‘Up the Creek’ may well be a fitting title to the documentary about this expedition. I write this with icy fingers, aching back, blistered feet and not a small dose of humility. Let’s start with the positives, I found the Source of the Murray! And that’s no mean feat, I’ll have you know, with weeks of heavy rain and some timely snow prompting the original Source (the one marked with a less than exciting ‘if-it’s-not-on-the-highway-then-who-cares’ metal pole by surveyors) further uphill. There’s actually no way of exacting the Source in conditions like these, but I managed to find two creeks seeping through undergrowth and finally merging, so I chose the first spot that had about a foot of width and flow to it and there, that was my Murray Source. Filming a documentary about this expedition, and having trekked over 40km through mountains to find the trickle, I deemed it necessary to do some filming. This was limited, however, by some really inconsiderate snow, and rain, and more snow. It all served to put me off somewhat, and embarrassingly, being the only person around for at least 100km, there I was, walking in into shot, straddling a barely visible pool of rippling water, and then doing my David Attenborough impression. About twenty times.
The Source of the Murray
So, the Source has been claimed! Up until then a pair of innate phobias had claimed my positive mental attitude. I hate walking, and I don’t like backtracking. Thus, even with a goal in sight as romantic as the Source of a mighty river, here I was hiking through mountains with a bag heavier than a car, and weighing even more so was the thought that as soon as I found the Source I’d have to walk back again. Quite miserable I was. Then it started to snow, so of course I was further polarised with a beanie hat full of cold, cussing ears, and a pair of eyes witnessing an ever-whitening wonderland.
It may have been pretty, but weather conditions that swing from sun to rain to snow blizzard in the space of half an hour serve to remind one that being alone in the mountains is not wise. I don’t recommend it at all, whoever you think you are, just look at the figures of people who have gone for a hike and never come back. No sense of adventure, no supposition of experience nor any given reason gives a pass for this kind of thing. Nobody cares how brave you were, how lucky, how prepared, what sights you saw. If your life is taken nobody cares, you just become stupid and irresponsible, and lost. As soon as the snow began to fall I began to tread more carefully, take more notice, appreciate the little things. It wasn’t quite touch and go, but the signs for a survival struggle were on, downhill comes very fast when you’re exposed to the elements so I wrapped up tight, kept the brolly up as an extra defence, and stayed warm as I trotted. This wasn’t some ramblers paradise, the last person to stay at the closest hut (Tin Mine) left on the 23rd September, so if I were to fall, break an ankle, wait for a passer-by. Well, they’d find a very still me.
Tin Mine Huts on Wednesday 7th October
When I set out from Dead Horse Gap, a low mountain pass not far from the Thredbo ski resort in the Australian Alps, the ground was dry. Rumours of snowfall were confirmed only by small patches of ice, which disappeared further up the path. Two days later, once I’d reached the Murray Source and then trekked back 16km to Tin Mine Huts, the snow was half a foot deep. A night of shivers awaited, staved off only by a roaring fire that could do little about the draft infiltrating the main hut.
The next morning was White Out. The snow had continued to fall overnight, and was still coming down. I went outside, and I sunk to my shins. Aching from the previous day’s 32km, I decided it was wise to stay put. The dark clouds were low, mist hung in the valley, if something happened to me here, beside a wide plain perfect for a helicopter landing, still no one would come. If I lost myself somewhere between here and Cascades Hut in the middle of the Wilderness, I’d be dead. I stayed. I slept. I remained in my sleeping bag for much of the day, slipping in and out of dreams.
Another night went by and the strength was back. The snow was still falling but the depth seemed to have changed little overnight, if I waited this could continue for days, weeks. I packed, and left. It was a slog. 15.8km took me nine hours, my boots saw nothing, they were submerged but for rare occasions. What beautiful mountains, and I wasn’t alone. Brumbies, these wild horses of the hills, dark and healthy with gleaming coats and a majestic command of the forests and plains, now and then I’d lift my head to see a horse stood there, staring back, all seventeen hands of it rippling with muscle. For a bloke who lives in the English countryside horses are not unnatural, but they’re kept. To see them out here living off the land, rulers of their own kind, it is energising. To some in Australia they’re pests, cutting up the ground with their wanton hooves, but I could have stared for hours, they’re magnetic, yet I still couldn’t quite grasp why I was now fascinated by these creatures, after all, a Brumby is just a horse without a postcode.
My day was finally done. Cascades Hut on Monday morning was dry, warm, surrounded by green and brown. Now it was white. Only 9.4km to go, but for now I would rest, tonight would be my last in the hills.
Cascades Hut on Monday 5th October, with Gemma and Carlee Dodds
Cascades on Thursday 8th October
The Kosciusko Huts Association do an excellent job of maintaining a series of shelters throughout the region. They’re not intended for sleepovers, there’s no electricity or carpet for example, but when you need shelter nothing beats an earth floor, walls and a roof. For safety’s sake the fireplaces (always well stocked with wood and naturally supplemented by anyone who uses it) are wide, but this invites in the draft. Even Cascades Hut, 9ft by 13ft, was too large to feel the effects of the fire throughout, and small spaces around the wall planks and door were merciless against the blizzard which howled up outside. My night, as the previous three, was not straight-through. Constantly waking, shivering, slowly slipping in and out of delirium
As Shackleton had, I was dangerously close to hypothermia and fatigue was setting in to create the company of ‘The Fourth Person’, a presence commonly known when explorers/adventurers/anyone experiencing an element of hardship experiences the company of another who isn’t actually there. Like a lucid dream, The Fourth Person tends to be a guide through a particular, usually tricky experience. I had a few of my own Fourth Person moments this week, old friends, my girlfriend, brother, walking around in the hut offering my food, advice. At one point my Fourth Person was a horse who had kindly brought me not one, but two kayaks. How grateful I was to my equine friend, and how disappointed when the next morning I woke to find a kayak-less hut. That a horse had delivered them didn’t even cross my mind.
The 9km from Cascades Hut to Dead Horse Gap (freedom!) begins with a 4km steep haul to the track ‘summit’, Bob’s Ridge. The path was gone, the snow was knee-high much of the way, and with my pack back to full weight I was a shell of a man. Recent storms had scattered trees across the path, some at precarious angles and now, covered in snow, I was taking part in my very own endurance Krypton Factor to even move a few metres. It took four and a half hours to reach Bob’s Ridge and as I saw the sign my heart leapt. Ironically, with each step closer I sunk deeper in, until I was just stood there up to my waist, wondering just what the hell I was doing. Just four and half kilometres to go now, I zoned, and trudged.
A single pair of ski tracks hinted at the presence of someone else perhaps a day earlier, and they kept me on track with no other signs of the track remaining. The mind playing tricks, I kept seeing footprints, enormous foot-shaped holes 20 inches long. ‘Must be snowshoes’ I told myself, although there were no tracks in the opposite direction. Once the woods had opened up to a wide plain in the bed of the valley the snow became deeper and despite the lack of shelter I kept stopping and looking around, searching for a glimpse of the obviously giant monkey-like creature that had created the tracks. I needed to get to the car park, and did so at 3pm, some 8 hours after I’d left Cascades. Utter relief, and it didn’t take long for a car to pick me up and drop me in Thredbo. The best warm shower of my life.
Pictures and Expedition Details @ http://www.thegreatbigpaddle.com
Please donate @ http://www.justgiving.com/greatbigpaddle