Tag Archives: Hiking

Bluff Tarn: A hike in Kosciuszko National Park

Exploring Australia’s High Country.

by Glenn Burns

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.

Bushwalkers Kosciuszko National Park
Left to Right: Brian, Joe, Richard, David, Sam. On snow patch under Gungartan
THE WEATHER

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”.

November is 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.

March Fly CSIRO

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 they are called March flies they are rare in alpine areas 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.

Whites River Hut
The heavens about to open. Early morning at Whites River Hut
Alpine Wildflowers: Photos by Sam
More Information:

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).

Slattery, D : Australian Alps. (CSIRO 2015).

Kosciuszko Huts Association: Website

Bluff Tarn: Jagungal Wilderness : Kosciuszko National Park.
Map of Bluff Tarn & Jagungal Wilderness

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 contents make possible: a snug downy sleeping 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.

Aboriginal stencils Yankee Hat site Namadgi National Park
Aboriginal stencil art. Yankee Hat site. Namadgi National Park

Many place names in the Alps have been derived from local Aboriginal languages: Jagungal, Jindabyne, Talbingo, Yarrangobilly, Suggan Buggan, Mitta Mitta and Tumut. It is not hard to find many other examples from 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.

Whites River Hut Kosciuszko National Park
Whites River Hut on a fine afternoon

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.

David in Schlink Pass
Photo: Sam: David in Schlink Pass.

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 concerned as 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.

The Kerries Ridge Kosciuszko National Park
The Kerries Ridge (2000 m) . Storms heading our way.

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 week for this lot.

Mawsons Hut Kosciuszko National Park.
Mawsons Hut
Mt Jagungal from Mawsons Hut
Photo: Sam: View to Mt Jagungal from our front yard at Mawsons Hut.
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 that there is nothing so grumpy as a leader with wet boots this early in the day.

Valentine River: Kosciuszko National Park
Valentine River with Cup and Saucer in background

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.

Crossing swampy ground enroute to the Cup and Saucer

It was only one and a half kilometres to the Cup but 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 facewithout any further difficulties. Where upon we settled on the rock outcrops to take in the landscape and enjoy a leisurely morning tea.

Summit of the Cup and Saucer
Sam atop the Cup and Saucer

From the summit of the Cup and Saucer unfolded 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 our east was the valley of 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 doubt the granitic dome of the Cup and Saucer forms a structural control over the direction of flow of the Valentine.

Photo: Sam: View south from the Cup and Saucer ( 1900 m ) .

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
Bluff Tarn Kosciuszko National Park

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 pool fed by the cascades dropping 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 spot was 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 she used 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 bargy about 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 and getting some very handy gear tips from Shayne.

Mawsons Hut at dusk.
Photo: Sam: Mawsons Hut on dusk.
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.

An extract from Tim Lamble’s Jagungal & Brassy Mts map

We followed the fence line up to a low rocky knoll overlooking the north-south trending Brassy 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.

Brassy Mountains Kosciuszko National Park
Crossing the upper Valentine, heading towards the Brassy Mountains

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 alpine valley of impeded drainage: a fluvial landscape of bogs and fens. A fen is a specific geomorphic 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 and Fens in upper Valentine River
Photo: Sam: Bogs and Fens of the upper Valentine River.

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. Tin has 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 Hut

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.

Tin Hut on the headwaters of the Finn River

It is called Tin Hut because 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 commenced with 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 the Finn 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 quarry on this decidedly warmish afternoon. 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, but on 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.

View from The Porcupine towards the Kerries and Gungartan.
View from The Porcupine (1960 m ) west to Kerries Ridge and Gungartan

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 troops about to leave Tin Hut for Whites River Hut.

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 draped its ectothermic body across the top of a heath bush, obviously hoping to warm up in the feeble sunlight and 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.

Richard and Joe looking south down the Munyang River Valley

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, which my copy of Green and Osborne’s Field Guide to Wildlife of the Australian Snow-Country tells me are ” 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 also for 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 Gungartan and commenced the long descent to Schlink Pass (1800 m). Landing in the pass, a mutiny of the “are you stopping for lunch ? ” type broke out. Ever the considerate leader (probably not) , I caved in and we propped for lunch. Whites River Hut only one tantalising kilometre downhill.

Schlink Pass (1800 m)

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.

The Wash Down

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 and heaps of very well 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.

Early morning view from Whites River Hut

By 8.00 am we had beetled off along the Munyang Geehi road before swinging off onto the Aquaduct track which crosses the Munyang River via 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 Snowy Mountains Authority Hut: Munyang Hut.

The Aquaduct track is 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.

Resting on the Aquaduct Track

Mid morning we lobbed into the refurbished Horse Camp Hut for a final feed. I had been to Horse Camp before, returning from an 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.

Horse Camp Hut

Since then the Kosciuszko Huts Association and the Parks Service had been very busy and the hut was looking very spruce indeed. Unlike the young guy who had taken up residence in the hut. He was obviously there for the long haul or 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 the first Snowy Mountains Project, the Guthega Dam and associated infrastructure.

Esteemed leader: Burnsie lurking in the warmth of the kitchen of Horse Camp Hut

Leaving our 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.

Northern Sundown National Park.

By Glenn Burns

From my Sundown National Park trip archive:

 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.

Photo Gallery

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.

Map of Nth Sundown NP

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.

4WD campsite at the Reedy Waterhole

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.

One many river crossings.

Friday 22 April: Sundown Shearers Quarters site to Severn River via Mt Lofty: 10 kms: vertical rise: 267 m.

My fellow walkers assembled at the old Sundown Shearers Quarters site soon after 1.00 pm, in warm humid conditions. Our party was eight in total: Brian (leader), Malcolm and Jenny, Bernard (an uber-fit septuagenarian), Russell (aka Starkie) Leanda, and my fellow ailurophile, Richard. Our immediate task was to sweat up the 260m, three kilometre climb to Mt Lofty, a long whaleback feature topping out at 1067 metres. Mt Lofty is said to have been named thus as it was the highest point on the road leading to the Sundown Mine, hence it was “Lofty”. Naturally the Law of Diminishing Returns always applies and our efforts ended in an obscure and thickly vegetated summit. View factor: pretty average, though a vast improvement on Brian’s Kerries whiteout in 2006. But this didn’t stop Brian bagging it as one of his 1000 metre peaks, celebrating its capture with a wee dram of someone’s hootch.

View from Mt Lofty. 1067 metres.

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.

Corrugated iron shed at Lowes Waterhole.

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 Pikedale Station 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.

Campsite at Lowes Waterhole.

Saturday 23 April: Lowe’s Waterhole to Campsite 2: 11 kms. Altitude loss: 80 m

Today we would track the river westerly past the junction to Nundubbermere Falls and then on a long six kilometre run to the south, stopping somewhere, as yet undetermined, but just short of Reedy Waterhole where quadzillions of 4WDers would be lurking; a veritable village of camper trailers and safari tents even though access to Reedy and Burrows Waterholes is little better than a glorified goat track. But locals call it the “Sundown Road”.

Perhaps our modern adventurers gliding along in their all-terrain wagons could spare a thought for Sydney Skertchly, a government geologist who visited Sundown in 1897. He wrote:

“ …we had horrible weather, fog, and rain, and though we stayed a day after we had eaten our last bit of food… we were obliged to return to Ballandean, as the rain showed no sign of abating. My horse drowned himself in a waterhole and one of our men had to be sent back ill…yet I never enjoyed myself more. I shall long remember our last night. Four of us had dined of less than half-a-loaf of bread and we sat around the camp fire sipping second-hand tea, while a stockman recited Gordon’s poems as a substitute for supper.”

As for our little band of wanderers, our river outing, although not as extreme, would turn out to be a tad damp, for, as the Ranger had predicted, the river was flowing strongly over a succession of rock bars, chokes and rapids. Nary a sandy beach in sight. It brought to mind a book which I had just coincidently read: The Diary of Gideon Mach. Gideon falls into a stretch of river known as The Devil’s Jaws and re-appears three days later having made a pact with the devil to secure his survival.

Speaking of survival, several shots from a .22 rang out from the far bank; I glanced around at my companions; business as usual, not a whisker twitched. Men of Steel. Across the river our weekend warriors probably thought they could bag one of the wild deer that roam the park, but failing that, there are plenty of other ferals to choose from: goats, pigs, foxes, rabbits, hares and moggies. Good riddens many would say, although one of our fellow walkers had to be weaned off a lingering attachment to “cute little deers”. Still I didn’t have heart to mention that the Parks Service conducts regular culls of deer and such like; a recent tally being 190 deer, 580 goats, 8 pigs and 5 foxes. No

8.00 am found us skirting along the bluffs that paralleled the river, just upstream of the Nundubbermere Creek Junction. But with steep ridgelines and cliffs dipping into the river ahead it was pretty obvious that we would need to cross; a pattern of travel that was repeated with monotonous regularity of most of the day. Distance elapsed: a fraction under one kilometre from camp. This was shaping up to be one excruciatingly slow walk.

But slow is good. A chance to potter along, immersed in the ever changing riverscape: long stretches of pool and riffle, interspersed with short runs of rock and rapids; the riverine forests of she-oak, river red gums, tea-tree and bottle brush; skinks basking; and pied cormorants perched on logs, wings outstretched.

Looking downstream from near Lowes Waterhole.

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.

Frequent pack lowering.

Sunday 24 April: Campsite 2 to Pump Waterhole 1.5 kms

As the sky lightened I woke to a muted thumping outside my tent. Two chocolate eggs in terminal meltdown were stacked neatly outside my tent flap. Richard claimed that it was just Starkie pretending to be the Easter Bunny, but you and I know better. Fortified by a breakfast of porridge and two chocolate eggs sluiced down with lukewarm coffee, I took off on the short hop to Pump Waterhole, our campsite for the next two nights. Our first task was to find a largish, flat, grassy area.

Malcolm and Brian gamely tackled yet another river crossing, foxed up a campsite on the other bank and came back with sly grins and glowing reports of our new home. But truth will out; a poxy campsite at best… if I were feeling generous in my praise, which I wasn’t. This previously grassy river flat that had been flood-scoured leaving trails of rounded river boulders and debris piles of uprooted she-oaks. Tent sites were in short supply and so pitching our tents required some serious high order spatial sequencing. Docking first was Bernard’s Barnum and Bailey big-top sporting a quarter hectare footprint; next came Malcolm and Jenny’s canary yellow stately pleasure dome and finally the swarm of one-maners came to rest, wherever. In the cool of late afternoon and when seen in the lengthening shadows, our quiet little campsite grew on me, but more of that later. I believe the name Pump Waterhole may have derived from its use as a source of water for mining or for watering stock. There are precedents for this as the Beehive Mine, for example, used a steam pump to lift water 152 metres from a dam on Red Rock Creek.

More river crossings.

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.

View from Rats Castle looking upstream

Rats Castle was tantalizingly close, a mere kilometre as the crow flies but could have been on the Moon as it was now 1.00 pm our final turn-around time. So we propped where we were, savoured our lunch in a cool woodland of white cypress pines perched high above the Severn River valley. Rats is an interesting geological feature and major landmark on the Severn. It is a ridge of hard fine-grained granite which has intruded into the surrounding metasediments of the Texas Beds, weakened during a major fracturing in the Severn River Fracture Zone. Technically it is a dyke, a vertical intrusion. Early shepherds called it Rats Castle because when it was first seen it was home to small rock wallabies, then commonly called rats. Retracing footsteps we came to the cleared paddock we had walked through several hours previously but this time stopped to enjoypanoramic views across to Mt Lofty but more importantly Red Rock Falls, tomorrow’s objective. We could even see the ridgeline that we would follow up in the morning.

Heading back to campsite at Pump waterhole

On our return to Pump Waterhole, things were on the up and up. A Sea World style slippery-dip swim, copious supplies of firewood, a now shaded campsite and a good feed and all was well in the circus. For me at least, but not for a forlorn clutch of teenage girls, weary and sunburnt, who limped through in the fading light; one in tears. Uncle Brian took pity, showed them where they were on the map; reassured them that they were getting close to civilisation and their pick-up point and gently packed them off downstream. As I watched their little dejected backs disappear over the promontory of rock near our tents it suddenly occurred to me that I was looking at a Rats Castle look-a-like. Closer inspection revealed it was indeed a granitic dyke intruded through the local traprock. Under our noses the whole time; how could that be? I, too, could have wept.

Monday 25 April: Pump Waterhole to Red Rock Falls: 7 kms: Altitude gain: 700 m.

An uphill sort of day; but the weather was kind, cool with light winds. Just as well for we faced a slow grind out of the Severn River Valley by way of a succession of high points: 731m, 828m, 995m, 1027m and finally reaching the high tops at 1032m, an altitude gain of 700 metres. No nav stuff-ups allowed; Richard and I were on the yellow card. But we weren’t taking any chances with today’s route and this time had fed a truck load of waypoints into the GPS just in case the old map and compass led us astray, again. Morning tea was on an open bald, reminiscent of the Bunya Mountains, but just an old cleared grazing paddock, but with superb views across to Mt Lofty and Red Rock Falls.

View back to the tops of Roberts Range

 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.

Beecroft Mine

 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.

The lip of Red Rock Falls

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.

Looking down on Red Rock Falls

After more goofing around, we took our leave and clambered up to the tourist lookout above, and did touristy things…. more photos, admired the views anew and read the park info board about Sundown’s mining past and then it was off for our final night out on the track and hopefully a decent feed consisting of more than half-a-loaf of bread and second hand tea.

Tuesday 26 April: Red Rock Creek Campsite to Sundown’s old shearers quarters site: 5 kms: Altitude loss 160 m

An easy morning’s downhill canter took us into the old Sundown site, sooner than we thought. By 10.00 am it was all over but the shouting… at Richard’s rascally Land Rover Defender if it refused to start. But it did and within the hour we dismounted at the Stanthorpe Bakery for some substantial victuals:a pie or two, spinach and fetta rolls, vanilla slices, cream buns and such like, all washed down with mugs of delicious hot coffee. Eat your heart out Mr Sydney Skertchly.

Hiking the High Plains of Northern Kosciuszko

by Glenn Burns

Northern Kosciuszko is a subdued 1400 metre landscape of rolling sub-alpine grasslands separated by low snow gum clad hills and ranges rising to a maximum of about 1600 metres. This vast upland has a different feel to the rugged landscapes of southern Kosciuszko where 2000 metre whaleback mountains and ridges predominate. With its open vistas, network of mountain huts and more benign weather, northern Kosciuszko offers its own easier but distinctive walking opportunities.

A Hike in Australia’s High Country†

 Can I tempt you with a leisurely 50 kilometre, 6 day walk in the high country of northern Kosciuszko National Park? Nothing too taxing.  Imagine stepping out along grassy 4WD tracks as they wind up through snow gum woodlands to low alpine passes then gently descend to vast open plains of swaying tussock grasses. Maybe camping overnight near historic mountain huts? Throw in showy alpine wildflowers, perhaps a sighting of an elusive wombat, limestone caves, brilliantly coloured Flame Robins, or maybe the eerie nocturnal call of a Boobook as you lie snug in a warm sleeping bag.  With these promises in mind, on a balmy November evening, seven walkers left Ghost Gully Campground on Long Plain to enjoy six days of hiking across the high plains of northern Kosciuszko. Continue reading Hiking the High Plains of Northern Kosciuszko