Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Mt Jaithmathang - Alpine National Park

Forty-seven crows are perched amongst the dead limbs of burnt snowgums. They call back and forth, discussing something more than murder or thievery and from their complex conversation I am sure we are not the only animals with language. It feels like my loss that I cannot understand them but, I never tire of listening to things in nature that I do not understand. 

We are camped near the summit of Mt Jaithmathang in the Alpine National Park in Victoria.  The Jaithmathangs, known previously, and more commonly, as The Niggerheads, is a series of rugged, rocky summits amidst the vast high country plains, west of the ski resort of Falls Creek. The walk to The Jaithmathangs begins at Pretty Valley Pondage, which is about an 8km drive along dirt roads from the Falls Creek village.

We walked out one wet afternoon with low cloud, no scenery, but a promising forecast. It is about 4.5km, following the Fainter Fire Trail, from Pretty Valley to the Tawonga Huts and we spent one night there in the mist and drifting rain. It was good to have access to the Kitchen Hut where we met Simon and Mark, from the Mornington Peninsula, who had lit a warm fire.  We spent the afternoon relaxing with cups of tea and some friendly bushwalking conversation. The boys had walked across from Mt Hotham in a complete whiteout but with whiskey on board. The four of us took turns peeking out the window or the hut door to see if the summit of Mt Jaithmathang had cleared as we prepared dinner and discussed things like weather, pronunciations, and the circling crows.

The next morning, however, brought clear blue skies, and enough early sun to dry our sodden tent before we set off for a little adventure doing a circuit walk around and along the Jaithmathang range. We walked north along the Fainter Fire Trail, another 4km to Little Plain. The track crossed several creeks, coursing with the last three days of rain. There was so much burnt snow gum forest to see, in all directions.  The ground was a carpet of flowering dandelion weeds. But, it was a pretty walk, and easy, a bit muddy in parts although with very little wildlife to see.

According to our SV Bogong Alpine Area map, there is an "undefined walking track" marked from Little Plain across the skyline of the Jaithmathang range and back to Tawonga Huts. However, it is non-existent. At Little Plain we found no hint of a footpad heading towards the mountains and so we made our own way. In some sections it looked as if we were probably following a rough track, or maybe the faint remains of an old road (there was once a mine in one of the gullies here). With such clear weather, blue skies and cloudless, navigation was a matter of following the crows, from one rocky outcrop to the next, from one old burnt tree to the next. 

Packs of black birds wheeled from one rocky outcrop to the next. Their nests littered the dead, bare tops of the snow gums like mistletoe. Each rock outcrop had a flock of 40 or more crows. I don't know what they were debating but they were busy with it. I don't know who was holding order. They called and cawed until there were either too many opinions or too few. 

The walk across the skyline was slow, clambering across the rocks and gullies, but the views were fantastic. It felt like we were the first to discover the best little scenic route in the mountains. Of course we were not, there is plenty out there written about this little range but we still had the place to ourselves. The slow pace of off-track walking also gave us the chance to spot smaller things – clumps of golden everlasting daisies and billy buttons, mountain celery and busy butterflies. I caught the sweet trilling call of a Richard's Pipit and spotted its undulating flight as it moved from boulder to boulder. 

Just before we reached the summit cairn of Mt Jaithmathang we scaled the back slab of one rocky peak and were rewarded with more spectacular views. The western face of the range fell away below us in a jagged series of cliffs, which stepped down steeply to the river valley below. The drop was a rugged contrast to the more gently, rolled hills of the high country. Mt Feathertop was visible across the valley, in the far distance the rugged outline of the Mt Buffalo Range. The Fainters blocked our distant view to the north-west. What else - Mt Hotham, even far away in the other direction to Mt Bogong. After a long, relaxed explore around the rocks we returned to the "track", shouldered our backpacks, and continued to the cairned summit of Mt Jaithmathang. 

There is some controversy in the naming of the place, the changing of the name and the political correctness and cultural relevance of old and new. But, I will leave that discussion for other places - see Bushwalk Forum and another outdoor Australian blog site, Gone Bush Mad. Suffice to say, we met several walkers heading to or from Mt Jaithmathang and none of them could pronounce the new name but all of them whispered the old name in a way that made it seem like they were swearing in polite company.  

On our trip, the mountains belonged to and were being named and called in the language of crows. Black feathers littered the ground. In many spots, I could not count the size of the murder. All day they were rising and roosting, then rising again. They called loudly while in flight and while perching. They were like gangs, armies, senators - facing off across the gullies and outcrops. 

We managed to find a campsite near the top of Mt Jaithmathang but it was a bit of walk down the marked, summit track to collect water. Sleeping up high, though, is always worth the effort. The good weather held all night and the summit camp gave us amazing views of a sublime sunset - a warm, golden gloaming – and an equally beautiful sunrise of pink and pale hues with shadows for contrast, glints of gold on the rocks and barely a breath of wind to disturb us – only the faint gentle draft from the wing beats of a thousand crows as they settled in for the night and finally ran out of things to say. 

In the morning, we upped camp and followed the well-marked summit track down towards Tawonga Huts but at the open saddle we ventured off track again to continue following the ridge top - through a bit of scrub and up onto the grassy and rock strewn ridge to the junction of several tracks - Tawonga Huts Track and the track across to Mt Hotham and our track back to Pretty Valley. And, it was a quieter walk back across the rolling alpine meadows, where a small group of brumbies grazed in the distance and trout fingerlings flicked through the clear stream beneath the track, because although the crows had been conversing since dawn, on the open tops we lost them for the lack of places to perch their thoughts. And, what good is an argument if you have nothing to hang it on?

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  1. Hi there, nice pictures and write up! What is the name of the campsite on Mt Jaithmathung summit? Going there in summer and would like to camp there as well

    1. Hi Chua, sorry about our slow reply to your comment and question but we have been busy travelling and online time is hard to come by. The official campsite for Mt Jathmathang is at Tawonga Huts, which sit just below the summit in a lovely open grassy area. There is a short, marked track from the huts to the summit cairn. Apart from that there are only rough bivvy sites.

      Hope you get up there this summer, it is a beautiful spot. Thanks for dropping by the blog and enjoy the high country.

  2. Amazing post! Followed your facebook too, as I'm a photographer and also avid explorer! Thank you for being a legend! :)

    1. Hi Michelle, thanks for our greatest compliment yet! keep on exploring…