On the map, Licola is the last dot on the south-western edge of the Alpine National Park. Somehow our imaginations conflated this into an alpine hub on the edge of the mountains, when in fact, it is a green, beautiful, but very tiny village centred around a general store. Just out of Licola are a series of campgrounds along the Wellington River, 14 in total, each with plenty of spots to pitch a tent. My partner Lachy and I set up ours at no. 5, Manna Gum Camp, which was far enough off the road and had easy access to the river. All night we only heard one car go past, and even that was a surprise.
The sun was already behind the rocky hills when we made camp, but it stayed light for a couple of hours more, until we brought our stew into the car to eat and to escape the moths flitting around our head torches. When we stepped out again, the sky was bright with the Milky Way.
Although we had woken up on our usual city clocks, we fell asleep early with the darkness. It’s a beautiful feeling to wake up without an alarm because the light has subtly changed, and hear the insects waking all around you. Apparently I had slept through the sniffing and pacing of some creature outside our tent in the night.
We drove up into the mountains along the gravel road that hugs spurs and then unfurls through the Howitt Plains. Two hours or so later we parked up in the Howitt Car Park under snow gums. In the Intentions Book we noted down our planned route and cast our eyes over the previous authors from all over Australia and New Zealand, who’d triumphantly printed RETURNED.
The walk out from the car park to Macalister Springs is a simple one – signposted, well-trodden and relatively easy going. At this time of year, each footstep sends ripples of grasshoppers scattering through the grass. At Mac Springs, an angular wooden composting toilet sits on the edge of the ridge, with a wide window overlooking the mountain range – the best view from a drop dunny in Australia, surely. Just down the slope is the Macalister Hut, another surprising and stunning piece of architecture, and no doubt a comfortable place to spend a night or two. Within, a logbook holds notes from the hut’s many guests. One of the more recent entries, from the Murderers & Sadists group, recounted how the group of hikers witnessed their friend’s slow death from MSG. The next was a list of Catholic school group members, punctuated by hearts.
After fiddling with an old piece of pipe that previous hikers had used to channel the slow-running creek high enough to fill a bottle, we restocked on water and continued on to the summit of Mt Howitt. The views of layers of bluish mountains like a watercolour painting are so prevalent along this route, you almost become used to them. We descended from Mt Howitt along a tricky narrow path. I hadn’t done an overnight hike in 10 years at least, and my out-of-practice legs shook all the way down – fortunately tough boots saved my ankles from twisting too badly.
We rounded Big Hill and reached the campsite at Mt Magdala. This place is unlike anything I’ve seen before – it glows. The grass is soft underfoot, there are rosellas in the snow gums, and the whole site, despite being alone atop a ridge, feels sheltered. Even when a thick grey bank of cloud crossed the sky and the storm broke, our tent barely rattled. It was so silent, and when the storm passed over, the rocky outcrop of Big Hill was lit up rosy pink.
There was one flaw to this apparent paradise. Soon after we arrived, we dropped our packs and followed the steep trail down to the creek, our steps strangely springy without our packs weighing us down. When we reached Hellfire Creek we found it was appropriately named – dry as hell itself, not even a trickle.
We went back up to the campsite and took stock of our options. Most of our food was dehydrated, but we had protein bars, nuts and fruit that we could survive on for the night. We had three litres of water and another 10km to walk before we reached any, with a forecast of 30 degree heat the following day. We could hike back to Macalister Springs and get there just after dark, or continue on and change our route to the King Billy Hut so that we could fill up on water there, but that would be no shorter.
We decided the easiest thing to do would be to ration our water, eat protein bars for dinner and hike the next 10km first thing in the morning. The creamy pasta pictured on the packet of freeze-dry food had never looked so appetising as we munched on tasteless nut and berry bars. When the storm passed overhead, we set out all our bowls, pans and cups and got into the tent feeling hopeful. Sadly it wasn’t much of a storm, and we each had only about two sips of what must have been the freshest water we’d ever drunk.
In the morning we woke with the dawn, broke camp quickly and headed up the steep slope to the King Billy ridge. Fuelling ourselves on nuts and sweets, we reached the 4WD track that would lead us down the mountain about an hour and a half later. Although the downhill slope wasn’t as hard on my unfit lungs, after 6km my feet were humming from the concussion of the rocky 4WD track, and we stopped more than once to rest our feet.
All the way down the mountain, sharing our last two litres of water, we were dreaming of an open, rushing river like that which we had camped beside on our first night, where we would fill our water bottles, cook a big meal, maybe even have a swim. We almost didn’t realise when we had reached it, tucked into a densely vegetated gully at the edge of the track. We kept ploughing ahead until we finally accepted that this wasn’t just a creek, but the Macalister River we had been waiting for. Fortunately there was plenty of water, though it wasn’t the idyll we had expected. We cooked our creamy pasta at last. I don’t think I had ever known the meaning of wolfing down a meal until that lunch.
All along the gully we had been noticing fallen trees collapsed into the river or leaning against the gully’s edge like gravestones. I wondered aloud what it would be like to see a tree fall. As I stood in the river to fill my water bottle, I heard a creaking overhead, and then a CRACK. A branch splashed into the river beside me, scraping me as it dropped.
We had been passed at this point by a few 4WDs and found that the track beside the river was narrow, with no place to camp. Since this was our first hike in however long, we had only set ourselves 10km a day to walk, but it was still only 2pm and we didn’t really feel like calling it a day yet. So we decided we would keep going, following the next day’s planned route, until we found a good place to camp. After the soft footing, gentle breeze and beautiful views of the ridgeline, we were becoming less and less impressed with the dense ferns and oppressive heat in the valley, so once we started walking up, we just kept going. Several hours and many breaks later, we reached the snow gum line, and soon afterwards our car.
We were halfway through our collective six litres of water once again, so we drove to the Howitt Hut where an older map told us there would be water. Unfortunately the tank was stickered with a warning not to drink – it was only suitable for the horses penned there. We cooked our dinner anyway with some of our river water and made camp overlooking the Howitt Plains.
The following day, still recovering from mild dehydration and, let’s be honest, pretty damn tired, we drove back down to the Wellington River to restock on water and make breakfast. We passed through Licola and bought an adventure map to figure out what to do with our last day, since walking was effectively out of the question. There was an unsealed road from Licola to Jamieson on the other side of the High Country, about 92km in length, so we decided to follow it and camp near Lake Eildon. In our partially-dehydrated state the day before a 4WD driver had passed us sipping a cold can of lemonade, and we’d promised ourselves we’d each down a can of lemonade the second we had a chance. In Licola we finally got to drink more than we needed. What a luxury.
The drive was beautiful, but when you aren’t on foot so much passes beneath your notice. We tracked through the mountains in a few hours, then drove around the mostly-dry Lake Eildon for a while before returning to Grannys Flat campground on the Jamieson River.
This was a completely different kind of camping. Here, whole families had brought marquees, barbecues, chairs, tables, even rakes. When we went out gathering twigs to make a fire for some marshmallows, we were offered some proper firewood by another camper (shocked by our gatherer methods), but when we went to drop off our twigs, we found that someone else had already given us a stack of wood to burn. Lachy had to go and tell the first camper that we already had some, and he replied that if we wanted any bigger stuff, we should come to him.
Dehydrated food didn’t seem quite as appealing without a day of hiking in front of it, but we watched trout drifting in the river and a wallaby grazing on the far bank until the sun went down. By lunchtime the following day we were back in Melbourne.
There’s no moral to this story – I suppose I learned that I was physically capable of much more than I had anticipated. Even being out of shape, I found that I could just keep pushing on, and then food tasted so much better, and I slept so much more soundly because of it. It’s easier than you might expect to get out there and hike and camp and be self-reliant. As long as you have a good map and plenty of food and water, the trail is usually well-trodden and easy to follow. On the other hand, don’t underestimate how dry it can get in the High Country, even towards the end of summer as we are crossing into autumn. Above all, get out there, get away from the city from time to time and remember what quiet sounds like. Go and get lost. Figuratively, anyway.
Banner image is of Hells Gap on the way to the summit of Mt Magdala and is courtesy of Alex Mullarky.