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 Lodge and 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 1970s I 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.
Chapman, J Chapman, M & Siseman J: Australian Alps Walking Track (2009)
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 quickly to 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 we did 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 mankind.”
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.