Dolomites Delights

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The Dolomites have been on my to do list for a while and once the summer crush was over, I managed to convince a friend from Germany to join me for a week of walking. We planned for a flexible itinerary and a good thing we did, as the weather forecast turned increasingly bad for the first day we would be there. So we revised our initial plan and dodged the rain – and as it turned out snow! – by alternating sitting in the steam room of the hotel with testing bars nearby for the best aperol spritz.

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For our first day of walking the day cleared to a beautiful blue sky, but it was cold and the snow line had moved significantly lower on the surrounding mountains, making for some spectacular scenery. The planned walk was the Sassolungo circuit, which involved first making our way up by cable car to the Rifugio Demetz. That cable car was an experience in itself, but it did make for some neat photos (the photo above was taken from inside the cable car). Having arrived up high we stepped out in howling winds that were whipping up the powdery snow that had fallen overnight. We added an additional layer before tentatively exploring the path downhill. Fortunately someone had already broken trail and so each armed with a walking pole we descended carefully, occasionally sliding in the fresh snow which reached up to our mid-calves at times.

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The scenery was out of this world: sheer rock faces dusted by snow, luscious green hills beyond and the faint outline of the actual snow-capped Alps. Magical. After an hour we reached Rifugio Vicenza and treated ourselves to a hot chocolate. From there we were snow-free and walked the path towards Rifugio Comici where we had an excellent late lunch, before finishing up at our starting point on Passo Sella. Our aperitivo waited for us in Canazei after the obligatory steam room.

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The next day the snow line had retreated a little and we made our way to Campitello to take the cable car to Col Rodella. From there we walked the well-frequented Sentiero Federico Augusto to Rifugio Sassopiatto and then returning through the Val Duron to Campitello. A far more popular route, we found ourselves with many more walkers on the trail and enjoyed seeing the Sassolungo from a different angle. The descent was hard on the knees and when we thought the worst was behind us, there was a very long walk on road surface (and at one point very steep) to get back to Campitello.

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For our third day of walking we had chosen the Viel del Pan, described as an easy walk. When the bus we were supposed to take didn’t arrive, we opted to take the car to drive to Alba and take the cable car to Col dei Rossi to start our walk. Another blue bird day meant spectacular views all around (the photo above is a composite panorama of Sassolungo on the left and Sella Group on the right) and the walking was easy (and again quite busy). After an hour and a half we got to the point where we would commence our descent to Passo Fedaia, another descent requiring hard work from our knees.

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Once we got to Fedaia Lake we walked across the dam to the other side to see if the lift to the Pian dei Fiacconi was working. Well, if we thought that Monday’s cable car was interesting, we had something else waiting for us: metal baskets for two people at the time, with the door bolted shut after you and up you went, standing for 20 minutes or so in the open air as we ascended. Great views of course, but not sure about the WHS aspects of this contraption! At the top we met some people who had walked up, which had taken them three hours of tough walking, particular as conditions high up were challenging in the slippery snow on steep terrain.

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Although there are many more walks to do in the Val di Fassa area, we decided to move to Cortina d’Ampezzo to explore another area. An early start the next day was well rewarded when we didn’t have to queue for too long to get access to the parking area at the Tre Cime di Lavaredo (at a steep 30 euro for the privilege). This is another very popular walk and an early start is really worth it to avoid the crowds.

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Even so, we walked in between large groups of people, but once we moved off the main path to continue on our circuit, we were almost by ourselves, enjoying the views, which almost make you feel you’re on a different planet. By the time we finished our circuit the first drops of rain started to fall, further confirming our excellent timing that day. In Cortina the sun was shining and we enjoyed a nice aperitivo on a terrace in the sun.

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On our last day we made our way to Ortisei, a beautiful village, specialised in woodcarving and did some sightseeing before checking into our luxury accommodation of the trip in Hotel Jakoberhof, just outside of Ortisei itself. More spa and aperitivo time, and an outstanding dinner to finish up a great week in the Dolomites. The problem now is that I want to go back for more walking, but winter is here…

 

 

Il trenino rosso

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This is the name the Italians give to the Bernina Express, operated by the Rhaetische Bahn between Tirano and Chur / St. Moritz; it means the little red train. It crosses over the Bernina Pass in a magical landscape and is the highest railway over the Alps. According to Rhaetische Bahn the train negotiates 55 tunnels, 196 bridges and steep inclines. The highest point is at 2,253 metres above sea level and part of it (from Thusis – Valposchiavo – Tirano) has UNESCO World Heritage status.

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Two weekends ago, I took the train from Milan to Tirano at 10:20am to connect with the Bernina Express in the afternoon to Chur. The train left at 14:25pm for its steep climb to Alp Grüm and Ospizio Bernina. The weather was perfect and the surroundings were incredible. The train makes its way out of Tirano through the streets and shortly after reaches the spiral viaduct of Brusio. Not long after the Lago di Poschiavo is reached and the train runs along it until it starts its steep climb.

 

Looking back provides some neat vision

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It then climbs ever higher to Alp Grum and Ospizio Bernina, the highest point. From there it runs along the Lago Bianco, which at this time of year is covered in ice and snow. It is a spectacular landscape travel through, and even more so in the comfort of a train. It then starts its descent towards Pontresina, Samedan and Bever through some great skiing areas. The final stretch the train runs through the Albula viaducts and tunnels to descend steeply and eventually reaches the small town Chur.

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After an overnight in Chur I took the train back again and had another day of perfect weather. Travelling at a different time of the day, the light and the colour of the landscape was completely different. The sun on the snow made everything sparkle.

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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.