by Glenn Burns
Northern Kosciuszko is a subdued 1400 metre landscape of rolling sub-alpine grasslands separated by low snow gum clad hills and ranges rising to a maximum of about 1600 metres. This vast upland has a different feel to the rugged landscapes of southern Kosciuszko where 2000 metre whaleback mountains and ridges predominate. With its open vistas, network of mountain huts and more benign weather, northern Kosciuszko offers its own easier but distinctive walking opportunities.
A Hike in Australia’s High Country
Can I tempt you with a leisurely 50 kilometre, 6 day walk in the high country of northern Kosciuszko National Park? Nothing too taxing. Imagine stepping out along grassy 4WD tracks as they wind up through snow gum woodlands to low alpine passes then gently descend to vast open plains of swaying tussock grasses. Maybe camping overnight near historic mountain huts? Throw in showy alpine wildflowers, perhaps a sighting of an elusive wombat, limestone caves, brilliantly coloured Flame Robins, or maybe the eerie nocturnal call of a Boobook as you lie snug in a warm sleeping bag. With these promises in mind, on a balmy November evening, seven walkers left Ghost Gully Campground on Long Plain to enjoy six days of hiking across the high plains of northern Kosciuszko.
Generalised Map of Hike :
In the end, it was often about the weather. Our late November trip coincided with the passage of several fronts and troughs gifting us days of unsettled mountain weather. The pre-trip forecast for the week was a tad disconcerting.
Weather statistics from nearest SMHA Automatic Weather Station
|DAY||FORECAST||MIN C||MAX C||RAIN mm||WIND|
|MON||Cloudy||6.3 C||17.8 C||0 mm||30 kph|
|TUES||Late Storm||10.8 C||18.3 C||0 mm||57 kph|
|WED||Rain||10.8 C||12 C||24 mm||63 kph|
|THU||Snow||– 0.4 C||2.5 C||34 mm||91 kph|
|FRI||Snow||– 0.1 C||4.2 C||33 mm||70 kph|
|SAT||Sunny am||1.2 C||8.6 C||61 mm||46 kph|
Hypothermia is an under-estimated hazard for many walkers in Australia’s high country, even in summer. It is usually triggered by being out in cold, wet and windy conditions. Hypothermia can be easily prevented by wearing warm layers beneath wind and rain proof over-garments, by frequent consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods and by seeking shelter in a timely manner. Our hike was marked by several days of conditions as described above, so I modified the walk accordingly: huts became the default overnight accommodation.
Fortunately for this leader, my fellow walkers, although denizens of the sub-tropics, were all well prepared for cold, wet, and windy conditions. Our party of Richard, Gary and Neralie, Joe, Larry, and Chris trucked in loads of rain jackets, rain pants, and multiple layers of thermals, fleece jackets, puffy jackets, beanies and gloves. In fact, they seemed excessively bullish about our impending late week meteorological challenge. And this was a big plus as it was a different experience to sloping around in shorts and tee shirts.
There are number of high plains in northern Kosciuszko mostly above 1300 metres. Known as frost hollows, frost plains or cold air drainage basins they are naturally occurring treeless plains. The grasslands are an ecological consequence of cold heavy air draining down into the valleys of creeks and rivers. The pooling of this frosty air suppresses the growth of tree seedlings. Hence they are totally bereft of trees. Even the amazingly hardy snow gums refuse to thrive. Instead, the snow gums (E. niphophila: Greek = snow lover) and black sallees (E. stellulata) grow on the hill tops above the valleys and the alpine grasses occupy the lower valleys; thus the tree line here is said to be ‘inverted’. There are about ten extensive northern frost plains lying between the Brindabellas in the ACT and Kiandra in NSW, including Tantangara, Gooandra, Boggy, Dairymans, Currango, Cooleman, Long, Wild Horse, Nungar and Gurrangorambla. All worthy of a visit.
Huts & Homesteads:
The general rule is that the old grazing huts and homesteads should only be used in bad weather as a shelter and for warming up and drying out. But when the weather turns bad, as it often does, the huts become a magnet for skiers and snow-shoers in winter and bushwalkers, mountain bikers and horse trekkers in summer. Most huts are equipped with a fireplace or stove and a modest supply of dry firewood. Although, I noticed on this trip, that the emergency wood supplies had been ratted and not replaced. Some huts are little better than ruins but those still standing are being conserved by caretaker groups affiliated with the Kosciuszko Huts Association and supported by Parks NSW rangers.
The mountain huts of Australia’s high country form an integral part of its cultural heritage. In Kosciuszko the huts were often built as shelters on summer grazing leases using the most basic of tools: cross-cut saws, axes and adzes. Construction materials included split slabs, rough bush poles, wooden shingles for roofing, corrugated iron and stone cobbles for fireplaces.
Those of you who have walked in New Zealand, Europe or Tasmania may have misguided notions of the quality of Australia’s mountain huts. On a fine summer’s day they are often hot and stuffy and not especially clean. Some are home to bush rats or even the occasional snake. White’s River Hut under Gungarten is said to be home to a multi-generational dynasty of pushy bush rats, the infamous “Bubbles the Bush Rat” clan whose mischief regularly features in the hut’s log book. Personally, I haven’t been on the receiving end but fellow walkers have observed their nocturnal activities: chewing through rucksacks, raiding food bags and munching on the odd plastic torch or two. Although their antics on the hut rafters are never appreciated.
The thing about these huts is their stunning locations. Sheltered from winter westerlies by copses of snow gums, close to an ample supply of running water, timber for firewood and magnificent views over grassy flats, the huts are high country gems. At sunrise, sit outside on a log or the door stoop and warming rays will soon have you thawed out.
On our trip we hoped to visit Hainsworth Hut, Old Currango Homestead, Coolamine Homestead, Cooinbil Homestead and the dirt-floored Bill Jones Hut as an emergency if we got caught out on the Cooleman Plain.
Brumbies aka Wild Horses aka Feral Horses
In Australia, non-domestic horses are known as brumbies, wild horses or feral horses. It is estimated that there about 400,000 wild horses roaming Australia. Kosciuszko has about 6,000, and they represent an ecological disaster for these fragile alpine ecosystems. There is no doubt that horses were an important part of the cultural heritage of the high country. Today, the sighting of a herd of brumbies is very exciting, but they are feral animals with the same status as foxes, cats, goats, deer and camels.
In most states they are treated as a pest species being culled by aerial shooting or trapped then euthanaised or trapped and then broken in (rarely). In NSW the shooting of brumbies is a very contentious community issue as horse riding is a very popular recreational activity in northern Kosciuszko. Parks NSW recognises this by providing trails, horse camps, holding paddocks, water troughs and hitching rails.
In an attempt to manage brumbies, a 2016 draft Wild Horse Management Plan recommended reducing numbers in Kosciuszko by 90% over 20 years, primarily through culling. That would have left about 600 horses in the park. Naturally the NSW parliament ignored the advice of its own scientific panel so there will be no cull. Instead, the NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro hatched his own plan: The Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018. The bill would prohibit lethal culling because of the heritage significance of sustainable populations of brumbies. Certainly, the Fishers and Shooters Party and the Australia Brumby Alliance are pretty cock-a-hoop about the legislation but there are still serious questions to be answered about the environmental impacts of brumbies. The NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee has described the damage done by brumbies as a ‘key threatening process’. But hey, what would a bunch of scientists know? As a bushwalker who has visited Kosciuszko for many decades I can attest to the more obvious damage caused by brumbies: the pugging of swamps and watercourses, the myriad brumby trails criss-crossing the landscape, the fly infested dung heaps and the increasing incidence of brumby herds clomping through campgrounds at night.
Day One: Monday: Ghost Gully Campground to Hainsworth Hut: 3.8 kilometres.
After rescuing Chris from the eerily deserted Canberra Airport, our Hilux convoy converged on Cooma for a quick feed and yet another surreptitious peek at Mr BOM. No joy there. Then it was on to the Snowy Mountains Highway past Kiandra to Ghost Gully Campground. The old gold mining ghost town of Kiandra is reputedly one of the coldest places on the Australian mainland, coming in at minus 17.8°C, second coldest to Charlottes Pass, something that I apparently neglected to brief my fellow travellers on.
Ghost Gully Campground:
According to Parks NSW Ghost Gully Campground is a “small hidden gem tucked away off the Long Plain Road… the site is sheltered and spacious and is surrounded by black sallee eucalypt trees.” To which I can add that it is indeed as as pleasant as described and has firepits, standard issue long drop toilets and abundant water. For those horsing it in, substantial holding yards are part of the package deal. Ghost Gully is accessible by 2WD in fine weather but the road is closed in winter or any other time of snowfall.
With four hours until the 8.00 pm sunset we hauled on our monkeys and headed off at a brisk Nerilee , Gary and Chris trot along the Mosquito Creek Trail aiming for Hainsworth Hut a mere hour’s walk hence. This is an easy walk contouring along the perimeter of snow gum woodland above and the grassy plains below. The weather was, thus far, obliging. We cantered along in warm sunshine, a balmy 17°C with a gentle 13 kph west-south-westerly. Ideal walking.
Arriving at Hainsworth’s soon after 5.30 pm gave us heaps of time to fan out and collect firewood and water then put up our tents. Some tents pitched with commendable speed and efficiency. Others less so. Larry’s borrowed tent required half an hour of serious male engineering conferencing before it was coaxed upright. Sort of.
With a cheery fire blazing we moved inside to cook meals and sit around listening to Gary’s tall tales but true from his Antarctica days.
Hainsworth Hut: a typical mountain hut.
Hainsworth at 1360 m is one of a string of summer grazing huts built on Long Plain. At the peak of grazing there were up to 20 huts scattered over the plain. This hut is a simple two-roomer grazing hut with a bedroom, kitchen and open fireplace. It was built in 1951 by Hainsworth and Corkhill and is unusual in its cladding of corrugated iron with two doors and two storm hatch windows. But no pit toilet.
Sixty years ago the grassy flats of Dip Creek below Hainsworth Hut would have been crawling with sheep; 3000 of them according to a log book entry by Bill Hainsworth’s daughter. Now brumbies and dingoes roam these flats unmolested.
Speaking of roaming, I realised that my hiking cook-set had roamed into my ute’s camping kitchen box now abandoned at Ghost Gully. What to do? Well, the seven kilometre return ramble was firming up as a reasonable option on such a benign spring evening.
Tuesday: Hainsworth Hut to Old Currango Homestead via the Mosquito CK Trail: 9.4 kms.
A clear and cool high plains morning. Just as we were about to hit the road Ranger Tom arrived for a quick inspection of the hut and its inhabitants before driving on to Old Currango to give it a lick of paint. Fortunately, the lads and ladies were wise to this hut etiquette stuff. Hainsworth had been swept clean, the fire doused, ample dry firewood collected and stacked neatly and doors and windows closed. Five gold stars from Ranger Tom.
Our morning’s walk across to Old Currango was one of those satisfying springtime walks, passing through unburnt old growth snow gum woodland climbing gently to 1460 metres at Harry’s Gap. From here our 4WD track took a course downhill and parallel to Mosquito Creek. After some argy-bargy about where to sit for morning tea we perched on comfy logs provided by Gary while Chris and Larry whipped out hiking chairs which they luxuriated in at every idle moment.
Old Currango Homestead.
With Gary’s cruise control firmly throttled back to a steady four kph we headed off on the final leg towards our overnight camp at Old Currango. It is the oldest dwelling in Kosciuszko National Park dating back to the 1870s. Old Currango sits on an elevated site at 1275 metres, its back to the treeline but from its front verandah we had spectacular views to the north over the huge Gurrangorambla Plain. Out to the north-east Mt Bimberi (1913 m) and Mt Murray (1846 m) rose abruptly above the rolling landscape of the high plains.
With an afternoon to spare we lolled on our verandah, taking a leisurely lunch and poking around doing nothing in particular. Around the back Ranger Tom and a contractor beavered away, trying to slap on a coat of paint ahead of the now threatening clouds. The old girl was, in these final stages of refurbishment, being decked out in heritage pink with a chocolate trim. Old Currango had copped a flogging in a severe wind and hail storm in February 2017. Roofing iron and shingles were ripped off exposing the homestead interior to the weather. This has since been repaired but the gums on the ridgeline behind still bear testimony to the ferocity of that storm. Tree canopies were lopped and large old growth black sallees were snapped off at ground level. A salutary lesson in the dangers of mountain weather in these parts.
Grazing began in the area in the 1830s when Dr Andrew Gibson moved stock into these high plains. The first hut on the site was a slab and bark job built by Tom O’Rourke in 1851. By the 1870s construction had started on a colonial style homestead. The current iteration has four rooms, a central hallway and full length verandah. The posts are hand-split; the exterior walls clad in hand-worked weatherboard; the original shingle roof was covered by corrugated iron in the 1890s. Interior walls are lined with milled Alpine ash and covered in several rooms with newspapers from the 1940s and 1950s. But best of all, the fireplace and chimney has been expertly rebuilt.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the natives were getting restless. No longer content with reading or nana-napping they cast around for ‘things to do’. A wood and water patrol formed up, while Joe and Larry disappeared around the back to pester Ranger Tom to give them some jobs.
On cue, late that evening a band of thunderstorms swept in, bringing lightning, rolling thunder and rain. But, of course, we were high and dry inside Old Currango.
Wednesday: Old Currango. Sitting it out at Old Currango.
As predicted, first light revealed a dank, overcast and windy dawn. Plan B. Watch the world go by from the dry cover of Old Currango’s superb verandah: rain scudding over the plains, brumbies grazing, flocks of sulphur crested cockatoos feeding in the dense grass and Larry digging ditches to drain the pooling water away from the homestead’s foundations.
And behold, from the north a ragtag gang of interlopers. Bedraggled bushwalkers: sodden clothes, soggy footwear and saturated tents. Was there room at the inn for 18 travellers and their 3 minders? Fortunately, Gary and Joe had spent the morning fussing damp firewood into a satisfying blaze. The kitchen became a makeshift drying room and sauna. All available space taken up as kids piled in to dry out and warm up. We retreated to the outside. Our new hut companions were year 9 students and staff from the local Tumut High School and what a cheerful, polite and well behaved bunch they were.
By mid-afternoon the drizzle had cleared and the wind picked up allowing our little buddies to dry their tents and cook an evening feed on the verandah. A teachers’ satellite phone hook-up back to Tumut base confirmed that snow was expected on the morrow.
Thursday: Old Currango to Coolamine Homestead via the Cooleman Plain Karst Area: 14.7 kms.
More rain overnight with the possibility of snow today. As we had already blown a day of our itinerary it was important to push on, whatever the weather was doing. By 8.15 am we drifted out into a fall of light sago: snow with a particle size of less than 5mm. But it didn’t last long and at the Mosquito Creek Trail junction bundles of the fleecy stuff were stripped off. From here we climbed steadily back up to 1300 metres as the trail followed a minor fault line through the Gurrangorambla Range to Blue Waters Saddle.
The Gurrangorambla Range is an elevated block of upper Silurian (400 million years ago) granophyres topping out at 1600 metres at Tom O’Rourkes Peak. Granophyre is an igneous rock that crystallises at shallow depths and has a mineral composition similar to granite and like granite forms elevated terrain. But for much of our walk thus far we had been mainly traversing old Devonian Volcanics (419 to 358 mya); Kelly’s Plains Porphyry underlies the muted topography of the vast grasslands of the previous two days. Porphyry is an igneous rock consisting of large-grained crystals in a groundmass of fine-grained crystals. It forms when a column of magma is cooled in two stages. The initial slow cooling creates the large crystals of more than 2mm, later rapid cooling closer to the surface creates a matrix of small crystals almost invisible to the naked eye.
Ahead lay the flat treeless Cooleman Plain composed of cavernous limestone of Upper Silurian age. The Cooleman was described by explorer/grazier Terrance Murray of Yarralumla, Canberra in 1839 as “a grazing paradise covered with Kangaroo grass stirrup high, as well as snow grass and wildflowers”. I had planned to camp here for two nights spending time exploring the myriad caverns and gorges of Cave Creek.
But deteriorating weather forced a change of plan again. The wind had picked up (WNW@30 kph) and the freezing drizzle (0.3°C) intensified making for a wind chill factor of minus 6°C. So I piked out of the tenting game and headed instead for the shelter of Coolamine Homestead, three kilometres to the north west. But not before a cursory viewing from the Blue Waterholes lookout. Maybe next time. I’ve missed camping at this site on a previous walk from Kiandra to Canberra, again in dodgy weather.
At Coolamine our first priority was, as always, firewood and get the fire going. This is what we keep Gary and Joe for. Easier said than done with the mostly saturated firewood. But persistence pays off and soon a grand fire was banked up and we could start drying boots and socks. But best of all we could luxuriate around the warm fire as snow fell outside and the wind gusted to its maximum of 90 kph just after 6.00 pm, whistling and whining through the numerous gaps in the single skinned walls.
This extensive Homestead complex lies on an open grassland under the shadow of Cooleman Mountain. Four buildings survive: Southwells House circa 1885, the Cheese Hut built in 1889, Campbell House circa 1892 and a kitchen built at the rear of Southwells. Campbell House was built as a summer residence for the lessee Fredrick Campbell.
Campbells and Southwells are both constructed with drop slab walls and corrugated iron roofs. The chimneys are drop slab lined with stone and topped with corrugated iron. Campbells has five rooms and very wide floor boards. The slab walls have been wall-papered with old newspapers which make for interesting reading. Southwells has four rooms and the same wide floor boards. The Cheese Hut is a one roomer of log construction and a dirt floor and was used for storing food.
PS: It sports a NPWS long drop toilet in the day use area several hundred metres from the Homestead. A bit of a nuisance trek for us old blokes at 5.00 am on a bleak high country morning.
Friday: Coolamine Homestead to Cooinbil Homestead: 11 kms.
As anticipated, another overcast and drizzly morning. I had hoped to hang around for a break in the weather but by 9.30 am my fellow walkers were doing the agitated ant thing. Clearly they thought it was time to move on. And so it was out into the gloom in wet weather gear. The original plan was to go cross country from Harris Hut ruins over the Cooleman Range climbing through a pass at 1560 metres before dropping down to Cooinbil Homestead on the edge of Long Plain at 1377 metres. But navigating over the Cooleman Range in these conditions wasn’t something to be relished. I took the easier option and followed the Blue Waterholes Trail, past Cooleman mountain Campground, then out to the Long Plain Road. No chance of navigation boo-boos this way. No unhappy campers either.
As we approached the junction with the Long Plain Road a 4WD driving ranger appeared in the drizzle. The not so bad news was that a fresh front was heading our way. ETA: 5 pm. Estimated precipitation: 100 mm. Take cover before its arrival. Our nearest shelter was Cooinbil Homestead, now a mere five kilometres hence.
The bad news was that a big posse of mountain bikers were rumoured to be closing in on the hut to take shelter. The even worse news was that some had already arrived and had moved in. And another forty of the wheeled blighters were leaving Canberra on the morrow. We hot- footed it to Cooinbil; a fleet of mud-splattered mountain bikers trundled by, followed soon after by a convoy of Outward Bound 4WDs. I hadn’t planned on sharing a hut with this lot. Fortunately, come late afternoon several of the MTBers saw the error of their ways and used an obliging Outward Bound taxi service to return to Canberra leaving plenty of room for the more deserving bushwalking types.
Cooinbil or The Retreat is a weatherboard two roomer with an external kitchen/fireplace annex and verandah. It has an iron roof and is floored with wide slabs of wood. The internal lining is of cypress pine planks. The double hearth faces into both interior rooms, a bedroom and interior kitchen. By mountain hut standards it is quite fancy and has a great view over Long Plain from its position high above the Murrumbidgee River.
Cooinbil was built in 1905 for A. B. Triggs, a Yass grazier, on the site of a pre-existing 1866 hut. In 1912 the homestead and summer lease of 16.690 acres was taken over by Cooinbil Pty Ltd, a Riverina property owned by Fredrick Campbell of Yarralumla, Canberra. Confused? Campbell’s stockmen would walk mobs of 4000 sheep from the Riverina holding up onto the Snowy high country every summer.
In 1934 Ossie Lewis used slabs from Thatchers hut (2km away) to build the verandah. However, in 1987 a falling black sallee demolished the kitchen annex and part of the homestead which were both repaired by 1994. It also sports long- drop toilets as well as horse yards.
The mountain bikers were already hunkered down in the kitchen drying out around a barely flickering fire. Wasting no time we bagged the adjoining as yet empty bedroom which also had a fireplace. Needing to dry out pronto we fanned out scouring the countryside for any remaining fragments of timber. No mean feat given the decades of firewood collection around this hut.
We let Gary loose on wet kindling assisted by a fistful of Joe’s dinky firelighters and a container of mountain biker’s metho. Several deep puffs and the fire flared as did Gary’s eyebrows. Meanwhile other MTBers had been pretty busy too,sampling billets of hard earned firewood from our verandah stockpile. Foolish of me to doss down in a hut with a bunch of mud-splattered Millennials who have abandoned pack and pole for the dubious pleasures of padded pants and pedals.
The only people seemingly unperturbed by doomsday weather reports were the nearby encampments of tough horse people. Adults decked out in Drizabones and battered felt hats yakked around a huge blazing fire; kids swooped around the paddocks on their bikes and toddlers waddled around in onesies and wellies whooping it up in the rain and muddy puddles. I wandered over and had a productive chat about the weather and ferreted out some info on tomorrow’s route from Cooinbil to Ghost Gully Campground, though I squibbed the brumby conversation.
Saturday: Cooinbil Homestead to Ghost Gully Campground: 10.1 kms.
Daylight broke to a clearing sky. Our final mornings walk was a cross country effort following a handy horse trail that skirted the lower western slopes of Skaines Mt (1602 m) and dropped into the open swampy plain of McPhersons Creek. From here we would cut up to Mosquito Creek Trail and then gallop the final four kilometres to Ghost Gully Campground.
This was high plains walking at its best: our route wound through low hills wooded with snow gums; wildflowers aplenty and sightings of brumbies, black cockatoos and wedge-tailed eagles. The weather was just so: a sunny sky, temperature 4°C and a gentle breeze coming across the plains from the south-west.
Back at Ghost Gully the vehicles stood unmolested, waiting patiently to ferry us to Long Plain hut for a blowout lunch of stale hiking leftovers and celebratory ales provided by Joe from his esky (still cold). With clouds banking again we made haste onto the bitumen of the Snowy Mountain Highway just as the first spots of the next rain band fell (60 mm apparently). Next stop, Cooma. That evening the Alpine Hotel, Cooma, was the venue for our final evening’s nosh and drinks together. And many thanks to my walking companions whose good humour carried us through several days of indifferent weather.
NSW Dept of Lands: Rules Point 1:25000 & Peppercorn 1:25000
Rooftop Maps: Kosciuszko Northern Activities Map 1:50000
C. Lewis & C. Savage: High Country Huts & Homesteads ( Boiling Billy Publications).
P. Codd, B. Payne & C. Woolcock: The Plant Life of Kosciuszko ( Kangaroo Press 1998).
K. Green & W. Osbourne: Field guide to Wildlife of the Australian Snow-Country (Reed New Holland 2012).
D. Slattery: Australian Alps (CSIRO 2015).