Walk the Australian Alps with me

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”
― John Muir, Our National Parks

Okay – we don’t have Alps in Australia like Europe but we do have a beautiful Alpine area in Victoria that is the backdrop for a sensational new walk aptly called the Great Alpine Walk. It’s a 655km one way walk beginning at Walhalla and ending near Canberra.  It is estimated to take approximately 5-8 weeks to complete and is graded 4-5, which recommends moderate to experienced bushwalking experience as there are some sections that are unmarked, rough or very steep.

The walk extends across diverse landscapes of forest, alpine grassland, ridges, high plains and, in the right season, snow-capped mountains. It’s a walk full of history. The Australian Alps is the traditional Country of the Bidawal, Dhudhuroa, Gunaikurnai, Jaithmathang, Taungurong and Nindi-Ngudjam Ngarigu Monero peoples and is very precious indeed. There is evidence of white pioneering cattlemen’s huts, logging and the Hydro Electric Power Scheme along the way.

Over use has damaged the sensitive ecosystem of the high plains and for many years conservationists lobbied to preserve the area as national park.  Finally in 1989 a number of small national parks were joined to create the larger Alpine National Park to protect the fragile landscape, flora and fauna.

Over the Christmas New Year period I hiked the iconic Falls Creek to Mt Hotham section of the trail with my beloved.  What better way to welcome in the New Year than in the wilderness, breathing in the fresh air, sleeping under the stars with only the essentials at hand?

This section of the trail is a three-day 37km crossing which links the Alpine resort villages of Falls Creek and Mt Hotham. It’s a very achievable walk and does not require much bushwalking experience. Hikers are rewarded with stunningly picturesque views from the high plains, the breathtaking ambiance of the snow gum forests and the beauty of plains quilted with wildflowers.  Some of the flat lands reminded me of walking in the low-lying wetlands of Dartmoor and the heather moors of Scotland, with the woody heath like shrubs in abundance. I definitely felt comfortable and at home here.

Just a word of advice – sunscreen up; even if it is overcast. The sun on the high plains is strong as are the winds. On day two of the hike there isn’t much shelter to be had so being protected from the elements is important. Don’t think there’ll be a nice rock or tree to pull up under for a lunch break either.  Up there just find a nice dry spot to plonk down and enjoy the expansive landscape.

The two campsites are completely different in their magnificence. Cope Hut campsite is set amongst the snowgums on the Bogong High Plains and near the first hut in the area purpose-built for tourists. In bad weather hikers shelter in the hut, which is actually quite spacious and relatively comfortable. We luxuriated on New year’s eve under a majestic tree, looking out over the blue hued landscape dotted with skeleton like trees – snow-white and bare of foliage. From our perch (all campsites are on platforms, we rose to a glorious day and drank in the beauty that lay before us . Dibbins Hut campsite was reached by a long decent onto a snow grass plain.  We felt very sheltered here surrounded by mountains.  Our afternoon was spent in the shade by the creek fed by the Cobungra River looking across the plains at the grass swaying in the afternoon breeze. It was a very peaceful and as luck would have it we were joined only by one other couple.

A permit is required to camp at campsites and sites are allocated on booking. Each campsite has a drop toilet and we were grateful we’d taken our own loo paper with us.  Water can be collected at the tank at Cope Hut and from the stream at Dibbins.  We always sterilise water before drinking.

The Falls Creek to Mt Hotham walk can be walked in either direction though all the literature we read from Victorian Parks suggested the direction we did it.  There’s a small problem following this advice though. There is a lack of transfer options in summer. Most hikers on the track began (parked their car) at Falls Creek and caught the shuttle, that runs only on Saturday in summer, over to Hotham. Another couple did a four hour car shuttle prior to beginning the walk so they had a car at the start and end of the walk. Wanting to choose the date we began and the direction we walked only one option was open to us, it was a pretty expensive option but where there’s a will, there’s  always a way.  We drove to Hotham and had Brian from the Mt Beauty taxi service collect us and drive us back to Falls Creek. It’s a definite benefit in having your own transport at the end of a walk.

There is so much to discover on this walk.  While I am always delighted by new landscapes, flora and fauna the touch of history was an additional bonus I hadn’t expected. Inspecting the pioneering huts and reading some of the information boards in the early section of the walk was enlightening and added a whole different perspective to my time there. If you plan on going be aware that accessibility is between November and April.  Perhaps if you are a cross-country skier you’d make the crossing in the winter months.

For a sense of what the walk is like, check out the video my beloved made of our time there.  Enjoy!

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Gone hiking

On a hike, the days pass with the wind, the sun, the stars; movement is powered by a belly full of food and water, not a noxious tankful of fossil fuels. On a hike, you’re less a job title and more a human being….A periodic hike not only stretches the limbs but also reminds us: Wow, there’s a big old world out there.”
― Ken Ilgunas

I’m off on an adventure to the heart of my country. There’s a trail out there that winds along for 223 kilometres, broken into 12 sections. I’m not walking the whole trail, just a few sections of it. My beloved and I will walk for six days, carrying all we need in our packs. We will sleep with our backs to the red earth and be surrounded, night and day, by the spirit of this amazing country we live in and the spirit of the traditional owners of the land who have passed before us. I’m sure I will have some tales to share when I return.

Stories of yesteryear

Joe McSweeney

What a mug a man be
to go fighting in the war over the sea
Half starved, the pay was low
a man was mad to even go.  

Joseph McSweeny

There is an exhibition coming to town – The Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience. It sounds like a big event. It is a free exhibition that showcases the story of Australia’s involvement in the First World War. From what I’ve read, there will be a good many stories  as well as photos of Australians who served our country during the war. It’s timely and synchronistic, for me, that this event should be coming to my city.

I have been pouring over some writings and photographs of my great-grandfather, Joe’s recently.  He was a character.  I wish I had known him better, though I am getting a sense of him through his musings. I met him several times when he was old and sick and in no mood for silly noisy little girls. My grandmother and my father have both shared stories of him that have intrigued and me. I knew he was an artist and sign writer. I knew too that he had fought in the first world war. My great-grandfather captured some of his life in poetry. Some of it is long and prose like, some short and snappy, some of it is good, a lot is not.  However, I have learnt much about his life through these handwritten notes.  I have discovered he was a swagman and wandered out west looking for work on various stations, orchards and farms when times were tough. He worked in shearing sheds and in a butcher shop; anything to make a quid.

His writing paints a picture of what it was like to be a soldier in the first world war. He doesn’t go into depth or detail. In fact, he seems to skirt around the edges of the atrocities of war. Often I find the greatest messages lay in the gaps and silences. There are many postcards he collected while abroad and a few he sent home to his wife, my great-grandmother and his daughter, my Nana.  These were short notes but very touching. Among his effects are a pile of vintage postcards with beautifully painted images of women clad in their undergarments. Oh, they are very tame by today’s standards but I imagine they were outrageously risqué in some circles way back when. They are exquisite reminders of a time long ago. A time not forgotten. A time of heroes and ordinary men and women who left these shores not knowing what horrors awaited them. A time when these same ordinary men and women, the lucky ones, returned home to carve out lives for themselves when their whole view of the world and life had been irrevocably changed.

I would dearly love to share some of Joe’s writing about the war with you though I realise now, so many years after it was written, that much of it is politically incorrect and may offend some readers. His poems were written in a different time, when feelings about the enemy were raw. Some things, I guess, are best kept private. Below I have included a short ode he wrote, it gives you an idea of the larrikin he was.

Have you heard the story about sign writer Joe?
He fell on the floor with a heavy sound
It took some time to bring him round.

The butcher rubbed his ribs with greasy hand
and sat him in a chair, he could not stand.
The butcher grinned and laughed outright
Poor old Joe, looked an awful fright.

Back to the job he went once more
His ribs was aching and arm was sore.
Down he got and gave a grunt
Through the door and out the front.

Now dear readers, this is no lie
The poor old bugger
Went home to die.

The Spirit of ANZAC Centenary Experience will be held at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre from the 17th until the 30th June. You can book tickets online at http://www.spiritofanzac.gov.au