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Five villages in Liguria

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Which is a less evocative name than Cinqueterre, but it’s essentially the same. Back in March this year I went down there with an old friend to walk between the villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.

Access to these villages is best done by train. Parking availability is limited in the villages, even if you’re driving a Fiat 500, and the train brings you right there. We fussed around initially with trying to find a good parking spot in La Spezia and ended up finally parking in the underground parking at the station. The cost wasn’t too bad and it was nicely undercover and in a convenient location. We had booked our accommodation in Monterosso al Mare, which we made our base for two nights. Hotel Margherita was a nice mid-range choice with plenty of good restaurant options around it.

Pre-trip research had already revealed that a number of paths were closed off due to landslides and repairs, but we did not expect to hear that all the paths between the villages to be officially closed. So the next morning we bought our one-day Cinqueterre pass (highly recommended) and decided to train it to Corniglia and see if we could walk back via the higher paths to our home base in Monterosso al Mare.

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After arriving in Corniglia, we decided to walk up to the village, rather than waiting for the bus to arrive and piling in with too many other people. The first set of steps were easy enough and afforded a nice view towards Manarola and Riomaggiore. From there we tried to find the high path to Vernazza, but what we thought was the high path (no signs of course) later turned out to be the normal path which was “officially” closed. That of course didn’t stop anyone merrily walking the path and pretending it was open (nor us for that matter). Only when we came across an Australian couple did we find out the truth, that it was closed further on and required some creative clambering over earth moving equipment. So we did and made our way down to Vernazza, while an extremely unfit individual was panting his way up from there. He wasn’t even 300 meters into the walk and looked like he was going to expire that very moment. We both looked at his progress with concern; a look we would have on our faces a few more times that afternoon, as we watched the parade of walkers in flip-flops, walkers in heels with pretty handbags, walkers perched on precarious outcrops aiming for that perfect instagram shot, even if it was their last. We really are an odd species.

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The walk so far had been delightful with beautiful views and meandering paths along the sides of the cliffs that occasionally became steep staircases that for the most part we could descend. After we arrived in Vernazza, we first treated ourselves to a gelato and then proceeded to have a look around the village and the harbour area. It is a very photogenic place and it was full of tourists (like ourselves). If it is this busy in March, it’s unimaginable what it looks like in July and August…

And don’t believe the heavily photoshopped images you see of Vernazza. It is really a beautiful and colourful place, but they’re pastels, not the heavy-handed hues that are being painted on to images of the place.

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After our break we headed up the hill again to follow the path out of Vernazza. We asked a local policeman for directions and to make sure the path was really open. He responded that it was and indicated which way to follow. Five minutes out of the village the path was cordoned off, but emboldened by the policeman’s statement that the path was open (and in the context of everyone else’s blatant ignoring of signs), we climbed over it and continued on our way.

In this section the path was quite narrow in places and difficult to pass for walkers crossing from the opposite direction. Most of the time both sides carefully negotiated passing each other, finding the best spot or stopping to wait until the other party had passed. But at times people just bulldozered through with no regard for anyone in their path.

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We soldiered on calmly, stopping for photos on the way or to let people pass. The final descent was an endless series of steps that hammered our knees. Eventually we ended up in Monterosso again, delighted to have been able to actually do a substantial part of the path between the villages. As we still had time and an unlimited train pass, we walked back to the station and jumped on the next train to go to Manarola, to visit the fourth village, where we settled in with an afternoon drink and a snack and sat people watching as the sun set lower.

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Duly fed and watered, it was time to make our way to the final village, Riomaggiore, by train. By then it was getting close to sunset and we enjoyed walking around in the the late afternoon light, colours melting away in the sea, before returning to the train station to travel back to Monterosso al Mare for dinner and some well-earned rest.

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Peaks and troughs

1803_AU_BogongWalk-0331When friends and fellow walkers suggested an Easter ramble over the Bogong High Plains in Victoria, I immediately jumped at the idea. With a fair bit of driving to get there for each of us, the intended circuit was reconsidered and I thought I had come up with a clever car shuffle to make the final day a bit more palatable. At least that is what we thought…

From the start things didn’t quite go to plan, but sometimes the walking gods like to test our resolve and the only way is to persevere. After some trouble locating my share car, I eventually made it up to Bogong Village an hour later than our agreed rendezvous time. From there we drove up to Watchbed Creek outside Falls Creek and started our walk after we’d had a quick lunch.  We were striding out in our boots over the 4WD track and we made quick progress, until we reach Roper’s Hut. Our plan was to camp downhill after we crossed Big River and so we started out descent. The topo map did say steep in places, but there is obviously steep and steep. It was an exhausting descent that took us far longer than we expected and it was only when we had crossed the river that we could see how steep it had been. It was just on dusk as we made our way across the river and scrambled up the far side. Our camp site wasn’t far from there and we quickly put up our tents, so we could start to cook dinner. We rejoiced in a pasta dinner, lubricated by a shiraz from Cat Amongst the Pigeons, under the bright lights of the full moon. We were much surprised when we discovered we were still sitting yakking away well after 10pm that night and scuttled off to our tents for some shuteye and to recuperate for a tough second day.

1803_AU_BogongWalk-0293Apparently the climb out of Big River is described as an “ovary-smashing, ball-busting” climb and I have to somewhat agree that it was one of the tougher ones I’ve encountered. Very steep at the beginning the climb is relentless and took us close to three hours. Granted our progress was slow (probably thanks to all that pasta and red wine), but eventually we made it out onto the plateau and got our share of beautiful views. As we came onto the plateau we noticed a small cluster of tents, occupied by the Bayside Bushwalking Club, who provided invaluable information about our planned walk out. Although topo and satellite maps were showing a track, the prevailing wisdom was there wasn’t one where we wanted to walk out and that it would involve bushbashing down a steep spur that would be easy to get on the wrong side of. None of us were particularly keen on that scenario and after due consideration of all the alternatives, we decided on walking out via the Staircase Spur and putting our faith in humanity for securing a lift back to our cars.

Before we set up camp we walked down to have a look at Howman Falls, which were very pretty, seemingly perched in its steep environment. Although there was still 1.5K to go to Cleve Cole Hut, we decided to stay put where the other walkers were, because here there was easy access to water, which was not the case at the hut. Damir cooked up a fabulous Indian dinner with rice and naan bread and completely casually proceeded to pull a bottle of Wynns Coonawarra Shiraz out of the bottom of his pack, which was just about the best surprise anyone could have given us right there and then.

1803_AU_BogongWalk-0339After a good night’s rest for our sore muscles, we woke up to a slightly overcast morning which cleared up rapidly to more sunny skies. After breakfast and packing up the tents, we set out on the path to Cleve Cole Hut, which was reached after about 20 minutes walking. It is a pretty campsite, quite spread out under trees and well worth camping at (provided there is water). The hut is striking from the outside.

From the hut we started following the ridge line soaking in the views that stretched as far as the NSW Snowy Mountains, ridgeline after ridgeline of mountains fading into a blue/grey background. The views were truly 180 degrees and the wind was strong, sometimes almost knocking me off my feet, notwithstanding the heavy pack I was carrying.

1803_AU_BogongWalk-0346There is something special about walking the high plains, whether in New South Wales or in Victoria. You are high above everything else and you can see as far as the eye can reach. It feels like you are a million miles away from all the minute issues that clog our daily lives. We walked steadily and quietly, until we got to the junction with the Staircase Spur, where we left our packs to climb up the last little bit to the summit cairn of Mt Bogong, the highest mountain in Victoria. The wind blew, the views were spectacular and we felt smug simply being there… until the first runner came up. (I mean, seriously!)

1803_AU_BogongWalk-0352After a little time at the summit, enough for photos and a meander around, we returned to our packs and started our descent, which was initially very steep and then levelled out a bit before getting steep again; it’s clear why it is called the Staircase Spur. The total ascent from Mountain Creek to the top of Mt Bogong is 1400m and to descent is another 1400m. Most people do this as a day walk and some, well, as a training run. We also saw plenty of kids doing the walk and were very impressed by that. We were quite happy to rest our weary knees and quads when we got to Bivouac Hut and made it a short day, relaxing for most of the afternoon.

As we were finishing dinner, two Kiwi walkers came scoping out whether there was still space where we were camped to escape a bunch of noisy campers near the hut. We found them a spot that secured them a better night of sleep and they decided they could offer one of us a lift back to our car in Bogong Village. It was a win-win.

1803_AU_BogongWalk-0354The next morning we made quick tracks and followed in the footsteps of our new Kiwi friends, who were a tad more fleet-footed than we were. Two hours after setting out we arrived at the Mountain Creek camp site where they had just finished repacking their car, so I could fit into the backseat, as we drove up to Bogong Village – a drive that took longer than one would have thought. Once there, we said our goodbyes and expressed the hope to bump into each other in Melbourne at some point. I dashed off to pick up Karen and Damir, to drive all the way up to Falls Creek again to get their car and after another quick lunch, we went our separate ways again as we headed off to Canberra and Melbourne respectively.

It was another great long walking weekend – not without its challenges – but full of surprises and nice encounters.  And so as not to suffer again as much as we did this time, we’ll have to keep our walking up in between before we meet again for a walk up Mt Feathertop or the Three Capes Walk in Tasmania – whichever one comes first.

But before that, there are other adventures to be had. In just a little over a week I will be on my way to Tanzania and Zanzibar for a long anticipated trip to photograph the wonderful African wildlife on the Serengeti Plains. I can’t wait.

 

Mt Jagungal full circle

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In 2001 my friends Karen and Damir took me on my first overnight bushwalk to Mt Jagungal and with that walk ignited a passion in me to explore the outdoors on foot. In April this year, precisely 16 years after that first overnight walk, we reprised that trip to Mt Jagungal, The desire to do this walk again was part out of nostalgia and part a desire to revisit this beautiful part of the world. Although I had been back in intervening years, I had not been back with Karen and Damir, so this walk would be coming full circle on that first foray. Of course, doing the same walk again 16 years on is a different proposition: bodies have aged, bones are creakier and the going is a bit slower than in 2001, but I was also wiser and better equipped than I had been on that first walk. When I say better equipped I don’t mean that I have more gear, but that I have better gear and carry less of it!

I flew up to Canberra on the Friday evening of the Anzac Day weekend and on Saturday morning we set out by car towards Cabramurra. The weather forecast did not look good and it rained for most of the way. The radar, though, seemed to offer some hope that the worst of the rain front would have passed Cabramurra by the time we would arrive to start our walk. In Cabramurra we huddled in a picnic shelter as the cold rain drenched the ground and ate our sandwiches there to avoid having to eat out in the rain once we started our walk. My prediction that the rain front would have passed became a reality half an hour later. We parked the car and it stopped raining; if there was ever a good omen for a walk, it was this! There were a few other hardy souls out, but it didn’t look like it would be too crowded at the huts.

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We set out with our packs on the 4WD track that leads out and shortly after the start we got a visual on our objective. Mt Jagungal is the most prominent mountain in that part of the Snowy Mountains and is a beautiful sight. At times stopping for a small snack and a drink of water we plodded on towards Dershko’s Hut. We arrived in the late afternoon with still plenty of daylight to set up camp. The hut itself was occupied by various people, but we tend to prefer to sleep in our tents anyway. Damir scouted out a good position on one of the hills above the hut which gave us a perfect view of Mt Jagungal. We pitched our tents, filled up our water bottles and bladders and started preparations for our pasta dinner. With the patience of a Buddhist monk Damir occupied himself with making a small fire to warm us as the evening air rapidly got colder. It took nearly an hour, but then he had coaxed the wet kindling and wood into a comfortable and well-controlled fire around which we ate our pasta, indulged in a drink of Noble One dessert wine and of course chai and chocolate afterwards. Then it was off to our sleeping bags for a good sleep.

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It was cold at first, but then I warmed up and when I woke in the morning I understood why it had been so cold with the ground around me all covered in frost. But it did provide for a wonderful view of Mt Jagungal in the morning from my warm down cocoon. Inevitably it was time to rise and get breakfast and tea going, dismantle tents and load up our packs again to reach our objective. We got off to a slow start, thanks to those creaky bones and some sore muscles, but once we got going it was all good. At the foot of the mountain we ditched our packs, took some snacks and water, my InReach Explorer and our rain jackets for the ascent. Those rain jackets turned out to be a wise choice.

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We climbed steeply through scrub at first until we got to the plateau where we continued our walk in between magnificent snow gums. At the same time we saw the brilliant blue sky being threatened by a dark cloud building up in the direction where were going. As we got closer to the top, the weather turned quickly, forcing us to put on our jackets as it started to rain, then the clouds moved in completely. The summit marker was approximately 80 meters away as the cloud descended and despite it being so close, we knew it was lunacy to continue. We had been there before, there would be no views due to the cloud cover and going on would court the risk of complicating our return if we lost sight of the track. So after a quick war council, we turned on our heels and followed our tracks back down, only relaxing after we got out of the worst of the cloud. Despite the disappointment of not making the summit, we still enjoyed the views and the walk itself and for all intents and purposes we practically summitted.

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The rain stopped as we got to the steep bit and by the time we got back to our packs it had dried out completely. We had some lunch standing up and then put on our packs on again for the rest of the walk to our next goal, O’Keefe’s hut. This is where I have to own up that having an InReach doesn’t necessarily mean that your waypoints are correct. Although I had done my best to get them all recorded accurately, I had made a big mistake with O’Keefe’s hut, thinking it had burned down in the bushfires in 2003, unaware that it had been rebuilt. And so my waypoint was well short of the actual location of the hut. We were confused at our location, not remembering it from our previous foray, but as it did offer water nearby and a good spot for our tents, and given we were all tired, we decided to put up our tents, cook our meal and have a good rest. But not before enjoying a magnificent sunset and its red pink play on the hillsides surrounding us.

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The next morning we got underway a bit faster than the previous morning, as we had quite a walk out ahead of us. After about 40 minutes we passed by O’Keefe’s hut, our elusive goal of the previous day, rebuilt and looking very comfortable. I had a tinge of regret and felt foolish for having got it so wrong, but I’ve since updated my waypoints on InReach, so that this mistake does not get made in future. It was another beautiful and sunny day and we soon turned off onto Farm Ridge Track to cut through to the Tumut River, which we had to ford.

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We had left this river crossing for the end so that we didn’t have to do most of the walk in soggy boots. We rolled up our pants, but kept our boots on and waded through in knee-deep water to the other side. From there the track ascended for quite a long time until we reached a plateau again. From Round Mountain Hut we had a last glimpse at Mt Jagungal, who had denied us a summit and yet the walk felt like a great success. Shortly afterwards we turned right on Round Mountain Trail again and walked back to the car, which was the last one still there, exchanged wet socks and boots for dry footwear and got into the car for the long drive back to Canberra, pizza, wine that evening and the inevitable stiff bodies the next morning. And of course, five minutes after starting the drive back to Canberra it started raining again.