A major feature on the Alpine walking experience of an autumn visit to Mt Kosciuszko in NSW
Like many of Australia’s peaks, Kosciuszko’s is a summit easily obtained. This Easter, anoint yourself Conqueror Of Mountains by cresting our mainland’s highest point . . . just remember to pack a serious windbreaker.
By Matt Cleary
Sigrid Thornton said it best. Gripping Tom Burlinson by the lumber jacket during her seminal role as the beautiful, cloistered-yet-spirited Jessica in George Miller’s adaptation of The Man From Snowy River, Thornton breathlessly said of the Australian high country: “One moment it’s so beautiful . . . the next it’s trying to kill you.”
“Too true, Jessica darling,” Burlinson said (or something similar) while noting that the weather up there can change quicker than even Melbourne’s.
But it was another piece of Banjo Patterson verse, Clancy Of The Overflow, that convinced me to spend Easter hiking around Australia’s Everest: Mount Kosciuszko. Because the story of Banjo sitting in his “dingy little office” contemplating Clancy viewing “the vision splendid” while herding cows and yodelling lustily, no-one within a hundred coo-ees, always evokes in this concrete jungle-bunny the need to get out and breathe unfouled air in an environment where, had you the urge, you could run gloriously nude through the heather, unfettered like the pre-shamed Adam.
And so it happened that my girlfriend and I were huddled on the side of a mountain beside a glacier-carved chunk of blue rock, assaulted by gale-force winds, our bodies the only ballast preventing our little yellow tent from tumbling off into the tundra like a ping-pong ball in a wind tunnel. As the pegs ripped asunder and the fly flapped like an unhitched spinnaker, we laughed like fiends and wondered anew what in the name of frozen blue bejeezus we were doing out here, when warm beds in Thredbo’s trendy, tapas-eating, wine-quaffing village mocked us like posh kids slagging off at street urchins.
A peak you reach
Australia’s highest mainland peak is easily accessible from Thredbo Village via a chairlift and an easy stroll. That morning we’d arrived at Mount Crackenback, the alighting point of the Kosciuszko Express Quad Chair, to be greeted with eerie, fast-moving fog (or cloud, or mist or something), evocative of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. Indeed, there’s a lot of the Scottish highlands in Australia’s high country; it’s bald, treeless and rocky, as if Thor himself had crashed his hammer down on a giant game of marbles. Everything’s flattened by the prevailing westerlies, then snap-frozen under snow for six months. Signs by the track told us local fauna consists of lizards, hibernating possums and a rare fish that looks like those sea monkeys you buy in comics.
And so we hiked off through the fog. The sun burned through, the wind picked up and froze our sweat. Then it rained lightly. Then the wind died off, before the sun replaced the rain and it got hot enough for T-shirts. And thus dressed, we arrived atop mighty Kosciuszko . . . along with maybe 50 other pilgrims, some too young to walk, some drinking beer. The views are nice, yes – but it was a tad underwhelming. We didn’t exactly have to prey on our fallen comrades to conquer the mountain. So we took some photos and headed off.
Thirty minutes north along the Australian Alpine Walking Track, a couple of cairns indicated the route to Mt Townsend, a chaos of quartzite which is mainland Australia’s second-highest peak. This was more like it: silent hills, a little rabbit path, nobody around but us and the – “Now that’s a mountain!” boomed a cheery Austrian with a trimmed white beard and the air of a wise but ruthless submarine captain. “Wonderful views! Mt Townsend! Wonderful!”
So we dumped our bags and did some exploring and agreed that it was good. But after a couple of hours wandering the savannah, it was time to make camp. Our feet hurt, our shoulders too, and we were starting to disagree about, well, many things. Kylie sought directions from another hiking couple while I looked on, fidgeting, emasculated.
Eventually we decided on a path less trodden and erected our tent on a 20-degree slope halfway up Muller’s Peak, behind a huge slab of glacial rock. “Coffee!” we cried, but the screw-on gas burner didn’t fit the clip-on gas bottle. I resisted the urge to remind Kylie that I’d argued for the inclusion of the other burner – then gave in to that urge. Eventually, Kylie thought laterally and we made fire (possibly illegally) on the rock – sorry, National Park – with foraged wood. Into the boiling billy we chucked some dehydrated food and from it, incredibly, emerged the most beautiful roast lamb and vegies with mint sauce you have ever seen.
Later, over coffee and Tim Tams, we agreed that this was the epitome – the quintessential image of solitude-in-wilderness – we’d conjured up back in “the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city.” Our lounge room was a slab of million-year-old rock, our TV a view of kidney-shaped Lake Albina far below, and if it hadn’t been zero degrees we could’ve stripped off and run free of the shackles of modernity like the Aborigines did 40,000 years before Jesus was a pup, oh yes.
Then it got really cold and we climbed into the tent – there was nothing else to do – and slid straight to the bottom of it. So we moved the whole thing on to a flatter surface and into the teeth of said hellacious winds. It was 7pm. It would be a long night, particularly for Kylie, whose sleeping bag didn’t do up properly. Bummer.
Morning comes, and cold besides
We woke the next day after a torrid evening, with the wind now but a stiff gale and an orange dawn rising over the mountains and fighting through the grey skies like God waking up after a night on the sauce. After Coco Pops (dry) and fruit, we argued about: the lack of a gas burner; the resultant lack of hot breakfast; my lack of chivalry in not giving up my sleeping bag; women’s liberation; communication!; who was the bigger ass (seems it was me); tent poles; tent pegs; and tent packing.
What would Clancy have done? I wondered. He never took his wife droving, answered Banjo from my subconscious.
Eventually we got packed and humped off down the slope, around the lake and back up the escarpment to rejoin the Alpine Track. The scenery was stark, the view from Carruthers Peak beautiful, there were hundreds of day-trippers and we’d been walking for maybe 20km carrying increasingly heavy packs and it was all a bit much, really. And so Kylie and I, in a spirit of detente, agreed that once we got back to Charlotte Pass, that’d be it. Hell with this, back to Thredbo and the civilised world.
But after we traipsed into Stillwell Lodge after a 10km bash past the pretty, glacial Blue Lake and the embryonic Snowy River, our feet feeling like meat beaten with hockey sticks, our faces sandblasted and racoon-like, the owner told us Thredbo was an eight-kilometre walk or an 80km cab ride via Jindabyne. Luckily, he said, for $99 a night we could have all the comforts we’d travelled so far to deprive ourselves of. Happy days.
Later, as I regaled our fellow diners with the bon mot that Charlotte Pass could be renamed Charlotte’s Web, such was its allure for crap, map-reading hikers, we ate roast beef and drank Shiraz and told tales of the wind . . . and then slept for 12 hours.
A newfound respect
Refreshed! The next day we hiked the relatively flat trajectory back to Thredbo, realising that maybe the reason the wilderness is so devoid of humanity is that it’s so inhospitable to our species. I mean, those igloo-dwellers don’t exactly look happy when they’re forced to chase polar bears away from the garbage, all the while wearing clothes made from seals and smelling like the funk of arctic fox.
Anyway, we finished the hike passing day-trippers in their zipped-up puffer-jackets, and be damned if they weren’t looking at us differently – even deferentially – as though our backpacks and Douglas Mawson-like countenances indicated we were some sort of explorers. Or something.
Regardless, after checking back into our Thredbo digs, we ate tapas and quaffed red wine from large glasses and laughed with the European and aquiline-looking locals in their woolly jumpers, eventually coming to the conclusion that without a working sleeping bag, gas burner and effective shelter from the elements, hiking dozens of kilometres to camp out in the high country over Easter is not all that wise a thing to do.
Absolutely splendid vision, though.
DETAILS: High Country Primer
Best months to go: October to April (unless you’re into cross-country skiing).
Most underrated aspect: The views west from Mt Townsend, the mainland’s second-highest peak.
Most overrated aspect: Mighty Mt Kosciuszko – it’s harder to walk up the main street of your nearest capital city.
Be prepared for: Sore feet. Stiff, cold winds.
Watch out for: Rock formations. Stark scenery. Wilderness.
Best value encountered: Rehydrated roast dinner with water views on a slab of rock.
Stillwell Lodge – Phone: (02) 6457 5073 Website: www.stillwell-lodge.com.au
Thredbo Village – Phone: (02) 6459 4100 Website: www.thredbo.com.au
If going solo isn’t your thing, for guided walks of all kinds contact Lake Crackenback Resort, which has packages starting from $245 for day walks and $562 for overnight treks (four share). Includes two nights accom, breakfasts, guided trek, equipment and use of resort activities and facilities. Phone: (02) 64513000 or 1800 020 524 Website: www.novotellakecrackenback.com.au
Top Two Guided Walks
Take on adventurous trails with a ranger, who will share with you their knowledge of local history and surrounds. Included: all equipment (walking poles, backpack, wet weather gear etc), chairlift tickets and entrance fees for Kosciuszko.
Time: 2 days (camp overnight).
Aimed at: The keen explorer – those ready to test their comfort zones.
Why? Panoramic beauty, summit Mt Kosciuszko and experience alpine range at night.
Price: $399pp (food included)
Time: 1 day (8.5hrs).
Difficulty: Moderate to easy.
Aimed at: The nature appreciator – children over 12 to retirees.
Why? Flora en route well worth the trail. Hikers summit Mt Kosciuszko.
Top Two Unguided Walks
They’re plentiful in Mt Kosciuszko, so here’s your chance to explore the mountain properly. Park rangers recommend the following:
Time: 2 days (camp overnight).
Aimed at: The fitness fanatic – intermediate to experienced walkers.
Why? Expansive views of and from the Main Range, along with Alpine glacier lake views.
Aimed at: The nature appreciator – a great family trail for both beginner and intermediate walkers.
Why? Snow grass, snow gums, wildflower meadows: a flora-filled trail.