Category Archives: Hiking

Kumano Kodo

Kumano Kodo

 Nakahechi Route – a 5 day walk

 

Background and History

“Kumano is the ancient name for the southern region of the Kii Peninsula – a sacred site steeped in mystery and legend. Since ancient times this lush and rugged environment has nurtured a profound form of nature worship in which mountains, rocks, forests, trees, rivers and waterfalls are deified and revered as objects of worship. Kumano’s rich natural landscape is believed to be the otherworldly abode of the gods, and has been the focus of pilgrimage and spiritual training for centuries.” (Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Official Guide Book, 2017)

Grand shrines and sacred sites of Buddhist sanctuary and mountain ascetics are linked by a network of pilgrimage routes. Together these shrines, sites and pilgrimage routes are recognised as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. The Kumano Kodo is “linked” to the only other UNESCO recognised pilgrimage route, the Way of St James in Spain (Camino de Santiago), enabling walkers to become “Dual Pilgrims”.

For more than a thousand years the Kumano area has been a place where Buddhism, Shinto and nature worship have been combined, adjusted and redefined – syncretised. Spirits of the dead inhabit the peaks. Pilgrims sought healing, regeneration and salvation. In this “paradise on earth” they walked to be spiritually and physically purified. In Shugendo, a combination of folk religion, shamanism, Taoism, Buddhism and Shinto, followers sought to gain supernatural powers through ascetic practices in the mountains. The early Kumano, 794 – 1185, was the golden age of pilgrimage reserved for the Imperial and aristocratic families who trekked in great assemblages. Later, 1185 – 1333, the Samurai warrior class continued the tradition and then from 1336 – 1573 came a wave of more common people. During the 17th to 19th century the Kumano became very well frequented. Under a stricter regime the Kumano fell into decline from the late 19th century. Only very recently since the 1990s have contemporary Japanese people rediscovered the pilgrimage routes and then in the last 10 years has it been opened up to westerners.

Day 1    Into the Mountains

Access was easy. Train to Kii Tanabe. The tourist info at the train station has free info booklets with maps. The bus station is right outside the station. Lots of helpful people speak English and were very friendly. An ATM is nearby and probably supermarket if required. Buses departed for Hongu stopping at Takijiri Oji every hour. The bus took 40 mins.

All accommodation and luggage transfers should be pre booked from the Kumano Kodo website which is a little complex but can be worked out and the website does everything once you learn how to use it for bookings. A booking request will take a few days to process. We had a group of 9 and some nights we had to be accommodated at different places in the same locality.

At Takijiri Oji we were met by our luggage transfer people with “welcome” signs. There is a Kumano Kodo visitor center with more booklets of maps and stamp booklets that are both free but must be requested. Water is available in the center.

The pilgrimage starts at Takijiri Oji where there is a shrine, stamp station and covered shelter.

An ascent of 300 m steep hiking took us up through beautiful forest on a path which was held together by the roots of many trees. It twisted and zig zagged and wound past rocks and mossy logs. An optional crawl through a tight rock cave added challenge. Towards the first flattening the trail followed a narrow ridge line. Stone steps and flatter open trails led us to the first lookout which revealed marvelous views of very steep hill slopes and deep valleys, all thickly forested in varied shades of dark green. The forest reminded me of ninja movies from my childhood where characters leapt backwards up into the trees from the ground and the “Twilight” films – brooding, silent, still. Small villages nestled in the valley bottoms. On the way up and across the ridge top we chattered, catching up with those in the group we knew and getting to know the others, gradually establishing and deepening the friendships with each other.

“To resolve to attain supreme enlightenment and then, to travel this distance can only be accomplished by way of our own feet.” (Kuki a.k.a. Kobo Daishi)

Further on we rested at small shrines then entered a village perched on the ridge. A special walkers’ rest area provided excellent views of distant ranges foregrounded by terraced vegetable and rice gardens. Yellow and pink and white flowers bordered a narrow road. An old man proudly showed us his beautiful bonsai trees and well-tended garden. A larger shrine had been freshly painted. Accommodation – delightful hospitality, very comfortable rooms with stunning views across the valley. Hot bath with glimpses to the distant mountains. Sumptuous food. Good company.

4km – 2pm to 4.30pm, 430m up, 200m down. Takijiri-oji – Takahara

Day 2   Bamboo and Cedar

In the morning showers swept up the deep valley to our North. Mist rose and wisped between the forest and a low layer of heavy cloud in a changing series of Japanese landscape paintings. Birdcalls, crickets, and breeze made up the soundscape. Almost alive with a watchful presence the misty mountains had stood bearing witness to our fleeting passing and even to that of the pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo from across the centuries. What changes would they endure in the future I wondered.

A rainbow coloured the ranges auspiciously as we started walking. A good omen for the day ahead. Uphill through the village. Rainfall flowed at the roadside and turned a small waterwheel. Forest. Uphill. Sunlight streamed occasionally through the canopy. Dappled light then dim as cloud and mist vapours rose through trunks. Damp. Ferny forest floor on steep slopes under tall cedar trees. A pond overhung by delicate green. Shrines, red raised mini shelters, ancient standing stones, jizos alone beside the mountain path. The narrow track was carved into steep hill sides. Beautiful light, soft, changing with the vegetation and weather. Countless thousands of trees. Eerie birdcall.

We walked, sometimes chatting, sometimes quiet and alone with our own thoughts, tuned in to the landscape, to the past, to our own inner worlds. Brightly coloured in our designer outdoor gear contrasted the greens and browns of earth and plants. Mosses covered trunks growing and rotten, delicate fungi, surprising red crabs scuttled. Rest, eat, laughed together, regained hydration lost in copious sweat. Humid. Warm. Hard work uphill.

The trail is well signposted and mapped. “Kumano Kodo” with arrows and “Not Kumano Kodo” indicated diverging ways not to go. Distances. Interpretive information signs at key points of cultural interest. We stayed in touch with a couple of other groups, Australians, an older Japanese couple, and others.

Streams flowed over smooth stones. The sound of running water. Log bridges. Another small shrine. A place to collect another stamp in my pilgrim booklet. Lunch shared, plans made for the next day as we had to split up for different accommodations. Bamboo in amongst the forest cedars. Large village, paved road, cup of tea. Then uphill on a narrow road. More uphill.

Tsugizakura-Oji shrine at the top of the hill. Magnificent cedar trees, like an ancient growing cathedral. Tori gate, stone steps led up between the giants. We are quiet and awed again by the connection of nature, spiritual pursuit, homage.

“If the surroundings are serene, the mind is clear. When the mind and its surroundings are deeply connected, morals are profoundly cultivated.” (Kuki a.k.a. Kobo Daishi)

At sunset the forested hills across the valley turned iridescent green. Our small guesthouse, Minshuku Tsugizakura, became a door opening onto the best Japanese hospitality we had experienced. Comfortable room, a very friendly older couple. It only holds 6 people and each was treated like a queen or king. The sumptuous meal was prepared by, Mr Yuba, a retired chef with 50 years Tokyo hotel experience and a passion for creating the tastiest dishes. The food was served and interpreted for us by, Christopher, a New Zealand Japanese with impeccable English and Japanese. Conversations ranged across diverse subjects adding a deeper layer to the “Masterchef” cuisine. This experience was an honour and privilege to be treated to. Bath, tired, plum wine, sleep.

13 km, 8.45 am – 4.30 pm (the walking seems to take a long time – hills, lots to investigate, millions of photos, rests, lunch, humidity, chatting). 830m up, 650m down. Takahara to Tsugizakura

Day 3  Through the Tori Gate

Breakfast was a replay of dinner with a fusion mix of Japanese-western friendly micro dishes. Bacon and eggs Japanese style, fruits and yoghurt, orange juice and then fish, tofu, pickles, salad etc. After copious thanks and smiles and gratitude for the extraordinary hospitality our hostess drove us down to the bus stop. We bussed through a short section of road walking to make a shorter day which enabled us to get to Yunomine, a famous onsen village. Much of the trail is serviced by local buses from nearby villages so the walk can be made extremely flexible based on time constraints and physical capabilities.

From Hosshinmon-oji we walked through small settlements. Fecund veggie patches and what appeared to be rows of tea hedges. Many houses fronting onto the route had quirky carved figures displayed for hikers. From a hilltop shrine we glimpsed Hongu, a final destination for the ancient pilgrims, the place of one of the primary temple complexes.

I walked alone for a little and pondered. If part of our hike, our journey was to be something of a pilgrimage on the Kumano Kodo what is it that we were trying to find? To discover? To pay homage to? To learn? To connect with? that brings a deeper meaning to our walking together. What would we “take home after internalising our experiences?” Like the lotus flower – I can grow in strength into something fine, acknowledging the darker and negative sides of myself, working thru them to seek beauty in myself, relationships and my impact on the world – perhaps to leave criticism of others behind, to make my garden more beautiful, to be careful and positive in my dealings with others. To gain a deeper awareness and understanding of the pursuit of challenge and lifefullness thru mountain asceticism and effort. To gain a more appreciation of the universality of our human seeking for deeper meaning in life connected to the cosmos.

Our “mind” is covered in the dust and dirt of our weaknesses, trauma, bad habits, cruelty etc. We need to work hard to sweep this dust away. We are connected to our physical surroundings. By “cleaning” our rooms and tidying them we create order and beauty and so do the same to ourselves. (Kuki a.k.a. Kobo Daishi)

Forest under bright sunlight contrasted the previous day’s somber mistyness. Ferns, rooted pathway, stone steps, sandstone worn from centuries of footfalls. Less humidity. A high vantage point provided distant views of a giant Tori gate in the valley below.

The famous temple of Kumano Hongu Taisha seemed to rise out of the land, made of timber with a thick thatched roof and brightly coloured wall hangings. Incense and smoke – a purification symbol. The area was busy with walkers and day trippers. We lunched in the grounds nearby, bento boxes packed with goodies and rice balls wrapped in leaves. Stamps pilgrim booklets. Left the town, exiting under the massive Tori gate, the biggest in Japan.

Up, up and up. Steep root bound steps in forest that got darker again. Mosses, ferns. A small shrine and the remains of a very old tea house – rest. More upwards effort. Then the trail showed its incredible age. It wound down a narrow ridge on a pathway that had been worn into a deep groove, steeply down, down. Crossed a stone bridge into the old onsen village. Sulphur smells of the hot mineral waters mixed with the aromas of timber. The constant sound of running water from a stream that ran through the middle of the settlement.

Onsen. Relax. Washed away the day’s sweat. Conversation in the bath about Jung’s collective consciousness connecting with the Buddhist concept of the universal consciousness or mind. Hot mineral salted water. Clean. Washed through. Another series of culinary delights at dinner seated on the floor. And later a cooler evening.

Bus from Tsugizakura to Hosshinmon-oji then walk to Hongu and on to Yunomine.  11km walk

Day 4   Over the Mountain

A short bus ride took us to the next trail head at Ukegawa.

At the start of the trail a newish sign in four languages proclaimed “Peace to the World”.

Coloured flowers in gardens. Steep uphill for 400m. Through the back yards of houses. Into the forest. The weather was clear and warming but a gentle cooling breeze blew across the hills. We made our way upwards steadily. We were getting into a rhythm with the days and the group. The forest and hills, greens and browns became like home, meditative. A time to think and reflect. A time to interchange. We rested at the remains of a tea house that had been very busy on the route during the Edo period between 600 and 848 AD. The antiquity of the path we were following added a huge depth of history to our journey. At times we walked along high, narrow ridges where the slopes on each side plummeted away. Some sections of track were carved into the steeps and very old stone walls hold it in place in others. Small wooden bridges crossed streamways. Lush ferns, moss, tangled undergrowth, open forest.

 

 

 

 

A small, solitary Jizo shrine was perched atop a pile of small stones. I felt quite affected by the script that described this. It seemed to encapsulate a key part of the rich and mythical nature of the spiritual belief of the people of the past, and perhaps the present also, that pilgrimaged along this Kumano Kodo. The lyrical description, the story, the rawness of my own mother’s recent passing, the thought of young children dying and the large pile of small stones struck a chord deep inside me.

A rare opening in the forest which coincided with a high point revealed a panorama of hills and mountains that faded from green to blue into the distance. We morning teaed and chattered and laughed together. A small Jizo watched over us. At its feet a recent hiker had laid a small bracelet as an offering that was inscribed with colourful peace signs.

At first I was dismayed at the spoiling of the sanctity of the tiny shrine but on reflection I thought of it as a form of syncretising of modern beliefs and symbolism with those of the ancients. This is exactly what had been taking place over millennia in the Kumano in the merging, blending, mixing and coming together of different forms of Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism, shamanism, folk religion and Shugendo.

Undulating terrain followed for several kilometres. We lunched on our bento boxes at a shelter on the site of another old tea house ruin. Then downhill. Past poem monuments and small shrines. I walked alone for a time with some music – a hybrid chant overlain with lilting electric guitar – that connected immediately the inner landscape with the outer world. And more steeply down. Stone steps. Smooth river rocks had been transported high onto the hill to stabilise the path and in places to form a tessellated pavement which could have proved difficult in wet conditions. For some of us with joint issues the down was much harder than the up. Eventually to the village. And the river, pristine, clear and deeper green water flowed over rocks and pebbles.

An old school had been converted cleverly to accommodate walkers in comfort at Koguchi.  We swam in the cold water in gently swirling pools below a riverside shrine. More delicious food for dinner. Plans were made for an early start to the challenging last day.

Moonlight suffused through paper screens. The flowing stream sounded outside our window. Smell of timber.

Bus from Yunomine to Ukegawa. Walk Ukegawa to Koguchi. 13km. 670m up, 690m down

Day 5  Walk

The trek over the Ogumotori-goe section is the hardest of the Nakahechi Route. A long day  ascending, traversing and descending a large mountain. Straight into mossy stone steps, up and up and up. Forest. Chat and step up a thousand times and then a break and then again. The incline was well graded, not as steep as anticipated. A boot repair with zip ties seemed to be working well. We kept to a slow and steady pace. A flat section half way up provided a little welcome relief. Maybe it was the meditative nature of repetitive movement through the forest landscape that made the actual nature of the path so interesting. Large stone pavements, smooth rocks heavily mossed at the edges of the “way”, steps edged with triangular shaped blocks, twisted cedar roots, logs that hold back erosion and my favourite a large ascending smooth slab that could have been treacherous without pegged in logs affixed horizontally. In places huge gnarled trees had grown into the side of the path and occasionally a large boulder had come to rest in the center.

At one point golden light beckoned through the trees from higher up. Under foot constantly changed and surprised.

Flat shelves had been excavated and held strong with stone retaining walls. These had become overgrown through the centuries. In ages past this area had been a small village of accommodating guest houses. I imagined the noise and activity of owners hustling pilgrims to stay in their lodgings, the smells of cooking, smoke from fires, and walkers, some struggling uphill and others in high spirits nearing the completion of their journeys with one last mountain to cross.

This steep hill known as Dogiri-zaka means “Body Breaking Slope” – an 800m climb. “Even the famous poet Fujiwa Teika (1162 – 1241) was at a loss of words after walking this section, stating in his pilgrimage diary from 1201 that, ‘This route is very rough and difficult; it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is'”. (Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route Maps information booklet)

I was able to feel a small connection, in my own struggles upwards, with the Shugendo who sought to gain supernatural powers through ascetic practices in the mountains. Stone poem plinths had been placed at regular intervals. I wished I could have read each inscription, the Japanese script appeared evocative and mysterious. Brendon’s altimeter GPS watch indicated earlier than expected our imminent arrival at the high point and still in good condition we made Echizen-toge Pass. Small celebrations, chocolate and a group photo.

Thankfully downwards for a short time took us to a beautiful stream. Grottos, mossy boulders, flowing water, ponds, overhanging delicate green foliage. Reflections.

According to Kuki Ietaka, chief priest of Kumano Hongu Taisha (one of the three Grand Shrines) “Kumano is a feeling, not form – a manifestation of the Divine Intangibles – a celebration of life’s powerful vitality. The value of Kumano is universal, timeless, and as relevant now as it was 1000 years ago. It is a peaceful place in nature to take a moment to reflect on, and reaffirm one’s future direction and meaning in life – a sacred space to open one’s mind, heart, soul; all of one’s senses; and let the artificial boundaries and borders of the modern world disappear – allowing us to contemplate life as one unified humanity on planet earth. The importance of a pilgrimage to Kumano is not in its completion, but rather what you take home after internalising your experiences.” (Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Official Guidebook, 2017)

Up and over an intermediate hill on the larger ridge line to the remains of an old tea house. Now there is a forestry road and in spite of guidebook exhortations that there are no facilities on this day’s walk there was a flushing toilet, shelter and a drink vending machine. The small cans of hot coffee from the machine proved very popular. Jenny shared sweet mung bean cakes carried from the day before. We undulated on the forestry road and the trail along the tops. Water flowed gently beside and over the path flagstones at times.

Like characters from Lord of The Rings we passed through the “Abode of the Dead”, “the souls of the dead gravitate to these higher mountains, where spirits inhabit this section of trail”. The forest then parted to reveal a rare view of the region ahead – the ocean, convoluted coastline, a small seaside town – our ultimate destination. Bob stood tall on a tree stump. Laura and I did ninja jumps in the trees. Our finish was in sight way below. And we all ate rice balls for lunch, again.

 

 

 

Down, down, down. Joints complained. Knees, hips, ankles. It was a long way to the base.

Eventually our journey ended at Kumano Nachi Taisha, one of three grand shrines of the Kumano. The temple complex was wonderful. Incense fragranced the air at the entrance to ancient wooden temples. A massive old-growth camphor tree, incorporated into the terraced grounds, has a narrow cleft in its base through which pilgrims can pass into rebirth. From the terraces a magnificent view of a colourful three storied pagoda shrine in the foreground and the plunging Nachi-no-Otaki falls, the highest in Japan. We stamped our pilgrim booklets and walked on tired legs to the bus stop.

Later at the coast in outdoor onsens we soaked in hot mineral water while looking out over the smooth green sea to other islands. The setting sun touched high clouds with colour. Raptors floated effortlessly over the water and a fish jumped. The natural world rolled ever onward and our “other” journey continued.

14km, 1260m up, 930m down. Koguchi – Kumano Nachi Taisha.

Totals – walking

Distance  55.4 km

Ascent     3,400 m

Descent.  2,970 m

Logistics

Bookings – for accom and luggage transfer done through Kumano Travel (see note below). The website is excellent once you have engaged with the route.

Costs – package for 5 nights accom, dinner and breakfast and some bento lunch boxes, and luggage transfer was about $700AU per person. Extras were for drinks, snacks, onsens etc.

Food – provided was very Japanese. Dinners are generally sumptuous. The occasional mini mart in villages provided more variation. Suggest you take tea and coffee and other special drinks and powdered milk if you are addicted to these otherwise plenty of green tea provided. Take a coffee mug? Bring some muesli and powdered milk if you struggle with Japanese breakfast. Suggest making use of mini marts to stock up on snacks.

Boots were found suitable

Luggage – arranged transfer worked seamlessly

Groups – don’t worry if you can’t always be accommodated in the same place as there are usually multiple places available nearby

Pace – we walked slower than on a standard hike/bushwalk because we had shorter days planned but also because we found there were lots of interesting things to investigate along the way. Also there was quite a lot of up and down.

Path – ancient and mostly well-formed but could be slippery in the wet.

Walking poles – highly recommended to have 2 in case of wet conditions and also to ease the downhills.

Water – fill up enough for each day – at least 2 litres – each morning. Vending machines for drinks also available.

Map booklets – maps should probably be printed from the Kumano Travel website before you come in case you can’t get them in Japan. They are available from Tourist office in Kii Tanabe, the Kumano Heritage Centre at Takijiri and some places along the way.

Stamp booklets – each of the special places has a very nice little unique stamp that can be collected into a Pilgrim Booklet. You have to ask at the Kumano Heritage Center at Takijiri for the Booklet.

Local buses – are accessible from many places along the route and make flexibility easy to enable changes to walk plans along the way.

Signage – is generally but not always excellent.

Local people – very friendly and helpful

Useful contacts and info

Kumano Travel – is an international award winning community-based initiative; a bilingual (Japanese and English) online reservation system for the region. Accommodation reservations, tours and activities, local guides, info, luggage shuttle, model itineraries

Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau

Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Pilgrimage Route Maps. Booklet

Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Official Guidebook 2017 – available through the website of Kumano Travel

http://www.kumano-travel.com/index/en/action_Default_Index

Swiss Alps Hike

67            Swiss Alps Hike

img_1356

3 days in the Grindelwald area – in the company of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau.

Absolutely 3 of the very best days of hiking in the world.

 Above Interlakin is the Grindelwald Valley which is a base for skiing, farming, touristing and climbing. The countryside which makes up the forehills of the high mountains and the winter ski slopes are accessed by a network of small mountain trains. Summer hiking trails criss-cross and thread together into a wonderful network offering numerous possibilities of single day, multi-day and shorter walks.

 img_1363Schynige Platte to Faulhorn

 “If there’s a walking heaven this is it”. Cath, after an hour.

 “This is the best hiking I have ever done”. Me, after two hours.

 The trail started 1500m above the valley floor. The Panoramaweg Trail wound along a wide ridge. Up and over small rises and boulder fields. Alpine grasslands, small conifers, low shrubs. Rounded peaks. Across the deep valley in the south the Eiger, Monch, Jungfrau and a host of other mountains thrust skywards with snow fields and hanging glaciers perched precariously anywhere the cliffs weren’t quite vertical or overhanging. These were our companions throughout the day. Away down below the precipice and plunging forest on the north side of ridge top path Interlaken nestled between two jade green lakes. We crossed steep scree slopes and zigzagged our way steadily upwards. Cow bells rang out on small hanging fields below.img_1376

Everywhere the mountain scenery was superlative. We were both overcome with the beauty of it all at various points and a feeling of deep happiness that we were able to experience the landscape, to be in it, to walk through it, to feel it, to wonder at it. Eventually at the peak of the Faulhorn was our mountain hut, a sort of low key hotel really with dormitory style bunks and a restaurant – luxury.

img_1389As the sun set on a perfect day wisps of mist rose from the valley at times obscuring and then clearing from the giants of snow and rock and ice across the valley.

Dinner in the highest and oldest mountain hotel in the alps. Dorm beds among the soft night sounds of 20 other hikers.

The half of a day walk took us all day due to the time spent filming and photographing. Accessed by cog railway from Interlarken to Schynige Platte.

11 km, 700m ascent overall.

 Faulhorn to Grosse Sheideggimg_1373

Down, down, down. To twin alpine lakes that reflected the high peaks on the opposite side of the valley. Postcard picture perfect. Lunch by a stream. A marmot sat on a perch and squeaked a warning to his mates of a lurking fox in the tussocks below. All nationalities wandered past. Mountain bikers, para gliders lent a playful colour to the backdrop and the sunshine. We grazed on wild blueberries as the trail flattened and sidled across alpine grasslands. All the time the Eiger stood powerful and shaded flanked by grey rock towering peaks that grew even bigger as we approached.

Bus down to Grindelwald at the end of the day

 Grindelwald to Kleine Scheidegg

We climbed steeply up the “Eiger Trail” from another cog railway station and along a series of shelves close to the foot of the Nordwand – the famous north face. My climbing passion had been kindled, sustained and fired by stories of early trials and ascents of this fierce wall. It’s one of the three classic north faces of The Alps, the Matterhorn, the Grandes Jorasses and the Eiger. Facing away from the sun they are iced, cold, prone to grim weather and sudden storms. 64 people have died trying to climb the Eiger so far. Terrible tales of tragedies and accounts of “heroic deeds” and climbing narrative hold a revered place in mountaineering literature.img_1416

When the track reached its highest point I followed a faint climbers’ path up to the base of the wall. I retraced the steps of Heinrich Harrer, Hinterstroiser, Dougal Haston, Ulli Steck, Toni Kurtz and the cream of the world’s climbers. I stepped slowly, taking time and paying my respects. I reached a snow field that rose to meet the wall at the start of the first ascent route then turning round I found a cairn of stones with some sticks nearby and a few pieces of old climbing gear. Closer inspection revealed the timber to be a broken cross wired together. I fixed it and replaced it into the small rock pile. This day the weather was perfect but still the place felt cold and foreboding. I could make out the original route and even imagine myself onto parts of it lower down. Higher up the hidden snow slopes, the scale of the wall and hanging glaciers were a terrifying prospect. Being with the mountain that I had read about and conjured from the stories for so long gave me a powerful sense of acknowledgement – that it was real, that I was here, that this was a special place for people with a love for the mountains. I didn’t need to climb it or anything even like it but I felt deeply connected to the place and the history and climbing in general.img_1427

 Postscript

The next day we caught the cog railway train that runs up through the Eiger to the shoulder of the Jungfrau. On the journey down we were accompanied by two young Americans who had just finished climbing a route on the east ridge of the Eiger. They had spent a cold night out on a small ledge the previous night before topping out. They were over the moon about their exploit and we yarned and chattered all the way down.

The next day was cloudy, windy and raining.

 Post postscript

I surfed the internet looking for mountaineering boot suppliers in London. Perhaps now life times were right for me to start getting some skills for some trips and easy climbs in the higher mountains of the world.img_1397

Bogong Moth Frenzy NYE

48

Bogong Moth Frenzy NYE

31/12/15 – 1/1/16

Brindabellas mountain peak

Hiking

 

In other cultures it’s common for people to hike up mountains at special times, to see the sunrise or just to mark the day. Maybe we don’t do this so much in Australia as we do not have any big mountains. Mount Gingera is a special place. It is a peak that rises above much of the surrounding country. The trek in takes some time and effort. Most of all it feels remote. There is a strong sense of wildness with civilisation just a small smudge on the horizon.

On New Years Eve My wife and daughter and I walked the 8 km to the mountain after a two hour drive from town. The day was hot so we started walking in the late afternoon after a quick bite of dinner at the trail head. As we neared the summit in the dusk we heard a low thrumming sound like a lorry labouring up a long hill or a far off jet. The noise slowly grew louder. On reaching the rocks at the top we were surrounded by thousands of bogong moths. They were in a frenzy of movement with no pattern to their flight. I had seen lots of bogongs before but never like this. They usually aestivate in the hot summer months which is a bit like hibernating. They find the cool cracks and dark inner recesses between granite boulders where they attach themselves to the rocks in blankets. They slow down their body processes and the breezes cool them. After summer they fly back to their normal abodes in the western plains. To see them like this was astounding. They didn’t seem to be flying out on mass as if they were exiting the high country. On my camera the flash went off automatically and captured them in dramatic detail. Against the backdrop of golden sky over distant Jagungal and Tantangara they swarmed.

We tore ourselves away to search for a campsite nearby. Heavy footfalls sounded in the snowgums on a shelf below. A ghost white brumby and a brown sensed our presence and disappeared back into the growing gloom. After laying out the tent and a few bits of camp gear I explored the rock slabs for a view of the whole night scape. Two large eyes flashed in the torchlight then slunk away. The whole place seemed to be alive in this short period as the dark descended. Our intent to start the new year with the natural world at the forefront of our lives was richly rewarded with these surprises. The 9.00pm fireworks coloured a tiny space in the far distance as we toasted the time and place with a tiny champagne.

Later when it was properly dark the orange street lights of Canberra flickered through the haze like the shimmering embers of a large bushfire far away. This was a reversal of the vista Cath and I had witnessed from Tuggeranong as we watched the afterburn across Namadgi and Mt Tennant of the 2003 fires.

In the morning there were layers of moths in the cool cracks in the rocks but none flying around.

Postscript. Moth expert Ted Edwards, an honorary fellow with the CSIRO Australian National Insect Collection, says that it is usual for a proportion of the bogongs to fly at and after dusk at least on a warm night. We know almost nothing about this behaviour, including whether the moths are off to feed, whether they are seeking more secure hiding places and what proportion of moths are involved.

 

IMG_0860

Settlers Track – Namadgi

47

Settlers Track – NamadgiIMG_0380

28/12/15

Hiking

Historic bush huts, a walking trail that meanders through woodlands and across grasslands, old stockyards, grave sites and a sense of isolation from modern civilisation. The Settlers Track in southern Namadgi is one of the most pleasant walks in the region. Early life out here for the settlers was tough. Lonely. Harsh. Sometimes tragic. Sheep and cattle country.

Brayshaws Homestead
Brayshaws Homestead

Our little group of walking friends had links of a different sort to the bush that went back 40 years to uni bushwalking days. What a pleasure it was to continue sharing the simple enjoyment of a hike, the weather, the trees the history.

Westermans Homestead
Westermans Homestead

Our lives not as hard as the settlers but more complicated.

 

At least on the Track we could step ourselves back inside the huts and appreciate a little of the life and times of those with names synonymous with our Namadgi – Brayshaw, Oldfield, Westerman.

Waterhole Hut
Waterhole Hut

Back along the road we walked the shorter trail to Shanahan’s Mountain with fabulous vistas towards the east. In “giving back” as a volunteer guide at Tidbinbilla Jill could now advise visitors with detailed knowledge about these other walks.

Settlers Track Southern Namadgi, 6 or 9 km loop. Shanahans Mountain Trail Southern Namadgi, 3 km return. Brochures from Namadgi Visitors Center.

Settlers Track Brochure link  http://www.tams.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/404591/The-Settlers-Track.pdf

IMG_0370

Underestimated and Under threat – The Best of the Snowies on Foot

All photos in this post by Peter Kabaila

 

42

Underestimated and Under threat The Best of the Snowies on Foot

5-6/12/15

Snowy Mountains

Hiking

 

The first part of the trail was a fire road. Used to be a public road. Dad had driven my brothers and I almost to the very top of Kosciuszko in the early 60’s. We walked up the same road, now closed to all but walkers, cyclists, skiers and Parks people. Gently uphill. The packs settled in to our shoulders. Chris was on his first overnight walk for decades. The other six of us had more recent experience with the loads on our backs. In August 1985 Stephen Crean, the brother of politician Simon, had disappeared somewhere along this section while skiing from Charlottes Pass to Thredbo. Wild stories postulated his fate until his remains were found by chance a long time later.

At the Snowy River crossing we rested and refilled water bottles. Here it is a small stream bubbling between granite boulders and fields of alpine plants. In one sweep you can take in its entire catchment in the shallow plateaued hollow bounded by the Ramshead, Etheridge and Stillwell ranges of small rocky peaks near the top of Australia. From here it builds before waterfalling and rushing down to be met by Spencers Creek before it hits the wall at Guthega Dam. Downstream of the dam it becomes a tale of wild river tamed, contained, dammed and shut in and redirected by “development”. The Snowy Scheme uses the water for hydro power before sending it through to the west side of the mountains for irrigation. Now the fight is on for the reestablishment of environmental flows to be released into the original river system to reinvigorate its health. 2% of its original water for one of the country’s wildest rivers just isn’t enough. Our “development” stretches deeper even than this in the current attempt to offset climate change by cloud seeding to increase diminishing winter snowfall.

DSC_0206 IMG_0276As we ascended the next steeper section the horizon extended with vistas in all directions. The Snowy River valley meandered northwards, the Main Range mountains lined up in the west and the Monaro Plains blued the distant east. At Seamans Hut another rest, a breather this time. Laurie Seaman had perished here in a blizzard in 1928 and his mate Evan Hayes not far away. Seaman’s parents sponsored the building of the shelter hut. In the big snow year of 1980 Cath and I had brought crampons, an ice axe and all our toughest gear for an attempt to cross the main range in winter. We camped in the lee of the hut as atrocious weather struck. In the early evening a bedraggled group of scouts arrived at the hut with tales of a leader and another scout lost up higher near Rawsons Pass. The wind overnight pummelled our Antarctic strength tunnel tent nearly flat. We abandoned our trip and skied out at first light to raise the alarm and initiate a rescue. Turned out they were from WA and very ill prepared.

From Seamans Hut the trail climbs and winds round the edge of the Etheridge Range. I looked across the cliffed eastern slopes into the sheltered areas where four snowboarders had died in 1999. They were experienced in the mountains and established a high  snowcave from where they intended to access some of the best untracked terrain in Australia. A huge dump of snow caught them unawares in the night. Wind from the southwest blew masses of powder snow over the range which then accumulated and settled on the lee side right on top of their base camp. The snow sealed off their ventilation as they slept and then asphyxiated. Their bodies were not found until the spring thaw. I’d had a school group out in a similar situation in a sheltered place below a ridge. Massive snowfall settled on our tents and in the night I got up three times to dig them free of the 90cm of powder that built over us. One of our walking party, Peter, had a narrow escape that night having dug himself out of his own snowcave as I made my first round from tent to tent with the snow shovel. We had embraced and thanked his lucky stars in the midst of the maelstrom.

At Rawsons Pass we rested again and refuelled. Peter connected up with some Asian tourists. Mountainbikers parked their bikes. The trek to the summit became crowded. A long distance trail runner sweated past. Mount Kosciuszko is one of the world’s Seven Summits – the highest mountains on each continent. To climb these Seven Summits is a massive undertaking and was quite an achievement for the first successful mountaineers. The danger and challenge has not diminished but commercialisation has widened the number and capabilities of people attempting it. Guiding companies can even take clients to the top of Everest and Denali for the appropriate fee ($60,000US for Everest). I have tried to take student groups cross country skiing up Kosciuszko a couple of times but never managed the summit even though it is only 6km from the Thredbo chairlift top station. The snow is always icy, the weather often not good. The last aborted attempt was due to deteriorating conditions and a forecast blizzard later in the day. We saw a party of Japanese mountaineers setting off for the summit that day as we pulled the pin and headed back down. As the storm developed we heard that they had been trying their seventh and last summit on the list, and the lowest. They had been advised not to go that day but had time constraints with connecting transport and flights so had not heeded the advice of their guiding company. Apparently they did not make it and needed a full scale National Parks, SES and Police Rescue team to bring them back to safety.

The weather for us was perfect. Clear and warm but not hot. The wild blue yonder of the western slopes and Victoria came into view as we circled up to the big cairn on top. Chris had never been there before so the obligatory photos were taken and sent to his family back in Canberra. The scene with snowdrifts, rocky outcrops, peaks and dramatic cloudscapes was straight out of the famous Eugene Von Gerard painting from centuries prior. Distant Mount Jagungal beckoned in the north.

One of the best sections of our route, now on a walking path rather than fire road, was from Kosciuszko north towards Lake Albina and Muellers Pass. The track descends a narrow ridge with deep valleys on either side. Less of the tourist walkers take this track around the Lakes Walk. At a lookout rock I spied two brumbies at the bottom of the valley to the east below Rawsons Pass. Two sleek black horses strolled at ease, grazing. I felt conflicted between the colonial patriotism of “The Man From Snowy River” and all it stands for. DSC_0069Wild horses running free through the high country. Stockmen galloping after them. Chasing the country’s rural heritage which is so much part of our national psyche. A connection with The Bush and our rural past that many of us hanker for. Later that day we would camp in a sublime hanging grove of streams and delicate cushion plants and alpine bog – the areas so fragile under the brumbies’ hooves. The horses were grazing in the vicinity of the old Kunama Lodge which was part of one of the earliest ski tows for adventurous skiers on the main range. It operated in the early 50’s until an avalanche swept away the hut and killed Roslyn Twynam Wesche in 1956. The hut, tow facilities and nearby stockmans huts have all been since removed. Similarly Lake Albina Lodge and the Soil Conservation huts have also been removed from the Main Range area.

Stone paved steps led past rocky outcrops and above large snowdrifts. After Muellers Pass the track was dug into very steep slopes and we sidled across the side of Mount Northcote. Lake Albina perched on our left in a stunning glacial valley that plunged deep into Lady Northcotes Canyon. We had struggled down and back up out of there from Watsons Crags years before. Steep and treacherous country. Across Lake Albina rose Mount Townsend, probably the best of the highest mountains. It is a real peak, isolated, rocky, steep and imposing. This was the mountain Prabhdeep Srawn was heading for in 2013 before he disappeared. Extensive searches since have not yet found any trace of him and the coroner has ruled that he most likely died in the mountains.

DSC_0119Traversing Mount Northcote is one of the major challenges on a winter crossing of the Main Range. It is steep on all sides and being exposed to the worst of the weather is nearly always covered in a veneer of wind blasted ice. I have made it across twice. The first time my mountaineering experienced brother cut steps across the steeps with an ice axe so we could walk and carry our non metal edged skis. Even this was scary as any slip would end several hundred meters below. On the second time I was a better skier and tracked across on metal edges with a heavy pack. Until the edges caught a sastrugi bump and I skittered off downhill at accelerating pace towards the rocks and frozen lake below. I managed to twist over onto my stomach and grab the tip of one ski pole which I forced into the ice. Luckily the point dug in and I slowed to a stop. Mt buddy now high above could not do anything. I had very tentatively stood up again on the edges and stepped up and across to the saddle with no confidence and with great fear. Our view over lunch of blue ranges and plain lands to the west was framed with Mt. Townsend and Watsons Crags. Spectacular.

People in the group chatted in pairs or trudged solitarily up to the top of Mount Carruthers. This is a rounded hill but is in a fine position among the steepest parts of the range. Club Lake was far below. A few large snowdrifts remained in the shadier slopes. Hardy micro alpine plants and flowers grew in stony areas over these hilltops and ridges. “How much further to Go?” The harder part of the day was upon us. Tired. Sore shoulders. Running low on water.

We skirted the top of Blue Lake. We had experienced multiple wild nights camped down there in winter. The nights always seem to be the worst. My brother had spent 5 days huddled in the squalid emergency basement of the Soil Conservation Hut in an endless blizzard. Before the time of mobile phones we just had to sit it out at home waiting for word from him which eventually came through. Another time a friend had work commitments so tried to ski out in a whiteout and managed to ski in a complete circle, luckily ending up back at our camp 3 hours later. The cliffs and gullies that lead down to the lake were well below our track across the tops. In 2008 Tom Carr-Boyd was skiing along an ice cornice in this area. His brother below noticed that he was in a dangerous situation and yelled at him to move back. In trying to get back from the edge the overhanging ice broke and avalanched Tom to his death below.

Jerry left us on the final climb of the day up Mount Twynam and rejoined the Lakes Walk trail back to Charlottes Pass. The view back towards Kosciuszko from Twynam was full of Von Gerard cloud drama, rocky foreground, snowdrifted peaks and dark green valleys.

DSC_0144We romped down snowgrass meadows and rock slabs to our camp in a small hanging glaciated cirque below the summit dome of Twynam. This place reminds me of stunning photos of Sierra Nevada landscapes. Granite cliffs formed a backdrop. Two streams fed by large snowdrifts tumbled over boulders and small falls to flow more slowly across our enclosed flats. Soft plants and patches of coloured wildflowers carpeted the floor. Camp was set up on a flat soft space between rocky bluffs and a creek. Peter and Amanda camped out further at the edge where the ground dropped away to the valley and the main stream flowed downwards. Our tents added more colour to the alpine mountain scene. The landscape encouraged a relaxed afternoon tea taking it all in then exploration. Bob followed a stream up to a waterfall. Chris found a high rock vantage point. Cath stretched beside the creek. I climbed the easy angled rock and snow slopes. Peter took photos. The place had a pristine magical feel. Cosy, intricate, untouched. A hidden gem among the grand peaks of the Main Range.DSC_0190

Overnight the dark blanket of sky was heavy with stars. In the morning the alpenglow pinked then yellowed before the dawn. Breakfast as the sun rose. We were all reluctant to leave.

DSC_0199Off the main route we picked up the faint path of the Australian Alps Walking Track. Along the spine of the range we passed Mount Anton then climbed Mount Anderson and traversed below Mann Bluff. The flowers across this section were the best we had seen. Still a little before their prime they patchworked the meadows in sprays of white and yellow and pink. Everywhere you looked was a scene from the “Sound of Music”. Steep, deep valleys fell away on the left and on the right was the Snowy River way below and on its far bank the hills rose to the ski slopes of Perisher Blue. Occasional bits of wire and fence posts were the only reminders to our untrained eyes that this used to be grazing land before it was national park. Amanda peak bagged Mount Tate over an early lunch. From here the route of the whole hike was laid out. It seemed like a long way. This two day combination of linked up trails must be one of the best walks in Australia and the equivalent of any hike in the world.

At Consett Stephen Pass it became clear to some of us that there was still several kilometres to walk. We climbed to a high point east of the pass then headed across open snowgrass country to the south east. The pace slowed and the group quietened. Eventually we found the start of a faint track that took us down a ridge towards Guthega Dam. Through more patches of wildflowers among eerie snowgum tree skeletons from a previous fire. Half way down we rested. This was the tough bit for some. Sore shoulders, dodgy knees hurting, tired, thought we would have been finished by now, getting hot. Chris had hit the wall (he told us later) but pushed stoically onwards.

DSC_0344Crossing the dam wall thrust us back into development and civilisation with a thump. Slow steps up the final hill to the car.

Coffee, pastries, pies at the bakery in Jindabyne. The simple pleasures of finishing a demanding hike. Everything had gone like clockwork. Our bodies had held up. This had been a short but very rich experience, a classic journey taking in the best of the Snowy Mountains. Safe. The weather had been delightfully kind – calm and cool.

 

Day 1 – Charlottes Pass to Seamans Hut to Rawsons Pass to summit of Mount Kosciuszko to Mount Carruthers (at this point the Lakes Walk branches off) to Mount Twynam then down to camp just to the north of Little Twynam – about 18km

Day 2 – Little Twynam camp to north east ridge of Twynam then Mount Anton to Mount Anderson to Mann Bluff to Mount Tate to Consett Stephen Pass then down the long ridge to Guthega Dam and up to Guthega Village – about 14km

Volunteer

41

Volunteer

3/12/15

Budawang Ranges

Hiking

 

Grass tree flower spikes were covered with white, honeyed bloom brushes. As we walked gently uphill through forest the pace settled into a steady rhythm. Chat. Walk. Talk. At a conglomerate rock we morning teaed. Then downhill to the turnoff from the main path into the Budawang Ranges from our starting point at Wog Wog carpark. The superb vistas from Corang Peak, prehistoric landscape of Burrumbeet Brook, the towering sandstone massifs of Mount Owen and The Castle that lay beyond the other worldly Monolith Valley were all down that main path. Our less visible trail headed off left.

IMG_0207

This was my first time leading a walk for the group. “Corang Cascades, 15km, mostly on bushwalking tracks with some stony sections.” Cath especially and I had done quite a few walks with this group over the year. Coordinated by Andrew, who had led morIMG_0214e than a hundred over the years and Ray who must have done way more than this even. It was a trail we had done recently and I’d done several times before. It was remote but had a decent track and was a good distance. The route led us down a rocky spine into a delightfully cool, moist creekbed.

In my “retired” life of less than a year I was still working through how best to use my time. Being time rich is such a treat, a source of wealth. With gratefulness I feel lucky to be able to afford to finish full time work. So now the balance includes having lots of time with Cath, doing some personal adventures, writing, extended family time and trying to spend some time having a positive impact on the world. Contributing. Like leading this walk for others, for the club that has provided enjoyment for us. Once a month I help out with landcare in the catchment – planting trees, erosion control etc. Vinies Night Patrol enables me to make coffees and chat with the homeless and downtrodden and lonely of Canberra also once a month. Next year we will do two weeks on a conservation property at Lake Eyre. And I coach and mentor a niece with her high school academics every Monday afternoon. I’m still looking for a way to assist with refugees and the environment in more meaningful ways but am not quite ready to jump in deeper just yet.

Another descent into a creek and ascent out of the gully. Into the heath. Hot. Scratchy. Hard to see above it. Awkward. This was the tough bit. It seemed to go on for ages.

Volunteering. Being of service to others in some way. It feels right. To balance our comfortable lifestyle. To assuage guilt for our life of “luxury” in Australia perhaps. In Australia about 30% of the population (6 million) do some kind of voluntary work, caring or contribution to society. Some stats from Volunteering Australia give a powerful picture of the generosity and commitment of Australians.

Age

In 2010, the volunteer rates for adults by age group were:

  • 18-24 years – 27%
  • 25-34 years – 30%
  • 35-44 years – 42%
  • 45-54 years– 44%
  • 55-64 years – 43%
  • 65+ years – 31%
  • Overall – 36.2% of the adult population.

Labour force status

In 2010, the volunteer rates for adults by labour force status were:

  • Employed full time – 38%
  • Employed part-time – 44%
  • Unemployed – 20%
  • Retired – 31%
  • Others not in the labour force – 30%.

Frequency

In 2010, the frequency of work done by volunteers was:

  • At least once a week – 35%
  • At least once a fortnight – 11%
  • At least once a month – 16%
  • Several times per year – 24%
  • Less regularly – 14%

In 2006, Australian volunteers worked a total of 713 million hours. The median number of hours worked by each volunteer, broken down by age and gender was:

  • 18-24 years – 48 hours per year
  • 25-34 years – 38 hours per year
  • 35-44 years – 48 hours per year
  • 45-54 years – 64 hours per year
  • 55-64 years – 80 hours per year
  • 65-74 years – 104 hours per year
  • 75-84 years – 104 hours per year
  • 85 + years – figure considered unreliable
  • Total for men – 52 hours per year
  • Total for women – 60 hours per year
  • Total for all people – 56 hours per year (or 1.1 hours per week).

Why people volunteer

In 2006, the reasons why people volunteered were:

  • Help others/community – 57%
  • Personal satisfaction – 44%
  • Personal/family involvement – 37%
  • To do something worthwhile – 36%
  • Social contact – 22%
  • Use skills/experience – 16%
  • To be active – 16%
  • Religious beliefs – 15%
  • Other – 20%

The Real Economic Value of Volunteering

Dr Lisel O’Dwyer (University of Adelaide) estimated the dollar value of the contributions made by Australian volunteers in 2010, based on the average annual number of hours worked multiplied by the average wage rate. She estimated that in 2010, formal volunteering (excluding travel) was worth $25.4 billion to the Australian economy.

Notes on adjusted value: Dr O’Dwyer also argued that because the value of volunteering is attached to a multiplicity of outcomes, one hour of a volunteer’s time should be valued not just once, but several times (to account for other entities that benefit from the volunteer’s time). Based on this reasoning, she estimated an adjusted total value of volunteering in 2010 at around $200 billion (using a multiplier of 25% of the average hourly rate multiplied by four entities).

Volunteering and happiness

Volunteering Australia has compiled the following facts about volunteering and happiness:xli

  • Volunteers are happier, healthier and sleep better than those who don’t volunteer – doctors should recommend it.xlii
  • 96% of volunteers say that it “makes people happier.” xliii
  • 95% of volunteers say that volunteering is related to feelings of wellbeing. xliv
  • Volunteering results in a “helper’s high,” a powerful physical and emotional feeling experienced when directly helping others.xlv
  • Just a few hours of volunteer work makes a difference in happiness and mood. xlvi
  • Sustained volunteering is associated with better mental health. xlvii
  • Altruistic emotions and behaviours are associated with greater well-being, health, and longevity. xlviii
  • A strong correlation exists between the well-being, happiness, health, and longevity of people who are emotionally kind and compassionate in their charitable helping activities. xlix
  • The experience of helping others provides meaning, a sense of self-worth, a social role and health enhancement. l
  • Volunteering is highly associated with greater health and happiness. Li

http://www.volunteeringaustralia.org/wp-content/uploads/VA-Key-statistics-about-Australian-volunteering-16-April-20151.pdf

Eventually we cleared the heath and made our way more easily through scribbly gum woodland. Descending in the heat of the day the sound of water tumbling over rocks slowly built. We broke out of the bush onto the river. Upstream was the large platypus pool and downstream the cascades. Shoes off. Relax. Cool feet. Photos. Lunch. A dip for a few that braved the cold. A check with Andrew’s gps confirmed that the walk was going to be longer than advertised.

IMG_0233

 

IMG_0231

Back through the heath seemed shorter on the return trek.

In the forest at the 15km mark I announced, “Since you have all been such a good walking group for no extra cost you are all eligible for the special bonus prize of an extra 3km!”

Afternoon tea back at the cars. “Thanks for leading the walk.” One small part of crafting a meaningful life falls into place.

Wog Wog carpark on the Mongarlowe Road to Corang Cascades 18km return

Capture

The section of the Morton National Park we had been walking in had been purchased with funds from the volunteer efforts of the Budawang Committee.

 

Fog

38

Fog

11/11/15

Camels Hump and Pierce Trig

Hiking

18km

 

Rain thrashed the windscreen and unsettled me as we drove home from the pickup point on the other side of town. Our three passengers must have thought Canberra was a place of wild weather.

Ali, Mohsin and Basir had arrived in Australia 3 years previously. They had left Afghanistan and Pakistan and journeyed via Singapore and lastly by boat from Indonesia to end up on Christmas Island as asylum seekers.  A month later they were transferred to detention centres on the mainland and later allowed to live in a large city within the Australian community. We were reluctant to ask too much about their journeys and experiences for fear of raising painful and disturbing memories and emotions. They were on a familiarisation trip to rural Australia and to search for work. Until a month ago they had not been allowed to work. For three years they have been waiting, living in limbo, wondering what Immigration will decide for them, unable to see the future.

We offered them what we could. Food. A free place to stay on their trip north. Chat about cricket. A friendly welcome to Canberra. A look at Parliament House and the Lake. Then they were off in the morning and returned a few days later for another night on their way back south. We drove up Mt. Ainslie for the view of the city. The use of our wifi. Small things indeed from the huge wealth of our average Australian lives. In the where-to-be-born index (QLI) we rank 2nd in the world with Pakistan a lowly 75th and Afghanistan not even rated (this measures a country’s ability to provide opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life).

As Hazaras Ali, Mohsin and Basir had left their homelands, leaving behind massacres under the Taliban, a long history of discrimination, decades of war in Afghanistan and sectarian violence in Pakistan. Hazaras are targeted by militant groups and Human Rights Watch estimates that more than one hundred have been murdered in Quetta this year. Many Hazaras have drowned from boats trying to reach Australia and the MV Tampa rescued a boatload of mainly Hazaras that were sent to Nauru.

In the morning we drank tea and ate toast before leaving early to take our three guests back over to the other side of town where they were to meet their transport. During an awkward quiet moment in the car we switched on the radio at the exact same time as the start of a news story about the death of an asylum seeker on Christmas Island who had taken his own life in despair. This had sparked riots in the detention centre where convicted criminals are housed with asylum seekers. The quiet in the car seemed to deepen. Outside the day was grey and overcast.

Cath and I dropped them off, wished them well and then drove to the mountains for our walk.

Raincoats. Drizzle. Up the steep fire trail through forest. My head was fuddled and conflicted. I found it hard to focus on the present. Thought patterns and emotional responses clouded me in. When I started conversations to make contact with some others in the group by showing courteous interest in them I ended up being harangued by a couple of insensitive older bores. Higher up we reached the cloud level and entered thick mist. Eerie. Quiet. Still. No views.IMG_0174I walked on my own for a while trying to clear my head and get above the clouds. Large eucalypts stood like guardians on either side of the track. The peak was deemed too dangerous to push on for in the slippery conditions. We lunched forlornly sitting and resting on the damp earth. On one side the bush was pristine and had its own dripping beauty. On the other were black stumps and dead bushes of a recent fire – occasionally new green shoots appeared. At a high point a cliff dropped away into thick grey murkiness.

The pace slowed on the long way down. Tired legs. Only the foreground to see. Head still in the clouds. Eventually I left the three somewhere up there – enveloped in their own fog, unable to see a way out or take any control, bewildered by the inhumanity of it all, the unfairness. Lower down, for me, it cleared. I could see across the valley to the ridges opposite, the green fields, a house in the distance.20151111_144414

Later that evening I listened to a local nun, Sister Jane, talk about her despair at our (Australia’s) treatment of asylum seekers and refugees and her plan to bear witness for the month of lent on the steps of Parliament House. The story of an African fellow who was now working in Canberra as a social worker having escaped beatings, political oppression and death threats in Zimbabwe to become a refugee here. Jon Stanhope’s scathing criticism of his beloved Labour Party and their stance on the “indefinite, mandatory, offshore detention” of asylum seekers, the lifelong trauma caused by the detention of children and a UN report detailing our torture of detainees at Mannus. And George Browning questioning whether Australia (we) was actually contributing to conditions that produce refugees (foreign aid at its lowest level, refusal to engage with the wrongs in the world like East Timor, our interference across the world like the invasion of Iraq and the resultant growth of ISIS and our refusal to join the responsible world in properly addressing climate change).

Later again as I read Tim Winton’s “Palm Sunday Plea: Start the soul searching Australia” everything cleared a little more and my perspective became less conflicted.

 

http://www.smh.com.au/comment/tim-wintons-palm-sunday-plea-start-the-soulsearching-australia-20150328-1ma5so.html

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s where-to-be-born index (previously called the quality-of-life index, abbreviated QLI) attempts to measure which country will provide the best opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life in the years ahead.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Where-to-be-born_Index

Insight: Pakistani death squads spur desperate journey to Australia  http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/25/us-pakistan-hazaras-idUSBRE89N1LP20121025#ZS2VwGHI2DzuFhtI.97

Names have been changed to protect the identities of the guests.

Fields of flowers

37

Fields of flowers

4/11/15

Short Wednesday walk – Tuggeranong Hill. 8km. 2 ¼ hours.

What do retired people do? People who are lucky – healthy, active, sociable? Folk who want to get some exercise, enjoy being in nature or in the outdoors? People who are time rich? Some walk once or twice or three times a week. Some hike with clubs and some with their own networks of buddies.IMG_0128Tuggeranong Hill, almost our back yard, was abloom. Fields of spring flowers coloured our short trek with white, yellow, mauve, pink, purple, blue. Some were weeds but still beautiful and colourful. Some were clustered in isolated groups and others cascaded across the grasslands or lit up the woodland floor. Tiny daisies sprinkled themselves in clumps of lichened rocks. Vanilla lilies danced in the breeze. On the north western sunny side of the hill the wattles brought a pale yellow blush to the greens of the grasses and tree foliage. Yellow everlastings seemed to shine with their own brightness against the overcast, darker blue of the distant Brindabella Ranges. I enjoyed the job of “tail-end-Charlie”, keeping an eye on the slower members of the group, supporting the uphill strugglers and dashing round taking as many flower photos as I could during the walk. Ah. Pleasure indeed.

Cath had planned a varied route that wove around and up and over one part of “our” hill. She had walked it half a dozen times to get it just right. The views through the flower fields across to the mountains going down the far side were wonderful. A brief morning tea on a bike path beside some delightfully flowered feral species then the uphill return. This brought out the puff and some complaints that maybe it was too hard. One fellow, almost 80 with knees and hips that show the wear of marathons and epic walks from younger days, never blanched as we chatted our way slowly upwards. Inspiration. I noticed some at the back of the group who were taking time to appreciate the views and “smell the flowers” while they caught their breath back.This was Cath’s first contribution as walk leader to this community group.IMG_0149Back down on the flat near the back of our house I photographed some of the walkers foregrounded by a large spray of small white everlastings. The gum tree above had been home to a pair of tawny frogmouths who had now gone.IMG_0108

 

Snakes and Lizards

33

Snakes and Lizards

15/10/15

Western Foreshores Walk – Googong Dam carpark to Tin Hut return – 21 km

Hiking

 

Like a reptile on a cold morning I awoke stiff and slow. Hands took time to loosen up and feet were still sore from a walk the day before round the lake. Motivation lacked for the day’s walk. Fire trail, mostly flat with the occasional drop into and climb out of creek gullies. Walked and talked like the day before when I had been out with retired work buddies – round Lake Burleigh Griffin – past the High Court and Kingston Foreshores. Then we had lunched like never before while we had been too busy working. Now time rich we had time to walk, to exercise properly, to chat, to be buddies.

Walk and talk. Mostly I’m a “bushwalker”. It takes me time to ease into this slightly more mundane style of walking. Talk. With a fellow who had actively walked many of the classic long trails in Europe with his wife until she had been injured in a cycling accident. Now he’s the full time carer as she is wheelchair bound. His walk today is a fortnightly treasure.

Black snake beside the path sunned itself, alert to our passing, head raised.

IMG_0700

There was not a house in sight. 40 minutes from Canberra. Pleasant ex-farming land now water catchment for the water supply dam.

Talk and walk. A bioscience man who had worked for CSIRO for most of his working life then worked voluntarily with them for another decade after retiring. Another guy who had led more than 100 walks for the group.

Spiky dragon lizard on a post watches on as we slowly edge by.

Walk. And talk. The “marathon lady” related how she was training for the London Marathon. She had completed countless marathons around the world – walking! Apparently overseas it is popular for people to walk in the events. She does around 7 hours. This opened anew my desire to complete my number 9 and 10 Canberra Marathons – perhaps with some walking as required. Inspiring talk.

I finish enlivened by the stories.

Larapinta Trail – Part 2 – Ellery Creek to Simpsons Gap

26

Larapinta Part 2 Ellery Creek to Simpsons Gap 9 days

8/7 – 15/7/15

Western Macdonnell Ranges – Northern Territory – Central Australia

Hiking

Larapinta logistics

The logistics for the Larapinta are complex however you do it. Fantastic written resources are available

National Park package www.nt.gov.au/parks

Trek Larapinta website www.treklarapinta.com.au

John Chapman guidebook http://www.john.chapman.name/pub-lara.html

The simplest way is to walk the whole 220 km in one push. This requires from 12 to 18 days hiking for most people. On the sections we completed we saw lots of people doing this – some more experienced and better prepared than others. It’s a hard walk – long days, tough terrain, water carrying, hard on boots, feet, legs and shoulders. And sensational scenery in one of the most spectacular parts of arid Australia. In parts it’s more of a mountain walk than desert flatlands. You can either walk east to west (Alice Springs to Mount Sonder) or west to east. At Alice the walk starts or finishes in town so you only need to arrange transport to or from Mount Sonder (Redbank Gorge) – there are several transfer options. There are 3 regular food drop locations – you may be able to arrange transport of your food drops without you going out yourself.

A commercial trip is a good option for people wanting to do it as a series of day walks with transport, food and comfortable basecamping support. This will necessitate some long days and a fair bit of time in vehicles. You can do the whole trek or just the “highlights” (selected by the company). Reputedly fires each night and nice food.

Our trip

The Larapinta had beckoned for many years but sorting the best logistics was a challenge. In the end we did 121km in a 9 day continuous section that took in the commonly agreed best parts from Ellery Creek to Simpson’s Gap with an additional daywalk up Mount Sonder. In planning this route and itinerary some of the considerations were;

  • We wanted to camp along the way and be self-supported so we could be fully immersed in the landscape
  • Some of the best days are very long and have water logistics issues so we broke these long days into a series of shorter days where we would be able to carry enough water for overnight camps
  • We scheduled the hardest days to be when our packs would be lighter due to having consumed most of the food prior to the food drops
  • We would hire a 4WD to take in and bury an extra food drop in the middle of the hardest section – this was necessary as we could carry a maximum of 4 days food in addition to the water requirements day by day. We carried water for overnight camps on two occasions – Hugh Gorge to Birthday Waterhole (camping at Fringe Lily Creek) and Birthday Waterhole to Standley Chasm (camping on top of Brinkley Bluff)
  • We would go as lightweight as possible to ease the load on knees, hips and feet (ages of walkers 58, 58, 60, 54, 52, 25)
  • The overall cost for Cath and I was about $1250 each which included flights between Canberra and Alice Springs, accom in Alice, transfers, camp fees and our share of the 4WD
  • 4WD cost $640 overall for the two days – we drove it from Alice Springs to Birthday Waterhole (to bury food drop) and then to Redbank Gorge for the Mount Sonder daywalk. Then the car was driven to Ellery Creek where the main party was dropped off. I continued on back to Alice where the car was returned. Next morning I got a transfer back to Ellery Creek where we started the main walk together.

Day 1 Ellery Creek to Rocky Creek 15 km (9.30 am 4.00 pm)

Eastwards under the Heavitree Range we tramped weighed down by heavy packs – 4 days food and water for the day. We climbed up through a saddle that broke the range. IMG_5433The scene that spread out before us as we descended on the other side was reminiscent of the great African rift valley. Same landscape and ancient atmosphere. Dry acacia scrub and grasses covered a huge open plain that stretched to a distant range of blue hills. We crossed dry, sandy creek beds and walked up and over small hills then along low ridge lines. Out in the flat lands it was hot and dry.

We settled in to a slow rhythm. Walking in chatting pairs or off in our own worlds. I’d known Sue for a long time and had some snippet insights into her past, the sort you piece together from fragments over years of working and doing things together. But as we walked together it was like the journey into this land paralleled my journey deeper into her story. She had studied anthropology, indigenous studies and sociology at ANU then worked in the public service for a year. With itchy feet she then travelled and worked in Europe and Asia for 2 years. Following this she worked as a curator in the indigenous section of the Australian Museum then for a time with the Canberra land management agency TAMS. From there she became a ranger at Kakadu for 3 years and Uluru for 2 years. A teaching qualification through Uni of Northern Territory enabled her to then work for 3 years as a teacher of little kids at Ramingining in a remote part of Arnhem Land. At this point her Mum got sick so she moved to Canberra and worked in the indigenous education unit and preschool. The next stage was 13 years at the Birrigai Outdoor School where I got to work alongside her for about 5 years. Everyone knew her as a wondrous, lively, treasure of a person. Then she was off to the UK for two years at another outdoor centre before returning to Canberra to work with refugee and migrant children at an Introductory English Centre. I had thought my own life and career had been interesting but marvelled at Sue’s career and life jam packed with wonderful adventures and meaning. How fabulous can one life be?

IMG_5446

We reached camp tired but ok. This was one of the two less exciting days that were necessary for us to gain access to the best parts of the Trail. The night was filled with stars and milder than the frigid cold we expected. No fires so bed was a good prospect by 8.00 pm and sleep by 8.05.

Day 2  Rocky Creek to Hugh Gorge  16 km (8.30 am 3.30 pm)

This was a long day across the undulating open plain. Rocky ridges provided great views of the gap in the range we were heading for. Slowly it got closer. Horse (?) droppings. Nice campsite next to a creek bed. Wash in a rock pool. Late in the day I scrambled high up on the side of the gorge for enticing glimpses into the rugged country we would walk through the following day. Our creaky knees and feet were sore but still under control. We were at a point where recue would be very limited for the next few days. Cath’s exercises were working a treat.

Over dinner we talked about refugees and asylum seekers. Sue regaled us with tales of the young students she worked with. These were heart-warming, gut wrenching and delightful. I could have listened to her all night.

Day 3 Hugh Gorge to Fringe Lilly Creek  10 km (8.30 am 3.30 pm) *****

This was part of one of the long days we had broken into two. We carried double water as we were unsure of water supplies for the next night’s camp.IMG_5477

The gorge lived up to every part of its 5 star reputation. Pools reflected glowing orange walls that framed brilliant blue skies with dazzling white clouds. The white bark of gum trees seemed to shine with inner light. Over boulders. A side trip up a gorge, whose entrance was guarded on one side by a massive pinnacle buttress and on the other by a huge bluff, without packs, took us to the towering V shaped cliffs and an impassable pool. We collected some water here. More boulders.

IMG_5479At Fringe Lilly Creek we camped on the sandy creek bed. Lots of flat stones were arranged and balanced in a cooking circle. A kilometre downstream we located the water hole that we had been told about. This meant we could have plenty for dinner, breakfast and the next day rather than scraping by with just enough.

Day 4 Fringe Lilly Creek to Birthday Waterhole  7.5 km (8.30 am 3.00 pm) *****

IMG_5506Uphill. Steep, zig zag track then a razorback ridge. Huge drop-offs each side. William and I scrambled some of the more spectacular narrow rocky ribs. Lookouts every 100 meters or so. Stupendous vistas all around stretching to far horizons. We were there. We were doing it.

This was better than the dreams and visions we had been picturing over years of anticipation. Like mountain walking in the French alps but with desert lowlands and no snow. Skirt the rocky outcrops. It was hard to believe we were climbing up this trail.

IMG_5509

Cath was overwhelmed for the second time. Tears in her eyes, her heart exploded with gratitude that she could do it, that she could be in this country.

There was a top up there somewhere. But it was no better than the rest. Spinifex slopes led up to cliffed peaks. Stunted white gums clung to rocky slopes. My favourite arid country. A narrow foot track wound down and across steep slopes back to the other side of the range. Down Spencer Gorge and eventually to Birthday Waterhole.

IMG_5528We excavated our food drop – sealed tins buried in the sand bed of the creek. Camp on the sand near the main waterhole. Later a couple of cars drove in and stopped nearby. IMG_5530One got bogged in the sand. I did them a favour, possibly saving a life, by using all my interpersonal skills to convince them to recover the car safely rather than the quick way they were planning. 4WD recovery training paid off. They were so pleased about getting sorted out that they happily took out our several kilograms of rubbish including the squashed tins. We would enjoy the benefits of this the next day.

Birthday Waterhole to Brinkley Bluff  8 km, (9.00 am 2.00 pm)  *****

IMG_5531Cattle skulls and sun bleached bones had been collected and placed on trees on part of the track I called Death Valley. I lost concentration on this easiest part of the track which was flat and smooth underfoot leading up towards Stuarts Pass. My foot caught on a low termite mound and I tripped and landed face first on the hard ground. The pack, heavy with 2 days water and a new supply of food, pole drove my head into the dirt. It could have been curtains or at least a rescue but I was fine, just bleeding a little and with a growing egg on the forehead. Shaken up and reminded of the need to watch every step in this isolated place.

Stuarts Pass was named after the explorer John McDouall Stuart who had completed multiple epic feats of desert survival in attempts to cross through the centre of the continent from Adelaide to Darwin. He spent months at a time trudging in the heat with nowhere near enough food and water, half blinded by sandy blight. We morning tea-ed at his gap in the range. At home in the bush he was the hero of the colony when successful but his life ended poor and alone in the city.

IMG_5533The climb up Brinkley Bluff was the biggest of the hike (500m ascent). With two days water! Slowly we inched our way up to a saddle then down to Rocky Cleft. It looked like the weather was going to hold so we kept on towards the top. Reputation had it that the top had few campsites and was very exposed. To camp on top was key to a lot of our planning. More zig zags tracked back and forth across the steep face of the mountain threading a route between rocky shelves. Up. Fabulous steep walking. More up. And then without the usual false summits we were on top. Whooping and hugging. A narrow track led through low scrub to the large cairn which was adorned with Himalayan prayer flags. They seemed strangely appropriate on this desert mountain top. The peak stood out proudly on its own affording amazing views in every direction. Amazing as well were the myriad of campsites that had been scraped out on top. Flat areas bordered with stones. Alone on the top, like the mountain, we found superb tent sites sheltered completely from the icy southerly wind in little sun traps just north of the summit ridge. It all had the feel of a high altitude mountaineering camp.

IMG_5544IMG_5540

The afternoon was a heavenly treat. Perched above a million square miles of desert. Cups of tea on the mountain top. Exploring, photographing, doing exercises, relaxing. We felt on top of the world. IMG_5574As the sun slowly set the light changed a thousand hills and directions to look and be transfixed.

In awe.

Colours changed on rocks, ranges, small eucalypts, spinifex and our multi-coloured tents. Rocky ridges plunged to the plains way below.

IMG_5584

Stars appeared slowly at first then eventually lit up the whole sky. You could almost dip your hand into the Milky Way. I pondered the Aboriginal dreaming story of their elders who had died. The stars of the Milky Way were the campfires of their spirits which they sat beside as they kept watch over the people living below. It was a powerful image and spiritually comforting. Unknown to me at the time I was to come back to this story twice in the months that followed.

Day 6 Brinkley Bluff to Standley Chasm  10 km (8.30 am 3.00pm)   *****

IMG_5587

The tent fly had been left off so we could lie in bed and see the stars. The morning star was still up when we awoke before dawn to an orange glow in the east below a deep blue canopy of sky. The night had been cold. Frost.

An extremely cold wind still blew on the southern side. Fully jacketed and thermaled we descended. The track twisted over narrow ridges, crossed through saddles and then traversed steep scree slopes. This reminded us of walking in the Dolomites. We had departed early and walked towards the light – peaks were shadowed, tussocks of spinifex shadow textured stoney hills. Rocky spines and ribs rose and fell away into crags dropping into the depths below.

DSCN0165Downhill with packs mercifully lighter. Only half a day’s water and virtually no food. In the long gully below Reveal Saddle we passed through gardens of coloured flowers – pink, yellow, purple, white, red. Scramble over boulders.

Standley Chasm was an extremely welcome home away from home. Hot showers! We did the “hikers pamper package” – scones with jam and cream and coffee, sumptuous three course dinner and cooked breakfast – bliss! Clothes wash. Two of our group departed from here having completed their 6 day “best of the Larapinta” walk. Our daughter joined us for the next 3 days, starting off with the pamper package. She brought out some fresh tomatoes and lettuce and fruit to supplement our last food drop which was collected from the café.

Day 7 Standley Chasm to Jay Creek  13.6km (9.00am 4.00pm)

IMG_5525Up steeply with food filled packs. Tortured rocky peaks and pinnacles split by narrow gorges. Up and steeply down then up and down again. Stunning scenery yet again. DSCN0150

Scramble down a small crag that would have been a waterfall in the creek in the wet. Stony underfoot for kilometres. Hard work in the creek bed.

William and Elouise hiked up and down over the alternative high route as we made our way slowly along the flat. The last section was through deep sand.

Wearied we reached the shelter shed and water tank at Jay Creek.

Day 8 Jay Creek to Mulga Camp 11km (9.00am 2.30pm)

IMG_5493An easier day. Flatter terrain. We wound along the plain beside the range then passed through a gap and lunched “by a billabong under the shade of a coolabah tree”. We made camp early. Rest. This was another long day that we had decided to break into two. Relax. Snooze. Drink tea and soup. William was awarded the masterchef award. He broke out his Everest cake then showed us an extraordinary hook seeded bush he’d found. DSCN0209In the late afternoon together we scramble traversed the narrow ridge line between two gaps nearby.

At least once every day William exclaimed that this was the best walk he had ever been on.

Day 9 Mulga Camp to Simpsons Gap 14km (8.00am 2.30pm)

A long day for us. Gently undulating. The vegetation was always interesting and varied. Packs were light, only lunch and snacks for one day. Arenge Bluff reared up majestic beside the path. Up and down over small rises, along creek beds and through flat mulga country. Chatting then quiet. One foot then the other. Count some steps. Adjust the shoulder straps. Check the map. Look at the everchanging view. Life was simple. We moved in comfort with each other. Treading gently through the country. Nearing our finish we started counting down the trail signs with their distance markers. One at a time. 4km. 3km. I must have missed one. At 1km our spirits soared. We did the last 50m again for the video camera.

What a route. What amazing scenery. Every detail had gone smoothly. Our bodies were sore now but that was ok. We had done it. The privilege of being there and being able to complete our journey was wonderful. For us it had been one of the hardest and longest walks we had done. And by far it had been the very best. A mountainous, gorge-ous walk through the desert ranges and plains of central Aus.

Notes on the walk

  1. All water (from tanks and pools) was purified using micropur tablets or a ceramic filter – we had no upset tummies (some others did).
  2. I would recommend walking west to east for aesthetic reasons. In walking towards the sun the ridges and hills are shadowed which gives the landscape much contrast and texture. If walking the other way the shadows would not be seen ahead so the landscape would constantly appear with a flat light without contrast and texture.
  3. We found water in Hugh Gorge and at Fringe Lilly Creek – this may not be reliable. We did not find water between Birthday Waterhole and Standley Chasm although we had heard there may be some at Stuarts Pass further down the creek line (we didn’t look).
  4. On the hard days the distance doesn’t indicate the difficulties and time necessary. With a light daypack and smaller amounts of water to be carried longer distances could be achieved but there would be less time to immerse and savour the landscape.