Wednesday, May 7, 2008


This weekend, I was cold. Very, very cold. “In Australia, the sunburned country, the land of 10,000 beaches?” you may ask. Yes. If you go up in elevation enough, you can be cold anywhere, even Down Under.

And up I went. First geographically, five hours northeast of Melbourne. Then, in the tiny Coloradoish town of Mt. Beauty, we turned off the valley roads and started the winding, stomach-turning ascent through chasm-split and towering mountain ash and eucalyptus up to the barren, snowy high alpine plains of the Victorian Alps.

I was on this backpacking (“bushwalking”) adventure with a group of six other Uni students and two trip leaders, all part of the school’s fantastic outdoors program. Once we reached the snows, we all piled out of the school van, bundled ourselves in all available clothing (“rugged up”), slung our borrowed packs across our backs, and set out through the clouds. We were about 6,000 ft. up (1800 m). It was about 31 degrees F (0 C), wet, windy, and slow going.

The fact that we stopped every 50 ft. to look at the views made it even slower. While the clouds we stood in limited any long vistas, the nearby scenery was breathtaking. A huge fire swept across this entire range in 2003, killing the above-ground parts of all the plants (and most of the animals). This made what started as a barren landscape all the more bare, and the few twisted white snowgum trees mere ghosts of themselves. The plants are designed for fire, though, and kept their roots alive. They are pushing back up through the frozen soil with dense bushes of dark green and tan, with yellow strawflowers and hearty mosses scattered throughout, rubbing scrubs of color into the shades of grey. The cold and clouds conspired to make it all the more arresting by adding crystalline sparkles to every available surface. As if it didn’t look enough like an abstract fairyland already.

After about four miles of distraction and sticky snow, we arrived at our shelter for the night: Edmonson Hut, near Mt. Nelse. It’s a simple 50-year-old corrugated iron hut with an accompanying outhouse (“dunny”). The tiny building (the hut, not the dunny) is graced with a fireplace, cooking tables, a bench, three sleeping lofts, many unfortunate drafts, and a curious resident mouse. All I can say is that Australians don’t have any concept of cold-weather architecture. The structure couldn’t have been better designed to keep any available heat away from the inhabitants. The driving, blinding wind and snow that started up outside as soon as we walked in the door didn’t help. We were already pretty wiped out by the cold when we got there, and spent the next four hours jovially chatting and shivering in our sleeping bags before succumbing to exhaustion. I don’t think anyone got much sleep.

In the middle of the night, I abandoned the relative warmth of my cocoon and braved the track to the dunny. It took me a moment to realize that the snow had stopped, the wind was silent, everything was even more sparkly than before, and… my god… there were stars. The sky. With nothing at all between it and me. No lights anywhere within my horizon but the lights in the heavens. Not a drop of moisture in the achingly cold air. Not even a pesky ozone layer to block the celestial glory. It put every single night sky I had ever seen before to shame, to irrelevance. And it was all unfamiliar: the southern cross, the milky way cutting the wrong way across, no big dipper, no Cygnus, no Cassiopeia… The surprise of it, the perfect clarity when I expected howling grey, the unfamiliar arrangements, the sheer number of stars, made it all the more dream-like, made it seem like a moment out of A Wrinkle In Time, as if I had intruded on a conversation between divine beings. I made everyone who was still awake come outside with me.

Credit to my fellow trekkers, everyone was chipper the next morning. The shocking gold and pink of the surrounding dawn-lit hills, together with the promise of food, was enough to put anyone in a good mood. Oatmeal is never so delicious as when it’s gulped, scalding, into a stomach emptied of its calories by shivering. Especially oatmeal made with delicious water. The water up there is so pure that you can drink it right from the stream. My swamp-born self was dubious at first, but then remembered that there are very few animals that have returned up there, and fewer still that would be at our altitude. Lo and behold, none of us got so much as a bellyache.

That second day we wandered on no particular track (the plants here don’t mind being walked on, quite the change from the delicate alpines at home), dumped our packs, and made our way under a deeply blue sky up around the peak of Mt. Nelse to the views from the fancifully-named Spion Kopje, an Appalachian-esque rolling ridge. And while the sweeping snow plains, distant peaks, etc., were striking, that wasn’t the most surprising aspect of the view: I couldn’t have imagined better hiking weather: sunny, crisp, not much wind, on a Saturday, in a theoretically-popular park. Number of people other than us? 0. Number of buildings, roads, powerlines, etc. visible? 0. We could have been exploring an unpopulated planet for all we could see. It brought home again how human-empty this continent is. I love it.

The afternoon brought us and our re-acquired packs down in elevation and into the sun so that grasses, not snows, surrounded us. I could see why tiny wild horses love this area. I wanted to be a tiny wild horse myself, those fields looked so tasty. The strange thing was, we saw plenty of evidence of recent passage of these creatures, but despite there being nowhere in the landscape for them to hide, we couldn’t see a single animal. I personally decided that they must be invisible.

In the evening’s distressingly-beautiful golden glow, we strode across undulating meadows to our night’s home. I’ve rarely seen so perfect a camping spot. The ramshackle Wallace Hut, of which the Australians are inordinately fond, provides an unusual setpiece amongst a tangle of soft grasses, snowgums, rock heaps, and surprising glimpses down into the southeastern valleys. The ground is cushiony but dry, the trees create quiet nooks throughout, the water is nearby and delicious, the campfire ring is snug, the sunrise and sunset views are both perfect. A pair of Pied Currawong considered stealing our dinner, but limited themselves to merely providing entertainment. Overnight the temperature dropped to around 20 F (-6 C), and I didn’t sleep again. I don’t know why: I used to be able to sleep in any weather.

We were awoken the next morning by a profusely pink dawn. After a quick feed, we hiked out along a dirt road that led to the dam where we’d parked the van. We saw other people (!) out sight-seeing and fishing, though no fish were sighted. A long drive home, made all the longer by – no joke – a home improvements theme on the one radio station we could hear (If I Had a Hammer, Sledgehammer, Pane of Glass Into My Heart, True Colors, Tear It Down, etc.). We were all glad to get home.

The photos below are from the camera of one of my fellow hikers, Debbie. She took most, I took a few. I didn’t have my big heavy camera with me. Thanks for sharing, Debbie! (I’ll add other photos from other people as they become available.)
May 13th update: photos from Emma added. Thanks for sharing, Emma!

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