Australian Alps Walking Track
(Kiandra to Tharwa)

Day 6 (continued) - Kiandra to Witse's Hut (12km - 300m ascent - 320m descent)

Leaving Kiandra soon after mid-day, I found myself chasing the others as they strode at rapid gait down the Snowy Mountain Highway, while trying to eat the last of my lunch and adjust my newly restocked backpack. The group was eager to push on and warm up again after the chilly rendez-vous and resupply at Kiandra. Our passage alongside the black strip of the highway was brief and we soon reached the Nungar Creek Firetrail to head north once again.

A short sharp descent brought us to our first obstacles, Bullock Head Creek and the Eucumbene River. The former was the usual quick rock-hop, but for the first time, the Eucumbene proved a stream too wide to avoid the icy water. By the time I arrived, Rob was already on the other side, telling us that if we hurried, the water wouldn't have time to get into our boots. It was time to bite the bullet and wade across - all bar Rob emerged on the other side with saturated boots and socks.

The steady climb up through the open grassy slopes, with their patchy cover of fast-melting snow, soon warmed wet and chilled feet and led us into an undulating area of unburnt forest.

Looking back for a final glimpse of Kiandra

Heading up the snow-covered Nungar Creek Firetrail

Ice crystals tinkled down on us from the canopy with each gust of wind. Leaving the forest, we crossed the grassy expanse of Wild Horse Plain, before once again climbing up into the forests of the Monaro Range, not particularly high hills but the Continental Divide nonetheless - we had unobtrusively crossed into the realm of west-flowing rivers.

The steepish descent passed through a forest of tall elegant eucalyptus, a pleasant change after six days of snow gums. The scent of damp eucalyptus is one of the pleasures of bushwalking in Australia. The fresh tracks on the muddy path showed us that we were sharing the firetrail with kangaroos, pigs and wild horses.

Crossing the Wild Horse Plain

At the bottom of the range the track emerged onto the long grassy flat of Tantangara Creek, finally devoid of all snow. The snow had been beautiful, but it had also been a long day and it was good to be out of it again. We followed the flats northward, crossed the river and climbed up into the wooded heights on its eastern side to finally reach Witse's Hut, a 19th century single room wood hut, full of character and gaps in the walls and floor.

Some tall forest on the Great Divide

Open woodland and tussock grassland

The old timber slabs of Witse's Hut

Unlike the previous huts with their cast iron stoves, Witse's had a large open fireplace which was soon roaring and driving the moisture out of wet boots and socks. There is something hypnotic about sitting around the edge of a fire on a cold night and it certainly drove the chill of the day away. The rendez-vous team at Kiandra had brought us the good news of improving weather. With a small degree of luck we would waken to a fine day for the start of run-in to Tharwa.

Day 7 - Witse's Hut to Hainsworth Hut (23 km - 420m ascent - 420m descent)

It had been the coldest night of the trip, but our reward was a still cloudless morning with a heavy frost coating the grass around the hut. Leaving at the usual early hour, we continued briefly along the Nungar Creek Firetrail before turning northward once again on the Bullock's Hill Firetrail. Soon we were wandering across the rolling downs of Blanket Plain; the hoar frost lifting out of the soil glinted in the sun like quartz crystals as we crunched our way along the still frozen track.

Piles of horse dung set at regular intervals as territorial markers told us that we were in the realm of the brumby and, not long after, we spotted a mob of a dozen or so of these iconic wild horses of the Australian high country. They bolted on seeing us - they may not be indigenous but there is something inspiring about the sight of wild horses in full gallop across the grasslands.

Early morning stroll across the golden grasslands of Blanket Plain

A mob of brumbies gallops off in the distance

Grey roo keeping a watchful eye on the intruders

Other animals were out and about, as kangaroo and dingo tracks criss-crossed the frozen mud of the firetrail. As we headed quickly north, we passed two more brumbies soaking up the morning sun, while a mob of kangaroos attentively watched our passing - alert but not alarmed!

A pair of brumbies taking the sun on the still-frosted grassland

The ex-bridge across Tantangara Creek - now for a wade!

After several kilometres of pleasant strolling across grasslands and snow-gum covered ridges of this Tantangara plains country, we dropped into the valley of the Murrumbidgee River. First lay Tantangara Creek, wider and deeper than previous streams, its only bridge a burnt ruin from the 2003 fires. Not wanting wet boots again, it was time to take them off and wade the shin deep water, then climb up and over a hill to repeat the exercise to cross the wider and muddier course of the Murrumbidgee.

The river bottom was so muddy in fact that I slipped and ended up with a wet backside (but dry boots). Still, by the time that we had climbed the two steep hills on the other side my shorts were almost dry again in the warm sunshine. It was a perfect walking day.

Rob on the climb up from the Murrumbidgee

Karen wading Tantangara Creek

Picking a path across the Murrumbidgee River

We now followed a compass bearing across trackless grasslands of Dairyman's Creek to pick up the old telegraph line that once linked Currango homestead and Rules Point, where we found a faint footpath that led us to the Port Phillip Firetrail, a good spot for lunch. Climbing gently up this well-formed gravel road, we reached the site of some old stockyards at the junction with Mosquito Creek Firetrail.

Taking a compass bearing north of Dairyman's Creek

Jim enjoying his lunch in the sun

Landscape of the northern part of Kosciuszko National Park

Here we turned north once again through open woodland at the edge of a grassy plain. Another mob of brumbies galloped across the road about 100m ahead. The stallion stopped and looked toward me as if to say "do you think you can get your camera out before I go?". My hand hadn't even reached my pocket before he bolted after his mares, mane and tail flying free - magnificent animal.

Forlorn yet beautiful - Hainsworth Hut

The more welcoming front of Hainworth Hut ...

.... and the very welcoming interior

The firetrail curved eastward, grasslands on the left and forest on the right, before we spotted a small track leading off to Hainsworth Hut, our destination for the night. Not immediately welcoming with its bare windowless wall of galvanised iron, but with two rooms, a large open fireplace and a pair of resident swallows, it soon felt like home. The setting was very pleasant, with a creek running nearby and with the sun shining brightly I was able to finally dry my tent and enjoy the high country evening.

A group of horse riders called by to check out the hut and have a bit of a chat - this northern sector of the Kosciuszko National Park is very popular with equiphiles. One of the highlights of this walk has been the chance to stay in these huts, sit around the stove or fire and speculate on the lives of the pioneers who built them.

Day 8 - Hainsworth Hut to Oldfield's Hut (18 km - 410m ascent - 450m descent)

Once again, the clarity of the sky was incredible and the southern hemisphere starmap blazed its cold silver light. The night had been long and cold in the iron-clad walls of Hainsworth Hut and a heavy frost greeted us when we got up. It was tempting to stay in my sleeping bag, but we were walking to a strict regime and I found myself back on the road with the others as the sun began to peep above the eastern horizon.

We were now walking along the hoar-frost encrusted earth of Mosquito Creek Firetrail, pushing hard to get over the low rise and into the warmth of the sun - aaah how good it felt. All around the grasslands lay crisply white with frost, but we were soon leaving that behind and heading up into the forest, unburnt and tall, of Harry's Gap.

Anthony on the track

Early morning frost on Mosquito Creek Fire Trail

First view of the Brindabella Range from Harry's Gap

Brumbies on the run north of Old Currango

Passing the Gap, we quickly descended through eucalypt-clad hills toward the Currango Plain, where we spotted our first brumbies for the day, a mob of about a dozen with several foals. As usual, they bolted well before we got near them. At the base of the hill, Morris Creek was a good place to stop for a few minutes - we had been walking for just over two hours and the rule book said it was time for a bite to eat before heading off again in the direction of Blue Waterholes Saddle.

However, instead of sticking to the track, Rob led us into the bush near the headwaters of Sallee Tree Creek - this time to pick our way across the maze of brumby tracks that criss-cross the head of the Currango Plain. Rob led us at a rapid gait across the rises and marshy creek beds, just below the treeline of black sallees to the north, pushing towards the blue-hued Brindabella Mountains.


On the track to Blue Waterhole Saddle

Following a brumby track near Sallee Tree Creek

Always watching

Oldfield's Hut below 1911m Bimberi Peak -
highest mountain in the ACT

For the first time we glimpsed the profile of Bimberi Peak, at 1911m highest mountain in the Australian Capital Territory. It was a fascinating landscape - the odd kangaroos watched us walk by with casual interest, while another mob of brumbies watched from afar as we traversed their road system. We even spotted a pair of large black feral pigs, scurrying off the track ahead. Above, a pair of wedgetail eagles soared in tight circles as they rode a thermal into the blue void. All and sundry were out and enjoying the still air and sunshine.

A long east-west brumby track brought us out at the Blue Waterholes Firetrail at a valve station, where water stolen from the Goodradigbee River system was being diverted into one of the many dams of the Snowy Mountains Scheme - salvation for some, folly for others. It was a good spot for a carbohydrate recharge, very necessary to get us up the relentlessly steep climb through superb old eucalyptus forest on the Murray's Gap Firetrail.

Crossing the upper Currango Plain - with Bimberi Peak and Mt Murray in the background

Rest time at Oldfield's Hut

A lone alpine gum rising above the forest

A steep descent on the other side brought to Oldfield's Hut in its magnificent setting of old black sallees on the edge of a grassy clearing looking out to Bimberi Peak and Mt Murray. We had arrived just on lunchtime after our shortest day on the track.

With its verandah, three rooms and fireplace, Oldfield's was easily the nicest of the huts that we had stayed at so far - a great place to spend a lazy (and well-earned) afternoon in the autumn sunshine watching the robins, pardalotes, treecreepers and thornbills flitting about the old fruit trees near the hut, chatting to passing horse riders, catching up with my trip journal, doing a Sudoku, washing hair and woofy body and regaining lost energy.

Black Sallee blossom

Tomorrow we would cross the border of the Australian Capital Territory - home was in sight and life seemed very good.

A group of horse riders stop for a chat

Looking up the giant alpine gum

Day 9 - Oldfield's Hut to Cotter Gap (16km - 630m ascent - 650m descent)

It went from the coldest to the warmest night of the trip in 24 hours - but our pleasant dreams were shattered by Rob waking us all at 4.40am - yesterday he had found a watch on the track that was still on daylight saving time and an hour ahead of our watches - he thought it 5.40am (still a pretty ungodly hour). The troops rebelled, but it was hard to go back to sleep, which is why we found ourselves on the track just after 6am.

From Oldfield's Hut, the track dropped gently to cross the Goodradigbee River and begin the climb up to Murray's Gap and the backbone of the Brindabella Range. It was a long 4km climb, with several short steep pinches that soon broke up the peloton. We were driven on through the cold and shaded forest by the promise of the sun and, as we crested the gap just a little over an hour later, we emerged into its warming rays, cold yet lathered in perspiration from the climb.

Climb up Murray's Gap Fire Trail

Sunshine on Murray's Gap

Some of the superb tall eucalypts

A pair of gang-gangs flew by, their creaking calls welcoming us to The Australian Capital Territory, Namadgi National Park and the Bimberi Wilderness Area - and what superb wilderness it was! Spared the worst of the 2003 fires, we undulated for a while beneath tall alpine eucalyptus forest with a dense wattle understorey. Glimpses of the dark blue profile of the Scabby Range appeared through the sun-dappled leaves and the heady scent of wet gum leaves permeated the air.

On the eastern side of the Brindabellas

The Scabby Range

It was great to walk through tall unburnt forest

Descent through the sun-dappled forest

Crown of a forest giant

On the Yaouk Trail

The rare double helix tree

Soon the track dropped steeply through the forest to join the Yaouk Trail, which led us to Cotter Hut, a ranger outpost whose grassy surrounds provided a good spot for morning tea. We had covered almost 10km by 9am. I confess to having lagged behind on this descent; after passing through so much burnt forest in the past 8 days, it was impossible not to slow down and take in the colours, scents and sounds of this beautiful old forest. After a long break, it was layers and trouser legs off in anticipation of our second climb of the day - the Cotter Gap.

Skirting the fence of Cotter Hut, we dropped into a steep gully to rock-hop across the Cotter River. A short bush bash later, we rejoined the firetrail, cutting of a half kilometre dog-leg in the track. Rob's knowledge of the bush around Canberra was taking us on more interesting routes and saving our weary legs.

Crossing the Cotter

Cotter Hut

Landscapes of the Upper Cotter Valley

The densely overgrown trail led us through scrubby lower forest beneath the rocky crown of Coronet Peak. The thick wattle regrowth made this section very much Indian file country. It eventually led us to a foot track that began the steeper ascent of Cotter Gap, once again entering dense taller forest, as we followed it well above the creek past large granite tors.

Overgrown track east of Cotter Hut

A large termite mound in dry scerophyll forest

Taller forest on the climb up to Cotter Gap

Nearing the top of Cotter Gap

The impressive granite tors of Split Rock Peak

Around the campfire

Eventually we reached a swampy grass flat at the top of the pass where scattered clumps of gentians grew. Two hard climbs made this a good place to stop and set up camp on the dry fringe below the impressive gigantic tors of Split Rock Peak - another opportunity to enjoy a lazy afternoon in the Australian bush in the company of the local birds -wrens, thornbills, treecreepers, flycatchers - and pass a convivial time around the firepit. As night fell, the frogs in the swamp started their chorus to lull us all to sleep.

Day 10 - Cotter Gap to Honeysuckle Creek (16km - 630m ascent - 650m descent)

Cloud cover had kept the night relatively warm and we were on the track at a more respectable 7am, our latest start, but it was going to be another shortish day. Soon we were descending the eastern side of Cotter Gap on a narrow foot track, entering drier sclerophyll forest with a dispersed wattle and banksia understorey as we lost height. The foot track joined the Cotter Hut Road and we continued our descent on its broad gravel surface, heading bush at one point to drop steeply through the scrub and cut out another long dog-leg, before rejoining the road as it entered the upper reaches of the Orroral Valley.

As we headed down the valley, we passed several groups of camping schoolchildren while the odd 4WD cruised by - we were now in Canberra's backyard and civilisation was encroaching again. A final traverse of the valley, watched by some of the large population of grey kangaroos that call Orroral home, brought us to the Orroral River bridge.

Orroral is a beautiful deep high country valley surrounded by densely forested ranges capped with granite tors - a great place for urban kids to get a feel for the bush.

Early morning light shows up the split in Split Rock

Tor lined walls of Orroral Valley

Looking across the Orroral Valley back toward Cotter Gap

Here we stopped to refuel before attacking the long climb up to Tower Rocks; a series of short rises and falls before a relentless 3km uphill slog on the Orroral Firetrail that brought us to the high point of the road bathed in perspiration. We were just below the impressive jumble of granite tors known locally as "Legoland", but that would have to wait for another day. Our path took us steeply down the firetrail northward toward Honeysuckle Creek and its well-designed campground. Here we would spend our last night of the trip, surrounded by the forests of Namadgi National Park. It was the third day that we had reached our destination by lunchtime - were we getting faster or lazier? - in reality probably a bit of both.

Dry sclerophyll forest north of Orroral

Last campsite at Honeysuckle Creek

Red-necked wallaby checking out the campground

Still, it was a pleasant spot to be - the few drops of rain that fell barely dampening our tents, red-necked wallabies and grey kangaroos grazed the campground grass and, as the sun set, the northern skyline was lit by the dull glow of the lights of Canberra. Tomorrow we would be there and the trip would be over. We seemed to spend longer around the fire than previous nights, talking and eating up any excess food - perhaps subconsciously we were already shifting back into the "normal" rhythm of life.

Day 11 - Honeysuckle Creek to Tharwa (15km - 330m ascent - 840m descent)

The last day of a long walk is always is full of mixed emotions and this was no different - good memories of the time on the track are interspersed with thoughts of hot showers, soft warm beds, juicy steaks, cold beer and loved ones at home. This is a powerful magnet and, as our little group headed off from our last campsite at Honeysuckle Creek, the pace was on from the beginning. With greatly lightened packs, the tightly bunched peloton raced along the track through the dense forest regrowth that climbed steadily up towards Booroomba Rocks, before again dropping down to the open grasslands of Bushfold Flats - time for one last snack on the track watching a pair of young male kangaroos engaging in a bit of boxing practice.

Heading up towards Booroomba Rocks

A group of grey kangaroos on the fringe of the forest

The track had recently been rerouted to pass up the middle of the beautiful open woodlands and grassy clearings of these flats - it was a good move! At the end of the flats we faced our last climb, a steep ascent of the northern spur of Mount Tennent. All through this area it was uplifting to see the recovery of the bush from the 2003 fires. I had last walked through here not long after this catastrophe and it had been a very different landscape of scorched trunks, ash and bare exposed rocks.

Reflections in the dam at Bushfold Flat

Open woodland on Bushfold Flat

The end in sight - looking over the Limestone Plain to Canberra

From the top of the spur, we could see the Limestone Plains stretching north with the City of Canberra and its iconic Black Mountain Tower in the distance - we were almost there. All that remained was a long and often steep descent down the rocky staircase and winding track on the eastern side of the spur to reach the Namadgi National Park Visitors Centre just south of Tharwa - offical end of the Australian Alpine Walking Track.

As we approached, I could see Rob's wife, Jenny and the fair Nello waiting to greet us. The fair Nello was holding (were my eyes deceiving me?) a cooler bag full of icy cold beers - what a woman!! And thus, with little fanfare other than a celebratory bottle of Boag's on an overcast day, a few kilometres from home and 215km from the start in Dead Horse Gap, my adventure on the northern part of the Australian Alpine Walking Track ended.

A celebratory beer at the end of the trek


A week after our return, the fatigue has left my legs and my nose is its normal size and only a tiny bit off centre - it makes me a more interesting person, my doctor assured me. The time also gave me a chance to reflect on the trip. My 11 days on the Australian Alps Walking Track certainly included some of the toughest days walking that I have done and the track lived up to its reputation as one of the pinnacles of bushwalking in this country.

We walked through snow and strong winds, still calm days, white-outs and brilliant sunshine, sometimes in full wet weather gear, other times in shorts and shirts - the track allowed us to sample the full range of weather conditions, explore the ranges, forests and grassy plains of Australia's high country and to get a feel (however slight) for the history of the region when we stayed in the old backcountry huts.

True, it was sad to see the extent of the 2003 bushfires - day after day of walking past the grey ghost-like trunks of burnt trees - yet most had survived and were reshooting. Regeneration would be slow but the landscape was healing. For this reason my favourite section was perhaps that of the Tantangara Plains, home of the brumby, and the southern Brindabellas, largely spared the damage of the fires, where we could finally walk through superb alpine forest.

My 11 days on the track left me with even greater admiration for Rob and Karen who walked the full 650km from Walhalla in 39 days - congratulations! Rob had organised the walk with great precision and each rendez-vous and restock worked without a hitch. The pace was always on - perhaps we got up each morning a little earlier and walked a little faster and longer than I normally would on such a trip, but by the end I thought that I had qualified as an honorary "hardman" of bushwalking. There was also a great camaraderie in the group which made each day and the evenings, in particular, a pleasant experience. So thanks, Rob, Karen, Jim and Anthony for sharing this adventure with me - I think I might join the club.

In conclusion, and in keeping with the Tour de France theme that has popped up on occasion, it is time to hand out a few awards: the polka dot jersey for king of the mountains goes to Anthony who barely changed gear on the long climbs in the Brindabellas; the sprinter's green jersey goes to Karen, out in front for 90% of the time and the only person I have ever seen run downhill with a full pack. Finally, the yellow jersey for overall winner goes to ...... everyone! There are no losers for those who walk the Australian Alps Walking Track and experience the subtle beauty of Australia's high country.