Out the back of Canberra is a great, big wilderness. I often look at it from the top of Narrabundah hill on Juno’s (our dog) morning walk. Its huge! 1.6-million-hectares of public land in eleven national parks and nature reserves all the way from the back of our place (or close enough) to Victoria. How is it that having managed to spend a year wandering around the world I’ve spent so little time so close to home? Too close to home perhaps. Not exotic enough… unless you live further away. Funny how that works.
I also don’t like getting lost. It freaks me out (one of a long list of things) and this wilderness lacks major trails, has rounded undefined hills and ridges, thickly wooded slopes and short sight lines, all of which means there is a very high chance where I think I am, is not where I am and that by the time I’ve worked that out, where I want to be is almost certainly not where I am going!
Which is a shame, because my limited experience in the wilderness on my doorstep suggests I am likely to like it. Anyway, one day, carried away in conversation amongst friends about places we’ve been and places we’d like to go, I said to Hugh and Paul (fathers of Amy’s friends Juliet and Evie) something like, I’d like to walk the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT), all 655 kilometres of it from Walhalla in Victoria to Tharwa (which you can almost see on Juno’s morning walk).
Clearly the idea resonated with Hugh because each time we got together after that it would find its way into the conversation. I liked the idea of starting in spring, when it was warmer but Hugh liked the idea of starting as soon as possible and before I could pull my head out of the rest of life long enough to mount an argument to the contrary a weekend had been set, a plan made and hiking provisions procured.
Sure it would be cold… but that’s what thermal underwear is for. Having done all the prep work, while I struggled to free even one neuron to think of anything other than work, Hugh waited nervously for me to pull out. Which I did contemplate. On a Friday night after a week of waking up tired, feeling like your running late before you’ve even finished sleeping and working everyday but still not feeling like you’ve accomplished what you set out to each morning – it does seem easier to opt out and sleep-in. If not for visions of tall eucalypt woodlands, grassy frost hollows and snow gums I may have done just that. But I didn’t.
Instead, Emma dropped us off at the old tracking station in the Ororral Valley as early as we could muster on a Sunday morning. It was cold. Three degrees according to the car but the sun was shining and the air was still. Hugh almost locked himself in the loo before we set off (don’t ask) while I had a last-minute rethink of my packing list. I pulled everything out of my pack only to put it all back minus sandals. Too cold for sandals.
We set off up the fire trails on the side of the Orroral Valley before hanging left onto the Cotter Gap Track, a pleasant pathway through a forest thick with regrowth triggered by the huge fires back in 2003. Up and over the Cotter Gap we went and then down into the Bimberri wilderness. Turns out navigating here is not nearly as challenging as I had envisaged and where we thought we were was exactly where we wanted to be. Navigation? No problemo! The track could be followed with your eyes closed. Not that I tried. That would be silly.
After 15 kilometres, we paused for lunch in the Cotter Valley and debated camping versus pushing on. Pushing on won because it meant camping 400 metres higher, on the saddle at Murray’s Gap between Mount Murray and Bimberri Peak (1913 metres), the tallest peak in the ACT. The saddle at Murray’s Gap is gorgeous, an open grassland emerging out of the tall grey forest with views to the peaks to the east.
We arrived shortly before the sun departed and just as it began to do that lovely golden glow thing that it does at the end of each day. This kept me glued to my camera and left Hugh to deal with the campsite. It was cold that night with a full moon and clear skies. Two pairs of thermals, a sleeping bag and a beanie kept the chilly air at bay, except for my nose, which woke me up every now and then because it was cold. Never been woken up by a cold nose? It was a first for me too.
As I lay there, awake in our moonlit tent with a cold nose and a niggling feeling that I needed to go to the loo, I pondered whether my head wear was a beanie or a toque. I blame our friend Andrea from Canada, who counselled me before departure as she is wont to do…
‘…a toque and a beanie are not the same thing. True snow dwellers know this. You don’t seem to. I’ve noticed that you use them interchangeably assuming they are equal, same-same. That’s a rookie move. What you need for the snow is a toque. A toque fully covers both ears and the forehead and is fashionably questionable. The beanie, on the other hand, is as the name suggests, rather cute but functionally rather inadequate. We Canadians wear beanies in Springtime while lolling through daffodils on crisp, dewy mornings. We also wear them on autumn evenings when the leaves are falling and the romance of a night out with your heartthrob is worth the chill. Pink cheeks are an asset in such circumstances. But in winter, when there is snow on the ground… we wear toques.’
So what did I have on my head? Aw bugger it, I thought as my bladder got the better of me. I gotta go. So I climbed out of my warm sleeping bag, fortunately nearly fully dressed (including beanie or toque), unzipped the tent and staggered out into the nigh on freezing air where I watered an unsuspecting tussock of grass before cupping my hands over my nose (to warm it up), climbed back into the tent and promptly fell back to sleep.
The following morning all thought of beanies and toques was gone. Hugh and I abandoned the tent in situ and started following rock cairns up a poorly defined track towards the summit of Bimberri Peak. As we got higher thick forest gave way to open snow gum woodlands with an understorey of grasses. Dappled grey, green, red and pink bark, along with lichens and mosses, curiously shaped flowers and ever more expansive views kept us enthralled as we walked and talked and solved the problems of the world.
Bimberri Peak stands nearly a kilometre above the Cotter Valley, where we had lunch the day before, and from its blunted summit we could see all the way to the snow covered main range way down south where we hoped to be passing on journeys to come. A visitor book stashed at the top made it apparent our summit attempt was unusually lucky with more than one entry indicating snow and weather had forced many to try two, three and four times before succeeding.
After lingering for 30 minutes we headed back the way we had come, paused at Murray’s Gap to pack the tent before descending a further four kilometres for lunch at the picturesque Oldfield’s Hut – a typical graziers slab hut built in 1925 and exactly the sort of thing that springs to mind when I think of Banjo Patterson and the Man from Snowy River.
I would have been happy to camp right there, with views of Bimberri and Mount Murray, but Hugh had other ideas and we pushed on up over a short but steep climb and into the valley on the other side. Here we found a random patch of ground on which to set up camp. The sun lit up the woodland we perched upon until it fell below the horizon whereupon it turned its attention to lighting up the sky, all of which led me to ignore my responsibilities for the establishment of camp and cooking of food in favour of photography. Hugh didn’t seem to mind.
A cold nose and the need to pee woke me again in the wee small hours of the following morning. I began to ponder the beanie versus toque debate again but decided it wasn’t worth it. Australians wear beanies, probably because our winters approximate a Canadian spring, and that’s all there is to it. Instead I reflected on what I already know to be true. Getting out into the world is always worth the effort and this applies to everything from small things, like getting out of your tent in the freezing cold to pee (so you sleep better), to bigger things, like hiking in your backyard or travelling the world.
The car we had stashed at the end of Pocket Saddle Road the day before setting out was only a kilometre from where we camped and so on day three we took a stroll, sans heavy packs, in squally rain out past Pocket’s Hut and as far along the AAWT as time would permit. All just to whet the appetite, for next time.
To be continued.