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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.

 

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In the cloud mountains

Cloud formations

Admittedly your correspondent has been less than dutiful in the last few months, after making all kind of promises to write blog posts from the trail. So much for that. Wifi was not as ubiquitous in the mountains as I was led to believe, but I was also quite happy to be disconnected from the world for a while. Then on the way down, the flu struck and I had to spend all my energy on getting back and getting home. Back home, other pressures called and then more than a month has gone by without any blog posts on Nepal. Time to remedy that.

I left you all on a literal cliff hanger in the sherpa village of Namche Bazaar. It’s perched on the mountain in a clear horseshoe shape. Steep steps inside the village are a dominant feature and at 3,500 meters it’s the first bit of significant altitude you hit on the trail. Most trekkers spend a day here to acclimatise, slightly breathless. It’s also the last stop for some serious stocking up on gear, but in between the gear shops you also find things like the Namche Bakery and I’ll confess I was very happy to grab a bag of peanut cookies for sustenance up the trail.

Namche from above, followed by a very steep descent

Essentially the trail involves walking from Namche to Tengboche, first on a traversing trail, then descending and ascending steeply, passing through a place called Punkhi Thenghi where prayer wheels spin with the force of river water. From Tengboche it leads via Pangboche to Dingboche (don’t ask me what “boche” means, but there sure is a pattern here), where another acclimatisation day is spent. Then the trail climbs up to  Lobuche, where the number of teahouses and facilities is ever diminishing, and the final day involves walking through bits of glacier moraine to Gorak Shep, where you arrive on the roof of the world, which feels oddly like the end of the world. There usually is an afternoon walk to Everest Base Camp, followed by a climb in darkness up Kala Pattar the next morning for dawn views before commencing the descent back to lower altitudes.

Weaving

The day we left Namche, the clouds cleared to make for a beautiful day of walking. The ascent to Tengboche was harder than expected, but we arrived perfectly timed to visit the inside of the monastery, which is something I didn’t manage to do 12 years ago. In Tengboche I also started to connect with some people who would turn up in the same teahouses: a couple from Germany and young Bre from Colorado.

Second view of Everst

The next morning offered photographic opportunities around dawn. The mountains were hidden in clouds, but gradually they swirled around, up and down, and revealed ever changing views. Everest became visible and Khumbila, the sacred mountain, was bathed in golden light. Just after Pangboche, in Shomare, we stopped for lunch. I got into a conversation with a Brazilian couple who were descending from Gorak Shep, all the way to Namche. Soon the German couple arrived too, as well as the guys from Bangladesh and the couple from Austria. I love this mini United Nations feel that a trek can bring, everyone cherishing the same goal of reaching the roof of the world and encouraging each other.

Arriving at Pangboche

Our arrival in Dingboche in the rain, was followed by another acclimatisation day , which was used to hike up a steep hill behind the lodge. With clouds being the dominant feature again, we ascended until stage 2 and bailed on the last uphill. Back at the lodge we met Adam, from the UK, who also turned up in the same tea houses.

On the way to Lobuche the next day, we reached a river crossing where a ramshackle plywood bridge was the means of crossing. I felt distinctly uncomfortable, which was echoed by all the porters I saw rushing over the bridge and away from the riverbed as fast as they could, regardless of the heavy load they carried. I followed their lead and got through it as fast as I could. Once out of river bed I found out there was a dead horse in the river; must have fallen off that bridge.

Climbing through Thugla pass we reached an eerie place, with memorial cairns erected for all those who died on Everest. A moving place, but sadly there were too many people who saw it as an opportunity to take selfies next to memorials, which I felt was quite disrespectful.

Suffering on Dughla Pass

Once we arrived at Lobuche, the first signs of fatigue and an altitude headache made an appearance and more bad news was to follow. Intel on our proposed itinerary over the Cho La pass wasn’t good. It appeared the pass crossing wasn’t feasible at this point in time and that we should consider alternative routes to Gokyo. Tough decisions would have to be made soon.

The final ascent led through glacier moraine and led into an extraordinary  place that felt like the end of the world. We reached Gorak Shep the next day by 10am and after an early lunch walked out to Everest Base Camp, which took almost two hours. There I sat contemplating the Khumbu Icefall, wondering about the people who decide to climb Everest and take the associated risks. With all the effort that went into getting here, I can barely imagine how much more fitness, energy and determination it requires to go all the way to the top.

Kala Pattar under Pumori

 

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.