Sunday 31 May 2020

Mt Twynam, Mt Tate and the Rolling Grounds - Kosciuszko National Park

The sweeping, grassy hillsides are thick with daisies; their bright, white and yellow faces smiling away as I walk past. There’s an ancient snowgum halfway on the climb to the summit. Its canopy is a storm-swept tangle of twisted branches; its bark has those steely subtle hues of grey and green. As we walk, there are grand views across the range. Ravens are circling distant rocky peaks in huge flocks. Their loud conversation carries on the breeze. The weather is sublime, a sunny day; cool nights are forecast. 

This is how I remember this walk. Sweet memories. I could pour a swirling glass of nostalgia from this walk until I nearly drown in it. The long sunny days and isolated, scenic campsites. 

And, there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia as long as you recognise it as such and as long as you don’t forget to mention the ubiquitous nests of biting crazy ants. How they attacked in huge swarms, covering my legs as I tried to wee. The profuse swearing. Me hopping about, pants down. At the same time, masses of biting march flies trying to draw blood from my bare arse. If it weren’t for my notebook...the challenges would be so easily forgotten. 

But, I did love this walk. We took three nights and four days to explore the Main Range in Kosciuszko National Park - walking from Guthega to Mt Twynam, across to Mt Tate, onto the Rolling Grounds and then back down to Guthega Pondage. And it was a sublime walk. Conditions were perfect, the scenery exquisite. 

You can do this walk (without the diversion to the Rolling Grounds) as a long, full-day loop. Allow about 10 hours. It is better still as an easy overnighter. It’s a great walk for escaping the crowds around Mt Kosciuszko. Starting at Guthega ski resort, take the Illawong track up to the old ski chalet (one of the oldest in the park) then cross the metal swing bridge and head for the hills. And in summer, there really is a carpet of silver daisies and not just one ancient, impressive snow gum but three copses of unburnt, colourful and life-filled snow gum forest. There are magnificent colours on the bark; the dark and light greys, also tinges of pink and yellow. Some of the trees must be astoundingly old and it is such a delight to see ancients, where so much of Australia’s snow gum forests have been irrevocably, and visibly, changed by the 2003 bushfires. Many forests are now just a collection of rattling grey bones with small saplings re-sprouting from the base of burnt trees.

Which brings me back to that glass of tasty nostalgia. The nostalgia is real, because the walk in this blog took place before the devastating 2019/2020 summer bushfires. I wonder, are our mountains, my memories, in ruin? Are those gums still standing?

The walk from the Illawong swing bridge up to Mt Twynam is a good, steady 600m in elevation, ascending along a pretty distinct impact foot-track. There are magnificent views too, looking south-east towards Charlottes Pass and up Spencers Creek and the Snowy River, which is still in its natural state this high on the range. For a short few kilometres, a wild river. 

The foot track climbs in a westerly direction along a wide ridge that divides Twynam Creek and Pound Creek. The track does braid out into nothing when it reaches a high, boggy shoulder on the ridge. Ahead looms the summit and in clear weather, from here, you really can take which ever route you like to the summit. The most common approach, and the gentlest, is to swing left (south-west) and roughly follow the string of rock cairns along the ridge top towards Little Twynam (as the walking now is technically off-track, you should fan out and try not to follow directly in your leaders footprints. Also, try zig zagging up the steep slopes to lessen the pressure under your feet and thus protect the fragile plants and soils that dominate this alpine landscape). Then veer west to the open grassy saddle between Twynam and Little Twynam. A side-trip to the summit of Little Twynam is only a short climb, but I would recommend heading due south a short way to a rocky, grass topped prow that gives spectacular views of the truly beautiful Blue Lake and Hedley Tarn immediately below. 

Mt Twynam is the third highest peak in Australia so expect to see everything from its summit, including way over to Leaning Rock Falls near Geehi Dam, although you may need binoculars for a decent look at that one. The alpine ranges sweep away north and south. What is clear, this high above the treeline, is how dominated by rock these high places are. When walking across the open ranges, they simply appear as random, essential points of relief - they provide the only shade, we sit in them and follow their sun-dial shadows on long lazy afternoons. They act as wind-blocks when we stop for lunch. But, from the high vantage point of Mt Twynam, the white granite boulders that litter the hills stretch away in a unique and distinct band about 1km wide and running north south as far as the treeless high country lets them. 

From the summit cairn on Mt Twynam we followed that band of exposed rock in a NNE direction. The track followed, roughly, the line of an old fence. Metal stays and posts and wires were visible heading north past the indistinct peaks of Mt Anton and Mt Anderson. We had the right time of year (late December) for swathes of Orites on the flanks of Mt Anton in full, extensive bloom; their pretty pale-yellow flowers clustered together and buzzing with insects. Here we also saw our first purple daisies of the season and prolific patches of purple eyebrights, hanging their yellow tongues out to catch sun, wind, pollinators. 

As we had several days up our sleeve, we camped the first night on Mt Twynam and then, for our second night, headed west of Mt Anderson for a secluded camp on the edge of the western fall of the Main Range. Just two hours of walking on Day 2. No wonder I loved this trip! There were clear blue skies the whole time. The breeze was cool but not freezing and brisk at times, but gentle most others. 

We explored a pile of rocks right on the edge of the range - the small peak sported a dozen crows, that noisily took offence as we approached. We explored deep, deep into the caverns and overhangs hidden beneath this massive, jumble of rocks but found no Bogong moths. Saw a wedge tail eagle when we arrived and found a couple of plants new to us. We found a beautiful tiger moth with black and white wings and red hair on its thorax and abdomen. The crows returned, having called a convention. About 50+ of them flew in, circled and then eventually disappeared. 

There was a good water supply just below camp and incredible views to the nearby Watsons Crags. It was easy to spend the day at this isolated spot. I loved watching the large, yellow beetles in the snow grass. They have big domed shells, the shape of ladybirds but much much larger, and when they took flight it was as marvellous as if I were watching Mary Poppins leave my garden. They often landed on us as we walked and there were many of them. 

After sunset, finally, Bogong moths! They had emerged from the rocks and in the gloaming last light the sky was frantic with them. I got a little bit of video but it didn’t work too well. Amazing though. We had already learnt that Bogong Moth numbers were low this year. Once upon a time, at this time of night, the sky would have been black with them.

The next morning was Christmas Day. We woke to a surprisingly warm morning; packed up camp and were walking by 8am. It felt a good, wonderful thing to be doing on Christmas Day. We made our way back over to the main foot pad, stopping to marvel at a large copperhead snake and the miracle that Caz did not step on it. 

The track took us right up onto Mt Tate where we displaced another murder. The crows didn’t go far, sitting on the rocks to the south of us. We stayed quite a long time on the peak and pulled out the map, got our bearings and confirmed peak names.

Then we decided to continue on to the Rolling Ground, or the Granites if we felt like going that far, although after that, for the next night, there was no plan. I sometimes find this discombobulating - it feels less like freedom and more like aimlessness. We left Mt Tate about 10:30am. The walking now got incredibly challenging - the biting flies were increasing, quite prevalent and painful for me. They managed to bite the gap between my shorts and my gaiters and occasionally drew blood. Everywhere we stopped there were crazy ants - lunch, toilet stops, to look at flowers - both feet being infested with the biting buggers. When we had to stop to resupply with water and here the flies became ferocious. 

The flowers however were lovely - we saw our first full bloom everlasting daisies on the approach to Mann Bluff and many after that. Lots of buttercups too and the occasional flowering billy button. Lots of Orites from Mt Anderson to the saddle before Mann Bluff. And lots of lovely white heaths. On the Rolling Grounds, more Alpine Candles.

The Rolling Grounds gave us another cracker of a campsite, near a scenic pile of rocks where the Plum Pine made decorative, zen like arrangements on the granite boulders. Not a person in sight. 

However, while there were plenty of flat grassy campsites they were all, to lesser or greater extent, infested with crazy ants. The whole outcrop was. The tent, once up, became covered. It was also a hot day. Shade was scarce. We found an uncomfortable but cool corner amongst the rocks to wait out the afternoon. The biting flies persisted and by now my knees were aching and red raw with the number of bites. Christmas Day proved, even in the wild, to be the usual roller coaster, bringing joy but requiring some patience. And then Boxing Day was just as it should be. A slow start. Two cups of tea (yay) but we were still walking by just after 8am, heading back to near Stephen Consett Pass to take the return ridge to Guthega Pondage.  We passed another huge copper head snake. We stopped to watch a brown falcon hunting. It passed so close, as it skimmed low over the ground on the lee side of the hills. We passed a spectacular patch of buttercups flowering. The footpad down to Guthega Dam became more and more obvious as it lead unerringly to the prominent point at the end of the ridge where the rocks lean south and the trees lean north. 

As the rocks grew less, the trees grew thicker. The ridge widened and the track meandered downhill past huge fallen, burnt snow gums. Because we were in no hurry, we stopped to find the alpine cicada. It was quite vociferous in some patches of heather and after much chasing and hunting and listening and stalking we found one singing from the very topmost of a sprig of heather and Caz grabbed it. Lovely to actually see one and, they have some nice orange markings on their head. 

The walk down proved lovely; a very easy gradient. And that is the diary talking, not nostalgia. For the ultimate end to this walk, we followed a rough foot track along the edge of Guthega Pondage to reach the flowing, cascading beauty of Guthega River. There is a footbridge across this creek and beyond this a spectacular swimming hole with a small cascade to wash off the sweat and cleanse the memories. It's a great place to grab your water bottle, fill it with icy cold water and drink a swirling dose of mountainous nostalgia.  

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