The Mount Moffatt section of Carnarvon National Park is a remote and relatively pristine landscape occupying the headwaters of the Maranoa River. It features broad sandy valleys, basalt tablelands and outcrops of sculpted sandstone rising abruptly from the plains. I first visited Mt Moffatt National Park on a 10 day natural history campout in 1988 and have returned a number of times , drawn back for exploratory hikes to Mt Moffatt’s high country on Consuelo Tableland , the upper Carnarvon Creek gorge and more recently the Carnarvon Great Walk. Thereport that follows is the first of the many accounts that I have written covering Mt Moffatt National Park.
Location of Mt Moffatt Section
Mount Moffatt has a rich human history. Aboriginal art is abundant as the Bidjara and Nuri occupation of the Carnarvon Ranges stretches back at least 19,000 years. Excavations were carried out in the 1960s by Professor John Mulvaney at Kenniffs Cave and the Tombs. At Kenniffs he found the remains of campfires extending three metres below the floor of the cave. Mulvaney used the new technology of radiocarbon dating to dial back the story of Aboriginal occupation of Australia 19,500 years. The Bidjara and Nuri had lived through the Pleistocene Ice Age.
Aboriginal Stencil Art: Mt Moffatt.
European Occupation of the Upper Maranoa District.The Mountain Cattle Runs.
The first European to pass through the area was the explorer Thomas Mitchell who, in June 1846, travelled along the Chesterton Range, Mt Moffatt’s western boundary, looking to extend the colony’s pastoral frontier northwards. The ever optimistic Mitchell wrote glowingly of ‘ excellent open forest land’ and a landscape that ‘was park-like and most inviting’. Land hungry squatters soon followed his tracks and studied his sketch maps , with pastoralism in the Carnarvon Ranges commencing in the 1860s .
TheMt Moffatt run was originally made up of five blocks cut from the Mt Ogilvie run, blocks three through to seven. These were first taken up under licence by George Fullerton in 1867. Fullerton visitedthe upperMaranoa when he went out on an exploratory expedition in 1861 ( towards the Wombebank andTooloombilla runs ) with his brother-in-law , a Mr Moffatt. Moffatt was the nephew of Mr Thomas De Lacy Moffatt, later to become Queensland’s Colonial Treasurer.
TheQueensland Lands Department described the run as‘ rough and mountainous but generally well-grassed…fairly good pastoral country and very suitable for breeding cattle ‘. The rough country made it difficult country to work and its ownership changed hands a number of times. The Waldron family took up the run in 1939 and built a family homestead that is now used by park rangers. In 1979 Mt Moffatt was purchased from the Vincent family and converted to national park status. Reminders of the area’s life as a cattle property are to be found in the homestead, old stockyards and fencing.
The De Lacy Moffatts
The name Mt Moffatt is likely connected to the De Lacy Moffatt family (or Moffat ). Queensland’s Geographic Placenames Board can shed no light on the matter, but I think it is named after the De Lacy Moffatt family . Thomas De Lacy Moffatt ( 1824-1864) was a Queensland politician and Queensland’s second Colonial Treasurer, serving from 1862 to 1864. He was a squatter and established the run Callandoon on the Darling Downs. He was elected to the first Legislative Assembly of Queensland in April 1860 for the District of the Western Downs. My guess is that the Mt Moffatt run was probably named for Thomas de Lacy Moffatt by his son or his nephew.
The Mt Moffatt Circuit Drive.
Our little 4WD convoy piloted by my friends Frank and Julie left the Dargonelly Rock Holes Campsite just shy of an unusually tardy 8.45am. Come the following morning, our leader Frank had whipped us into shape and earlier departures ruled. Today we would traverse sandplains at 700-800 metres, derived predominantly from Jurassic Precipice sandstones. These sandstones are the bottom stratum of the Surat Basin, deposited 200 – 186 million years ago.
Map of Mt Moffatt National Park: Circuit Drive
The Surat Basin sediments had their origins in a depositional phase after the momentous tectonic activity of the Triassic Period (250 – 201 million years ago). Sedimentation in the ensuing Jurassic Period was restricted to the Great Artesian Basin and its component basins: Surat, Nambour, Clarence-Moreton, Laura and Carpentaria. The landscapes of many of Central Queensland’s highly scenic National Parks, including Mount Moffatt, date from this period.
The component layers of the Surat Basin from oldest to youngest are: Precipice sandstone, Evergreen sandstones, its distinctive Boxvale and Westgrove Members , and Hutton sandstones.
Some three kilometres north along the Circuit Drive was our first stop, Marlong Arch. As we glided into the car park, two Eastern Grey roos and a joey took flight, one adult collecting a barrier post in its haste to decamp. But no harm done.
Marlong Arch is an arch of Precipice sandstone standing 50 metres or so above the surrounding plain. It is probably the most photographed feature in Mount Moffatt. Even the famous Australian Antarctic photographer Frank Hurley came to Mount Moffatt (in October 1949) and photographed Marlong Arch. The photo, which shows Brenda Vincent on her pony Cupie under the arch, appears in his book Queensland, a Camera Study. Brenda Vincent had lived and worked on Mount Moffatt when it was a remote highland cattle property.
Frank Hurley, famous Australian Photographer visits Mt Moffatt
The photograph above was one of many taken by one of Australia’s most well known photographers, Frank Hurley ( b. 1885 ). Hurleywas the photographer for Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition. He recorded the demise of their ship Enduranceas it was slowly destroyed by pack – ice. All the crew survived the ordeal and Hurley returned home to then become an Official War photographer for the AIF serving in the trenches with another famous Australian, Hubert Wilkins.
Anexcellent write – up of Hurley’s visit to the Carnarvons ( Tracks in the Sand – Frank Hurley and the Carnarvon Ranges ) can be found on Robert Ashdown’s blogsite.
Galley of images taken by Frank Hurley on his visit to Mt Moffatt Station in 1949.
Marlong Arch formed in a narrow, elongated outcrop of Precipice sandstone. A capping of harder sandstone remains intact while softer layers below have been eroded away, leaving the arch of rock. Around the base of the outcrop are caves, overhangs and tunnels, a number of which we investigated, finding stencil art, and roo and bat scats.
Open grassy woodlands clothe the surrounding plains, part of a diverse flora of more than 750 species in the national park. The dominant canopy species here are smooth-barked apple (Angophera leiocarpa), white cypress pine (Callitris glaucophylla), bull oak (Allocasuarinaluehmannii), and budgeroo (Lysicarpus angustifolius). The shrub layer was more diverse but getting past its prime wildflower display. That said, Calytrix longiflora still provided brilliant massed displays of its pink star flowers. This was the case over much of the park.
Other components of the shrub layer that we identified (thanks Frank) included Xanthorrea johnsonii, Boronia bipinnata, thread-leafed hopbush (Dodonea filifolia), wild rosemary (Cassinia sp.), slender rice flower (Pimelea linifolia) and beard heath (Leucopogon biflorus).
The ground cover was dominated by swathes of buck spinifex (Triodiamitchelli), but there was still a significant assemblage of other ground covers: kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra), fake sarsaparilla (Hardenbergia violacea), Chloanthes parviflora and Lomandras.
After morning tea at the arch, we drove on to Kookaburra cave. In a couple of the trees at the car park we saw babbler nests, and on cue two grey-crowned babblers appeared. Kookaburra cave is a shallow elongated overhang at the southern base of a bluff of Precipice sandstone. The cave takes its name from a hand stencil which resembles a kookaburra with its beak open. As an art gallery it is nowhere near as spectacular as the Tombs, but it does have art work which includes stencils, abrasions and peckings.
On checking my reference book Visions of the Past by Michael Morwood, it would seem that this assemblage of Aboriginal art is typical of what he classifies as Central Queensland Phase 2 artwork dating from 5,000 to 36 years BP. Some of the other information from his Central Queensland Highlands research includes:
Hand stencils in Central Queensland sites are frequently associated with rocky outcrops which served as mortuaries, as found at The Tombs in Mt Moffatt.
Many of the varied hand stencils at Central Queensland correspond to hand signals reported by Walter Roth for the Mt Isa area of NW Queensland. It is thought that some of these were used when hunting and on other occasions of enforced silence. Kookaburra cave has several examples of distorted hand stencils.
Stencils are very useful to archaeologists as they provide evidence of Aboriginal material culture before the time of European contact: boomerangs, axes, spears, clubs, nets and pendants.
The open woodland around Kookaburra cave was slightly different from what we had seen at Marlong Arch. Here we found a dense stand of budgeroo, as well as mature woody pears (Xylomelum cunninghamianum). Also in the canopy mix were a grey gum and a stringybark.
Under the canopy we identified (and photographed!) bush iris (Patersonia sericea), sandstone boronia (Boronia glabra), box-leaf wattle (Acacia buxifolia), spreading flax-lily (Dianella revoluta) and the alien-looking hair plant (Astrotricha cordata).
Always on the hunt for things geological, I spied on the steps leading up to the cave some trace fossils. These were probably the grazing trails of molluscs and worms. They were on a slab of the reddish-brown Boxvale Sandstone (an upper member of the Evergreen Formation).
Next stop, Lot’s Wife, is a pillar of white Precipice sandstone, the solitary remnant of a bluff that extended across the area. Warwick Wilmot, in his book Rocks and Landscapes of the National Parks of Central Queensland, mentions the localised anomalous geology of Lot’s Wife. Sixty metres to the east is the parent bluff. But this is an outcropping of Boxvales at the same elevation as Lot’s Wife. The Boxvale sequence should be higher altitudinally, suggesting a minor localised fault between the two outcrops: with the Boxvale layer down to the east and the Precipice sandstones raised to the west.
On our walk back to the cars, Judy pointed out stands of kurrajong (Brachychiton populnea) on a high ridge to the west of Lot’s Wife. Kurrajongs, frequently associated with Vine Scrub/Thicket were also found in a soft-wood scrub south west of Gee Gee Gap that we visited on the next day. On our 1988 Mount Moffatt trip when we visited Gee Gee Gap, Rodney Tait, a keen botanist and fungi expert reported bottle trees and many seemingly “out of place plants, including a valley of many rainforest or softwood scrub species”. These are growing in soils derived from the basalt that caps the highest parts of the tableland.
Departing Lot’s Wife and its apostrophe-deficient signpost, we headed for Marlong Plain for lunch. The side track to the plain winds through a woodland of silver-leafed ironbark (Eucalyptus melanophloia) before fetching up at the southern edge of Marlong Plain. This is a vast, near-flat expanse composed of shallow Holocene alluviums derived from nearby basalts and sandstones.
Ecologically, Marlong Plain is a very special place. It is a treeless plain dominated by a bluegrass (Dicanthium sericeum). This is an endangered regional ecosystem (11.3.21) with less than 10% remaining in this province (Brigalow Belt 24: Carnarvon) and only 10 – 30% remaining in all of Queensland.
Overall Marlong Plain protects rare and threatened flora which is why the stand of willows in the lower end of the plain is somewhat puzzling. I saw these willows on our 1988 trip and they are still flourishing in 2021. The weedy wheels of the Queensland Parks Service move ever so slowly.
Our lunch break was enlivened by a passing nankeen kestrel checking out the plain for its own lunch.
Leaving our shady lunch spot on the edge of the plain, we continued on round the circuit drive and took the side track to West Branch camping area. A far quieter area than caravan central at Dargonelly Rock Holes.
West Branch is also a pleasant overnight campsite for hikers walking the 87 kilometre Carnarvon Great Walk – a circuit walk starting and finishing at the Carnarvon Gorge section of the park. The walk’s West Branch ‘entrance statement’ is an excellent information board and a rather expensive suspension bridge over the usually dry bed of the west branch of the Maranoa river.
Frank and I were aware that an old map of Mount Moffatt showed an ochre mine and dance ring at the southern end of the campsite. We poked around and did find an outcrop of soft white clay in a small cliff face on the eastern bank of the river, but whether this was the ochre mine I cannot be sure.
Onward through woodlands of poplar box (E. populnea) and narrow-leafed ironbark (E. crebra) to the Mount Moffatt Park HQ and its first-rate information centre next to the old cattle yards. Hours could be spent looking at the display boards which cover Aboriginal occupation, grazing history, natural history and the unsavoury saga of the Kenniff brothers. A stop not to be missed.
Photos from Booringa Shire Heritage Library: Waldron Family Collection.
Life on Mt Moffatt Station 1930s to 1950s.
But the pre-dinner nibblies clock was ticking and so we turned to our home at Dargonelly Rock Holes. But not before the squatter pigeons obliged by squatting by the side of the track. Probably not the best survival strategy. These birds respond to disturbance by either ‘freezing’ or by darting erratically through grass tussocks. Occasionally if pursued too closely they will burst into flight, heading for trees or nearby ground cover.
A black snake added to the excitement of our return journey. This fellow was propped mid-track and made it obvious that he/she was not in the mood to move on. Denise’s efforts to take a photograph produced a head-up pose and then thankfully both Denise and the reptile retreated.
After the obligatory showers, bucket baths and clean clothes, we gathered around Julie’s nifty EZYQ collapsible firepit to enjoy drinks, nibbles and companionable chit chat. Just on dusk, our expected ‘Boobookians’ arrived: Craig, Michael and Eamon. Boobook is an ecological consultancy based in Roma and established by Craig and Meryl Eddie in 2000. They have since branched out and offer small group tours and adventure trips in SW Queensland. Craig is the author of several field guides; his ‘Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs of Eastern Queensland Oil and Gas Fields’ is a widely used reference book. And he has discovered 50 new species of land snails and 6 new plants.
We would have the benefit of the expertise of Craig, Michael (also an ecologist) and Eamon (scorpion expert) for tomorrow’s field outings and evening excursion.
While our three ecologists headed out to do some night field work down at the rock holes (finding cane toads but no frogs), the rest of us headed for bed, signing off on a very satisfactory day on the sand plains of Mount Moffatt National Park.
Mawson Plateau lies at at the northern extremity of South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. It is a very remote , inaccessible and arid wilderness. The plateau lies between 600 and 750 metres, reaching its highest point at Freeling Heights at 944 metres. A four day hike was to take us across this granite batholith by way of the gorges, waterfalls and pools of Granite Plateau Creek which drains an otherwise dry landscape. It is said to be one of Australia’s most pristine wilderness areas.
by Glenn Burns
The genesis of this hike was in 2016 when I was part of a group on a camel trek from Mt Hopeless in the far north of South Australia to Umbaratana Station to the west of the tourist resort of Arkaroola in the northern Flinders Ranges.
On the seventh day of our trek, as we travelled across desert plains, ahead of us rose a wall of mountains which I was told were called Freeling Heights, but also known as the Mawson Plateau. One of our fellow walkers, Peter, mentioned that he had been up onto the Mawson Plateau and generously offered to use his contacts to organise a future hike.
Many years ago I came across Warren Bonython’s book Walking the Flinders Ranges, the report of his epic1967-1968, 1011 kilometre trek along the Flinders Ranges from Crystal Brook in the south to Mt Hopeless in the far north. My 2016 camel trek and the later Freeling Heights/Mawson Plateau walk would cover much of the territory covered by Bonython in his final and most northerly stage (Stage 9). This section is sometimes referred to by South Australians as the Heysen Trail Extension Section 2.
Sir Douglas Mawson
Mawson Plateau isnamed after Sir Douglas Mawson, Australian geologist and Antarctic explorer. In his later academic career he researchedthe geology of the northern Flinders Ranges. The Mawson Trail, a mountain bike trail through the Flinders and Mt Lofty Ranges is also named after him.
Photo of Douglas Mawson by Frank Hurley. The photo is titled Leaning into the Wind. It shows Douglas Mawson collecting ice for cooking. The winds were blowing at a constant 160 kph.
Source: Frank Hurley. Aust. Antarctic Exped. 1911-1914.
The Geography of Mawson Plateau
There is scant information on the Mawson Plateau so here is some of its basic geography based on my personal observations and a trawl of documents available in assorted books and journals. A notation on the Australian Geographicmap The Flinders Ranges (2007)describes it thus: ‘Perched behind its rugged eastern escarpment, this little-known stronghold is a maze of weather-hewn granite crags and boulders. After rainstorms the deep trough-like waterholes along its creeks form the largest natural body of water in the Flinders – a priceless ecological haven for native fish and water plants.’
Mawson Plateau, 300 6′ 38″ S and 1390 25’19” E, is part of the northern Flinders Rangescomplex on the Mt Freeling pastoral lease in South Australia. It lies adjacent to the north eastern boundary of the famous Arkaroola Sanctuary.
Geology and Landforms
Mawson Plateau is a 70 square kilometre granitic batholith with an average elevation between 600 and 700 metres. Its southern boundary is delineated by the higher Freeling Heights which rise to 944 metres. The eastern boundary is a spectacular 250 metre fall called the Granite Escarpment, while the northern and western boundaries are bounded by Hamilton Creek.From its headwaters high up in Mawson Plateau, Hamilton Creek (intermittent) drains initially north east to Moolawatana Station then swings south east from which it finally decants (rarely) into Lake Callabonna, a dry salt lake. Interestingly, Callabonna is an important site for late Pleistocene fossils.
The plateau is a tangled landscape of sandy creek beds, sand plains, rocky ridges and vast expanses of granite, covered by a mantle of loose, shattered rock and huge granite tors. Its surface has been intricately dissected by Granite Plateau Creek and Saucepan Creek, both non-perennial tributaries of Hamilton Creek. Granite Plateau Creek has cut deeply into its bedrock to form an extensive gorge featuring dry waterfalls, pools, deep potholes and sandy beaches. It was this feature that we would use to traverse the plateauwhich is otherwise totally waterless.
The highest part of the plateau, Freeling Heights, is composed of Freeling Heights Quartzite, of Mesoproterozoic origin dating back 1590 to 1580 ma.These metasediments are part of the Radium Creek Group, some of the oldest rocks in the Flinders Ranges.
The main plateau surface is a granite of Late Ordovician – Silurian age, 442 ma, intruded into the older rocks. The plateau is a major leucogranitic intrusion called British Empire Granite (BEG).BEGleucogranite is light coloured with almost no dark minerals. It is medium to coarse-grained and highly radioactive. Its radioactivity is another interesting story; too long to be recounted here. BEG also contains numerous pegmatites. Pegmatites form in the final stage of a magma’s crystallisation. Thus they contain exceptionally large crystals and minerals that are rarely found in other types of rocks. Spodumene (an ore of lithium), tourmaline, topaz and beryllium are all found with pegmatites.
The Mawson Plateau lies in one of Australia’s major arid bioclimatic regions, the Eyrean Region. The Bureau of Meteorology classifies its climateas a Desert climate characterised by hot and persistently dry seasons. For the climate afficionados among you, its Koppen climate classification is BSh, a hot semi-arid climate.The plateau nestles between the 200 and 250 mm isohyets and its rainfall displays high variability. Being caught in Granite Plateau Creek during a very rare flood event would be best avoided. That said, winter walking weather is outstanding. Expect mild sunny days, deep blue cloudless skies and cool nights all of which make for an unforgettable experience.
Temperature and Rainfall Statistics for Arkaroola SA. 318 m
Mean Max Temp oC
Mean Min Temp oC
Mean Rainfall mm
Mean Rain Days
Observations on fauna and plant communities
Reptiles form a significant and the most observable part of the faunal assemblage.
Skinks, geckoes , and dragons were all seen, but no snakes – possibly they were in hibernation.
Some rockholeshold water permanently even in extended droughts. These are refuge sites for tadpoles, fish and frogs including an undescribed species (Crinea sp). Mammalian fauna includes Eurosand if you get very lucky, the endangeredYellow-footed Rock Wallaby.Thesespectacularmacropods are easily identified by their yellow feet and tiger banded tails.
Bird species recordedwere Wedge-tailed Eagle (many and obvious), Australian Raven, White-faced Heron, White-browed Babbler, Singing Honeyeater, Wood Swallow and Australian Magpie-lark. A dismaleffort if truth be told, but I can always claim that my eyes were always focused on the next foot-fall.
Granite Plateau Creek: A woodland of River Red Gum (Eucalyptuscamaldulensis) and White Cypress Pine (Callitris glaucophylla). The shrub layer was an association of Wild Rosemary (Cassinia laevis), Hopbush (Dodonaea viscosa ssp angustissima), Cassia (Senna artemisioides) and Yucca (Xanthorrea quadrangulata).
Gorge tops and open graniteterrain: The few plants I could identify: Mulga (Acacia aneura), Corkbark (Hakea ednieana), White Cypress Pine(Callitris glaucophylla), Native Orange (Capparis mitchellii) and Bell Fruit Tree or Camel Poison (Codonocarpus pyramidalis).
The northern FlindersRanges were occupied at least from some 49,000 years ago. This date was obtained from a site known as the Warratyirock shelter, south of Mawson Plateau. Evidence from Warratyi shows the use of key technologies such as stone axes and ochre. The site also had evidence that humans existed alongside of, and hunted megafauna. Excavations to a depth of one metre produced 4,000 artefacts and 200 bone fragments including some from Diprotodon optatum , a giant wombat-like creature.
It is likely that aborigines would have camped in the Granite Plateau Creek catchment as there are a number of permanent waterholes. As the climate of inland Australia dried these waterholes would have been vital refuge sites for inland aborigines.
At the time of first European contactthe tribal groups occupying the northern Flinders Ranges were the Yardliyawara and the Wailpi. European settlement fragmented their social and economic structures so that today these tribesare known collectively as the Adnyamathanha ( hills people ). Fortunately, the Adnyamathanha have been able to maintain their cultural identity and links to the northern Flinders.
Map: Yudnamutana: 1:50 000.
Map: Frome: 1:250 000.
Map: Flinders Ranges: 1:550 000 (Aust. Geog.).
Bonython, W.C: Walking the Flinders Ranges (Rigby, 1971).
Barker, S et.al. eds: Explore the Flinders Ranges (RGSSA, 2014).
Mincham, H: The Storyof the Flinders Ranges (Rigby,1974).
Pledge, N: Fossils of the Flinders and Mt Lofty Ranges (SA Museum, 1985).
Cawood, M. and Langford, M: The Flinders Ranges (Aust. Geog., 2000).
Saturday : Arkaroola to Edward Springs: 50 kms
And so, on an annoyingly aberrant cool, overcast August day we were lurching and grinding over old 4WD station and mining tracks heading for our base camp at somewhere called Edward Springs (springless and definitely waterless as far as I could tell). The South Australians had very kindly organised to squeeze us into one of their off-road vehicles for the trip in. The tracks, in places, were little better than wheel rutscutting across a landscape that varied between rock, sand, sandy creek beds and clumps of spinifex. The drive in was meant to take only a few hours from Arkaroola giving a walking party time to climb Freeling Heights (944 m) and set up camp thatsame afternoon. “The best laid plans of mice and men”.
The ‘tracks’ took their toll on a Subaru’s tires, leaving a Landrover Defender and a Toyota Prado to ferry in seven walkers and five base campers. Suffice to say we couldn’t all fit into the two remaining cars. The overflow took to hoofing the rest of the way in to our base camp (wherever that was). But I was happy enough to be out walking, even under a dark, threatening sky. The view ahead was spectacular. Across the undulating plains rose the long, flat profile of the Mawson Plateau. Later in the afternoon, at the end of a vague track, under the shadow of Freeling Heights we found the earlier arrivals. Tents were up and a camp fire going.
Our campsite was in the dry bed of MacDonnell Creek, a major feeder of the Hamilton River ( GR: 416657 Yudnamutana 1: 50,000 AGD 84 ). Tomorrow’s access to Freeling Heights was, initially, via a small unnamed tributaryof MacDonnell Creekwhich flowed north west off Freeling Heights and into MacDonnell Creek about 500 metres north of our base camp.
The sight of a welcoming blaze somewhat improved my mood as I surveyed our setting which could,at best, be described as desolate. A far cry from myfavourite haunts in the rolling alpinemeadowsof Kosciusko National Park.Here we were tucked up into a dry creek bed with a maze of dark glowering hills to our backs, and a thickening bank of clouds gathering overhead. Creating a level tent pad in these fields of shattered rock and clumps of spinifexproved a bit of a mission.
Darkness closed in quickly but a small community gathered around the fire to prepare dinner and work our way through trivia questions while we cooked a meal. For some, dinner was an exotic feed prepared by Jack. My options were pretty limited, a reconstituted dried meal. But here’s the thing. Our South Australian friends catered for a cast of thousands so there were invariably seconds for everyone, myself included. No danger of impending starvation on this trip.
Some of us sported comfortablefoldingchairs while the hardier South Australian types constructed Fred Flintstone lounge chairs from the abundant sheets of quartzite living on the creek bed(pretty uncomfortable actually, but nobody was going to admit to that). Our campfire reveries were cut short by an unwelcome visitor, very light drizzle. Not predicted and certainly unexpected in this arid environment. By 8.00 pm the group had dispersed to their respective camping arrangements in preparation for our 8.00 am departure on the morrow.
Sunday: MacDonnell Ck/ Edward Springs Base camp to second overnight camp at Tee Junction Waterhole: 10 kms.
Being creatures of habit, John and I emerged into the chill darkness soon after 5.30am. While Susan caught another twenty winks John tizzied up the fire and a billy was put on to boil for our tea and coffee. By 8.00 am our hiking party of Paul , Rob , Mike and Jack (from South Australia) and Susan, John and I (Queenslanders) mustered at the start of a mining track leading south east out of the campsite; leaving the base campers to climb Freeling Heights at their leisure. The sky had cleared to a brilliant cloudless blue as only a desert sky can.
Our climb to Freeling Heights would take several hours eventhough the altitude gain was only 300 metres. It was a landscape of loose rocks, thick scrub andtangled hillsdissected by numerous dry gullies.As well, we were dragging along litres of water to see us through the day until we reached Tee Junction Waterholelate in the afternoon.
The route, which didn’t seem at all obvious to myself or our South Australian friends, involved following up the mining track which soon petered out. As our original leader had opted out of the hike, I never quite figured out who the substitute leader was or who was doing the navigation. But everyone chipped in and things seemed tickety boo. From here it was down into a dry creek bed, scrub bashing and scrabbling over boulders until the creek became impassable and we were forced out onto a ridge leading to the stony western rim of Freeling Heights at about 900 metres.
It was clear to me by now that the group’s modus operandi was pretty laissez-faire. Walkers scattered across the landscape with the fastest walkers meeting up with whoever was leading at the time ( a moveable feast). Then followed a chat about navigating to the next landmark. Not really a problem up here on the Freeling Heights high tops, but later on, by mid afternoon, a niggling issue for those lagging behind when we descended onto the sandplains and dense Ti-tree thickets below Freeling Heights.
A brief stop on the western rim of Freeling Heights and we tore off again to find the impressive drystone cairn marking the summit at 944 metres.
We propped here for morning tea and to take in the very impressive views out over the tangled ‘all slopes’ topography and out onto the waterless and featureless plains beyond. In 1840, the explorer Edward John Eyre climbed alow ‘haycock- like’ peak on the plains just to our northand describedthe scene as ‘cheerless and hopeless’.He turned away and beat a hasty retreat to the south.
From Freeling Heights we dropped 250 metres down a steep escarpment covered in shattered quartzite onto a sandplain forming the headwaters of the Granite Plateau Creek system. For the next three days we would follow the gorges and sandy bed of Granite Plateau Creek out to its junction with Hamilton Creek near where, hopefully, the exit base camp had been established. Our base campers later reported that the drive from MacDonnell Creek/Edward Springs to Hamilton Creek had been long and tortuous, occupying most of the day.Apparently not something they were keen to repeat.
As the creek bed and its fringing flood plain were choked with dense thickets of White Tea-tree (Melaleuca glomerata), we edged uphill and took to the lower hills and ridges, all the while trying to maintain a line of travel to intersect with Tee Junction Waterhole five kilometres hence. But with fellow walkers spread over the landscape it was a toss up as to who was leading and who to follow . Thelow ridges and scrub made it difficult to see other walkers. But as we were not leading the walk and the terrain was unfamiliar, I kept stummabout any thoughts I harboured that we should be keeping together. Anyway, our leadersseemed to have the navigation under control.
I have done quite a bitof walking with John and Susan and I became aware that they were travelling much slower than they usually doand not keeping up with the rest of the group.
By mid-afternoon it dawned on me that Susan was hobbling along nursing a dodgy ankle or foot; apparently damaged several hours ago on Freeling Heights. When we finally dropped into GranitePlateau Creek late in the afternoon, John, Susan and I decided to take an early mark and propped at the first decent waterhole. It was agreed that the rest of the party would head downstream to Tee Junction Waterhole for the first night’s camp.
While Susan soaked the injured ankle/foot in the waterhole , John and I set up tents, collected firewood (too easy)and got the campfire going. This was a campsite par excellence: sandy tent platforms, abundant firewood and heaps of water (once purified). We would be very comfy here for the night( GR: 475678 Yudnamutana 1: 50,000 AGD 84 ).
Monday: Tee Junction to third overnight camp: Granite Plateau Creek: 6.5 kms.
A very early start as we had promised the others that we would catch up with them at Tee Junction Waterhole as soon as possible. It is called Tee Junction because Saucepan Creek joins Granite Plateau Creek at an angle of 900. With Susan’s foot strapped and booted we nipped offdownstream. After one and half kilometres of creek hopping and thrice longer time wise than expected, we found Team SA about 8.30 am, waiting patiently. In a previous life and in a far away continent, Jack had workedas a paramedic and he set to and re-strapped my bodgy job on Susan’s ankle.
This done, we cooked up a plan to get Susan through the walk as there was no possibility of turning back. The base birds at our Edwards Springs HQ had already flown the coop. The Landrover and Pajero would, by now, have started the long drive around to Hamilton Creek via Greenhill Hut and Valley Bore. The plan was to ease Susan through the rest of the walk. Back at Tee Junction Waterhole we split into two groups. The South Australians would continue downstream at their own pace leaving John to assist Susan while I scouted ahead to find the easiest route. They would wait for us to catch up at lunchtime and we would meet again for the evening camp GR: 475678 Yudnamutana 1:50,000 AGD 84)
Today’s walk was through a spectacular part of the Mawson Plateau, Granite Plateau Creek. We inched down its deeply incised gorge with numerous dry waterfalls, deep cold pools lined with River Red Gums and picturesque sandy beaches.Our Yudnamutana 1:50,000map sheet notated this section of the creek as having: ‘Numerous Rockholes‘.
An understatement. Our downstream progress dropped to a mere five kilometres for a full day’s walking as we negotiated the innumerable waterfalls, deep waterholes, slippery rocks and gorge walls.By my calculationswe were averaging about half a kilometre an hour.One of the few trip reports I later unearthed on Granite Plateau Gorge also recounted excruciatingly slow progress.
But it was well worth the effort. The gorge was superb. One never tired of the waterfalls and rock pools even though they were more often than not an obstruction. At the top of each waterfall we would survey the the route ahead and conclude it wasn’t possible to scramble downsafely. Frustrating. Instead we would scrabble up onto the open ridges of granite sheets above us and then work our way around and back down into Granite Plateau Creek. This process added hours to our travel time and heavy rucksacks didn’t help. Where was my length of climbing tape when we needed it?
The rock pools were etched deeply into a pink granite bedrock, the water retained by its impermeable granite base. Each pool guarded by jumbles of huge boulders and dry waterfalls. The granite, glass-like, highly polished, smoothed by eons of grit and running water. The polished surfaces were objects of great beauty but it was wise to be attentive when scrabbling near the lip of any waterfalls. The granite surfaces were covered by loose grus – small angular fragments of disintegrated granite common in arid and semi-arid environments. These had a disconcerting tendency to skid underfoot when crossing the granite pavements. We were a long, long way from any help. I was told that the nearest rescue helicopter was 500 kilometres away in Adelaide.
At the downstream end of the plunge pools were massive banks of sand, idyllic and beach-like. Often shaded by the bleached, white trunks of gnarly River Red Gums. Ideal locations for a lunch stops and camp sites. In retrospect, I would have gratefully spent a few extra few nights coming through this gorge section and spending the afternoons exploring the plateau above the cliff lines.
It was at one of these pools that we finally caught up with our friends. They had already eaten and had a refreshing (read: freezing) dip; but the water was far too cold for three sub-tropical Queenslanders. During the break concern was expressed at our slow progress and that we may not reach our exit point for another two to two and a half days. Then followed more discussion about our situation and the suggestion of setting off the PLB and having Susan extracted by helicopter. A big over-reaction I thought, as did Susan and John. Susan was coping, albeit slowly and cautiously.The decision was left to Susanwho said that she was able make it out as long as she took things carefully.
We parted company again with our friends, who promised to wait for us at a suitable downstream campsite. Good as their word, they were bunkered down in a beautiful sandy and level campsite. (GR: 512696 Yudnamutana 1:50,000 AGD 84). We scampered in a tad before darkness closed over the deep gorge. An excellent choice. Heaps of room, plenty of firewood and a water supply just a short walk away. How good is this hiking life? For a third night we settled around a campfire and chewed the fat until weary bones finally sent us to our tents.
Wednesday: Camp Three in Granite Plateau Creek to final base camp near The John Waterhole: 15 kms.
Out again in pre-dawn light to jig up the campfire and boil the billy. My breakfast pickings were pretty meagre as I decided to eke out the rations just in case our exit took two more days. Our threesome were underway by 7.30 am but progress was promptly blocked some 100 metres downstream.
A difficult, long bypass, up and around, taking well over an hour. Not an encouraging start to the day. A bit deflating, in fact. John suggested that we could speed up our progress by climbing up onto the open granite plateau to our east (marked on the map as Numerous Exposed Rocks) and walking to the north east to avoid the worst of the creek’s obstructions. The plan was shelved when we had a good look at the terrain above the gorge and decided that the lack of obvious landmarks on this dry, featureless surface would make for difficult navigation. Far safer to continue plugging our way downstream, come what may.
Although we didn’t realise it at the time, we had just bypassed our last major obstruction. We had unknowingly scored a ‘get out of jail free’ pass. The going got easier with fewer and less complex obstructions. As the gradient eased Susan found the walking much easier and so the pace picked up.
We pulled up for morning tea under a massive free-standing granite tor, a photo of which I had seen in one of the few trip reports on the Mawson Plateau that I have been able to ferret out.While we lolled in the shade I dragged out our map which showed another belt of ‘Numerous Rockholes‘ ahead, which was a bit disconcerting. Perhaps the estimation of another two daysto our collection pointwas, indeed, close to the mark? Our navigationmade problematic by the fact of our collection point being off the current map sheet. The next map sheet over was a 1:250,000, which we didn’t have. As a precaution, I had annotated my ‘Yudnamutana‘ map margin with the vague instructions from one of the SA bushwalkers: ‘campsite at least 3 kmsfurther downstream‘,‘look for Mt Shanahan near junction with Hamilton R’, ‘ ruins of stone hut on W bank‘. None of this was very reassuring.
Our final belt of ‘Numerous Rockholes’ proved a fizzer. Instead we were treated to some of the best arid landscape gorge walking that I have ever done. A sandy creek bed, pools shaded by arching River red gums and red rocky cliffs lifting to the deep blue outback sky. Much more satisfying than creeping down the dark, dank creek lines of coastal Queensland. By our lunch breakat 1.00pm we knew the worst of the obstructions were now behind us. It was tempting to take an early mark at one of these magnificent campsites: sandy beaches, abundant water, large shady Eucalypts: no litter and no evidence of the imprint of man.But we were consciousthat our slow progress would be a considerable worry to the rest of the party and so we decided to plug on until 4.30 pm . Another long day of nine hours on the hoof.
From here the gorge walls dropped away, the sandy creek bed meandered in long loops, allowing us to save time by cutting corners, traversing over low stony ridge linesinstead of humping our rucksacks up and down steep rock faces.
By mid afternoon we had lost our position on the map, foxed by the numerous unmarked tributaries, the tortuous meandering of the creek and the sameness of the elevated points above us. No particular landmarks stood out and while our average speed was faster than previous days, any estimate of distance travelled downstream was a rough guess at best. We were reasonably certain that we had moved off the ‘Yudnamatana’ mapsheet and were now effectively mapless.Also GPSless . .
Soon after 4.00 pm we popped out onto a large braided creek junction. For a whilewe had been expecting to see Mt Shanahan as a guide to our position relative to the Hamilton River junction. But Mt Shanahan had completely evaded us. Unbelieveable. Was this the Hamilton River junction? We took a punt and decided that it was large enough. A quick check of the direction of flood debris suggested that we turn north. It was now a matter of ploughing on in the main river bed until we found a suitable waterhole to camp at. Alas, no more water, just a dry river bed.
A little while later John remarked that he could smell smoke. We wandered on, still getting the occasional whiff of Eucalyptus scented smoke. Then I heard the distant purring of a diesel engine. Station owners?
Our walk was over. Ahead was a bluff and waterhole ( now dry) that we recognised as campsite 5 from our 2016 Camel Expedition. Our friends had arrived mid-afternoon and had set up their tents, got the fire going and the billy boiling.
Above the Hamilton River are the ruins of an old hut. The only remains were crumbling dry-stone walls with the brush roof long gone.It may have been built by a shepherd or an old-time miner. Whoever occupied it the decades that followed would have been treated to one of the most picturesqueviews in the northern Flinders Ranges. Come mid- summer, though, it would have been a hell on earth.
My thanks to John and Susan for the road trip into Arkaroola via Camerons Corner and the Strzelecki Track. A big thanks also to our very generous South Australian bushwalking hosts, especially Cathy and Peter for the trip back to Adelaide and for putting me up overnight in their very comfortable home.
Mt Moffatt is a remote and relatively pristine section of Carnarvon National Park in Central Queensland. It occupies the headwaters of the western flowing Maranoa River; a diverse landscape of broad valleys, basalt tablelandsand isolated outcropsof Precipice sandstone.
This former beef grazing property, was purchased by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service in1979to add to their extensive Central Queensland Sandstone park estate.
Mt Moffatt is an elevated sandstone and basalt parkaveraging about 700 – 800 metres in elevation, rising to 1232 metres on the basalt-capped Consuelo Tableland in the park’s north-east. The park was named after a solitary basalt peak, Mt Moffatt (1097 metres), standing hundreds of metres above the East Branch of the Maranoa River.
The Consuelo Plateau is known as ‘The Roof of Queensland’ as it forms the headwatersof many Queensland rivers. Carnarvon Creek flows eastwards into the Comet and Dawson thence to the Fitzroy River. Draining westwards across Mt Moffatt is the Maranoa River, ultimately feeding the Murray-Darling system.
Mt Moffatt has a diverse plant community of open woodlands, tall Eucalypt forests and vast open grassy plains.
Unlike its near neighbour, Carnarvon Gorge, this is an open terrain of sandstone spires, arches and extensive clifflines of Precipice Sandstone.
It has a rich human history. Aboriginal stencil art is abundant and their occupation stretches back at least 19,000 years. Reminders of the area’s life as a cattle property are seen in relict stockyards and fencing. For those of you fascinated by bushrangers, Mt Moffatt was site of the grisly murders of Constable George Doyle and station manager Christian Dahlke by the notorious Kenniff brothers.
I have been visiting Mt Moffatt since 1988 and since then have hiked with family and friends many times across Mt Moffatt and the Consuelo; and more latterly have walked the six day Carnarvon Great Walk which incorporates Carnarvon Gorge and Mt Moffatt.
My walking companion, youngest son, had just swanned in from months of pounding the mountain trails of the Swiss Alps and Nepal. Lean and fit, he was keen for one final fling before returning to work in early November. We tossed around the possibilities. Frenchman’s Cap, The Labyrinth, the Western Arthurs were his hot choices while Moreton Island or Fraser Island looked like cushy numbers for me. The art of compromise, a 80 kilometre outing to Mt Jagungal in northern Kosciuszko National Park. The iconic Jagungal Wilderness Area is part of The Australian Alps Bioregion, the only truly alpine environment in New South Wales as well as the only part of mainland Australia to have been affected by Pleistocene glaciation.
Over the Alps: To Jagungal on Foot and Fire Trail.
Our timing was impeccable. The Bureau of Meteorology’s Snowy Mountains Regional Forecast promised us: Wednesday: ‘snow showers’ and ‘fresh to strong southerly winds’. The clincher was the ‘minimum of -2ºC, and a maximum of 0ºC’. More of the same for Thursday with relief coming on Friday: ‘fine sunny weather, minimum -3ºC, maximum 9ºC’. We somehow misplaced the fine sunny bit. Youngest son, outfitted with cosy thermals and multiple polapluses, seemed relaxed about all this snow stuff, so I wasn’t overly concerned but wondered if my warm Queensland blood was up to the task.
Once in Canberra I was despatched to Manuka to source the all important hiking rations. Too easy: a big bag of beer nuts, no-brand cups of soup, two-serve pastas, mountain bread, ten yoghurt coated muesli bars, tang, eight Laughing Cow soft cheese wedges, twelve mini Mars bars and two knobs of pepperoni salami to placate youngest son’s carnivorous tendencies. But, when it was too late, at the isolated Whites River hut, he discovered that his confidence in the largesse of this provedore was sadly misplaced. There is an old saying about living on the smell of an oily rag that seems apposite. But I will return to this well chewed bone of contention later.
Map: Geehi Dam: 1:25000.
Map: Jagungal: 1:25000.
Map:Tim Lamble: Mt Jagungal and the Brassy Mountains: 1:31680.
Map: Wyborn, D., Owen, M., Wyborn, L: Geology of Kosciuszko National Park: 1;250000. ( BMR Canberra 1990 ).
Hueneke, K: Huts of the High Country (ANU Press 1982).
Johnson, D, The Geology of Australia ( Cambridge University Press 2009 ).
Tuesday: Guthega Power Station to Whites River Hut: 10 kms.
With a 5.00pm departure we left the bluebell coloured Camry orphaned at the Guthega Power Station, the Australian Alpine Walking Track entrance. The track zig- zagged steeply uphill. With fine cool weather and a window of three hours to cover the ten kilometres to White’s River, there was no particular hurry and apart from a 240 metre altitude gain it was a most agreeable evening’s ramble, as we beetled along in a companionable silence.
Australia’s Subalpine Landscapes
We followed the winding track across a typical subalpine landscape of snow gum woodland interspersed with open grasslands. The subalpine zone in Australia is that in which snow gums are the only tree species, lying between approximately 1400 m and 1700 m. Above 1700 m to about 2000 m, on the Australian mainland, is the treeless alpine zone.
Vistas of extensive treeless grasslands unfolded along the valley floor. These grasslands are said to be the result of cold air pooling in valleys forming frost hollows, producing a microclimate inimical to the survival of trees and shrubs. In the dampest parts where the water table is close to the surface, spongy bogs and fens dominate. The higher ridges are covered in snow gum woodland, the lower edge of the community terminating sharply, forming a definite tree line on a contour around each plain.
Itwas sobering to find huge swathes of the snow gum woodland burnt out, their dead branches arching over our heads. Lines of fire-ravaged hills retreated to the far horizon, but, on an optimistic note, the dominant snow gums were now suckering vigorously from their lignotubers. In 2003 massive fires burnt much of the park and sections of the plateau were still closed until mid 2006. Fire is, of course, part of the natural regime of Kosciuszko, with an average of 100 days annually of high to extreme fire danger. It has the dubious distinction of being one of the most fire prone areas in the world. Fortunately, this area from Guthega to Jagungal was untouched by the massive fires of the summer of 2019-2020.
We reached White’s on dusk. I wussed out, keen for a comfy bunk in the hut. Surprisingly, I met little resistance … for a change. The plummeting temperature, barely holding at 3ºC, dampened our enthusiasm for things outdoorsy: like sleeping in freezing tents, no camp fire, and fourteen hours incarcerated in a hike tent.
Whites River Hut
White’s River Hut, typical of many high country huts, was built in1935 by sheep farmers who engaged in the transhumance of their flocks, grazing them on the high alpine meadows of the Rolling Grounds in summer, retreating to the protected Snowy River stations for winter. Summer grazing on high pastures ceased in the 1970’s.
Constructed of sheet iron, White’s is a basic, dingy hut, appreciated in cold, wet weather, but rarely used on hot summer days. Like most Kosciuszko huts it has sleeping bunks, a fireplace or woodstove, woodstore, tatty table and bench seats and an outdoor dunny. Whites is unusual in that it had an additional, stand-alone four person bunkhouse (since burnt down accidentally), known as ‘The Kelvinator’, for obvious reasons. If it is not obvious to the reader then Kelvinators were a famous brand of Australian refrigerators. This was the last refuge for desperate winter skiers, no doubt thankful to escape from the malevolent Rolling Grounds but usually arriving frozen to the core only to discover there was no room left in the inn.
The main hut is also the refuge 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. On a visit in 2005, Bubbles made off with our leader’s head torch, dragging it towards his bolt hole stopping occasionally to dine on its hard plastic coating. Tonight, these pint sized bush banditos were content with keeping son in a state of high alert as they tip-ratted through hut rubbish and skittered along the wooden beam highways above our beds. For my part I slept as well as can be expected for a Queenslander. Cold air seeped through my down sleeping bag, thermal liner bag, two thermal shirts, a polar plus jacket, beanie, gloves, woollen socks x2, thermal long johns and over trousers. How cold could it be?
Wednesday: Whites River Hut, Schlink Hilton Hut, Valentines Hut and Grey Mare Hut: 19 kms.
We found out in the morning. All was quiet. No birds, no Bubbles, nosound of running water. Just the muffled fall of light snowflakes susurrating against the hut. Nature called and I emerged at six o’clock and applied my final layer, a thick Gore-Tex rain jacket, which seemed to do the trick. Youngest son surfaced soon after, although I have observed that he normally lies doggo until Jeeves has a fire blazing and breakfast is on the way.
There is nothing like walking in a light snowfall. Cold it may be, but to be out walking on a high country trail in crisp alpine air, is an experience to be remembered. Our bodies quickly warmed up as we ascended towardsSchlink Pass at 1800 metres. In any case our warm gear and wind proofs kept us snug and dry. All too soon we topped the pass and descended to The Schlink Hilton. This twenty bunk ex-SMA hut was named after Herbert ‘Bertie’ Schlink, who was one of a party of four who were the first to complete the Kiandra to Charlottes Pass trip in three days in July 1927.
We ducked in, out of the drifting snowflakes, deposited plops of melting snow, removed several thermal layers, and then squelched off again to the start of the Valentine Fire Trail. Valentine’s marks the start of The Jagungal Wilderness Area. Centred on Mt Jagungal (2060m), this isolated area is a bushwalking paradise: mountain peaks, snowgrass plains, high alpine passes, the massive Bogong Swamp and a derelict gold mine. The area is closed to vehicles but numerous fire trails provide sheltered walking when bad weather closes in over The Kerries and Gungartan.
By 10.30, the snow showers clearing, we sighted Valentine’s Hut, its fire truck red livery standing out against a grey skeletal forest of dead snow gums. Valentine’s is my all time favourite high country hut. Another ex-SMA hut, this natty little four person weatherboard hut has a clean airy feel, with table, bench seats and a wood stove in its kitchen. A home away from home. Other huts are usually dark, sooty, plastered with candle grease and graffiti and generally described as dirty and dingy. Valentine’s has been painted inside and out, has ample windows and, for added creature comfort, a newish corrugated iron dunny close by.
Youngest son, ever hungry, was keen for an early lunch in the snug comfort of Valentine’s, out of the clutches of the blustering southerlies. Two mountain bread roll-ups filled with peanut paste, salami and cheese, a mini Mars and a few handfuls of beer nuts vanished in a flash. He: “What’s next?” Well nothing. Some grumbling about catering arrangements and we were on our way to the Grey Mare, but not before I deemed it politic to requisition a packet of cous cous and pasta from the ‘please help yourself food pile’. The final leg would take us across Valentine’s Creek, over the Geehi (boots off for me), then up and over a 1700 metre alpine moor to Back Flat Creek with a final unwelcome crawl 60 metres up to the Grey Mare Hut for an early mark.
Grey Mare Hut
Grey Mare was a miner’s hut. Gold was discovered in the vicinity in1894 at the Bogong Lead, later called Grey Mare Reef. Initially it was worked as a pit but flooding of shafts ended the first sequence of occupance in 1903. An output of 28.3 kgs of gold in 1902 made it one of the highest yielding gold fields in New South Wales. 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. The bush around the hut is littered with all kinds of mining knick-knacks: 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( since replaced with something safer).
The six berth hut is standard dingy but large and comfortable with a huge fireplace and the best hut views in the park. From our doorstep we had views northwards up the grassy valley of Straight Creek and peeking above Strumbo Hill, the crouching lion, Mt Jagungal, tomorrow’s destination. Looking to the east I could see Tarn Bluff, Mailbox Hill and the Cup and Saucer which I visited in 2017.Behind us was the Grey Mare Bogong topping out at 1870 metres.
By three o’clock, the worms were biting and son was already scruffling through the rations looking hopefully for cups of soup and pasta with Nescafe caramel lattes and chocolate chasers to appease his now constantly rumbling tum. Meanwhile, I set to with bush saw to lay in our wood supply for what was shaping up to be a windy, cold night. No problems with collecting bush timber here, the hut is set in a stand of dead snowgums. By five o’clock it was cold enough to rev up the fire. Come dark we banked the fire and drifted to our bunks, snuggling down into warm bags. The predicted ‘windy’ conditions made for a restless night with a banging door and overhanging branches raking the corrugated iron chimney.
Thursday: Grey Mare to Jagungal and return: 22 kms.
Up at six o’clock in anticipation of the long walk to Jagungal and back. Snowshowers again, a gusting tail wind catching our rucksacks and driving us sidewards off the Grey Mare Trail as we headed north. With Phar Lap out in front and Dobbin coming at a steady gallop behind, we burned up the kilometres, hayburners from hell, past Smith’s Lookout (1748m), across the Bogong Swamp (dry), rock hopped over the Tooma River, and thence to our Jagungal access at the Tumut River campsite. And not a single grey mare in sight. A heap of beer nuts and a yoghurt bar each and we were off again, a 220 metres climb onto the mist shrouded south west ridge, a sharp turn left and an easier 160 metre ridge walk to Jagungal Summit at 2062 metres. The Roof of Australia, or near enough. The mist cleared…. how lucky was that?
Mt Jagungal 2061 m.
Jagungal is instantly recognisable from over much of Kosciuszko. A reassuring landmark for bushwalkers and skiers alike, a beacon… an isolated black rocky peak standing above the surrounding alpine plains. It is at the headwaters of several major rivers: the Tumut, the Tooma and the Geehi. It was known to cattlemen as The Big Bogong or Jagunal. The later spelling, Jagungal, is considered by the old timers a latter day perversion. Jagungal 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: Paddy Rushs Bogong, Dicky Cooper Bogong and Grey Mare Bogong.
Unlike most of the other Bogongs whose granitic origins are revealed bytheir characteristic whaleback profiles, Jagungal’s summit is distinctively peaky. It sports a lizard like 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 Jagungal Volcanics. Its origins date back to 470 to 458 Ma, to the Middle Ordovician. It is surrounded by the Kiandra Volcanic Field, part of a belt of volcanoes called the Molong Volcanic Arc.
During theThe Ordovician ( 485 to 444 Ma), Australia was part of a single super-continent and much of Eastern Australia was covered by the sea. Chains of active volcanoes occupied parts of central New South Wales. These were mainly submarine volcanoes but some emerged to form small islands with fringing limestone reefs.The Ordovician saw the first appearance of corals and land plants.
Jagungal was ascended by Europeans in the winter of 1898 when a partyfrom 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. It was so clear that we could even discern Victoria’s Mt Bogong on the far southern horizon. But the cold wind soon drove us into a protected sunny nook just under the summit. We hunkered down, lunched, son eased into one of his regular catnaps…. no doubt dreaming of Nepal and wolfing down a huge bowl of Nepali boiled potatoes and rice; or perhaps a large slice of pizza; or even, given our now parlous food situation, a plate of succulent fried Bogong Moths.
I had noticed on a previous trip and again on our ascent today, huge raucous flocks of crows 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 ‘crows’, actually Little Ravens (Corvus mellori), were gathering to feed on Agrotis infusa, the drab little Bogong moth, found only in Australia and New Zealand. To escape the summer heat, these moths 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 jet streams, and settle in crevices and caves, stacked in multiple layers, 17,000 of them in a square metre, where they undergo aestivation 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.
Aborigines and the Bogong Moths
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 a smoke signal 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 in Australia’s bush capital, acted as a moth magnet, and they camped in Canberra for their summer recess, unlike our political masters.
Men caught the moths in bark nets or smoked them out of their crevices. They 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 the moths, aborigines and ravens all decamped and headed for the warmer lowlands. As did my travelling companion and I.
Friday: Grey Mare Hut to Horse Camp Hut: 24 kms
Of necessity, a long day’s walk ahead to put us close to our Guthega exit. Windy and cool again, and no sign of the fine sunny weather promised by our BOM friends. Which was just as well as my radiator was boiling on our way up the steep 200 metre climb out of Back Creek en route to Valentine’s. Today we would be walking south, towards the Main Range. Here was an excellent opportunity to identify from our map the classics of Kosciuszko walking that had been shrouded in mist on our outward walk: The Kerries, Gungartan, Dicky Cooper Bogong, the Rolling Grounds, Mt Tate, Twynam and the biggest Bogong of all, Targan-gil or Mt Kosciuszko.
Horse Camp Hut
Late in the afternoon we turned off the Schlink and found our way to Horse Camp Hut, tucked in snow gum woodland 300 metres below the Rolling Grounds, a high altitude granite plateau above the tree line at 1900+ metres, cold, windy and exposed but spectacular. It is said to be very difficult to navigate in bad weather. I noted in the hut log book that a number of winter skiers had ‘GPSed’ their way to Horse Camp from the Rolling Grounds. It is claimed that the Rolling Grounds are so named because during the summer grazing, stock horses would enjoy a good old dust bath and roll in the many depressions that dot this high altitude plateau.
Horse Camp Hut, of Lilliputian dimensions, still manages a serviceable fireplace, kitchen cum lounge cum wood storage, table, a few decrepit chairs and a separate room with a wood stove and two bunks. Apparently nine girls from SGGS Redlands and their gear were crammed into the room on a wild wet night earlier this year. With temperatures hovering at 2ºC I lit the fire and we polished off whatever meagre rations were left: soup, pasta, noodles and Nescafe Latte laced with Milo lifted from the hut ‘left overs’.
Saturday: Horse Hut Camp to Guthega Power Station. 4 kms.
Up at 6.00. Freezing and no fire or breakfast genie this morning. We set out ASAP, fully rugged up, as the sun lifted over Disappointment Ridge for our final four kilometres into Guthega, downhill. Hopefully Bluebell would be still where we left her. She was, and despite her coat of frost, she fired up and we were away. Off to Sawpit Creek for breakfast, a coffee in Cooma then a slap-up feed and a cold goldie back in Canberra. A fitting end to an outstanding alpine sojourn.
Nestled high up in Kosciuszko National Park’s Jagungal Wilderness Area at about 1850 metres is Bluff Tarn. It is a small alpine lake set in an extensive landscape of alpine ridges, swiftly flowing rivers and the vast swamps that make up the area loosely called Australia’s High Country. Robert Green in his book ‘Exploring the Jagungal Wilderness’ describes Bluff Tarn as “…one of the prettiest spots in the mountains”.
On an early November afternoon I set off with five bushwalking friends, Sam, David, Joe, Richard and Brian on a seven day, 60 kilometre cross country circuit from Guthega to Bluff Tarn on the upper Geehi, then to Tin Hut on the headwaters of the Finn River. Our route started at Guthega Power Station and took in Whites River Hut, Gungartan (2068 m), The Kerries Ridge (2000 + m), Mawsons Hut, the Cup and Saucer (1934 m), Bluff Tarn, the Mailbox (1900 + m), the Brassy Mountains (1972 m), Tin Hut, the Porcupine (1960 m), and Horse Camp Hut via the Aqueduct Track.
The alpine forecast wasn’t quite what this leader was hoping for. Showers most days, starting with a possible thunderstorm for our first day on the track. Temperatures would be pretty friendly though: 7°C to 18° C . Apparently, our luck really would desert us on Friday, 6 days hence. A 90 % chance of 20 to 40 millimetres. Upgraded later in the week to 100 millimetres. I was disinclined to hang around to test out that old saying that ” there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”.
Novemberis my preferred alpine hiking month. The weather is starting to settle; night temperatures are bearable, day temperatures are just perfect; and even light snowfall makes for magical walking. Water is abundant and easy to find. Wildflowers are blooming but best of all, those nuisance bush flies and their high country cousins, the biting Horse/ March/ Vampire flies have yet to descend on the unsuspecting walker.
Horse or March flies appear as adults almost unvarying in the second week of December and hang around all the way through to February. Although theyare called March flies theyare rare in alpineareas in March.
These are large members of the Family TABANIDAE (genus Scaptia). March flies, at 25 mm, are the largest of our biting dipterans. The female does the blood sucking bit, while the benign male is content to feed on nectar and pollen.
On one mid-December Kiandra to Kosciuszko trip in 2006 with my friend Brian, March fly numbers were truly appalling. There was no escape from these pests. They operated on a sunrise to sunset roster and were so bad that it was unpleasant to stop for the vitals like meal breaks, water stops and even navigation checks. They attacked with persistence and determination, and could bite through clothing with impunity. We often tried to find huts for meal breaks, but failing that, donned fly veils, rain jackets and long trousers or rain pants to keep the blighters at bay while we ate. As Queenslanders, our preferred hiking apparel is usually shorts and short sleeved shirts, not thick rain jackets and long trousers. On the warmish December days the rain jacket/rain pants garb was not for the faint hearted.
Alpine Wildflowers: Photos by Sam
Map: Geehi Dam: 1:25000.
Map: Jagungal: 1:25000.
Map: Tim Lamble: Mt Jagungal and The Brassy Mountains: 1:31680.
Green, K and Osborne, W: Field Guide to Wildlife of Australian Snow-Country. (New Holland 2012).
Hueneke, K : Huts of the High Country (ANU Press 1982).
Codd, P , Payne, B, Woolcock, C : The Plant Life of Kosciuszko. (Kangaroo Press 1998).
McCann, I: The Alps in Flower. (Victorian National Parks Assn 2001).
Bluff Tarn: Jagungal Wilderness : Kosciuszko National Park.
Sunday: Guthega Power Station to Whites River Hut: 8 kms.
With cars stabled at the Guthega Power Station we wandered off, ever upward. Sam, David and Richard setting a pretty lively pace under a low leaden sky. There were just enough irritating spots of rain to encourage the old laggards creaking along in the rear to lift our pace. Mid- climb, a squadron of two-wheeling weekend warriors swooped around a blind corner. Braking furiously, some nifty controlled slides, a spray of gravel, and they were off again, pedalling downhill at speed. Eat my dust, Boomer. Our mountain biking friends also anxious to reach cover before the heavens opened. Given my weighty rucksack, I too, could be sucked into this mountain biking game.Though I’m pretty sure that I would end up pushing said mountain bike up the current 250 metre ascent.
I may curse my heavy rucksack but mostly I am grateful for the good things its contentsmake possible: a snug downysleeping bag, the protective cover of my little Macpac one-man tent, a comfy sleeping mat and a generous supply of crystallised ginger and chocolate licorice bullets.
By 3.30 pm we landed at Whites River Hut, disconcerted to find four tents moored on the creek flats below the hut. The tents belonged to a bunch of hikers from the Newcastle Ramblers Bushwalking Club, apparently intent on doing much the same circuit as we had planned. No sweat. Plan B. They were no shirkers, these Novocastrian types. Instead of lolling around the hut for the afternoon (as I would have happily done), they struck out on a somewhat damp stroll across the tops from the Rolling Grounds to nearby Dicky Cooper Bogong (SMA 0113: 2003 m). The place name ‘Dicky Cooper Bogong’ recognises the the traditional Aboriginal custodian of this mountain, one Dicky Cooper.
Aborigines inhabited these highlands as far back as 21,000 years ago with evidence of their occupation coming from Birrigal Rock Shelter in Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve and many sites in the upper Snowy River. Small stone scatters can be found in the alpine landscapes with the highest being a collection found near the saddle of Perisher Gap (1800m).
It is well known that aborigines travelled to these highlands in the summer months to collect and eat the abundant Bogong Moths which were found sheltering in the rocky crevices of all the major outcrops in the Snowy Mountains. I have written extensively about this in my trip report Kiandra to Kosciuszko.
Many place names in the Alps have been derivedfrom local Aboriginal languages: Jagungal, Jindabyne, Talbingo, Yarrangobilly, Suggan Buggan, Mitta Mitta and Tumut. It is not hard to find many otherexamplesfrom your maps. Apparently the Geographical Place Names Board of NSW is considering giving Mt Kosciuszko a traditional Aboriginal name (Kunama) which would sit alongside its current name.
On dusk the predicted showers finally arrived, as did a damp and dishevelled clutch of boys and their teachers from Bathurst. No hanging out in comfortable huts for this lot: they pitched their tents in the rain, had a quick feed then quietly settled down for the night. Meanwhile back at the ranch, Brian’s traditional first night treat of bangers and mash seemed to have spread like some medieval contagion. Most of my fellow hikers had succumbed to this dubious culinary delight and were enthusiastically whipping up dollops of instant mash leavened with green peas, sun-dried tomatoes, and heating neatly folded alfoil cylinders containing pre-fried bangers: beef for preference but maybe lamb & rosemary for those with more delicate taste buds.
Monday: Whites River to Mawsons Hut via Gungarten and The Kerries: 11.5 kms.
Showers overnight but with the mist lifting from The Rolling Grounds and Gungartan, things were on the up and up, weather wise. As were Brian and Joe, clanking about in the dark, soon after 5.30 am. Disturbing my slumber. Our crafty Newcastle Bushwalkers friends still got the jump on us and had drifted off by 7.30 am. A comprehensive report of their walk can be found in the KHA Newsletter: No 178 Autumn 2018. But we were soon hot on their heels desperate not to be pegged as a bunch of idle slackers. Today’s walk would take us to Schlink Pass thence to Gungartan, down into Gungartan Pass, up along The Kerries to Mawsons Hut, tucked in a thicket of snow gums at the northern end of The Kerries. But first, the 300 metre climb from Schlink Pass to the Main Divide through snowgum forest.
The Kerries Ridge (2000 m), a spur of the Great Dividing Range, offers open alpine walking at its very best… in fine weather. This trackless ridge is a landscape of huge granite outcrops and vast alpine meadows. Suffice to say by the time we were well into The Kerries traverse, we watched a succession of storm cells sliding along the high peaks to our north and west, heading our way. Come lunchtime we hunkered down in the lee of a granite boulder, sheltering from the rain that Hughie dropped over us . I’m always a bit disconcerted to be caught out in the open alpine zone with distant lightning and thunder rolling around. But my fellow travellers didn’t seem all that concernedas they disappeared into their rain jackets and munched contentedly on muesli bars, dry biscuits and slabs of cheese. The rain eased to light drizzle, and we moved out, heading north, following the crest.
A further four kilometres of alpine tramping dropped us down to Mawsons Hut. Joe and Richard navigated us off the heights and down to our destination. Pretty much spot on. Being tucked into a grove of snowgums, the hut can be a bit difficult to find. Mawsons was deserted. A Novocastrian-free zone. When we last saw them ambling across Gungartan Pass, they were heading for Tin Hut on the Finn River. Another afternoon thunderstorm and hail swept through, driving us into the hut to finish drying our gear and have a feed.No fry up tonight. It was strictly dry rations for the rest of the weekfor this lot.
Tuesday: Day Walk to Cup and Saucer, Bluff Tarn and The Mailbox: 7 kms.
Fine weather and an easy day walk called us to the hills on our third day. From Mawsons we would cross the Valentine River; scamper up the Cup and Saucer; cut across the grasslands of the upper Geehi to Bluff Tarn; returning to Mawsons via The Mailbox. That was the plan and for once I stuck to it.
We left Mawsons in brilliant weather. A superb day of walking beckoned. We dropped down to the Valentine which still flowing strongly from the spring thaw but we sussed out a partly exposed gravel bed. Richard, Brian and Joe volunteered to check it out. Sacrificial lambs. I am told thatthere is nothing so grumpy as a leader with wet boots this early in the day.
The Cup is a granitic dome ( Happy Jacks Monzogranite: < 20 % quartz) sitting on its saucer, a shelf of nearly horizontal granitic rock. This Silurian granite is 444 to 419 my old and dates from a time when the Earth entered a long warm phase which continued for another 130 million years. Oceanic life flourished and vascular plants increased in size and complexity. The supercontinent Gondwana drifted south and extended from the Equator to the South Pole. Australia was located in the Equatorial zone.
From a distance the Cup and Saucer are well named and form an unmistakable landmark for kilometres in all directions. Topping the Cup is an old Snowy Mountains Authority Trig 133 standing at 1904 metres. This was our first objective. From the top of the Cup we should be able to see a line of travel across to Bluff Tarn.
It was only one and a half kilometresto the Cupbut swampy ground made our approach more circuitous than I anticipated. My original plan was to clamber up the long south western ridge to reach the Trig. But the final steep and damp and moss encrusted granite slabs thwarted all but Brian. Unsurprising really. His friends call him “Straight Line Brian”. Contouring or backing off isn’t part of Brian’s bushwalking lexicon. But the rest of us were content to retreat and scarpered up the more accessible northern face … without any further difficulties.Where upon we settled on the rock outcrops to take in the landscapeand enjoy a leisurely morning tea.
From the summit of the Cup and Saucerunfolded a vast alpine panorama. To the east rose up the high range of the The Brassy Mountains, part of Australia’s Great Dividing Range system. To oureast was the valleyof the Geehi River and its tributary, the Valentine River. Directly to our east and just below our vantage point is the Big Bend. Here the Valentine swings off its northerly course to flow south-west another six kilometres to its junction with the Geehi. No doubtthe granitic dome of the Cup and Saucer forms a structural control over the direction of flow of the Valentine.
To our north , less than a kilometre across the swampy headwaters of the upper Geehi valley was Tarn Bluff (1900 m) with Bluff Tarn tucked somewhere still out of sight.
Bluff Tarn certainly met our all our expectations. It is, indeed, “one of the prettiest spots in the mountains”. But is is not, strictly speaking, a tarn. Merely a lake. My inner pedant would tell you that a tarn is “a small mountain – rimmed lake, specifically one on the floor of a cirque”. No cirque here. But quibbles over geographical precision couldn’t detract from the beauty of our surroundings.
While Bluff Tarn is a small lake, it is fed by a major headwater tributary of the Geehi, with the stream cascading through and over large rounded boulders. The lower reaches of the cascades were still covered by a thick snowbank, even though we were only a few days short of the start of summer. I’m not sure of the origins of Bluff Tarn, but it appears to be formed as a shallow poolfed by the cascadesdropping over a shelf of harder rock. Its outlet was restricted by a prominent bank of coarse, unsorted gravels. It would have been interesting to spend more time checking out Bluff Tarn but the worms were biting and my fellow walkers had lost interest in playing in the snow. They were itching to move on for their lunch break.
Our lunch spotwas Mailbox Hill about a kilometre due east of Bluff Tarn … first though, one of Brian infamous uphill flat bits to raise a sweat and develop a healthy appetite for lunch. The Mailbox or Mailbox Hill, your choice, is a series of rounded outcrops standing at about 1910 metres. It was named The Mailbox because, I guess, mail was collected there by the cattlemen in the days of summer grazing.
The Kosciuszko Huts Association, my alpine bible, have researched the origin of the placename: Post was delivered to the men on the lease by a Mrs Bolton. She was engaged to deliver the mail on horseback to the Grey Mare Mine, travelling the old dray route from Snowy Plain across to Strumbo Hill. Ernie Bale recalled that on Mailbox Hill “there was a clump of rocks and they had shelves in them and sheused to leave the mail for Mawsons Hut – it was always known as the Post Office – she used to leave the mail and put a rock on top of it“.
After a leisurely lunch spent sprawled on slabs of rock well out of the reach of those pestilent little black alpine ants, we wandered off towards Mawsons keeping a weather eye on the clouds building over The Kerries. But not before some male argy bargyabout its location.
Later in the afternoon our Newcastle friends arrived from Tin Hut while the males were down at the creek having sponge-downs. We spent a very congenial evening around the campfire trading tall tales, listening to their hiking stories from far flung parts of the globe andgetting some very handy gear tips from Shayne.
Wednesday: Mawsons Hut to Tin Hut: 8.5 kms.
A pleasantly cool and clear high country morning. By 8.00 am we were packed and on the road. Our route would take us across to the western bank of the Valentine then a gentle 80 metre climb following an old fence line that is marked on my old Tim Lamble map. Tim’s maps, if you can get hold of one, provide a plethora of details useful to the bushwalker and skier: rock cairns, old fence lines, posts, old yards and even magnetic bearings. Anyone interested in maps will appreciate the quality of Tim’s cartography.
We followed the fence line up to a low rocky knoll overlooking the north-south trendingBrassy Mountains (1900m), directly in front of us. Klaus Hueneke in his well researched Huts of the High Country(ANU Press 1982) gives an explanation of the naming of Brassy Mountains .. “named in the early days on account of the reflection from running water over rocks. At certain times this resembles polished brass and can be seen from up to 16 kms away.”
A navigation huddle soon sorted out our next moves. The Brassy Peak (1900 m) was directly in front of us while The Big Brassy (SMA Trig 1972 m) was off to our south east, directly behind The Brassy Peak. But between our eyrie and The Brassy Mountains were the swampy headwaters of Valentine River. I had originally planned to follow the main divide of the Brassy Mountains south to Tin Hut. But an easier option was simply to cross the swamp and then contour along the western base of the Brassies keeping the thick heath just to our left but staying above the fens and bogs of the Upper Valentine to our right ... sound strategy in theory.
But before we trundled off towards Tin Hut there was plenty of time to clamber up to the rock cairn sitting atop The Brassy Peak. From here we looked westward over the vast network of fens and bogs of the upper Valentine to the craggy outline of the Kerries Ridge which we had traversed three days ago.
Bogs and Fens
The upper Valentine is a wide alpinevalley of impeded drainage: a fluvial landscape of bogs and fens. A fen is a specificgeomorphic and botanical entity: namely still clear, pools of standing water with ground-hugging matted plants and the easily recognisable Tufted Sedge, Carex gaudichaudiana.A number of small but showy flowering plants manage to thrive in these waterlogged conditions: the pale purple Mud Pratia (Pratia surrepens), the pale cream or white Dwarf Buttercup (Ranunculus millanii) and the white Rayless Starwort (Stellania multiflora).
Bogs are areas of wet, spongy ground also found in areas of impeded drainage. Floristically bogs are dominated by Spagnum Moss (Spagnum cristatum) and associated with a variety of rushes and sedges, especially the Tufted Sedge. Bogs are associated with the decomposition of organic matter which will ultimately form peat.
These high alpine valleys are commonly underlain by peats formed by the decomposition of plant material after the last glacial period (15000 years ago). The peats are important for absorbing and regulating waterflows in alpine Australia, thus are listed as protected communities under both State and Federal legislation. (PS: tell that to the brumbies).
So with sodden boots and a sense of achievement we pulled into Tin Hut after a full morning’s hiking; just in time for another well deserved bite to eat.Always looking for the next feed. Tinhas a bit of reputation for being difficult to locate in bad weather and is hidden in a belt of snowgums. But with fine , clear skies this was no issue for us.
Tin is the oldest hut in the High Country built specifically for ski touring. Its origins go back to Dr Herbert Schlink’s attempt at the first winter crossing from Kiandra to Kosciuszko. Schlink needed a staging post for his final push along The Great Divide. In the summer of 1925/1926 a bespoke hut was built on the site of an old stockmans’ camp at the head of the Finn River. As 2017 was the 90th anniversary of its construction, our visit was timely.
It is called Tin Hutbecause the roof and walls are constructed of corrugated iron. Some of the timber and iron for its construction was packed in by horseback across The Snowy Plain and The Brassy Mountains. It had a wooden floor and was lined with tongue and groove with the door opening to the east. Initially it was stocked with a horse rug, 24 blankets, a stove, tools and firewood. When Schlink’s party arrived from the south, a blizzard trapped them in the hut for three days, forcing them to give up the 1926 attempt.
On 28 July 1927 Dr Schlink, Dr Eric Fisher, Dr John Laidley, Bill Gordon and Bill Hughes skied out of Kiandra to reach Farm Ridge Homestead on the first night. Excellent snow cover allowed them to reach Tin Hut by 1.00 pm on the second day. They pressed on to the Pound Creek Hut (now Illawong Hut) on the second night. They completed the first winter traverse finishing at Hotel Kosciusko on the third day.
In 1928 Tin Hut served as the base for two winter attempts to Mt Jagungal. The party led by Dr John Laidley skiing to the summit…. for just the second time in history.
In 2017 restoration work on Tin commencedwith a partnership between the Parks Service and the Kosciuszko Huts Association. Men, gear and materials were helicoptered in for the major facelift. One KHA member, Pat Edmondson, eschewed the helicopter ride and walked in from and out to Schlink Pass. Pat was over 80 years old. I can only hope that I can still climb from Schlink Pass to Gungartan when I turn 80.
Afternoon stroll: Tin Hut to The Porcupine & Return: 5.5 kms.
Brian, ever keen on filling in his (and our) afternoons, decided that we shouldn’t waste time hanging around the hut. A more productive use of our time would be a quick jaunt over to The Porcupine, a nondescript alpine ridge (SMA 0109 :1960 m) which separates theFinn River from the Burrungubugge River. From the hut we climbed the long ridge behind the hut to a knoll from which we could look across to the Trig on The Porcupine. Unfortunately, a very steep drop into a saddle then a climb back up to the Trig separated us from our quarryon this decidedly warmishafternoon.Brian and his co-conspirators Richard and Joe were still keen as mustard, happy to descend and climb up again onto The Porcupine ridge. David and Sam seeing the lie of the land, sensibly returned to Tin Hut for an afternoon of leisure. The walk to Porcupine is a scenic enough walk, buton reaching The Porcupine ridge I observed that the heat was getting to them and so the lads weren’t pushing me to go any further. Bless their little hot socks.
We waddled back, avoiding the dreaded climb back up the knoll and reached Tin about 4.00 pm and set about a major rehydration, downing multiple cups of tea, soups and choc-au-laits.An evening perched around the campfire finished off a very satisfying day.
Thursday: Tin Hut to Whites River Hut : 7.5 kms
The easiest route to Whites was to climb the long ridge which separates the Valentine and Finn Rivers, keeping Gungartan to our west. An ascent of a mere 200 metres vertical, but with dense knee-high heath and the odd snake or ten lurking underneath, it seemed endless.One snake had decorously drapedits ectothermic body across the top of a heath bush, obviously hoping to warm up in the feeble sunlightand frighten the bejesus out of a passing bushwalker.
Once on top of the Great Dividing Range we bypassed Gungartan, skirting around its rocky spine until we had a view of Guthega Village.
Time for a snack stop, perched atop huge boulders. A well tested strategy to keep out of the clutches of the maurading hordes of those little black alpine ants that swarm over any rucksack carelessly tossed on the ground. More disconcerting is their ability to overrun boots, climb up gaiters and finally ascend the thighs of any alpine rambler. Trying summer camping in Wilkinsons Valley and tell me how it goes.
Alpine Ants: Iridomyrmex sp.
The ants are probably Iridomyrmex sp, whichmy copy of Green and Osborne’s Field Guide to Wildlife of the Australian Snow-Countrytells meare ” a conspicious part of the fauna in a few habitats, such as herbfield and grassland…. this omnivorous ant is the only common ant species in the alpine zone. It nests in waterlogged areas such as bogs, fens and wet heaths, and raise their nests above the water surface by constructing a mound of plant fragments in low vegetation. They are also found in tall alpine herbfield and dry heath.”
From our rocky eyrie we were treated to superb views across this small patch of Australia’s alpine wilderness.Time alsofor a weather update from duelling smartphones. Tomorrow: (Friday): 90 % chance of 20 to 40 mm. Maybe 100 mm. No arguments about pulling out a day early.
After a good laze around we skirted Gungartanand commenced thelong descent to Schlink Pass (1800 m). Landing in the pass, a mutiny of the “are you stopping for lunch ? ” typebroke out. Ever the considerate leader (probably not) , I caved in and we propped for lunch. Whites River Hut only one tantalising kilometre downhill.
We reached Whites River Hut soon after 2.00 pm. No interlopers on the radar so we had the place to ourselves. Despite tomorrow’s unfriendly weather report everything here was pretty relaxed. The usual suspects weren’t badgering for an afternoon walk (unusual), the weather was warm and sunny so a lazy afternoon beckoned.
We enjoyed a quick cat lick in the nearby icy snow-fed creek…. very quick, did any washing then spread clothes out to dry. The rest of the afternoon was filled with consuming cups of tea/coffee/soup; horse trading of leftover goodies, cutting wood, firing up the stove and reading whatever came to hand. Inside the hut were recycled Kosciuszko Hut Magazines and the hut log book.
Over the years the Whites River Hut log has provided us with many hours of very entertaining reading: the adventures of Bubbles the Bush Rat; the trolling of some trip leader called Robin andheaps of verywell executed drawings and cartoons. Mr Klaus Hueneke should write a book about this stuff.
Friday: Whites River Hut to Guthega Power Station via Aqueduct Track and Horse Camp Hut: 10 kms.
I peeked out. Heavy roiling clouds were brewing over Gungartan and heading our way.
By 8.00 am we had beetled off along the Munyang Geehi road before swinging off onto the Aquaduct track which crosses the Munyang Rivervia a weir. Nearby is an old SMA hut…locked to keep that mountain biking, sking and bushwalking riff-raff out.Especially those dastardly Mountain Bikers.
The Aquaduct trackis a gem of a walk. It winds above and parallel to the Munyang River, weaving around the hills on the 1800 metre contour.My kind of walking.
Mid morning we lobbed into the refurbished Horse Camp Hut for a final feed. I had been to Horse Camp before, returning froman early spring walk to Mt Jagungal with my youngest son. We got to Horse Camp just on dark. I remember how bitterly cold it was, how daggy the hut was and how our evening meal was pretty sparse, even by my standards.
Since then the Kosciuszko Huts Association and the Parks Service had been very busyand the hut was looking very spruce indeed. Unlike the young guy who had taken up residence in the hut. He was obviously therefor the long haulor maybe the end of the world and had somehow dragged in all manner of heavy duty camping gear.
Horse Camp Hut
Horse Camp is a two room, iron clad hut set in a belt of snow gums under The Rolling Grounds. Its construction history is a bit fuzzy but was built initially in the 1930s as a shelter for stockmen working the snow lease owned by the Clarke brothers. It has the main elements of a traditional grazing era mountain hut with a bush pole frame, steeply pitched gabled roof, clad with short sheets of corrugated iron that could be packed in on horses.
At some stage over the decades it was partitioned into two rooms – a northern bunk room with a pot belly stove and the main kitchen room. A ceiling loft was added as well as a wooden floor and nifty three panel narrow windows.Several of the modifications were done by the Snowy Mountains Authority in the early 1950s.The SMA used Horse Camp as a base for their horseback survey teams working on thefirst Snowy Mountains Project, the Guthega Dam and associated infrastructure.
Leavingour young prepper friend to his preparations for the Covid19 lockdown, we drifted off. A quick descent to the Guthega Power Station to find our vehicles waiting patiently in the car park, wheels and windscreen wipers still attached, and ready to transport us back to Canberra. But not before we detoured into the Parks Visitors Centre Parc cafe in Jindabyne for a selection of their satisfyingly greasy offerings, all washed down with a decent coffee.
As always, a big thank you to my band of merry bushwalking companions: Sam, David, Joe, Richard and Brian. May we enjoy many more rambles in the back blocks of Australia’s magnificent High Country.
A Late Autumn Hike from Kiandra to Canberra on the Australian Alps Walking Track
by Glenn Burns
I decided to publish my old journal of our Kiandra to Canberra hike on this website after the 2019/2020 summer fires damaged parts of the northern section of the Australian Alps Walking Track ( AAWT) . I have visited the Northern Plains many times and was fortunate to walk from Kiandra to Canberra several years ago with some friends; before the devastating fires. Much of the landscape we hiked through then was relatively intact . However in the summer of 2019/2020 this all changed. The summer fires burnt out the New South Wales trail head at Kiandra including the old Kiandra Court House, Wolgal Lodgeand Matthews Cottage.The last three days of the AAWT traverses Namadgi National Park in the Australian Capital Territory. In this section the Orroral Valley and Mt Tennant were burnt.Amazingly, the old Orroral Homestead was saved.
Through the years since the early 1970sI have wandered many a kilometre over Australia’s High Country and more than once have I peered through the grimy window of a high country hut into the pre-dawn gloom… often sleet or rain or mist swirling around outside. Excellent… back to the sack for another forty winks. But then I hear my fellow hikers. Pesky eager beavers all. Busy rustling around, pulling on boots, donning warm stuff and getting ready their rain gear. Champing at the bit , ever keen to hit the trail.
And so it was for five walkers on a late autumn, eight day traverse of the final northern section of Australian Alpine Walking Track (AAWT), stretching 105 kilometres from Kiandra on the Snowy Mountain Highway to Namadgi Park HQ on the outskirts of Canberra. The complete 659.6 kilometre AAWT crosses some of Australia’s remotest and highest alpine mountains and snowgrass plains with a weather regime that can be very hot on occasions but is more often than not cold, wet and highly unpredictable. As Alfred Wainwright, a famous English fell walker, wrote: ” There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”
NSW Dept of Lands: 1: 25000 maps :Ravine, Tantangara, Rules Point, Peppercorn, Rendezous Creek, Corin Dam, Williamsdale.
NSW Rural Fire Service Brochure:Bushfire Safety for Bushwalkers.
ACT Dept of Environment: 1:20000: Namadgi Guide & Map
Day One: Saturday 11 May: Outward Bound: Kiandra to Witzes Hut: 12 kms.
Just after midday, youngest son Alex taxied our hire van to a halt outside the old Kiandra Courthouse since destroyed in the 2019/2020 summer fire season. The Old Court House was the only remaining building of the old gold mining town of Kiandra: population in 1859, 10,000; now.. zero population. A sudden population explosion as five walkers plunged out of the warm van and into a blast of cool air: Ross , Leanda , Peter, John and last but not least, their esteemed and worthy leader, yours truly. The race was on for the few sunny spots out of the cool blustery wind. We wolfed down our Cooma take-aways, bade Alex a fond farewell, then hit the track, the Nungar Hill Trail. Our afternoon on the AAWT took us northward over rolling snowgrass plains at about 1450 metres, broken only by occasional alpine streams, which we forded with dry boots and socks intact: the Eucumbene River, Chance Creek, Kiandra Creek and just before Witzes Hut, Tantangara Creek. After Chance Creek we climbed to the crest of the Great Dividing Range, known locally as the Monaro Range. A minor blip on this undulating high plains landscape.
The seven day BOM forecast looked agreeably benign: early frosts (a mere -1° C) followed by sunny days (14° C). Perfect timing. But meteorology has a way of biting bushwalkers on the bum. In May this year maximum temperatures averaged 8.2°C while minimums hovered around a miserable 2.8°C. With a record low of minus 20°C, Kiandra is one of the coldest places on the Australian mainland. Fortunately for this leader, my walking companions, all experienced bushwalkers, were kitted out for all eventualities. But most impressive of all was that they remained unfailingly positive and obliging under some pretty trying conditions.
The huge grassy plains are an ancient peneplaned surface. They are the almost level remains of a long eroded mountain range system that was later uplifted in a major tectonic movement of the earth’s crust known as the Kosciuszko Uplift thus forming the Kosciuszko Plateau. The combination of cold air and flat topography created ideal conditions for natural high plain grasslands, technically referred to as the Northern Cold Air Drainage Plains. These were highly prized for summer grazing.
Witzes Hut, possibly a corruption of Whites Hut, like many Kosciuszko huts is set in a picturesque shelter belt of snow gums. Built in 1882 it is a vertical slab wooden hut, single room (about 6m x 3m) with a wooden floor and open fireplace. It is just one of many huts in Kosciuszko: cultural relics from the days of summer cattle and sheep grazing on the high plains. They are invariably basic: shelters of last resort according to the NPWS signs tacked to the doors. Our late season crossing of the AAWT became hut dependant as the weather closed in. Although we had tents, it was a irresistable temptation for these warm-blooded Queenslanders to sidle into a snug dry hut at day’s end.
Day Two: Sunday 12 May: Hayburners of the High Plains: Witzes to Hainsworth Hut: 23 kms.
At 23 kilometres, a longish day beckoned. As a graduate of the Brian Manuel School of Bushwalking I had slyly insinuated to my friends that there was “No hurry” to pack up in the mornings. For those who have not been on the receiving end of this daily regime, expect a rousting out of your downy nest well before sunrise, about 5.00am is Brian’s preferred time. Unsurprisingly, a heavy frost carpeted the grass outside. Meanwhile, inside, my scouting friends Peter and John had worked their magic with two sticks, or whatever they use these days, and had succeeded in cranking up a fire of sorts, which we kept going until the last possible moment. Hut etiquette : Always make sure to thoroughly extinguish any fire before leaving the hut.
On schedule at 7.30 we scrunched off along the Bullock Hill Trail. Ghosts in the freezing mist, frost nipping at any gloveless paws. Before long the mist dispersed, revealing a brilliant blue sky and vast frosted grassy plains. Sunny with the max creeping up to a sizzling 13°C. Even the brumbies were out picnicking in the glorious autumn sunshine.
Brumbies aka Wild Horses aka Feral Horses
A brumby sighting is always exciting for those misguided equinophiles we were harbouring in our midst. But brumbies are feral horses, much the same status as foxes, cats, goats, deer and pigs. And as such they have no place in these fragile alpine ecosystems. In the ACT they are regularly culled, but in NSW herds of these hayburners cavort over the snowgrass plains with impunity: brunching on the juiciest alpine wildflowers, carving out innumerable tracks through the scrub and trashing alpine streams and swamps with their hooves.
The Parks service does allow horse riding in Northern Kosciuszko and provides horse camps with yards , water troughs, loading ramps, hitching rails and full camping facilities. From my observations recreational horse riders act responsibly in the alpine environment by keeping to designated management tracks and horse trails . Feral horses are a different matter entirely.
In an attempt to manage brumbies, a 2016 draft Wild Horse Management Plan recommended reducing numbers in Kosciuszko by 90% over 20 years, primarily through culling. That would have left about 600 horses in the park. Naturally the NSW parliament ignored the advice of its own scientific panel so there was no cull. Instead, the NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro hatched his own plan: The Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018. The bill would prohibit lethal culling because of the heritage significance of brumbies. I, too, can understand the cultural imperative of maintaining a small sustainable herd of brumbies but there are still serious questions to be answered about the environmental impacts of large numbers of brumbies. The NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee has described the damage done by brumbies as a ‘key threatening process’.
Stop Press: 2020 Update on the Brumbies
” About 4000 feral horses will be removed from Kosciuszko national park in New South Wales as part of an emergency response to protect the alpine ecosystem after large areas were devastated by bushfires. ” Graham Readfearn. The Guardian . 20 Feb 2020
In February 2020 the NSW Environment Minister Matt Kern announced ” the largest removal of horses in the park’s history”. He had an agreement between ” horse lovers and National Park lovers” to remove wild horses after the unprecedented bushfire damage over the Nungar, Boggy, Kiandra and Cooleman Plains of Northern Kosciuszko.
Recent surveys estimated wild horse numbers increasing from 6000 in 2014 to 19000 in 2019. Clearly environmentally unsustainable in these burnt out landscapes. Minister Kern was reporting on the outcome of a meeting of the Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Community Advisory Panel.It is to be hoped that the promised action is taken quicklyto reduce horse numbers in the fragile High Plains.
Our first obstacle was the mighty Murrumbidgee. We deployed a tried and tested technique, fanning out until someone discovered a likely looking rock or gravel bar. Okay for the four males, each outfitted with long spindly shanks but a big leap of faith for the resident shorty. Then came one of our few cross-country sections, a mere eight kilometres out to the Port Phillip Trail. For this geographically tricky bit I pressed into service my navigators. Using Peter’s trusty GPS as insurance they tracked to a line of old telegraph poles, which marched across the hills ahead, leading us inexorably towards the dusty Port Phillip Trail on Long Plain. Navigators extraordinaire.
More pleasing was John’s distant sighting of the alpine dingo near the Murrumbidgee River crossing. In all my walks in the high country I have had only one previous encounter with this splendid canine, a subspecies of the grey wolf. Today this solitary light coloured dingo stalked us from afar, surreptitiously tracking our movements from behind clumps of snowgrass. My dingo bible, Laurie Corbett’s The Dingo in Australia and Asia, says that the alpines are a distinctive 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 comparatively small .
By now it was it was late in the day and with ugly dark clouds brewing we wasted no time, bypassing Millers Hut and Ghost Gully Campsite to reach Hainsworth Hut, on Dip Creek.
Just in time for a quick refreshing dip before sunset. Not. Hainsworth Hut, built in 1952, is the archetypal high country hut: a windowless coffin of corrugated iron, two rooms and a large open fireplace at one end. But hugely welcome for these weary walkers. A long 23 kilometre day of up hill and down dale.
Day Three: Monday 13 May: Aquabatics: Hainsworth to Pockets Hut via Bill Jones Hut: 24 kms.
7.30. We beetled off into light drifting rain, eastwards along the Mosquito Creek Trail, up and over the Gurrangorambla Range (Gurrangorambla granophyre – a hard, fine- grained granite) and then descended onto the Silurian limestones of Cooleman Plain. The Cooleman is similar in appearance to the other high plains we had traversed, but as it is underlain by limestone it displays the distinctive landforms of a karst landscape: subterranean creeks, caves, sink holes, stalactites, stalagmites, gorges and occasional brachiopod fossils. When T.A. Murray first saw Cooleman in 1839 he described it as “almost treeless with grasses growing to stirrup height.”
With the cool, wet and windy conditions
persisting we ducked into to Bill Jones hut for our morning tea. The hut is
standard daggy and sports a dirt floor, but it was a haven for these five
bedraggled walkers. Peter set to and soon had a cheery fire underway then we
stood around drinking our piping hot mugs of tea and coffee. Wonderful.
My fellow aquabots and I seemed less than enthusiastic about doing the tent thing at Bluewater Holes limestone area so it was onward to Pockets Hut, a very comfortable wet weather bolt hole. Pockets is a large four-roomer weatherboard built in the 1930’s, originally hooked up with hot water and electricity. We settled in: a comforting fire, clothes drying in front of the fireplace, hot brews and long nana- naps snug in our warm sleeping bags.Life couldn’t be better.
Day Four: Tuesday 14 May: Pockets Hut to Bluewater Holes via Black Mountain: 14 kms.
A tad cool this morning, -2°C. I had naively promised an easy day walk along 4WD trails back to the Bluewater Holes limestone area on Cave Creek. But as is often the way when associating with these deviant bushwalking types some genius suggested a cross-country “short cut”, contouring around the 1497 metre Black Mountain then dropping into Cave Creek. With a clearing sky, an easy day walk ahead, things were definitely on the up and up. Or so I thought. We quickly abandoned this contouring lurk, pushed ever uphill towards the summit by massively dense stands of alpine undergrowth. This was bush-bashing on steroids. In the good old days the handy machete would have swung into action to clear the way ahead. Luckily, John, who is an excellent navigator, as well as scrub-basher, and the ‘genius’ who got us into this predicament, found the rocky summit and then led us down the long northern ridge to land precisely where we needed to be in Cave Creek.
After lunch we poked our way downstream, criss-crossing Cave Creek, checking out Clarke Gorge, Barbers Cave, the Bluewater Hole and Coolaman Cave, a cursory survey at best. Cave Creek is worthy of several days of exploration but with the sky clouding over (think: it’s going to dump snow now) and the wind rising we hoofed off on the Bluewater Holes Trail toward Pockets. But not before considerable geographical angst as the four males bickered about the location of the trail head. Attn all male leaders: when in doubt always listen carefully to the female of the species who actually bother to read the maps on the Parks information boards.
Day Five: Wednesday 15 May: An Antipodean Christmas: Pockets to Oldfields Hut: 7 kms.
I peeked out. A white mantle of snow covered all. Sleet floated down from a sullen sky. We could freeze our butts off in this stuff but the wild weather gave an exciting edge to the walk. Today’s maximum temperature barely made 3°C.
The walk across the snowy plains towards Murray Gap Trail was just magic, snow carpetting the vast Tantangara Plain. After a Snowy Mountains Hydro valve house (the Goodradigbee Aqueduct) the AAWT climbs over a forested ridge before descending to fetch up at on the river flats of the Goodradigbee River. Tucked away in a stand of gnarled black sallees is Oldfields Hut.
Oldfields, with slab walls and a long verandah, was constructed in 1925 and is said to have excellent views to Bimberi Peak (1913 m) and Mt Murray (1845 m) on the ACT/NSW border. Not today; mist and dumps of sleet obscured any views to the east. Our immediate priority as always was to scrounge up a supply of firewood. Then John and Co cut the wood into useable billets. The golden rule of the huts is to always replace any timber burnt and leave a supply of dry kindling. Which wedid in spades.
Day Six: Thursday 16 May: Border Hoppers: Oldfields Hut to Sawpit Ck camp: 18.7 kms.
Today we would bid farewell to the
high grasslands of Kosciuszko and traverse into the forested ranges of the
Bimberi Wilderness and Namadgi National Park for our final three days. We
rugged up for the perverse conditions; at Oldfields my pack thermometer read
0°C while maximum temperatures barely held at 2°C all day. Westerly winds
gusted to 70 km/h. The morning’s walk would climb 245 metres into Murrays Gap
and at 1600 metres we copped the full force of the bad weather coming from the
west. Sleet blanketed the mountain slopes and the wind drove rain and sleet
horizontally onto our backs.
But soon we descended, over the Cotter Fault line and into the Cotter River System. The weather backed off and a watery sun finally leaked a few rays through a clearing sky. Apart from cool windy conditions the wet weather was behind us. Relieved at this change of fortunes our little party trotted on, jaunty like: past Cotter Hut (locked to keep those dodgy bushwalkers at bay), and past our turn-off to the Cotter Gap track. The site of another male navigational misadventure and bailed out again by Leanda who had taken the time to peruse a rat-eared A4 map tacked to a post. For the rest of the day we climbed steadily 350 metres up to Cotter Gap and then descended steeply to our cramped bush campsite on Sawpit Creek. No more days of lurking in comfortable bush huts for this lot. Beyond Cotter Gap a significant change in vegetation occurs; gone are the alpine species, replaced by a drier Eucalypt forest growing on the granites of the vast Murrumbidgee Batholith.
Day Seven: Friday 17 May: One small step for Man: Sawpit Ck to Honeysuckle Ck: 15.6 kms.
With Ross now in full flight mode it
was a quick hop down into the grasslands of the narrow Orroral Valley and its
herds of Eastern Grey Kangaroos. We sprawled out in the grass, absorbing the warmth
of the sun on our tummies for the first time in several days. Sheer bliss.
Further down the Orroral Valley is the Orroral Homestead and shearing shed
built in the 1860s. It has three rooms, chimney at each end and a full length
verandah on the front. As tempting as this sounded to us, overnight stays by
bushwalkers are strictly verboten.
Onward and upward to the well
appointed Honeysuckle Creek camping ground, with the small matter of a 420
metre ascent onto the Orroral Ridge at 1350 metres to get there. Honeysuckle
is, like the Orroral Valley, the site of a former space tracking station. A
series of excellent info boards informed us that it operated from 1966 to 1981
and was a vital part of communications for the Apollo moon missions, Skylab,
Voyager and Pioneer deep space probes. This included The Apollo 11 mission and
Neil Armstrong’s signature, “one small step for man, one giant leap for
Day Eight: Saturday 18 May: Homeward Bound: Honeysuckle to Namadgi Park HQ: 15.4 kms.
After an all-night rolling stoush with an encampment of feral Rover Scouts we set off in another heavy frost (- 0.3°C) on our final leg of the AAWT via Booroomba Rocks. This granite outcrop at 1372 metres afforded us speccy views across the plains to Canberra. Several hot air balloons hung in the still air above the city. But the AAWT wasn’t quite finished with us yet. Just before lunch Ross whipped us up the 240 metres to our lunch spot near Mt Tennent (1384 m), about an hour from the trail exit. You can imagine that I was pretty taken-aback when I pulled my tent fly out for a drying in the sun, and discovered that after five hours in my pack it was still heavily encrusted with layers of ice.
Thus ended one of Australia’s best long distance walks: over high ranges, extensive snowgrass plains, swampy meadows and sinuous alpine streams. For my money the Kiandra to Canberra section was an unforgettable bushwalking experience. Brilliant high plains scenery, historic huts, caves, gorges, dingoes, brumbies and first-rate walking companions. Who could ask for more? And who among us will ever forget the wild and woolly weather?
Huts destroyed in the 2019/2020 summer fires
Sawyers Hut, Wolgol Lodge, Kiandra Court House, Pattersons Hut, Matthews Cottage, Round Mountain Hut, Linesmans No3 Fifteen Mile Spur (1950), Linesman No 3 Fifteen Mile Spur (1980),Vickerys Hut, Delaneys Hut, Happys Hut, Brooks Hut ( badly burnt), Bradley and O’Briens, Four Mile and Demandering.
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 : Sundown Homestead site to Severn River via Mt Lofty: 10 kms.
My fellow walkers assembled at the old Sundown Homestead 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 infamous Kerries whiteout . 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 : Lowe’s Waterhole to Campsite 2: 11 kms.
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.
Speaking of survival, several shots from a .22 rifle 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.
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 : 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 enjoy panoramic 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 : Pump Waterhole to Red Rock Falls: 7 kms.
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 : Red Rock Creek Campsite to Sundown Homestead site: 5 kms:
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.
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.
Red Rock Falls & Sundown’s Geology
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.
Our access point was an old winch and timber chute at the end of the of Winder Track. Soon after setting out from the car park it struck us that the Winder was going to be pretty snaky: sunny and overgrown with lanky weeds and long grass. Snake heaven.
Having tangled with an antsy Eastern Brown a few weeks earlier in the Bunya Mountains I came prepared with leather boots, long canvas gaiters, compression bandages and my Leki walking pole to brush aside any long grass. Ditto Brian. Long trousers would have a good after-thought.
Sure enough, only 300 metres into our walk a grand-daddy Python lay comatose in the sun, stomach bulging with recent prey. We stepped around, took a few photos and walked on. The Python barely raised an eyebrow.
By the end of our 16 kilometre recce the snake score was:
3 Red-bellied Black snakes
1 Eastern Brown snake
At least I thought it was an Eastern Brown. One of my bushwalking friends from my youth was a bit of an amateur herpetologist and he would have grabbed it by the tail for a closer look. With the wisdom of years I realize this is definitely not wise. Unsurprisingly, he came to an untimely death, aged 39. Not from snake bite but in a downed F/A18 Hornet in the Northern Territory.
Making a lot of noise and sweeping the long grass generally does the trick. That said, I came close to standing on a curled up Red-bellied Black, my right boot hovering momentarily over the reptile. But some fancy footwork and an adrenaline rush saw me safely leap over our somnambulant friend.
But that’s not all. Later that afternoon as we drove down into the picnic area, a cute little bunny came bounding across the track, hotly pursued by a huge slavering goanna…fading fast. I’ll put my money on the bunny.
Maybe this snake danger thing is a tad overblown? Definitely when put in the context of other hazards we face every day. But while writing this report, a six year old girl from Walgett died from the bite of Brown snake. The Eastern Brown is the second most venomous terrestrial snake in the world. Over the past summer the Queensland Ambulance Service has averaged two snake-bite call-outs every day. Eleven call-outs in one 24 hour period.
To climb Mt Meharry in Western Australia’s Pilbara region is easy enough. A ramble of 11 kilometres will take you to its 1253 metre summit and back. A mere day walk for local Pilbara peakbaggers. But for this party of blow-ins from the east coast, the logistics of accessing Meharry were a bit more complicated. For Don Burgher, Brian Manuel, Judy and I, there was the five and a half hour flight to Perth followed by a road trip of four days through the outback of W.A. We touched down at Meharry’s base on a glorious winter’s day in August.
After an overnight camp at Dales Gorge in Karijini National Park we left Dales at 7.45am for the final 125 kilometre drive to Meharry. Despite what we had read about the difficulty of access once you leave the sealed Northern Highway, it was all pretty straightforward. If you stay alert the unsealed Packsaddle Road-Juno Downs has adequate signage to get you close to Meharry’s base.
It wasn’t straightforward in 2002 when Nick and Ben Gough climbed Meharry as part of their ascents of the highest peaks in each state and territory of Australia. They described it thus:
… After 4200 kilometres of driving the final leg into Mt Meharry is along an old mining exploration track, overgrown with spinifex… There were a few washouts to navigate and plenty of spinifex seeds to remove from the radiator as we pushed through the undergrowth; there were also lots of spiders, angry at being removed.” Source: Wild No 87.
But times have changed. Now you can do all this in a 2WD. But if you are feeling lazy and are blessed with a high clearance 4WD having a bit of grunt, you can bump and grind your way all the way to Meharry’s summit. Cheaters. We didn’t, it wasn’t part of our deal. We parked our borrowed 4WD ( thanks Joseph Mania) at the first major jump-up, under the shade of a solitary snappy gum. Here we left Judy in charge of birds, bees and botany while Brian, Don and I headed off for the five kilometre walk to the summit, an altitude gain of only 427 metres.
What’s in a name?
At the top of the first jump-up we had our first clear views of Meharry. The story on how WA’s highest peak was determined is worth recounting. Such is the isolation of the Pilbara region that as late as the 1960s it was thought that nearby Mt Bruce (Bunurrunna) at 1,236 metres was WA’s highest peak. Then, in 1967, an unnamed whaleback prominence 50 kilometres to the south east was checked out by surveyor Trevor Merky and found to be 17 metres higher than Mt Bruce. Meharry was named after William Thomas (Tom) Meharry, Chief Surveyor for WA from 1959 to 1967. After a bit of ferretting around in Native Title documents I found its aboriginal name to be Wirlbiwirlbi. On Tom Meharry’s death in 1967, the Minister for Lands approved the name ‘Mt Meharry’ on 28 July, 1967. That should have been the end of the matter. The plaque on the summit is dedicated to Tom Meharry and WA’s surveyors and it reads:
Mount Meharry, at 1250 metres, is the highest point in Western Australia. It is named after William Thomas (Tom) Meharry (1912-1967), the states State’s Geodetic Surveyor from 1959 to 1967.
This survey cairn was constructed in September 2013 as a tribute to all surveyors who have explored and mapped the magnificent Western Australian outback.
Geoscience Australia gives the height of Meharry as 1253 metres, not 1250 metres as per the plaque or the 1248 metres on the summit signpost. Confused?
Enter Gina Rinehart, daughter of iron ore baron Lang Hancock. In 1999 she applied to the Geographical Names Committee to re-name Meharry to Mt Hancock after her prospector father. They declined but Australia’s wealthiest woman wasn’t so easily put off. In 2002 she went to the top and lobbied then Premier Geoff Gallop for the change. Fortunately, he too rejected the proposal.
A Spinifex Steppe
From the first jump-up it is an easy two kilometres before the track does any serious climbing. At this point the track winds up an open spinifex (Triodia spp.) covered ridgeline. The spinifex was everywhere, easily the dominant ground cover: it grows in either doughnut shapes or hummocks Some species have long spiny leaves that dig into bare skin so it is a matter of self preservation to wear thick canvas gaiters when going off track. On warm days one of the common hummock species of spinifex (T. pungens) releases volatile oils, producing a very distinctive resinous scent. The resin from T. pungens (in the photo) was used by aboriginals as a glue to bind spear heads to their shafts. The resin is pliable when heated but sets rock hard.
It was mid morning so the temperature was creeping up to its predicted 30°C, but tempered by a light west sou’wester. We pulled in for a water stop under the only shade, a stunted snappy gum (Eucalyptus leucophloia) located fortuitously at one of Brian’s infamous ‘uphill flat bits’. This attractive and robust little gum is a familiar sight on the rocky hills and plateaus of the Pilbara, typically growing to three or four metres. A defining characteristic is its white powdery bark, sometimes pocked with black dimples. Hence the species name leucophloia, meaning white bark.
Brian standing in the shade of a solitary snappy gum on the flanks of Mt Meharry
The only other tree we found on Meharry was the desert bloodwood (Corymbia deserticola). With its multi-stemmed mallee growth form and rough tessellated bark it is another very striking tree of the Pilbara and easily distinguishable from the snappy gum.
Another two kilometres of plodding over loose scree took us to the crest of the ridge, a false summit. Meharry trig station was a further 800 metres on. But there is no mistaking the real summit as it is marked by an elaborate rock cairn. We had left Judy and the 4WD some one hour forty five minutes earlier. Not too shabby a performance by three elderly bushwalking codgers.
Geology and Landscape
The view from the summit revealed a spectacular landscape of red whale-back mountains, razor-back ridges and steep-sided gorges that make up the Hamersley Range, one of the oldest geologic surfaces on the earth. Karijini is the aboriginal name for the Hamersley Range. About 2,690 million years ago the Hamersley Basin began to fill with sediments forming the extensive deposits of banded ironstone formations (BIFs), cherts and metapelites collectively known to geologists as the Brockman Iron Formation.
Mt Meharry is predominately an outcrop of this ancient Proterozoic banded ironstone. Typically it appears as a very hard brown rock composed of iron oxide and fine grained quartz. Similar iron rich rocks occur in South Africa and Brazil but the best exposures occur in Australia’s Pilbara.
After the obligatory photos, a quick bite to eat and a good guzzle of water we turned tail and headed downhill, back to the 4WD and Judy who was busy dealing with the unwanted attentions of ‘sweat bees’.
Sweat bees is a generic term for a range of these inconspicuous little fellows (eg.Family:Halicitdae) who are attracted to perspiration, specifically the salts in sweat and as Judy discovered, can be quite a nuisance, just like Australia’s notorious bush flies.
And what of Judy’s birding and botanizing? Well, the avians weren’t co-operating. Hardly surprising. We were, after all, in a desert, with no nearby surface water and the ocean five hundred kilometres to the west. The semi-arid tropical climate has a highly variable rainfall of only 250mm to 300mm per annum; the evaporation rate is twelve times greater, hence the minimal surface water. The presence of surface water is very much dependent on incursions of the summer cyclonic rains sweeping in from the Indian Ocean to the west. Back in bird land the meager offerings were a Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, a Yellow-throated Miner and the seemingly ubiquitous Galah.
However the abundance and showiness of plant life in the Australian outback is often exceptional, especially after rain. Pink Royal mulla-mulla (Ptilotus rotundifolius) covered the rocky Meharry landscape, occupying the interstices between clumps of spinifex. Royal mulla-mulla is a low perennial shrub growing to about one metre tall. The flower spikes are unmistakable: long, cylindrical and a bright pink. More than 35 species of mulla-mulla grow in the Pilbara and make for spectacular displays after good summer rains.
Other ground covers included the purple-flowering Flannel Bush (Solanum lasiophyllum), and the delicate blue pincushion flowers of the Native Cornflower (Brunonia australis). Brunonia australis is the sole species in the genus Brunonia which is the only genus in the endemic family Brunoniaceae. It is named after Robert Brown, naturalist on Matthew Flinders’ Investigator.
Wattles and sennas dominated the Meharry shrub layer and included the golden-flowering Gregory’s Wattle (Acacia gregorii). This dense spreading shrub grows to only half a metre and has golden ball-like flower heads. The name commemorates Francis Thomas Gregory whose 1861 expedition passed through the Pilbara.
Another wattle found here was Acacia hamersleyensis, the Hamersley Range Wattle. This multi-stemmed wattle grows to about four metres and features bright golden dense cylindrical spikes.
Thomas Francis Gregory: The North-West Australian Exploring Expedition. 1861.
Thomas Gregory was the brother of the outstanding Australian explorer and bushman, Augustus Gregory. Their 1858 expedition to the Gascoyne River had attracted the attention of English capitalists interested in cotton ventures. The Home Office and Royal Geographical Society proposed a new colony on WA’s north-west coast with the special objective of cultivating cotton.
Thus F.T. Gregory was contracted by Captain Rowe, Surveyor General of WA to head a scaled back expedition prior to setting up a full colony. On the 23rd of April,1861 Gregory departed on the barque Dolphin with a party of nine, ten horses and supplies of flour, salted pork, dried beef preserved meat, bacon, sugar etc. Enough grub for eight months. If the desert , horses or aborigines didn’t do you in then it was a fair bet that the diet would.
On the 22nd May Gregory had transferred men, supplies and horses ashore at the head of Nickol Bay. By the 25th June he had reached the western edge of what is now Karijini National Park. On the 3rd of July he climbed Mt Samson and saw a high peak which he named Mt Bruce…
“I named Mt Bruce after the gallant commander of troops who had warmly supported me in carrying out explorations.”
And so, for well over a century, Mt Bruce was thought to be WA’s highest mountain. His journal also mentions Mt Augustus which he had named on his 1858 expedition into the Gascoyne River District after his brother Augustus Gregory. It was from Mt Augustus that he first saw Mt Bruce. But that is a story which I will keep for another time.
Such is the isolation of this area, modern day maps of the Pilbara still retain a plethora of the original names proposed by F.T. Gregory:
Mt Turner: J. Turner was second in command of the expedition.
Mt Brockman: E. Brockman was a member of the expedition.
Hamersley Range: Hamersley was one of the expedition’s backers.
Fortescue River: Fortescue was the British Under-secretary for colonies.
Dolphin Island: from their supply vessel Dolphin.
Ashburton River: President of the British Royal Geographical Society.
Capricorn Range: presumably because it straddles the Tropic of Capricorn.
Readers interested in the expedition journals of the Gregory brothers should acquaint themselves with an excellent facsimile edition published in 2002 by Western Australia’s Hesperian Press.
Photo Gallery: Plants of the Pilbara.
Holly Grevillea.G. wickhamii.Named after John Wickham. Captain of the Beagle who collected this plant with Charles Darwin during surveys of the north-west coast1837-1838.
Australian Desert Rose: Gossypium australe.
Sturt’s Desert Pea: Swainsona formosa.Its name honours the explorer Charles Sturt but was first collected by Willim Dampier in 1699 on an island on the Dampier Archipelago.
Common Rock Fig: Ficus brachypoda. Found growing in cooler moist gorges of the Pilbara. Often clings precariously to ledges and cliff faces.