Apologies for the delay – I have learned that it is really alot harder to blog on a camping trip than I imagined, particularly on one where there are dozens of beautiful trails in the immediate vicinity! Also, since getting back, I have really got stuck back in to work (both office and house). Anyway, on with the tale:
Continued from prelude…..
I woke at 0630 to the sound of a heavy downpour on the tin roof of the cabin. After peeling myself from the comfort of my sleeping bag, it was a quick 150m dash in the rain over to the kitchen hall where I fixed up my yummy breakkie of oats and home made air-dried apples (courtesy of J).
About halfway through my meal, I was interrupted by a call from Peter of Bright and District Leisure Tours to say that he was waiting outside for me. I looked at my watch in a panic, but it was only 0700h and I wasn’t expecting him for another 30 minutes. Turns out he had forgotten to update his calendar.
Not wanting to keep him waiting regardless, I rushed through the remainder of my meal and had a quick wash up. I swung by the administrative building to bid Terry goodbye, and then hopped aboard the waiting minibus.
It is ridiculously difficult to get to the alpine trails by public transport outside of the snow season, with the local bus from Omeo only running one daily service between Omeo and Bright on certain days a week. To arrive on a Saturday morning, my only option seemed to be to charter Peter’s private taxi service to make the last half-hour or so by road to the trailheads at Harrietville.
The drive went by quick enough, and before long we arrived in the sleepy riverside town of Harrietville. My previous day’s dilemma of which route to take was somewhat resolved on my behalf when Peter dropped me off at a cafe nearer the Bungalow Spur trailhead.
The trailhead is accessible via a sealed road called Feathertop Track on the eastern side of the river. A cool, faint morning mist wafted around the treetops as I began my stroll up the road, past various large properties. The near perfect silence of the morning was broken only by the melodic calls of the local magpies. About halfway along the road, a grey SUV pulled up, with the driver me asking for directions to Bungalow Spur. I stated that I was also looking for it, and that I believed this was the right track. She drove on ahead, and minutes later came back down the road, giving me a thumbs-up as she passed. Sure enough, another five minutes or so and I found myself starting at the trailhead signage, marking the start of my foray into the Victorian Alps.
The trail started harmlessly enough – a gentle but incessant climb through the wooded forest of ferns and mountain ash (a species of eucalyptus). The fresh scent of the cool forest, still damp from the prior night’s rain, filled my nostrils as my feet padded silently along the soft, mossy dirt. About twenty minutes in, I passed a group of three hikers – two strapping young lads and an elderly lady, all headed for Federation Hut. Pleasantries were exchanged, and clearly sensing I was in a bit of a hurry, they all kindly stepped off the path to allow me through.
I was still relatively low, and so the vegetation was dense enough that there weren’t really any striking views, although the occasional break in the trees sometimes offered a partially obstructed look at the ridge line on the opposite side of the valley. It was still a very pleasant trail nonetheless, and I kept a steady hiking pace just enjoying the serenity of the forest in the morning. I soon passed a simple bench facing the valley by the trailside, along with a signpost that read “Picture Point”. Obviously at some point in its history, there must have been quite a spectacular view here. Perhaps the trees used to be shorter, or thinner, or whatever, but the fact remained that at that point, all I could really see from Picture Point was trees.
The trail was pretty overgrown in parts, and at times I found myself having to force my way through head-high walls of shrubbery. It continued to wind its way up the side of the spur until I finally ended up on the top of its ridgeline. which also had a marked reduction in the low lying shrubbery. I paused for a break to snap a photo of the forresty trail when I heard the sound of quick footsteps and heavy breathing coming up from behind me – certainly an unusual occurrence for the morning as I was still hiking pretty quick thanks to my relatively light load.
It turned out to be the lady from the SUV earlier in the morning coming up the hill for a bit of a trail run. We had a quick chat, and I found out that she was training for the Razorback Run which was actually going to happen the next weekend. She had just come up for a bit of a scout, and coincidentally, the point where we were standing was her turnaround point for the day. Off back down the mountain she went, and I continued on my merry way.
As I continued to ascend, the vegetation began to thin, and the glimpses of the amazing scenery began to come more often than not. The trail also began to open up slightly, and I was able to start putting on some pace.
It was at around this time that I, distracted by a glimpse of some breathtaking mountaintops in the distance, planted my foot right in the middle of some blackberry branches that had grown across the trail. As I lifted my leg, the jagged thorns which generously covered each branch dug into my skin and gave me a nasty raking. Thankfully it was nothing more than superficial scratches, but the little tingle of pain and the burn as my coating of sunscreen began to seep into the wound was annoying all the same. And to top it off, the blackberry bush didn’t have any ripe berries to compensate me with.
The trail was now roughly tracing its way up the top of the spur, and was a lot less windy and much more runnable. I passed quite a few more pairs of hikers after this point – they must have started in the wee hours of the morning to get this far. Either that or they must have been mighty fit! As I continued to gain altitude, the trees also started to get shorter – a sign that I was approaching the top of the climb. There were entire fields of stunted mountain ash, all dead from bushfires in recent years and bleached a ghostly grey-white by the elements.
The stunting and lack of foilage in the dead trees meant that I could peer out over the surrounding mountain ranges and soak in the stunning scenery as I continued on my upward ascent.
It also meant that I now had access to the refreshing touch of a lovely cool breeze that was skimming its way up the slopes. The fresh mountain-top air seemed to give me a bit of an energy boost as I trudged my way up the final couple hundred metres to arrive at Federation Hut.
The setup at Federation Hut was pretty neat – a sturdy structure with room for plenty on the inside. Round the side was a composting toilet, and out the front was a view that was well worth paying for, except in this case you didn’t have to! There was also ample spots for camping amidst a grove of trees.
A couple of groups had already begun to move in and were in the process of setting up camp. This was only my first milestone for the day, however, and wary of the long journey ahead, I kept my break down to a couple of minutes to rest the shoulders, and then it was off to bag my first peak of the day – Mt Feathertop.
The most scrumptious bit of singletrack led the way from Federation Hut to Mt Feathertop – the open, green slopes scattered with white mountain ash set against a partly cloudy blue sky – it seemed almost as perfect as it could get. Almost.
The one solitary bit of looming grey cloud in the area happened to be sitting right atop the peak of Mount Feathertop, mocking my feeble attempts and plans at getting there before it did.
As I approached the summit, the gentle upward incline quickly turned into a nasty heart thumping vertical effort up little Mt Feathertop, a false summit just before the actual top. Whilst the summit was still shrouded in cloud, the valleys either side of the ridgeline was still below the cloud cover and offered much pleasant viewing, making up for the glute burning ordeal.
Sadly, at the top, there was no respite from the cloud cover. The wind was moving the cloud layer along decently fast, so I decided to take a 10 minute lunch break and see if my luck would change.
I got through my entire lunch of bak kwa (for the unenlightened – this is essentially asian beef jerky, except unlike its western counterpart, it actually tastes awesome) and biscuits, and all the while visibility around me remained a generous twenty metres or so.
In the end, I had to get a move on, and so I made my way back down towards the Razorback, passing several hikers who were on their way up.
When I got to the bottom of the little Mt Feathertop summit, I turned back around for one last look at the highest point on my journey, only to find that the cloud cover had mysteriously vanished, and the peak was there in all its glory, offering those hikers who would probably have been standing on it at that moment spectacular 360 degree views. I, on the other hand, had been up there a mere five minutes too early, and with some additional kms to cover thanks to taking the alternative route, I didn’t want to risk any more time by re-ascending.
The next section of the journey was something I had been looking forward to all week. Crossing over to Mt Hotham via the Razorback, a long undulating ridgeline resembling the back of a dragon.
The breathtaking views all around provided much candy for the eye and exhilaration for the soul as I danced along the trail feeling literally on top of the world, feasting my eyes on layers upon layers of mountains as far as I could see.
If the views were candy for my eyes, then the trail itself was sweet enjoyment for my feet. The twisty, rocky bit of singletrack that traced its way along the dragon’s back, featuring lung bursting, quick climbs and thrilling, rock hopping descents.
It was relatively crowded along the Razorback, and I ran into many hikers who had started from Diamantina Hut, as well as a couple of runners who were scoping out the route for the next week’s Razorback Run. It struck me that I was a sort of happy medium between the two – moving fast enough to cover decent ground, but slowly enough to take in the sights and enjoy the moments.
It was about halfway along this 9km stretch of trail running perfection that the first sign of trouble appeared, manifesting itself in the form of a faint but noticeable ache in my tib ant tendon – the same one that had been giving me trouble the month before. Over the next hour or so, with each ascent, the pain continued to grow, to the point where I couldn’t even walk without an obvious limp.
I struggled through the next couple of kilometers, knowing well that I was in trouble. To make matters worse, I could hear thunder coming from a looming layer of dark grey clouds up ahead.
Doing my best to preserve my legs, I opted to avoid running altogether, and focused on hiking as fast as I could, trying my best to enjoy the scenery, which incidentally was made quite dramatic by the storm brewing up ahead. I now had quite the balancing act to juggle – get to the shelter of Diamantina Hut before the lightning storm arrived, while trying to spare my ailing ankle from further strife. The race was on!
I knew from my distance covered that I couldn’t have been more than 1-2km away from my interim objective. I made good steady progress, but the ridgeline seemed never to end. In the distance, I could see the ski lifts and other telltale man-made structures which indicated that I was close, but each crest only revealed yet another after it.
I lost the race. Just as I crested the final hump which revealed the last three hundred metres or so to the shelter, I was drenched in a torrential downpour. Water dripped down the end of my visor as I shuffled down the last bit of the trail and across the Great Alpine Road, pain running up my left shin from my grumpy tendon.
The road was lined with the cars of all the hikers I had passed during the day. Just a few metres up a track on the other side of the road, was the A-frame shaped Diamantina Hut.
I scurried in to the hut to take shelter from the storm overhead. Thunder rumbled often, and the patter of the raindrops on the tin roof of the hut showed no signs of letting up. I peeled off my jacket to let it dry out as much as possible, and pulled out my map to consider my options.
At about this time, another gentleman popped in to the hut and we struck up a bit of a conversation. He was considering making the hike over to Federation Hut with his parents to spend the night there, with the view of returning the next day. However, when I told him of the number of people I had seen already at the hut, plus the number of hikers I’d seen on the way, he began reconsidering his options. I understood perfectly – spending the night at an overcrowded hut would certainly be no fun at all.
After another half-hour or so, the rain eased to a drizzle, and I could hear that the thunder was now in the distance rather than overhead. I had a choice of still trying to push for the Diamantina horse yards, which would mean another 15 or so kms on top of the 30 I had already covered, or cutting my losses and heading for Derrick Hut, which was around 6km away. The only complication with Derrick Hut was that there was no water source nearby, and I would thus have to make a 1.5km detour in to the Hotham village to pick some up.
Eventually, I decided on the second option. Less miles in the legs could only be a good thing in the current circumstances, particularly given I still had 30+kms to cover the next day. With that, it was pack on and out the door towards the summit of Mt Hotham, my second peak for the trip.
It was a relatively quick hike up to the Mount Hotham summit, marked by a simple stone marker and the local rangers observation tower. I paused for the typical selfie and a short chat with the ranger before following the trail down to Hotham village to pick up some extra water.
Now that I was within good mobile coverage, I took the chance to give my family a call and update them on the day’s events and my change in plans. E was his usual bubbly self and I could barely hear the others over his incessant chatter.
The trail followed a ski lift down to the village, nestled cosily around the contours of the mountain. Ski season was still some months away, and so most of the shops and services were shut, save for the general store, which of course was on the other end of town, a good 1.2 km down the road. As if I needed the extra mileage! I limped along the harsh asphalt surface, drawing may a strange look from passing motorists.
Being the only store and pub open for miles around, the general store was packed with hikers and mountain bikers who had come up for the long weekend. In addition to a bottle of water, I couldn’t resist also grabbing a can of soda to enjoy while taking a rest on one of the lounge chairs. This turned out to be a bad idea. After hours out on the trail, my digestive system did not take well to the sudden influx of gas infused fluid, and I ended up curling up in the chair feeling like I had big fuzzy chinchillas running around in my guts for the next twenty minutes.
Thankfully, my stomach eventually settled down, and keen to make the most of the last couple of hours of daylight, I hit the road back towards Mt Loch car park back on the other side of town. Obviously, very little running was happening at this stage given the state of my left leg, so I kept to a steady hike.
From the Mt Loch car park, I picked up Machinery Spur Track towards Dibbins Hut. I met many walkers and mountain bikers – all going in the opposite direction as the day drew to a close. By the time I got around a kilometer in, I had the trail to myself.
I had now been on the move for around eight hours, and the sun was getting low in the sky, turning the grass golden with its warm light.
Over to the east, I could see the entire length of the Razorback, with Mount Feathertop and Mount Hotham on either end. Looking back over all the ground I had covered leading to this point brought an immense feeling of satisfaction.
Before long, I reached the turnoff to the West Kiewa Logging Road. 900m down this turnoff was the summit of Mt Loch. I was now in two minds. Light was fading, and I was still trying to limit the strain on my already suffering left leg. At the same time, I really really wanted bag another peak and take in some last light views from the top of Mt Loch. Common sense did not prevail. I dropped my pack at the junction, and camera in hand, I ignored the pain and made a break for Mt Loch.
The track to the base of the Mt Loch summit was relatively flat, and I could see the peak in full view as I approached. To my horror though, I could also see a thick blanket of cloud rolling in swiftly from the west. Suddenly, I was in a race, and I had only one good leg.
I went as fast as my fatigued/injured legs would allow me, but it was in vain. Just as I reached the base of the peak, and mind you was just a minute scramble or so to the top, the layer of grey swept over the top. I went up anyway, just so I could say I’d been there, but there was little to see. It was Mount Feathertop all over again. Except this time I was one minute too late.
Putting the disappointment behind me was easy – the arrival of the cloud meant that my surroundings were now blanketed in a thick layer of fog. Visibility was down to around fifty metres, and to make matters worse, dusk was upon me and with its arrival, even the last rays of sun reaching over the horizon began to fade. I had left all my lights in my pack, and so it was imperative that I made it back before visibility dropped any further. The run back to my gear was the longest 900m I’d ever covered. The fog formed a grey screen which maintained a steady fifty metre gap in front of me – making me feel as if I may as well have been on a treadmill. After what felt like an eternity, I was more than glad when the large tree I had dropped my pack under emerged out of the swirling mist.
The fog had thickened and visibility was now down to around 20 metres. I stuck to the trail, which went past one of the Hotham ski resort’s many chairlifts – obviously not in operation due to the season. It lay there silently, almost ghostly, its cables and towers stretching out into the dense mist.
With my trusty 700 lumen Ayups perched on my head, at least I could now pick out my foot placement and see the trail in front of me, and that did wonders for my confidence. I only had about 1km to go to Derrick Hut, my new destination for the day. As there was little to see, I kept focused on the five metres of skinny singletrack in front of me as the trail cut its way through the alpine grass and shrubbery.
For a brief moment, the fog lifted slightly, revealing the silhouettes of the stunted alpine trees and what looked like a large boulder. Then, as suddenly as it had left, the fog returned, shrinking my world back down to the little bubble of light cast by my trusty headlamp. I kept moving forward, alternating between a jog and a walk every thirty seconds or so.
It was now close to 7:30pm, and I was well past my usual dinner time – a fact my stomach made sure to remind me of. A little further on and I began to hear what sounded like laughter wafting towards me from up ahead. The mist was too thick, and there was no sign of any light, so I almost wondered if my ears were playing tricks with me. However, with each step I took, I heard more voices which grew steadily louder. Eventually, after passing through a small grove of trees, I stumbled upon a bunch of around ten people gathered around some gas stoves, happily tucking into their evening meal. I had arrived at Derrick Hut, and my day’s journey had finally come to an end.
A quick glance at my watch put the mileage so far at 40km – 12 more than I had intended to cover in my original plan. The numbers seemed a bit erroneous on the long side, but with the detour to the Hotham general store, plus some mucking around at Feathertop, it might well have been possible. Regardless, I was happy to finally get my pack off, and got right down to setting up camp so I could fill my now very angry stomach with some much needed nourishment.
It was a quick meal of rice, ham and some kale chips with J had also kindly made for me the day before. I was quite excited to put some of my new gear to a real-world test. It was my first night out in the field in my Sea to Summit Specialist Solo shelter, and I had also brought an Optimus Crux gas stove for my cooking needs.
The gear performed flawlessly. The tent took less than five minutes to pitch, and the stove did its job. Before long, I was sitting in my shelter enjoying a steaming hot evening meal, slowly contemplating the day’s events. The thought crossed my mind that I still had over 30km to cover the next day, but I put that aside – I was happy to have made it this far, and I decided I would let tomorrow worry about itself – after all, it would be at least another twelve hours before I got on the move again, and I fully intended to spend as many of those hours as possible, sleeping. With that, after a quick clean-up and a change of clothes, I tucked in to my sleeping bag and dozed off to the sound of the alpine wind rustling in the trees.
To be continued…….