectors, and had to order replacements from Freeloader in England. This I have done, but at a total cost of $32 Australian: the items couldn't have cost more than a few cents to make!)
Very depressed, very tired though, I slept 3 hours that afternoon.
When I awoke I pondered things moodily. The plan would have to be to dump all unnecessary gear and extra food, to plod on as best I could, to try to do no more than 25 kilometers each day. On the other hand though, the following day would require 31 ks to Mackays Hut. Save battery! I was still loathe to fall behind the schedule.
Sat 24th, day six, MacKay's hut.
In the last entry I had said 'Disaster'. By the following day I wasn't so sure. This is what I wrote when I reached Mackays hut: 'I'll keep it brief to save battery, but if it does run out I'll simply do a bit of butchery on the wires, and see if I can connect the right ones. Downside to this is that if I make the wrong connection, it could fry the PDA!'
However, I was going to leave that operation, if it became necessary, to the last minute, and try to completely disable the other USB wires before attempting it. I can always buy a new cable when I get home.'
I was completely dispirited and exhausted the day before at 4 Mile Hut. I had gone straight to bed at 3 pm, and didn't wake til 6. Then I cooked dinner and thought things through, dumped everything I didn't absolutely need, and thought about how I was going to deal with things.
(In reality, there were just two issues: 1. I had carried all that load from Kiandra, which had exhausted me. Answer: dump extras and keep going. 2. I had lost the connector, so would have to reduce writing to essentials, but if necessary I could adapt the wiring to keep producing a charge.
So the whole thing at Four Mile Hut was simply in my mind. I often do this to myself, but in the end I invariably make the right decisions and get on with it.)
I got going at 7.45 the next morning, and by 11 am or so I finally got a signal just south of Tabletop Mountain, in the area of the Big Dip. I rang Wendy for long talk, then Sam, then later, my friend Eric. Then I lost the signal, but my spirits were up high again.
I was sorry not to have the time (there I go again!) to visit Broken Dam hut, but kept on southwards. I also considered leaving the track and heading straight down the hillside to visit Happy's hut, and also taking a bit of a short cut (hill-wise at least). But I remembered the only time I had visited Happy's hut in the past, and how exhausted I was by the time I reached the bottom of the wooded hillside. I stuck to the main track, the Tabletop fire trail.
I had lunch at the spot where Doctor Phillips' hut used to be, and then set out across the plain. The old snow-tower, whatever it was for, has finally crumpled to the ground, lying there in a tangled mass, every bit like a disjointed mantis. The little streams were like the rest of the mountain streams, twice as deep and running bankers, which I didn't mind at all. Then up over the saddle at Happy Jack's road, and on down what was now the Grey Mare fire trail. Then the McKeanies creek crossing, where Andrew Blake and I had camped one night many years ago, was pretty much flooded, a soggy mess, and the creek had taken over the roadway for twenty metres or so, definitely a BOC. Then on up the long hill and on south west, then northwest to reach Mackay's hut. It was great day's walk, 31 ks, but got in by 5 pm.
The hut was very clean and warm in the evening sun (it cooled down pretty toot sweet once the sun went down!). I was tired, but not too badly. The bum problem of day 3 hadn't returned. My feet weren't too bad but I did have a few blisters. I've never seen so much water about, tiny streams running bankers and making it much harder to cross them than it usually was. I was fed up of taking off boots and socks then putting them on again on the other bank.
Ants had been terrible all day - not once had I sat down without being swarmed over by small biting ants, the first time of this trip that this had occurred. Usually you expect it once in a while, but it has been everywhere all day. Hard to take a rest if you can't sit down!
I thought I might do some clothes washing in the morning before leaving.
26th October, Day eight.... so you'll see there are a couple of days missing.
I had a good night at Mackays, and yes, in the morning I washed 1 pair each of socks and knickers, 1 handkerchief and the thickest of my thermal tops, the one I had been wearing next to my skin. I rotate them, keeping the same one next to my skin until I can wash it, then moving to the next one. The cleanest one is always on the outside.
The forecast was for showers that day and the next, and the early blue sky soon clouded over, grey and threatening. However, it was good walking weather, if a bit cool. Doubtful creek was in spate (of course), requiring a full pants-off crossing, and the water was so cold, nearly up to my belly-button, that the sunburn on the back of my knees stung like blazes... I mean literally as if something was burning them.
In the early planning stage for the walk I had considered leaving the track at Doubtful creek and following the river north to Cesjack's hut, which I had visited with Charles Oliver and the rest of the crew the year before... a lovely hut in a beautiful spot. I would then have gone south to Tin hut, then Mawson's, then on to Schlink Hilton, rather than following the strict AAWT route to O'Keefes, Grey Mare and Valentine's before arriving at Schlink. But I had abandoned this plan as it is all cross-country from Doubtful to south of Valentines, and would thus take me much longer.
So that (Doubtful Creek) was the second pants-off crossing, known hereafter as a POC. As I climbed up the bank on the other side it started to sleet.
Caption: Jagungal on a freezing day with worsening weather - from the Doubtful creek track
I got out my cape after re-dressing, and discovered that it is one thing to drape it over my pack at home, and quite another in real hiking mode, what with all the bits and bobs hanging off the pack. I managed in the end by poking the end of my walking pole through one of the elastics and holding it out backwards while reefing in the other side, a bit like setting a spinnaker, really. I'd better explain about the cape.
For quite a while I've been trying to reduce the weight of my load when walking. Goretex jackets, for years the sort of standard waterproof protection in Australia, are very heavy - maybe 1.5 kg. I tried lighter breathable jackets, and though they are appreciably lighter, they lack a certain something... the one I bought had no hood, for instance.
I read somewhere that in Europe many people have switched to using capes: they serve also as pack covers, and allow air to circulate beneath their 'canopy' and thus tend not to soak the wearer from the inside. At the same time I became aware of a newish material called SilNylon, or nylon coated on each side with a layer of silicone: not only immensely strong and light, but also completely waterproof. Tents had begun to be made from this material, and a few waterproof bags, too. However, these items tended to be exceptionally expensive. I found a cape made of this material, and immediately bought it.
Over the next two years I wore it only twice, though it is light enough, and folds up small enough, to be carried in my ordinary work bag. Neither time was the rain very hard, nor prolonged.
We'll get to the reason for this long explanation later.
So I slogged on in occasional sleet showers to Farm Ridge, hoiking the cape up around my throat like a medieval knight every time the showers eased off... quite good really.
I had a great and pleasant surprise at O'Keefe's - The Kosiuszko Huts Association and the Department of Parks and Wildlife had done a great job of rebuilding the hut after it burned down in the massive 2003 fires.. More about this later, I think, but they had spoiled the effect with a new toilet built in a water-gully, so that it was overflowing, with faeces flowing into the creek. Brilliant!
And they had gone and built an open fireplace, too - beautifully done, but what a stupid thing to do? (I have written extensively about the uselessness of open fires in mountain huts, and the need to install pot-bellies or other enclosed stoves instead. Here's a link to one of my rants about it:
Other than that the new hut seems fantastic, and beautifully equipped. They have also moved the site from between the trees to the open area 20 metres or so away from the obvious fire-risk of the trees. I'm not sure they have done ALL that could be done to protect it, (there are many places where sparks can get under the hut) but it is an improvement, anyway.
The fire was still smoldering from a previous visitor (do they ever learn?) and I gathered from the visitors book that this might have been Bennie, the guy I had been two days behind ever since leaving Canberra. He had been talking about spending the night on the saddle of Jagungal, but I didn't envy him the weather. I blew up the fire, made a billy of tea, had lunch and moved on.
The weather was worsening and the temperature dropping as I moved on. It must have been well below freezing and the wind was rising all afternoon. Remember how long it seems to take to do the last few km to Grey Mare? That whopper of hill leading up to the Strawberry Hill turn-off? Remember how many BOCs (Boots off crossings) there were? It always seems to drag on and on and on. That's because so many bits of the track look the same, with the same sort of rise leading to a lightly wooded flat section. Anyway, I did the final BOC at the bottom of the hill with Grey Mare hut looking down benignly on me from far above: one more hill and I'd be up there.
And not before time, either. I was shivering with cold, the sleet was turning to soft snow and the wind was howling. This was too much. What the hell was I doing there?
I quickly lit the fire from the meagre timber supply, with everything wet including the fireplace. I made a cuppa soup using the last of the water in my water bag, then used a plastic bowl to fetch water from the mine-adit pipe (I later read in the hut log that someone had found a rat drowned in 4" water in that very bowl just a few weeks ago!), then scurried around in the snow to bring in as much wood as I could (the saw was too blunt to cut any reasonable sized timber, so I had to make do with branches that could be broken to fit in the fireplace.
(In Cornwall we used to say that a wood fire would warm you twice - once when cutting the timber, then again when you burned it. Very wise, and completely true.)
In the end I was reasonably comfortable, and eating a rather nice dinner (some sort of chicken in a really nice sauce, together with real sliced potatoes) that someone had nicely carried in (it was one of those meals in a box things, and weighed at least half a Kilo). I enjoyed it enormously, and I was very glad that I hadn't carried it in. I left one of my main meals in the wire safe to replace it, as I always do if I eat food found in a hut.
I went to bed certain that I was going to throw in the towel and get back to civilisation. Had a good night's kip, not even cold, though the wind howled fit to bust and threatened to carry the chimney away.
I woke in the morning to review the situation. The forecast said the showers would clear away and become fine by the afternoon (they did) (but they came back later), so I decided to head for Schlink Hilton, my next scheduled stop. I was, however, having doubts about going over the top (over the main range, the section of the mountains between Schlink Pass and Thredbo... the highest and most exposed part of the Australian Alps), and even about being able to cross the Geehi river if she was in spate (she was, and how!) and also the Valentine River (she was too, but easier to manage. Both were to be POCs, but before that, of course there were five (yes, five) BOCs before I even got out of the first valley.
I decided to wait a bit before heading off, hoping that the showers would stop. I bustled about collecting breakable timber from the woods around the hut, cleaning the hut a little and having a bloody good strip wash. There were still huge clouds drooping down from the ridge opposite, the one I'd have to climb that morning, but by ten I judged it would be okay and set off. By then it was actually a glorious morning.
As I walked I listened to the Book show on Radio National (using the tiny Sony radio I bought a few years ago). Margaret Drabble, the famous English author, was being interviewed about some book she had recently published. I gathered that the theme of this book was that life is a jig-saw puzzle, various bits interlocking. Now, it just so happens that I quite enjoy jig-saw puzzles, as does my sister-in-law Maureen, so I paid a bit of attention to this interview. Margaret confessed that she had always been a big jig-saw fan, and as the interview continued she told of the only puzzle that she had ever given up on. It was Escher image, you know, the Dutch guy who made those 'impossible images', where a staircase, for instance, appears to continue upwards, but also joins again at the bottom... simply a trick of perspective. Anyway, the puzzle was in black and white, and it was almost impossible to see from any piece of the jigsaw where it should go, almost the only clue being the shape.
The reason I found this interesting was that this very puzzle was also the only one I have ever given up on, and I too, had given it to a friend (Maureen), just as Margaret Drabble had done.
The five BOCs were managed easily enough. What I usually do is to take off my boots at the first crossing, then carry them and walk barefoot along the intervening distances, maybe a kilometer at the most. This time I forgot the very last BOC at the bottom of the big ridge, so had to take them off again anyway. I managed all of that and cheerfully climbed the ridge, doing so with no particular problems. In the next valley the Geehi river was running very high, and of course it was a POC; but though the water was deep, the river was wide and relatively slow at the crossing. I actually crossed a little higher up stream from the ford, as it looked particularly deep there... I didn't fancy having to actually swim! By the time I topped the ridge between the Geehi and the Valentine valleys it had turned into a marvelous day. I crossed the Valentine, again without too many problems, and walked up the hill barefoot to stop at one of my favourite huts for lunch. It has been very much renovated since Andrew Blake and I spent 24 hours there some years before. I lunched outside the hut in the sun, re-sewing one of the added straps on my rucksack, the ones I had sewn on to hold the closed-cell mat to my rucksack... one of the straps I had sewn on years ago was coming off.
After lunch I had a lovely walk for a couple of hours in nice conditions, but soon started to run into heavy snowdrifts, lots of them. All coloured pink, covered with a layer of that dust storm that hit us everywhere in NSW a month or so before. If there was that much snow at this altitude, what was it going to be like on the high ground of the main range? Once I began to see the slopes of the main range, I knew I wouldn't be going up there in a hurry. There was scads of snow. The sky had greyed over once again, even more threatening than the day before, and the wind started to beat against me again, the temperature plummeting.
I've crossed the main range north-to-south twice before, camping the first time on the flanks of Mount Twynam, and the second time crossing the lot in one day.
But if conditions wouldn't allow the crossing this time, the alternative route, and actually the official AAWT route, is to go from Schlink Pass straight down to Guthega Power station (Munyang), then up the wide dirt road to Smiggin Holes, then to Charlotte's Pass and on up the Summit road to Rawson Pass, and on to Thredbo Top lift via the raised walkway. A lot further, and a very boring route with kilometre after kilometre of road.
Given all the snow (impossible to walk on for any distance without snow-shoes or skis), my only sensible plan was to push on to Horse Camp, not Schlink Hilton (with its slow-combustion stove and its interior spring mattresses!), so that the next day I could maybe reach my schedule at Dead Horse Gap (DHG hereafter).
It began to dawn on me, too, that as long as I had to take that route, maybe the Charlotte's pass Hotel might be open, and I could have a night in a bed, wash all my gear, have a glass of wine? Or if not, perhaps I could get a lift to Thredbo and do more-or-less the same?
I pushed on and spoke to Wendy and Sam from Schlink Pass, very satisfactory. Mind you, the wind was freezing, and I was crouching behind a rock with everything bit of warm clothing on, so cold I was hardly able to punch the keys on the telephone.
Then I walked down the long winding hill to Horse Camp, about another hour's walk, I suppose, and settled in there for the night. And very comfortable I was too. A pot belly stove in the bedroom, insulated walls, a pretty creek twenty meters away... Luxury!
Horse Camp is a great hut about 750 meters off the main track, nestling amongst tree and close to a pretty, overgrown stream. It's very close to the nearest drive-in point at the Munyang power station, so I suppose it gets used a lot by skiers and walkers; still, it's not in bad condition. The main room is dominated by the ubiquitous open fireplace, and beyond that room is a well-insulated bedroom which also contains a pot-belly stove, which, given the size of the bedroom, heats the place up very quickly. I settled in quickly and comfortably, making many drinks before dinner, and heading off to bed to read for a while before sleeping, and planning to head for Thredbo or Charlotte's Pass the next day, and after that a day off walking: coffee, papers, mattress... can't wait.
And oh yes, I decided I wouldn't quit yet.
The battery on the PDA was still very much alive (in fact, nearly full, according to the monitor). I reckoned I could re-charge it from from someone's USB computer the following day.
27th October, Day nine. Thredbo YHA.
Made it. For a while I thought I might not. Here's what happened:
My night at Horse Camp was not quite as glorious as I had painted it before; for a while it was great, but then it got too warm, so I closed the fire down a bit, took off my warm woollies and dozed happily. Next thing I remember it was 1 am and I was freezing. The stove had gone out (I looked inside and the big log I had put in was unburned... I had simply turned it down so low it had put itself to sleep). So rather than light it again, I put all my woollies on again and my down jacket, and tried to get back to sleep. There was a big window next to the bunk, which acted like a reverse radiator, pumping cold into the room. On the other hand it gave a glorious view out onto the moonlit snow gums, ghostly and patient in the eerie light. I dozed and shivered the rest of the night away.
I was a bit slow in the morning, but got away at about 7.45. It was a wonderful morning, and of course the track was mostly downhill until I hit the power station at the bottom of the hill. Strange places, these hydro power stations: massive, concrete, always deserted, like science-fiction factories. There is never anyone in sight. No parked cars of earnest electrical engineers, no utes bearing technicians, no trucks full of gangers employed on obscure tasks. Just an unhealthy silence, made even more mysterious by the almost sub-sonic hum which, if you listen carefully, betrays the generation of power. You give yourself a shake, and walk past the silent signs warning of fines if you stop to look, prison if you were mad enough to try to enter.
This is Munyang. I wandered through and around the buildings, past the two massive pipes, each a couple of meters diameter, white painted and slashed across the mountainside, rising at something like 45 degrees, barreling countless megalitres from who knows where, and on across the bridge over the Snowy river, hoping to regain some sort of normality.
But normality in those regions belongs to Snowy Hydro; it means wide un-metaled roads winding around hillsides, through mountain passes. It means strange signs in a language as obscure as hieroglyphs (hydroglyphs - that's appropriate, I suppose), pointing in strange directions up hardly formed tracks.
And as you go further, normality begins to belong to the ski and tourist industry, with silent ski-lifts marking every hillside, runs gouged from between the trees, empty and forlorn now in the middle of spring, waiting maintenance men: welders, stone-workers, plumbers, electricians, technicians, mechanics, every sort of maintenance worker you could imagine.
And there was I walking amongst it all, still alone, not a person in sight, the ravens squawking in the sky, wheeling black against a sky so blue you could imagine someone painting it with a wide roller, then standing back, pleased with the effect.
The roads are always upwards. From the power station I had been walking, quite quickly, for an hour and a half. If someone had come along I would have begged a lift. This would not be cheating: the snow on the high ranges means many extra kilometers of boring, deadly, foot-killing road, and to accept a lift to cover it in the same time as going over the top would not be cheating. Sure enough, along came a small truck, a Snowy Hydro truck. They are not allowed to pick up hitchhikers. It was the only vehicle I had seen or heard all day. I stopped them.
'S'this the right road for Charlotte's?' I asked.
The guy in the passenger seat thought for a second. 'Nah,' he said. 'Yer got ter go through Smiggin, then hit the tarmac there an it's another ten clicks.'
'Right,' I said. 'So, any chance of a lift?' They looked at each other. The passenger said, 'Sorry mate, we got no seats in the back.'
The driver clicks something in the cab and the side door shudders open. 'Hop in,' he tells me.
I dragged the door wide and did as he said. 'Good on yer, mate,' I cheer as I settled amongst the bags and helmets and racks of gear that filled all but a small space by the door. The wheels started thrumming along the rough track marked on the map as a 'B' class road, tarmacked. The kilometers glided effortlessly past, and I sat with a Cheshire Cat smile on my face. Eventually the track turned to tarmac, and we seemed to float on air, travelling ever faster. Smiggin Holes drifted into sight, a small settlement which could as well be on the surface of the moon. Here and there was a workshop with a man or two welding, grinding, cutting steel. The driver took us through the settlement and onto the rather bigger road, pulling up at the T junction. 'There you go mate,' he said. I climbed out.
'Where are you guys heading?' I asked, trying to sound innocent but probably failing.
'Jindabyne', they chorused
Ah well, beggars can't be choosers. Thredbo would have been good, and I'd have crawled to get a lift if they had been going there.
It was not to be, though. I shouldered my pack and waved them off. I could see that the Charlotte's Pass road was far busier than the last one, so at least I stood a fair chance of getting another lift. I had the cardboard cover of a Lindt chocolate bar on which I had written 'Charlotte's Pass' as large as I could. As cars went by I held this out, reasoning that drivers will more likely offer a lift if they know exactly where the thumber wants to go, especially if it is not, to a driver, all that far.
The third car stopped. Mark, from the coast, off for a day trying to telemark, a gentle day of experiment. A nice bloke. I could have kissed him, except he didn't look as though he'd appreciate it.
All the way to the beginning of the summit road he took me, and I was very glad of it. I still had a considerable hike up the Summit Road to Rawson pass, then down the raised walkway to the chairlift at Thredbo. I immediately sensed that this was not going to be as easy as I had hoped. Right from the start, the Summit Road, (vehicles prohibited) was choked with snow. In fact from horizon to horizon the landscape was covered with a heavy, arctic-looking coating of snow, quite impassable without snow shoes, or back-country skis and far more skill with them than I possessed.
On the road itself the cover was not complete. There were large gaps where the snow had melted, and sometimes the verge of the road was visible through the snow. I had to try it.
Frankly, it wasn't too bad at first. I made good time even though, of course, it was all uphill. My spirits rose, and I ploughed (sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally) onwards and upwards.
Topping a rise, however, I saw a different vista: not a road visible, just track-marking poles poking through a bed of sheer, uninterrupted snow, curving away and upwards to Seaman's Hut and Rawson Pass.
Walking on snow in ordinary boots is no fun, as most of you will know. It's often like walking on the finest sand, the sort that has formed a bit of a crust as the sea has withdrawn. At first touch it holds, but as you move your body-weight forward the crust surrenders and your foot sinks. Each step fades from its usual half meter to a mere thirty centimeters or less.
Snow has one extra trick, though. Every now and again your foot sinks to the knee, filling your boot cuff with melting crystals, and requiring a considerable effort to extricate itself. There was a still a kilometer or so to Rawson Pass, and, snowbound, the track was taking me in a wide circle in the opposite direction to that in which my course lay. I pondered the dilemma.
It seemed possible that even after struggling through the deepening snow to Rawson Pass, the raised steel walkway from Thredbo to the summit of Mt Kosciuszko might be entirely submerged under metres of snow, making the six kilometer trip one of purgatory.
To the east of me, though, just a short distance away, the snow had cleared, exposing the snow grass and the low flora that cling to life in those parts. Ahead of me was the shallow valley of the birthplace of the Snowy River, and it, too, was clear of snow. If I ignored Rawson Pass and headed cross-country in a great sweep across the snow-free area, I should hit the walkway about half way along its length, not only making the trip possible, but reducing the distance to walk to a third. Good plan, I thought, and set off towards the snow-free area.
Since I first hit the snow three days before, the most obvious thing about it was the colour: the dust-storm which had made world headlines with pictures of Sydney harbour swathed in the red dust of the Australian hinterland had had its effect, too, on the mountains, turning the snow pink. A later dump of snow had overlain the pink with a layer of ... well, snow white.
Now that I was clear of the snow, the extent of the red dust was only too evident. It was as though the entire mountains had been covered in mud. Even the snow grass, which must be one of the toughest plants in the world, was clearly struggling under the smothering layer.
Water, water, everywhere, and nothing purer to drink in the whole wide world. I carry a cup clipped to my waistband, and I dipped into crystal-clear pools every now again, marvelling at how transparent water can be.
I had to swing in a wider circle than I had thought to avoid the snow, and ended up going much further to the east. Walking through that sort of landscape is not the easiest thing in the world, areas of heavier shrubbery and tussocks impeding progress to quite an extent. The wind was rising too, and I had a few moments, more than a few, actually, of imagining being caught out by the severity of the walk, forced to camp overnight in that harsh environment: wonderful in the warmth of summer, rather less than that during a very extended winter. No-one knew where I was, and as far as I could tell I was the only person up there. I hurried onwards, hoping to reach the walkway before long.
Of course I had an EPIRB with me, hired for a ridulously small amount from the Department of Parks and Wildlife. Of course I had my mobile, though at that moment there was no signal. I wasn't being irresponsible. Was I?
When I had finally encircled the snow I found that I was at the top end of the two ski-lifts that sit starkly above the granite of the tors, and that I had virtually arrived at the Eagles Nest without sighting the walkway. The final slopes were steep and snow-covered. I climbed higher over the granite-strewn slopes until I found a snow-clear path, finally struggling up the last hillside as the restaurant came into sight.
There is something about arriving at some centre of civilisation after an extended period away. You feel a little like a kid in a toy-shop, not knowing which of the wonderful toys to sample first. The Eagles Nest, the highest restaurant in Australia, is a bit like that to anyone who has arrived 'over the top', even if, as in my case, the route has been a little circuitous. So what to order first?
A beer, undoubtedly. Then some carbs, in the form of potato wedges. Then some real coffee... please make him a good barista!
And so it was, and it was good, though the wedges came in a pile so high I couldn't manage a quarter of them. And to just sit, and in a chair with back-rest, too... bliss.
And as it turned out, one of the greatest pleasures was to come: I got on the ski-lift and rode to the bottom. What joy, to traverse the final kilometers with such ease, such comfort.
And now I'm going to let you into a secret: Thredbo is one of the most expensive places to stay in the world. In season it can cost thousands of dollars for a few days. Out of season the rates plummet, of course, but nowhere, nowhere, do you find the rate as low as at the Thredbo YHA, in the centre (more or less) of the village.
In the summer it is invariably lightly occupied, yet it is a superb mountain lodge, self-catering with an almost-professional kitchen. Rooms generally contain four beds, bunk-style, but the staff try to offer each guest a room to themselves. I've stayed there many times over the past ten years, and it is always good.
Having got in to the YHA at about 3 pm, I had plenty of time to shower (my feet took ages to soak clean) and to wash all of my clothes in the washing machine, dry most of it in the tumble-drier and the woolens in the milder drying room, all of this while wearing clothes borrowed from the lost clothing bin (which contained the most amazing array of goretex clothing, jackets and trousers, even ski-boots, skis, poles. Hard to understand how people could leave such items behind!)
Then to the computers to re-charge my various items - telephone, Free-loader (a solar charger, but more quickly charged by a usb connection), and this PDA - slow, but it gets there in the end. In the evening I ate at the village bistro, sitting outside in a balmy sunset.
Sleeping in a bed wasn't as good as I thought it would be, the rooms overheated slightly, and I waking in the night from amazing dreams. I've actually had the most amazing dreams during this trip, most of which (how else would I know) I have remembered, (well, I remembered the following morning, but in the manner of dreams they slipped out of my memory within a few hours of waking). But I suppose the easing of hip and shoulder pressure by a thick foam mattress was well worth having.
Up at six, with a quiet cup of tea, then coffee, then breakfast - porridge: the microwave pinged and turned and switched off after an indeterminate time, though no heat seems to have been transferred to the porridge. It tasted okay anyway.
So I had decided to take the following day off. No walking at all, and a second night at the YHA.
A long call to Wendy, then a conversation in the dining room with a nice young fellow called Ben (Bennie? I asked. But no, it wasn't him), which ended in him offering a lift to Jindabyne to search for the missing charger-connector, from which I could return by the school bus at 3.30.
The search for the connector proved unsuccessful, but I would be leaving Thredbo the following day with a full charge, and if the battery was to run out before Falls Creek I had decided, as I have said before, to cut the cable and make a hard-wire connection.
Wednesday 28th October, Thredbo YHA
I came back from a nice, restful day in Jindabyne on the school bus, the only form of public transport in and out of Thredbo, I was told. An interesting trip, but the fare was $20!
Mind you, compared to a taxi I suppose it was cheap.
It had been threatening a few showers during the afternoon but minutes after I arrived at the YHA, the heavens opened (say around 4.15). A couple of hours later it was still belting down. That much rain in Wagga would see Lake Albert filled to overflowing.
The forecast was similar for the next few days, afternoon showers, so I thought I'd better get all my walking done in the mornings for a while. The next few days were to be relatively short in terms of distance (I wrongly thought), so I decided that I mustn't despair and get down-hearted if there was to be a rainy period. A pity, I thought, that there were very few huts all the way through the Victorian Alps, though.
I planned to have dinner at the Bistro again that night, and an early start - away by 7.30, if possible. I reminded myself to make a 'Dead Horse Gap' hitchhiking sign tonight. It was only 3.5 kms to the Gap, but uphill all the way, so a lift would make life much easier.
However, a meeting with Andreas changed all that. Andreas was a youngish (perhaps 26?) Dutchman, a PE teacher in some disadvantaged area of Holland, a climber. Clearly, he has been everywhere climbing. We got chatting in the kitchen, as you do in those places. I told him what I was doing, he told me briefly his story, and we clicked. 'Have dinner with me this evening,' he said, and after a slight hesitation I agreed. He decided he was cooking, so I went down to the Bistro to buy some wine.
There were quite a few people in that night, a UK couple, ex International Bankers (Hong Kong, Amsterdam, other interesting places) living now in Belgium but over here for a holiday... interesting people; a couple of Canadians from Montreal who had already climbed the highest eight mountains in the world, and were now climbing the highest mountains in each continent. They arrived that afternoon having flown into Sydney, hired a car to get to Thredbo, were going to climb Kosiuszko the following day then drive straight back to Sydney, and fly immediately to PNG to climb the highest mountain in Oceania! I didn't meet them that night, but I did at breakfast the following day. Then there was a very quiet TAFE teacher who got drawn into the general discussions that evening, and all in all we had an uproarious evening. During all this, Andreas agreed to drive me to DHG the following morning, no later than 8 am (he didn't normally rise before 10!)
In order to stay away from Europe as long as possible on minimal savings, Andreas prefers to spend as little as possible on everything. Only the torrential rain had led him to stay at the YHA at the ruinous cost of $31. He cooked pasta and fresh veggies, which was great, and more than we could eat.
He was sharing my room, it turned out, and after dinner he turned in early, with ear-plugs lest I snored... I had confessed my weakness. However, I had some packing to do, so I did it as quietly as possible before turning in myself.
I woke at two in the morning, and lay there for another two hours before quietly rolling out of bed and going downstairs. I made coffee and read for a few hours, then more coffee before ringing Wendy. Shortly after that Andreas appeared... turns out he had got up of his own accord. We ate, showered, finished packing and were away in his old Volvo by 7.30.
The supply drop was safe beside the rock on the hillside, and I took what little I needed from it and gave all the rest, including the drum, to Andreas who was very pleased.
I waved goodbye, and off I went. A great bloke, and I shall remember him well.
Day 10, Thursday 29th October - Thredbo to Tin Mines.
Having said goodbye and thanks to Andreas, I headed south again over the Thredbo river, then up the long but not too difficult climb up to Bob's Ridge. Half way to the top I found a good telephone signal, so rang home, managing to speak to Wendy, then Sam, and finally Eric. Very satisfactory, though that was to be the last signal I found for the next six days.
When I set off from DHG I couldn't find my hat, though I was fairly sure I would have simply packed it in the wrong place. It looked as though it was going to be pretty hot, so when I next rested I unpacked, and, sure enough, found it in my clothes bag. Relieved, I repacked and journeyed on. In no time at all, it seemed, I was at the bottom of the hill beyond Bob's Ridge, and crossing Cascade Creek. As I did so I heard a vehicle coming up behind me, and stepped to one side to allow it to pass. That was my first meeting with Ranger Rob Gibbs, responsible for the district down to Cowombat Flat, and maybe beyond. He was going south to visit a crew he had working on fire-tail maintenance, who would be camping in the huts at Tin Mine. Bugger, I thought to myself. I always enjoy being by myself in the huts, though I also enjoy company... another of my rather strange attitudes, I'm afraid. Anyway, I couldn't do anything about it, so there was no point getting upset about it.
I dropped in to Cascade hut at around 10 am, I think, maybe a little later, and had a good look around. The hut has been extensively repaired since I was last there, in this case having had new corner posts installed - a big job. There was lots of Yellow Box timber sawn and stacked, left over from the building, I suppose. Yellow Box is local timber, and pretty durable. Hope no-one uses it for firewood!
There is also a new toilet there, replacing the rather nice timber and iron one that used to be there. A great view from the loo... I must make a series of photos of loos and the sights from them.
I signed the book and went on.
It was, actually, 25 km from DHG to Tin Mine, and it is pretty up-and-down; however, I had a good walk though the track was a bit of a mess from the maintenance blokes. I suppose it's impossible to use a bulldozer to heave fallen timber off the track, carve a new surface where necessary, and form new run-off gullies to stop the track being washed away, without making a bit of mess. They don't have time to clean things up as they go. But of course, a year or two later the environment has sorted itself out and healed the easiest of the scars.
What wasn't so nice was the tremendous re-growth where the fires of 2003 had been - huge areas had been burned, often leaving towering Alpine Ash dead but still standing, stripped of all foliage. With plenty of sunlight hitting the ground, millions and millions of new saplings had grown to around two metres, but leaving only a few centimetres between them: a solid and impenetrable wall of new growth. The track between them was clear, of course, and sometimes a strip of maybe tem metres on either side of the track, too. But it seemed like walking along between two solid walls of trees, high enough to completely block the view, and even to stop any breeze. It was a weird experience.
But it made me think. The original forest would have been of largely mature trees, and mature trees no longer absorb much CO2. The massive regrowth is gulping CO2 for all it's worth, of course, using it to support the enormous growth of timber. This will continue for many years until, as mature as the original forest, the sequestration will gradually reduce.
I'm pretty sure I'm right about all that. And if I am, then all the arguments about saving old-growth forests by environmentalist means very little in the fight to 'save the planet'.
The right approach would be to log the old forests for saw-logs, then re-plant to get the sequestration going. As long as the timber cropped was turned into long-lived products like houses or top quality furniture, we would be maximizing sequestration.
It is important, though, to recognise that many modern uses of timber (for paper, cardboard, MDF, particle board and the like) return the CO2 to the atmosphere within a couple of years or so, which ain't much good at all (particularly given the incredibly low per-tonne returns from these products).
Back to the track:
By one o'clock the clouds were already building, huge thunderheads forming. Sure enough, by two o'clock came the sounds of distant thunder, the sky growing darker. I got a bit of a wiggle on, preferring to be under cover when the rain came.
I got to Tin Mines at about 3.15. I wasn't surprised to find the main hut full of bedding and the other gear of the track maintenance team. Outside on the grass a big camping trailer full of gear was parked. So I settled into Carters hut, the smallest of the two huts there, by myself, and waited for their return.
I had borrowed Tom Sharpe's 'The Great Pursuit' from the YHA library (they ask you to borrow one and leave another), so I settled down in the dying sun drinking tea and coffee and soup, and reading. At around four thirty the first two arrived in a 4x4. Half an hour later the other two arrived.
A good bunch of guys. They couldn't have been nicer. They had everything they could want, it seems, though things were a bit rough and ready. Within minutes of arriving they were sitting out by a huge fire, drinking what looked like a well-earned beer. Rain began falling, but not too heavily at first.
Gradually the rain built up until it was pelting down, and I retired to Carter's Hut.
Both the huts, and Cascade Hut too, have dirt floors, and it's hard to keep everything clean on a dirt floor. I didn't bother to light the fire. It wasn't very cold anyway, and the state of the hut didn't give me that cosy, comfortable feeling. However, having mentioned to the guys that I was a bit low on Metho for my stove, I was pleasantly surprised when one of them came over, while it was still pouring with rain, carrying a large gas bottle and a big burner, so that I could save fuel. I was amazed, and even more so later when another one came over to give me a beer. Each of them stayed and chatted for a while.
I stayed where I was, got into bed and read for ages until, finally, sleep overcame me.
In the morning, of course, the skies were predictably clear. I sat in the sun and had my breakfast, then washed and cleared up, packing. I returned the gas burner with profuse thanks, and was promptly offered a hash brown smothered in sauce, and handed to me on a paper napkin... how could I refuse?
We chatted for a while, discussing the fact that they also had to build the loos at the huts in their district, even having to drain the full ones before re-building them in the new concrete and steel fashion, rather than just burying the old and digging a new pit.
I had told them about the O'Keefe catastrophe, of course.
But eventually I left at about seven am. Once again it would be 31 km to my destination for the day, Stony creek in Victoria.
I was in pretty good spirits, and pounded along. The guys had suggested that I take the Snowgum Trail rather than the Cowombat trail; the Snowgum trail, however, is the official route, so that's what I was going to do anyway. It's not a bad trail, though to climb to the huge ridge it follows takes quite an effort, and at the southern end is a descent that is nearly mind-boggling in its extent and steepness. More of that later.
By lunchtime I had arrived at Cowombat flat. Whether this was a natural frost hollow, which is what it looked like, or a cleared farming area I have no idea. But it's a very pleasant spot, many hectares of rolling, well-watered meadows. I crossed the fledgling Murray with one step and headed up the hill, brumbies cantering off as I approached. One of them, the first of them that I met, had a club foot, or the equine equivalent. Its right forefoot was elongated but completely folded over, so that it walked on the equivalent of the back of its wrist. Clearly, it couldn't move very fast, but because of the length of it it looked like a birth defect rather than the result of a broken leg. Amazing what animals can survive. I suppose a grazing animal in well-watered land leads a fairly easy life.
Not far up the valley is a big cairn marking the spot where the NSW/Victoria border takes its sudden straight-line swoop to the coast, apparently built by the first surveyors Black and Allen. However, with a long way still to go I chose not to take an expedition to find it. This is one of the problems of having limited time for a long-distance walk.
I had lunch on the hill, sitting under a tree looking out over the flats. A beautiful spot.
From Cowombat Flat the track, on average, descends pretty steeply for fifteen km or so. That doesn't mean, though, that it didn't climb steeply along the way. It was one of those up-down, up-down sort of tracks that make you realise that the track was built by and for vehicles: a little extra petrol used going up and down is nothing, but on foot the extra effort is huge. A surveyor on foot would create a winding track, sticking to the contours as much as possible. You can always tell from a map whether a track was made for vehicles or for foot travel: vehicle tracks tend to go in straight lines. Foot tracks, like proper tarred roads catering for the the general public, stick to the contours as much as possible.
So I struggled up the steep hills and almost ran down the even steeper ones. At around two thirty the thunder started, the sky grew purple, and though I hoped to avoid the worst of it I got my cape out of my rucksack, stuffing it into one of my pockets.
It was about then that I made an awful mistake, and that I survived unhurt was more a matter of luck than anything else. I had left my gaiters off as I was walking on a wide fire-trail, and as the day was hot. I was looking at the map to check my position, hardly looking where I was putting my feet. From the corner of my eye I saw a sudden darting movement and when I checked what had made it, I realised that I had missed stepping on a large brown snake by centimetres. He was more interested in escaping from me than in biting me, but if I had stepped on him, I'm sure the situation would have been different. I jumped a mile to the other side of the track, and watched as he disappeared quickly into the scrub. This was the only snake I saw during the whole trip, which is pretty unusual. I guess I usually see one a day, or something like that.
I've never been bitten by a snake, but I'm assured by experts that you have little to fear from a brown snake as long as you have proper boots, and at least trousers on. Brown snakes, they say, distribute their venom from fairly small teeth at the back of their jaws, and decent trousers, preferably something like denim, are enough to protect you. Normally I wear gaiters, much thicker than denim, for that very reason.
Tiger snakes, I'm told, are different: they inject venom through large, hollow fangs. I believe my gaiters are pretty good protection from them, too.
Of course, gaiters also protect you from cuts and scratches, but protection from snake-bite is, in my mind, the major reason for wearing them always in the bush.
At three pm it started raining, gently at first but rapidly growing harder and harder. I whipped out my cape and used my pole as before, quickly covering my body and my pack. I felt pretty smug about it. Sure, my legs would get wet, maybe even filling my boots if it carried on long enough. But my gear and I would remain dry. I carried on. So did the rain, falling harder and harder.
After a short time, say ten minutes or so, it dawned on me that the back of my neck, covered very well by the hood of the cape, was getting very wet. Funny, I thought. This was the first time I had used the cape in heavy rain, and this wetness was unexpected. However, there was nothing I could do about it. I wondered if it wasn't just the coldness of the cape material touching my skin on the back of my neck... always the optimist.
The rain became even heavier. By now it was reducing visibility to a few yards, and all around me a veil of mud and sand was jumping from the track as the rain, a solid stream of water descending from the skies, raised it like beans on a kettle drum: it looked like a haze of thin mud, 15 centimetres deep.
This was too much. I found an appropriate tree and sat beneath it, my cape like a small tent around me, head bowed, accepting whatever became of me. And it became obvious in a short time that my cape was like a very small leaking tent.
The following day I investigated this phenomena: silnylon really is just about impervious to water; but, as with most synthetic materials, when you sew it the holes made by the needle do not close around the thread, as would happen with, say, cotton. For that reason, all synthetics must be seam-sealed if you are expecting them to be waterproof. When I looked, there was no seam-sealing on my cape. Nor on the 'waterproof' silnylon bags I had bought prior to this walk. So my fairly expensive cape, made of superbly waterproof, tough and light material, left me soaked through because every seam leaked. Brilliant!
My shoulders were soaked, the fine-woolen thermal that was all I was wearing turning black as it absorbed the water. At least it was wool, and one of the advantages of wool is that it retains heat even when it is soaked. And though the cape was leaking like a sieve, it was keeping the wind out. So, I thought to myself, it wasn't as bad as all that. I did wonder, however, what was happening to the contents of my rucksack. Was everything getting soaked? My sleeping bag? My spare clothes?
After half an hour it was clear that the rain wasn't going to stop any time soon. The track had become the bed of a furious stream, the thunder rolled around the valleys, and every now then I heard the crashes that told me that another burnt tree had come crashing down in the forrest...
I took a quick look at the map, mercifully protected by the very thick map-case: Stoney creek was still seven km away. Two km down the track from where I was was marked a campsite, and another two km further on was another. I would carry on walking in the rain, and stop at the first appropriate spot.
Feeling very much like a drowned rat I stomped on. From time to time the rain seemed to slacken a little, and my spirits would rise, only to be dashed a few minutes later when the next onslaught hit me. Splashing through the river that the track had become, I carried on, head down, thinking only of a dry bed, which seemed unlikely.
I came to the first camp-site marked on the map. A circle of logs lay hopefully around a sodden fireplace; a few blades of grass clumped limply here and there. Mud everywhere. I walked on. The photo in the guide book showed the Stony Creek campsite to be extensive and lush, a thick carpet of soft sward.
Two kilometers on I came to the second campsite, slightly better than the last, but still not very inviting. Stony Creek was another three km, and it was getting late, about four thirty. On I went.
There was a small stream there, and I thought my boots were soaking anyway so I just splashed through it. As soon as I stepped into it I realised that my boots had not, in fact, been more than sweat-damp; too late, they were now soaked. Just another slight discomfort.
There was the gate to the Cobberas wilderness area, and beyond it a small carpark. Only another hour to Stony creek, then.
At least, I thought to console myself, the track had been almost exclusively downhill since the rain had started, which was something, anyway, on the credit side.
Before I really appreciated it I arrived at Stony creek. The creek ran under the road through a culvert, so I didn't have that last hard decision to take.
I looked around. To the south I could see a long boggy area, not at all the place to pitch a tent in rainy weather. What I was looking for was a small raised area, from which any rain would fall away from the tent, rather than running through it. Sure enough, over to one side there was just such an area, and a fireplace close to it revealed that others had most probably selected the same spot.
I've lived in Australia for thirty years, and in all that time I have never had to pitch my tent in the rain. I had to think back to my time in England, where it was a common problem. This took a little planning. First, protect my rucksack from getting any wetter while I pitched the tent. I carry my tent on the outside of my rucksack, so I slipped it from the side pocket and propped the rucksack under a tree, placing the waterproof map-case on top of it.
My tent is a wedge-shaped one, and the only pole it uses is the walking pole I have carried for years. The inner tent is connected to the fly-sheet, and the whole can be pitched as one: this means the inner tent and the groundsheet stay dry while the tent is pitched above it. I unrolled it, found the little bag of pegs, attached the walking pole to the high end of the tent and pegged the main guys roughly, then quickly pegged out the sides. Two minutes, no more. I fetched the rucksack and pushed it into the apse, the space under the front flaps of the tent, then removed my gaiters from the rucksack, laid them at the entrance, took off my boots and socks, and rolled inside the tent.
First I found my bag of dry clothes. Off came my wet ones, slung into a far corner of the tent. On went dry underpants, two dry thermal tops and my fine woolen thermal leggings. They were not completely dry, but compared to those I had just removed, they felt glorious.
Back to the rucksack. Off came the thin, closed-cell mat, wet on the outside of the roll, but as they don't absorb any water that didn't matter. Out came the self-inflating mat, thin and guitar-shaped, just enough to pad my shoulders and my hips. Unable to wait for it to self-inflate, I blew it up as hard as I could, and laid it on top of the closed-cell mat. Now for the moment of truth: how wet would my sleeping bag be? It was a down-filled bag, the lightest and most efficient type, unless it is wet! Synthetic fillings, heavier and less insulating, have at least the merit of keeping you warm even if they are wet, rather like wool. Down becomes simply a soggy mass if wet. I unrolled the sleeping bag, and found that only one small corner of it had become soaked. I spread it out and climbed inside, and waited to warm up. I think I dozed, listening to the rain still thundering on the fly-sheet.
I guess it was about half an hour later that I started thinking clearly again. Much as I hate camping in the rain, here I was, and it wasn't too bad. I had a few litres of water in my water-bag, I was securely under cover, I was warm and reasonably dry.
I unzipped the gauze doorway, and rummaged once more in my rucksack. I pulled my food bag into the tent, found my metho stove and set it up in the apse, filled a pan with water and lit the stove. At one side of the apse lurked my traitorous cape, thrown into the corner and sulking. I would deal with it later. I took my boots and squeezed as much water from their foamy linings as possible, and tucked them safely away. I did the same to the socks, and draped them over the boots. I wrung out the wet thermal, and lay it and the wet shorts on top of the cape which had so betrayed me (I wasn't going to let it get away with a thing), and by then the billy was boiling. First I had tea, then soup, and finally, a rather early dinner. There wasn't much else to do. One of the reasons I had selected this tent in the first place was that it was possible to cook and eat inside the tent, though doing it all lying down made my ribs and elbows hurt after a while.
And so, with the rain still thundering down, but secure, warm, fed and fairly dry, I zipped the gauze doorway, rested my very weary head on my down jacket, and thankfully fell into a deep sleep.
Saturday 31st October, day 12.
Needless to say, the following day dawned bright and clear. I climbed out of my tent at around five thirty, and started preparing for the day. Boiled the billy, made tea and ate my breakfast. Packed my sleeping bag, now dry from my body heat. Reluctantly took off my two dry thermals and the leggings, and stored them in the clothes bag. Ignoring the supposedly waterproof silnylon bags that I had been using up to then, I put everything I needed to keep dry in my food bag, which was a large polythene bag, and squashed it all into the rucksack. At least I could rely on that staying dry.
Then I pulled on all my wet clothes from the day before. One of the most important lessons I had learned forty-five years before during training in the Royal Marine Commandos was the importance of keeping dry clothes dry: much better to wear wet clothes for a while, where my body heat would soon dry them, than risk getting more clothes wet. However, there are few things worse than pulling wet clothes over a warm, dry body, and I hated it. On with the wet thermal top. Ugh! On with the wet shorts. Ugh!! On with the wet socks. Ugh!!! and on with the wet boots and gaiters (Oh my god, just too much).
Then I lowered the tent, rolled it wet and stuffed it with difficulty into its bag, and finally dragged my rucksack over my shoulders. Then the final task, checking the campsite for anything I might have dropped or forgotten. It was about seven am.
The AAWT heads away from fire trails at that point, more or less following Stony creek nor-nor-west. The path was clear at first, but as the creek dropped steeply into its valley the path became less and less distinct. I wasn't surprised at this as the guide book had stressed it. Now, mapreading in places like that is not really difficult. You might not be able to see very far, but with a creek to the right and another joining it a little way along, with a long ridge to follow and with a creek on each side, you can't go wrong. But, and it's a big but, the difference between walking on a track of some sort and forcing your way through untrodden undergrowth is considerable in terms of speed and comfort. I have always found it worth time spent looking for and keeping to the right track.
A GPS receiver can help with this, of course, but even so once you have lost the track it is often difficult to find it again. The technique is obvious: walk at right angles to the way the lost track was heading, first in one direction and then back in the other direction. You're bound to cross the track.
The problem, often, is recognising the track as you cross it; and when it is as indistinct as this part of the track was, it can be almost impossible.
I walked first to the left, where I felt the track should be. I couldn't find any sign of it. I turned around and went to the right, towards Stony creek. I had read that the greater part of the track ran only a few meters from the creek, so as the hillside grew steeper and steeper I persisted, scrambling down carefully, clinging to bushes and small trees as I went. It wasn't far in horizontal terms, and I still felt the track would be there at the bottom of what could only be described as a deep gully. When I arrived at the banks of the creek, It was obvious firstly that there was no track there, and secondly that it would be almost impossible to push through the very dense scrub that choked the gully. With a heartfelt sigh I looked back the way I had come. It looked almost vertical.
I had no option, though, so I slowly forced my way back up to the top of the ridge, perhaps half an hour of intense effort.
When I eventually reached to the top of the ridge I was pleased to see that the sun had risen high enough to reach my position, and I lay back in the sunshine, absorbing the warmth in a light cloud of steaming clothes. The exertion and the energy of the sun were doing their thing, and I was finally warming up. As I lay there luxuriating and cursing my navigational stupidity I noticed above me, nailed to the closest tree, one of those nice little AAWT markers: I had found the track.
So off I went again. The official track markers are few and far between, but I discovered that some nice person had stung markers of coloured plastic tape on branches all along that stretch, marking the route between the official markers. If I looked carefully there was nearly always one of these plastic tapes in sight. Down into the valley along the spine of the ridge the path went, crossing the next creek at the junction, and so on, as the guide book promised, close to Stony creek, as it would all the way to the junction with the Limestone Creek track which ran almost parallel somewhere away to the west.
I discovered something very odd, unexpected: for long stretches of this part of the track, it looked as though someone had gone along with a brush-cutter, clearing a two-meter wide pathway. I realise that makes it sound as though the track was now clear and easy to follow, and it was from time to time. Yet in that country it was still easy to loose it.
Another problem raised its head, though. The track follows the western bank of the creek, and that bank was pretty steep, maybe 45 degrees. You'll have noticed that when a path, no matter how slight, is made by the frequent passage of people, the actual surface of the path becomes more-or-less flat. But here on Stony creek there was none of that. The path itself, what there was of it, was largely at that same angle, 45 degrees.
And I discovered that my right ankle is nowhere near as strong as my left ankle. In fact, as the path persisted in this way, my ankle actually gave way, and I fell and rolled down the hillside until a tree stopped me. I dragged myself to my feet and looked at the offending ankle ruefully. I remembered that a year ago, heading cross-country to Tin Hut and then to Cesjacks, my ankle had rolled in a similar way with the identical result. I had had to walk very carefully from then until the end of the walk.
I took off my boot and looked at the ankle. It had swollen immediately, but not too badly. I regained the path, such as it was, and carried on, being very careful about how I placed the right foot. It seemed okay for a while, but perhaps half an hour later the same thing happened, and once again I rolled down the hill, fetching up against another tree.
Not good, I thought. And ten minutes later it happened once again.
It was time, I realised, to take stock of my position.
In three hours I had progressed roughly four and a half kilometers. I was in a very rough section of the track, a section which was obviously not visited very often, or the track would be better defined. The guide book told me that much of the track between where I was and Taylors Crossing would be very much like the country I was currently in, and much of it would be on a track sloping steeply from high left to low right, exactly the sort of thing to which my right ankle was objecting to so dramatically.
I had enough food for four days, just, which I had foolishly estimated would take me 120 km to my next food drop at Falls Creek. But at my present rate of progress I was going to be lucky to achieve ten kilometers per day, or twelve days to reach Falls Creek. I doubted it would be that bad, but it seemed possible.
Difficult terrain, bad ankle growing worse at each fall, not enough food: the solution was obvious... I should turn back. If I did that, it would still take me three days to get back to a point where I could find transport home, but if I persisted with the original plan I was simply putting myself in a more difficult position with every step.
To give up now would be disappointing, the more so because at that point I was still exactly on schedule. I had walked 280 kilometres in twelve days, and if I turned back I faced another 70 kilometres before getting back to civilisation.
Having reached that decision, though, I acted on it immediately, heading back the way I had come.
Interestingly, now that the slope was high right to low left, I had absolutely no more problems with my ankle. With the slope in that direction my ankle was completely secure, and I fell no more.
However, the route back to the Stony creek campsite took me ages, and I had to stop for a breather every hundred or so metres, all the way to the top of the ridge.
By the time I got back to the campsite, I was completely buggered.
I suppose it was about 2 pm by then. I ate my lunch sitting on the fireplace logs, and spread all my gear out in the sun. I was going no further that day.
I have to say it looked a bit funny, every bush for twenty metres festooned with the contents of my rucksack, and even the clothes I had been wearing. I think I left my underpants on, but everything else was spread out to dry, including my tent.
Eventually I pitched the tent, and as things dried in the sun I packed them away, and all afternoon I made hot drinks and slowly sipped them. I assumed that the afternoon would bring more storms, and towards three o'clock it really looked as though I'd be rained on again. But in fact it stayed dry. The ground under my feet was like a sponge, water squeezing between my toes with every step.
I wandered around the campsite in a dream, turning clothes in the sun, boiling the billy again and again, sipping hot drinks.
I slept pretty well that night, though disappointed that I had failed in my attempt to complete the AAWT in one go.
Sunday 1st November, day 13.
The logical thing would have been to take it easy getting back to civilization - an easy walk to Cowombat flat, the next day to Tin Mine, the next to Cascade and finally to Thredbo.
The complication was that I had asked Wendy to hand all my re-supply stuff to Helen and Malcolm Allen on Tuesday the 3rd November, and that was just two days away. That would have meant all that stuff heading down to Victoria with the Allens, including a month's worth of medication (when you become as old and frail as I have, it's only the pharmaceutical supplies that keep you alive!).
This wouldn't have been a huge problem, but I felt I'd better try to get back to a telephone signal by Monday afternoon if possible. If it proved impossible, well, too bad.
So instead of an easy walk out, I decided to do in reverse what I had done while still heading south: get to Tin Mine that day, and to Thredbo the next.
So off I went on Sunday morning, prepared for a 31 km day, and a pretty big rise in altitude, too.
The morning walk to Cowombat flat wasn't too bad, actually, though of course it was generally uphill. As I walked I noticed that it wasn't all that steep after all. Determined to take it as easily as possible consistent with actually getting to Tin Mine, I was careful to rest for five minutes each hour, to drink regularly, and to enjoy the walk as I was doing so.
Away to the right of me stood the Cobberas, five peaks that command brilliant views from a height approaching 1800 metres. The guide book suggests putting aside a day to make a side-trip climbing all five peaks, and one of my great failings as a bush-walker is my habit of forgoing side trips in favour of pressing on to my destination. I must make an effort to cure myself of this habit, though climbing hills is amongst my least-favourite pastimes; standing on high places, though, is a deep pleasure for me, which makes the whole thing rather contradictory.
As I walked the track in the quiet of the morning, the regular crashing from deep in the forrest reminded me that for years after a major fire there is the danger of old, burnt trees finally collapsing, though it surprised me that they should do so on such a quiet, windless day. I was reminded of the trip a bunch of us made in late 2004 when we climbed Mt. Bogong, Victoria's highest mountain, then walked to Falls Creek via the Big River. Deep in the valley stood towering Mountain Ash, all burnt and dead; and all that night, camped at the bottom of the valley in rising wind, we were aware of trees crashing down around us. A pretty scary experience, I can tell you.
Back at the car park at the gate of the Cobberas Wilderness there had been a 4x4 parked, and I had followed the footprints of a group of walkers all the way since then. I had thought it might be four people, an adult male from the size of one of the prints, and maybe three smaller people. A family group, I surmised.
So much for tracking expertise: reaching Cowombat flat at eleven o'clock, there at the top campsite were six tents, and from the gear bulging from them, most housed two people.
I gave my loudest Hooroo, but got no reply. I sat under the trees and had an early lunch.
Guessing the campers were there for just the weekend, and that they might leave on Sunday, I thought I'd leave a note asking them to ring home, and I used a bit of spare paper to leave a carefully worded note, one which couldn't be misinterpreted.
As I finished writing the note, however, a 4x4 ute appeared, driving down the valley towards the Murray crossing. I watched them for a while, perhaps 500 metres away: they were behaving quite oddly, a few people leaving the truck and walking down the valley.
So I decided to approach them with my message, and started walking towards them. As I approached, the two young women left with the truck started shouting, and I wondered what the hell was going on.
They turned out to be girls, maybe eighteen or so, and looking a bit... guilty. The truck was parked right next to a huge sign saying no vehicles were allowed into the district, as it was a designated wilderness area. We were, actually, 14 km inside the wilderness area.
I told them not to worry about me from that point of view, and they visibly relaxed. They were shouting to the young guys they were with, telling them that 'they had found it', which turned out to mean that some others in their party had found the cairn marking the source of the Murray, much further up the valley.
Anyway, I left the note with them, the girls promising to phone Wendy as soon as they got a signal, and off I went.
I had a choice then: there are two possible tracks, the offical AAWT track over Snow Gum ridge, down which I had come two days before; very steep, very long. And there is the Cowombat trail heading up the other side of the valley. Hard to tell from the map, unless I created a cross-section - it looked up and down like the upper part of the trail I had used that morning.
Better the devil you know, I thought, and headed up the Pilot Creek Trail, which leads to the Snow Gum trail along the ridge. It seemed even longer than I had thought. There was no wind, and it was growing very hot.
Using my fifty paces strategy (take fifty paces and rest... maybe 15 seconds, long enough for the blood to recharge in the legs, and then take another fifty paces) I dragged myself up the long, steep approaches to the ridge, only too aware that there was still the final really steep bit as I reached the top. This climb went on for at least an hour, and I found myself having to actually sit every fifty paces, and rest for several minutes. By the time I reached the bottom of the really steep bit I was completely buggered, and had to rest for ten minutes in preparation for the final push to the top. And you know, the last bit wasn't as bad as I had told myself it would be.
On the other hand, the junction with the Snow Gum Trail proved not to be the top, either. Coming down the hill in the opposite direction, I hadn't noticed that this stretch to the top was, after all, still steep enough to keep my heart pounding. I have to remember, of course, that I had already walked nearly 25 km that day, nearly all uphill, so perhaps my exhaustion was understandable.
By the time I had reached to highest point of the Snow Gum Trail, which was at 1550 metres, I was happy to tell myself that the remainder of the track to Tin Mine was predominantly downhill, with only a few little humps to cope with along the way. But it was extremely hot, the late afternoon sun boring down on me in a nearly windless afternoon. My rucksack felt very heavy, though it must have been pretty much at its minimum weight since I started the walk, with food for only one day left. Well, with a few extras, just in case.
The track seemed to go on and on, even though it was downhill, and I longed to arrive, to drop my load and just sit. By four o'clock I had crossed the bridge over Tin Mine Creek, climbed the last rise and headed down the other side, looking forward to a rest in a short time.
As I walked down the last slope with Tin Mine huts in view, I realised that there were three tents pitched there. I gave a Hooroo, but got no response. I dropped my rucksack by Carter's Hut, and looked around. In the distance, by the Ingeegoodbee creek perhaps four hundred metres away, I could see a bunch of people, and when I looked more carefully I could see that they were bathing in the creek. Good idea, I thought, and I fished out my washing gear and my towel, and walked to join them, giving another hooroo as I walked. They saw me coming, this time, and waved back. They looked a little odd, I thought, and it was some time before I realised that they looked odd because they were naked. And half of them were women!
I switched direction and headed to a spot further down stream. They were clearly happy to be naked, with no-one covering up. Now, it's not that I'm a prude, or that I'm uncomfortable with nakedness: but something like that doesn't happen very often, not to me, anyway, and I felt it better to leave them to themselves, and I'd see what happened later.
So I stripped off myself and bathed, though the water was cold and my body was very, very hot. My feet, particularly, were burning hot, and it was heaven to sit on the bank with my feet in the tiny creek. This was the same creek where I had bathed some years ago, much further south where the creek was ten times wider and deeper, when I was floating, naked and face down at the end of a day's walk with Geoff Ashley and along came a truck to drive across the ford. I jumped up, naked, and felt a complete fool.
Anyway, when I was cooler and washed I pulled my shorts back on and walked back to the huts, where the nudists, now dressed demurely, were milling around their tents. I introduced myself.
There were four women and two blokes (I'm ashamed to say I can't remember their names), all, I'm guessing between fifty and sixty years old, all very nice indeed. They had walked that day from Cowombat Flat using the Cowombat trail, which, they said, was an easy walk. I should have used that trail too, and perhaps I wouldn't have been so exhausted.
They, too, were doing the AAWT, but in short stretches over many years. They were carrying loads of gear, many luxurious items like canvas water bowls, gourmet meals etc.. I asked them if they were planning to use the huts at all, and they told me they weren't, so I moved into the main hut, set up my cooker on the table and made myself comfortable. They started cooking and invited me over to join their group as I ate, and we had a very pleasant couple of hours before bedtime.
I had warned them that I might snore, but in fact the greatest irritation was the noise the bed frame made every time I moved or rolled over. It sounded like someone in a torture chamber, at least to me. And when I got up in the night to go to the loo, a brilliant near-full moon lighting up the valley, I registered the chorus of snores from all of them, or at least from each tent.
The morning, once again, was calm and beautiful, the valley flats half hidden in morning mist. The sun rises quite early in that valley, the land to the east being quite low, and I sat watching the sun rise and eating my breakfast. Very soon all of the others arose, too, cameras capturing the scene.
I was ready to go, as usual, by seven, and with 25 km to go, hopefully the final 25 km, I walked briskly north. The track trends uphill, of course, but thankfully it is one of the least undulating sections of the whole track. There are, of course, the ups and downs, but on the whole they aren't particularly steep. I was tired, though, and it took me a while.
By lunchtime I had reached Cascade hut. I sat under the tree and had my lunch, relaxed and not feeling too bad. Just the one big hill to climb, I thought, and I'd be out of it. As I was thinking this I heard voices, and within a few minutes two couples rounded the hut. It was moment or two before they noticed me. I think they were slightly horrified at my appearance, but they came over and sat on the logs around the fireplace, eating their sandwiches and asking all about my trip. When they heard I'd been walking for two weeks, they immediately started offering me fruit - half a banana and an apple, as though without fruit I would never recover from what they obviously regarded as an ordeal.
'So I'm headed back to Thredbo, and then, if I can find some sort of transport, back home,' I told them.
'What do you mean,' they asked.
'Well, there seems to be no public transport out of Thredbo,' I said.
Without hesitation, Paul said, 'Well we're going to Canberra tomorrow. Is that any good to you?'
Was it ever!
So we swapped telephone numbers, and arranged to meet by the bridge over the road in Thredbo the following day.
I was ready to move on then, so I thanked them profusely and headed off. They were carrying nothing, so I expected them to overtake me on their way back to Thredbo, which they did, half way up the hill to Bob's Ridge.
Once again, I found the climb exhausting, and it took me ages to get to the top. Once again, as on the Snow Gum Trail, I found I had to sit down to rest regularly all the way to the top.
Near the top along came Ranger Rob Gibbs again, who stopped and asked me why I was headed back. I told him briefly, and he explained that he was headed to Cowombat flat to meet with the brumby contractor who was going to capture some of the brumbies down there. I waved him off, and shortly afterwards along came the Contractor, towing a horse float. He stopped too, and we had a bit of a chat. I told him about the lame brumby, and about the jet black one with the white flash. Nice bloke, both him and his young driver.
I was very glad to reach the highest point of Bob's ridge, and sure enough I immediately had a full telephone signal. I sat by the trackside and phoned Wendy.
She was cross. The previous day, Sunday, she had indeed had a call from one of the youngsters I had met at Cowombat flat, but apparently he had said something like 'met your husband, he's hurt and trying to get home,' and then rang off.
So sure, I can imagine how worrying the call must have been. I explained that I had actually written out a message and asked them to read it to her. My message said something like, 'Michel is fine, but has turned back and will be home in a few days, as soon as he can.'
I guess it's a bit like Chinese whispers.
Anyway, I wandered down the long hill and across the Thredbo river, and with only half a kilometer to Dead Horse Gap, along come Ranger Rob Gibbs again. After a short conversation, I asked him straight out for a lift into Thredbo, feeling a bit cheeky and expecting him to tell me he wasn't allowed to. But no, he agreed without hesitation, and I climbed in thankfully.
Twenty minutes or so later he dropped me off as close to the YHA as he could get, and I waved him goodbye. A great bloke.
And so it was over, though in a way, not quite.
I got my room at the YHA, though not one of the cheap ones, rather one with an en suite. Amongst the lovely people staying there that night were a French couple, Francois and Muriel, delightful young people with terrific English. I ended up dining with them that night at the Bistro, and they were great company, sitting out on the verandah and ignoring the blare of the musac piped from within on the ubiquitous speakers... why do touristy places think there has to be music playing everywhere? And on top that, the CD they played over and over kept sticking.
Paul Skidmore and his wife Jan (the couple from Cascade Hut who had offered me a lift) called in the morning to bring forward our meeting by the bridge, and I said my goodbyes and left in a rush. It was only a few minutes walk to the bridge, but when I got there they were no-where in sight. I checked each approaching vehicle with a certain amount of apprehension, beginning to be slightly worried that for some reason or another they might not come.
However, after ten minutes or so they pulled up in a Land Rover, Jan in the back; and so began a great trip. It wasn't long before we were swapping life histories, and I'm blowed if Paul and I didn't share a huge number of similarities in all sorts of ways. But I guess that's another story. The trip, though, was one of the many highlights of the whole adventure, and, as so often is the case, it's the people that you meet as much as anything else that makes life so interesting.
My son Sam, keeper of my car, was working at his bar, and so couldn't spend much time with me - no more, in fact, that the time it took to give me the keys to the car and the parking docket that I'd need to get out of the carpark. With a quick hug I left him.
I had a quick lunch at Gus's, just across the road, then went to the car, realising as I did so that all Sam's keys were still on the key-ring. Back I went to his bar, without my rucksack that time, and handed them over. It was pretty hot, and by the time I got back to the car both it and I were very warm indeed. I hadn't a clue about what to do about the parking docket, but it seemed obvious that I should drive to the other end near the exit where a machine would estimate how much I owed. I parked, put the docket in the machine, and got a rejection: for some reason, the machine wouldn't accept it. After a few bewildered re-tries, advice from other parkers suggested that I should press the red button on the machine, and lo and behold a sepulchral voice demanded to know what the problem was. Okay, the voice said, stay there and someone will come and deal with it. I waited. And waited. And eventually a security-garbed character emerged from the main building some distance away, and came to my aid. Seems the flimsy bit of card had become slightly bent. 'You gotta keep them good,' I was told.
And so I was freed, by this time very hot under the collar.
And so ended my adventure, for the time being, anyway.
Some interesting observations about this trip:
1. the psoriasis on my right leg has disappeared, and that on the left leg is greatly reduced: sunlight?
2. I have not sneezed once since leaving home. My nose has been a bit runny, though. (For some years, getting far worse in the last few months, I have been subject to sneezing fits, sometimes as many as twenty in a row. Have no idea what this is about).
3. As I have lost weight, my face has sagged, making me look twenty years older. (This was true the first time I got to Thredbo - I looked in the mirror at the YHA and could hardly believe how old I looked. However, by the time I reached there the second time this effect has disappeared, and I looked pretty much the same as I always do.)
4. Once again planning has been the problem with this trip: planning and the idea that I can walk the legs off anyone. I'm getting older, of course, which makes the previous view rather stupid.
However, consider the following:
a. setting off with a tight schedule (even though I am now nominally retired, this is still a problem. It seems that as long as you are part of a community of any sort, there will always be demands that you are in a particular place at a particular time. I can't seem to escape!).
b.not taking terrain into account.
c. not having checked that every bit of equipment is tested - ie the cape!
d. leaving orders of new gear to the last minute - waterproof bag. Are they waterproof anyway?
And finally, a note on the sealing of seams on silnylon items.
Silnylon is very slippery, as most silicon items are. You can't just use any old gunk on it because it won't stick.
However, McNett, an American company, make a product called SeamGrip, which works. There are many articles on the process on the web, and the most sensible ones are at: