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A low point in the High Country

In the mid 1970s, when I was about 18 or so, I spent the summer with friends rockclimbing at Mt Buffalo. While I was there I met a park ranger from the United States. He was on some sort of exchange program for what was then called the National Parks Service. In the mornings he would collect our camping fees and in the afternoons he would deliver wood for our campfires. I remember him because he’d worked as a ranger in California’s Yosemite Valley, a place where I and many of my climbing friends dreamed of one day visiting. I don’t recall his name but I do remember that he had an extraordinary passion for the environment. Each evening after work he would take a large hessian sack, pull on a thick pair of leather gloves and descend into what we climbers call Glass Gully. This was where the Mt Buffalo Chalet had for many years tipped their refuse and thousands of empty bottles. He would collect the glass, haul it up to the carpark and arrange for it to be transported down to the valley. I and a few other climbers joined him on occasion and I remember it as a nasty backbreaking job. He was also very critical about what we climbers still call Sewer Wall. The Chalet at that time was piping its raw sewage directly into the gorge, which resulted in a number of us becoming sick or getting infected sores on our hands. One afternoon, towards the end of his stay, his frustrations boiled over. He had been walking on the Bogong High Plains and had encountered herds of cattle trampling across fragile alpine meadows. While I can’t remember his exact words, his anger at our general environmental apathy was very clear indeed.

At about the same time a friend gave me a copy of a book titled The Alps at the Crossroads by Dick Johnson. It had been recently published by the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA) and in it Johnson described the VNPA’s vision for an alpine national park and recommendations for its management. Johnson described cattle as having ‘… done considerable damage over a century of abuse’ and under the heading Exploitative Commerce, the VNPA recommended that ‘cattle grazing be phased out of the High Country in the long term’. In retrospect the VNPA should have been much more critical about grazing but you have to remember that in the mid 1970s cattlemen were firmly entrenched in the High Country (both physically and ideologically) and the idea of displacing them, even in the long term, was considered unlikely.

In 1979, I turned 21 and spent the next few years travelling around the world. I spent three months in Yosemite Valley and visited many other parks across New Zealand, the United States, the UK and Europe. As I travelled my environmental awareness grew and with it the realisation that we in Australia had a great deal to learn about the responsible management of our unique and valuable landscapes. My love of climbing, bushwalking and cross-skiing also strengthened my resolve to make people more aware of the ongoing environmental issues we faced, particularly in our alpine regions.

When the Bracks government removed cattle from the Alpine National Park in 2005 I felt that we had won a major environmental battle. The removal of cattle was accompanied by an enormous sense of relief among the majority of recreational park users. Finally our alpine areas were to be returned to their natural state after 150 years of degradation. Don’t get me wrong, I know we still have problems with many other feral animals in the park, many of which we will never fully eradicate, but the removal of thousands of cows, each weighing over 600kg, was a massive step in the right direction. As a bushwalker, writer and photographer I rejoiced in seeing wildflowers emerging in places which had once been nothing more than trampled cow paddocks covered in flies. Creeks, bogs and moss beds that had once been filled with cow dung were for the first time in generations doing what nature had intended them to do, that is to keep our water clean and our landscape healthy.

It was comforting to know that the bad old days of tipping rubbish into alpine gullies, pouring raw sewage into mountain streams and allowing cattle to trample through our alpine meadows were finally over. I was therefore bitterly disappointed when the coalition government allowed cattle back into the Alpine National Park. The reintroduction of cattle will potentially set back the vision of a future three state Australian Alps National Park as well as any possible World Heritage nomination by a decade or more. The environment will suffer, tourism will suffer and Victoria’s reputation as a responsible guardian of public lands will also suffer. The cattlemen cynically justify their cause by arguing that grazing cows reduce fuel loads and therefore bushfire intensity. Peer reviewed scientific studies (which were started back in the early 1940s) have repeatedly shown that cattle do not have any effect on the severity or the spread of fires across the High Country. But lets be honest here. This isn’t a debate about whether or not cows reduce bushfire intensity. It was a political strategy that in part was to ensure that the seat of East Gippsland was returned to the National Party. It’s also about a small number of cattlemen that will benefit financially from this decision. And its about ideology. However, I suspect that cattlemen are doing themselves no favours by bringing cattle back to the park. The movie Man from Snowy River is almost 30 years old and can no longer be considered the powerful propaganda and marketing tool that it once was. An increasingly environmentally aware public are growing sceptical of old bumper stickers that declare that ‘Mountain Cattlemen Care for the High Country’. The once proud image that cattlemen have long enjoyed with the public is today becoming tarnished.

What is especially disturbing is that this government allowed cattle to return to our alpine meadows under a veil of secrecy, at a time of very little media scrutiny due to the mass coverage of the Queensland floods. The government then dressed it up as ‘scientific research’ which is reminiscent of the discredited so-called ‘scientific research’ currently undertaken by the Japanese whaling fleets in our Antarctic oceans. I also believe that Parks Victoria and its staff have been placed into a particularly difficult situation over the reintroduction of cattle grazing. Parks Victoria view themselves as a benchmark in land management, but how do they seriously justify to the public that a cattle station inside a national park is a good idea?

Hope now appears to rest with the federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, who can remove the cattle if his department decides they have the legal grounds to do so. This is based on whether or not cattle have a place in a National Heritage listed area. Also, some of the half dozen sites chosen to host the cattle are reported to be home to nationally endangered and vulnerable species of which the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act could be enacted to protect. The Australian Greens have also indicated that they intend to introduce legislation to outlaw cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park if there is no intervention by the federal government. Even the traditional owners, the Gunaikurnai people, are threatening the Baillieu government with legal action to have the cattle removed.

It was 34 years ago when a visiting park ranger and a book first made me aware of the damage cattle were doing to our High Country, and despite all of our environmental enlightenment over the intervening years we are still battling to get rid of them. Allowing cattle back in the High Country is simply wrong.

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Grampians Flood update

Following the recent heavy rains and ensuing floods, many of the parks in Victoria have closures in place. Either full closures like the You Yangs or partial closures such as the Grampians.

In regards to the Grampians, a huge amount of the park took a beating – with landslides and road collapse hitting the top of the list. Some areas, notably in the Northern Grampians have now reopened. These are predominantly concentrated around the Stapylton area. Below is a basic list of open  areas at the time of writing. This will be changing regularly as more areas are assessed and those with the least damage can be repaired and re-opened.  For regular updates always visit the Parks Victoria website.

Brambuk the National Park and Cultural Centre, and the townships of Wartook, Dunkeld and Halls Gap are all open for business.
Visitors are advised to take caution at this time due to variable track conditions. Drivers should take additional caution at this time.
All other areas in the Grampians National Park are still closed due to widespread flood damage throughout the park.

Open Roads

Main roads into Halls Gap and Wartook.
Grampians Road to Lake Bellfield Picnic Area.
Mt Zero Road (Halls Gap to Mt Zero).
Plantation Road.
Flat Rock Road.
Roses Gap Road.

Open Campgrounds

Plantation and Stapylton Campgrounds. Please note access to Stapylton Campground is via Plantation Road from Northern Grampians Road.
Troopers Creek Campground.

Open Walking Tracks

Boronia Peak, Chatauqua Peak (east side only), Clematis Falls and the Fyans Creek Loop.Hollow Mountain, Flat Rock to Mt Stapylton, Mt Stapylton Loop, Mt Zero, Heatherlie Quarry, Beehive Falls and Briggs Bluff.Mt Sturgeon and the Piccaninny
Art Shelters

Gulgurn Manja

Visitor Sites

Heatherlie Quarry
Mt Zero Picnic area
Summerday Valley climbing area

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The Overland Track (Tas)

Every now and then a new title comes out that really impresses me. The new walking guide, The Overland Track, by Warwick Sprawson is one of those guides. The cover indicates that this is a ‘complete guide to walking, flora, fauna and history’ and it doesn’t disappoint. The book comes in a very handy pocket-size format which is great because this is definitely a guide you want to be able to readily access. There are 188 pages with 50 pages dedicated to the walk itself. The trail is conveniently divided into seven days and all of the sidetrips (such as the climb up to Mt Ossa) are accurately described.

The rest of the book packs in plenty of valuable information about the flora and fauna, all lushly illustrated with dozens of colour photographs. There is also a well written section on history and geology. As a bonus, the guide also comes with an high-quality A3(ish) plasticised map which can be removed from the back of the guide.
The Overland Track is published by Red Dog and authored by Warwick Sprawson. Its RRP is $39.95. You’ll find it in all good bushwalking shops, some quality independent bookstores and it’s available now in our online bookshop:

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The Pyrete Range (Lerderderg Gorge)

In recent months I’ve been spending quite a bit of time exploring the Pyrete Range, an isolated block of mountainous bushland on the eastern side of the Gisborne to Bacchus Marsh Road and a fairly recent addition to the Lerderderg State Park. Despite its nearness to the western suburbs of Melbourne (less than 15km) this surprisingly rugged area is little known and has only recently started to attract the interest of bushwalkers. It appears that quite a few mountain bikers use the northeastern end of the park but the rest of the range is very quiet. The main watercourse running through the park is called Pyrites Creek. I’m not sure why the range is spelled Pyrete and not Pyrite but I have a sneaky suspicion that it is a bureaucratic spelling error, committed at some point in the past and which has now stuck. The park is home to the threatened brush-tailed phascogale and there is a large area set aside as a reference zone.

It appears that Parks Victoria have tried to keep the Pyrete Range fairly low key and don’t seem to actively encourage visitors. There are only a few entrances to the park as it is entirely surrounded by private land. Parks Victoria technically don’t allow camping in the range although it seems to me that quite a few people access the lower sections of Pyrites Creek via private property and regularly camp in at least a few locations along its banks (within the park). The odd motorbike track and the remains of a recently built hut overlooking the creek (also within the park) only strengthen my feeling that adjoining landowners view the Pyrete Range as their own little bit of private wilderness.
Currently there is just the one (unofficial) walking circuit within the range and which is definitely one of the most enjoyable daywalks close to the city. I’m fairly certain that Parks Victoria don’t know of the existence of this circuit but because of its growing popularity (even with walking clubs) I have decided to include it in to our forthcoming Daywalks Around Victoria guide. The walk follows old disused 4WD tracks for part of its length but the really enjoyable section of this circuit is along a stretch of Pyrites Creek itself. This wonderful creek is very easy to walk along and is reminiscent of nearby Lerderderg Gorge.

Having walked and waded along the Lerderderg River on many occasions I would have thought that the slippery nature of the Lerderderg’s riverbed would be replicated along Pyrite Creek. No such thing. Pyrite Creek is not in the least bit slippery. Even in the rain or thigh deep water it is an easy walk along the creekbed. I’m not sure if this is because the Lerderderg River’s slippery rocks are due to slime created by the position of Blackwood, old logging operations or simply that the rock is slightly different. All I know is that Lerderderg can be treacherous in the wet and Pyrites Creek is no problem at all. The rest of this circuit walk follows generally well-marked foot trails along a wonderful weaving gully which a local farmer (who appears to use this section of the walk fairly regularly) called Wobbly Gully. Somebody has done a lot of work along this gully to create a good walking trail, although, as I said it appears to have been regularly used for many years. There are a couple of campsites along this section of the walk, which again must have been created by visitors gaining access across the nearby adjoining private land. The total circuit is 13.8km and there is a great picnic spot about half way along its length. It really is an enjoyable experience and is totally different in character to nearby walks in Lerderderg Gorge.

The two photographs were taken along Pyrites Creek immediately after the January 2011 flooding rains. I was curious to see what the creek looked like once the initial flooding had eased. It was simply stunning. The colour of the stones on the creek bed were more reminiscent of Central Australian watercourses than those usually found in Victoria. As the population of Melbourne grows nearby bushland such as the Pyrete Range will come under increasing pressure from not only recreational users such as bushwalkers and mountain bikers but also from much more destructive motorbikes and 4WDs.  I know that funding is always tight but my advice to Parks Victoria is to start planning how best to manage this wonderful park now. The western suburbs are fast approaching and by the time the first houses reach the southern gate…it may just be too late.