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Australian Alps Walking Track: 4 Days

Ben Spencer is our guest blogger.

Day 1: Walhalla to O’Sheas Mill Site (13km)

The Walhalla Pavilion – the starting line.
The Walhalla Pavilion – the starting line.

Much dreaming came to fruition when dad and I tackled the first 45km of the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT) over the last Melbourne Cup weekend. We met in the historic town of Walhalla and immediately organised a car shuffle with our two cars. It took us an hour to drive along the Thomson Valley Road to Stronachs Camp – the chosen endpoint of our walk. Luckily, I had pinpointed the camp on the GPS because it was innocuous and would have been easily missed. Leaving my car, we headed back to Walhalla in dad’s car. After just ten minutes our excitement was deflated when a sharp sound heralded the arrival of a flat tyre. The dirt road sloped away towards a gully and although it wasn’t ideal for changing a tyre, dad rolled up his sleeves and got stuck into it whilst I searched for the hub cap that had shot-off in the incident. Back in Walhalla we lunched and made final pack adjustments.

Climbing steeply up from the Walhalla Pavilion (and clutching a copy of John Chapman’s Australian Alps Walking Track guidebook), we followed the walking trail as it snaked away from the township and into the forest. Light cloud covered a warm sun, which provided ideal walking conditions as we slowly built up momentum in our pace. The flat gradient was extremely pleasant and we soon arrived at Poverty Point Bridge spanning the Thomson River.

The historic 1901 Poverty Point Bridge.
The historic 1901 Poverty Point Bridge.

We rested a while on the bridge, snacking and enjoying the view as the river meandered peacefully below. Afterwords we climbed high above the river, soaking up the views. Eventually the gradient increased and our heavy packs contributed to us puffing heavily as we willed ourselves upwards. After what seemed like an age, the trail arrived at a sealed road that we had driven along earlier. The AAWT crossed the road and headed straight back into the bush. We wandered downwards, still recovering from the ascent and shortly arrived at our camp for the night – O’Sheas Mill Site (East Tyers Campground). It was a lovely tranquil spot next to a rushing creek and provided an ideal place to rest for the night. Unfortunately, it was also accessible by car and we were dismayed when a group of ‘bush bogans’ arrived to party noisily into the night. A fellow walker, on his first day of hiking the entire track, had also set-up camp and seemed equally annoyed about their presence. Luckily we found a small camp pad next to a cascade of water, the noise of which helped to drown out the hooligans.

Ferns on the grassy banks of the East Tyers River.
Ferns on the grassy banks of the East Tyers River.

After setting up our tent we cooked a hot meal and discussed the task facing us in the morning. We were to embark upon the longest continual climb to be encountered along the entire 650km AAWT. Sufficiently tired from our days walking, we thankfully crawled into or sleeping bags and fell asleep.

Day 2: O’Sheas Mill Site to Talbot Hut Site (11.7km)

We emerged from our tent before 7am and to our surprise some of the ‘bush bogans’ were already up. They had stoked their campfire to bonfire proportions which led us to believe that they hadn’t gone to bed at all. Our friend attempting the whole track was still abed – a role reversal from what I’d expected. The night had been milder than anticipated, perhaps because we were still at low altitude. We pottered around camp, gradually disassembling our gear and arranging it into our packs like a jig-saw puzzle. To our surprise, the ‘through walker’ said his goodbyes and was underway well before us. No doubt, he’d packed up camp a few times in his walking life and developed an efficiency we clearly lacked. Eventually we got underway and immediately encountered our first major obstacle. The East Tyers River required us to remove our boots and brave the icy waters in bare feet. With thoughts of blood sucking leeches, we struggled over the creek grimacing at the freezing temperature of the water.

Crossing the East Tyers River is a refreshing way to start the day.
Crossing the East Tyers River is a refreshing way to start the day.

The trail now started its long climb towards the mountain tops. After an hour or so, and just as we were getting into an enjoyable walking rhythm, I had a dramatic revelation. I’d left my car keys in dad’s car. This would mean, at the end of the walk, we would arrive at my car and be locked out! Considering our options (or lack of), we decided I would walk back and get the keys whilst dad continued on alone. The plan wasn’t without its flaws – dad would be without a map and I would need to walk over 30km in a day. I hid my pack in the bush, knowing I’d be back for it, and headed back towards Walhalla. With adrenaline pumping and minus my pack, I made quick progress. A black snake languished across the path and thankfully I was alert because its lack of movement gave it a strong resemblance to a stick. Although aware of my presence as I crept close for a photo, the snake made no move to exit the scene. I attributed this to him being in the shade and having not yet gained the solar power required for fast movement. About 5min passed and he eventually stirred into action and casually slid into the undergrowth.

A black snake, not to be mistaken for a stick!
A black snake, not to be mistaken for a stick!

The day was heating up and having covered over 12km already, I slowed to a brisk walk as the initial excitement passed. About 2.5 hours after I turned back, I arrived back in Walhalla to find it filled with tourists. To my relief, my car keys were in dad’s car and my efforts hadn’t been in vain. Rather than walking the entire way back to my pack, I drove dad’s car 20 minutes back to O’Sheas Mill Site (East Tyers Campground) – one benefit of road access to the site. A couple of fellow walkers were lunching at the picnic table; I assumed they had come from the direction I was heading in. After recrossing the East Tyers River for a third time I arrived back at my pack. Here I took a much needed lunch break, rudely marred by mosquitoes and other stinging insects. I sighed at the injustice, lathered on the sunscreen and mentally prepared myself for the massive climb ahead of me. The trail gradient now quickly steepened and the foliage tightened around the track creating a suffocating feeling.

The trail continued always upwards.
The trail continued always upwards.

The humidity was high and sweat streamed off me. The climb was unrelenting, becoming an exercise in mental and physical endurance. I passed a family heading downhill who offered information on the walk ahead – I didn’t want to know. Eventually the trail spat me onto a dirt road and although the steepness lessened it was still all up. The occasional car zoomed past, lessening the wilderness feel. Finally I arrived at a small carpark, from where the the popular Mushroom Rocks Walking Track begun. I encountered some other hikers and asked whether they had seen dad. It was a relief that they had. The trail-head signs indicated that I had another 2.5 hours of walking, disheartening news as my energy levels had dwindled. The AAWT continued on towards Mushroom Rocks, winding ever upwards. Climbing over and under fallen trees sapped my strength even further. The trail eventually wove through Mushroom Rocks, large boulders scattered amongst trees like giant marbles.

Moss-covered granite marbles at Mushroom Rocks.
Moss-covered granite marbles at Mushroom Rocks.

I didn’t linger at the rocks as I wanted to tackle the steep climb up and over Mt Erica before it grew too late. The air temperature now grew noticeably cooler as the constant ascent continued. After what felt like an eternity I lifted my head to find the trail had finally flattened and a wooden sign beckoned me closer. My spirits soared. Surely this must be the top. No such luck, however. The sign tantalisingly pointed out that Mt Erica was still some way ahead of me.

The sign that mocked me.
The sign that mocked me.

I was now mentally and physically exhausted but I put my head down and kept trudging upwards through the snow-gums. Finally another sign came into view. It was Mt Erica. I had made it. The trail gently rolled into Talbot Hut Campsite where I found dad relaxing and enjoying a cup of tea. We recounted the day’s events. Dad had talked to walkers he had met during the day who helped keep him on the right trail. He’d found the ascent as tough as I did and we were both glad it was behind us. The campsite was situated next to a lovely trickling mountain stream and was protected from the wind by the snow-gums. We spent the rest of the night enjoying a well-earned meal and were in bed shortly after dark.

Day 3: Talbot Hut Site to Mt Whitelaw Hut Site (12.5km)
Despite our weariness, we both slept restlessly, still unaccustomed to sleeping on the ground. We made good time getting up and away, having become more efficient at packing our gear. The day’s walk began with slight rises and falls as we crossed the Baw Baw National Park. Our progress slowed considerably as we were forced to walk through ever larger pools of water. Thick scrub often prevented us from going around and soon our feet were drenched. Eventually the trail reached large patches of snow, a surprise as this was November. The increasing amount of snow did, however, explain why there was so much water on the lower trail. Luckily the yellow markers on the trees ensured that we didn’t lose our way.

Maybe we should have brought the skis!
Maybe we should have brought the skis!

Just past the Mt St Gwinear junction we encountered some other walkers making their way from Baw Baw Village to Mt St Gwinear. A gradual climb followed, which soon brought us to the highest point within the Baw Baw National Park – Mt St Phillack at 1556m. Unfortunately any views of the surrounding mountains were obscured by the snow-gums.

Not much of a view from Mt St Phillack.
Not much of a view from Mt St Phillack.

We sauntered downwards until dad called a halt for lunch on an outcrop of rocks. Whilst we enjoyed a food and rest break, an ultra-marathon runner appeared out of nowhere, geared up and running in the opposite direction. Dad yelled out to ask where he’d come from. ‘Red Jacket’, he shouted, as he was swallowed up by snow-gums. A quick look at the map confirmed that he’d already covered 37km and that he probably had many more to go. After lunch I became impatient and scouted ahead, sure that we couldn’t be far from our overnight stop – Mt Whitelaw Hut Site. Sure enough I came upon a crumbling chimney with flat campsites scattered around. Waiting for dad to arrive, I explored the water options and discovered it to be more swamp than stream. Definitely not the robust flows we’d been blessed with previously. I squelched through a soggy marsh to find a trickle of fresh, icy water – it was worth the effort. Dad soon arrived and we set up the tent. Being mid-afternoon we took our time savouring the serenity and reflecting on the journey thus far. Again we were in our sleeping bags just after nightfall, serenaded by the croaking of frogs calling to each other in the swamp below.

Our piece of paradise at the Mt Whitelaw Hut Site.
Our piece of paradise at the Mt Whitelaw Hut Site.

Day 4: Mt Whitelaw Hut Site to Stronachs Camp at Thomson Valley Road (9km)
We were up at sunrise, wanting an early start on the last day’s walking. The trail was now mainly downhill and soon we left the snow-gums behind. As we crossed a small hill we were treated to our first long-distance views since day one. Overlapping mountain ranges vanished into the horizon.

Views, Glorious Views.
Views, glorious views.

We continued steadily downwards, reaching a grassy gully surrounded by dense scrubby undergrowth. Inevitably the trail climbed again out of the trough and widened before climbing past a junction to the Upper Yarra trail, which I have to say looked overgrown and uninviting. Cresting the hill, we promptly rolled downwards again as the surrounding trees slowly transformed into tall mountain ash. We were making good time now as we descended rapidly. We came to a sign and a campsite just before Thomson Valley Road and knew the end was nigh. Reaching the road, we craned our necks to check the car was there and thankfully it was. Back-slappings and celebrations ensued – we had made it. Despite the hardship of the second day, the walk was a memorable experience that I will always treasure. It made me realise the act of walking and camping in remote wilderness is a pleasure in itself and spectacular scenery is an added luxury, not a necessity.

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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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Pine Mountain

Pine Mountain
Pine Mountain
Pine Mountain lies on the NSW Victorian border

It’s supposed to be the biggest rock monolith in the southern hemisphere but I can’t help but be a bit dubious of the claim. Parks Victoria states that Pine Mountain is 1.5 times bigger than Uluru, but it really doesn’t have the iconic status that Uluru does. Despite all of the rhetoric, Pine mountain is a fairly impressive place. In fact it reminds me a little of Mt Buffalo further to the southwest. Sure, Pine Mountain is not as high nor as spectacular but it does have some alluring points. Firstly Pine Mountain is off the beaten track and as such rarely sees visitors. It is also covered in black cypress pine woodland, an especially attractive and unusual form of vegetation. Best of all, however, is its amazing views. No other mountain in Victoria delivers such a feast for the eyes. Greg, Karen and I reached the summit ridge at just after 1pm on a hot summers day. This is one of the walks we are including into our new Daywalks Around Victoria guidebook and we needed to check out the trail and accurately GPS it. Even with the heat haze we were treated to uninterrupted views along the crest of what is the highest section of the Great Dividing Range. The mountains culminated in the dramatic western faces of Mt Kosciuszko, the highest point in Australia. Slightly south we could see the remote, almost mystical Cobberas, the birthplace of the Murray River and the start of its 2560 kilometre journey to the sea in South Australia. We sat on the summit rocks and ate lunch. I think if I come back up here I’ll try to time it for early spring. The mountains would all be covered in snow then and the views would be amazing.

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Bushwalks in the Victorian Alps updates

These updates are available to download here

January 25, 2010
Walk 25 (Three Craggy Peaks)

On the first day, as the trail climbs King Spur, the route flattens out just prior to the final climb (through rocky bluffs) to the summit of Mt Koonika. Where the flatter terrain abruptly ends before the final climb, the best route to the top is along a faint track that sidles to the left and onto the northern slopes of King Spur. The trail climbs steeply then cuts back to intersect the spur immediately below the summit. A final push through some crags brings you to the grassy top.

January 25, 2010
Walk 16 (Mt Buller West Ridge)

The peak referred to in the introductory notes as Mt Tabletop should actually be Mt Timbertop.

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The Cobberas

Summit of Mt Cobberas (1835m)
Summit of Mt Cobberas (1835m)
Summit of Mt Cobberas (1835m)

Karen and I camped at Native Dog Flat over the Christmas holiday’s. Apparently Melbourne sweltered in the heat while we enjoyed perfect weather (except for some rather amazing storms during the night). We were researching a couple of walks in the area for our forthcoming Daywalks Around Victoria guidebook. The Cobberas are Victoria’s truly last wild big mountains (Mt Cobberas is over 1800m) and it doesn’t see many walkers. To beat the anticipated warmth of the day we started our walk from the carpark on Cowombat Flat Track at just after 7am. We climbed the ridge from Bulley Creek up to Moscow Peak. The ridge is fairly easy except when you get up to the 1600m mark when you have to do a lot of boulder-hopping. We crossed a saddle and climbed Middle Peak (1777m) and found ourselves in an alpine wonderland reminiscent of the Mt Anne area in Tasmania. The flowers were literally knee deep and the 2003 fires had missed many of the old twisted snowgums which are a feature of the area. We reached the top of Mt Cobberas (1835m) by midday and scrambled to the summit where we had lunch. We could see brumbies grazing on the grass plains below. Up here there are literally thousands of wild horses. Every few minutes we disturbed them grazing on the alpine grasses. We completed our circuit walk by first descending the established walking trail and then leaving it to follow a long forested ridge back to the car. We got back to Native Dog Flat in the middle of the afternoon which meant we could relax and open a bottle of white wine we had chilling in the Waeco.

The walk was almost 16km long and most of it was off trail. A bloody good outing however and one which will appeal to experienced walkers.