Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Forests, limited views, and lots of brambles: AAWT Walhalla to Rumpff Saddle

And just like that I'm back in Australia, with 2 days to prepare food before heading off on the next section of our Australian Alps epic. It's hard to believe we started this in 2017 with Kiandra to Tharwa and we are still at it. Unfortunately Iain wasn't able to join us for this leg, but Matt was both physically and mentally up for it, so we packed accordingly. I cooked and dehydrated our joint evening meals and we sorted our own breakfasts, lunches and snacks and beverages. Matt had also decided to buy a new, lighter tent. More on that later.

As mentioned in my last post, my ski bag didn't arrive on the same flight with me. Luckily I had sent ahead, either from NZ or from Perth, almost all the camping gear I would need for the trip. Aside from my raingear (which also double as ski touring shells) and my ski poles, I was OK, but just in case I went and bought some walking poles. The night before we were due to leave, the bag showed up. Whew!!

Nothing is simple when planning an AAWT section walk, and getting to and from it requires prior planning. We were starting this walk at Walhalla, which is the southern terminus, but there's no public transport to get there. Thankfully there's now a Track Angel group. and after posting our request on FB, the wonderful Tis Mel offered to drive us up there from Traralgon. 

We were finishing the walk at Rumpff Saddle, which is near the Jamieson Licola Road, a dirt alpine road that is literally in the middle of nowhere. Since we were driving from Canberra we decided to get a pickup from Rumpff Saddle that would drop us off in Mansfield, on the western side of the mountains. Why Mansfield? Because we could drive there, leave the car there and take a bus to Melbourne and a train to Traralgon. Yeah, it's complicated...

Shuttles organised, deposits made, V-line tickets purchased, motel room in Traralgon booked, just one hiccup. V-line trains were going on strike all day! Luckily not the buses, so we were able to leave early on Friday morning, drive down to Mansfield, enjoy a nice breakfast in Gundagai and lunch in Mansfield, jump on an aircon bus, and arrive in Melbourne just when the train strike was due to finish.

I looked after the bags at Southern Cross Station whilst Matt headed in to Little Collins St to pick up his new tent. We bought ourselves a snack then waited for our train to Traralgon to leave. Some real bogans on that train line...

We checked in at the Comfort Inn, and Matt headed out to buy us a celebratory, and final, refreshment before we hit the sack. It had been quite a scorcher, and the next day was also forecast to be rather warm.

Day 1: Walhalla to O'Shea Mill campsite

We had breakfast at the Comfort Inn in Traralgon then waited for Mel to pick us up for the drive out to Walhalla. She works at the railway station so regularly takes hikers to the start of the trail. A real gem. It also turns out we have mutual acquaintances.

The town is spread up the narrow valley with old buildings from its gold mining boom days lining each side of the street. A tiny stream flows down to join the Thompson River. I had planned to have a coffee at the local cafe, but that was right down the bottom of the town, and I didn't fancy walking all the way back up again, so I went and filled up my water bladder and we headed off.

From the old bandstand, steps lead up to an old tramway and we follow that back down the valley, high above the houses, and past the old gold mine. It's a warm day. We alternate between open dry forest and wet fern gullies which are mercifully cool.

Southern start of the track

The old Poverty Point bridge is still closed for repairs, so we made our way down the very steep Mormon Town track to the road bridge over the Thompson River and then headed upriver on the true right. By now it's real hot, and exhausting, and I'm really struggling. Day 1 and I'm already feeling like it's type 2 fun! I'm questioning if I should continue with the walk. 

My body felt sore and shattered. Matt said he was struggling as well, but he's managing better than me. It ended up taking us just over 3 hours from Walhalla to Poverty Point bridge, but we managde to find some meagre shade to have lunch and then took the small track down to the river for a swim. The water was icy cold, so I wasn't in long, but it did a great job of cooling me down. By the time I'd walked back up the hill though, I was hot again!!

Freezing cold but oh so refreshing...

We set off again just before 2:30, for what was a trudging uphill all the way to Thompson River Road at the crest of the hill. That climb was almost the undoing of me. I took a few rests, survived crawling through some windthrow, and at last made it to the top. Then it's a mostly downhill amble to the campsite. It took us almost as long to walk the final 5 kms as it took us to walk the first 9.5!!

There was another couple camping there, having started at Baw Baw and walking to Walhalla. They had an easier day walking down hill from Mushroom Rocks.

Not flattering, but very accurate...

I'm shattered, but after dinner and a swim in the plunge pool at the camp site I'm feeling like giving tomorrow a go. It's going to be a right slog. 1100 m elevation gain over 12 kms.

Spectacular waterfall and plunge pool at O'Sheas Mill campsite

Day 2: O'Sheas Mill site to Talbot Hut site

We got up and got away early, a little after 8 am. After crossing the creek the track began to ascend and it did that for the entire day. Initially it was an easy gradient and we were commenting that it could do with being a bit steeper to even out the ascent over the full distance. Aren't we the clowns? We had 1100m to climb over 11km.

The track was through thick forest and it wasn't anywhere near as hot as yesterday. We were thankful the track had been cleared last year, as it would have been tough otherwise. The gradient got steeper as we neared Mt Erica Road, taking about 2 hours to reach from the campsite. We took a break there and put out the solar panel to charge our phones before heading up the road a few kms to the first carpark.

We left our packs hidden and took the Monarch's walk, which showcased a patch of mountain ashes that had avoided being destroyed by bushfires and were thought to be over 300 years old.

Back at the carpark we had lunch and used the solar panel again, before heading along the road to the top carpark. This was the only flat section all day.

There were quite a few cars in the carpark so we expected to see some people on the track. The track climbed steadily through to Mushroom Rocks. We checked out the big rock shelter there before continuing on.

The climb up to Mt Erica was a little steeper in sections but with lots of breaks we made it to the top. We met a group of 4 heading down to Mushroom Rocks who gave us some intel on water and told us there were a few people camped at Talbots already.

The last bit down to Talbots was the only real down hill of the day and there were heaps of people camped there. We managed to find a spot for our tents, but being a long weekend, it was quite a crowded site.

Then we had to get water, from a barely trickling stream. Thank goodness for the water filter, though I needed to back flush it a few times due to the sediment. It's a 2 hour walk to the next water so we needed to filter enough for tomorrow as well.

Then back to camp to make dinner, then bed.

Day 3: Talbot Hut Site to Whitelaw Hut Site.

Both huts were part of a tourism venture back in the early 20th century to encourage walkers and horse riders to travel across the Baw Baw Plateau. Unfortunately the huts burned down in 1939 so there's just concrete fireplaces left. Since the whole area is a campfire free zone, it's a little disappointing to see people have been having fires in the fireplace.

A huge exodus from camp this morning, being Monday of the long weekend. We got going just after 9, heading along the ridge line all day. A little up and down, but not too much, until we arrived at Rock Shelter. We dumped the packs and took our lunch up to Mt Gwinear, which afforded some views. We haven't had much in the way of views with all the snow gums everywhere. 

Good to see such healthy snow gum forest

Rock Shelter, at the turnoff to Mt St Gwinnear

We got some more water at the nearby soak and then continued along the ridge. Up and over Mt St Phillack, the tallest mountain on Baw Baw, then over a few more hillocks. Many short steep downs and ups with small boggy saddles between. We passed two day hikers on their way to Gwinear from Baw Baw Village, but otherwise no one else.

Nicest water source across the plateau

Mt St Phillack

After the turnoff to Baw Baw Village the track deteriorated with a lot more scratchy bush to push through, not great when wearing shorts. The track remained visible though so no navigation issues. 

This bit of track looks fine!

Matthew was having all sorts of issues charging his phone. Firstly he doesn't turn the screen off so it's using battery all the time unnecessarily. Then he has a MagSafe charger because the plug port doesn't work, and the MagSafe charger is really inefficient so he isn't getting much charge when we put the solar panel out. To add to the problem he has a crappy old power bank that doesn't hold much charge anymore. Of course he should have sorted out the port charging, particularly as the phone is only a year old, though he probably bought it second hand off someone, 🤷‍♀️. We probably should have worked out whether the MagSafe charger would work with the solar panel because often they need a higher voltage, and not all MagSafe chargers are equal. He is such a liability because he doesn't mention these sorts of issues beforehand so you just get dumped with them on the trip. Last year, on our Hotham to Thredbo walk, we had needed to use our phones a lot for navigation, a task both Iain and I shared. With Matt's phone unreliable, it was up to me. and with rain forecast for Wednesday/ Thursday I wasn't in a position to sacrifice my power bank to Matt's inefficient charger. Rant over....

We got to Whitelaw Hut Site around 4 pm. The soak down in the valley was barely flowing but was nicer water than that at Talbot. After a wash we had dinner and then an early night as we had a lot of kms to cover tomorrow.

Look how much stuff you can pack into a backpack!

Day 4: Whitelaw Hut site to Thompson River Campsite

After enjoying a lovely sunrise, we got away just before 8. The first part of the track hadn't been cleared recently so we were crashing through the bushes encroaching the track. The track was still easy to follow, but we had learned from yesterday and both wore long pants.

The track climbed up to sidle near the summit of Mt Whitelaw and then stayed on ridges before descending to a well cleared track. Back into shorts, we followed that trail all the way to Stronachs Camp. We passed through small stands of mountain beech, which reminded me of NZ, and said goodbye to the snow gums, descending back into Blackbutt forest.

Shorts time

the last of the snow gums

Different trees as we lose altitude

We walked up the road to get more water, and have lunch, before heading back along the road in the opposite direction to join a track up to join a fire trail. The track was quite overgrown with a bit of tree scrambling required, but only a couple of times did we have to look a bit harder to find the track. Lots of blackberries, so we stopped to sample some. Small but sweet.

Once on the fire trail we meandered along until a very long and steep descent off Trig Point. Quite slippery, and not fun for the feet.

Doesn't look anywhere near as steep as it actually was

At last we reached a small gravel road, which we followed until joining the Thompson Jordan Divide Rd. This followed the Thompson River, past Easton Weir, and then we headed down a side track to cross the Thompson River on a log bridge, to our campsite. Not two minutes before turning down that track a car passed us on the road. Not quite back in civilisation!

The campsite had been cleared of blackberries, but they were growing back, so finding a flat spot without thorns was a challenge. Hopefully I have an intact airbed in the morning.

The same Thompson River we swam in on day 1, still cold!

The first thing we did on arrival was get in that river. I went in fully clothed and washed all the sweat off everything as I stripped naked. Both of us put our tents up whilst our bodies air dried, but soon the bitey insects meant donning long sleeves and pants again.

It was nice to have lots of good water nearby, to be able to fill up water for what we need and just get more later. It was a long day, though, and 20 kms, so we were both ready for bed soon after dinner. A shorter day tomorrow and expecting a small amount of rain.

Day 5: Thompson River Campsite to Red Jacket

We had some rain overnight so we packed up wet tents and walked most of the day in overcast conditions with occasional showers. We put our ponchos on at one point, but not for long.

The climb up from Thompson River was steep and pretty relentless, bulldozers shouldn't be allowed to build fire trails straight up a hill! At least it was easy to follow!

We climbed Little Easton then Mt Easton, and saw a lyrebird. We continued to follow a ridge line before dropping down Casper Creek Track to Red Jacket Track. That track was also very steep and extremely unpleasant walking down. I slipped and fell on my arse once, but otherwise the only casualty was our feet.
We then followed the Jordan River upstream. Everywhere was choked with blackberries so not much access to the river.

Down, down, down

Still going down

We stopped in at Blue Jacket, nothing to see and not much of a campsite, then continued on. We didn't do every historic marker but we went to the church site, the old Chinese joss house, the post office and the pub. Nothing remains of what were sizeable communities, because all the buildings burned down in the 1939 bushfires.

We crossed the bridge and set up camp where O'Keefe's Pub used to be. It's right by the river so a swim and water resupply were top of the list. And drying clothes before the forecast rain tomorrow.
After dinner we headed back up the road to check out the cemetery.

Day 6: Red Jacket to Bobs Hut

It took us a ridiculously long time to get our shit together and get packed up, given we had dried our clothes and prepared all the extra water we would need to carry last night. There was good ground to dig a hole near the cemetery. Unfortunately lots of barely concealed toiletting had been done on this side of the river where the ground was too rocky and the verges covered in blackberries. It had rained a bit overnight so we packed up wet tents again, setting off around 9:30. 

The climb up Victor Spur was steep, but very pretty, through old growth forest, possibly some more mountain ash, but enshrouded in clouds the whole way. This meant no views, but kept us from getting too hot.

We broke out onto the road again and a few minutes later met a fire management chap driving down the road who stopped to chat. He told us there was a private hut on the Bobs Spur track that we could stay in, which was a km or so before Fiddler's Green and had a water tank. We suggested he let the powers that be know that a public toilet at Red Jacket might be a good idea. It's a water catchment area, and containing the faeces in one place might be a better option than the current situation.

The weather stayed overcast, and even got a bit windy whilst we were walking along the Walhalla Matlock Road, so we both walked with our jackets on. First time all trip that we've felt a bit cold.
It wasn't far along Mt Selma Rd to the turnoff to the hut. It's actually on the recommended route, but not mentioned in my edition of Chapmans book.

Neither of us felt any need to continue on to the campsite, as it was cold, cloudy and wet. Instead we could stay in a dry, admittedly rat infested, hut. The hut was pretty shabby, but had a tank with water ( we still filtered it) plumbed in to a sink. Tables and chairs, beds with mattresses. No loo though.

We got into dry clothes and spent the afternoon exchanging travel stories. Matt told me all about his trip through Africa, which I'd never really heard in any detail. That used up a few hours.

The Inreach hadn't been tracking in the morning but my phone had stayed using gps so I suddenly discovered it was down to 20% charge. I got the Inreach working and closed the app on my phone, and used up most of the rest of my power bank charging my phone. Hopefully we get sun tomorrow. The Inreach and Fitbit have enough charge to get us through two more days so we should be sweet.

Day 7: Bobs Hut to Black River

We set off after a cosy night in the hut. Even though it was a cold one, we were warm and comfy. No scuttling rodents, though we hung our food bags preemptively.

We set off about 8:30, along the road to rejoin Mt Selma Rd and we stopped to check out the campsite at Fiddlers Green. There we met Laura, a solo SOBO walker, walking long days but still doing diversions and enjoying the pace she was going. She's probably got 3 more days before she'll be done.

We continued on, stopping about 10 when we found a good spot to throw the solar panel out and get some things charged. I put the power bank on and Matt his phone. The power bank didn't charge much but Matt's phone got up to 25%, enough for him to take some photos and use the maps.

We waited an hour for things to charge, and in that time a group of 4 walked up. They were doing the whole track end to end and had left on Monday, so were doing much longer days than us. They too said they were taking longer than Chapman's times, but they were still 2 days ahead of us. They were planning to camp at Black River tonight as well, and Rumpff Saddle tomorrow for a food drop.

They continued on, as did we after our hour of charging, and we caught up with them where the turnoff onto Champion Spur left Mt Selma Rd. We headed off ahead, again on 4WD tracks, until stopping for lunch where the start of the Black River Track turned off. It was another good spot for solar charging, this time I did the Inreach and phone, getting them up into the high 70s.

The Gang of Four turned up, or rather the two fellows, and completely missed the turnoff and it was only because we were there and told them, that they waited for the girls. The girl walking the slowest is the trip leader and also seems to be the navigator. I see potential issues ahead if the fast guys aren't observant enough and zoom past the track junctions.

They headed off down the track ahead of us this time. We caught up with them again where they had stopped for lunch and we continued down the track which got very steep and tough on the feet.
After a while I wanted to take a break so I called out to Matt who was well ahead and he waited for me to catch up. But it was so steep there was nowhere to rest, so I continued slowly on until finding a spot where the track flattened out a bit and you could sit on the side bank and take the pressure off our feet. Plus it was in the shade. 

We knew we were almost at the bottom and on checking the map we appeared to have just overshot the turnoff. Right enough it was just above us and easily missed if you weren't looking for it because there was a small log across the track. But there were undeniable track markers, so off we went, through recently cleared thickets down to the river. We followed a faint foot track alongside the river until crossing on a log bridge. Then the track climbed high, sidled along, went down, went up again, sidled steeply. We lost the track at some point but found it again pretty quickly, and continued the steep sidle, this time following lots of blue marker tape.

The track came out onto the very rutted N19 road which we dropped down to the river on and took the boots off to wade across in our crocs. Very refreshing.

We climbed up the rutted track to the campsite, but decided to continue on to the third supposed campsite across the river. We descended down another foot pad to the river and crossed on another log bridge. There were blackberries everywhere and no sign of a suitable campsite. We were still in crocs so we waded on along the blackberry strewn track beside the river looking for options. We dropped the packs and looked a bit further along, I waded across and looked on the other side. Nothing.

Matt had picked up some leeches so he'd put his shoes and socks back on whilst I was investigating the other side of the river, so I suggested he head back to the campsite at the top of the small hill and scope out a place for us before the others took over. We'd learnt the hard way on our Thredbo to Kiandra walk, that not all people are mindful of others when it comes to campsites, so we wanted to get in first. I put my shoes and socks back on, flicking off a couple of inquisitive leeches and then headed back as well, stopping at the river to fill up the water bladder, then up the small hill.

The others hadn't arrived yet so we took the best spot, pitching both our tents pretty close to each other so there would be room for the others at what was a pretty small site.

We had a cup of miso and assessed our water supplies then headed down the rutted track to the river as it was a much nicer spot for getting water. Matt had a swim, I just had a small wash and then we headed back to camp for dinner.

The others hadn't turned up by the time we went to bed. I'm assuming they missed the turnoff that we almost missed, and even if the ones behind saw it, would they know the others had missed it? We hope they are fine, all together, and found somewhere decent to camp the night. Maybe we will see them again tomorrow.

Day 8: Black River to Rumpff Saddle

We woke at 6 in order to get away at 8. We managed to be gone by about 8:15. Off we went, back down to the log crossing and through the blackberries and then the climb began. I soon removed my outer layers (trousers for the blackberries, jacket cos it was cold) for the long ascent to Mt Shillinglaw. There was a steep descent to a saddle along the way, but it was mostly uphill. Nice big trees along the way, the usual ferns and other undergrowth.

We only stopped for short periods on the way up, arriving at the summit at 11. Not bad for about 800m of ascent. No views again, but the sun was out, so we stopped for lunch and to charge devices.

Since the clouds kept coming over and obscuring the sun we didn't delay moving on, and were soon down on the Licola Jamieson Road walking north. A few cars passed, not many, so hitchhiking may not have been as straightforward as someone on the Facebook page had suggested.

The road was pretty good gravel, definitely doable in a 2wd. We met a group of 3 that Laura had told us about and chatted with them, then onwards we went.

The climb up to Skene Lookout was exhausting, because there was a lot of wood across the track that needed to be climbed over or under. I suspect a lot of walkers bypass this section, opting to walk the 4WD track instead which hugs the contours and also has options for water resupply. It wasn't overly steep, but energy sapping. There was lots of cow dung and we spooked some cattle.

The lookout had limited views, but the sun was out so the panel got a workout and we found some shade and took off our shoes and socks for an hour or so. I had picked up a leech earlier in the day, which must have dropped off once sated, but when I took off my gaiters found a congealed bloody mess on my leg. Lovely!

We continued on about 4pm for the final few kms to our rendezvous at the 3 way junction on Barkly Jeep Track. We got there just before 5 so I messaged Jarrah then we had a miso soup each, checked out the nearby campsite, changed out of sweaty clothes into a warmer merino and down jacket, and of course took our shoes off. The temperature plummeted pretty quickly once the sun began to fade but right on 6:45 Jarrah turned up. Just beforehand our 4 hikers from yesterday did too. They had camped down at the river at the end of the road, so I suspect they had initially missed the turnoff and decided not to continue on that evening. I gathered it hadn't been a satisfactory campsite with lots of blackberries. They'd then retraced their steps and walked the same route as us, but their day had been considerably longer given we had done that Black River sidle the day before. We were glad to see they were all in one piece.

Jarrah turned up in a 4WD and gave us a cold beer as we loaded in our packs. We headed off along the extremely scenic drive, stopping a couple of times to take photos of the view and the sun setting.
Jarrah is a ski instructor at Hotham, is now head of training and has been to two Interski events so we have many acquaintances in common. He's also a good friend of Phil's. Small world! Made for lots of conversation on the 2 hour drive back to Mansfield. By the time we got to Mansfield we had become FB friends!!!

We wandered around town, but being 9 pm there was nowhere to get a feed so we grabbed some beers from the bottle shop and drove out to Lake Nillahcootie where we parked up near the toilets, heated up some butter chicken Matt had in the van, made up the beds and crashed for the night. On the way out I suddenly realised I had forgotten to put my poles into Jarrah's car at Rumpff Saddle. Bummer!!!

The next morning we drove back to Canberra, with breakfast in Benalla and lunch in Gundagai. I'm glad I didn't give up on Day 1, but it wasn't my favourite section of the walk. The walk over the Baw Baw plateau was probably the highlight of the trip, but I missed those big open views that have been a huge part of the appeal of walking across Australia's high country.

Breakfast in Benalla, yum!

Our final section will be all high country, mostly ridge walking, from Rumpff Saddle through to Hotham. It may even be the most scenic section yet. Hopefully, that's next year, and all three of us can do it together.

A final footnote: I posted on the Facebook page that I had left my poles at Rumpff Saddle and a lady doing a food drop pickup kindly brought them out. Although she lives in Gippsland she has family in Canberra, so my ski poles should make their way back to Canberra by the end of winter so I can pick them up on my way through to Japan. Gotta love the internet when it works for you.

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