With the Easter long weekend closing in, I wasn’t surprised when my bushwalking friend Brian appeared at the front door clutching one of his well-used topo maps and muttering about “getting away from the crowds over Easter.” Here’s a thing about Brian. He’s a map-man of the old school. There’s nothing much he likes better than to spread out a map, trace a finger along ridge and river and, hey presto a walk is born. Strangely though, I have rarely seen him brandishing a compass and never a GPS.
As more and more wilderness areas fall to incursions of the Great Walk track builders, ‘tell-all’ guidebooks and those viral GPS track logs, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a throughwalk that still has some tantalising unknowns. But I can always rely on Brian to trawl through his map cupboard and come up with something decent; in this case an “exploratory” into northern Sundown National Park, south-west of Stanthorpe. Some say that the name Sundown is said to come from the idea that its valleys are so deep that it’s always ‘Sundown’. Others claim that the name is in keeping with the tradition of using astronomical place names in the area, but I couldn’t find much evidence for this interpretation, apart from references to Comet Creek, Comet Mine, and Arcturus Mine.
Sundown offers a terrain of deeply incised creeks, gorges, waterfalls and steep stony ridges rising to over 1000 metres on the Roberts Range. As well, it has an interesting cultural heritage of aboriginal occupation, pastoralism and later on, mining. Brian had nutted out a 54 kilometre walk that had some navigational problems and, not unexpectedly, there was the obligatory physical challenge. It would also give us some respite from camping near raucous Easter 4WDers and was remote enough to be off the radar for most of the latter-day bushwalking fraternity.
Although only thirty kilometres from the well known Girraween National Park as the crow flies, the 12910 hectare Sundown National Park has little in common with the benign rounded tor landscapes of the Stanthorpe Granites. Early settlers described Sundown’s rugged and rocky terrain as “traprock”, geologically incorrect, but a good descriptor all the same. Traprock is a term originally applied to basalt landscapes in the UK, while Sundown’s lithology is predominately sedimentary which has been partially altered by heat and pressure to form metasediments. What it does share with Girraween is its propensity for cold weather. This is Queensland’s coldest district; eight months have temperatures below o°C, with -10.6C° the lowest. Fortunately the average minimum for April is a comfortable 9.5C°.
The Severn River, named after the Severn River in England, has incised deeply into the traprock and its course is lined with numerous deep permanent waterholes, many bordered by vertical red clifflines. No danger of going thirsty here even though the park lies predominately on the western side of The Great Dividing Range. In fact, at the end of the wettest Queensland summer in 40 years the park ranger reported to Brian that the Severn was still in moderate spate and we could expect piles of flood debris.
Friday 22 April: Sundown Shearers Quarters site to Severn River via Mt Lofty: 10 kms: vertical rise: 267 m.
My fellow walkers assembled at the old Sundown Shearers Quarters site soon after 1.00 pm, in warm humid conditions. Our party was eight in total: Brian (leader), Malcolm and Jenny, Bernard (an uber-fit septuagenarian), Russell (aka Starkie) Leanda, and my fellow ailurophile, Richard. Our immediate task was to sweat up the 260m, three kilometre climb to Mt Lofty, a long whaleback feature topping out at 1067 metres. Mt Lofty is said to have been named thus as it was the highest point on the road leading to the Sundown Mine, hence it was “Lofty”. Naturally the Law of Diminishing Returns always applies and our efforts ended in an obscure and thickly vegetated summit. View factor: pretty average, though a vast improvement on Brian’s Kerries whiteout in 2006. But this didn’t stop Brian bagging it as one of his 1000 metre peaks, celebrating its capture with a wee dram of someone’s hootch.
Then came the descent to the Severn River; a long, roller-coasting two kilometre fire trail that rode up and down over a series of hillocks, ever decreasing in height down to the river at 600m. In fading light a meandering 4WD track carted us off towards our picturesque overnight campsite at Lowe’s Waterhole: an open grassy clearing complete with its own melancholic collection of decrepit yards, a tottering corrugated iron shack and ancient barbed wire fencing. Lowe’s Waterhole was named for a local selector but it is also called Koinas Tanks, which doesn’t always appear on maps. Koina was a Stanthorpe plumber.
These were relicts of bygone times when Sundown was a pastoral run. It was part of the much larger Mingoola, Nundubbermere and Ballandean Stations, all surviving as parish names on our topographic map, as well as Nundubbermere Falls and Mingoola Trig. These three holdings were subdivided into smaller leasehold blocks in the late 1800’s and some of the newly created Sundown Run was cleared for fine wool production; hence our grassy campsite glade.
Back in the 1840’s these holdings were at the far flung reaches of the Empire; conditions for the shepherds could be spartan, violent and unpredictable. On nearby PikedaleStation when Chinese shepherds struck for higher wages, the manager was one Mr H. B. Fitz… said to be called Murdering Fitz. Fitz punched the spokesman and killed him with one blow. Fitz surrendered to a magistrate but as there were no white witnesses he was soon released. He is also said to have fed poisoned flour to the Chinese when their annual payments were due.
Meanwhile back in the 21st century our seven tents soon scattered through a lightly forested grove of cypress pines. We were perched on a low bluff overlooking the Severn where it plunged through a rocky choke; occasional camp noises drifted over the roar of the water from the 4WD camp on the northern bank. Secure in our isolation we settled in around the campfire. Above, the clear sky showed the Milky Way to perfection and such was the clarity that I could easily pick out the dark patches of the Coal Sacks and the misty smudges of the Magellanic Clouds.
Saturday 23 April: Lowe’s Waterhole to Campsite 2: 11 kms. Altitude loss: 80 m
Today we would track the river westerly past the junction to Nundubbermere Falls and then on a long six kilometre run to the south, stopping somewhere, as yet undetermined, but just short of Reedy Waterhole where quadzillions of 4WDers would be lurking; a veritable village of camper trailers and safari tents even though access to Reedy and Burrows Waterholes is little better than a glorified goat track. But locals call it the “Sundown Road”.
Perhaps our modern adventurers gliding along in their all-terrain wagons could spare a thought for Sydney Skertchly, a government geologist who visited Sundown in 1897. He wrote:
“ …we had horrible weather, fog, and rain, and though we stayed a day after we had eaten our last bit of food… we were obliged to return to Ballandean, as the rain showed no sign of abating. My horse drowned himself in a waterhole and one of our men had to be sent back ill…yet I never enjoyed myself more. I shall long remember our last night. Four of us had dined of less than half-a-loaf of bread and we sat around the camp fire sipping second-hand tea, while a stockman recited Gordon’s poems as a substitute for supper.”
As for our little band of wanderers, our river outing, although not as extreme, would turn out to be a tad damp, for, as the Ranger had predicted, the river was flowing strongly over a succession of rock bars, chokes and rapids. Nary a sandy beach in sight. It brought to mind a book which I had just coincidently read: The Diary of Gideon Mach. Gideon falls into a stretch of river known as The Devil’s Jaws and re-appears three days later having made a pact with the devil to secure his survival.
Speaking of survival, several shots from a .22 rang out from the far bank; I glanced around at my companions; business as usual, not a whisker twitched. Men of Steel. Across the river our weekend warriors probably thought they could bag one of the wild deer that roam the park, but failing that, there are plenty of other ferals to choose from: goats, pigs, foxes, rabbits, hares and moggies. Good riddens many would say, although one of our fellow walkers had to be weaned off a lingering attachment to “cute little deers”. Still I didn’t have heart to mention that the Parks Service conducts regular culls of deer and such like; a recent tally being 190 deer, 580 goats, 8 pigs and 5 foxes. No
8.00 am found us skirting along the bluffs that paralleled the river, just upstream of the Nundubbermere Creek Junction. But with steep ridgelines and cliffs dipping into the river ahead it was pretty obvious that we would need to cross; a pattern of travel that was repeated with monotonous regularity of most of the day. Distance elapsed: a fraction under one kilometre from camp. This was shaping up to be one excruciatingly slow walk.
But slow is good. A chance to potter along, immersed in the ever changing riverscape: long stretches of pool and riffle, interspersed with short runs of rock and rapids; the riverine forests of she-oak, river red gums, tea-tree and bottle brush; skinks basking; and pied cormorants perched on logs, wings outstretched.
Back on the Severn, we continued picking our way along the bluff scanning for a likely crossing point; a nice dry rocky bar would do me just fine. Brian, who gets impatient with this sort of “fraffing around,” finally blew a gasket, pulled over and announced: “We’re crossing here.” Here, was a line of rapids shooting over a waterfall; a particularly boisterous section of the river if I may say so. Bernard and I, wily old veterans of Brian’s many anti-fraffing campaigns, held back while our safe egress across to the other bank was secured. Safe being a relative term, but apparently a too-short length of climbing tape, no anchor points, slimy rocks, unwieldy packs, racing water and three burly blokes made it ok. And it was.
In the river bed far ahead I could make out a solitary female figure of ample frame draped decorously over a boulder; this could only be the generously proportioned Mma Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of the Number One Detective Agency. On closer inspection we revised this to merely a lady scoutmaster who had just released a gaggle of teenage girls, now straggling off into the wild. Grossly under prepared as it turned out, but it is difficult to be overly critical when the girls were out there having a go.
We caught up with the girls soon enough having retrieved one of their cast-offs… Dad’s favourite hike tent. These kids deserved better than to be let loose with ill-fitting day packs trailing an assortment of tents, tarps and those back-breaking blue sleeping mats, known by my sons as“portable concrete”.
Here is the conundrum for all youth leaders. That fine balance between risk aversion and engendering a sense of competence and adventure. The girls had no PLB and were relying on a UHF radio which was, as they soon discovered, pretty much useless in this rugged hilly terrain. But, still, we impressed to see them out there on a fairly challenging walk and, as it turned out, succeeding.
Back on the river we worked our way downstream clocking up a fraction over one kilometre an hour. With numerous crossings and water occasionally lapping at the sporrans of the resident short-arses we quickly got over trying to keep boots and socks dry and took to the water, just like the wood ducks we kept flushing up ahead of us. As for our three Kiwi tramping companions, all this river walking brought on a nostalgia for things they thought they had left behind in The Land of the Long Black Cloud: wet boots, soppy socks and grossed-up wrinkly feet. Late in the afternoon, much later than expected, we called it a day and set up our tents at campsite 2, a dank grove on the western bank located between Red Rock Waterhole and Rudders Waterhole, having travelled a paltry 11 kilometres for the day.
Sunday 24 April: Campsite 2 to Pump Waterhole 1.5 kms
As the sky lightened I woke to a muted thumping outside my tent. Two chocolate eggs in terminal meltdown were stacked neatly outside my tent flap. Richard claimed that it was just Starkie pretending to be the Easter Bunny, but you and I know better. Fortified by a breakfast of porridge and two chocolate eggs sluiced down with lukewarm coffee, I took off on the short hop to Pump Waterhole, our campsite for the next two nights. Our first task was to find a largish, flat, grassy area.
Malcolm and Brian gamely tackled yet another river crossing, foxed up a campsite on the other bank and came back with sly grins and glowing reports of our new home. But truth will out; a poxy campsite at best… if I were feeling generous in my praise, which I wasn’t. This previously grassy river flat that had been flood-scoured leaving trails of rounded river boulders and debris piles of uprooted she-oaks. Tent sites were in short supply and so pitching our tents required some serious high order spatial sequencing. Docking first was Bernard’s Barnum and Bailey big-top sporting a quarter hectare footprint; next came Malcolm and Jenny’s canary yellow stately pleasure dome and finally the swarm of one-maners came to rest, wherever. In the cool of late afternoon and when seen in the lengthening shadows, our quiet little campsite grew on me, but more of that later. I believe the name Pump Waterhole may have derived from its use as a source of water for mining or for watering stock. There are precedents forthis as the Beehive Mine, for example, used a steam pump to lift water 152 metres from a dam on Red Rock Creek.
After a brief respite, Brian had determined that there would be no skiving off on his watch and directed this slack and idle crew to venture forth and use their R&R time in something productive; like, say, a three or four kilometre walk to the Rats Castle via Reedy Waterhole Campsite. Reedy was pretty much as expected: a good place to avoid over Easter. Nearby is the much larger Burrows Waterhole campsite which was named after Fredrick James Burrows, a WW1 veteran who suicided in 1934 and his grave is said to be on the northern side of the river, but I didn’t tell Brian that. He is overly fond of chasing down stuff like that.
And so it was onward to the Rats… or should have been, except for the dumb-cluck navigators. Both Brian and I had been to the Rats before but now we were approaching from a different direction. Our walk this time went awry when the combined efforts of Richard’s GPS, my map and compass skills and Brian’s usually intuitive bump of locality all conspired to direct us down a shady beckoning track and place us on the wrong ridgeline.
Rats Castle was tantalizingly close, a mere kilometre as the crow flies but could have been on the Moon as it was now 1.00 pm our final turn-around time. So we propped where we were, savoured our lunch in a cool woodland of white cypress pines perched high above the Severn River valley. Rats is an interesting geological feature and major landmark on the Severn. It is a ridge of hard fine-grained granite which has intruded into the surrounding metasediments of the Texas Beds, weakened during a major fracturing in the Severn River Fracture Zone. Technically it is a dyke, a vertical intrusion. Early shepherds called it Rats Castle because when it was first seen it was home to small rock wallabies, then commonly called rats. Retracing footsteps we came to the cleared paddock we had walked through several hours previously but this time stopped to enjoypanoramic views across to Mt Lofty but more importantly Red Rock Falls, tomorrow’s objective. We could even see the ridgeline that we would follow up in the morning.
On our return to Pump Waterhole, things were on the up and up. A Sea World style slippery-dip swim, copious supplies of firewood, a now shaded campsite and a good feed and all was well in the circus. For me at least, but not for a forlorn clutch of teenage girls, weary and sunburnt, who limped through in the fading light; one in tears. Uncle Brian took pity, showed them where they were on the map; reassured them that they were getting close to civilisation and their pick-up point and gently packed them off downstream. As I watched their little dejected backs disappear over the promontory of rock near our tents it suddenly occurred to me that I was looking at a Rats Castle look-a-like. Closer inspection revealed it was indeed a granitic dyke intruded through the local traprock. Under our noses the whole time; how could that be? I, too, could have wept.
Monday 25 April: Pump Waterhole to Red Rock Falls: 7 kms: Altitude gain: 700 m.
An uphill sort of day; but the weather was kind, cool with light winds. Just as well for we faced a slow grind out of the Severn River Valley by way of a succession of high points: 731m, 828m, 995m, 1027m and finally reaching the high tops at 1032m, an altitude gain of 700 metres. No nav stuff-ups allowed; Richard and I were on the yellow card. But we weren’t taking any chances with today’s route and this time had fed a truck load of waypoints into the GPS just in case the old map and compass led us astray, again. Morning tea was on an open bald, reminiscent of the Bunya Mountains, but just an old cleared grazing paddock, but with superb views across to Mt Lofty and Red Rock Falls.
Our morning’s walk would traverse the Sundown Resources Reserve, a reminder of Sundown’s mining past. The mineral deposits formed where the Ruby Creek Granites contacted the overlying traprock (Texas Beds) or are found in fractures above the granite intrusion. Here there are occurrences of molybdenite, tungsten, copper, arsenic and tin, in fact the first deposit of tin in Australia was found on the Nundubbermere Run in 1854.
The Sundown Tin Mine opened in 1893 and operated until 1923 when it closed only to re-open in 1953 until 1956. It was by far the biggest lode producer in the area but other mines were Carpenters Gully, The Orient, and Beehive. Copper sulphides were worked at The Sundown Copper Mine and nearby Comet Mine. Arsenic was extracted in the early 1900s at Beecroft, Sundown Copper and The Orient mines.
Arsenic was an important constituent in prickly pear poison, cattle dips and a hardener for the lead in bullets. Unfortunately arsenic oxide treatment has contaminated Little Sundown Creek and I have read that walkers are advised not to drink the water in Little Sundown below the mines. Fortunately small lodes, lack of water and poor access makes any further exploitation of the reserve unlikely.
After a climb of 700m over 5.5 kilometres we reached the high range country and were about to re-enter the national park. The Queensland-New South Wales border was a mere 1.5 kilometres to our south and with the lunch worms gnawing we steered to a small shady dam. Replete we shuffled off to set up camp on Red Rock Creek, one kilometre upstream from Red Rock Falls. We had left the drier woodlands and vine scrubs far behind and our small tent city now snuggled under a tall Eucalypt Forest of yellow box, brown box and Tenterfield woolybutt . The climatic conditions at 1000 metres being cooler and moister, are conducive to the growth of this taller forest.
Red Rock Falls are etched into the Ruby Creek Granites and drop vertically a massive 150 metres. Scary. But not to Bernard who teetered, camera in hand, along the rim banging off shot after shot. I decided it was better not to watch his impending demise.
But look I did, elsewhere… scanning the precipitous clifflines for tell-tale white stains that would signal the presence of Peregine Falcons as promised in the Parks brochure. None, neither seen nor heard. So I turned my attention to the views down Red Rock Gorge to its junction with the Severn; in fact it meets the Severn very close to our campsite of Saturday night. In the far distance, at ten kilometres to our north west was Jibbinbar Mountain (975m), our sister outcrop of Ruby Creek Granite and also the site of a government arsenic plant in the 1920s. Ruby Creek, the location for the origin descriptor of the granite that bears its name is found on the New England Tableland, close to Gibraltar Range National Park.
After more goofing around, we took our leave and clambered up to the tourist lookout above, and did touristy things…. more photos, admired the views anew and read the park info board about Sundown’s mining past and then it was off for our final night out on the track and hopefully a decent feed consisting of more than half-a-loaf of bread and second hand tea.
Tuesday 26 April: Red Rock Creek Campsite to Sundown’s old shearers quarters site: 5 kms: Altitude loss 160 m
An easy morning’s downhill canter took us into the old Sundown site, sooner than we thought. By 10.00 am it was all over but the shouting… at Richard’s rascally Land Rover Defender if it refused to start. But it did and within the hour we dismounted at the Stanthorpe Bakery for some substantial victuals:a pie or two, spinach and fetta rolls, vanilla slices, cream buns and such like, all washed down with mugs of delicious hot coffee. Eat your heart out Mr Sydney Skertchly.
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.Continue reading Hiking the High Plains of Northern Kosciuszko→
The following account is of a three day bushwalking circuit that I did with two friends in southern Sundown National Park in which we followed up McAllisters Ck, a deeply incised tributary of the Severn River. From McAllisters we ascended onto the Roberts Range at about 900 metres. After a long hot walk along the high Roberts Range we turned westwards pushing through dense undergrowth to overnight on Mt Donaldson at 1038 metres. The following day we descended back into the Severn River.
In early October, walking friends Frank Truscott, Don Bell and I completed a three day bushwalking circuit in Sundown National Park taking in some very interesting and challenging landscapes on the way. Although only thirty kilometres from Girraween as the crow flies, Sundown has little in common with the benign rounded tor landscapes of the Stanthorpe Granites.
Sundown offers a terrain of deeply incised creeks, gorges, waterfalls and steep stony ridges rising to 1000 metres. It is an inhospitable environment, dry and rocky. To me, a landscape reminiscent of the MacDonnell Ranges of Central Australia. Early settlers described it as“traprock”, geologically incorrect but an apt descriptor all the same. Traprock is a term applied to basalt landscapes in the UK while Sundown’s surface geology is predominately sedimentary which has been altered by heat and pressure (termed: metasedimentary).
View from Mt Donaldson to The Razorback
Campsite high on Roberts Range
Sharing Water for a dry camp.
Split Rock Falls on McAllisters Ck
Rough going near Mt Donaldson
The Broadwater… minus the water.
Rugged Sundown Landscape
Our trip followed an anticlockwise circuit: from the Broadwater up the gorge-like McAllister’s Creek, to Split Rock Falls; a climb to the Roberts Range at 800 to 1000 metres; a major scrub bash to Mt Donaldson (1038 metres); a steep descent to Mount Donaldson Creek and the spectacular Donaldson Creek Falls and a return down the boulder choked Severn River to the Broadwater Campground.
Sundown’s stony terrain had its origins in the Carboniferous Period (360million – 286 million years ago). Sediments from a volcanic mountain chain on the eastern edge of the Gondwana continent were deposited on the continental shelf and later avalanched onto the deep ocean floor. The sediments formed thick beds of sands, silts and mud. Compression and deformation of the beds resulted in the metasediments of the Texas Beds. The predominate rock types of the Texas Beds are Argillite and Greywacke. Argillite is a dark grey/black mudstone, very fine grained and extremely hard. Greywacke is a coarse grained sedimentary of mixed composition, also very hard. These were later uplifted to a mountain chain, the remnants of which form the tilted hilly ridges of Sundown.
McAllister Creek Gorge
We left Broadwater mid afternoon and rock hopped up McAllister Creek to Split Rock Falls. Here the creek was deeply entrenched in a narrow red gorge, defying Frank’s GPS to find the requisite number of satellites. Following Don’s confident lead we hung from cracks and crevices, teetered along dubious ledges, finally reaching the barely trickling “split” falls, impassable…. of course. Our bypass was a steep scrabbly climb on the spine of a rocky ridge to our campsite in a cypress pine grove at 800metres. One of the very few open areas in an otherwise very stony terrain. At 6.30pm, on sunset, we downed packs and settled into our campsite, complete with its own comfortable log seats and frug of whining mosquitoes. I soon lost my desire to join the “sleep under the stars” contingent as a full moon rose and the mosquitoes settled in for the duration. Instead I retired in comfort to my insect/moonlight proof “Taj Mahal”.
Our traverse along the crest of Roberts Range on the second day followed one of the ancient ridges. The Roberts Range was a roller coaster of elevation gains followed by steep descents. Hot work. Incredibly, we found two small dams high up in the catchment where we could replenish our water supplies and wash. Mid afternoon we swung off the Roberts Range heading for Donaldson.
Progress faltered to about one kilometre an hour and visibility fell to ten metres as we pushed through unpleasantly dense thickets of Peach Bush (Ehretia membranifolia) and Cough Bush (Cassinia laevis). On occasion, one of our trio would disappear into a thicket failing to re-emerge after an appropriate wait. Several cooees usually provided the necessary geographic re-orientation and a bleeding bruised body would come flailing through the undergrowth, in due course.
On the summit of Mt Donaldson on our second evening we found some younger Permian breccias on top of the Texas beds. Breccias are sedimentaries composed of coarse, angular fragments of older rocks. My guide book implied fossil shellfish aplenty these outcrops. Even Blind Freddy should find one. The breccias wereobvious enough but the fossils weren’t. Unfortunately, my conscience wouldn’t allow me to shatter rocks to find them, tempting though the prospect was.
As the sun set we perched on rocky benches above the cliffline and took in the view. This is reputed to be the best vantage point in the park, not an exaggerated claim. A rugged landscape unfolded: Donaldson’s northern summit was fringed by massive cliffs; stretching off to the north east was the Razorback (Berchtesgadenon my map) a ridgeline of numerous 900 and 800 metre hills grading down to the Rats Castle (a granitic dyke) on the Severn River, four kilometres away. Immediately below was the Stony Creek valley, lined with numerous scree slopes of shattered boulders. My track notes advised that walkers should not be
“tempted to descend Stony Creek since it is strewnwith large boulders.”
On a distant western cliffline a trip of goats skittered along a narrow ledge, intent on finding a night bivouac in the thick brush.
With the Stony Creek warning in mind, we left Mount Donaldson at 5.30am, chased off the summit by gale force winds and a suspiciously thick cloud bank building to our east over Stanthorpe. We descended steeply into Mount Donaldson Creek. Here we rewatered, dropped packs and headed downstream to inspect Donaldson Creek Falls, developed on resistant strata, with its 100m drop towards the Severn River. The views down a red canyon to the Severn did not disappoint. Saddling up again we bypassed the falls and descended 230 vertical metres to the Severn River Flood Plain. The bed of the Severn is confined to the NNE trending Severn River Fracture Zone. It is interesting that the river has not diverted around the harder Texas Beds but has continued to cut down into the resistant metasediments. Consequently, for such an old land surface the sinuosity of meander looping of the Severn is remarkably undeveloped. The sinuosity ratio for the Severn in Sundown is 1.04; very close to the ratio for straight, younger streams such as the Johnstone River (North Queensland) which has a ratio of 1.00. A stream channel on a flat flood plain will often have a ratio of 3.00 or more (technically described as tortuous). Still, this was all useless palaver as we hoofed the final six long hot steamy kilometres along a rough bouldery river bed to our final destination at Broadwater.
My thanks to Frank and Don for their invitation to join them on the Sundown trip and for some great navigation and geology
Willmott, W, 2004: Rocks and Landscapes of the National Parks of Southern Queensland.
Sundown is a remote and rugged National Park a mere thirty kilometre stone’s throw to the south-west of Queensland’s very popular Girraween National Park. My bushwalking friend Brian and I have, over the years, traipsed many a kilometre along the Severn River in Sundown. This is an account of one of our many expeditions in Sundown.
Brian, ever the expedition genie, had again conjured up yet another ‘exploratory’ trip covering central and northern Sundown. This time we would venture high up onto the Roberts Range which marks the southern boundary of Sundown and forms the state border between Queensland and New South Wales. The only fly in the ointment was our intended access to the Roberts Range, over Mt Donaldson. Those who have tramped this way before will recall the swathes of dense undergrowth with a certain sense of trepidation.
Sundown is said have been given its name by old bushmen who thought that its valleys were so deep that it was always ‘sundown’. It is a spectacular landscape. Named after the Severn River in England, this deeply incised antipodean Severn, with its waterholes, cool side gorges and waterfalls makes for relatively benign walking. But away from the river, Sundown can be inhospitable. Dry, stony ridges rise to well over 1000 metres, the so-called ‘traprock’ country. The highest hills are invariably smothered in tangled thickets of Peach Bush, Cough Bush, Hop Bush and other shrubby pleasures like the prickly Dead Finish: all right up there in nuisance value with wait-a-while and lantana.
The lure for me in all this was that we would be following the old Roberts Range border survey line set out in 1863 by Francis Edward Roberts, Queensland Government Surveyor and Isaiah Rowland, Robert’s counterpart from New South Wales. Although Brian and I had walked a small section to the south-west several years ago, we could now complete another leg over the highest part connecting Mt Donaldson and the old Sundown homestead site. My fellow expeditioners, experienced throughwalkers all, were quick to sign up to four days of the rumoured slacking down the Severn, early finishes, superb high range campsites and heaps of firewood for our evening fires. Buyer Beware.
Photo Gallery: Sundown National Park
Old yards near Burrows Waterhole campground.
Nundubbermere Falls. Nth
View down Mt Donaldson Ck: Sundown NP.
Campsite on the Roberts Range.:Sundown NP
McAllisters Creek: Sundown NP
Orchid: Sundown NP.
Wednesday 25 April: Sundown Homestead site to Red Rock Creek: 5.5 kms.
Eight bushwalkers mustered at the old Sundown Homestead site on a decidedly coolish Granite Belt afternoon: Brian (leader), Alf, Christine, Jenny, Roland, Sally, Samantha and one well rugged-up scribe. Temperatures had dropped to a nippy 14°C as a blustery 40 kph sou’westerly swept in. Hardly unexpected, as this is Queensland’s coldest district, with eight months recording temperatures below 0°C. Sundown’s Park HQ at The Broadwater has recorded a creditable minus 8°C. Fortunately the average minimum for April is a more comfortable 9.5°C.
But cool was cool for our five and a half kilometre uphill walk in along the old 4WD track to our Red Rock Falls campsite. For those humping in their supplies of birthday cakes, apples, sourdough rye bread, cheeses, a hogshead of red wine and a hundredweight of juicy Kalbar carrots, the track kindly winds its way ever so gently upward, a modest height gain of only 160 metres from the homestead. At the base of Hill 983 (metres) we shrugged off our well-stocked packs for the short walk into Red Rock Falls Lookout.
From the lookout, the full story of Sundown’s geology and topography could be read in the landscape revealed before us. This rugged terrain had its origins in the Devonian-Carboniferous Period some 370 to 290 million years ago. Sediments from a volcanic mountain chain on the eastern edge of the Gondwananan continent were deposited on the continental shelf and later avalanched into deep ocean trenches. Thick beds of sands, silts and mud were compressed, hardened and deformed, producing the very hard metasedimentaries of the Texas beds. In a later episode of mountain building, the metasediments were uplifted, tilted and fractured to form a mountain chain, the remnants of which are the ridges and hills of Sundown. Later, during the Triassic (248 -213 million years ago) a small body of Ruby Creek Granite was intruded into the Texas Beds and now outcrops at Red Rock Gorge and Jibbinbar Mountain to the north, but also triggered major fracturing of the Texas Beds. It was also responsible for the mineralization of the Texas Beds and the formation of Rats Castle, a granitic dyke. For a detailed explanation of the geology of Sundown NP go to Warwick Willmott’s excellent tome: Rocks and Landscape of National Parks of Southern Queensland.
But our immediate attention was drawn towards the now dry Red Rock Falls. As Alf pointedly remarked to our leader:
“The falls aren’t falling, Brian. Can we get a refund?”
By way of compensation, there were panoramic views along the red cliff lines which plunge a good 50 metres to the Red Rock Creek gorge below. In reality the granite cliffs are sandy in colour when freshly broken, but have been stained red by lichens on undisturbed surfaces.
The touristy bit done, we mooched back to retrieve our packs and strode off to our first overnight campsite. A Sundown Hilton. Grassy, level tent sites, plenty of water and ample firewood. After my 5 am start and the tedious drive to Sundown, a Bex and a good lie down beckoned. I had barely thumped in my last tent peg when Brian, whose largesse never extends to free time, rounded up the lethargic and indolent for some late afternoon exercise down Red Rock Creek to peer over the falls.
Thankfully the biting sou’westerly gusting up the cliff face quickly dampened any corporate enthusiasm for poking around and the natives were unusually restless. Brian did manage to steady his now pretty toey charges long enough to point out a brownish smudge on the horizon, which he insisted was the grassy knoll where we would have morning tea on the morrow.
Back at the campsite firewood was scrounged, the fire lit, and cups of soup, tea and coffee brewed. And as the light faded from a sailor’s delight sky, the bush chefs gathered to whip up an epicurean extravaganza. Brian resorted to an old favourite of his, bangers and mash with a side dish of green peas. But for my money, bangers and mash or all those Backcountry Pantry roast lambs and veg didn’t compare with Jenny’s culinary coup, a Scotch Devil. A hard-boiled egg covered with crumbed sausage meat and deep fried. A meal fit for any claymore-wielding Highlander and a kilojoule king-hit capable of propelling Jenny to Jupiter and back.
The Song of Roland
Meal over, we warmed our bottoms over the crackling fire while Roland regaled us with one of his many tall tales, occasionally true. Not ‘Roland and the Midnight Koels’ this time, but ‘Close Encounters of the Dingo Kind’ set in The Valley of Giants, Fraser Island. I recall another of Roland’s dingo dingles in Central Australia when Brian, Bernard, Di Hoopert and I were due to link up with Roland at Furnace Gully near Redbank Gorge on the Larapinta Trail. After two days of cross country travel from Mt Zeil and many “Cooees” and “Roowlaands”we finally looked down on a disconsolateRoland perched in a baking, bleak and windswept gully, the ultimate Mars landing experience. A black and tan dingo was slowly prowling the perimeter of the campsite, patiently stalking its prey in ever decreasing circles. Back in Sundown it was off to bed for these little puppies, lulled to sleep by friendly frog calls and the distant rush of wind through the trees on the high ridges above.
Thursday 26 April: Red Rock Ck to Burrows Waterhole: 8.5 kms.
5.15 am. Birthday boy Brian was already on the move. The usual clanking of billies and mugs, stirring up the campfire and dispensing cups of tea and coffee to all and sundry. Other bleary-eyed bushwalkers gradually trickled out into a crisp Granite Belt morning, 1°C, grateful for a warming fire. While the others hovered over the fire I waddled off to check out a small mullock heap and mine pit that Brian had found nearby. Sundown was the site of a number of mines producing molybdenite, tungsten, copper, arsenic and tin. In fact, the first tin deposit found in Australia was on the nearby Nundubbermere Run in 1854.
Mining at Sundown
TheSundown Tin Mine opened in 1893 and operated until 1923 when it closed only to re-open in 1953, finally closing in 1956. It was by far the biggest producer in the area but other mines were Carpenters Gully, The Orient, and Beehive. Copper sulphides were worked at The Sundown Copper Mine (1888 to 1908) and nearby Comet Mine. Arsenic was extracted in the early 1900s at Beecroft (1917 to 1927), Sundown Copper (1922 to 1924) and The Orient (1918) mines.
Arsenic was an important constituent in prickly pear poison, cattle dips and a hardener for the lead in bullets. Unfortunately arsenic oxide treatment has contaminated Little Sundown Creek and I have read that walkers are advised not to drink the water in Little Sundown below the mines.
Fortunately small mineral lodes, lack of water and poor access ensured any further exploitation in Sundown Resources Reserve was temporarily off the agenda. But this could all change under any future governments. The Sundown Resources Reserve does not have the same level of protection as its surrounding national park. In fact, during the 1980’s a mineral exploration company had been sniffing around the Severn River Fracture Zone west of the old Sundown mines and discovered bulk low-grade tin. But as Queensland’s former Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen was apt to say to those pesky greenies, bushwalkers and press hacks:
“Now, don’t you worry about that.”
0r the even more confusing:
“We’ll come to that bridge when we’ve crossed it.”
By 7.45 am the party rolled out, climbing steadily the 100 metre altitude gain to Hill 1032. Strange, this climbing bit, given that Brian had described today’s route as a ‘downhill day’. Alf, ever the agent provocateur, inquired:
“Is this another one of your uphill flat bits, Brian?”
But after Hill 1032 we indeed dropped down a long steepish 4WD track that took us through the Sundown Resources Reserve and finally up onto Hill 731, our morning tea spot, as promised. Sally produced a delicious pineapple cake while I unearthed the ginger cake that Judy had baked for Brian’s birthday bushwalking bash. A round of ‘Happy Birthday, Brian’ echoed through the hills while Brian huffed and puffed and finally blew out his three little candles. We wolfed down great slabs of birthday cake, sat back and took in the views back up to Red Rock Falls, three kilometres hence.
Our final descent of the morning was the 250 metre drop to Pump Waterhole on the Severn. This proved to be slowish work, gingerly picking our way down a steep hillside mantled with loose traprock. On the way down Alf called us over to inspect a pile of bleached bones:
“Come and have a look at these bones. Hey, Brian. Are these bushwalkers from your last trip?”
Pump Waterhole probably takes its name from the fact that the Severn River was the source of water pumped up to mines or to stock tanks.
An hour later we ambled into Reedy Waterhole, lunch stop. I always take a wolfish interest in other bushwalkers’ food. Roland’s lunch today, for example, was distinctly continental: crusty sourdough rye bread, substantial slabs of cheese and several of those scrumptious carrots that he had carted in.
Burrows Waterhole Campground
After another half hour of rock hopping and two river crossings we strayed into Burrows Waterhole for an early mark. Brian’s fear that this official campground would be infested with squadrons of 4WDers was unfounded. A 2.30 pm finish. Unprecedented in the annals of Manuelian throughwalking.Burrows, a very large waterhole, was named after Fredrick James Burrows, a WW1 veteran who suicided in 1934 and his grave is said to be on the northern side of the river.
A grassy campsite, swims all round and an afternoon of unstructured mooching stretched ahead. Ever the wily coyote, I kept stumm about Fredrick Burrow’s nearby gravesite for fear of whetting Brian’s appetite for local history and back to back afternoon rambles. Anyway, the horses had already bolted. Jenny and Christine drifted off to check out the only other inmates of the campground; Samantha was engrossed in platypus watching; Sally sudokued; Roland brewed coffee, while Brian, predictably, kept himself busy rustling up the firewood and on matters navigational.Sunset came with another red sky, Venus and Mars peeking above the western horizon. The dark and cold folded in around us. So like the dingoes of Central Australia, our little pack crept ever closer to the warmth of a blazing campfire. Brian’s birthday bacchanal cranked up again, fuelled by more portions of birthday cake and washed down with a pannican of Alf’s finest vintage red wine. Or so he claimed. But by seven o’clock party pooping types headed for their snuggly sleeping bags. So off we all tottered. Jenny for her nightly Middlemarch fix, Brian to Agatha Christie, a turgid French novelist for Christine, travel stories for me, Alf to play cards, Sally to Sudoku, and Samantha to catalogue, classify, and coordinate her hiking kit in preparation for an early start tomorrow.
Friday 27 April: Burrows Waterhole to Stony Ck Junction via Rats Castle: 9 kms.
Woken at an ungodly 5 am and not by the instantly recognisable “zzzzip” of Brian’s tent. No, the guilty party was Samantha noisily rummaging around in her tent; re-reorganizing her gear so it was all ship-shape in Bristol fashion. I crawled out. Pitch black. An hour and half later, as first light tinged the eastern sky we luxuriated in the balmy 7°C conditions; the cloud and humidity a harbinger of the predicted rain due on Saturday. Today we were off to Stony Creek junction via Rats Castle. Stony was our jumping off point for the climb to Mt Donaldson and the Roberts Range. Rats Castle is a well known Severn River landmark that had evaded three dumb-cluck navigators on our 2011 Sundown walk. But not this time. We approached our elusive quarry from a ridgeline leading up from Little Sundown Creek and half an hour later we scrambled up onto its jumbled red granite boulders. Legend has it that the boulders of Rats Castle have been dynamited by vandals.
Rats is an interesting geological feature, a ridge of hard fine-grained Ruby Creek granite which has intruded into the surrounding metasediments of the Texas Beds, weakened during major crustal distortions in the Severn River Fracture Zone. Technically it is a dyke, a vertical intrusion.
Early shepherds called it Rats Castle because when first seen, it was home to small rock wallabies, then commonly called rats. The rats were probably the Brush-tailed rock wallaby, Petrogale penicillata, listed as vulnerable and now found only at Nundubbermere Falls despite extensive surveying in Sundown. This shaggy-coated brownish wallaby has great agility on rock faces and can even scale sloping trees using its powerful legs and strong claws. It is nocturnal but cool weather will see it out basking on ledges in the sunshine. Unfortunately, it has been an easy prey for foxes, a target for shooters and the local population suffers from deleterious in-breeding.
For those bold enough to clamber onto the few summit boulders, Rats commanded great views over the Severn, 80 metres below. Ten minutes later eight pack rats were also below, having slithered and skated down over loose scree to the river bed. A smoko break. Here we bade a fond farewell to Roland who was returning to Burrows and like the proverbial penny would reappear two days hence, at Sundown Homestead. For the rest of us it was ever onward, past a herd of goats, past a fat pig and past a succession of waterholes: The Hell Hole, Turtle, Blue, Channel and Wallaby Rocks. Six kilometres, nine river crossings, one dodgy log crossing and we lobbed into our Stony Creek campsite soon after two o’clock.
Stony Creek Campsite
Another excellent campsite: remote, set on a flat alluvial terrace, grassy tent sites shaded by Sheoaks, Forest Red Gums, Cypress Pines and Rough-Barked Apples, ample firewood and a waterhole nearby. Tents went up quickly as the sky had clouded over and the wind had now swung to the east, rain threatening. With full cloud cover our maximum temperature barely reached a miserable 15°C. In fact, it was the coldest day of the month. But around the warmth of the campfire later in the evening Alf stepped up as raconteur-in-residence and entertained with travel stories from wildest Africa. Well, about as wild as you could expect from an Alf on a swanky safari to various South African diamond mines, gold mines and De Beers HQ. Just as we were being winched deep into the bowels of yet another diamond mine, a light shower of rain cut short our virtual tour and chased us off to our tents. But who would complain? Tucked into a toasty sleeping bag, light rain pattering down and a soporific page or two of James Elliot’s: A Visit to Kanasankatan.
Saturday 28 April: Stony Ck to Roberts Range via Mt Donaldson: 6 kms.
Despite light rain all night we were all packed, kitted out in wet weather gear and gaiters, and ready to make tracks by 7 o’clock. Today would be our most challenging. Off track, pushing through manky vegetation, with a stiff 200 metre climb to Mt Donaldson Falls, then a second 420 metre climb to Mt Donaldson (1036 m) and onwards to Hill 1024 and Hill 1047 before dropping to our campsite on a spur of the Roberts Range at 960 metres.
Initially navigation would be a cinch, merely following an old rabbit or dingo fence for the one kilometre climb to our old 2008 campsite at Mt Donaldson Falls. Light misty showers dogged us all the way along the fence line and the slimy wet traprock slabs in Mt Donaldson Creek were a disincentive for a walk down to the lip of the falls. For those who risked life and limb skating down, the views down the gorge were standard Manuelian: obscured by wreathes of misting rain.
Another two and a half kilometres and the 420 metre altitude gain brought us to Mt Donaldson’s western peak. But not before pushing through dense thickets of Peach and Cough Bush; troublesome stuff in that we had left the navigational safety of the rabbit fence and had to resort to the dark arts of map and compass to keep us on the straight and narrow, reaching the summit five and a half hours after leaving our Stony Creek campsite.
It being 12.30pm we propped for lunch on the exposed summit rocks. My invitation to check out the rocks, Permian breccias, was politely ignored. My geology book claims the breccias are rich in fossil shellfish. Apart from a couple of two-legged ones I have yet to find these fossils. Anyway, my reluctant field assistants were more intent on hunkering down to stay warm and out of the cold blustery easterly wind than scouring the summit for my fossils. I could see showers scudding all around us but, by the grace of the Gods of Weather, we stayed dry.
The summit is reputed to be the best vantage point in the park. And it is, though most of my companions couldn’t be roused from their hypothermic huddling to appreciate the scenery. The vista across Sundown’s rugged landscape was, quite simply, fantastic. Donaldson’s northern fall is marked by massive cliff line which drops 400 metres into Stony Creek. Its valley is lined with numerous scree slopes of shattered boulders. Stretching off to the north-east was the Razorback, marked asBerchtesgaden on my old Hema map. The Razorback, a spur of the Roberts Range, is a five kilometre ridgeline of 900 and 800 metre hills grading down to our old friend, Rats Castle on the Severn.
The afternoon’s traverse, at a mere three kilometres, was another rib-tickling episode taken from Brian’s barrel of bushwalking laughs. I had walked this section on two previous occasions and I knew what was coming. These high western-facing slopes are covered by what botanists describe as shrubby woodlands. The tree layer is a mixture of Tumbledown Red Gum (Eucalyptus dealbata), Caley’s Ironbark (E. caleyi), Youman’s Stringybark (now E. subtilis) and Black Cypress Pine (Callitris endlicheri). So far so good. But the understorey is dominated by dense groves of Peach Bush (Ehretia membranifolia) and Cough Bush (Cassinia laevis). The leaves of Cough Bush or Wild Rosemary were an old bush remedy. They were the active ingredient in a decoction for the treatment of respiratory ailments, hence, Cough Bush. The almost impenetrable groves of the understorey reduced our forward progress to about one kilometre per hour with visibility often less than 10 metres.
This is why we have Brian on the payroll. Not only does he collect firewood, light our fires, act as a sort of campground Tea Lady and reads maps upside down, but he’s also on call for any untoward bush bashing. As Don Burgher, another of Brian’s ancient bushwalking cronies, is fond of telling me:
“Never get between Brian and a patch of Peach Bush,”
or was that a patch of lantana? Or a pot of Toohey’s Old?
Never mind, he had done this sort of thing before. We formed up, line astern. A quick compass call and Brian would slowly reverse his rucksack into the thicket, disappearing from view as the Peach Bush wrapped around him. Six walkers then inched forward following the spoor of blood splats, chunks of human tissue and, in deference to the ladies present, muffled curses. Crafty walkers, like Alf and I, brought up the rear, seemingly busy consulting map and compass. And so on, until just before four o’clock when we emerged from the undergrowth onto the small dam where we would camp for the night and lick our wounds. As we prepared to put up our tents, light rain misted across. Impeccable timing. And just when I was having a few doubts about this bushwalking lark, my tent pole snapped.
Sunday 29 April: Campsite to Sundown Homestead via Roberts Range: 11 kms.
Another dampish morning until the mist dissipated leaving a light cloud cover, making for very pleasant walking conditions. Our final day on the track, which would take us seven kilometres along the spine of the Roberts Range. This 1000 metre divide separates the Severn River to the north from its southern neighbour, Tenterfield Creek; both tributaries of the Dumaresq River, named by the explorer Allan Cunningham after the Dumaresq family who were a prominent Australian colonial family. We would be following a well-maintained 4WD track, a fire management trail that parallels the Queensland-New South Wales border fence, technically a Dog Check Fence.
The walk is the classic high range roller-coaster starting at 1067 metres, dipping and rising: 973 m, 1039 m, 1030m, 1015m, 1087m and reaching 1120m at our final climb before turning off and descending to the Sundown Road. Climbing up to our first high point, Hill 1067 we passed into a special habitat, a high altitude forest, restricted to the very highest parts of Sundown and the Granite Belt. This is open forest, dominated by Silvertop Stringybark (Eucalyptus laevopinia), Yellow Box (E. melliodora) and the best name of all, Tenterfield Woollybutt (E. banksii). Silvertop Stringybark and Tenterfield Woollybutt are interesting in that they are disjunct populations of the same species growing further east at Lamington and Mt Barney. It is likely that they survive here on traprock because of the cooler, misty micro-climate on the highest points of the Roberts Range. Further along the range, on the summits of the highest hills at 1087 metres and 1120 metres, we passed through more small patches of high altitude forest.
As we climbed to the final high point at 1120 metres we entered a designated ‘essential’ habitat. These are areas meant for the protection of a species that is endangered or vulnerable. In this particular case the species was the Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) neither seen nor heard by our party. The Superb is the King of Karaoke and is such a good mimic that the bird being copied cannot tell the difference. The male Lyrebird has a repertoire of 20-25 other bird songs as well as mimicking car engines, chain saws and even barking dogs.
Roberts, an Irishman, trained as an engineer and in 1856 he became surveyor of roads for the Moreton Bay District later gaining a post as a surveyor with Queensland’s Surveyor-General’s Department in 1862. Colonial surveyors were tough, capable bushmen able to endure considerable hardship: life under canvas, poor food, heat, flies, arduous travel and isolation. Unsurprisingly, it was a constant struggle to stay healthy. Queensland colonial surveyors could be struck down by any number of health hazards: Barcoo Rot, Bung Blight, Sandy Blight, Dengue Fever, Malaria, snakes and crocs. Francis Roberts escaped all these only to die prematurely of sunstroke in 1867, aged 41.
Late in the morning we came off the Roberts Range and exited onto the Sundown Road, only four kilometres from our cars at the old Sundown Homestead. At that very moment a piratical black Defender sailed around the corner and hove to. A dark tinted window slowly descended revealing a grinning Cheshire reclining on the back seat. Bold as brass. It was that rapscallion of road and range, our old friend Roland, looking mighty pleased with himself, and why not. He had cadged a ride out from Burrows Waterhole, saving himself a twenty kilometre walk out.
A boarding party of several rucksacks and bushwalkers made for the remaining spare seat but Roland’s Samaritan was having no unwashed bushwalking riff-raff in his vehicle. He brusquely raised the gang plank and drew off, at pace, for the homestead. Roland returned soon after in his own 4WD. But again I missed a berth for the kilometre drive to the homestead site. Resigned to solo finish I plodded on, comforted by thoughts of our traditional bushwalkers’ banquet in Stanthorpe. A beano of bakery delights. Now what would I have ? A fetta and spinach roll or maybe a curry pie? A mug of piping hot chocolate or a flat white? A vanilla slice or cream horn? In my dreams. Our bakery was closed and the alternative café seemed overwhelmed by our orders for a few burgers and coffees. An hour later we exited said eatery, an underwhelming Granite Belt gourmet experience it must be said. Maybe the pub next time for a ten dollar burger and quick beer.
Thirty kilometres off New Zealand’s southern coast, and separated from it by the stormy waters of the Foveaux Strait, is the island of Rakiura… Land of the Glowing Skies. You may know it as Stewart Island. In 2002 Rakiura became New Zealand’s 14th national park with 83% or 140,000 hectares of the island protected.
Rakiura’s NW Circuit is a challenging ten day, 125 kilometre track that covers some of the island’s best coastal scenery and ecosystems. The Lonely Planet’s Guide to Tramping in New Zealand describes it thus:
“This is the classic tramp on Stewart; the famous mud and bogs of the island make this track a challenge but, for trampers with time and energy, the isolated beaches and birdlife make it all worthwhile.”
While our three person team of Brian (leader), Sally and I found the ten days physically demanding, the compensations were ample: a rugged cliffed coastline, unsurpassed views from Mt Anglem and Rocky Mountain, excellent sightings of the island’s birdlife, and the green abundance of its ancient Gondwanan forests. Plus, we were pretty chuffed at our tenacity in completing the whole walk. No ignominious water taxi exits or food dumps for this trio of aged trampers.
View from Mt Anglem
Bouldery beach. Nth end of Mason Bay
Steep climb from Waituna Beach
East Ruggedy Lookout
Maybe you are thinking of a quick dash around the NW Circuit next tramping season? Here are some tips to get you on your way:
No snakes, spiders, ticks, leeches and not much in the way of other creepy crawlies. Notices in several of the huts informed us that earthquakes and tsunamis were a possibility, albeit long shots. Flooding of creeks and swamps are definite possibilities, while the tides wait for no man. So check your tide times if you don’t want to sit around for hours waiting for that ebbing tide. Those Kiwi midges aka sandflies are an ever present pain in the butt, like their Kiwi owners(Just kidding). The Department of Conservation (DOC) has rigged the huts with insect screens which keep the biting bumble bees in and the midges out. Deer hunters are often stalking around in the brush in their camo gear so you mightn’t see them. You might hear the report of their rifles but by then it’s probably all too late.
The NW Circuit follows old deer stalker pads which, unfortunately, have degenerated into long sections of either boggy mud or surfaces matted with tree roots or slippery descents into the
innumerable creek crossings. There is an awful lot of tramping up and down over country which DOC brochures describe variously as ‘undulating’…not too bad. ‘broken’… not good news. But when you read that tomorrow’s section is seven hours over track that is ‘steep and often slippery’ you have hit the Kiwi tramper’s jackpot. Here’s a tip: don’t leave home without your walking poles which are a big plus for negotiating the uneven and slippery surfaces .
Walking Times vs Distances:
We quickly realised that the standard Oz three to four kilometres per hour is not a reliable estimate for this terrain. Fortunately each section has a nominal time and our experience was that these were pretty much spot on. Add another hour for lunch stops and rests on the uphill grinds. Younger and fitter walkers should bump an hour off the 6-7 hour sections.
Rakiura has a well deserved reputation for rainy weather. It has a cool temperate climate with temperatures ameliorated by the effects of a warmish ocean current. Thus there are few extreme weather events apart from the nuisance of a near constant westerly wind drift. But it is a wet place with 1000-1600 mm of rainfall and 275 rain days per year. Thus of our eleven days on the track in March we expected seven rain days, but it only rained on three. The precautionary principle dictates a spare set of dry-bagged clothes for use in the hut at night and a good quality long rain jacket.
We stayed in DOC huts each night, nine in total. For Australian bushwalkers used to high country cattle huts they are a culture shock: sturdy construction, draught proof, sporting uni-sex bunks, mattresses, stoves for heating, running water, tables, stainless steel sinks, toilets and insect screening. BYO sleeping gear, gas stoves, cooking utensils and earplugs. The bee’s knees.
Port William and Mason Bay huts were over-run by all manner of pesky types but other huts provided quiet refuges, some with views to kill for: Yankee River, Long Harry, East Ruggedy and Big Hellfire. The Tasmanian government would do well to emulate the modest design and egalitarian philosophy of these inexpensive but clean and functional tramping huts in preference to the expensive commercial abominations now visited on the Three Capes Track of the Tasman Peninsula.
I personally wouldn’t recommend going solo, though heaps of trampers and backpackers do. Conditions on the track can be treacherous, especially in wet weather. In the previous tramping season four trampers were evacuated with busted limbs. You could sit for many hours before another party came through so take advantage of the PLBs and Mountain Radios hired out by the DOC office in Oban. It is advisable for walkers to file an intentions form with AdventureSmart: ‘Safety is your responsibility. Tell someone your plans…it may save your life.’
Rakiura is a rugged forest-clad island. Walkers get to experience avariety of landscapes ranging from cool shady forests, isolated beaches, quiet inlets, high sand dunes, sub alpine peaks, glacial tarns through to immense windswept tussock lowlands. But much of the walk is spent in Podocarp and mixed hardwood forest dominated by Rimu and Kamahi with sub-dominants of Rata and Miro.
Birdlife is more abundant than on the mainland and so with a little luck the observant tramper will glimpse a kiwi of the feathered variety: the large Stewart Island brown kiwi. Ample reward for many hours of slogging along Rakiura’s muddy tracks. And you are lucky to see any bird life because like Australia, NZ has an unenviable record of feral pest invasions. Try deer, rats, stoats and an uniquely Australian contribution, the possum. Fortunately DOC has an ongoing program of trapping and poisoning. Trackside cage traps are a frequent sight along the NW Circuit.
A final word:
The NW Circuit is well worth the physical demands it makes. But as one DOC publication states:
“The circuit is only suitable for well-equipped and experienced trampers who can handle the adverse weather conditions which are bound to be encountered on such a long trip”.
If you are looking for a more comfortable option then the 32 kilometre, three day Rakiura Great Walk, the so-called Rat Walk, will fit the bill as it provides a gentle introduction to the landscapes of Rakiura and can be walked year round.
Day 1: Monday: Halfmoon Bay to Port William Hut: 4 hrs.
After an unusually leisurely breakfast at our luxury Rakiura Retreat bolthole we tottered off mid-morning, out into intermittent light showers. The predicted rain hadn’t eventuated. The weather prognosis for Rakiura was unusually benign: only two days of showery weather were forecast.
The first day followed the Rakiura Great Walk track, a well constructed gravelled surface with all the accoutrements of side drains, wooden bridges, netted duckboards and… no mud. The like of which we wouldn’t see for another ten days. By and large the NW Circuit is world renowned for its mud… treacly stuff. Squelchy suck your boots off mud. Local trampers describe the mud on the NW circuit as: Ultra bog… sloppy, boggy and happy to admit your entire boot, ankle and calf. Here’s where leather boots and my knee-length Quagmire canvas gaiters were a boon.
As with many Great Walks the Rakiura walk is fitted out with an ‘Entrance Statement’ and accompanying information board. The arched entrance is a stylized anchor chain reminding visitors of the ‘links’ between Rakiura/ Stewart Island and Motu Pohue/ Bluff on the South Island.
Timbergetting at Maori Beach.
Our lunch stop, Maori Beach, was occupied by a massive NZ fur seal, sand-coated and in no mood to vacate its warm sunny spot. We tiptoed around the slumbering beast and headed for the nearby campground for lunch. Afterwards we checked out the remains of the old Maori Beach sawmill hidden in nearby coastal scrub. Sawmilling began in 1913 and at its peak Maori Beach sported a large wharf and network of tramways to extract the valuable Rimu or Red Pine. Rimu is a Podocarp with narrow prickly leaves which was sought after for its strength, density and straight grain. Brian recalled that his family home in Melbourne had been panelled with NZ Rimu. At the onset of The Great Depression the mill closed and with it the last of Rakiura’s sawmills.
Port William Hut.
By mid-afternoon we pulled into the Port William Hut, the largest of the NW Circuit’s huts. Port William started life as Williams Bay, named after a member of the Australian shipping and trading firm: Lord, Williams and Thompson. As is often the case in NZ’s summer tramping season, the inn was full. Two large bunk rooms occupied, mainly by a commercial tour group from Ruggedy Range Adventure Tours. A local Oban business, so that’s good to see. Other inhabitants included a couple from Denmark and two Yanks. One trying to wrangle a free night out of the hut wardens and the other grazing on a tucker bag full of breakfast crispies, seemingly her sole source of sustenance for the next three days.
Port William 1867.
But way back in 1876 things were quieter. The government, in an attempt to settle Stewart Island, opened up Port William as a ‘utopian settlement’, to be called Shetland. Fifty Scottish families were enticed over, no doubt seduced by offers of free land. But it was always a pretty grim place. It is thought that the Shetlanders lived in boat shelters dug into a bank, rocked and turfed over to make them waterproof. Only a few years later all that remained was a grove of Australian gum trees, still there today.
Day 2: Tuesday: Port William to Christmas Village Hut via Bungaree Hut: 10 hrs.
The spectre of the 10 hour walk ahead had us trackside by 7.15am and arriving at Bungaree Hut in good time… three and a half hours. My notes record the terrain as:
“undulating country in damp forest/muddy track/tree roots”.
Bungaree was occupied by a solitary backpacker confined to barracks by hooch-induced inertia and a plague of the notorious Kiwi biting midges (sandflies).
Christmas Village Hut.
After a short breather at Bungaree we faced up to the six hour walk to Christmas Village. This was really hard going: up and down, up and down. Muddy tracks, creek crossings and tree roots. The tedium relieved by a short two kilometre trot along the golden sands of Murray Beach. Lonely Planet recommends a swim here but cautions against a sunbathe because of the biting midges. About three kilometres from the beach is a hunters hut, the old Christmas Village Hut. By 5.00pm we were stuffed and thought Christmas Village Hut would never appear. But appear it did. Just on 6.00pm. An eleven hour day. No village of course but a 12 bunk hut built in 1986, unoccupied except for a largish solitary orange Glad bag.
The Glad bag contained a hefty Wilderness Equipment rucksack whose owner, Louise appeared soon after, having climbed Mt Anglem. Louise, we discovered, was a late riser, rarely vacating the premises before 10.00am. But a very fit lady undeterred by her 35 kilogram burden and a regular 6 to 7 hours on those dodgy Kiwi tracks.
Day 3: Wednesday: Mt Anglem or Hananui: 980m: 6 hrs: altitude gain 800m.
Another of Brian’s faux ‘rest days’. Sally sensibly applied the description literally and treated herself to a day off. The Mt Anglem track is atrocious: deep gullies flowing with water, muddy and root bound. And this was in fine weather. What it would be like in heavy rain is best left undescribed. After several hours we stood on the highest point of Rakiura. I don’t want to offend my Kiwi tramping friends, but let’s just say that the track was a Park Ranger’s worst nightmare. But all is forgiven, the summit gave expansive views over the whole of the northern part of the island and across Foveaux Strait to the South Island. As a bonus there below was a cirque basin and a small moraine dammed tarn.
Mt Anglem was named for Captain William Andrew Anglem, whaler and son of trader William Robert Anglem and his high born Maori wife Te Anau. The accuracy of Anglem’s 1846 Foveaux Strait sailing chart made a valuable contribution to Captain John Stokes’ survey of southern coastal waters in HMS Acheron. Stokes named the mountain in honour of William Andrew Anglem.
On our return to the hut the population of Christmas Village had exploded to now include three Kiwis and three French backpackers. Fran was a local Bluff woman who was solo walking the track with an out-sized and an unmanageably heavy rucksack bulging with a set of saucepans purloined from her kitchen back home in Bluff. Not quite in the same league, fitness wise, as Louise. But like most Kiwi trampers, Fran wasn’t about to throw in the towel. Yet.
Day 3: Thursday: Christmas Village Hut to Yankee Hut: 6 hrs.
Brilliant weather today. After a steep climb to start, a surprisingly dry track heads NW through Rimu forest for five kilometres before descending onto Lucky Beach. Lucky Beach was boulder strewn and with the tide and biting midges sweeping in we didn’t linger. From Lucky’s the track climbs steeply through the bush and then trends along the 100 metre contour; ‘undulating’ terrain for about 2 hours before descending steeply to Yankee River Hut.
Yankee River Hut
What a spot! A brilliant location at the mouth of Yankee River, though another bouldery beach. We stripped off, much to the delight of the midges, and cleaned up, washed our smelly clothes in the fresh water before finally being carried away by the midges. Yankee River was named for one Yankee Smith.
Rucksack and Fran drifted in eventually, just on dusk. She had decided to call off her walk. If I had been carrying her rucksack I’m pretty sure I would have abandoned ship several days earlier. One tough lady. Fortunately for Fran, Yankee River is one of the few locations on the NW Circuit with mobile phone reception. She contacted her husband at Bluff arranging for her extraction by boat early the next day. A sensible move on Fran’s part.
Day 4: Friday: Yankee Hut to Long Harry Hut: 5 hrs.
It was drizzling lightly as we exited the hut at 8.00am, minus rain gear as it was so humid. Another steep climb over Black Rock Point to the 200 metre contour to start the day.
Kiwis: the feathered variety.
It was here that that I spotted my first kiwi. One of my motivations for tackling the NW Circuit was the possibility of snatching a sighting of a kiwi. The kiwi or Tokoeka (I was told by a Kiwi tramper that it means a Weka with a walking stick), is New Zealand’s faunal symbol. This tubby flightless bird has defunct vestigial wings, feathers as soft as fur, is short-sighted and can sleep for up to 20 hours a day. There’s nothing else to do in NZ. My kiwi was a Stewart Island Brown kiwi (Apteryx australis lawryi), a much larger bird than I imagined. It wasn’t put off by my presence as it went about its business of hoovering up invertebrates using its long bill. Its diet also includes seeds, berries and even the occasional freshwater crayfish. By day they roost in burrows or undergrowth but the Stewart Island kiwis can sometimes be seen out foraging.
Habitat destruction and predation by stoats, ferrets, dogs and cats means that the kiwi is under threat over much of its NZ range; except for Rakiura where its population is estimated to be 20,000 and stable.
As we descended towards Long Harry Hut we glimpsed the first of many great vistas along a steeply cliffed coastline with lines of swell rolling in to crash against cliff and boulder beach. Over the next three days we would be treated to many such views. Our early afternoon arrival gave time for washing, beachcombing followed by a nana nap.
Long Harry Hut
Long Harry, a twelve bunker replaced in 2002, is perched on a headland overlooking the wild waters of the Foveaux Strait. It was named after Henry Woodman aka Long Harry, an early settler on Smoky Beach. After dark we watched the 12 second flash of Bluff Lighthouse across the Foveaux Strait to the north. The only other occupant for the night was Louise. Our guidebook said that Long Harry is the best spot to see penguins: Fiordland crested and Yellow-eyed Penguins. Not that we saw any after a desultory search along the beach.
Saturday: Day 5: Long Harry Hut to East Ruggedy Hut: 6 hrs
Up at 5.30am to heavy cloud cover and trackside by 7.30am leaving Louise still comatose in her bunk. Another day of brilliant views, the experience tempered by those 200 metre ascents. A top lookout, one of the few on the circuit that gave uninterrupted views westward across the Inner Passage to Rugged Islands with the appropriately named Ruggedy Range off to our south. The Ruggedy Range, a saw-toothed line of mountains, rises abruptly from the coastline to 500 metres. Below was East Ruggedy Beach and the extensive sandy estuary of the Ruggedy Stream. A welcome change from the boulder beaches thus far. A helicopter buzzed around looking for a likely drop-off zone. We found out later that two DOC officers had been dropped off to cut the track back to Long Harry. Long overdue in my opinion.
East Ruggedy Hut
East Ruggedy, also known as The Ritz, is eminently comfortable. It had a large verandah facing west to soak up the afternoon sun, ideal for drying our washing.
Just on dusk a hunter decked out in serious camo gear stalked in. A bloke all the way from Perth WA, here for a few weeks of hunting and currently holed up in a rock bivvy with a few mates on West Ruggedy Beach. Overnighting in a rock bivvy is a Kiwi speciality, something that all rugged Kiwi trampers and hunters have to do to earn their stripes.
Sunday: Day 6: East Ruggedy Hut to Hellfire Hut: 7 hrs.
Another early start in ideal walking conditions: cloudy cool. An easy walk through the scrub to West Ruggedy Beach and with the tide just right we scooted around the rock promontory which at high tide forces walkers to leave the beach and take to the inland route. The beach is one of the most scenic on the NW Circuit, framed by the jagged peaks of Ruggedy Range to the south and The Ruggedy Islands off-shore.
But the euphoria of beach cruising ended all too soon. At the end of the beach the track goes feral. A climb and sidle around Red Head Peak (510 m), and then another steep climb into Ruggedy Pass before dropping again to another Kiwi speciality, the boulder-strewn beach… Waituna Beach. From the beach we had good views of Whenua Hou, Codfish Island. The entire island is protected as Whenua Hou Nature Reserve. It is famous for its feral animal eradication program and as a breeding refuge for the threatened Stewart Island kakapo population.
The final section of the Hellfire day is another 200 metre climb up through the brush. A muddy tramp as the track sidles inexorably up the three kilometres to Hellfire Pass Hut. Seven and a half hours on the hop.
And here’s a surprise. Hellfire is set on a 200 metre high sand dune with outstanding views over Rakiura’s swampy interior, our destination two days hence. Hellfire is said to be named for the heavy seas which pound Little Hellfire Beach south of tonight’s hut.
Our fellow inhabitants that night were a young Czech couple fruit picking their way around NZ. The next hutee to arrive was a gumbooted Kiwi, Danny. Although very quiet, Danny was a fount of information about Rakiura, Oban, the NW Circuit and NZ history. And last but not least, Louise drifted in, fashionably late in the dark but, as always, unperturbed.
Danny showed us a chunk of soft rock. This he explained was ambergris which he had found on a beach. The word ambergris comes from Old French or middle ages Old English, “Ambre Gris” or “Grey Amber”. Ambergris is a secretion of the gut of the sperm whale and can be found floating upon the sea, or lying on the coast. Because the beaks of squid have been found embedded within lumps of ambergris, scientists have theorized that the substance is produced by the whale’s gastrointestinal tract to ease the passage of hard, sharp objects that the whale might have eaten. The sperm whale usually vomits these, but if one travels further down the gut, it will be covered in ambergris.
Ambergris, much like musk, is known for its use in creating perfume and fragrance. Perfumes are still manufactured with ambergris. Ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense, while in modern Egypt ambergris is used for scenting cigarettes. During the Black Death in Europe, people believed that carrying a ball of ambergris could help prevent them from getting the plague. This was because the fragrance covered the smell of the air which was believed to be a cause of plague.
In the USA the possession and trading of ambergris is illegal, while in Australia its export and import is banned. New Zealand, home of the open marketeers, has, of course, a freewheeling attitude toward the collection and trading of ambergris. Possibly $NZ 15.00 a gram. A 1.1 kg piece of ambergris found on a beach in Wales UK was sold for £11,000 at an auction on 25 September 2015 to a French buyer.
Monday: Day 7: Hellfire Hut to Mason Bay Hut: 7 hrs.
Another coolish start with the inevitable climb, a 100 metres ascent onto a 300 metre ridgeline which provided excellent views over Little Hellfire Beach and in the distance, Mason Bay. Mason Beach materialized some five hours later and so did a startled and exceedingly plump Kiwi moggie. Right where we hunkered down out of the wind for our lunch break. Where’s the hunting fraternity when you need them?
Mason Beach is touted as,
“one of the most scenic on the island”.
Having read this sort of beat-up many times before I was initially sceptical. But it was truly a great ramble, especially with the ebbing tide exposing a wide, hard, sandy beach; easily a match for the great surf beaches of South-East Queensland minus the hordes of tourists. It is the largest of Rakiura’s beaches, a twelve kilometre sweep of sand extending from Mason Head in the north to Ernest Islands in the south. Mason Bay contains one of the most extensive inland dune systems in the Southern Hemisphere, with dunes extending inland for nearly three kilometres and reaching over 200 metres in height. This is one of New Zealand’s last untouched transgressive dune systems (also known as mobile or migratory dunes and sand drifts). It is backed by the Mason Bay Duneland, a dunefield of national conservation significance principally because of the presence of threatened plant species such as Austrofestuca littoralis, a sand tussock, and the rare creeping herb Gunnera hamiltonii.
For me it was an avian paradise, crawling with shore birds: pied cormorants, plump pacific gulls, herds of sooty oystercatchers, but no pied oystercatchers which usually can be found striding up and down sandy beaches in SE Queensland. But best of all was a sighting of a pair of Stewart Island shags, replete with their distinctive orange legs and feet.
Mason Bay Hut
After an hour on the beach our marker to turn inland appeared at the mouth of Duck Creek. No ducks, but a bevy of sun bathing backpackers braving a watery NZ sky and a sneaky little breeze. Mason Bay Hut (20 inmates) is at the junction of two main track systems – the Northwest Circuit and the Southern Circuit – both nationally and internationally important for their remote nature. But Mason Bay is becoming increasingly popular with slackers who access the area using the Freshwater water taxis and the Mason Bay-Freshwater track. Well–heeled tourists arrive by aircraft, landing on the beach and walk the few kilometres to the hut. The Mason Bay-Freshwater track is a difficult track to maintain as it is through a wetland. Encounters with other visitors are common, especially in the Duck Creek–Island Hill area. In the summer months overcrowding has been experienced at the Mason Bay tramping hut. This DOC hut was upgraded in November 2005 to mitigate some of these concerns.
In 2006 visitor monitoring was undertaken to help determine the future management of recreational opportunities in the Mason Bay area. One of the outcomes of this monitoring work was a limit on concessionaire use of the Mason Bay hut and the track system between Mason Bay and Freshwater. The walk from the ferry landing at Freshwater Landing hut to Mason Bay hut is only three hours, a tempting prospect for the summer flood of visitors, many of whom come to Mason Bay to see a Stewart Island brown kiwi in the wild. Just on dusk squads of braying visitors head off into the brush clutching torches all hoping to flush out a tame kiwi or two. Good luck with that one. Danny and Louise drifted in after dark.
Huts are sociable places in the main, but Mason Hut was one of my all time least favourites. It could generously be described as restless on the night of our stay. Overcrowded bunk rooms, young backpackers determined to party well into the wee hours of the morning and an odious loud yachtie and his daughter parking their bums on the kitchen preparation benches proved too much after the solitude of the huts thus far. It was one of those times when my one man Macpac tent would have been hiking heaven. Bring on tomorrow.
Tuesday: Day 8: Mason Bay Hut to Freshwater Landing Hut: 3 hrs
Up early and out to the kitchen for breakfast and to pack. I’m sure the overflow of hutees sleeping in the kitchen weren’t impressed with our crepuscular departure. It was all too much for Danny and he had already fled in the moonlight intending to walk the final 38 kilometres back to Oban.
Fifteen minutes eastwards along an old tractor track is the DOC office. This collection of re-purposed farm buildings was previously the old Island Hill homestead, a lowland sheep run operating from the 1880s. The two pastoral leases in the Mason Bay area were Kilbride and Island Hill, both established on the red tussock grassland and shrublands of the Freshwater River lowlands.
The Island Hill Run
The first run holder was William Walker (1879 to 1893) who ran up to 1600 sheep and worked hard on improvements like drainage ditches and fencing. The last holder was Tim Te Aika who held the run from 1966 to 1986. Tim survived by mixing farming with hunting and possum trapping. His wife Ngaire managed the family chores without electricity, home-schooled two children and had to order stores a couple of months in advance. The last of the sheep were removed in 1987 when DOC took over.
Making do on Island Hill Run
The logistics of viable sheep farming in this remote corner of the world were daunting. The shearing shed, built in 1953, was made from scavenged beach timbers, mostly dunnage. That is, planks used to hold a ship’s cargo in place. Fencing was virtually non-existent. Sheep roamed free over the grasslands until mustering time. Then improvised fencing of old fish nets and cut brush were used to hold the sheep. At shearing time in summer up to 1600 sheep were shorn by four shearers. By 1966 the hand shears had been replaced by electric shears powered by the tractor and later by an 8 KW generator. No such electric luxury for Ngaire in the homestead.
After the shearing the wool clip had to be transported to Bluff or Invercargill. This was the really hard part of the sheep grazing industry on Rakiura. Early on, the wool was carted to Freshwater Inlet where it was stored in sheds waiting for favourable weather to get it across Paterson Inlet to Oban on Halfmoon Bay. Tim Aika, ever the innovator, tried using a small plane which landed first on the beach and later on a 600 metre airstrip cut into the tussock grassland. Tim’s son-in-law flew the wool packs out returning with bags of superphosphate.
Today was our easiest walk thus far: a mere three hours and fifteen kilometres over the flat swampy terrain of the Freshwater River valley. At 75 sq km Freshwater is the most extensive lowland on Rakiura, occupying a faulted depression which dips gently to the east. Freshwater’s headwaters lie in the Ruggedy Ranges and it flows SW for 25 kilometres across wetlands of peat bogs, ponds, sand ridges, shrubland and tussock grasslands. It formed about 14,000 years ago, after the last ice age. Water flooded Foveaux Strait and Patersons Inlet and created the Freshwater wetland. The track follows the line of an old 16 kilometre government road and drainage system built in the 1930s to link Freshwater Landing with Mason Bay. Deep drains were dug and the spoil thrown up and used for the carriageway embankment. This was topped off with piles of Manuka to make a corduroy road.
We landed at Freshwater Hut in time for midday lunch and time enough for another of Brian’s infernal peak bagging escapades. Freshwater is the site of a swing bridge across the Freshwater River and a landing for the water taxis. It is a pokey little hut with a bunk room, kitchen benches and a table. A tight squeeze for its thirteen overnight inhabitants. But much better than beating off the midges.
After lunch Brian and I took off on the one and a half hour climb to the alpine summit of Rocky Mountain at 549 metres. From here we had magnificent views back along the spine of our walk over the past few days: Ruggedy Mountains, Hellfire Pass and Mason Bay. To our north, about twelve kilometres hence, rose Mt Anglem, the highest point on Rakiura. Off to the south east were the waterways of Patersons Inlet and Whaka a Te Wera and the largest island, Ulva Island. We visited Ulva after we completed the NW Circuit.
Ulva Island: Te Wharawhara.
Ulva Island is yet another NZ conservation success story. After rats were eliminated by 1996 it was designated as an ‘open sanctuary’, or as DOC describes it, “a zoo without bars”. Here the bird life is now as prolific as it must have been in the primeval New Zealand forest. Expect to see Stewart Island wekas (flightless) and a number of re-introduced birds: South Island saddleback, Stewart Island robin, the Rifleman, Tui, Stewart Island brown kiwi, New Zealand wood pigeon and Yellowhead. This is far from a complete bird list and competent birdwatchers would be very pleased with their time in this avian paradise.
Wednesday: Day 9: Freshwater Landing Hut to North Arm Hut: 8 hrs:
The young backpackers cleared out in the dark, hoping to do the 12 hour walk to Oban in order to catch the 6pm ferry. We left at first light, just on 7.00 am. It was another cloudy morning with the potential for showers or rain. This section of the NW Circuit has a well deserved reputation for being steep and slippery as it passes over Thompson Ridge to the North Arm of Paterson Inlet. Creeks in this section can become impassable after heavy rain, so we didn’t dawdle.
This was a hard day: steep climbs, mud, roots. The track was in atrocious condition. Brian tripped near the top of Thompsons Ridge and required first aid to stem the bleeding. But there was no option but to soldier on. A long tricky descent followed which eventually emerged at Patersons Inlet. But our pain wasn’t over yet. The track then contours around the inlet for several kilometres before releasing exhausted walkers at the picturesque North Arm Hut.
North Arm Hut
North Arm Hut is one of the three swanky huts built for the Rakiura Great Walk and as such it costs extra to stay there. This is a newish 24 bunk hut with a large open kitchen and dining area overlooking Patersons Inlet. The hut was full on our night there but one certainly couldn’t whinge about the other inmates. These were older walkers: international backpackers tend to avoid the hut as it costs a few dollars more than standard huts.
Thursday: Day 10: North Arm Hut to Oban: 5 hrs.
Departed in cloudy threatening conditions. Nothing unusual about that but with only 12 kilometres left we weren’t concerned about getting our tails wet. The Great Walks standard track made for quick and easy walking. By midday we were on the outskirts of Oban making a beeline for the pleasures of the South Sea Hotel. Our challenging 125 kilometre adventure was over, celebrated by a schooner of Montheith’s dark ale and a Works Burger.Thanks to my cheerful walking companions Brian and Sally. and to Brian for leading and organising the walk.
Squeezed into a narrow corridor between the waters of Bass Strait and Victoria’s Great Ocean Road is one of Australia’s best known and most picturesque long distance walks: the 104 kilometre Great Ocean Walk. Here is an account of the walk done by one of my bushwalking friends, Sam Rowe, as part of a fund raising challenge for Diabetes Queensland.
Text and Photos by Sam Rowe.
The Great Ocean Walk (GOW) is an unforgettable eight day, one direction long distance walk. It commences in the small Victorian coastal village of Apollo Bay around three hours west of Melbourne and finishes at the iconic Twelve Apostles.
History of the walk:
The idea to create the Great Ocean Walk was originally rejected in 1974. It was, however, rumoured to have been resurrected by local accommodation providers in the early 1990s, with planning actually beginning in 1994. Development did not begin until 2001; with the trail finally opening in January 2006. Parks Victoria provided an initial investment of $2.3 million for a 91 kilometre trail between Apollo Bay and the Glenample Homestead, near the Twelve Apostles. In 2009, extra funding was allocated to build 10 kilometres of additional walking track from Moonlight Head to the Twelve Apostles Visitor Centre, as well as a viewing point for the Twelve Apostles.
Fund raising challenge for Diabetes Queensland:
This trip in May 2015 was a fund raising challenge for Diabetes Queensland. The challenge was to walk the 100 kilometres in five days from a base camp at Cape Otway.
Joining me on the walk was Vanessa (leader), Cassie, Nicky, Julie and Graham. None of my fellow walkers had diabetes, but all were wanting to walk and raise money for others who do have diabetes. I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in May 2009.
Day 1: Apollo Bay to Blanket Bay: 22 kms:
After all the obligatory photos were taken at the start of the track, we were off walking along the esplanade of Apollo Bay and finally onto the trail itself. Showers came and went as we walked along the coastline and into Shelley Beach. From here the track headed inland through the Otway National Park and along old logging tracks to our highest point of the track, Parker Ridge at 250 metres elevation.
Whilst the gums were prolific the koala watch was unsuccessful until closer to Blanket Bay when we came across both koalas and wallabies.
Day 2: Blanket Bay to Aire River: 23 kms:
More rain showers to start the day but the coastal forest had nice coastal flora and scrub birds – Wrens, White-breasted Robin, Currawongs ,Crimson Rosellas. We reached Lewis Lookout to view back where we had walked for the first hour and it also had phone reception which made some of the walking party happy. Mobile phone coverage is limited along this coastline. Further along the track great views of the coastline ahead were seen as we made our way down to Parker Inlet. We had been advised to leave the official track here and with the tide right walked the rocky platforms and layered sedimentary cliffs to Point Franklin where we caught our first sight of the Cape Otway Lighthouse.
Cape Otway Lighthouse:
We arrived there to enjoy a late morning tea in the cafe (whilst more showers came in). You do have to pay to enjoy this facility and it does have day trippers which you don’t have on the track, but it is iconic. Pre-paying also gives a saving.
Cape Otway Lighthouse is a lighthouse on Cape Otway in southern Victoria. It is Australia’s oldest working lighthouse. The light was first lit in 1848 using a first order Fresnel lens; it was the second lighthouse completed on mainland Australia and it remains the oldest surviving lighthouse in mainland Australia.It was decommissioned in January 1994 after being the longest continuous operating light on the Australian mainland. It is a great climb up to the tower and of course a 360 degree view.
After filling up on the carbs of yummy cakes it was back on the track where the closest koala I have ever seen was on the track sitting in a tree “posing” for photos. I thought Parks Victoria had to plant it here for any tourist, she was just that cute.
Finished this day of walking in the dunes and beaches to Aire River.
Day 3 : Aire River to Johanna Beach: 14 kms:
Best weather day of our hike so far. Clear, sunny day which was perfect for our beach walk. As usual the track where we commenced wound up and around the coastline to a great morning tea spot, with a spectacular view before you reach Castle Cove (and the day trippers). The track continued on a ridge until it descended to Johanna Beach and the two kilometre walk along it.
Perfect – sunny, little wind and evenHooded Plovers scampering on the beach. We even had time to sit, relax and enjoy this beach.
Day 4 : Johanna Beach to Moonlight Head: 21.5 kms:
This was the toughest walking day for the trip and is written in the guidebooks as such. Where we started the track climbed through farmers fields, through gates and along forest trails. The track in this area was not very well signposted to confirm you were going the right way.
The boxing kangaroo:
A big kangaroo eyeballed me over one gate. I was on the side it wanted to be on, and it was on the side I wanted. It had themost impressive abs across its chest. Thankfully it decided in one leap to go over the fence and I quickly scampered through the gate. Also Wrens and Yellow-breasted Robins keep you company along the walk.
The section includes the Milanesia track down to a lovely beach and family owned cottage. The mornings walk had six north – south trending spurs and valleys with steep steps and once we reached Ryan’s Den shelter shed we appreciated the shelter shed’s seats and cover to have a rest in.
Ryan’s Den has a great 180 degree view at the top of it, with two seats perched looking both ways, and a loo with a superb view. Unfortunately the weather was coming in and the gale force winds meant little time at the top to admire. The rest of the up and down hills for the afternoon were made more difficult with the gale winds wanting to take you off the track and several cold fronts coming through. We made it through to Moonlight Head pretty cold and wet and glad to see the transport.
Day 5 : Wreck Bay to Twelve Apostles: 20.5 kms:
Rain, sleet, leaches and trees down along the track was what we had to contend with before lunch. 38 mm of rain fell overnight and due to the conditions we stayed with the high tide trail to Devils Kitchen. With the trees down we had to walk off track and unfortunately I picked up a leach that was one of the largest I have ever had the pleasure of.
Rain, wind and hail:
Rain turned to hail as we walked down to the Gellibrand River and further into Princetown where we enjoyed the warmth and dryness of the cafe to have lunch and a hot drink. Back onto the track and the end was close. The wind tried to stop us reaching our final destination but we would not be stopped.
We reached Brown Hill to look at the view of Apostles and this was where the GOW sign was two years ago when I was last here. I am unsure where it has been relocated to as I couldn’t find it which was disappointing. The final stretch was to the Twelve Apostles and the hundreds of tourists. Even here no one could escape the gale force winds and the circuit walk was very quick, but we had done it. We had walked from Apollo Bay to the Twelve Apostles, raised over $10,000 as a group and introduced another five people to the joys of long distance walking.
I will be returning to do the GOW again in 2016. This time I’ve been asked to be the group leader for Diabetes Queensland. See you there!
The Castle is a spectacular and challenging peak in The Budawangs, New South Wales. The views from its summit are said to be outstanding. Although the walk can be done in a day, those wishing to visit Monolith Valley as well as The Castle should organise for an overnight camp at Cooyoyo Creek Campground. Hikers need a reasonable level of fitness and the final rock scrambles onto The Castle require a good head for heights. Here is an account of a walk to Monolith Valley and The Castle done by Alex B. in early spring.
Text and Photos by Alex B.
The walk up to The Castle is one of the most rewarding in South Eastern Australia. Beginning at Long Gully (a couple of hours drive from Canberra), the track crosses Yadboro River before climbing out of the creek bed and onto a ridgeline.
It passes around the side of The Castle on some fairly steep, rough ground and then ascends towards the saddle at Castle Gap. We covered this over a couple of hours on a hot September afternoon – a couple of litres of water is recommended. There are some excellent views back down the valley on the climb up.
Our campsite was a few hundred metres below the saddle at Cooyoyo Creek campground, arriving on dusk (albeit with a fairly late start), just in time to see a stunning sunset over the massive clifflines of the Morton and Budawang National Parks.
Before climbing The Castle the following day we spent a few hours in Monolith Valley, which is accessed from the saddle. An unexpected delight, it features outstanding rock formations , cool forested gorges, and a natural arch. It’s a great side trip and well worth the effort. There is a small section of scrambling required early on but chains are bolted to the rocks to help those who require it.
Photo Gallery: Monolith Valley:
Monolith Valley. Budawangs.
Monolith Valley. Budawangs.
Monolith Valley. Budawangs.
Monolith Valley. Budawangs.
We ate lunch in the sunshine above the gorge before returning to the saddle to climb the castle in the afternoon.
It’s mostly scrambling with some exposed sections and a bit of squeeze through a narrow crack in the rock, however all the steepest sections have fixed ropes that can be used (most of which looked solid..) to gain the summit. However, those with a serious fear of heights may want to give it a miss.
Photo Gallery: views from The Castle:
View from the Castle
View from The Castle
View from The Castle
View from The Castle
The upper sections have brilliant views across the south coast, with the Pigeon House prominent. The total climb is around 800 metres vertically, which for coastal areas in Australia is quite a lot, and allows for some of the best views in New South Wales – personally I thought more spectacular than the Blue Mountains, which feature similar terrain.
We descended after a few glorious hours on the summit, and spent another night below the saddle, before returning to the car park the next morning. A quick (and quite cold) swim was had in Yadboro creek before we headed back to the ACT.
The names are drawn from the Old Testament: Lake Salome, the Pool of Bethesda, The Pool of Siloam, Wailing Wall, Mt Jerusalem, and Herods Gate. Irresistible place names to whet the bushwalker’s appetite. The Walls of Jerusalem, originally called China Walls, are located on Tasmania’s Central Plateau, east of, but contiguous to, the famed Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park; both form part of the Tasmanian Wilderness Heritage Area. Access is on foot over a steep, rough track to an alpine plateau at 1200 metres. Unpredictable weather conditions are the norm.
An Overview of The Walls of Jerusalem National Park:
The Walls of Jerusalem National Park features dolerite peaks, glacial lakes, moraine dumps as well as alpine plant communities including rare pencil pine forests and cushion plants. It is an extremely interesting area for experienced walkers as there are many possible multiday trips in the area. But long before the incursions of the modern day bushwalker, aborigines made seasonal visits to the area as evidenced by artifact scatters found in the national park. The first Europeans to visit The Walls were shepherds with their flocks of sheep in the period from 1820s through to 1920s. Surveyor James Scott explored The Walls in December 1848 and January 1849 and produced the first comprehensive map. On the map are named Wild Dog Creek, Lake Adelaide, Lake Ball (now Lake Salome) and The Walls of Jerusalem. Then came the trappers who hunted pademelons, wallabies aand possums for their fur in the 1920’s. Finally bushwalkers discovered the area. Members of the Launceston Walking Club did much to explore the area and one of their members, Reg Hall, named many of the geographic features: among them Dasmascus Gate, Herods Gate, Jaffa Gate, and Solomons Jewels.
At the start of winter youngest son Alex rang asking me to join him on a snowshoeing trip into The Walls of Jerusalem National Park. And so it came to pass that on an overcast blustery Sunday afternoon in June my Virgin Australia flight crabbed down the runway at Hobart’s airport, straightened and thankfully delivered me safely to the terminal building. Alex was already waiting, sporting a massive Wilderness Equipment rucksack and an even bigger cargo bag of snowshoes and other snow hiking do-dahs.
Alex the Providore:
Then it was off to Hobart CBD to stock up. Alex took command of this vital operation, apparently having had some issues with childhood experiences of my hiking menus built around pasta, porridge, packets of wheatmeal biscuits and peanut paste. But ours was to be more substantial and varied fare. Enough to see us through several Tassie blizzards: multiple blocks of chocolate, a brick-sized chunk of cheese, cheesy biscuits, a bag of nuts, bags of Mars bars, rolled oats for hot porridge, a bag of muesli, a tube of sweetened condensed milk, packets of dried soups, tubes of drinking chocolate, and a flat-pack of some hippy spinach and herb mountain bread that Alex lusted after.
Photo Gallery: by Alex Burns
On the track to Trappers Hut
Crossing Wild Dog Creek
Snow laden branches
Weather reports you would rather not have:
Onward to Deloraine for a night in comfortable digs at the local motel. I must say that this was an opportune choice given the deteriorating weather. On my last extended snow trip with Alex things were quite different. It was tenting at The Diggings in Kosciuszko National Park before issuing forth to hiking on the Main Range in balmy temperatures and brilliantly sunny skies. This time we drove to Deloraine under threatening skies then finally rain. The TV weather report that night showed a dense cloud band sweeping across Tasmania. A nuisance breakout from something called the Antarctic Vortex, otherwise known as a vigorous low pressure cell and associated cold front. For our neck of the woods: 95% chance of rain, wind gusts to 100 kph, sheep graziers’ weather alert and a strong wind warning.
The Tassie Parks service has this warning about winter trips to the high country: “Winter days are cold, but can often be crisp and clear, especially in the morning. In the highlands, expect snow. You’ll need all your warm, windproof and waterproof gear. The days are short and deep snow can make walking difficult. Be prepared to be holed up during blizzards, sometimes for days.”
Monday at Cradle Mountain
Come Monday morning I peeked through the curtains. Not good. Alex who is on top of this highland weather stuff sensibly delayed our entry to The Walls for the day. A day of reading and telly watching interspersed with visits to Deloraine’s cafes for hot chocolates and coffees… perhaps? Unfortunately, Alex isn’t much for sitting around. An outing to Cradle Mountain beckoned. We trudged through Cradle’s freezing rain and gale force winds (gusting to 80 kph) for only part of the day but my enthusiasm for this alpine outing was quickly
dampened and I was relieved that we hadn’t set out to The Walls in this weather. I’m not sure what the two bedraggled, shivering and unfit middle-aged ‘overland trackers’ made of the conditions. Apparently they were out in all weathers because they were ‘on a schedule’. I guess they made it to Waterfall Hut with a bit of a struggle. But it was back to the delights of Deloraine in a warm car for Alex and me. Hopefully for an early start tomorrow. The evening TV weather report was mildly off-putting for this warm-blooded denizen of the subtropics: sheep graziers’ weather alert, road alert for snow and ice, maximum 0°C, minimum -2°C, snow to 400 metres, 12-20 cm of snowfall, winds to 40 kph and a bushwalker alert. But in Alex’s book it was all systems go.
Tuesday: into The Walls Of Jerusalem
Tuesday pre-dawn. Alex was up and packing. Although we had already lost a day we opted for an ‘overnighter’, a lightning swoop on The Walls of Jerusalem. By mid-morning we had bumped our way into The Walls car park where a lonely signboard informed us that: Thieves are active in this area. I stepped out into snow and wind gusts but was reassured by Alex’s assessment that conditions were ‘pretty benign’.
We wandered off uphill, still able to pick the general line of the track even under the deepening snow cover. About an hour later we arrived at Trappers Hut, dived inside out of wind and snow, wolfed down a feed of chocolate then paused to examine our surroundings. Trappers Hut, built by Boy Miles, a Changi POW, and Dick and Alistair Walters in 1946, is a two bunker with vertical slab construction with a shingle and corrugated iron roof. The gable at one end, covered with chook wire, was open to the elements, with a light dusting of snow covering the bunk below.
The hut is a reminder that in bygone days these high alpine zones were exploited for grazing, mining and trapping. Possum trappers built huts, called badger boxes, around the edge of the Central Plateau especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s. They were keen to get the furry winter pelts of the mountain dwelling brush-tailed possums, pademelons and Bennett’s wallabies for which they received about the equivalent of two dollars fifty a skin.
Ten minutes on we were cooling rapidly so it was time to throw on the shoulder monkeys and trundle off, wombat-like, into the deepening drifts. Slow going.
Something about Snowshoeing:
It was not deep enough for snowshoeing but was deep enough to obliterate the track and obscure boulders and scrubs. Underfoot was becoming hazardous. I have read that a walker in boots and loaded with rucksack at a combined weight of 80kgs exerts a surface pressure on the snow of 470 g/cm². You can expect to sink about 20-25 cm into the snow. But if you have strapped on your on skis or snowshoes the ground pressure falls to about 67 g/cm². You should sink only a centimetre or two. We were definitely out of luck in this regard. Our snowshoes remained strapped to our rucksacks.
After Trappers we breasted the lower plateau at 1100 metres and located the junction of The Walls track and Lake Adelaide track by way of new and very garish sign. Even under a blanket of snow, in poor visibility, the scenery did not disappoint. A monochrome landscape of lakes, massive dolerite cliffs, pencil pine forests and clumps of snow gums. Definitely worth the discomfort of being out in these conditions.
The Walls of Jerusalem: Geology:
The Central Plateau is a surface of horizontal flows of dolerite, some 300 metres thick, formed during the Jurassic. Dolerite is a dark heavy rock, crystallizing as magma cooled beneath the earth’s surface. The present landscape is the result of a small Pleistocene ice-cap scouring this dolerite surface. Thus, the innumerable lakes of the Central Plateau are depressions left by glacial erosion. By and large the ice cap rode over most of the plateau except where it thinned and flowed around high points, gouging steep sided walls like The West Wall and The Wailing Wall.
The Walls of Jerusalem: Plants:
The vegetation highlights of The Walls include magnificent stands of the ancient Pencil Pines, the cushion plants and Tassie’s own snow gum, Eucalyptus coccifera. The very slow growing Pencil Pines (Athrotaxis cupressoides) prefer wet soils, hence are characteristically found on flat ground at the edge of tarns, lakes and watercourses. Athrotaxis usually grows as an isolated plant hence the extensive copses near Lake Salome, Pool of Siloam and in Jaffa Vale are very unusual. Unfortunately, it is highly susceptible to fire and may be under threat if the climate continues to warm.
Cushion plants are alpine species that develop dense, ground-hugging forms. In Tasmania all but one is endemic. They form narrow ‘rivers’ along drainage lines or be scattered through alpine heath or sedgeland. They are at their most spectacular where they form extensive sheets on thin soils on rocky alpine plateaux like the Walls Of Jerusalem.
After the junction sign, minor hick-up ensued as we puzzled over our forward direction. We quickly sorted this with that good old stand-by, a map and compass: Mr Magellan rendered inarticulate under the heavy sky. Alex confidently led off SW towards Herods Gate, breaking ground in the fresh snow. A human track logger. Our line of travel approximating the summer track and our ongoing progress confirmed by an occasional marker, so faded and tatty as to be nearly invisible.
Ahead were Solomons Jewels, a myriad of small lakes, but a mere handful of the 4000 or so lakes that dot the Central Plateau.
The Lake Country:
Sometimes called the Lake Country, this landscape is a legacy of the Pleistocene Glaciation when a 65 kilometre wide ice cap covered much of the Plateau. This was the only known Pleistocene ice cap in Australia. Glacial ice gouged and scraped numerous rock depressions and dumped piles of moraine. As the ice retreated 10,000 years ago, sheets of water filled the depressions to form the lakes that we see today.
Something about clothing:
By early afternoon the winds had ratcheted up and a coating of snow flurries now permanently covered our jackets and rucksacks. The wind chill temperature stood at about -8°C. Daggy as I may have looked, my old Queensland bushwalking clobber kept me amazingly snug: old woollen balaclava, possum fur gloves from NZ, outer ski gloves, thermal top and pants, Dry Gear long sleeved shirt, heavy duty windproof polar fleece coat, long gortex rain jacket, a pair of cheapskate nylon rain pants and Quagmire gaiters to complete my ensemble. Tucked away in a dry bag were a duplicate set of après ski clothes including down jacket and ski pants. And if you were an Alex, a pair of hut booties would be de rigeur for evening wear.
Unable to deploy the snowshoes our forward progress was pretty ordinary. By 2.00pm we were still short of Wild Dog Creek and our ambitious plan to overnight at Dixons Kingdom Hut had all but evaporated. Dixons is only a few hours from Trappers in summer conditions. But we weren’t in the race, so working on the precautionary principle, a night under canvas at Wild Dog Creek was our safest option.
Nary a wild dog in sight, but instead a resident clutch of Tasmanian Bennett’s Wallabies (Macropus rufogriseus) sheltering forlornly under tree branches near the tent platforms. You have to be pretty impressed by the survival these furry little fellows. A number of factors are in play to ensure their survival in the snow. The snowcover in Tassie is pretty short lived, so food scarcity is only temporary. High country mammals become torpid in cold conditions when food is scarce. They survive by reducing their metabolic rates by 5-30 percent of their normal basal rate. Finally, the Wild Dog campsite is, no doubt, a favourable feeding site with an abundance of hand-outs. But one lives in hope that there are not too many walkers feeding the local wildlife.
Wild Dog Creek Campsite:
Parks Tassie has done a sterling job at Wild Dog: wooden tent platforms, outstanding views even in the snow, water taps (currently frozen), a composting toilet (door frozen shut) and our own backyard Australia Zoo. But best of all we found a tent platform that was sheltered from the wind.
We downed rucksacks and extracted my ever faithful two man Salewa Sierra Leone. Wrangling the tubby Salewa on the snow covered platform called for some advanced engineering know-how. Alex’s, not mine. The snow hadn’t packed down so our ice pegs were useless. Instead we resorted to a spider’s web of spare cordage and spare bootlaces to guy out our little abode.
A long night:
Then it was into the tent, followed by a long-winded process of changing into warm dry clothes and finally submerging into a snuggly sleeping bag. A long night stretched ahead: 15 hours as sunrise was north of 7.20am. Cooking a meal in the tent annex is never an option that I particularly relish. It is far safer to fire up the stove outside. But with a bit of care we managed the annex and an entrée of Dutch curry and rice soup; for mains Back Country Cuisine’s Spaghetti Bolognese fattened up with Deb Instant Mash; a dessert of Rum and Raisin chocolate finished off with Choc Orange drinking choc fortified with sweetened condensed milk. The night was interminable, spiced up by discussions on things technological and exits to shake snow from the fly sheet and deal with the unwanted attentions of a marauding common brush-tail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula). It is with good reason that their species name is derived from the latin meaning ‘little fox‘.
Wednesday: up to the West Wall and Lake Salome
Come 7am, still in darkness, snow still drifting down, I was drawn out of the Salewa and up to the little house on the hill, the composting toilet: its latch and door frame firmly sealed by ice. Tighter than the zip on a Scotsman’s wallet. Having left the blow torch at home I resorted to desperate pecking with my pocket knife. By a dent of sheer persistence I burst in. A close run thing.
Back at camp we brewed up substantial bowls of porridge laced with handfuls of muesli and swimming in condensed milk and then considered the situation. Outside the wind had eased to 60 kph gusts but had swung to the WSW bringing colder temperatures, -2°C but lighter snowfall.
We opted to leave the tent erected with our gear still dry inside and check out the inner Walls above Herods Gate. Once through Herods Gate at 1200 metres the prospect was, bluntly put, bleak but also beautiful in a monochromatic sort of way. An iced-up Lake Salome was visible. To our right King Davids Peak and the West Wall were intermittently visible but Damascus Gate and The Temple (1446 m), a mere two kilometres away, were shrouded in cloud and snow.
After poking around in pretty cold conditions, a wind chill of -8.5°C, it was time to re-trace our route, retrieve the tent and gear at Wild Dog and bump out. We had run out of time, needing to be in Hobart on the morrow.
By 3pm at the car park the wind had eased back to a lazy 20 kph and the temperature had racked up to a balmy 2°C. Murphy’s Law. But for all the minor discomforts I wouldn’t trade my winter walks with Alex for anything. Then it was off to collect Judy from Hobart and onward to Adventure Bay on Bruny Island. A chance to check out an epicentre of Australia’s early maritime history: Abel Tasman(1642) Tobias Furneaux(1773) Captain Cook (1777) and William Bligh with Matthew Flinders in 1792.
Green, K and Osborne, W: Field Guide to Wildlife of Australia’s snow-country. Reed New Holland1994.
Tasmanian Parks Service: Welcome to Wilderness: Bushwalking Trip Planner.
Map: Walls of Jerusalem 1:25000. Land Info Service.
Phil Collier : Alpine Wildflowers of TasmaniaSoc. Growing Aust. Plants 1989.
Carol Booth: Chill Strategies Wildlife Australia Winter 2015 Vol 52 No 2.
One of my favourite places in Australia’s high country is Long Plain in Kosciuszko National Park. The subdued topography of this open grassy plain in Northern Kosciuszko presents a marked contrast to the 2000 metre whaleback mountains and alpine ridges of Southern Kosciuszko. On a recent trip to Northern Kosciuszko we camped at the Long Plain Hut and also hiked in to Hainsworth Hut, an old grazing hut, via the Mosquito Creek Trail.
Long Plain, in Kosciuszko NP, is one of the many high frost plains between the Brindabellas and Kiandra, all mostly above 1300 metres. These are called frost hollows or cold air drainage basins and are naturally occurring treeless plains formed when cold heavy air drains into depressions along the valleys of creeks and rivers. The pooling of frosty air suppresses the growth of tree seedlings and consequently the plains are bereft of trees, even the amazingly hardy snowgums. Instead, the snowgums and black sallees grow on the ridges above the valleys: thus an inverted treeline.
Long Plain is, as its name implies, a long plain. About 30 kilometres in length between Peppercorn Hill in the north and Bullocks Hill to the south, this is an immense open grassland drained by the upper reaches of the Murrumbidgee River or Murrumbeeja. Its European discoverer was Charles Throsby Smith who, in March 1821, followed the Molonglo River to its junction with the Murrumbidgee, close to the present site of Canberra. Seventy kilometres south-west of Canberra, the Murrumbidgee rises on Long Plain in an amphitheatre formed by the apex of the Fiery Range and the Gurrangorambla Range, near Peppercorn Hill. From here it initially flows south-south-west following the line of the Long Plain Fault, a major structural feature extending from about 25 kilometres north of Brindabella, through Kiandra to just west of Mt Kosciuszko. The plain is bounded by the Fiery Range to the west and, a few kilometres to the east, a line of 1600 metre peaks: Mt Nattung 1618m, Whites Hill 1597m, and Skaines Mountain 1601m.
Long Plain’s open grassland vistas, a cultural heritage of grazing huts, interesting bird sightings and the possibility of spotting wombats, dingoes and brumbies make for a great walking and camping experience. Any time between October and May is a good time to visit but access gates are locked in winter as snowfalls blanket these high plains. Other northern frost plains worth investigating include Coolamon, Tantangara, Gooandra, Boggy, Dairymans and Currango.
We had fine warm days and a coolish night for our March overnight trip into Hainsworth Hut. It is an easy walk following the Mosquito Creek Trail which obligingly contours along the lower edge of the sub-alpine woodland for most of the way. The woodland was typical snowgum-black sallee dominant with an understorey of shrubs and snowgrass.
Conveniently placed logs provided opportunities to perch and spy on the local birds. The usual high country customers appeared in due course: Wedgetails, Red Wattlebirds, Crimson Rosellas, Ravens and Flame Robins among the more obvious.
Although horse riding and mountain bike riding are permitted on the Mosquito Creek Trail we weren’t bothered by either. But the pyramids of horse poo, hoof marks and tributary brumby pads attested to the presence of horses, wild or otherwise. This was borne out in the number of entries in the hut log book mentioning brumby sightings and horse riders clip-clopping in from Ghost Gully or Cooinbil Hut.
Australian Alps Walking Trail marker.
Mosquito Ck Trail
Evening clouds over Long Plain.
Hainsworth Hut and Salewa tent
Treeline on Long Plain
The vast majority of visitors come in summer. I found my old entry from a Kiandra to Canberra trip in May 2012: this was the onset of winter and virtually no-one came through after our party until five months later, the spring thaw in October. But our current trip was in early autumn and the weather was brilliantly fine but leavened with a sneaky alpine breeze. We pitched our two-man Salewa on the cropped grass and had a very comfortable night under canvas. The general rule is that huts should only be used for emergencies in bad weather.
Hainsworth was one of a string of grazing huts built along Long Plain. Others included Long Plain Hut, Millers Hut, Jannets(ruin), Cooinbil, Peppercorn (ruin), Little Peppercorn(ruin) and Pethers (ruin). Klaus Hueneke in his well researched and interesting reference book Huts of the High Country estimates that there could have been up to 20 huts across the plain at the peak of grazing. For the mountain hut afficionados among you I can recommend books or articles written by Klaus Hueneke and the Kosciuszko Huts Association website. Hainsworth or Landrover Hut is a simple two-roomer, a bedroom and a kitchen. It was built in about 1951 by Hainsworth and Corkhill as a summer grazing hut. It is clad in corrugated iron, has two doors and two hatch windows, an open fireplace and solid wooden floor. Like most of the high country huts it is well sited: sheltered from westerly winds, close to a supply of water and timber, with magnificent views over grassy flats and a morning sun aspect allowing the hut’s inhabitants to thaw out. Hainsworth Hut has an excellent location overlooking the grassy flats of Dip Creek.
Recently I read Miles Franklin’sChildhood at Brindabella which is recommended reading for all high country enthusiasts. Stella (Miles) Franklin was born at Lampe Homestead, a grazing property at Talbingo near Tumut in 1897. She went on to write 21 Australian books. Miles Franklin spent the first ten years of her life at Brindabella only 50 kilometres to the north east from Hainsworth Hut. Childhood at Brindabellais an excellent snapshot of the life and the landscapes of Northern Kosciuszko and the nearby Brindabella Ranges at the turn of the 20th century.
Sixty years ago the creek flats below us would have been alive with grazing sheep. A record in the log book by Bill Hainsworth’s daughter noted that up to 3000 sheep would graze around the hut and its environs. But we had to content ourselves with the lone fat and prosperous dingo that cruised along the treeline opposite our vantage point in the doorway of the hut. We watched for quite a while as it went about its doggy business scoping out various burrows and tunnels. Judging by the prevalence of rabbit burrows, our dingo would have no difficulty in getting a decent feed for tonight. In all my walks in the high country I have had only two previous encounters with this splendid apex predator, a subspecies of the grey wolf. My dingo bible, Laurie Corbett’s The Dingo in Australia and Asia, says that the alpine dingoes are a distinct subspecies, one of three in Australia. They feast on rabbit, wallaby, wombat with the occasional brumby foal thrown in as a special treat. They are actually quite lazy hounds, rarely travelling more than two kilometres a day and their territories are small ellipsoids, with the long axis only twelve kilometres in length.
On dusk just as we were drifting off to sleep I heard an ever so light drumming of hooves outside the tent. I peered out through the Salewa’s nifty little plastic window. Below, on the creek’s edge, a mere hundred metres away, a solitary brumby drank from Dip Creek. In Australia, non-domestic horses are generally known as either brumbies or wild horses or feral horses. The term brumby is attributed to James Brumby, who released his horses to run free on his land in NSW when he was transferred to Tasmania in the 1830’s. There is no doubt that horses have played an important part in Australia’s recent history as they have been involved in exploration, mining, racing, transportation, grazing and droving, and as part of the mounted police and Australian Light Horse Regiments.
So for most people a brumby sighting is always exciting. Australians have a great emotional attachment to horses, and I can relate to this. But the hard reality is that brumbies are feral horses, with the same status as foxes, cats, goats, deer and pigs. Thus, ecologically, they have no place in these fragile alpine ecosystems. In the Australian Capital Territory, Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland they are culled, usually shot from helicopters, but in New South Wales and Victoria herds of these hayburners from hell cavort over the snowgrass plains with seeming impunity: brunching on the juiciest wildflowers, carving out innumerable tracks through the scrub and pugging alpine streams and swamps with their hooves. Numbers in Kosciuszko are currently well over 4000, and escalating each year. In 2005 the Parks Service consulted with all stakeholders and prepared a management plan: Horse Management Plan for Kosciuszko National Park :
The recent approach adopted by the NSW Parks Service has been trapping the brumbies then removal from the park. Not all that effective as I have observed me from my extensive walks in Kosciuszko. It seems to me that trapping is the only workable solution in that it balances conservation of alpine ecosystems and the desire on the part of horse lovers to maintain their high country grazing heritage. A great read about all these issues can be found in Australian Geographic Vol 130. Written by Amanda Burdon with photographs by Jason Edwards, it is the best summary that I have read thus far. Subscribers to Aust Geog can login to the site to read full article but Jason’s photos are available at the following link: Photo Gallery.
Saturday dawned fine and cool. Ideal conditions to putter back along the Mosquito Creek Trail to our ute, still standing unmolested under a grove of shady snowgums at Ghost Gully. After a gourmet meal of crusty bread, cheese, cheesy Ched biscuits and lemon barley cordial we made tracks for the Long Plain Campground.
The hut occupies a beautiful spot in a stand of gnarled old snow gums and sallees, overlooking Long Plain. It is accessible by 2WDs and has a day use area and two very pleasant low key campgrounds; one for car camping and one for horse camping. The spacious horse camp, on a small knoll, has its own set of horse yards with a stream nearby. This is where we camp.
Unregulated grazing started on Long Plain as early as 1830 and by 1900 there were 22 large snow leases in the high country. In 1909 Arthur Triggs of Yass leased a big chunk of the plain, about 28,300 hectares. Later, when the lease was subdivided, a Dr Albert Campbell of Ellerslie Station, Adelong obtained several thousand hectares of the old Long Plain Lease. In 1916 he had this sturdy weatherboard grazing homestead built by Bobby Joyce. The timber was milled at Jack Dunn’s sawmill at nearby Cumberland Mountain and drayed to the site by Peter Quinn of Kiandra.
Like nearby Coolamine Homestead, Pockets Hut and Old Currango it is a far more substantial structure than most of the pokey summer grazing huts. It is a massive 13 metre x 7 metre building consisting of a central hall, four large rooms clad with tongue and groove, four windows, a partly-enclosed back verandah and two fireplaces. During its first winter the shingles on the roof split and were eventually replaced by corrugated iron. It was variously known as Campbell’s, Dr Campbell’s, Oddy’s and Ibbotson’s, depending on who occupied the hut. The final occupants were Jessie and Fred Bridle, fencing workers who lived in the hut in the 1960’s.
Long Plain was also the focus for rabbit trapping and shooting as well as gold mining. Rabbit trappers lived in the Long Plain hut during the depression years of the 1930s when rabbits had reached plague proportions across much of Australia. Rabbiting provided a source of income during the depression.
Anotheractivity on Long Plain was gold mining. Joseph York worked a small mine just to the north of Long Plain hut until his death in 1898. Later operators of the mine were Tom Williams ( in the early 1900s), Tom Taylor and Bill Harris in the 1930s. These pioneers are remembered in the naming if two creeks just north of the hut: Yorkies Creek and Taylors Creek.
Australian Alps Liaison Committee: Explore the Australian Alps. 2007
Green, K and Osborne, W: Field Guide to Wildlife of Australia’s snow-country.
Hueneke, Klaus: Closer to Heaven: Aust. Geog.93.
Smith, B: Dingo relationships:Wildlife in Australia.Spring 2009.
The 130 kilometre, 10 day, Kiandra to Kosciuszko walk is the premier alpine walk of mainland Australia. It traverses the highest and most scenic of our subalpine and alpine landscapes, all of it above 1500 metres. While it is, for the most part, a thoroughly enjoyable walk, it is very exposed. Summer conditions are generally benign but even a beautiful summer’s day can change, with storms, sleet and snow sweeping over in the space of a few hours. Being caught out in a summer thunderstorm on the Main Range is an experience I recommend you avoid.
Kiandra to Kosciuszko was originally conceived as a ski touring route in July 1927 between the Kiandra gold fields and Perisher Valley’s Kosciuszko Hotel built in 1909. This was accomplished in three days by four members of the Ski Club of Australia. The modern bushwalking route which we followed was, with some off-track variations, basically along the line of the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT) and included climbs of some of Australia’s highest peaks:
Jagungal(2061m),Gungartan(2068m),Anderson(1997m),Anton(2010m),Twynam(2196m),Carruthers(2145M),Townsend(2209m) and the highest of all,the mighty Mt Kosciuszko(2228m).
As well, it traverses the very scenic and open alpine ridges of the Kerries and the Rolling Grounds. My long suffering and ever helpful companions on this high country adventure were Sam, John, Lyn, Joe, Ross and Linda. They may have been disconcerted at the cold, wet and windy conditions at our Kiandra trail head, but if they had any thoughts of abandoning ship and returning to Canberra with my son Alex, they kept quiet and wandered off disconsolately into the damp gloom.
Photo Gallery: A selection of photos taken by fellow walker Lyn Hewitt:
John on Kerries Ridge.
Interior of hut on a cold night.
One of many creek crossings.
Four Mile Hut
Overall enjoyment of this extended 10 day walk was always going to depend on the vagaries of the weather. Happily for this leader, we got very lucky. While planning the walk a check of Snowy Mountains online climate statistics suggested eight rain days for November, with average falls up to 150mm along the Main Range. Anticipated average temperatures on the Main Range were maximums of 12°C and minimums of 2.6°C. As it turned out the only difficult day was our first. A salutary awakening for our high country new chums. As we popped out of a cosy people mover, freezing drizzle (6°C) whipped into our faces, propelled along by 40 kph wind gusts. By my reckoning a wind chill temperature of about -8°C. Welcome to high country bushwalking. But hey, no swarms of those infernal biting horse flies, aka Vampire Flies that have plagued us on previous high country walks.
By way of a total contrast, in early December 2006 on an earlier trip, we started at the same Kiandra trail head with temperatures hovering in the low thirties, gusting northerlies and an enveloping smoke haze from bushfires raging south of Kosciuszko. The area has about 100 days annually of high to extreme fire danger and is one of the most fire prone areas in the world. Vast swathes of Kosciuszko’s sub alpine zone had been burnt out in 2003. Since then the dominant snow gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora spp.niphophila) have been suckering vigorously from their lignotubers forming a dense woodland community that is sometimes difficult to push through.
This time frosts greeted us most mornings followed by superb walking conditions with very pleasant rambling temperatures averaging out at 12°C. A surprising number of large snow banks persisted as we climbed onto the high Kerries Ridge, the Rolling Grounds and Main Range. But these presented no real difficulties to our passage as the surface ice had usually softened by mid morning and was safe to walk over.
Our penultimate day along the crest of the Main Range was a tad problematic. Although conditions were fine and clear, blustery westerlies ripped over the tops gusting up to 75 kph (severe gale). Nowhere to hide in this lot and certainly no possibility of erecting tents. Surprising as it may seem, I had a plan. A drop into Wilkinson Valley for our overnight camp or as a last resort, a long detour to Seamans Hut. The decision made easier for me by four young through walkers who claimed that conditions were infinitely calmer in the Wilkinson. Not quite, but reasonable enough behind some granite boulders.
I was conscious of the reality that even in summer there have been cases of hypothermia or exposure in Australia’s high country. Just in case you think that talk about hypothermia is a bit overblown, read this comment from the Bushwalking Australia website about a ‘summer’ experience:
“I was caught out the first time I camped up on the Main Range (just under the Abbotts, on the Wilkinson Ck side – Christmas morning I woke up to strong winds, thick cloud and heavy snow. By the time I crossed the creek the stuff was six inches deep. By the time I reached Rawson Pass, more than half the walkway was hidden by a foot of snow; much deeper in places. It was snowing on and off all day, even in Thredbo, but even while I was walking out and down, there were people going up on the chairlifts in shorts and t shirts.”
Still not convinced? How about this recent Manly Sea Eagles summer boot camp at Thredbo one month after our trip when a 25 kilometre hike ended with a trainer being shipped off Mt Kosciuszko with a serious dose of hypothermia. A storm generating a wind chill of -10°C swept in and the hike was called off after only seven kilometres. To quote one player:
“If we didn’t leave we would have got smashed and there is no way we would have survived”.
Apparently even designer Manly Sea Eagle footy shorts, socks, skins, caps and rain jackets weren’t up to this job. Perhaps the final word should go to Willie Mason who described the experience as “…6 hours of hell.”
Hypothermia is entirely preventable, needing appropriate food and clothing. Members of our party ferried along boat loads of clothing for layering: typically thermal undergarments, rain jackets, rain pants, beanies and gloves. To my mind the jury is out on non-proofed down jackets: I prefer a thick windproof polar fleece jacket if conditions are going to be cold wet rather than cold dry. Add to this a good quality -5°C sleeping bag and you will sleep snug. Mostly. For several nights I bunked down in my sleeping bag with four top layers, a beanie, thermal longs and rain pants to stay snug. But when caught out in the wet cold stuff, my advice is: head for the nearest hut.
Given the potential for bouts of foul weather I arranged overnighters at old grazing/mining huts each night, until the Main Range, where there are only two shelters. Neither of these was on our line of travel. The huts are dingy and basic but all provide a fireplace or cast iron stove and firewood; great bolt holes in an emergency. We always cut our own firewood using bush saws and Joe stepped up as chief stoker to ensure a toasty fire every ‘hut’ night. On some evenings, meals over, fire banked, we settled in for some reading or an evening of TED on the Trail presented by Sam and Lyn. Health lectures on creepy diseases that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
Gathering firewood was a group imperative and everyone fanned out from the huts bringing back cart loads of firewood. John even clambered up into dead snow gums, bush saw in free hand to harvest the larger limbs. On our north-south traverse we pulled into Four Mile Hut, Happys Hut, Brooks Hut, Mackeys Hut, O’Keefes Hut, Derschkos Hut, Grey Mare Hut, Valentines Hut, Mawsons Hut and Whites River Hut. Much of the upkeep and restoration of these huts is done by various ski clubs and the Kosciuszko Huts Association whose website has a wealth of information about high country huts.
Sections of the walk follow marked fire trails (Tabletop, Grey Mare, Valentines and Schlinks) where one would be hard pressed to get lost as long as you have a decent map and a modicum of spatial awareness. Going off track, in poor visibility, is a different proposition. Thus walkers venturing out in mist or sleet/snow must be proficient navigators. A map and compass is a must have and a GPS with preloaded waypoints is invaluable in such conditions. It is worth knowing that your GPS batteries won’t fail in the cold. In 2006 I got caught out on the Kerries Ridge in dense cold mist. My journal of the time records:
“Unfortunately the mist closed in again and our afternoon was spent slowly compassing in a pea soup mist from rock to rock…Brian and Andy fossicked ahead while Di and I bellowed directions before they vanished from view…By 3.00pm a GPS check located us a disappointing two kilometres short of our objective, Gungartan. Brian made the sensible, inevitable decision to abandon ship and we exited downhill to the Schlink Hilton.”
For this trip, as leader, I hauled along ten laminated strip maps at 1:25000 scale as well as a 1:50000 Rooftop Map covering the whole of Kosciuszko. My photocopied notes from the excellent Chapman et el guidebook:“Australian Alps Walking Track” while being the go-to guidebook, it reads south to north. As this took reverse deciphering I only dipped into the notes for the historical information and occasional navigation issues. Ross and Joe had GPSs with hut locations as waypoints and, ever cautious, I had my Android phone preloaded with geo-referenced and detailed 1:25000 map files.
For the GPS geeks among us, help is at hand. Every square centimetre, every pixel of the AAWT has been waypointed, track logged, geocached, and route marked to within a whisker of its digital life and a number of bushwalking websites provide this data free.
As anticipated, the spring thaw peak flows had waned by early November. By my reckoning only the Tumut, Tooma and Geehi Rivers and maybe Valentines and Back Creeks would be a challenge. Leaving aside our self inflicted rogue croc circus, the crossings proved a doddle. On arriving at a river Ross, John and Joe would wander thither and yon, upstream and downstream until a potential crossing was located. Then we would scuttle across, one after the other, leaping from boulder to boulder. Hopefully arriving at the opposite bank in mostly dry boots and socks.
Our traverse of the Kosciuszko Plateau took in a major chunk of the Australian Alps Bioregion, the only truly alpine environment in NSW as well as the only part of the Australian mainland to have experienced Pleistocene glaciations. Over our 10 days we started off by crossing the subalpine woodland landscapes of Kiandra, Happy Jacks Plain and the Jagungal Wilderness and then climbed onto the exposed alpine ridges of the Kerries, the Rolling Grounds and finally the Main Range.
The ‘alpine’ landscapes of the Australian Alps are obviously quite different to those of the Himalayas or New Zealand’s Southern Alps in that they are much lower, flatter and rounded. Kosciusko National Park is predominately a rolling plateau surface, the remnants of a low mountain chain resulting from the splitting of the Australian plate from Gondwana and Zealandia. Splitting is a much more muted tectonic force than the crustal collisions that are, as we speak, thrusting up the Himalayas and the Southern Alps. The lack of significant alpine peaks is also attributable to the small extent of the Kosciuszko ice cap at glacial maximums during the Pleistocene. That said, the winter snow fields of Australia cover an area of 11,500 square kilometres, said to be greater than the combined snowfields of the European Alps.
Our first four days took us across subalpine woodland interspersed with open grasslands. This zone has a continuous snow cover for one to four months and minimum temperatures below freezing for six months. Typically it lies in a tight zone between 1450 metres and 1850 metres. Here the mainly basaltic ridgelines and slopes are dominated by snow gum re-growth with a dense understorey of prickly shrubs. The snow gums are usually stunted, multi-stemmed and gnarled close to the alpine zone but are taller and straighter lower down where they form an association with another hardy eucalypt, the black sally.
But the most striking feature of the subalpine landscape is the extensive treeless grasslands found in the valley floors. Immense treeless plains form because of the pooling of cold air which rolls off the high ridgelines and ponds in the valleys on cold frosty nights. These low points are known as frost hollows. The valley floors often are also areas of impeded drainage hence can be wet and decidedly boggy. Camping there anytime but high summer is not recommended.
The second half of our walk was truly alpine in the zone above the treeline, found above 1850 metres. A landscape of frost shattered granite boulders and alpine meadows, technically, tall alpine herbfields. Where special conditions apply there are also small pockets of heath, bog and the windswept feldmarks. The tall alpine herbfields are botanically very rich, rivalling in diversity and showiness similar communities in the European Alps, Southern Alps and Rocky Mountains. It was one of the great pleasures of this walk to amble through vast herbfields of Silver Snow Daisies, yellow Everlastings, Snow Grass, glossy yellow Buttercups and the conspicuous Australian Gentians.
Over the last few days I was able to check out the glacial landforms of the Main Range. These are relics of the Pleistocene glaciations when an ice cap and valley glaciers covered a small area of the Main Range of about 20 sq km to a depth of maybe 100 metres. In the area between Mt Twynam and Mt Kosciuszko it wasn’t difficult to identify obvious landforms like cirques, lateral and terminal moraines, hummocky moraine dumps, U-shaped valleys and glacial lakes. But with the wind flapping our ears around there was no temptation to chase down the more cryptic features like glacial striations, polished rock surfaces, roches moutonnes and boulder erratics.
Links to other reports on some of our trips in Kosciuszko NP that may interest you:
Saturday November 1: Kiandra to Four Mile hut: 6 kms:
Son Alex deposited us onto a vast treeless snow grass plain at Kiandra, our starting point for the 10 day walk, the Tabletop fire trail. All in all a desperate place on a wet and windy afternoon like this. Alex, returning to Canberra in the people mover, seemed positively chirpy about our predicament. But my fellow walkers, although somewhat nonplussed by the cold and wet, are a keen lot and we were soon beetling on our way, following the Tabletop Trail as it wiggled its way up and over Dunns Hill.
Our first stop and overnighter was Four Mile Hut, several hours away. The Four Mile or Hughes Hut was our introduction to high country huts on this trip. I’m guessing if you are visualizing huts from your diverse wanderings along The Overland Track or perhaps New Zealand or even those swanky mountain refuges of Europe, you would be badly let down. Four Mile is a ‘one man’ hut built by Bob Hughes in 1937, the last active miner in Kosciuszko. Bob had been manager of the nearby Elaine Mine and when it closed he salvaged alpine ash tunnel timbers and flattened ten gallon drums to build himself a fossicking and rabbiting hut on Four Mile Creek. The Four Mile Hut is Lilliputian, with a stove, a table, a wooden floor and room to sleep two at a pinch. Until 1981 it even boasted a box of gelignite under the bunk bed. But given conditions outside on our night at Four Mile, it proved attractive enough for Sam, Joe and Lyn to commandeer. Ordinary ranks… outside under the wildly cracking canvas.
Our arrival coincided with the drizzle lifting but dark clouds banked aloft and gusts of wind swept over the open plains of the Four Mile. We took advantage of the pause in the drizzle and put our wet clothes, socks and boots out in the brisk wind to dry. Meanwhile Joe fired up the stove and soon had the hut warm and toasty to finish drying our clothes and defrosting numb fingers, toes and noses.
Sunday 2 November: Four Mile Hut to Happy Jacks Plain via Mt Tabletop: 15 kms.
A sub zero but clearing morning greeted us. The route from Kiandra to Mt Tabletop (1784m) along the Tabletop Trail is one of the oldest pathways in Kosciuszko National Park. I know nothing of its use by the aborigines but it was followed in the 1860s by gold miners and since then by generations of cattlemen, skiers, bushwalkers and now the rumbling diesels of the Park’s service 4WDs. It generally follows high basalt ridges at 1600 metres, part of Australia’s Great Dividing Range. Along its spine is an old fence line dividing the two old grazing leases, Nine Mile to the west and Broken Dam to the east.
Soon after Four Mile we crossed the headwaters of Nine Mile Creek. Both Four Mile and Nine Mile abounded in relics of gold mining. In the 1860s the Nine Mile was home to over 1400 miners, six stores, two bakeries, three butcheries, a jail, a blacksmith and, of course, four hotels. Nearly 10,000 miners swarmed to the Kiandra Goldfields in 1859 to endure severe winter blizzards hunkered down in canvas tents. Some miners even constructed primitive shelters of sod, rocks and branches. The rush was short-lived, the shallow alluvial deposits worked out and attempts to find the main reef proved fruitless. After the 1860 winter only 150 miners hung on. Even with down jackets, four season sleeping bags and tents, staying warm in 2014 was still an issue.
A kilometre on, we passed the headwaters of Scotch Creek where hydraulic sluicing from about 1860 to the 1920s had scoured the hillside in a final search for gold. Head races or water races collected water from the range and fed it into pipes fitted with nozzles. The hillside scar is still there, a 700 metres long, 100 metres wide and 15 metres deep. Interestingly, I could see beds of lignite in the exposures. There are about 200 kilometres of water races to be seen all over this part of the country; faithfully following their own gently dipping contours to the sluice site. They were cut, not by pick and shovel wielding Chinese labourers but by bullock powered ploughs.
Onwards to Mt Tabletop or Tackingal. The name Cabramurra was given to the actual trig point on top, borrowed from the tribal area of Cabramurra from nearby Eucumbene River. The track to Tabletop follows the line of an old race line which fed water down to the Nine Mile sluicing. Tabletop is a flat topped basalt mesa rising 150 metres in local relief, the remnants of a Tertiary volcano. Tabletop and nearby Round Mountain are the likely sources of the lava that covered much of this part of Northern Kosciusko. Tabletop’s summit is just above the tree line and is a mass of wildflowers like Billy Buttons (Craspedia leucantha) and the ubiquitous Silver Snow Daisy ( Celmisia spp.) which we would see all across the alpine zone.
The view from the summit was fabulous: the Monaro Plains to the south east, Mt Jagungal (tomorrow) to the west and the snow capped northern Main Range to our south and a shimmering Lake Eucumbene off to the east. The 25 kilometre long finger of Lake Eucumbene is part of Australia’s huge post World War Two Snowy Mountains Scheme designed to provide hydro power and to divert water for irrigation into the westward flowing Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. The town of Cooma has a must see display of the construction phase of the scheme at the Snowy Hydro building. This all sounds hunky dory but the Snowy Scheme came at some considerable environmental cost to the eastward flowing Snowy River.
A little after three kilometres from Tabletop we swung off the trail and plunged downhill through dense snow gum woodland heading on a southerly bearing for Happys Hut, which has a reputation of being difficult to find. Fortunately not this time, for after about one kilometre of scrub bashing, compass glued to my paw, I sighted the hut in a stand of snow gums on the edge of Happy Jacks Plain. Happys, also known as The Dip, Montagues or Boots was built by in 1931 by W. Montague as a grazing hut. It has a verandah, corrugated iron walls and roof, a wooden floor, stone hearth and iron flue.
Monday 3 November: Happys Hut to Mackeys Hut via the Grey Mare Trail: 17 kms.
Up at first light. Another frosty morning with a thick coating of ice on the tent. My little pack thermometer showing -2°C at sunrise. No surprise there. I had on full rigging of thermals, shirt, long trousers, polar fleece coat, beanie and gloves. Fortunately Joe too had been forced out early and had conjured up a fire in the hut. With all this ice around our two middle aged delinquents, John and Ross, were soon engaged in an iceball free-for-all.
With tents down and hut cleaning supervised by the eagle-eyed hut commandant Sam, we were on the frog and toad by 8.30am; walking in brilliant sunshine and a pleasant but nippy wind. Our heading was vaguely south east for three kilometres, across the hummocky snow grass of Happy Jacks Plain. Navigation was easy enough: keep Arsenic Ridge to the starboard and Arsenic Creek on the port and simply contour along the tree line until a crossing of Arsenic Creek is made just short of Brooks Hut. The Brooks Hut or V Hut was torched in the 2003 fires but rebuilt in 2007.
The original hut was built by Cliff and Bill Brooks in 1945 as yet another mountain grazing hut. It stands at the edge of Arsenic Ridge overlooking the extensive Happy Jacks Plain, a much favoured summer cattle and sheep grazing area in days of yore.
After a quick snoop inside we loped off on an old 4WD track towards Happy Jacks Road (2WD accessible). The angst of crossing Happy Jacks Creek by way of a ‘fallen power pole’ didn’t eventuate; instead we strode jauntily across by way of an impressive culvert. Too easy. At Happy Jacks Road we pulled in for a morning tea stop; notable for its lack of privacy for those needing a comfort stop on the these vast grasslands. But hey… none of those maddening horse flies to bite vast acres of naked flesh.
After a good feed and the pit stop it was simply a matter of following the Grey Mare Trail for the next two days, first to overnight at Mackeys Hut and then on Tuesday into the Jagungal Wilderness and Mt Jagungal. Not a grey mare in sight, nor any brumbies. But first there was the small matter of a few piddling creek crossings at Barneys, McKeahnies and Tibeando Creeks. Good practice for the Geehi River and Valentines Creek crossings later in the trip.
Mackeys, Tibeando or Mackays was built in 1944-5 by Norm and Sam Mackay for their grazing lease. It is a classic mountain hut, a two-roomer with verandah, corrugated iron walls and roof with a timber floor. The stone hearth was always a bit of a smoker but since the NPWS rebuilt the chimney in 2010 it draws much better. All grazing leases in Kosciuszko National Park have been revoked; the Mackeys lease in 1958.
In the days of the transhumance of sheep and cattle from lowland properties to the high summer pasture there were usually two musters. One at the beginning of autumn and a few weeks later a mop up of the strays still munching away in some hidden valley. Everyone chipped in to help with the final sorting of stock; usually finished on the lowlands. All the mustering was done with horse and dog. The cattlemen have gone, the high plains now the province of the skier and the bushwalker and occasional Parks rangers. The ‘Man from the Snowy River’ way of life is no longer.
Tuesday 4 November: Mackeys Hut to Derschkos Hut via Jagungal: 18 kms.
A change of plan. With rain predicted for the morrow I decided to squeeze in the climb of Mt Jagungal today on our way to Derschkos Hut. I have noticed that all this lot were very efficient packers: Lyn, Ross and Linda in particular, so it was an early 7.30am start heading south on the Grey Mare on yet another fine morning. Across a strongly flowing Doubtful Creek thence up to Farm Ridge. Nothing much is left of this alpine farm but the information board recorded the basics:
“Part of a substantial alpine grazing lease, Farm Ridge was constructed in the 1890s by A J Rial. At its peak the homestead formed the central focus point amid outbuildings and a set of sheep and cattle yards. There was a telephone connected to Adaminaby. Grazing ceased during the 1960s.”
Several kilometres on we ducked into the re-built O’Keefes or Bogong Hut, the original burnt down in the 2003 bushfires, but not before its masonite ceiling had been vaporized by a megafaunal resident possum. The original hut was built by A.S. O’Keefe in 1934 as …yes, you guessed it…another summer grazing hut. As O’Keefe had materials carted in from Old Adaminaby (expensive) he cheapskated on roofing iron, so the old hut had minimalist eaves and a inconvenient tendency to allow snow to waft in during blizzards.
But I was a man with a mission now. A demon bushwalker of the worst kind, a peak bagger. Jagungal or bust. Jagungal is best accessed from its south west ridge, a 220 metres climb to Jagungal Summit at 2062 metres. The Roof of Australia, not quite, but near enough for this neck of the woods. But my companions engaged in a gender based insurrection and while the males shuffled wearily off towards the summit the female of the species headed off at brisk trot for the luxury of Derschkos Hut some two kilometres to the north west on the Round Mountain Trail.
Jagungal is instantly recognisable from over much of Kosciusko. A reassuring landmark for bushwalkers and skiers alike, a beacon…. an isolated black rocky peak standing above the surrounding alpine plains. It is Australia’s most northerly and easterly mountain above 2000 metres in height. Jagungal forms the headwaters of several major rivers: the Tumut, the Tooma and the Geehi. It was known to cattlemen as The Big Bogong but appears on Strzelecki’s map as ‘Mt Coruncal’, which he describes as ‘crowning the spur which separates the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers’. The aborigines often called mountains in the alpine zone Bogong, indicating a food source, the Bogong moth. Europeans applied their own nomenclature to differentiate the ‘Bogongs’: Rocky Bogong, Dicky Cooper Bogong and Grey Mare Bogong.
Unlike most of the other Bogongs whose granitic origins are revealed by their characteristic whaleback profiles, Jagungal’s summit is distinctively peaky. It sports a reptilian frill of vertical rock towers, some intact, other lying in jumbled heaps. Jagungal is different because it is capped by amphibolite, a black igneous rock more dense than granite, formed by the metamorphosis of basalts. The basalts, on cooling, crystallise into massive hexagonal pillars creating the black rocky spine on which we were now standing.
Jagungal was ascended by Europeans in the winter of 1898 when a party from the Grey Mare Mine climbed it using primitive skis called ‘Kiandra Snowshoes’. Ours was a much less adventurous walk, but we still savoured our time on the summit. Especially magnificent were the views south to the snow capped Main Range, four days away. Away to our north was Mt Tabletop and far, far away, the Brindabella Range in the Australian Capital Territory. It was so clear that we could even discern Victoria’s Mt Bogong on the far southern horizon.
I had noticed on a previous trip and again on our ascent today, huge raucous flocks of Little Ravens cawing around the steep summit cliffs. I had seen the same phenomenon on Mt Alice Rawson near Kosciuszko. Inexplicable at the time. Recently, I came across an explanation. The Little Ravens gather to feed on Agrotis infusa, the drab little Bogong moth, found only in Australia and New Zealand. To escape the summer heat, Bogongs migrate altitudinally and set up summer holiday camps in the coolest places in Australia, the rock crevices of the alpine summits. They come in millions from western New South Wales and Southern Queensland, distances in excess of 1500 kilometres, often winging in on high altitude jetstreams. The Bogongs settle in crevices and caves, stacked in multiple layers, 17000 of them in a square metre, where they undergo aestivation( pronounced east-ivating) or summer hibernation. The migrations seem to be a mechanism to escape the heat of the inland plains and they gather in the coolest and darkest crevices on western, windward rock faces. A tasty morsel for our corvid buddies.
With the ravens came the aborigines, from Yass and Braidwood, from Eden on the coast and from Omeo and Mitta Mitta in Victoria. All intent on having a good feed and a good time. Large camps formed with as many as 500 aborigines gathering for initiation, corroborees, marriage arrangements and the exchange of goods. It is thought that advance parties would climb up to the tops, and if the moths had arrived they would send up smoke signals to the camps below. The arrival of the moths is not a foregone conclusion. Migration numbers vary from year to year. Some years they are blown off course and out into the Tasman Sea. 1987 was a vintage year, but in 1988 the bright lights of New Parliament House acted as a moth magnet, and the Bogongs camped in Canberra for their summer recess.
Aboriginal men caught the moths in bark nets or smoked them out of their crevices. The moths were generally cooked in hot ashes but it is thought that women sometimes pounded them into a paste to bake as a cake. Those keen enough to taste the Bogong moth mention a nutty taste. Scientists say they are very rich in fat and protein; this diet sustained aborigines for months and the smoke from their fires was so thick that surveyors complained that they were unable to take bearings because the main peaks were always shrouded in smoke. Europeans often commented on how sleek and well fed the aborigines looked after their moth diet. Edward Eyre who explored the Monaro in the 1830’s wrote:
“The Blacks never looked so fat or shiny as they do during the Bougan season, and even their dogs get into condition then.”
At summer’s end, with the arrival of the southerlies, moths, aborigines and Little Ravens all decamped and headed for the warmer lowlands. As did Joe, Ross, John and I. Except that we headed to Derschkos where the girls had not been idle, as I had suspected they might have been. Neatly stacked outside was an immense heap of firewood. Derschkos is one of the best maintained and cleanest of the huts. It was built by the Snowy Mountains Authority in the 1950s and occupied by Derschko, a SMA hydrologist. It sports double glazed windows, a pot-bellied stove, a living room and two bunk rooms. An irresistable lure for all but the hardiest of campers among us.
Wednesday: 5 November: Derschkos Hut to Grey Mare Hut: 16.7 kms.
An easy day, goofing along the Grey Mare in cool, cloudy conditions. None of the predicted rain yet. As we cut through the Strumbo Range with only a few kilometres to the Grey Mare Hut a massive bank of mammatus clouds hung suspended above us. The name is derived from the Latin: breastlike. Were we in for a heavy drenching? No, as it turned out. Mammatus appear more threatening than they actually are. They typically form on the rear side of a storm and associated cumulonimbus clouds and appear as the storm is weakening. So our afternoon was beautifully fine. Plenty of time for an extended feed, collecting firewood, washing clothes and selves at the old cast iron outlet pipe from the gold mining days.
Grey Mare was a miner’s hut. Gold was discovered in the vicinity in 1894, but flooding of shafts ended the first sequence of occupance in 1903. A second phase of mining started in 1934 with an adit blasted to get to the reef. The ruins of a hut on the creek flats below dates from this period. A final attempt to get at the gold came in 1949 when the present hut was built and the gold crushing plant was brought in. The bush around the hut is littered with all kinds of mining knick-knackery: a crusher, a steam engine, a huge flywheel weighing more than two tonnes and a shambolic tin dunny teetering over the abyss of an old mine shaft. John, on one of his late afternoon strolls found even more mining bits and bobs strewn across the nearby landscape.
The six berth hut is of the high country hut vernacular but large and comfortable with a huge fireplace and the best hut views in the park. From our doorstep we had views up the grassy valley of Straight Creek and peeking above Strumbo Hill, the crouching lion, Mt Jagungal. The original hut was built in 1934 but re-built in 1949 by Jack and Jim Bolton using some of the original materials. It is famous (or infamous) for its murals of nudes drawn by Rufus Morris in 1954-1955, now badly faded. Some say scrubbed out by wowser skiers and bushwalkers.
Thursday 6 November: Grey Mare Hut to Mawsons Hut via Valentines Hut: 10.8 kms.
Woke to heavy cloud banks in Back and Straight Creeks, but these had dispersed before we wandered off, at 8.00am. Today we would follow the Valentine Fire Trail for the eight kilometres to Valentines Hut. The flies in the ointment were a suspicious build up of rain clouds and the creek crossings of Back Creek, the Geehi River and Valentines Creek, all flowing strongly. The crossings were slow going, what with spying out crossing points, then getting seven walkers across, teetering from boulder to boulder. But it all ended well… dry boots all round. Happy hikers.
Valentines Hut is decked out in a fire truck red livery which stands out against a grey skeletal forest of dead snow gums. Valentine’s is my all time favourite high country hut, decorated with a frieze of six valentine hearts. Hence the name Valentines Hut, but I’m not sold on this theory. Another ex-SMA hut, this natty little four person weatherboard hut, maintained by the Squirrel Ski Club, has a clean airy feel, with table, bench seats and a wood stove in its kitchen. A home away from home. Valentine’s has been painted inside and out, has ample windows and, for added creature comfort, a newish corrugated iron dunny close by.
From Valentines our line of travel was cross country over snow grass plains heading for Mawsons Hut, our next overnight stop and starting point for tomorrow’s walk across the Kerries Ridge, weather permitting. My strategy of contouring around intervening hills was a mite slow and drawn out but I resisted pressure from the GPS brigade to go up and over.
The three-roomed Mawson’s Hut (1800m) was built in five days in 1929 by Herb Mawson, manager of Bobundra Station, not Sir Douglas Mawson, Antarctic hero, as generally supposed. Again it is typical of cattlemen’s summer huts built all over alpine and sub-alpine Australia: corrugated iron walls, corrugated iron roof, wooden floors and a granite fireplace. Mawsons now boasts a NPWS issue ‘Ultimate 500’ cast iron stove blasting out mega BTUs of hot air as Joe had already got its measure and had nutted out its many irritating idiosyncrasies on our 2013 Kosciusko trip.
The view from the hut is pretty impressive. Across the valley to our west was Cup and Saucer Hill named for…its resemblance to an upturned cup placed on a saucer. To the north, Jagungal. John drifted off for his usual twilight ramble and returned excited by his exploration of the snow grass plains and small waterfalls on the upper reaches of Valentine Creek as well as a sighting of those rabbits of the ranges… a herd of brumbies. The Australian Geographic magazine Vol 130 has a comprehensive article by Amanda Burdon on the Australian brumby. Well worth chasing up if you are a member or can access a hard copy. In the same issue are photos by Jason Edwards.
Friday: November 7: Mawsons Hut to Whites River Hut via the Kerries Ridge: 12 kms.
The Kerries Ridge is an outstanding alpine walk all above 1900 metres; we needed three days of fine weather to complete our traverse of the alpine zone of the Kerries Ridge, the Rolling Grounds and the Main Range. And so it came to pass. Friday dawned fine and cool. I could shelve the wet weather plan. John led us up the access ridge that he had ferretted out the previous evening.
Stretching away to the south was the open rolling ridge of The Kerries. A magnificent walk across trackless wildflower meadows dotted with frost shattered granite boulders, alpine bogs, mountain streams and lingering banks of snow. But this seemingly benign landscape can change dramatically in bad weather and walkers need to be reasonable navigators to find the safety of Mawsons, Schlinks or Tin Hut in a whiteout. No such problems today: perfect weather, a happy crew, not too difficult navigation, plenty of rests and snowballs to throw at each other. We mooched along for several hours just enjoying the walking. Ahead, Gungartan, a nunatak-like jumble of granite boulders and a trig station which had seen better days. At 2068m this is the highest point north of the Main Range. Here we propped for lunch and enjoyed speccy views to Guthega, the Brindabellas in far off ACT, the Bogong High Plains in Victoria and directly opposite, The Granites and the Rolling Grounds; tomorrow’s objective. Weather permitting.
We descended steeply onto the Schlink Trail and followed it for half a kilometre or so to Whites River Hut, for yet another night of throughwalking luxury. White’s River was built in 1935 by sheep farmers Bill Napthali and Fred Clarke who grazed their flocks on the high alpine meadows of the Rolling Grounds in summer, retreating to protected Snowy River stations for winter.
Constructed of sheet iron, Whites has sleeping bunks, another NPWS ‘Ultimate 500’ cast iron stove, a wood store, a tatty table, bench seats and an outdoor dunny. The hut is also the summer residence of the notorious Bubbles, and Bubbles Jnr, bush rats extraordinaire: legends of High Country Huts as walkers and skiers record their exploits of marsupial derring-do and innate native rat cunning at avoiding all manner of water traps and flying footwear. As with our previous visits we spent much of the our evening ‘Bubbles’-proofing our gear; all rucksacks and food bags were then suspended on the nails belted into the huge transverse hut beams. Which seemed effective as there were no nocturnal disturbances from the Bubbles outfit according to my hut hugging companions.
Whites River was memorable for reasons other than rat attacks. Notably, it was our first sighting of other walkers. In the distance, late afternoon and heading north on the Schlink Trail, were five bushwalkers, probably heading for the Schlink Hilton to doss down for the night. As our Kerries Ridge traverse had been such an outstanding day of alpine walking John produced a wee dram for a toast to “The Kerries”. And finally, after many trips to the high country I was able to confirm that Little Ravens, after feeding all day on Bogong moths, don’t roost among the granite peaks and cliffs as I once supposed, but leave the high peaks just on dusk and fly down to the snow gum woodlands for their night’s kip.
Saturday 8 November: Whites River to Mt Anderson Saddle via the Rolling Grounds: 12 kms.
As always the troops were up early, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and trackside by 7.00am. Today would be our hard day, a distance of only twelve kilometres and a vertical ascent of about 328m… but give or take a few pretty major ups and downs. And the wind was picking up. But the most problematic part was our traverse over the Rolling Grounds, which are described in the Chapman and Siseman guidebook thus:
“Known as the Rolling Ground it is a featureless region of huge granite tors and little vegetation. On a fine sunny day, this part of the Great Dividing Range is best described as bleak. What it is like in a blizzard is left to the imagination. The Rolling Grounds are notorious for difficult navigation in bad weather.”
Fortunately the day was fine and clear, but quite windy. By mid morning near gale force westerly winds were gusting at around 50 kph. Still, in the scheme of Main Range walking, even these conditions were pretty much ideal for crossing these high level alpine meadows and bogs. I thought our traverse over the Rolling Grounds was absolutely brilliant walking. The Rolling Grounds is a high altitude plateau above the tree line at 1900 plus metres, cold, exposed but spectacular. But a modicum of navigational care is needed to find Consett Stephen Pass, our access onto the Main Range. It is said that The Rolling Grounds are so called because in the days of cattle grazing, stock horses would make their way up to roll in the numerous depressions between clumps of snow grass.
We exited The Rolling Grounds at Consett Stephen and began the tedious haul up to Mt Tate, 2028 metres and the start of the Main Range. Our final leg of the Kiandra to Kossie walk was underway. But we needed another three days of fine weather. Mt Tate was named after Ralph Tate, Professor of geology at the University of Adelaide. From Tate’s trig summit we looked down to Guthega Pondage, Guthega Village and across the valley to the confrontingly named The Paralyser , The Perisher, Back Perisher and the oddly named Blue Cow Mountain. Mt Perisher was named by an early pastoralist, James Spencer, who, while chasing lost cattle with his stockman, climbed to the top of the 2054 metre peak for a better view. On the summit he was met by scuds of snow and an icy blasting wind, upon which he commented: “This is a bloody perisher.” Later they climbed the adjacent peak and the stockman remarked, “Well, if that was a perisher, then this is a paralyser.”
Onwards to Mt Anderson (1997m) and below its eastern flanks our overnight campsite in the Anderson saddle. A beautiful alpine meadow but bereft of any cover; sunny and exposed to the wind, but we made ourselves comfortable on our springy snow grass pads. From Anderson summit we had unrivalled views over the tangled western fall of the Main Range; a good place to steer clear of. Just as Snowball Sam sensibly steered clear of John, Joe and I for the remainder of the day after initiating a sneaky underhanded snowball attack as we sat in quiet contemplation of the glorious view over our little campsite far below.
The Snowy Mountains are notorious for turbulent wind conditions, caused by air masses sweeping out of the Great Australian Bight, across the vast flat lands of southern Australia, and then uplifted over the western ramparts, rising 2000 metres in short order to wreak havoc on any harebrained bushwalkers who stray onto the range on a windy day. Fortunately Anderson saddle was relatively speaking, ‘protected’ and the tents stayed up.
Sunday 9 November: Mt Anderson to Wilkinson Valley: 14 kms.
Woke to another fine day but a massive bank of cloud had gathered off to our east. I knew thunderstorms were predicted later but it was still fine and windy aloft on the Main Range and with this wind blowing the chances were that it should stay fine. The walking pad, such as it was, disappeared intermittently under snow banks. So it was a matter of picking our way around the snow or punching steps across where it was soft enough to be safe. By 7.30am the wind was really gusting and most of us were still swaddled in beanies, thermals and coats. I had on two thermal layers and my windproof rain jacket. Meanwhile 14 kilometres to the south the Automatic Weather Station (AWS) at Thredbo Top Station recorded a maximum gust of 74 kph, but generally the wind trundled along at an annoying 30 + kph.
An old soil conservation track from the 1960s or 1970s can be followed from Mt Anderson saddle all the way to the Main Range tourist track. Despite the wind it was still an outstanding alpine walk along Australia’s highest points: Mt Anton (2010m), the long crawl up Mt Twynam (2196m), then down onto the Main Range tourist track, back up to Mt Carruthers summit (2145m). Mt Carruthers was named after Sir Joseph Carruthers, a Premier of NSW, who instigated the construction of the Kosciuszko Road and the old Kosciuszko Hotel. We hunkered down for lunch behind a shelf of rocks overlooking Club Lake, one of the many moraine-dammed glacial lakes in Kosciuszko. Ahead were Mt Townsend and Mt Kosciuszko our final peaks. During the Pleistocene, small mountain glaciers ground their way down the valleys now occupied by glacial lakes. In recent historical times, during summer, huge flocks of sheep and later herds of cattle grazed these steep alpine slopes, fouling the pristine snow fed lakes below: Club Lake, Lake Albina, Hedley Tarn, Blue Lake and Lake Cootapatamba. The sheep and cattle were shown the door in 1963.
Lunch over we slapped on another gallon of sunscreen, a meteorological trigger, just like the butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazonian jungle, for as surely as day follows night the wind ratcheted up another cog. Walking was now redolent of pacing the decks of Wild Oats11 on a bad day in Bass Strait… one was never quite sure where the feet would land.
The tourist track by-passes first Mt Lee then Mt Northcote (2131 metres). Between them is Northcote Pass, an area of windswept feldmark growing on shattered Silurian sedimentaries. This very specialised plant community covers only 28 hectares in the whole of Kosciuszko, hence is the rarest of its plant communities. Somehow it survives on this cold wind blasted rocky ground. An information board allows interested walkers to identify feldmark plants: Alpine Sunray (Leucochrysum albicans spp alpinium), Coral Heath (Epacris gunnii), Feldmark Grass (Rytidosperma pumilum) and Feldmark Eyebright (Euphrasia collina spp lapidosa). But given the relentless wind no one wanted to play botanist.
Instead we pushed on, sidling along a narrow defile on the western flanks of Mt Northcote from which we had unparalleled views into Lake Albina, another moraine dammed lake. This was a popular destination for skiers and bushwalkers, but with the removal of the Albina Hut by the Parks service in the early 1980s together with several other Soil Conservation Huts, few of our trail-bound walkers bother to descend to Lake Albina.
My original plan had been to leave the tourist track at Muellers Pass and climb over Muellers Peak thence for a highlight camp on the snow grass meadows around Alice Rawson Peak (2160 metres). But the wind put paid to this plan as there was little chance of tents withstanding the blast. And so, acting on information given by four young hikers we dropped into Wilkinson Valley for our last night on the trail. Here we could shelter behind massive granite boulders which lined the edge of the former cirque valley.
Monday 10 November: Wilkinson Valley to Mt Kosciuszko via Mt Townsend: 14 kms.
An early 6.30am start, rugged up but packless, to climb Mt Townsend, at 2209 metres, Australia’s second highest peak. After a bit of pussy-footing around with snow banks we scrambled up to the summit trig station. Mt Townsend, named after a Surveyor General of NSW, has a very rugged skyline profile, suggesting that its glacial erosion processes were somewhat different to the more rounded whaleback Main Range peaks, like Kosciuszko. I am reminded of the nunataks of Antarctica, those craggy peaks projecting above the Antarctic ice cap.
For my money Townsend is a far more spectacular mountain than Kosciuszko with a summit ridge of huge shattered boulders and its tailing spine of the Abbott Range drifting off to the south west. Below, with 1600 metres of fall, and to our north was the Geehi River which we had crossed days ago at its headwaters. Over to the north east were the almost perpendicular walls of The Sentinel and Watsons Crags. Out to the south west the precipitious Western Fall Wilderness dropping abruptly 1500 metres to the Swampy Plains River. And there, across Wilkinson’s Valley, was Mt Koscuiszko, our final ascent.
Back in the Wilkinson Valley, a hasty pack up of tents and gear and we were off to Mt Kosciuszko, across more devilish snow banks just for good measure.
Mt Kosciuszko was named by the Polish explorer Count Paul Edmund de Strzelecki who spent four years travelling in Australia. In February 1840 Strzelecki climbed to the highest point of the Snowy Mountains and decided to name it after his fellow Pole, General Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who had distinguished himself in the American War of Independence and had led an uprising in 1794 against Prussian and Russian control of Poland. Strzelecki gave two reasons for using the name ‘Kosciuszko’. Strzelecki pointed out that in Australia he was “amongst a free people, who appreciate freedom” hence the name of the Polish liberation fighter was an appropriate choice. Another reason he gave was that the profile of Mt Kosciuszko resembled the memorial mound that honours Kosciuszko on the outskirts of Krakow. An interesting side line to this story is that Kosciuszko authorised the sale of all his Ohio (U.S.A.) property to buy freedom for slaves and provide them with an education.
Here we were then, perched on The Roof of Australia, one of Australia’s outstanding wilderness areas. The weather was fine and what could be more picturesque than the snow draped peaks of the Main Range under a clear blue sky? A megapixel and mobile phone heaven.
Remember Clement Wragge? Back in 1897 a snow covered Kosciuszko summit was the scene of another great alpine adventure. Clement Lindley Wragge, meterologist to the colonial Queensland Government, convinced the pollies that the best place to investigate upper atmospheric disturbances in Australia was from an observatory on the summit of Mt Kosciuszko. Accordingly, Wragge and three offsiders stepped onto the summit on 1 December, 1897.
But Wragge’s bullock dray of alpine kit failed to appear, so our intrepid field party spent their first few days in an arctic purgatory. With no sleeping bags, no primus stoves and a thin calico tent they piled on all their clothes. Eventually, days later, the bullocks hove into view and up went the arctic tent and the Observatory opened for business on Wednesday 8 December, 1897. On 11 December the wily ‘Inclement’ Wragge decamped, heading for the warmer climes of coastal Merimbula, leaving behind a Captain Iliff in charge of B. de Burgh Newth, Bernard Ingleby and Zoroaster, Ingleby’s pooch, a well-fed and rascally St Bernard . It is claimed that the always sleek Zoroaster dug a secret tunnel to the expedition’s meat cache and his master was considerably exasperated and finally perplexed by Zoroaster’s reluctance to wolf down his daily ration of dog biscuits.
Two months later a howling gale flattened the arctic tent, blew most of the gear off the mountain, and forced our weather observers to crawl back to the safety of the Crackenback River. Wragge, ever the entrepreneur, weaseled £400 out of the Premier of New South Wales to construct a sturdy summit hut, which was duly completed in May, 1898.
Summit life was never dull. Despite the hardships of their location the observers reported enjoying the experience immensely. A stampede of visitors poured in on clip-clop style tours, on foot and even on bicycles. Our obliging observers greeted visitors, gave conducted tours, and demonstrated downhill snowshoeing (skiing).
But this was still a tough gig and the observers were as hard as nails. These were proper mountain men, not like the wussy bushwalking specimens who waddle up to Kosciuszko these days. Wragge’s previous berth had been as weather observer on Scotland’s Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. Every day for five months he would climb this 1344 metre peak to take readings, whatever the weather. Wragge nearly lost his life on Ben Nevis when he tried to climb it during the worst gale of the 19th century. Not to be outdone, our Antipodean meterologists contended with 160 kph blizzards that rocked the hut. Low clouds, charged with electricity, sent flames flying from the teeth of a cross-cut saw; freezing clouds settled over the summit for 26 days straight in June 1898; and the winds were so fierce that observers had to be tethered by a safety rope to save being blown down into the Geehi. Eventually, in 1914, lightning stuck the hut and it burnt down, never to be rebuilt. An entertaining description of Observatory life was written by H.I. Jensen, who over-wintered in 1898.
And so on a windy Monday afternoon, 10 days since leaving Kiandra, seven malodorous walkers swung onto the Kosciuszko ski lift for the ride down to Thredbo, followed quickly by a priority Kosciuszko Pale Ale and hot potato wedges. But the AAWT wasn’t finished with us yet. Just for good measure the final 500 metres took us up three banks of steep steps to the Thredbo YHA for hot showers, a soft bed and warm digs. Thanks to my easy going and ever helpful fellow walkers. It was a pleasure to share with you the delights of Australia’s highest places.
If asked to name some of Australia’s World Heritage sites, most of us could probably stump up the Great Barrier Reef, Ningaloo, Fraser Island, the Blue Mountains, Kakadu, Shark Bay and the Sydney Opera House. One less well known site is the Washpool-Gibraltar Range World Heritage area, which is part of the World Heritage listed Gondwana Rainforests of Australia. Washpool-Gibraltar protects the largest area of unlogged coachwood (Ceratopetalum apetalum) forest in the world.
The Washpool-Gibraltar World Heritage Walk offers an easy four to five day, 45 kilometre wilderness hike through this magnificent landscape. The walk follows a network of 4WD tracks, roads and walking trails. Radiating from the main circuit walk are any number of varied side trips, a handy additional 20 kilometres for walk leaders who need to keep those eager beavers happily engaged.
And so, two vehicles bulging with eight bushwalkers and their assorted clutter docked at Mulligan’s Campground on a blustery Sunday afternoon in late August. My hardy and experienced walking companions were Chris, Sally, Eva, Leanda, Brian, Bernard and Peter. And they needed to be hardy given the unseasonable late winter weather.
Gibraltar Range National Park is predominately a typical granite landscape ( Dandahra granites), the exposed tops of the New England Batholith, a massive granite intrusion that stretches 400 kilometres from Tamworth to Stanthorpe. Gibraltar averages about 900 metres in altitude and displays a mosaic of rainforest, dry sclerophyll forest and interesting sub-alpine swamps.
Washpool National Park, on the other hand, is made up of basalt and metamorphics. It is clothed in rainforest and wet sclerophyll forest where Coombadjha Creek and Washpool Creek have incised deep gorges into the eastern escarpment of the Great Divide. Washpool contains some of the world’s best remaining stands of Gondawanan rainforests and was the site of significant conflict between loggers and conservationists in the late 1970s.
Perhaps the best description of the walk comes from an out of print NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service brochure: A Walk on the Edge of Wilderness:
” Dramatic and diverse changes in the landscape are typical along the walk. Dry sclerophyll forests, set amidst a broken collection of ridges and granite tors, surround a mosaic of sub-alpine swamps. In more dense country, lush rainforests safeguard the largest area of coachwood in the world. Within these ancient pockets of wilderness, waterfalls plummet from a lacework of streams and wild rivers. They offer refuge to a rich variety of wildlife including many rare and endangered species. In spring and summer the heathlands, swamps and open woodlands erupt in a colour display of wildflowers.
Against such a magnificent array of wilderness landscapes the Gibraltar-Washpool World Heritage Walk is an experience not to be missed.”
Our first and last nights were spent at Mulligan’s Campground, very comfortable. It is decked out with a clean tiled amenities block, gas BBQs, a cavernous kitchen/picnic shelter sporting stainless benches, picnic tables, tap water, and ample pre-split firewood. Did I mention the cold showers? Not that anyone displayed any enthusiasm for showers with minimum overnight temperatures hovering between 0°C and 3°C.
Washpool’s Bellbird Campground was similarly well appointed, lacking only the tiled amenities block, so no cold showers and flushing toilets. But if you are particularly well insulated you could duck off to have a swim in one of the many pools in nearby Coombadjha Creek. A word to the wise: remember to pack your food away every night. Even Bernard’s bombproof Bear Bag wasn’t up to the predations of the local nocturnals. Although the bag wasn’t ripped open, our furry friends mulched his cereals and nuts through the bag’s fabric. The kitchen shelters at Mulligan’s and Washpool were a godsend, dry refuges from unseasonal evening drizzle.
Grassy Creek is a wilderness camp but has the luxury of a picnic table, a fireplace and ample water from nearby Grassy Creek. Ten kilometres to the south, Boundary Falls Campground is more than adequate for hikers: picnic tables, long-drop toilets, fireplaces and firewood provided. Just be prepared to share it with four score and twenty Winnebagos.
When to go:
Much of the Washpool-Gibraltar walk is on high range and plateau terrain with an elevation of over 950 metres, consequently expect some cold wet weather. I was impressed with my walking crew: even the -11°C temperatures recorded earlier in winter or the rain bucketing down on the day before our departure had not deterred them. But reality gripped on the first day of hiking with westerly winds gusting up to 74 kph and the maximum temperature creeping up to a miserable 8°C. Maximums on the rest of the walk struggled to reach 15°C. Late August is typically dry and sunny with cold nights but we experienced the full gamut of weather conditions: sun, drizzle, wind and frost. Fortunately it stayed dry during the day’s walking and we had fires every night for warmth. No real hardship for this lot. Early September, wildflower season, is a good time to go.
Maps and other references:
Visitors Guide: Washpool & Gibraltar Range. (NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service).
J. Cavanaugh: Waratahs and World Heritage. (Wild Magazine, no.71, 1999).
DVD: Best of Australia: World Heritage rainforests of northern NSW. ( Aust. Geog.)
Q. Chester: Early warning. (Aust. Geog. Vol 91. 2008).
C. Twidale: Structural Landforms. ( ANU Press. 1971).
Map: Walks in Washpool & Gibraltar Range National Parks. 1:50,000. GDA94. This is an excellent PDF map available from Glen Innes office.
Map: World Heritage Rainforests of Nth NSW. 1: 850, 000. (Aust. Geog. Vol 91. 2008) .
Our walk was in an anti-clockwise direction beginning and ending at Mulligans Hut Campground.
Monday: Mulligans to Bellbird Campground via The Needles and Granite Lookout: 12 kms.
Reality gripped early Monday morning with the gusting westerlies and the daily maximum temperature creeping up to a miserable 8°C. Fortunately help was on hand, for, just on daybreak, Brian was already rattling around, stirring up our camp fire and dispensing mugs of steaming hot tea. Soon after 8.00 am we toddled off on our little adventure, pulling up a mere five minutes later at Mulligan’s Hut, a slab construction on the banks of Little Dandahra Creek. The building that remains is actually a set of stables with the original hut wiped out in the bushfires of 1964. Bill Mulligan was a business man who proposed a hydro-electric scheme in the Dandahra catchment in the 1920s. He hoped to use the hydro-electricity to power a copper mining operation at the base of the escarpment. Perhaps that says something about the rainfall regime of this area.
The climatic regime is influenced by the position of the two parks on the eastern fall of the Great Escarpment with some areas receiving 1200 to 1300 millimetres annually. Afternoon wind flows are often from the east coast, laden with moisture so that afternoon and evening drizzle/rain and thunderstorms are a feature of spring-summer weather patterns.
In the same area as Mulligan’s Hut was a memorial bench seat to Roly Paine. I first came across his name as co-author with Margaret Hodgson in our family copy of Field guide to Australian Orchids. Roly served for many years as Superintendent of Gibraltar Range National Park and later as a Publicity Officer for NSW Parks. He also became well known for his wildlife photos.
Our first major stop was at The Needles, six granite pinnacles rising to about 80 metres above the valley sides. Initially the track follows the original stock route used from the 1860s to the 1970s. It then joins an old logging track that accessed stands of valuable temperate rainforest. Softwoods from these stands were logged and sent down the range to ply mills at Grafton. The stock route was revoked on the declaration of the national park and the logging ceased at the same time. An aboriginal legend suggested that The Needles were six sisters who were turned to stone by the curse of an unsuccessful pursuer. An oft repeated theme in aboriginal mythology.
The rest of the morning’s ramble took us through rainforests and out to the Gwydir Highway thence to the Granite Lookout (1065m) for spectacular views of Mt Warning(1156m) nearly 150 kilometres NNE. Mt Warning or Wollumbin in the aboriginal language of the Bundjalung people, is the plug of the massive Tweed Shield Volcano, thought to have risen two kilometres above sea level and have had a diameter of 100 kilometres. It was named Mt Warning by Captain James Cook when he sailed along the northern NSW coast on 16 May 1770. But much, much closer to us I could see The Haystack (1160 m), which we would climb two days hence.
After a leisurely lunch hunkered down in the shelter shed out of the wind, we backtracked to Coachwood Drive and wound steeply down to our campsite in the Bellbird Camping area. Another five star home away from home, set deep in the rainforests of Washpool National Park.
Washpool National Park was declared a wilderness in 1985 but it had a long history of logging dating back to the 1800s when red cedars(Toona ciliata var. australis) attracted timbercutters with their axes, cross-cut saws and bullock teams. The late 1970s saw protest action from conservation groups to protect the Viper and Willowie Scrub, by then under pressure from a now highly mechanized forestry industry. Willowie being the largest undisturbed rainforest in N.S.W. as well as having the largest stand of unlogged coachwood in the world.
Tuesday: Bellbird Campground to Grassy Ck Campsite via O’Haras Gap: 10 kms and The Washpool Walk: 8.5 kms.
Another shortish day. After getting myself tangled up in some argy-bargy with the troops about the early starts we agreed on a civilised departure time of 8.30am for the remainder of the walk. But first, a not to be missed side trip on the 8.5 kilometre Washpool Walk. This is definitely the showcase walk for Washpool. It starts in warm temperate rainforest at about 800 metres and climbs through subtropical rainforest, wet sclerophyll forest before topping out in dry sclerophyll forest at about 900 metres.
This walkis a great introduction to the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia. When the Australian continent finally broke away from Gondwana about 50 million years ago, it had on board plant families and fauna that it shared with other southern continents of Asia, Africa and South America. Today, remnants of this Gondwanan Ark can be found in the rainforests of Tasmania, NSW and Queensland.
As a Queenslander familiar with subtropical rainforest, I was keen to see Washpool’s warm temperate rainforest. Typically it grows on poor soils and is characterized by relatively few canopy species with slender trunks lacking buttressing ( coachwood and sassafras). Large vines and epiphytes are present but not abundant. Large palms and stranglers are rare but small palms and ferns are a common feature of the understorey. The warm temperate rainforest usually occurs at altitudes of 450 metres to 1200 metres under a higher rainfall regime.
Another interesting find of this walk was remnant stand (about 10 trees) of the towering red cedars, untouched by logging operations. They had been found by Athol McKinnin and Don Running from the nearby Boundary Creek Sawmill in the late 1960s. These cedars were left because of the high royalties payable on them and the lack of volume market for red cedar.
We walked this circuit track in a little under three hours, taking in waterfalls and stands of red cedar but I would recommend spending at least half a day or more on this walk and staying an extra night at Bellbird.
Bellbirds aside, the star of the avain world for us was the Superb lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae). Several were sighted and certainly their scratchings easily found. The lyrebird is known to most Australians by reputation. Few have seen them in the wild. But all Australians know that this bard of the bush can mimic a range of sounds including other birds, mobile phone ring tones, camera shutters, axes, chainsaws and motorbikes.
Noisy but much rarer, and a declared vulnerable species, is the Rufous scrub-bird (Atrichornis rufescens). which we did not see. Its range has been significantly reduced by logging, clearing and burning of habitat. Washpool-Gibraltar Range World Heritage area protects habitat for this elusive mountain dweller.
The reminder of the day is spent winding up through rainforests and sclerophyll forest on the Moogem and North West Trails to O’Haras Rocks and O’Haras Gap (1002 m), an altitude gain of only 200 metres, but it seemed an eternity. O’Haras Rocks were a tad disappointing. This jumble of small granite tors was not the lair of some 19th century bushranger but merely a campsite for grazier John O’Hara who camped there with his cattle in 1873. O’Hara was looking for an easy droving route across Gibraltar Range to the east coast. Peter made full use of O’Haras Rocks for some impromptu bouldering.
With showers threatening we raced on to the old gold mining area of Grassy Creek, possibly known as Deannes Prospect which operated as shafts and shallow pits from 1899 to 1902. Tents up, Peter and I went for a sniff around and found an abandoned shaft and other mining knick-knacks. Apparently there is an old stamping battery and boiler from tin-mining operations in the 1870s. I couldn’t find them but now, on reflection, I wished that I had tried harder. Grassy Creek would be brilliant in sunny weather but was a tad bleak in the inevitable drizzle that rolled in late afternoon.
Wednesday: Grassy Creek to Boundary Falls Campground via The Haystack and Duffer Falls: 12 kms.
A sunny start to the day as we continued along the North West Trail passing several sub-alpine swamps. These swamps or bogs are areas of impeded drainage where vast slabs of granite form an impervious layer, restricting the downwards flow of water. The bogs have comparatively few species, principally Baeckea omissa, Epacaris obtusifolia and Leptospermum arachnoides, all of which are highly restricted to these high altitude wetlands.
After three kilometres we dumped packs and clambered up onto The Haystack (1160m), an inselberg from which we had views over the granite landscapes of Gibraltar Range to Old Mans Hat (1085m), off to the south east.
Our lunch stop was Duffer Falls. Possibly a reference to cattle duffing? Not to the three elderly gents seen creaking down the goat track to the base of the falls.
But my real reason for checking out Duffer Falls is that its western fall gives clear views of the Demon Fault. For you earth science buffs, I discovered from my favourite earth science blogger, that Demon is a transverse fault with a movement of about 17 kilometres in this vicinity, the eastern block moving south relative to the western block.
And onwards to Boundary Falls Campground just in time for our evening dose of light drizzle. Fortunately Brian was able to work his old pyromaniacal magic and kept our camp fire ticking over. Boundary Falls Campground is the site of the old Ben Wade and Sons sawmill.
Thursday: Boundary Falls Campground to Mulligans Campground: 17 kms.
Our final day on the track. Clear skies again. An easy walk through Gibraltar’s granite terrain following Tin Ore Creek Trail out of camp, across the Gwydir Highway, thence to the swampy Surveyors Trail and finishing along the Little Dandahra Creek Trail. The highlight of the day for me was the sighting of several platypuses frolicking in Little Dandahra Creek while we spent our lunchtime watching them and getting heaps of photos.
By early afternoon we swung into Mulligans Campground. Our walking trip through this little known World Heritage site was over. But the drizzle wasn’t. Thank goodness for shelter sheds.
Girraween National Park has long been one of my favourite bushwalking haunts. Its springtime wildflower displays, rugged granite landscapes and frosty climes make for superb walking adventures. Nestled in the western section of the park, abutting the QLD-NSW border is what I consider the best of Girraween: spectacular granite domes rising to over 1200 metres, extensive swamps, creeks cascading down smooth rock slabs, wildflowers in profusion, and always the possibility of sighting a Superb Lyrebird, or perhaps a solitary dingo, or maybe, just on dusk, a wombat trundling across creek flats.
The name Girraween, “place of flowers” dates back to the 1960’s when a public naming competition was held for the enlarged national park (11,800 hectares). A prize of $50.00 was offered and the winning name was “Girraween”. Disappointingly, it is not a word in a local aboriginal dialect, even though a number of aboriginal groups appear to have lived in and travelled through the area: the Kambuwal, Jakamabal, Kwiambal, Ngarabal and the Gidabal. The Stanthorpe district was thought to have been on a significant trade route from the western plains to the east coast, and on a north-south pathway to the Bunya festivals in South East Queensland. The Park info centre displays a few aboriginal artefacts collected locally including axe heads, grinding stones and even a stone implement that had been bartered from remote Papua New Guinea. Thankfully, several place names in Girraween are aboriginal in origin and some are retained on maps: Bookookoorara Creek, for example, is said to refer to the noise made by a possum and the original name for The Pyramids was Terrawambella, changed, regrettably, to the more prosaic The Domes in 1902, and finally The Pyramids in 1920.
Sunday: Castle Rock Campground to Racecourse Creek: 11 kms.
And so, on a warmish Sunday afternoon at the tail end of September, six walkers, Sam Rowe, Peter Fowler, Brian Manuel, Eva Zacher-Maj, Joe Kirkpatrick, and their worthy leader, yours truly, set off on the first leg of their 58 kilometre walk through the backblocks of Girraween National Park. Today’s 11 kilometres would take us to our overnight campsite on Racecourse Creek; but not before stashing supplies for a final night BBQ bacchanal at Castle Rock Campground. Several of my walking companions, who should know better, were foxed by the early start to spring and had strategically downsized to lighter sleeping bags and coats. Meanwhile, Peter and I ditched our rain gear, gambling on the Bureau of Meterology’s promised forecast of fine weather until week’s end.
The easy part of the afternoon was walking the tourist track to Mt Norman. But once on the flanks of the mountain I imprudently let Peter convince me that crawling through a 50 centimetre wide crack between massive vertical sheets of granite would be a cool bushwalking thing to do. Speleologists would call it ‘a squeeze’. For the svelte Sam, trim Eva and even the lean and hungry Peter, this was no drama. But for the three somewhat pudged-up and ageing track dogs, getting irretrievably wedged was a distinct possibility. Predictably my size 12 Rossi boots got stuck. Comrade Rowe’s suggestion that I should re-arrange my feet ballerina style was a stretched tendon too far. But all in all, it was, as Peter predicted, great fun.
Life in the Fowler fast lane careered on. Peter, Brian and Sam took leave from their more cautious companions and shimmied up a rock slab, teetered along a dodgy looking ledge, hauled up on a sapling and then disappeared from view, heading for Mt Norman’s summit (1267 m). Some half hour later three bottoms appeared and my friends gingerly lowered themselves one by one onto said ledge. To my considerable relief.
As the sun dipped low to the western horizon we beetled off to find an overnight campsite. On dusk, the sun gone, and the temperature plummeting, we settled into a bush camp on Racecourse Creek where it flows between Twin Peaks and Billy Goat Hill. To my knowledge the only billy goats around were the two-legged variety, minus their down jackets and minus warm sleeping bags.
Monday: Racecourse Ck Camp To South Bald Rock via West Bald Rock: 14.2 kms.
After an early morning jaunt up Billy Goat Hill (1118 m) to defrost (1°C), we shouldered our 15 kilogram monkeys and headed south, following Racecourse Creek upstream towards the Roberts Range and the QLD-NSW border. This was gaiter central. We puddled along, winding in and out of creek-side thickets and ducking to and fro across the swamp’s edge. Slow progress this. But like all decisive leaders, I had “a” solution. Brian “The Bulldozer” Manuel was recalled to a temporary leadership role and pressed into service at the front, pushing his way through the dense whipstick re-growth. This is precisely why we keep Brian on the payroll. Strangely, no-one challenged him for pole position. So, with his conga line of five walkers now in tow, Brian led us up Racecourse Creek, executed a hard left hand turn out of the boulder and thicket -choked creek bed and finally stepped out onto the West Bald Rock fire trail. Not before Eva’s leg tangled with a deep bog-hole in the swamp. But, as I discovered, Eva is a walker of considerable tenacity and she strode on, without complaint, for the remaining 47 kilometres nursing a bruised shin and a wonky knee.
A pre-lunch climb led us to the summit of West Bald Rock (1210 m), rewarding us with hazy views across to our destination for today (South Bald Rock) and on the morrow (Bald Rock in NSW). And then the highlight of the whole trip. Brian and I wanted to re-locate a nearby border cairn which, it is claimed, had been erected by Surveyor Roberts in the 1860’s during his survey to fix the QLD-NSW border. Brian had stumbled on it years ago and he and I were keen to find it again, although I had suspicions about the commitment of our fellow amateur historians to this venture. Despite the warm conditions we padded off across sheets of granite and through belts of scrub, heading about one kilometre to the south. With a bit of fancy bush navigation and some black magic from Joe and his GPS we found a fully intact survey cairn (Roberts No 1375), just where Brian predicted. Bill Kitson and Judith McKay’s tome Surveying Queensland 1839-1945 has an excellent chapter on Queensland border surveys as well as a photo of the cairn.
An afternoon of relaxed pootling along slashed fire trails past Middle Bald Rock delivered us to our campsite under the towering slabs of South Bald Rock. This is an outstanding bush campsite: ample shade, flat tent pads and clear running water in nearby Dingo Swamp. No dingoes, neither seen nor heard .But what was this… horror of all horrors… a campfires prohibited sign. How will Brian, Peter and Joe possibly survive? Fuel stove only tonight.
As the light faded Sam pointed out that the bright stars hanging in the western sky were, in fact, planets. The brightest, Venus, then Saturn and hanging low to the horizon Mercury. Near Mercury was a star, Spica. On matters of astronomical trivia, on another late September eve in 1990, the Japanese astronomer Mr Tsutomu Seki of Comet Ikeya- Seki fame, discovered a new 4.7 kilometre diameter main-belt rocky asteroid. Naming rights were given to his friend and colleague in Australia, one Mr Kato who lived near Stanthorpe. Thus we have asteroid 15723 Girraween, named for Girraween National Park. A more detailed account of asteroid Girraween can be found on the excellent website: www.rymich.com/girraween/.
Tuesday: South Bald Rock To Bald Rock Campsite: 14.35 kms.
Tuesday morning, warmer, a balmy 6°C, causing King Kookaburra, aka Brian, to bestir from his pea-pod yellow tent earlier than usual, soon after 4.30am according to one of my bleary-eyed informants. Conversely, a certain other party stubbornly refused to de-tent from his stately MSR pleasure dome until the more civilized hour of 6.00am. In any event we were still under way soon after 7.00am for the easy scramble up to the summit of South Bald Rock (1247 m).
South Bald Rock is the classic granite landform, a huge steep-sided domed mass of hard rock, technically referred to as an inselberg. Girraween lies at the northern end of the New England Batholith, an extensive plume of molten magma that cooled slowly deep below the earth’s surface, allowing the formation of rocks with large crystals, adamellite. Good for boot traction. It is said that the Stanthorpe granites represent one of the most spectacular assemblages of granite landforms in Australia. For the geology buffs among you, an excellent and more detailed account of Girraween’s landscapes can be found in Warwick Willmott’s Rocks and Landscapes of the National Parks of Southern Queensland.
Potholes and Pans at the Underground River
Pit or Pothole in Granite
Rills in Granite Dome
Granite Landforms: Pans
Granite Dome or Inselberg
After descending South Bald Rock, we rounded up our now lighter monkeys and ambled off along the shady border trail towards Bald Rock. On this particularly enjoyable morning’s ramble through the shrubby open forest Peter sighted a Lyrebird scratching around in the leaf litter. The wildflowers were a kaleidoscope of colours: the pinks of Boronias, and Kunzeas; yellow Gomphlobiums and Donkey Orchids; red and yellow pea flowers, and absolutely stunning white and yellow sprays of flowering rock orchids, the mighty kings of the orchid world, Dendrobium speciosum. As the trail paralleled the border on occasion we played the game of stepping back and forth across the border, QLD-NSW-QLD-NSW-QLD.
Bald Rock Campsite, popular in school holidays, is operated by the NSW Parks Service and offers a well appointed camping ground: a shelter shed with BBQs, toilets, picnic tables, taps, dusty rock-hard tent pads and a big red TOTAL FIRE BAN sign which had Brian, Peter and Joe crying into their beers. Three cans of which Brian had somehow fandangled from a generous Victorian camper, another AFL tragic.
The main feature of the National Park is, of course, Bald Rock (1277 m), Boonoo Boonoo as it was known by local aborigines, meaning ‘big rock’. It is claimed to be the largest inselberg in Australia and also the Southern Hemisphere. We took the refurbished Bungoona Walk to the summit via the well manicured tourist track, only to be nearly blown off the top by a gusting 40 km/h westerly.
Wednesday: Bald Rock Campsite to Castle Rock Campsite: 17 kms.
Warm weather predicted (30°C) for our 17 kilometre walk back to Castle Rock Campsite. We followed the border trail initially, and then swung off-track to follow Paling Yard Creek northwards before fetching up at the Underground Stream (Bald Rock Creek) and the start of the tourist track. The walk back was relatively easy: traversing open granite slabs, across dry swamp meadows, down Paling Yard Creek and finally connecting with the system of 4WD management trails that led to the Underground Stream. Paling Yard Creek has some beautiful reaches where it riffles over sheets of granite, and trickles gently down cascades and over small waterfalls to fill tranquil pools below. We propped on one of these for morning tea.
As a finale, we could do no better than the Underground Stream. This is geologically interesting and well worth a visit. Here the creek has eroded swirling spa-like potholes deep into the granite bedrock. Below, a jumble of massive boulders has choked the creek; the water disappears from view, hence the ‘Underground Stream’. In times of low flow it is possible to climb down and through the boulders. Nearby granite slabs have been scored by dykes. These are usually narrow linear depressions or ridges in the granite bedrock. They are the result of liquid magma being squeezed along planes of weakness in the bedrock. The magma cools very quickly to form a rock which can be either softer or harder than the contiguous bedrock.
A four kilometre trudge down The Pyramids Road to the Castle Rock Campground knocked some of the gloss off our morning’s relaxed perambulations, but with a decent shower, a feed and one of Joe’s beers to slake our thirst, who could complain. Late in the afternoon, we saddled up again and headed off for the three kilometre round trip to climb The Pyramid (1080 m). Finally, for those of you who are familiar with this walk, I can report that the famous Balancing Rock is still firmly glued in situ despite Samantha’s determined efforts to unseat it.
B.McDonald et al The Flora of Girraween and Bald Rock( Qld Department of Environment and Heritage Brisbane 1995)
The Green Gully Track is a relatively new 65 kilometre loop walk in the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park in northern NSW. Oxley Wild Rivers takes its name from the explorer John Oxley who passed through this part of NSW in 1802. It offers a brilliant four day throughwalk into the remote Green Gully Creek, a tributary of the Apsley River. The walk lies on the eastern fall of the New England Tableland where the rivers have extensively dissected the escarpment creating a tangled wilderness of gorges, waterfalls and rapids.
And guess what? You can leave behind your tents, therma-rests, stoves and other cooking paraphernalia. The Parks service has refurbished three cattle mustering huts and lashed out to provide stretchers, comfy mattresses, gas stoves, enamel cooking pots, kettles and basic sets of crockery and cutlery. But before you post off your dosh, a $120 booking fee, it is well to remember that this is a trek with several daunting ups and downs, some off-track sections, rock hopping and numerous creek crossings. It is described in that excellent publication of the NSW Confederation of Bushwalkers TheBushwalker as “challenging”. It really isn’t all that hard physically and it is well within the capabilities of any fit walker. But for those of you interested in Australia’s cultural and natural history, this is definitely a walk for you. Parks NSW is to be congratulated on developing this outstanding walking experience in the World Heritage-listed Oxley Wild Rivers.
Tuesday 4 September: Cedar Cottage
Four crusty old track dogs, Brian Manuel (leader), Don Burgher, Richard Mottershead and this scribe travelled to Cedar Creek Cottage at the start of the track, some two hours from Walcha, and south-east of Armidale in New South Wales. It is recommended that walkers stay at Cedar Cottage overnight to ensure a good night’s sleep before embarking on the first 17.5 kilometre leg to Birds Nest Hut. But this is no hardship. It is five star bushwalkers’ accommodation also serving time as a base for NSW firefighting teams. Cottage is a misnomer as it is, in reality, a very comfortable farm house with all modcons including slow combustion stove, hot showers, bunk beds, flushing toilet, fully equipped kitchen, and a smoke alarm with irritable bowel syndrome.
Wednesday 5 September: Cedar Cottage to Birds Nest Hut: 17.5 kms: 6.5 hrs.
We creaked out into a brisk – 4°C morning, heading north-west on the Kunderang Trail. This 4WD management track meanders up and down along a 1000 metre ridge which forms the drainage divide between Kunderang Brook and Birds Nest Creek, reaching 1100 metres at its highest point for the day. Kunderang is an aboriginal name, a clan group of the Thungutti who still maintained a close connection with their land even as recently as the early 1900s, working as stockmen and domestics on nearby properities. It is said that the Green Gully area still has evidence of aboriginal occupation: stone tools, flakes, blades, scarred trees and evidence of occupation in a cave in the nearby Kunderang Valley.
Our first stop was Kunderang Lookout, sporting an excellent information board, the first of many. We peered down into the valley of Kunderang Brook, but it was now wreathed in dense smoke haze from bushfires pushed along by north-westerly winds gusting up to 70km/h.
But this was a fleeting cause for concern compared with the sighting of our first snake, a sleek track-side tiger snake which seemed in no hurry to wriggle off into the undergrowth. Mid afternoon we dropped into Brumby Creek, a tributary of Green Gully Creek and site of Birds Nest Hut at about 900 metres. This was the first of three mustering huts and their extra heavy duty cattle yards. They are an integral part of the story of cattle grazing in these remote and rugged ranges and gorges.
Birds Nest Hut was but one of a system of huts and yards built by the O’Keefe family in the 1950’s to manage their 12500 hectare cattle property, Green Gully. It became part of the Oxley Rivers National Park in 2004, ending another era, that of the cattle stockmen. That is why it is so pleasing to find that the Parks service has maintained the stockyards, fences and huts as a tribute to these hardworking people. And so to relax on our stretchers and mattresses lulled to sleep by the croaking of the endangered Barred Stuttering Frogs in nearby Brumby Creek.
Thursday 6 September: Birds Nest to Green Gully Hut via Birds Nest Trig: 15 kms: 7.5 hrs.
We woke to a coolish 6°C morning, the wind chill from gusty north-westerlies driving the temperature down even further. The first leg of today’s walk is off-track, climbing up a three kilometre ridgeline to 1202 metres, an altitude gain of about 300 metres over one and a quarter hours. An easy enough walk navigationally and physically. Birds Nest Trig was the highest point on our walk and is, in fact, the highest point in the entire Apsley-Macleay system. From here we linked onto The Rocks Trail, a groomed management track. This is a superb walk downhill through Eucalypt forest with a verdant understorey of shrubs and ferns. Here we found a number of large owl pellets, possibly from the Powerful Owl according to my Scats and Tracks book. The trail brought us to The Rocks Lookout, our lunch stop. An opportunity to peer down into Green Gully Canyon some 400 metres below as well providing us with good views of the isolated outcrop of The Rocks at 900 metres and Tooth Rocks (700 metres) across Green Gully Valley.
Our post prandial leg was one of the hardest of the walk: a 500 metre altitude loss down a long steep ridge line to Brumby Pass and Green Gully Hut. Jelly legs stuff. Perversely, conditions on the open woodland ridgeline were surprisingly hot, despite the wind idling along at 40km/h. But our reward at the end of a hard day was a hot shower, a very comfortable hut and another evening relaxing in front of a blazing log fire. And here was the chance to pick over the obligate knick-knackery that always seems to infest these huts: rusty horseshoes, a drum of Morrison’s Neatsfoot Oil, assorted grimy billies and faded agricultural calendars illustrated with rural scenes or decorous ladies dressed in the matronly styles of the 1960s and 1970s.
Friday 7 September: Green Gully Hut to Colwells Hut: 13.5 kms: 8.0 hrs.
Overnight the gusting wind had not relented but other things had changed. It was time to swap boots for volleys or track shoes and take to the freezing water. One entry in a hut log book whined on about frost forming on walkers’ legs as they waded upstream. Today’s ‘walk’ up Green Gully Creek involved kilometres of rock hopping, inspecting huge boulders of red jasper, wading through a gorge, 41 creek crossings and dodging five more snakes, several being of the best -avoided large red-bellied black kind. And one aggro little sod intent on trying to sink its fangs in, chased me across the rocks. In my hurry to back-pedal away I fell over. Fortunately my rucksack cushioned the fall. Not a good place for an injury or snake bite. But our best sightings were Brush-tailed Rock Wallabies (Petrogale penicillata). This furry fellow with a paintbrush style tail was once abundant in the mountainous parts of Australia but is now an endangered species. Seventy five percent of the remaining colonies of Brush-tails are right here in northern NSW. For more info on our furry friends chase up an article by Inger vandyke: Securing the Shadow Wildlife Australia. Autumn 2009 Vol 46 No 1.
And so to Colwells Hut. A smallish mustering hut. Realistically accommodating only four adults. If you swing by with five or six, then park the excess under the open-sided shelter. There wasn’t enough room for Don to swing Richard’s much doted on cat in this hut and sleeping outside was definitely not a good option on the night we stayed there; it was still very windy with rain threatening. We were driven inside soon after four o’clock by the cool wind but the rain was a total fizzer, a few spits. This was the last of the mustering huts built in The Oxley Wild Rivers, constructed in 1994 by Ian and Nev Colwell to replace Alan Youdale’s 1950s post and bark humpy.
Saturday 8 September: Colwells to Cedar Cottage: 17.5 kms: 7.5 hrs.
Our final day on the track. With a 700 metre climb out of Green Gully this is said to be the most challenging part of the walk. But it is on a 4WD management trail and with light packs it is not too arduous for walkers who have retained some functionality of their knees and ankles. From high up on a 900 metre ridge we looked down into one of the patches of dry rainforest, remnant communities that have species from the great Gondwanan continent. These have survived in cool inaccessible gullies, protected from the ravages of heat and fire. Soon we regained the Kunderang Management Trail and set sail for our final berth at Cedar Cottage. And thus came to an end a most satisfying throughwalk: rambling along through wild high country forests, with spectacular views, remote gorges, Brush-tailed Rock Wallabies and a landscape steeped in the history of cattle grazing.
Green gully track
Beasts of Burden
On the track
Green Hood Orchid
Birds Nest Trig
View across Green Gully
Yards @ Green Gully Hut
Cauldwell, Dave: Green Gully: Gorge Raiders. Wild 124.
Green Gully Track Notes. Wild 132.
Inger vandyke:Securing the Shadow. Wildlife Aust. Autumn 2009. Vol 46 No 1. This is an article about the Brush-tailed rock wallaby.
Tucked away on the far south-western fringes of Australia’s Arnhem Land Plateau is Nitmiluk National Park, a 2928 square kilometre little brother to the World Heritage Listed Kakadu. Nitmiluk, named by a dreamtime ancestor, Nabilil, for the drumming sound of the cicada…Nit! Nit! Nitnit! This landscape belongs to the Jawoyn, freshwater people. It is also home to a major Northern Territory tourist destination, Katherine Gorge. Less well known is Nitmiluk’s 58 kilometre Jatbula Trail, one of the most spectacular remote area track walks in Australia. This outstanding walk climbs up onto the Arnhem Land Plateau and features magnificent views across 17 Mile Creek Valley, Aboriginal rock art, waterfalls, gorges, rapids and secluded rockpools. The Jatbula honours Peter Jatbula, a former drover and aboriginal custodian, who fought to have Nitmiluk returned to its traditional owners in the 1970s and 1980s. It was finally handed over to its traditional owners on the 10th September 1989.
Sweetwater: Edith River
17 Mile Falls
For my money, the Jatbula showcases some the best that Arnhem Land has to offer and even the most blasé trekker will be captivated by its landscapes. And to walk over country that resonates with human occupation stretching back at least 20,000 years is especially pleasurable. The trail is officially ‘challenging’ but for most bushwalkers, once conditioned to the warmer days, it is really quite easy. In the parlance of our leader, Kiwi Ross, it is a ‘spiv’ walk. The first two days traverse the high “stone” country above the escarpment, each day dropping down to a campsite beside placid rockpools, running cascades and roaring waterfalls. The final three days take walkers into the headwaters of the Edith River and then downstream to the campground at Leliyn (Edith Falls).
Wednesday 27 June: Nitmiluk Visitors Centre to Biddlecombe Cascades: 8 kms.
So here we are. Ten throughwalkers sardined into a snub-nosed punt, nudging up to the northern bank of the Katherine River, Jatbula’s trail head. A stone’s throw away on the opposite bank the circus was in town. This was the Nitmiluk Visitors Centre and Campground. A tourist bedlam, bustling with all manner of backpackers, flashpackers, campers, glampers, trampers and tattooed Territorians rubbing shoulders with jaded German jetsetters: all 200,000 of them, most arriving in the five months of the Northern Territory’s cooler dry season.
Our 5.30am campground starts are not universally welcomed. But things could only get better for long suffering fellow campers. And they did. For a start, we vacated the campground soon after 7.00 am allowing our neighbours to catch another ten winks before sunrise. Meanwhile, we had lined up for a surprisingly bargainous breakfast, a poolside buffet. Our chef arrived fashionably late, Top End time. Chef piled our plates with lashings of sizzling sausages, gooey eggs, crispy bacon, crusty toast and sachets of jam and vegemite all washed down with multiple mugs of tea and coffee. Brilliant.
Back on the northern bank our party of eight disembarked: Kiwi Ross, leader; those sirens of the savanna: Linda, Di, Lyn and Sally; Don, an experienced track dog from way back and Brian, his silver-tail sidekick from Peregian Springs. And finally, this pudged-up scribe. Our companion walking party was a couple from Brisbane: George and Mildred. Or was that a TV show from my youth? Graham and Mildred? By walk’s end my brain had it sorted: Marion and Charles or mostly just Charlie. And the best of track companions.
Our first section struck out across a baking savanna woodland heading for the cool oasis of the Northern Rockhole some four kilometres from the drop off. Already the day was firing up to be a stinker. An early departure is the key to enjoying this country and the trick is to trek in winter, start early, drink plenty of water and swim often. We learnt to leave our campsites by 7.30ish when temperatures are a mild 12-14°C and complete the day’s walk by early afternoon. By midday, temperatures are hovering around the 28-30°C mark. Remember that these temperatures are measured in the shade. It is said that above the escarpment, on the stone country, temperatures rise by a further 5-10°C, a fact which I wouldn’t dispute.
Water is the second key element of walking in the Territory. Initially I had hoped to do the daily ten to fifteen kilometres from camp to camp sneaking along on a litre of water. But after our experience in the open savanna on the first morning most of us elected to carry at least two litres from camp to camp. Another useful trick was to dunk hats, heads, shirts and bodies into any rockholes that crossed our path.
Speaking of rockholes, the Northern Rockhole was our first morning tea stop-over. This is a large waterhole where a creek tumbles 50 metres over the escarpment to a deep green plunge-pool below. Distinctly crocodilian. I resisted the temptation to take a dip. Not that I’m aquaphobic but swims could keep until I was over the escarpment and on the plateau. Safely out of the clutches of any peripatetic croc out on a day walk from the nearby Katherine River. Rule Numero Uno of Top End swimming is that pools on top of the escarpment are safe, because crocs can’t, in theory, climb. Pools at the base of the escarpment should always be treated with some suspicion, especially as I had spotted a croc trap while paddling down the Katherine Gorge the previous day.
From the Northern Rockhole the trail follows a 4WD service track as it climbs a long spur up to the plateau at 200 metres, walking us through a snapshot of 1650 million years of Arnhem Land geology. First, past outcrops of volcanics to finally reach the Kombolgie Sandstones which outcrop across vast swathes of the Arnhem Land Plateau. But more of that on the morrow.
We were now meandering through open woodland and spinifex grasslands, sometimes called savanna woodland. This is a harsh dry environment with surface water draining quickly into the sandstone. Scruffy vegetation has adapted to thin and poorly developed soils. Occasional high level bogs and swamps covered with reeds, banksias, grevilleas and even sundews provided a contrast, a pick of green in the drab landscape and fed the permanent streams like Biddlecombe Cascades, our first overnight stop.
We heard the cascades before we saw the campsite, mostly shady with grassy tent sites. And here was our introduction to Mukkul, the green ant. Don pointed out two large arboreal leafy green ant nests woven together with their silky exudates. From here columns of ants marched down the tree trunk and fanned out across the campsite in search of food and human trespassers. Ian Morris in his book Kakadu has an entertaining description of their behaviour: “Green Ants are not particularly tolerant of humans and will respond to a disturbance…. by swarming over the intruder. Their multiple bites are mostly nuisance value…. but their habit of directing a fine jet of acid up to eight centimetres can cause extreme discomfort if it hits the eye.” According to Ross, the Mukkul is a Jawoyn delicacy, much like the honeypot ants of Central Australia or the chocolate-coated ants that my sister had an expensive addiction to. Never one to pass up a good feed, Brian, a well practiced trencherman, chose a large meaty ant but didn’t back up for his usual seconds. And he baulked at squishing their nests which is supposed to make a nice zesty drink when added to water.
The cascades were named after an early gold miner, Biddlecombe. But prospecting was last thing on our minds; we were more interested in seeking out a prime spot for a cooling dip in the numerous and private rockpools and spas that abounded above the falls. And so the pattern of our days was set. Start early, walk in the cool, campsite in time for lunch and then a long afternoon of sloth and swims.
Thermarest banana lounges appeared and we settled for some reading in the shade. The quiet time short lived. Brian again, not agitating this time for his afternoon walk but batting ineffectually at the bushflies roosting on his scaly legs. Now, it is nothing unusual for Brian to be flourishing some sort of suppurating bushwalking wound or three, but the weeping dog’s disease spreading over his scaly shanks was an entirely different kettle of fish. Barcoo Rot was my diagnosis. A chronic skin infection right up there with Sandy Blight as an affliction best avoided on long bushwalks. But Nurse Di and Nurse Lyn took a more measured view of his predicament and applied various ungulates and a goodly dose of tough love “Don’t think you can buzz for attention whenever you feel like it tonight, Brian.” Kiwi Ross, a softer touch, took pity on an old walking mate by providing a few metres of fly veil which he rigged up to drape around Brian’s fly-blown legs, noting: “You’d look good in a tutu Brian, but the legs spoil it.”
By late afternoon the Biddlecombe Campsite was full. Our eight, Marion and Charlie and finally four young walkers who blew in late afternoon, having driven from Darwin in the morning and walked in the heat of the afternoon. Mad dogs and Territorians.
Thursday 28 June: Biddlecombe to Crystal Falls: 10.5 kms.
Out in the pre-dawn darkness. To the east a brilliant astronomical display for early risers. Shining closest to the eastern horizon was Aldebaran, brightest star in the constellation Taurus. Then two very bright planets, Venus and Jupiter. But the real gem of the morning sky was an open cluster of stars, The Pleiades or Seven Sisters. The star names are taken from classical mythology and are the seven daughters of Atlas who were pursued by Orion. Zeus, taking pity on them, placed them in the heavens as stars but even there Orion continued his chase. The brightest is called Alcyone who was daughter–in-law to Lucifer, the light-bearer, the star that brings in the day. In fact there are hundreds of giant blue stars in this cluster but only seven are visible to the naked eye.
We were all up, fed and track side by 7.45am closely followed by Marion and Charlie. Here’s the thing about this pair. Both were elderly and Charles had a disability, a problem with his leg. The rocky track and river crossings would have been difficult for Charlie but they were obviously experienced walkers and really dogged. We would swan past, but no sooner had we pulled up for a break in the shade than Marion and Charlie would glide effortlessly past leaving us scrambling to play catch up.
First up was the boots-off crossing of Biddlecombe Cascades, then we followed the track snaking up through increasing rocky terrain; this was the Stone Country. Much of Arnhem Land is made up rocks of the Kombolgie Formation. This formation was first described at Kombolgie Creek a tributary of the South Alligator River. The Kombolgies are mainly sedimentary: sandstones and conglomerates which formed about 1650 million years ago (mya) when huge braided rivers spread at least a one kilometre thickness of the coarse and poorly sorted sediments over the area that we now call Arnhem Land. By 1000 mya the sediments had hardened and compacted to form the
Kombolgie sandstones. We found plenty of examples of ripple marks and cross-bedding testifying to their origins in shallow fluvial or lacustrine environments. The main bedding planes in the Kombolgies are horizontal, reflected in the level surfaces over much of the Arnhem Land Plateau. Interleaved with the sedimentaries are two episodes of volcanic activity, the dark basalts which we saw yesterday as we traversed Seventeen Mile Creek Valley and on the climb up onto the escarpment.
The Jatbula follows in part old droving trails but more significantly it follows the ancient song lines of the Jawoyn. These were landscapes created in a time known as Buwarr, The Dreaming, when the ancestors journeyed across Nitmiluk bringing to life its plants and animals, visiting rock shelters and leaving important artwork. This land was created by Bula, a saltwater being. Bula, accompanied by his two wives, the Ngallenjilenji, journeyed across Nitmiluk creating and naming the landscape as he went. Another dreamtime ancestor was Nagorrko, who told the Jawoyn what skin names they should have and taught them about proper behaviour and marriage relationships. Other creation ancestors included Garrkayn, the brown goshawk; Ngarratj, the white cockatoo; and Barrk, the black wallaroo.
So it wasn’t surprising to find art sites at several of the rock outcrops that we passed on our morning’s travel. The rock art was predominately simple in design: for example, a red ochre hand print, representative of the earliest art work. Other motifs included human stick figures with large headdresses and skirts; larger human figures in red ochre; and highly ornamented figures in motion, the dynamic style. But there was a paucity of animal designs or animals in hunting scenes. These art styles are typical of Pre-Estuarine Art (50,000 – 8,000 years before present); a time when the earth’s climate was cooler and drier and a land bridge existed between Northern Australia and New Guinea.
For the remainder of the morning the trail paralleled the escarpment edge. We cut across six major streamlines, all tributaries of Seventeen Mile Creek and all aligned at roughly 90 degrees to Seventeen Mile, indicative of the strong structural control over the drainage patterns in Nitmiluk. Eons ago, regional crustal tensions cracked and faulted the Kombolgie Sandstones and overlying Cretaceous sediments, often at right angles, forming orthogonal cross joints across the plateau surface. Streams later followed these surface weaknesses and faults leading to the spectacular gorges and rectangular drainage patterns we see today.
Soon after midday we pulled into Crystal Falls, a pokey hot campsite saved only by its proximity to perfect swimming holes and spas. Di and I took to the largest pool immediately while the rest drifted hither and yon in a desultory fashion hoping to unearth a half-way decent tent pad. Trust me, there were none. I moved several times…too hot…too dusty…ant ridden…too close to crocs… before settling on a make-do campsite. The four youngsters drifted in, had a swim then headed off to 17 Mile Falls, ten kilometres hence. Spartans. Late in the afternoon three older walkers sweated it it having walked through from Katherine Gorge in the heat. Clearly shattered. As was our solitude.
A helicopter chuttered in low over the campsite and settled on the emergency helipad set high on the ridge behind us. A genial Kiwi pilot appeared bearing a picnic hamper, all apologies for the intrusion. Two guest appeared. One, a matchy matchy matron from Tassie. Her fellow passenger: unkempt, decked out with dreadies. In fact, badly in need of a major zhooshing up.
In any event they disappeared out to the cascades to enjoy their picnic. In due course our new best friend, the pilot, returned, clutching a barely touched bottle of bubbly and scrumptious left-overs from the hamper. Compliments of his guests. Stand aside Usain Bolt. It was a winner-take-all scramble back to the tents for mugs.
By 4.30 pm our helicopter and its occupants had departed leaving behind a campground of slightly blootered hikers and a tube of perfumed aloe vera ungulate for Brian’s legs. Time for an afternoon explore, a look at the falls. Fortunately, as was often the case, Marion and Charlie had already scouted out the best vantage point: a superb view of the falls and in the other direction, a look down into water foaming through a deep, dark slot canyon.
Friday 29 June: Crystal Falls to 17 Mile Falls via The Amphitheatre: 9.5 kms.
We were now well into our daily walking rhythm. Packed and ready to rock and roll by 7.00 am. Wading across the cascades first, then the 80 metre climb up onto the plateau. Today we would finish our northward march before swinging west towards the Edith River catchment tomorrow. Tonight’s campsite at Seventeen Mile Falls is a titch over the half way point on the Jatbula. This was going to be very easy walking across a stony plateau cut by the occasional dry gully and boggy swamps, still spongy from the wet season.
We were motoring along at a respectable pace when Brian ground to a halt. A blowout in the driver’s side boot. No RACQ service here. So he jury-rigged a temporary fix, thick rubber bands and electrical tape. Interestingly, Ross and a walker from another group also had boot problems. Possibly boot glues drying out in the low humidity. Something to be checked on before extended walking in the Territory.
By mid morning we were traversing burnt out open woodland, a moonscape of rocky pavement covered by ironstone. Since Biddlecombe, on the very highest ridges at about 300 metres we found nodules and cappings of ironstone or ferricrete. These nodules were formed by the laterisation of the Cretaceous sandstones which overlie the Kombolgie Formation. During the Tertiary starting 70 million years ago, much of northern Australia was subjected to a humid tropical climatic regime. Under high rainfall conditions hydrated oxides of iron and aluminium accumulate steadily in surface rocks as other minerals are leached out, so that a hard iron rich crust develops.
The track led out to the escarpment’s edge where we pulled up at a horse-shoe ring of cliffs, The Amphitheatre. Below in its basin was a cool clear stream trickling under the dappled shade of a pocket of sandstone monsoonal rainforest.
The rainforest canopy is dominated by Native Apple Tree (Syzygium spp.), Leichhardt Tree (Nauclea orientalis), Carpentaria Palm (Carpentaria acuminata), Native Nutmeg (Myristica insipida) and the White Paperbark (Melaleuca leucadendra). Nestled in their shade were numerous ferns and flowering shrubs like Melastoma polyanthum. These pockets are considered to be relict plant communities from a time when much of the Top End was covered by rainforest.
There are said to be 420 rock art sites in Nitmiluk, but one of the best is along the walls of The Amphitheatre. Three main panels display a mixture of Pre-Estuarine and Estuarine Art styles. Early designs of hand stencils, emus, emu tracks, long-necked turtles mixed with later art styles from the Estuarine Period (8000 to 2000 BP). These included Yam Figure Style, X-ray art, and most spectacularly, a large humanoid figure of a Jawoyn Lady wearing nose bones, breast girdles, bracelets, waist and knee bands.
From the coolth of The Amphitheatre it was onward across the baking savannah, at least 32°C and hardly a breath of wind for the three kilometres to our campsite. Interestingly, despite the high temperatures I heard no cicadas for most of the trip. Perhaps the humidity was too low (generally below 20%) for hatching. The track quickly wound out to another lookout, this time for a view of Seventeen Mile Falls, the highest single-drop fall in Nitmiluk. Half an hour later we trailed into Hades, our godforsaken burnt-out campsite above the falls. Still, with an excellent rockpool just below the campsite, one was actually in heaven. Lunch in the shade, sprawled out on a rock shelf, washing of clothes, swims, and more swims. A whole afternoon of general lethargy stretched ahead. Lying on the rocks, books in hand. Ross and Linda engrossed in Michener’s Hawaii; Di, Lyn and I delving into Jodi Picout’s 19 minutes; Sally lounging in the water; Brian still fussing away over his bodgy boots and Don, an afternoon of rockwalling his tent site in an effort to keep out the passing campground riff-raff.
Late in the afternoon Marion and Charlie again slipped silently away from the campsite, off on another of their evening rambles. I waited and watched. Sure enough, they re-appeared on a rocky outcrop high above the campsite, overlooking the falls. I knew I could count on them to ferret out the ideal eyrie for a look at the falls and down Seventeen Mile Creek. We formed up and wandered up to join them.
Another warmish evening. No campfires allowed, but we sat around chewing the fat while the moon rose. Too bad about the moonshine, for it is said that the glow of the lights of Katherine are visible to the south west.
Saturday 30 June: 17 Mile Falls to Sandy Pool Camp: 16.5 kms.
Our longest day, sixteen kilometres. Sunrise came soon after 7.00 am, a blood-red sun shrouded in a curtain of smoke haze. The iconic Top End sunrise. Fire is an integral part of Nitmiluk’s landscapes and its aboriginal custodians and Parks staff burn off during Malaparr, the early dry season from May to June. It is then that the grasses still contain a little moisture and the burn-off will be low intensity and will generally falter at watercourses, swamps and rock pavement. For much of our walk we encountered patchworks of burnt and unburnt areas, presumably to suppress the possibility of a major wildfire along the track and at campsites.
Our last hours on the stony plateau country, again travelling on the high laterised surfaces. We were now on the drainage divide between the Edith River and Seventeen Mile Creek. As always termite mounds abounded, one of the most ubiquitous features of the Northern Territory landscapes. Right up there with the favourite Top End images of crocs, waterfalls and red sunsets. Here the surrounding termite mounds took on a distinctly reddish tinge in contrast to the lighter coloured mounds we encountered elsewhere. Wherever there is grass in the Top End, there are termites, which is everywhere.
During the long dry season it is so dry that other important recyclers like earthworms cannot survive. So termites are known as the ‘earthworms of the tropics’. The termite is an ancient order of insect which has been ranging the earth for as long as crocs, some 30 million years. Its nearest relative is the cockroach, not ants. Hence the name ‘white ant’ is a misnomer. Most termites have simple appetites, content to graze on dead grass, seeds and wood, converting cellulose directly into glucose for energy. But the most primitive group, the Masto termite, endemic to Australia, is not so particular and has been found happily munching through old car battery cases, bitumen highways, PVC, lead sheathing on Telstra cables and demolishing a three bedroom house in a single 10 week feeding frenzy; much like our pre-trip poolside breakfasters.
Our route took us westwards off the stone country into an unnamed swampy headwater tributary of the Edith River. The Edith River was named by William McMinn in 1871 during the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line. Lady Edith Fergusson was the wife of the South Australian Governor, Sir James Fergusson.
Here was a different landscape, a mosaic of swampy grasslands, riverine forest and open woodlands. The vegetation around us marked the change, now pandanus, melaleucas, banksias and grevilleas. We had reached the Edith River Soaks, a landmark for drovers which signalled that they had finally left behind the harsh stone country for the succulent grasses of the Edith River floodplain. Some three hours of early morning hard yakka paid off as we cruised into the Edith River Crossing and a well-earned dip. Here the Jatbula shifts to the western bank all the way downstream to Leliyn. A quick feed and we took off on the six kilometre hop to Sandy Camp Pool hoping to beat the heat as my pack thermometer was fast cranking up, a mid-morning 32°C. Sandy Camp is one of the highlights of the walk, easily the most picturesque of Jatbula’s pools. The campsite nestled on a sandy beach under shady trees. A few metres from my tent I launched into the deep clear waters of Sandy Camp Pool. Fantastic.
Sunday 1 July: Sandy Camp Pool to Sweetwater: 10 kms.
Awake with the pre-dawn howling of dingoes, another clear piccaninny dawn for our penultimate day. Trackside by 7.45 am but a slight delay as we bumbled hither and yon looking for those nifty blue Jatbula triangles. Eventually someone got smart and realized that if we headed downstream we would soon find the trail. Just so. Much of the morning’s walk is through dense swathes of high grassland. I’d hate to walk this stuff without the well-defined pad that we were following. Above our heads, old flood debris had caught in the scattered shrubs and trees, obviously not a good place to be during the late wet season. We puttered along in the balmy tropical morning and just before
mid-day we rounded up onto a low river bluff overlooking the Sweetwater. Below, those toads of the trail… day trippers. Four of the cheeky blighters frolicking in the cascades above Sweetwater Pool. Our throughwalking solitude was over. Sweetwater is easily accessible to day walkers so we could expect to see legions on the move in our final 24 hours on the track.
A final lux afternoon of swims, rambles around the Sweetwater, botanising, checking out the sandstone ripple marks, more reading and brew-ups. Having exhausted these possibilities for the productive use of my time, I turned my attention to niggling Don about his ongoing refusal to buy a Thermarest banana lounge. After many years of badgering he finally caved in and agreed to try one out and grudgingly conceded it was “…comfortable”. But stubbornly unconvinced. Thence to Brian, whose beloved ancient hike tent stood agape where several zips now refused to close, its flaps cobbled together with a network of safety pins. “It’ll see me out.” With dingoes serenading in the near distance we drifted off to our beds, but not before peering into the dark then pulling our boots into our tents and finally zipping the doors firmly closed. We left Brian to his fate.
Monday 2 July: Sweetwater to Leliyn: 4 kms.
A cool 11°C start for our final two hours on the track, Leliyn being a mere four kilometres away, passing numerous rapids and the Longhole on our way through. We were now a pretty subdued bunch. After such an outstanding trip I wouldn’t have minded a few more days on the track. All good things come to an end and we pulled into the well-appointed Leliyn campground soon after 10.00 am. But we quickly perked up when the campground manager threw open the chuck wagon and we tucked into a truck load of pies, sausage rolls, potato chips, chocolates and soft drinks. An afternoon of general slacking around and desultory walks completed a memorable six days of walking with great companions and excellent leadership provided by Ross and co- organizer Linda.
A. Davison The Jatbula Trail Wild Magazine Issue 110