Australian Alps Walking Trail Part 1

J. P. Quinton – 2015

The Flight:

Terminal three Perth airport. Gate 20. Flight delayed by twenty minutes due to ‘crew issues’. Checked internet for cheaper flights in moment on tight-arsedness. Could have flown six hours later for $100 less. A woman lets her baby scream on the floor. A dude in a baseball cap squeezes a plastic water bottle while biting his nails and playing on his phone. A tattooed older dude with no bags taps his old-school boarding pass booklet. A father and son exchange funny youtube videos. The coffee shop music drones.

I’m full of dessert and my ankles are strapped. A preventative measure, the straps. Some kind of security as I become less cocky with age. Sprained my ankle a few weeks ago going too fast on the Bibbulmun track. The trial run for the AAWT. There’s still slight pain. Or I think there is. Enough to be apprehensive about walking 650km over mountains. Thought I’d better bloody take it easy for a while.

Should arrive in Tullamarine about 1am, catch the shuttle to Spencer St, or whatever bogan name they’re calling it these days. From there I’ll either walk or catch a taxi to Jim’s in Tony Abbotsford. Jim Jim Jim. Got him a copy of Ted Hughes’ ‘Birthday Letters’ for Xmas. That’ll cheer him up.

A plane lands. Our plane. ‘Crew issues’. Passengers head to their cars. Famous cricketers walk by unharrassed. Made-up stewards and stewardesses prepare our plane. A thin strip of vapour, the width of a window pane shimmers outside, blurring the Darling Scarp. I resist the urge to facebook, email, text. A baby sings her version of the ‘get on the plane song’. Small things take on significance when they don’t go right.

The plane the yellow glow grows, clusters, fractures. Linearity disturbs the black. In glass the small child rocks. A small turbulent patch. I drop my pen. The kid who’s been kicking my chair all night picks it up. All action is determined by the level of work required.

Packing:

I am packed. Small bags inside other small bags inside a liner inside a backpack. In three hours drive, a couple of sessions of the Boxing Day test, I’ll be at the start of the walk. The track is a meaningless path cut through scrub. All things considered the track takes on meaning through negation. Going without showers, without sinks, televisions, news, books, restaurants, friends. We lose and gain perspective. We lose it by setting the course. By forbidding and ruling out options, by deliberately putting blinkers on. By walking into bad weather or refusing a lift. By not stopping to converse.

An arbitrary mission. A track or trail or highway without a name, not recognisable by name or association, has no psychological connection to hang our determination on. My determination is exhausted by research and preparation. I sit still. Eager to begin. The goodbyes mostly complete. Driving out of Melbourne the old houses make way for high-rise. Cars give way to bicycles.

Day 01: Walhalla to Oshea’s Mill

Said goodbye to Jim at approximately 11am after a cooked breakfast, and a discussion about Keating and filling out the intentions form at the General Store. We had to drive back up to the campsite above Chinese Gardens to retrieve Jim’s drying tent, his 3x3x3m palace. After boyishly jamming the tent in the bag we putted to the information bay, made final preparations, a photograph, and salutations. It was good to leave Jim on a positive note as he became quite irate about Keating the night before; bellowing profanities from his palace. I was very nervous not to forget anything so I checked and rechecked my gear and turned the car upside-down.

For the first 5km or so I was worried my left ankle would start hurting so I walked slowly as if it were already sore. You could hear cars going to and from Walhalla below the track which was on an old tram line. About 100m below where the track crosses a 4WD track, three walkers were climbing the hill. They caught up to me a few km’s later where I had stopped to remove the ankle bandage that was rubbing. They seemed like a Mum and her two kids out for a day walk. They passed me and not long after I passed them. The mother asked if I were attempting the entire 400km and I said yes the entire 650km, thinking they would walk with me to chat. But they remained stationary and the mother said good luck. Views up the river to the Poverty Point bridge. A dip in the water would be nice as the sun was hot, but the river was about 30m below and inaccessible.

Noon time, cross a stream then up a blue stone hill. I join the track and scare a black cat. No amount of meows will make us friends, although we are domesticated rogues, off to find what some solitude will bring us. The sound of the cars disappears.

I wanted to stop and sit in the shade and admire the bridge but there was no where to sit and the sun was too bitey to stay in the middle. I walked on occasionally catching glimpses of the shallow rapids, tall trees and steep valley. Cicadas phase in the forest. A ball of tall tress hang like a tablecloth. Bracken and ferns, nettles, prostrate wattles fill the floor. In the clearing dead mouse guts are exposed. I’m caught. I am the border of doubt. I stop and fill my bottle up with stream water, despite the admonition to filter everything. I fix my shoe, using the gaiter as a sitting pad. I prop the heavy backpack on a leg before strapping up. When I leave I triple check to see I’ve dropped anything. A small moment has passed. A smidgen fractured half way up a gully. The stream water is tasty.

At certain angles, burnt limbs, trunks, a grey horse avalanche line cutting green. Up close mossy black bark dangles like a child’s tooth. Repeated branch patterns hard against blue space. Up steep grade single track. Heart loud. Dirt chips, wood chips, bark, blue squares high up. As if in cartoon a mid-air spider makes for the edge of the track as it sees me approach the track-wide-web. I stand and wait for it before breaking its work. Spiderwebs, evidence that no-one has walked here today.

A long climb up a spur leads to a heavily manicured roadside and then another 30 minutes walk for the first nights’ campsite. A botanist Lucy and later two Germans arrived whiling the afternoon away. I washed in the stream but got all dirty again attempting to jump to the muddy bank out of the clean water. I quickly took temporary ownership of the trusty picnic table and assumed my usual position of feet on the seat, back to the middle. Between them, ten or so metres of mown grass. A copy of ‘No Logo’ discussed. Then the rules of the game are explained; exploration, conquer, domination. The picnic rug is full. Ten minutes later the game begins and their backs begin to hurt. He blows his nose and repeats the rule. Wracks his brain for the word in English.

1/1/14: Oshea’s MIll to Talbut Hut.

Woke about 6:30am with only a small amount of dew on the sleeping bag. Slept with just the bug net hanging from the walking poles. Missed bringing in the New Year but woke throughout the night looking up at the stars. Lucy was packing her stuff up slowly. She was half packed by the time I left anticipating the longest climb of the AAWT up out of the lowlands onto the high plains. Took it very slowly and sweated a lot. Joined a gravel road after a few km’s of soft underfoot track. A machine of some description – a small bulldozer or bobcat had been through recently making progress easy. My sweat and body fat countered any recognition that the temperature dropped as I climbed. Forest, cob-web like mouldy bread bread. The parasite drapes. A black monitor scampers 4ft up a tree, watches me. Black and alive, this unframed painting. Only yellow eyes and yellow stripes, circles, the measure of self. Mountain ash, they stand tall and house lyre birds. They burn and burn and burn.

As I started to have lunch at Erica carpark however, it got cold. Eight new 4WD type vehicles lined the car park. A half dozen day walkers were reading the sign as I entered. A lady said she knew John Chapman, his wife and John Siesman, the authors of the AAWT guidebook and other bushwalking publications. I examine the book and think of heading to Mt St. Gwinear.  Step after step I let my body adapt, and climb into position. does the space move through me as I through the space? Strangers stop to chat. Bushfires and emergency beacons, helicopters in all seasons. Large pebbles cantilever, their ‘Hanging Rock’ moment, the sequence that isn’t sure how to end. A patch of gums, clustered at the base, as if hundreds of larvae thought the earth was the air and they’re vying for gaps inside the crust.

Despite the wooden sign: MT ERICA 1509M. Despite the track carved through various landscapes, despite the prams and picnic baskets, the narcissus in me says ‘you’re the first to be here’. Not ‘this is the first time you’ve been here’. To climb into this remote place, far from the maddening crowd.

Carrawongs cry from a distance. Blow flies move in. I set my tarp up amongst the gum tree wrigglers, back to the wind. Only the concrete hearth, caste from gumtrees, is contrast to the thick wall of bending trunks. I burn the first days map, smell the chemical ink. The trees grow strong enough to split the basalt. They regrow when humans move on. They are a testament to time. Horizontal light angles in beneath the canopy, their torsos sweat, knuckled and oblique, the branches twist skyward like a willy willy.

After the storm no one rebuilt the hut. After the storm the saucepans and kettles were found 100 metres away, twenty years later, after fire. After the storm the moss sucked colour from the rock, the way a mosquito sucks blood, then the draught. Lichen is shrivelled and cracked, fast air blows the flakes. Strands, like arm hairs, in the moss. Dead twigs and leaves chew at the top soil.

Didn’t make it to Mt ST. Gwinear. Was either 19km today or a flatter 21km tomorrow. Since today involved a lot of climbing I stopped at the the old Mt Talbot hut site at about 2:30pm. Quickly set the tarp up as it was quite cloudy and appeared to be about to drizzle. A few drops fell at about 5pm.

Mushroom Rocks is an interesting place to explore. According to the signs whitey’s have been visiting there and Mt Erica for over 100 years. As you climb out of Mushroom Rocks the snow gums get thicker and thicker until you’re in amongst a gnarly wall of trunk on all sides. This taking the walking easy business is good, but it does leave a lot of time for sitting around being eaten by whatever bug is flying by. Trying to read or write you get bitten and have to move around a lot. Right now I’m inside the bug net escaping about 50 mozzies. They try to eat you through your clothes through the bug net.

Sunset is a good time of night/day to be walking and in some ways perhaps better to arrive in camp at this time too. You simply set up, eat, and go to sleep. But if you set up early you’re kind of committed to stay through your own unwillingness to pack up and move again. Perhaps if I get in camp early I should wait until the latest possible time to set up. Having said all this, I’m pretty happy with the modular set up I have: tarp, groundsheet, bug net and bivy. I can set any one of those up by themselves depending on the conditions.

The concrete hearth is a fascinating relic. Re-enforced concrete with local rocks as aggregate. Looks like they used planks as form work and built it up making each set higher a little smaller for the chimney. There are cracks, moss and graffito growing all over it. Once upon a time the hut would have been a place or parties and an emergency shelter. Now all that stands is the equivalent to a cricket oval and pitch, with the stumps, but no players. Apparently the huts from here along the Baw Baw Plateau to Warburton, were constructed by the government back in the 1920’s. Our relationship and fascination to ‘the bush’ is not new, it seems.

Day Three: Talbot Hut site to Stonarchs camp

Woke before the sun rose due to a mozzie inside the net. Was already kind of awake but the bug was the catalyst for initiating the move. Was meant to be a hot day so I wanted to get going early. Lifted two sides of the tarp before sleep which changed the nature of the site. Have realised I can peg the net out so will experiment with that this evening. Haven’t seen anyone today yet. Quite a bit of scrub-bashing to Mt St. Gwinear. Was in a bit of a mood when I arrived at ‘Rock Shelter’. Took the side trip up Mt St. Gwinear which had snow markers along it. I was imagining a world of snow along the grass button plains. At Maddison plane you can see the phone tower above Baw Baw ski resort and I nearly switched the phone on but decided against it. Getting both the gear and body dialled in is the order of the day. Some nice walking but limited views.

No significant thoughts, no planet saving ideas, just walking. Bashing through waist high scrub, a myrtle grove. No aches, no pains, no cramps, one foot goes in front of the other, dodges wombat poo instinctively. A white log at the entrance of an opening means wrong way turn back. Pink petalled flowers spring up on storks, like fireworks. Two days I walk in Snowgum, dichondria underfoot. An afternoon of mountain ash, dichondria underfoot. Always the hum of march flies. Trees sing creak creak when they rub. Out here if you lose a lid, you might not carry water. Out here the tanks are full, but not for walkers. Out here vices seem more enticing. Bracken grows around the rusty surveyors trigonometry frame. Out here, relief, almost, at seeing trees cut off at their base.

Lying out in the open – got the whole bug net thing happening – at Stronarch’s camp. Have the tarp ready with stakes laid out incase of rain. Some clouds are forming over in the west. Hopefully they’ll just keep the night warm. A long day today. Probably 11hrs including 3hrs break in the middle to let the heat pass. There’s no rest with the mozzies and march flies around. The mozzies are going mental now and the march flies have only just gone to bed at 9pm AEST. No normal flies, however, which is a kind of bonus. The walking is great. Varied vegetation with heaps of shade. Drank about 800ml of water for 5km during the hottest part of the day, with gatorade powder. Had a moment where I wished I had a tent as setting the tarp up took more mental energy than I could be bothered. But after looking out across the wetland with the setting sun half illuminating the line of trees about 150 metres away, no regrets. Before I took it down again, I had the tarp tied to a tree about 4 metres away and was impressed with its versatility.