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 ).
Flood, J : Moth Hunters of the ACT: ( 1984 ).
Kosciuszko Huts Association: https://khuts.org
Some recent Kosciuszko trip reports.
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.
It was 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, wood store, 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, no sound 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 towards Schlink 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 in 1894 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. Snow showers 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 by their 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 the The 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 party from the Grey Mare Mine climbed it using primitive skis called ‘Kiandra snowshoes’. Ours was a much less adventurous walk, but we still savoured our time on the summit. Especially magnificent were the views south to the snow capped Main Range, four days away. 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.