Hume & Hovell walk - (1) a tale of failure

The first three days were hell. Starting were myself, Michel Dignand, Andrew Blake, Peter Lockley, Greg Scott and Charles Oliver. We started at Yass more-or-less on time, but we had 57 kms of tarred road ahead, which knocked hell out of our feet. The distance, too, was ambitious - 20km for the first day left us all knackered and most of us with blistered feet - for me, the first time I've ever had blisters. We stayed the first night at Warroo Traveling Stock Reserve (TSR), and got water from a very nice elderly lady on a property looking out over a fabulous view. She was collecting eggs, with her grandchild in a pushchair. A good night with lots of rain, but we camped and dined well before the rain started, and it ended just as we got up at around 7am.

The second day was no better, with 28 km to the next TSR, Sugarloaf... we were exhausted, had walked in pouring rain with ten million flies (their shit covered all our clothing) and now everyone had very bad blisters. Charles says he didn’t, but he was never seen without boots, and no-one really believed him.

By the time we got to Sugarloaf Creek, with the TSR 400 metres further on, we decided to stay at the creek. The weather was threatening, and I, as nominal leader, was convinced at that time that we could go no further and, if sensible, should pull the pin on the whole trip. I was very gloomy that night, and said to the others that they should consider finishing the trip,

Had a terrible night with death-and-destruction nightmares, bad chest pain for an hour, and much loss of sleep.

My new tent works well. It is quick and easy to pitch (two minutes?), with plenty of room; the only drawback, minor, is that the only way I can get into it is head-first, and then turning once inside. This means, for instance, that you can’t sit in the entrance, take your boots off and then swivel into it, as you can with other tents. Pity the colour isn’t lighter, say yellow, as an emergency aid.

Rucksack less good as the harness is too short. It is designed for a short person, I assume a scout of about 15, or a woman. Glad it wasn’t too expensive.

On day three we decided to go on to Wee Jasper for beer and a final decision. For some reason everything looked much better in the morning, and we started off cheerful and not in too much pain. The beauty of the country helped. We arrived in Wee Jasper buoyed up and determined to continue with the schedule as published. The shop was closed!

We had a few minutes of deep gloom, then the owner appeared and opened up for us. Coronas all round, and some chocolate.

We decided that we will go on, and even try to exceed our short schedule for the day (14km) and try to get to Log Bridge camp, which would make it around 21km for the day, but included climbing Mount Wee Jasper, an ascent of 700 metres.

I called Gareth and Caroline, and left messages about our probable change of plans: we would definitely be at least one day late at Thomas Boyd Trackhead. Same message to Geoff and Tim via Ros.

Walked to Fitzpatrick Trackhead and had lunch, washed clothes and waited for them to be almost dry. We were in very good spirits.

That was a rough afternoon. After the first steep section we cam across a couple of Brown Snakes, the lightest-coloured ones Ive ever seen (very milky coffee). Wee Jasper mountain is very steep, and as it started raining half way up, we were very tired indeed. Peter Lockley was very near his limit. At the top, cold and wet and pretty much exhausted, we voted to continue to Log Bridge, which, on reflection, we probably shouldn’t have done. Got into Log Bridge campsite after dark, traveling on our torches. Everything wet.

My rucksack seems to leak at the slightest damp, and my sleeping bag was wet.

I couldn't eat much, just a cup o soup, and crawled into my bag with my clothes on. Very soon steamy warm, and by morning the bag and my clothes seemed pretty dry.

A great campsite with a table under a good shelter, plenty of flat campsites.

14 km today to Micalong camp.

I'm not feeling too bright, slightly sick.

However, we are not in too bad shape. Yesterday at Fitzpatrick Trackhead we were in great form, all of cheerful. Not quite so good today, I think.

It would be nice to have a dry day without too many hills. If so, and if we can afford a longish lunchtime, I'll unpack and see if I can dry everything out.

Geof Ashley might have to pull out of the walk because a friend of his, Greg Knight, has died, and Geoff will have to attend the funeral; this might not be a bad thing if the going remains as tough as this.

Looks as though we might meet Caroline and Gareth today, and might even make it to Thomas Boyd Trackhead on time.

Walking stick good as soon as you are off-road, and particularly helpful on hills.

Wednesday lunchtime, Bosawa camp - a beautiful spot.

Tuesday we left Log Bridge camp fairly late (9.45) and started walking already tired and depleted. Within an hour, I think I was beginning to feel quite bad. The route was picturesque, but very up-and-down. The whole walk seems to be designed to take you to out-of-the-way places (that usually means steep and difficult) of interest, and the rocky gully down the long gorge of Miller's creek, then up Pompey creek past Pompey's Pillar was such a side-trip, but part of the route.

I fell, potentially disastrously, on a rock half way down Miller's creek. For a few moments I thought I had broken my arm, so great was the impact and the pain. It turned out that I was lucky. I did have quite a gash, which I didn't notice at first, but the blood dripping thick and congealed finally alerted me to it. Charles cleaned me up with scarce water and a sticky plastic pad and a crepe bandage, and it has been more-or-less okay since.

However, from that point on I was buggered - woozy and weak. I couldn't make it out. By mid afternoon, I was dead on my feet. Sure, I kept going, but really only just - one foot in front of the other.

Finally we got in to Micalong camp , and I have never been so glad to get into camp and stop walking. (for the record, I was clearly suffering from dehydration and exhaustion from the previous three days.)

Washed clothes and self (ponging pretty high) and went to bed, slept for a short while, got up and started pouring water, tea and food into myself. By six thirty I was shivering and sweating, but by seven thirty I was feeling a million times better, if not quite well.

Bed, sleep, up in the morning greatly improved, though still a long way from fit.

13 ks today. By-passing Bosawa (a very nice campsite), we are heading for Micalong swamp, at the spot marked as 'Boardwalk'.

The morning's walk took us along Micalong Creek, a great little river. It felt somehow like a detour similar to Miller's Creek and Pompey Pillar, but in fact wasn't. There was a reasonable descent, pretty and fairly narrow along benched tracks, with the Micalong roaring and brown not far below us. The weather was great, the air beautiful, the birds amazing and the plants largely in full bloom. The predominance of purple and yellow in the colours of mountain wild flowers was noted again, and particularly attractive, I thought, was one plant with light-purple flowers and a lovely contrasting green of the foliage.

All in all we were in pretty good heart. Mostly our feet were still hurting, but we could all, I think, ignore the pain by now. Maybe our nerve-ends had given up?

The maps showed a fairly sharp climb, something which, by then, most of us were dreading, myself included. The climb is caused by the cascades and water-falls, mostly very dramatic, of the Micalong river. There had been enough rain over the past few weeks to have the river roaring down, brown as milky coffee, whitened by a zillion bubbles as the river throws itself from rock to rock, from fall to pool below and on over the next rocky barrier. It was beautiful, awe-inspiring and wonderful to see.

Maybe one of the most important reasons for having tracks such as this is to allow us to visit these magnificent spots without having to become full-on explorers?

It was here we met a team of Australia Conservation Volunteers, maintaining the track. They had a truck up on one of the logging tracks, and were staying, it seemed, at a hutted camp nearby. Good for them. They were doing a great job.

It took quite a while to climb this section of the track, and we took a long recovery break afterwards. When we did resume walking it was along predominantly forestry trails flanking the devastation of harvested pine forests, kilometre after kilometre of smashed and blighted land, with thousands of tonnes of broken timber discarded on the hillside. 'Why?' was the question on everyone's lips... but we had no answers.

Bossawa campsite was stated in the book to have been left immediately next to this devastation, with the suggestion that it might be moved to a 'nicer' location at some time in the future. This must have been done a while back, because we found the campsite quite perfect. The Micalong, docile now that the gradient had been reduced to almost nothing, ran quietly between deep peaty banks, tea-coloured and lovely. A log bridge led to the shelter in the middle of a grassy clearing.

Washing clothes most days in that incredibly high humidity meant that we had not yet been able to get them fully dry, though we draped them over the outside of our packs. At Bossawa we were able to dry them fully for the first time, spread on grass and bushes as we ate and rested.

The camp is too close to Micalong Campsite, really, only 7 km according to the book. We had to make much more than that in a day, so were headed to the suggested campsite at the head of Micalong Swamp where Chinaman's creek runs into it.

The walk was pleasant that afternoon, though un-inspiring: logging roads through mostly devastated harvested forests. Several roaring jinkers raising tails of dust half a kilometre long, industrial-looking signs and landscape. I suppose in the few years where trees have grown but have not yet been harvested, these tracks could be pleasant - but what are we talking about, ten years out of thirty?

However, when we crossed the boardwalk over Chinaman's creek and came across the campsite, (unofficial and therefore untoileted and unsheltered), we were enchanted. Does that sound too prissy a word? But I think we were. We found a wide, lightly-treed area of lawn-like grass overlooking the long flats of the swamp with natural forests (all but one spot in the distance) surrounding us. There was bags of timber for fires from fallen trees, very good water in Chinaman's creek (scooped carefully from between the marsh-plants) and wonderful weather. We arrive at around four pm, pitched camp and rested. Charles and Andrew investigated the ruins of Webb’s Hut amongst the blackberry, and returned with a spray of narcissi, which they handed to me with due ceremony as being nominal ‘Leader’.

At around six pm we cooked and ate and told stories and jokes in a desultory manner, then lit the small fire and sat together as the sun set behind the trees, and the swamp gradually darkened and disappeared.

It was a moonless evening (not sure what time the moon rose, but when I checked the paper today I note that it is rising at and setting at 9 pm, so that explains our moonless nights) and very soon the stars came out. Surprisingly, not a single satellite was seen, but we only watched for a short while before climbing into bed. A great day of around 13 km.

Thursday 3rd November.

Chinaman's creek to Thomas Boyd Trackhead. 19.7 km

Greg is clearly the fittest of us, as I expected. Doc, as usual, is next. Peter seems to be struggling, and I might come good by the end of the day.

The route today seemed not too bad on the map, though we have generally come to regard this as being no real indication – a ten-metre rise and fall can feel not insignificant when you are tired, and still not register on a topo map.

So we set off with the expectation that we would reach the last water for several kilometres in a couple of ks time, and set off quite cheerfully. The weather was fine again (that was promising the third dry day in a row, a real pleasure), and the gradients relatively easy. We strolled along at around 5 ks/hour for a while, topped up our water and continued up the flanks of Mount Nimbo. At the sudden clearing beneath a big power-line we got a telephone signal and I spoke to Ros Ashley, and got messages from Caroline and Gareth, which indicated that they had reached Mt Nimbo a couple of days before, and then gone home – very sensible.

A long, gradual climb took us near the top of Nimbo, and though I could see the top, I chose to conserve energy while all the others left their packs and climbed the summit. I rang home instead, and spoke to my son, Sam, and raised the possibility of him coming to Thomas Boyd Trackhead on the Goobarragandra the following day to rescue us, if the vote took us that way.

The original plan had been absurd: we could not walk 25 km each and every day, with no breaks, for 18 days. Not in terrain such as we had experienced, and probably not in any terrain. Some of the walkers to join us in the next week were known to be weak in one way or another – knees and feet, to say nothing of brain for wanting to join us.

For us to carry on, we would have to re-schedule the walk to cover an average of 15 km each day, not 25 km, and probably include a lay-day at Thomas Boyd Trackhead. This would throw the whole organization of the trip.

My response was that we should pull the pin while we were still in one piece, to re-think the whole trip and start again in the autumn. I intended to make this known to the others during the course of the day.

From Mount Nimbo the route ran steeply down almost all the way to Stoney Creek in the Goobarragandra valley, and it took us a very long time. We stopped amongst the elms at the The Hole, where we found notes from Tim Hackney and Geoff Ashley who had also returned to the Trackhead. On down we went, until rain threatened for a while, came and went for an hour, and then began slowly to increase. It was hot and wet inside our rain jackets, the sweat being almost as bad as the rain.

It was at a clearing just north of The Hole that I put my proposition for abandoning the trip, and it wasn’t received well; or at least, no-one wanted to seem too keen to adopt the plan. I suggested we vote on it after reaching the Trackhead.

Reaching Stoney Creek, we were faced with another killing ridge to climb, due, we believed, to the landowner who refused easy passage to the valley. This last climb dispensed, I think, with any thoughts of NOT abandoning the trip, especially as the stragglers caught the full force of a torrential rainstorm as the first in arrived at the Trackhead.

There to meet us were not only Tim and Geoff, but also Ros Ashley and her friend Penny who had decided to return with steaks and spuds and tomatoes and beer and wine, and they couldn’t have been more welcome.

We sat and rested and drank a beer and then a glass of wine, and it was great to see Tim and Geoff, and we couldn’t believe Ros and Penny, but were grateful. The vote was taken, and the trip abandoned.

That is, the three of us who were planning to go the whole 440 km decided to pack it in; the others decided that they would have one more day with no packs, then go home too.

So we ate and drank and were very merry under the shelter of the Trackhead, and then we said goodbye and thanks to Ros and Penny, and started to pitch our tents. – Lo and behold, Wendy Lockley drove into camp, clutching a huge tub of KFC!

Wendy, hearing the tone in Peter’s voice during his message of earlier in the day, had decided that he needed a hug and a treat, and drove all the way down that evening!

It took about two minutes to revise the plan: the three of us would leave with Wendy immediately. I would return first thing in the morning to gather up the packs of the day-walking four (Charles Oliver, Andrew Blake, Geoff Ashley and Tim Hackney) and then meet them at the end of the day and drive everyone home.

We did just that.

We surprised Lisa Scott and Wendy Dignand, and next morning I drove down to the Thomas Boyd Trackhead again. I picked up all the packs, waved them goodbye and drove to Tumut for a good front-to-back reading of the Sydney Morning Herald over a cup of coffee. After that I drove to the Blowering dam, walked to the text H&H camp, ‘Blowering’, which overlooks the lake, and sat down to write up the rest of this diary. I had a fabulous, lazy and relaxing day.

At 3.30 I picked up the other walker where the walk crosses the Snow Mountain Highway, and home we went.

We learned a lot from this walk, I hope, and we will re-assemble in the Autumn for a second go.