Thursday, 29 January 2015

Walking with the weather - Alpine National Park, Victoria

A storm is moving across the high country, coming in from the south-east. Wind clatters through the dead wood of burnt snowgums. The horizon is crazed with lightning bolts as they strike the adjacent ridgeline. Whipcracks of thunder echo around the hills.

We can smell the moisture and lightning-burnt air but the storm swings towards Kelly Hut and we get nothing but a dozen fat drops of rain.  It is a light and sound show - a wild introduction to summer in the Victorian high country, at the end of a lazy day exploring the beauty of the Alpine National Park, near the ski-resort village of Falls Creek.

Just goes to show, even the simplest outing can turn into an adventure, because every journey into nature means stepping out into the unpredictable world of weather.

After an intense 30 minutes of noise and light, the cracking storm begins to drift away eastwards. It is followed by a light blue mist that sinks into our valley from the ridge above us. Then, we catch the smell. The lightning has started a spot fire above us and the mist is in fact smoke. We have pitched our tent already and are halfway through our afternoon cuppa but with the spot fire comes a whole new show to entertain us.

We had parked the car mid-morning at Watchbed Creek Trailhead just outside Falls Creek and walked out 6km to the summit of Mt Nelse. It was nothing short of a perfect high country summer day when we started - brilliant blue sky, puffy white clouds drifting lazily up high on a cool breeze. The alpine flowers were in spectacular bloom; a carpet of white paper daisies (known as hoary sunray (Leucochrysum albicans)) covered the summit of Mt Nelse and trackside on the walk in were patches of billy buttons and golden clustered everlastings. There were a dozen other different flowers that I cannot yet name. I thought; my mother would like this garden. 

There were other groups of walkers, some heading north towards Mt Bogong. There were crazy shirtless guys running the main track in training, we guessed, for the Bogong to Hotham mountain run which was due to be held (but later cancelled) the following weekend. It was a gorgeous day to be out and about. 

After lunch on the summit of Mt Nelse, with views to the Big River valley and across to Mt Wills, we backtracked a few kilometres then turned east towards Johnston Hut. We decided to camp beside Johnston Hut for the night, after covering 9km of easy track walking. The snowgums beside the hut were some of the most beautiful old, gnarly trees we had seen. 

We collected some water, began exploring the nearby Hollonds Creek, but then the storm arrived and after that came the smoke. We watched it rising in a thin column just over the ridge and, to be sure, we located the hut's hydrant and fire blanket. We needn't have worried. Greater forces were being rallied. 

Within 20 minutes a spotter plane flew over and circled twice. Then came one helicopter, then came Kestrel – a water bombing chopper dragging its nozzle across to Rocky Valley Dam and returning time and time again, first to dump water on our nearby blaze and then again to dump three loads on another spot fire down in the Big River valley. We were amazed at the swift response. The choppers circled us a couple of times but fortunately we were not forced to leave the mountains (although a chopper ride might have been fun).

Once the drama subsided, late light broke beneath the clouds and lit up the hills.  It made for interesting hues and shades as it shone across the canopy of old, fire-dead wood, now bleached white as bone and sticking above a dense forest of regrowth. Nearly like snow cover, but in a more silvered, muted way. After the noise of the fire fighting activities the night came in so quietly. We were left alone with the silence and space of our small patch of mountainside. We were left with whatever new weather the night might bring. 

Day two of our adventure brought more insights and encounters but a return of the sunny weather. We left Johnson Hut and walked across to Kelly Hut, just in time for some freshly toasted raisin bread with butter as we gate-crashed the breakfast barbecue of a group of 8 horseriders, all part of a commercial tour across the high country. With 7 pack horses, plus the riding horses, the amount of food on show was astounding to us humble bushwalkers – bacon and eggs, baked beans, toast, fruit and cereal. The group had arrived at Kelly Hut the night before, after the storm had passed over, but reported there was hail still on the ground when they had arrived. 

We left them to their feast and wandered over to Fitzgerald Hut. It is a neat, simple, classic looking hut - beautifully reconstructed in 1993 after being accidently burnt down by a Melbourne school group in 1991. Amongst the snowgums outside the hut flitted our umpteenth Flame Robin. The Victorian Alps is infested with these beautiful little birds and despite so many regular sightings I doubt I'll tire of seeing their brilliant flash of orange amongst the grey green forest. 

Fitzgerald Hut

All in all we only covered about 20km in two days. We never got far from civilisation (there was mobile phone coverage on all the high points around Falls Creek). There was also the comfort of knowing that a hut was always nearby for shelter should the next storm turn wet and nasty or the wind blow too hard or the sun get too hot and the night too cold. Even so, the weather on this trip was the biggest adventure of all – it brought us our drama and challenge and who knows what it will bring us next time we venture out of doors.

All rights reserved. Craig Fardell and Christina Armstrong

As a little extra, we made a video on the smartphone while walking around Falls Creek. You can view it on our new Facebook page…here


  1. Love those snow gums! We had snow for our walk this morning in the South Downs, England.

    1. Hi Sue! So great to hear from you. It must be exciting to be walking (and riding?) in snow again! Little bit jealous. Hope you are settling in back there. We are having a ball on our year of adventure riding, rafting and walking. It's been a pretty full on itinerary so far. We are planning a few blogposts about cycle touring down the track! Say hi to Trevor from us! Cheers, Chrissy and Caz.