Fastpacking Alpine National Park – Part 2

Ok, so this probably breaks the record for late posts, and this far on it almost seems pointless. Much has happened in between that has got in the way of me completing the log – at the top of that list is a new addition to our family (more on that in another post)! I had to finish it though, as this was one trip I know I will want to look back on years down the track. And I have lots of other updates I want to post about in the coming weeks.

Anyway, three long months after the fact, it’s back to the tale:

For those of you who haven’t read it yet, this is continued from part 1……

After a good nine hours of sound sleep, I was woken at around 0615 by a deep cold which had caused the tip of my nose and my toes to go numb. To reduce condensation, I had left my tent’s outer fly ajar. While it had been relatively warm the night before, the temperature droped to a nippy 7 degrees overnight. Given my sleeping bag was only rated down to 10 degrees, I suppose it was natural to feel a bit chilly despite all of the extra layers of clothing I was wearing.

G0457207Not wanting to leave the relative warmth of my sleeping bag to face the chilly morning air,  I lay back and watched the walls and ceiling of my tent slowly illuminate as the first light of dawn began to creep across the sky.

I also took the opportunity to start on the first part of my breakfast – a stack of oatmeal biscuits, which proved challenging to eat lying down without dropping any crumbs in my tent.

DSCN1401Before long, the sun began its slow but grand entrance, and beyond the silhouettes of the trees I could see a growing layer of brilliant orange splitting the darkness of the land and the faint pale blue sky.

I inevitably got bored (and slightly uncomfortable) half lying down and leaning on my elbows, so I finally bit the bullet, peeled off my sleeping bag and changed back (yes you read that right – multiple changes of clothes are a bit of a luxury when fastpacking) into my running clothes.

In doing so, my head brushed up on the back panel of the tent, and that was the first time that I had noticed that leaving the outer flap open had been in vain. The entire upper of the tent was coated in a fine layer of condensation. I stepped outside and opened the fly as wide as I could, and then went to make the second part of breakfast – cup noodles.

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Derrick Hut. This was after repositioning my tent (it’s the yellow one in the distance). It was originally in that big shadow in the lower right of the frame.

In all the time it took me to make my breakfast, eat it, wash the cooking gear and pack up the majority of my kit, the tent was still wet. There wasn’t enough air flow as the wind was coming from the opposite side to the tent entrance, and the sheltered spot under the trees I had picked meant that the tent itself was more or less entirely in the shade. I pretty much sat around until 8am when finally I had had enough, and decided to re-pitch the tent on the sunny side of the clearing.

That worked a charm, and with the warm sun now directly on the tent, and the entrance aligned with the gentle breeze blowing through the camp, my tent was dry in little more than fifteen minutes. I was all packed up in ten minutes, and after sending out a quick check-in on the satellite tracker I was on my way.

DSCN1405The trail towards Cobungra gap started off as a decent piece of singletrack winding its way through alpine scrub and grassland. In contrast to the previous day’s weather, there was plenty of blue sky in view. The heads of hundreds of fluffy white dandelions swayed ever so slightly above the grass  in a gentle breeze – the perfect setting to kick off my journey for the day.

After skipping along for a little over 30 minutes, I began to feel a small hotspot developing on my left foot. After a quick stop to put a band aid over the offending patch, I turned to pick up my back and be on my way again, only to find that the entire thing was covered in a swarming layer of very angry ants! In my haste to patch up my skin and keep moving, I had plonked my pack right in the middle of an ant trail. In less than sixty seconds, they had managed to find their way into almost every outer pocket, and  I spent the next five minutes frantically brushing and flicking the little hitch-hikers off.

DSCN1406Eventually, when I was fairly confident I had got them all, it was pack on and back on the trail. Not much further down the track, I arrived at a small clearing which gave a really clear view across the gap and over to the other side of the valley. The mountainside in front of me dropped steeply down to Cobungra Gap, and rose just as steeply up the other side on to the Bogong High Plains. The view was both breathtaking and daunting at the same time.

The trail soon reached the top of the descent down into the gap. By now, the coolness of the morning was starting to be replaced by the warmth of the unfiltered sun streaming down from an essentially cloudless sky. I was certainly starting to get a bit hot under the collar as I began to descend the steep and windy stairway down into the valley. Around a third of the way down, I came across an elderly group of hikers who had all but sprawled out over the middle of the trail, clearly trying to maximse the shade of the large gum tree whose canopy of foilage cast a zone of cooling relief.

As I approached, they made no attempt to move, and it was clear I would have to somehow get around them – a task that involved a bit of scrambling and climbing over logs. I usually enjoy my brief encounters with fellow trail lovers, but I have to say in this instance, I was more than mildly annoyed!

DSCN1408Down and down I went, until I eventually heard the faint sound of voices through the trees. Seconds later, the trail broke out to the valley floor, a clearing of waist high grass, with a quaint wooden hut. The voices belonged to a group on a horse tour who had just stopped by to visit the hut (Dibbins Hut). The tall equine beasts and their passengers made their way along the trail through the waist high alpine grass, giving an almost picture perfect portrayal of horseback pioneering in the days of old.

About fifty or so metres on, the trail crossed the Diamantina River – at this point it was more like a small creek. I found a shady spot to drop my pack, and took the opportunity to fill up my 1L nalgene with some water from the creek. Just as I was about to dip my bottle into the clear, cool water, a couple who was sitting on the bank nearby kindly shouted a word of caution – the same group of horses I had just seen had crossed the water at this point, and at least one of those horses had deposited a large quantity of solid waste into the water. I gratefully headed several paces upstream, and when I had filled my bottle, I gave it a double dose from the Steripen – just to be sure.

G0487223I had a brief chat with the pair who had saved me from horse manure ingestion. They were originally from Melbourne, but had moved out to the country because they loved hiking, and rather than spend 6-8 hours each weekend commuting to fulfil their outdoor fix, they moved their lives to be closer to the mountains. I envied them somewhat; that option just wasn’t available to me at the moment – “Too far from Chadstone…” as J would say. The things we endure for family!
On the trail once again, it was not long at all before I found myself trudging up the other side of the valley,  somewhat reminding me of the climb up to Federation Hut the day before. The trail itself was overrun by hundreds of strangely coloured grasshoppers – arrayed in bright yellow, black, purple and red. As I passed by, they would leap audibly off the trail and into the surroundings, almost like a never-ending tap dance.

DSCN1414The trail gradient remained relentlessly steep, and I was certainly grateful for my trusty hiking poles as I hauled myself onwards and upwards. The temperature in the beginning remained warm, but bearable. Each time I arrived at a clearing in the trees, I took a pause to enjoy the cool breeze that filtered its way through the gaps in the canopy, at the same time soaking in the views looking back across to the other side of the valley from which I had just come.

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The trail gradient remained relentlessly steep, and I was certainly grateful for my trusty hiking poles as I hauled myself onwards and upwards. The temperature in the beginning remained warm, but bearable. Each time I arrived at a clearing in the trees, I took a pause to enjoy the cool breeze that filtered its way through the gaps in the canopy, at the same time soaking in the views looking back across to the other side of the valley from which I had just come.

DSCN1417Just like the day before, the more altitude I gained, the more the tree cover thinned. Before long, the steep, relentless climb began to be interspersed with sections of flat, grassy trail. This was certainly a welcome change, as I was already beginning to grow weary of the slow, uphill slog.
It was at this point when I realised that, thus far that day, my achy tib ant tendon had not really been bothering me much. In fact, I had almost forgotten that I was supposed to be taking it easy. DSCN1418That said, my journey so far had essentially consisted of a really long, steep descent, followed by a really long, steep ascent – both of which are relatively easy on the tib ant. The true test lay ahead – the relatively long and flat Bogong High Plains crossing. For the time being, I counted my blessings, and kept on trudging.

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A first look at the Bogong High Plains

It was not much further on that the trail dipped slightly, and then rose sharply for a final 200m. I can still recall those last few steps up the slopes where, all of a sudden, a vast, nearly treeless expanse of alpine grassland opened up before my eyes. A strong, cool and constant breeze was blowing, and I dropped my pack to take a short breather. There was a delightful chill as the cool wind hit my sweat soaked back, and I savoured the refreshing feeling whilst soaking in the views back over the gap which I had just crossed.

DSCN1420I was once again in line-of-sight to Mt Bogong, which I could just make out in the distance. This meant cell coverage, although somewhat weak and spotty. I took the opportunity to ring my family and give them an update of the situation, before strapping back up and continuing down the trail.

It was at this time that I passed a family of four – two parents and their young sons who looked like they were no older than ten and twelve. We stopped for a short chat – they were heading to spend the night in Cobungra Gap at Dibbins Hut. They were tackling the 37km Falls to Hotham Alpine crossing, and judging from the looks on their faces, they were certainly having a ball!

DSCN1426The trail was lined with snow poles for winter navigation, and the row of stout, grey posts stretched over the gently rolling plains. In stark contrast to the day before, the terrain was more or less flat, and I could see for miles in all directions. With a cool breeze blowing, the conditions were perfect for running, and I seized the opportunity with both legs.

It was around lunch time by now, and over the next couple of kilometers I passed several groups of hikers picnicing by the side of the trail. So excited was I to finally have a decent stretch of running, that food was nowhere on my mind. I decided to make the most of the moment and cover some solid ground. I could always have lunch later on when my legs felt like they needed a break.

DSCN1434Aside from the stunning views and cool breeze, the high plains had one other treat for me: Wild horses! Leftover stock from settlers over a century ago, they were now scattered in small bands all over the area, roaming freely over the high plains.

The trail passed within 30 metres of one of these bands, and I paused to watch as a young foal frolicked around the others with not a care in the world. His mother, on the other hand, was clearly uneasy with my presence, and made that clear with a couple of aggressive snorts in my direction. Not wanting to suffer the wrath of 500+kg of muscle on hooves, I moved along.

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Rock hopping across the grassy sea…

As the trail continued in to the plain, I began to notice a change in the climate.  As I got further from the gap, the warm, sun baked earth began to have an effect on the air moving over it, and the once cooling and refreshing breeze began to change to a dry, hot and gusty wind. Given that the high plains were essentially a vast, treeless grassland, there was nothing in the way of shade. Between the wind and the blazing sun, I soon began to get uncomfortably hot, and I started to glance up at the sky, looking forward to each time one of the large, fluffy white clouds would cross the path of the sun’s rays and provide me with some precious relief from the blaring heat.

It was at around this time that the first signs of my injury began to resurface. Every fourth or fifth step would be met with a jolt of pain running from my ankle up the front of my shin. I glanced at the GPS, and my best guess was that I still had a little over 20 Ks to go. After a couple of minutes of walking, I decided that perhaps the achy tendon was a sign it was time to break for lunch.

G0517242My original plan was to have a nice hot bowl of pasta, but given how warm the weather was turning out, I decided to just finish the rest of my breakfast biscuits. Besides, it would save me the trouble of assembling my camp kitchen. Sitting on a rock and munching my mid-day snack, I watched as the fluffy white clouds passed overhead. Other than a few tiny little mounds in the area (the closest being the peak of Mt Jim, which at best rose 20-30m above the plain), the terrain was still essentially flat as a board, and it was hard to believe that I was over 1800m above sea level in the middle of the Victorian Alps.

I was just getting settled into my comfy lunch spot when I was promptly set upon by a massive swarm of flies. It was as if they had materialised out of thin air, and they were everywhere – crawling over my biscuits, behind my sunglasses and into my ears. I quickly finished off the last few bites and scrambled to get on the move, not wanting to ingest any unwanted extra protein as the winged beasts tried to crawl into every orrifice that presented itself. I must have made quite a sight, fumbling with my pack and waving my hands frantically in the air like a deranged lunatic, just as a pair of hikers approached. To save the trouble of explaining myself to them, I hurried off down the trail, possibly leaving them in a mixture of belwilderment and amuesement.

My attempt to escape was somewhat futile. Awoken by the warm weather, the flies had started to come out in droves, and in my brightly coloured gear, I must have looked like an obvious target to hitch a ride on. They would settle on my pack in the hundreds, and the moment I stopped for a breather they would swarm around my head. More incentive to keep moving, as if I needed another.

DSCN1438

A big literal pile of horse shit.

The trail soon came to the well known pole 333 junction. Left (east) would take me towards Weston Hut and back down towards the Diamantina River, and so off to the right (west) I went. The trail over the next five or so kilometers was straightforward and well groomed, with the only obstacle being a waist high pile of horse manure, bang smack in the middle of  the trail. It was as if every stallion, filly and foal in a 100km radius had converged on this spot to take a dump. I took a small detour round the mountain of equine byproduct. I certainly was not going to risk trying to jump it, not with my tonne of bricks pack on my back, and certainly not with my fatigued and injured legs. Besides, why risk landing in a dung heap for a few style points that no one would be there to witness.

DSCN1442Shortly after the dung mountain, the trail took a curve to the north and continued its way through a very slight valley (again, essentially flat – the sides of the valley were no more than ten metres higher than its lowest point). The peak of Mount Bundara passed slowly by as I plodded along the trail, taking care not to brush the thorny ankle-high shrubs on the way. The slight ache in my tib-post began to gradually worsen, but each time, a short 30 second walk break seemed to provide some temporary relief over the next few hundred metres of running. Still, combined with the heat from the unfiltered rays of the mid day sun, it made for some significant discomfort.

Eventually, the trail zig zagged its way down to the Happy Valley Track crossing. Cope Saddle hut sat at the end of the track, and there was a “do not cross” sign over the aqueduct. I was puzzled. There was no other clear way of getting over the aqueduct, although I could see the row of snow poles clearly continuing over the other side. As far as I could see, my only choice appeared to be to follow the Cope East Aqueduct track and look for a way across.

It was now stinking hot, and it was getting to the point where my judgement might possibly have been compromised, and rather than risk a spur of the moment decision that could add kilometres to my trip, I decided to take a break. With an injured leg, that could mean hours that I didn’t have – and I was really looking forward to seeing my family again.

I took the opportunity to put a patch on a hotspot on my toe that had been developing over the last hour or so, and pulled out the map for a double check. The map clearly indicated that I should continue to follow the snow pole line. I headed right over to the edge of the aqueduct, and sure enough, hidden below the edge was a convenient flight of steps down to the bottom, and another leading up the other side. The sign I had spotted earlier was intended to warn off potential attempts to cross the aqueduct at the wrong spot during winter, in the event the entire area had been blanketed in snow. Now, however, in the middle of an early spring heatwave, it only served to confuse.

DSCN1446The stretch from Happy Valley Track to the Bogong High Plains Road was very runnable, and certainly not lacking in the picturesque department. However, my tib ant tendon really started to flare up, and every other step or so was met with an agonising stab to the front of my ankle. I was now obviously hobbling along in a feeble attempt to run, and my gait probably resembled the lopsided prancing reminiscent of the horseback scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Compounded with the blazing sun overhead, it became a big struggle to enjoy the moment, and despite being immersed the fantastic scenery, I was now mostly looking forward to the end of my journey, which unfortunately was at least good 15km away.

As I approached Happy Valley Track, I passed a family going for a day hike in the opposite direction. In stark contrast to me, they were thoroghly enjoying themselves, chatting away as they started down the path, picnic baskets in hand and kids merrily skipping down the trail. Compared to them, I probably looked like I was on death’s door as I shuffled along in the opposite direction bathed in misery. I tried my best to brighten up my own demeanour and lighten up my steps, not wanting to spoil the moment for them. However, the moment their backs were turned, my shoulders drooped back down and I resumed my agonising shuffle.

Arriving at the Bogong High Plains Road, it was clear that the big cycle race, the Three Peaks Challenge, was still going strong, and I had to pause by the roadside to wait for a decent break in the stream of road bikes whizzing by. These people were on a 293km trip covering some very serious elevation, and I certainly did not want to make anyone brake for me.

DSCN1448

The trail leading towards Cope Hut

Over on the other side of the road, the trail dropped down into a bit of a valley, and the RV belonging to the family I had passed earlier was sitting in a small carpark. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take some shelter from the sun in the massive shadow cast by the luxury mobile accomodation. However, the moment I came to a halt, the swarm of flies that had taken residence on my pack immediately took to the air and returned once again to annoying me by trying to get into every nook and cranny on my head and face.

Deciding that heatstroke was preferable to falling victim to the army of winged creatures born from the depths of piles of horse manure scattered all over the high plains, I took a quick fumbling look at my map, stuffed it back into my pack and hurried along. Given my injury, I decided that I would skip the last section of the trail and exit to the Bogong High Plains Road at Langford Gap, and hope that my dad would be able to drive down from Falls Creek to pick me up.

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Yes, this is the best picture I have of Cope Hut. Unfortunately, my camera had switched itself to manual exposure, and my head was so cooked I didn’t notice.

Not much further down the track was Cope Hut. I took a few moments to check out the hut, which historically was the first hut in the alps to be built specifically for tourists (as opposed to stock herders). The inside looked beautifully rustic and cosy – the bunks were constructed entirely out of old fashioned timber, with a lovely stone fireplace. I made a mental note to come back with my family and stay in it some day in the future.

I also took the opportunity to top up my fluids from the rainwater tank, check out the nearby campsite and visit the toilet to relieve myself of some dead weight. I must have left the swarm of hitchhiking buzzing nuisiances back at the RV, because strangely enough, when I stopped at Cope Hut, there were only one or two around, and I was able to enjoy a quiet moment just sitting on the grass in the shade.

DSCN1452The break did wonders for my morale. Back on the trail, although my ankle was still giving me grief, I was in much better spirits, and as a result, was able to brush off the heat and once again appreciate the natural beauty around me. Just a few hundred metres down from Cope Hut, signs for the Alpine Crossing directed me off Cope Hut Track onto a lovely bit of singletrack that descended down to the Langford West Aqueduct. From there, I picked up the Langford West Aqueduct Road and headed north towards Falls Creek.

DSCN1454Just after picking up the Langford West Aqueduct Road, I came across a large green building, which turned out to be a local scout facility. Some of the volunteer mums and dads were out for the day doing some maintenance. Past this point, the trail pretty much followed the aqueduct for the rest of the way to Langford Gap. I pottered along the gently flowing water, which was teeming with what looked like baby brown trout.

DSCN1458A kilometer on from the scout facility, the aqueduct and trail turned sharply towards the north, a sign that I was now heading towards Falls Creek. The next section of the trail tracked the western end of the plateau, offering stunning views out to the surrounding ridges and peaks.

Looking out over the Victorian Alps and soaking in the breathtaking view, I came to a sudden realisation. The weather was still blazing hot, my ankle was still a mess, I was behind schedule and I still had a fair few kilometers to go, but I didn’t care. I was in my element, enjoying the moment thoroghly, and I was not in the least bit interested in being anywhere else.

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Approaching Langford Gap

The trail continued to wind its way along the hillside, and somewhere along this stretch, I came across an elderly lady who was marching along at a decent pace – with my hobbled left leg, it took me a fair while to catch up with her, and when I finally did, I asked if she knew whether Langford Gap was far ahead. She looked at me quizzically and said that she actually thought we’d already passed it a couple hundred metres earlier at a point where the trail came within view of the road. We both stopped and compared maps for confirmation, to my dismay, she was wrong. I had suspected as much, but a small part of me had hoped that she was right and that my journey was nearing its end, but in reality I still had a good 2km to go just to get to the road.

DSCN1463

Langford Hut

Thankfully, my morale was still on a high, and the fifteen or so minutes it took to get to the road went by quite quickly, thanks in part to the distractingly beautiful scenery. As I approached Langford Hut, I began to have second thoughts about my exit strategy. Things weren’t feeling so bad – maybe I could just tough it out and stick to the trail to the end. In the end though, common sense won the day – no point adding another 7km of torture to my already wrecked tendon. Besides, I reasoned that given how beautiful the area was, I would definitely be back, and so the decision was made to head out to the main road and hope for a rescue.

DSCN1466It was not to be. As I got out to the road, it was clear that the cycle race was still going on, and the road was closed. A quick call to my dad confirmed this, and I now faced a long, albeit shorter than originally planned, jog along the tarmac towards Falls Creek.

I plodded along the road shoulder, looking very out of place as the road was dominated by endurance atheletes of a different breed. As they zoomed by on their wheeled machines, I got many a weird stare and the occasional nod as I limped along  the side of the road. By this time, my ankle was all but shot. Rest would allow me to run 100m or so, but all up I was walking most of the time. The support medical vehicle zoomed by on more than one occasion, and each time I fought a mental battle to resist flagging it down.

GOPR7262On the plus side, the road skirted the Rocky Valley reservoir. The picturesque views offered some distraction from the searing pain that was jolting up the front of my left leg. I stopped for a short snack break at one of the picnic areas by the side of the water, before steeling myself for the last 3 kilometers of pain. By this time, I was quite over the trip, and was more than ready to see my family again and put my feet up.

G0567270Eventually, I arrived at the dam wall. To my right, I saw stairs coming down Heathy Spur – the stairs I should have been coming down had things gone to plan. I didn’t really care – the dam meant that the end was now near, and in the distance I could hear the festivities at the finish line of the bike race.

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Falls Creek

Rather than follow the road all the way in to the resort village, I made a detour via the mountain bike trails, which ended up adding another 30m or so of positive elevation to the trip. I much preferred this to an awkward entry in to Falls Creek via the finish line of a major bike race, particularly when I was hobbling like a lame duck. The last kilometer or so of bike trails went by quickly enough, and before long, I found myself on a rocky outcrop overlooking my destination.

 

936612_10153936311551788_1847767761852590979_nThere was a sense of accomplishment coated generously with relief as I made my way down the last couple of hundred metres of a ski trail in to town. It was time to celebrate, and I did so in true calorific fashion, with a milkshake the size of my nalgene bottle. The icing on the shake, so to speak, was that I was joined shortly after by my dear family, and seeing the excitement bubbling in E’s face. After two days of being immersed in the solitude and beauty of the Victorian alps, I was more than ready to enjoy their company. And lots and lots of pizza.

Day 2 Strava activity here.

 

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2 Responses to Fastpacking Alpine National Park – Part 2

  1. David Wong says:

    Well done!

  2. Langdon says:

    So readable as ever, Chris – your eye and memory for telling details is fantastic. Combined with your honesty about your feelings and situation and it’s a very enjoyable read. I suspect developing the narrative is something that keeps you occupied while running?

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