Feet First Australia

exploring Australia (and sometimes further afield) on foot


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A boot hits leather, a whistle sounds, flags flutter, voices cheer, hands clap – the soundtrack as I near the gate into the Benalla Showgrounds is a typical Saturday afternoon Australian Rules football match. The Benalla Saints are well into thrashing the Shepparton Swans (by 52 points) when I explain to the bloke sat at a table with a tin for entrance money that I’m not here for the game but to photograph birds on Lake Benalla.

Wishing me a fun afternoon, he waves me through and I swing left around the oval and encircling cars to a chorus of warbling magpies.

Lake Benalla Walking Track makes a lazy 4.25km loop around the tranquil waters at the heart of the northeast Victorian town. It takes in Benalla’s manicured botanic gardens and art gallery precinct, the town foreshore and two islands, and it fords the incoming Broken River and exiting river and Midland Creek. Popular with dog walkers, pram pushers and never-smiling joggers, it meanders through gnarled river red gums and bristling Bunya Bunya pines and crosses bridges and grassy flats.

It takes me as long to walk out onto Little Casey Island and back to the footy – perhaps 2km all up – as it would have to tread the whole loop if the weather wasn’t perfect on this sunny winter’s day and the birds less photogenic!

The stilted Benalla Library sits on the flats beside the lake

Pretty feather patterns are revealed when a little black cormorant dries its wings

   

It’s impossible not to feel happy walking along this track in winter sunshine.

 

Rather than gliding overhead or across the water, this pair of pelicans perched high in a dead tree overhanging the lake.

Is this purple moorhen admiring its reflection in the lake?

A magpie-lark keeps an eye on me as I return to the football game.

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Autumn in Tenterfield by Foot and Wheels

What do Breaker Morant, Sir Henry Parkes, Peter Allen and Banjo Paterson have in common? Tenterfield, a small New South Wales town with big-name connections.

And the most colourful season for a visit is autumn, when Tenterfield’s northern hemisphere trees – the ashes, elms, oaks, cottonwoods, planes and poplars that helped make it look like “New England” – blaze red, orange and yellow against the green of pines. The most vivid showing is two weeks either side of Anzac Day and arriving from the east (Casino way), I drive through a colonnade of bronze pin oaks.

Straddling the New England Highway 18km short of the Queensland border, Tenterfield began life the same way that many country New South Wales towns did, as a sheep run. Scotland-born speculator and squatter Robert Ramsey Mackenzie was granted the first official grazing licence in the area in about 1840 and businessman Stuart Alexander Donaldson ran 18,000 sheep on it when he took over the run in 1844. Donaldson is popularly believed to have named the station after a family property in Scotland.

Mackenzie was later appointed Queensland’s first colonial treasurer, despite earlier bankruptcy, and became its second premier. Donaldson became the first premier of New South Wales, but not before he participated in Australia’s last formal pistol duel, with Surveyor-General Sir Thomas Mitchell. Neither were injured by the shots fired, which suggests lousy gunmanship, lack of commitment, good luck or a combination of all three.

Far less fortunate was Harry “Breaker” Morant, who was executed by firing squad in South Africa after being court martialled and found guilty of murder during the Boer War. Morant’s defence was mounted by J.F. Thomas, a Tenterfield solicitor who owned the Tenterfield Star newspaper for 16 years; the newspaper is still published.

And the list of historic celebrities associated with Tenterfield lengthens with the addition of a friend of Morant’s who was also a fellow contributor of verse to The Bulletin in the 1890s (Morant wrote under the pen name “The Breaker”). Andrew Barton Paterson, better known by his pen-name “The Banjo”, married Miss Alice Walker, of Tenterfield Station, in the town’s Presbyterian church in 1903.

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“Banjo” Paterson

While many Australians could name, if not recite, some of Banjo Paterson’s bush ballads, few could quote from the speech Sir Henry Parkes gave in the Tenterfield School of Arts in 1889, despite its import. Commonly called his “Birth of a Nation” speech, the five-times New South Wales Premier and past local member’s Tenterfield Oration is credited with leading to the Federation of Australia in 1901.

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“The great question which we have to consider is whether the time has not now arisen for the creation on this Australian continent of an Australian government and an Australian parliament,” Parkes said. “… surely what the Americans have done by war, Australians can bring about in peace.”  Henry Parkes

 

The decorative, red-brick School of Arts (1876), which fronts Tenterfield’s main street, now houses a library, cinema/theatre and the Sir Henry Parkes Memorial Museum, which explores Parkes’ ideas and how the Australian Constitution and Commonwealth Parliamentary system of government work.

Fuelled by a bakery pie and armed with a “Walk Through Historic Tenterfield” pamphlet from the visitor information centre, a block south of the School of Arts, I amble past some of the town’s wonderful historic buildings. There’re the multi-arched post office (1881) and Art Deco-style Commercial Hotel (1940); the Old Tenterfield Star building (1913) and a pair of 1880s terrace houses, uncommon outside cities and the only ones in Tenterfield.

Just off the modern-day main street, in High Street (the old major thoroughfare), is the Tenterfield Saddlery. Built of hand-cut local granite as a residence in 1870, on land originally purchased by Stuart Donaldson, this simple, single storey building has housed five saddlers.

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George Woolnough, who ran the shop from 1908 to 1960, plying his trade while listening to the conversations of friends who gathered there, Banjo Paterson among them, became known to the world through George’s Tenterfield-born grandson Peter Woolnough, better known as Peter Allen. Allen’s song “Tenterfield Saddler” hints at a story that begs more investigation, about a saddler, his war-damaged son and world-travelling grandson.

Now a museum and shop, selling leather goods, the historic saddlery is usually open Thursdays to Sundays but it is run by volunteers. So if you’re planning a pilgrimage to the shop it’s worth phoning to avoid disappointment (02 67361478).

The decidedly grander Stannum House overlooks Tenterfield from the town’s highest point, two blocks south of the information centre. Built in 1888 for mining magnate John Holmes Reid – Stannum is Latin for tin – this Italianate mansion was the centre of Tenterfield society and welcomed Henry Parkes, Banjo Paterson and Dame Nellie Melba, among others, through its four-panelled front door into the arched vestibule.

The beautifully restored house now operates as a B&B but the owners offer guided tours, by appointment. The ground floor morning room, drawing room and formal dining room are filled with antiques and curios but the tour highlight is the staircase spiralling between the second and third floors. This masterpiece was built of Australian cedar in Belfast by the company that fitted out the Titanic.

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About 2km north of Stannum House, back through the town centre, a huge cork tree spreads its limbs wide over a house block. Brought from England in a jam tin in 1861, it is believed to be the largest cork trees in Australia.

In English folklore the cork tree, or wishing tree, is attributed with strange powers to bring good luck to those who observe rituals dating back to the Great Plague of London in 1665. Protective fencing prevents me walking around the tree the required three times, but I recite the following anyway:

Fortune favours those who see

More in me than just a tree

Look at my cork

And three times walk

Before my girth for all to see.

The cork tree is a stopover on a short, loop drive to Tenterfield railway station, on the town’s western perimeter. Officially named “The Great Northern Terminus” and described as “one of the most extensive and handsome buildings on the Northern Line”, the station opened three years before Parkes gave his provocative speech and farewelled its last scheduled passenger train 99 years after his oration. It’s now a railway museum: a treasure trove of memorabilia and rolling stock that side tracks railway buffs of all ages. I spend an hour checking out lamps and photographs, rusty tracks and gleaming steam engines.

Continuing west, and out of town, I stop to stroll around the cemetery, with its lichen rosette headstones, before driving on to Mt Mackenzie Lookout (1298m).

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One of ten points of interest on the 38km Mt Mackenzie Drive through the rocky country west of Tenterfield, the lookout offers a sweeping view over Tenterfield and its surrounds. To the north are the Granite Belt national parks of Bald Rock and my next destination, Girraween National Park (just over the border in southern Queensland).

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Gentleman bushranger Captain Thunderbolt (Frederick Ward) spent time in this region during his seven-year crime spree across northern NSW. One of his hideouts is 12km and a 300m walk north of the town but this lookout seems as likely a place as any to watch goings on. It’s certainly a perfect spot to watch the sun set on an autumn-hued Tenterfield.

FACT FILE:

For visitor information go to www.tenterfieldtourism.com.au or phone (02) 6736 1082.

To book accommodation or a tour of Stannum House, go to www.stannumhouse.com.au or phone 02 67365538.


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National Eucalypt Day

The more I travel, the more I love Australia’s 800+ varieties of eucalypt. I miss their colours and textures, their lofty heights and wind-pruned gnarly-ness, when overseas and take deeply inhale their oily perfumes on returning home.

So I’m celebrating National Eucalypt Day by sharing some of the countless photographs I’ve taken of gum trees encountered, and sometimes hugged, as I bushwalk around Victoria and the country. Hope you appreciate my take on these wonderfully diverse arboreal characters.

 

Eucalypt bark in all its textural diversity

 

Snow gums are voluptuously beautiful.

 

Eucalypts never get in the way; they either focus or frame a better image.

 

Dead or alive, misty or blushed with sunset – just beautiful!


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Cobblers to you!

I thought cobbler was a fruit pudding topped with dough or batter or a person who mends shoes. Until late last year, when I remembered, from some twenty years earlier, a friend suggesting I camp at Lake Cobbler and hike the mountain that shares a dessert’s name. But I didn’t know how tough the mountain was – or even where it was!

 

Wondering if it might be a good addition for the second edition of Top Walks in Victoria, due out later this year, I discovered that Mt Cobbler is a 90-minute drive southeast of Whitfield, in Victoria’s Eastern Ranges, on winding, mostly unsealed and in places rough road; the hike to its vantage-point summit is not taxing; and I was foolish to wait so long to follow up my friend’s recommendation.

 

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Having rendezvoused with Melbourne friends Dale and Philippa in Whitfield, in the heart of the King Valley wine region, we continued in their 4WD to Lake Cobbler, in the northwest corner of Alpine National Park, numerous bends bringing us to a stretch of road gifting dress circle views of Dandongadale Falls plunging 255m off Cobbler Plateau.

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Dandongadale Falls is Victoria’s highest single drop cascade

 

Shortly after a photo stop opposite the falls, a 4WD-only side track branches right off Lake Cobbler Road. Over a rocky ford that would damage the undercarriage of low-clearance cars, we reached the camping area beside eucalypt-ringed Lake Cobbler, created in the 1960s when loggers dammed a wetland in the headwaters of the Dandongadale River.

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The Mt Cobbler Walking Track (10km return) starts on the western (non-lake) side of the camping area between the pit toilet and a simple timber shelter built by the Wangaratta 4WD Club (on the site of previous cattlemen’s huts).

Following a route marked by occasional orange arrows, we crossed a creek and then the Dandongadale River;

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Crossing the river

Followed a spur uphill out of the river gorge, dodging embedded rocks and exposed roots; traversed a clearing thick with mountain beard-heath shrubs and birds; and climbed through alpine ash and striped snow gums, with a mountain-and-valley vista unfurling behind us.

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Having left the longer hike to Mt Speculation and Cross Cut Saw for another time, we turned right at the only formal track junction and walked on through juvenile snow gums, hollowed old timers with trunks like brushed stainless steel, and conglomerate boulders that look they were fashioned by giant human hands. To an opening on the right that should come with a drum roll for the view of mounts Buffalo, Feathertop and Hotham.

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Up a rock slope patched with mosses and lichens and striped with water trails – we carefully avoided potentially slippery dark stains – we learnt that the “summit” we’d been eyeing off as we climbed is not the top. Mt Cobbler is a trickster that hides its snow-gummed rocky dome until the last minute.

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Mt Cobbler hides its snow-gummed rocky dome until the last minute.

At first we couldn’t see how anything other than a mountain goat or close relative could scale the steep, final slope. But about 120m along the crenellations at the top of the granite slope there’s a break in the rock, from where a footpad drops steeply to the famous “cleft” between the summit plateau and the summit proper. Leaving our poles beside the track – they are more hindrance to help from here – we clambered the final few metres up conglomerate to the Mt Cobbler trig point at 1628m.

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Channelling our inner mountain goats!

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How do you avoid clichés to describe views on bushwalks? I can’t help it now because the spectacle wrapped around Mt Cobbler stole our breath, inspired wonder and even a little awe, and dropped our jaws with wonder.

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Lunch atop Mt Cobbler comes with a breath-taking, awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping view.

 

A careful clockwise twirl on uneven rock reveals the verdant King River valley, to the northwest, Buffalo Plateau, mounts Feathertop and Hotham, the Razor (1468m), Crosscut Saw, and mounts Stirling and Buller. Lake Cobbler is a patch of blue below and the road you drove in on a brown ribbon thread through green.

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Cobbler is way more delicious than the dessert of the same name and I should have acted earlier on my friend’s advice. Sorry Don!


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Shooting Birds

Some bushwalkers approach every hike as a boot camp challenge, treading from A to B as fast as possible and paying only passing attention to the kaleidoscope of colours and textures, flora and fauna, and the geological artistry on show around them and underfoot. But not me. I stop so often for the views, the smooth, coarse, peeling, scribbled tree trunks and tangled canopies, the prettily patterned fern fronds, the insects on wildflowers and fungi on mossy logs and moist ground, that I rarely finish a walk within the time suggested in park notes and on park signs.

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Setting aside my 10-year old Nikon D300 DSLR camera last year (parts no longer available) for a LUMIX G9 mirrorless – thanks for suggesting this upgrade Ewen Bell – has considerably lightened my photographic load when bushwalking; I frequently check my camera bag because it feels as if I have left my camera somewhere back along the track. But pairing the G9 with a Panasonic Leica 100-400mm zoom lens has slowed me down even further, because now I photograph birds!

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The big lens doesn’t accompany me on every hike, and rarely on overnight pack walks, even though the combined weight of the G9, 12-35mm lens and zoom is less than my old DSLR with standard lens. But it is ideal on walks promising bird life, such as the Sale Wetlands loop in Victoria’s central Gippsland region.

images feather 1It took me five hours to complete this flat 15km walk from the Port of Sale, around town lakes and down through wetlands to the historic swing bridge over the Thomson River.

 

Here’s why:

New Holland honeyeaters

pelicans

moorhens

red cheeked wattlebirds

ibis

scarlet honeyeater

terns

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spoonbill

little wattlebird

The Sale Wetlands walk is mapped, photographed and described in detail in Top Walks in Victoria, the 2nd edition of which is due out later this year.


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Doff your cap to a classic Tasmanian hike

A landmark for colonial-era sailing ships navigating Tasmania’s west coast, and convicts mounting escape attempts from brutal Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour, Frenchman’s Cap first appeared on my radar in the early 1990s, when I swam (naked and goose-bumped) in the Franklin River to celebrate its escape from being dammed for hydroelectric power.

Frenchmans Cap TAS MEL_9128Strung above the rocky shore from which I waded into the near-freezing water was a flying fox that carried walkers and packs across the river. Hikers losing fingers in its mechanism saw the flying fox replaced with the suspension bridge I crossed a quarter of a century later to begin the multi-day hike to the top of the quartzite dome that crowns Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Some bushwalkers bag the 50km-return Frenchman’s Cap hike in three days, making a push for the top on a long, hard day walk from Lake Vera. But the weather in this part of the world can change suddenly and dramatically so allowing four or five days, with a night/s at Lake Tahune, at the base of Frenchman’s, gives you more opportunities to summit – and longer at the top if you make it. You’ll need 6 days to do a guided trek with Tasmanian Expeditions (www.tasmanianexpeditions.com.au), as I did, thinking it unwise and unsafe to tackle this adventure hike solo.

And I’m glad I didn’t go alone, for the route is littered with hazards obvious and unapparent. Early on our first day, on a benign section of track (compared with what was to come), a group member slid two metres down a bank into a creek and (we later learned) cracked three vertebrae. Our guides Maddy and Will teamed brilliantly, organising John’s after-dark evacuation by helicopter and getting the rest of us to camp.

Day 1: 15.7km (4-6.5 hours) Carpark to Lake Vera Hut

On day one, we negotiated the Franklin and Loddon rivers, boggy button grass plains, stands of eucalypts, she oaks, wattles, and pockets of rainforest suggestive of Middle Earth in Lord of the Ring, on boot-wide suspension bridges, gravel tracks, boardwalks, roughly rooted ground, rock and wooden steps, and the Laughton’s Lead reroute.

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Opened in 2013 as part of an ongoing 10-year track upgrade jointly funded by entrepreneur Dick Smith and the Tasmanian Government, 4.6km-long Laughton’s Lead detours the infamous “sodden Loddons”, on-line photographs of which show hikers hauling companions out of thigh-deep bogs!

Views of the surrounding ranges and the distinctive quartzite dome named for its perceived likeness, from some angles, to the Liberty cap worn during the French Revolution (1789–1799), lured us southwest to Lake Vera Hut.

Day 2: 7km (4-6 hours) Lake Vera to Lake Tahune

Day two kicked off with a memorable walk-cum-clamber along Lake Vera’s boulder-strewn and root-entwined north-west shore, navigating logs slippery with moss and lichens and tree-trunk ladders with no handholds – a kilometre of careful foot placements through a fairyland of greens that took more than an hour.

Then the climbing started: about 400m in altitude over 3km, to Barron Pass. This grandstand lunch spot, nestled between pointed peaks, overlooks a lake-jewelled valley surrounded by mountains painted red and gold with fagus (deciduous beech) in autumn.

From there, we traversed the steep south-west face of Sharland’s Peak (1140m) before the track flattened out across a plateau planted with skeletal King Billy pines killed in a devastating 1960s bushfire. This leg of the walk gifted us a panorama of the Overland Track ridgeline and a daunting view of tomorrow’s route up Frenchman’s Cap.

Steep ladders took us down to Lake Tahune hut (2018) at its foot.

Day 3: 4.8km return (3-5 hours) Summit

It’s only 4.8km return but an almost non-stop climb to the top of Frenchman’s Cap from Lake Tahune, initially through fagus and pandani (the world’s tallest heath) then up a scree slope and rocky tiers. Part way up there’s a chute with narrow handholds which several members of our group, including me, couldn’t climb solo, so it took teamwork to get everyone beyond this spot.

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The view from the summit, roughly the size of a footy oval and sloped southwards to a precipitous drop, is worth every challenging step to get there. On a perfect day you can see the Southern Ocean but moody grey sky and snow drifts added physical and visual drama to what awaited us.

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We later learned that our evacuated companion underwent surgery in Hobart for his broken back as we stood there, surrounded by multiple shades of blue Wilderness.

Days 4 and 5

Some people set out from Lake Tahune in the dark to catch sunrise from atop Frenchman’s Cap. An alternative option is to begin day 4 before dawn and take in sunrise from the plateau above the hut. After our grey day on the mountain, the sun put on a spectacular show for our departure, rising behind the Overland Track ridgeline and illuminating the quartzite dome behind us.

From there we backtracked to Lake Vera for the night and walked out the following day along the same route we trod on day 1.

Frenchmans Cap TAS MEL_9166The group celebrated surviving the Frenchman’s Cap hike with a scrumptious burger at the Hungry Wombat Café in Derwent Bridge (gateway to Lake St Clair), about 25km east on the Lyell Highway from the Frenchman’s parking area.

 

Tasmanian Expeditions’s 6-day Frenchman’s Cap Trek operates January to May. The cost of $1795.00 per person includes 4 dinners, 5 lunches and 4 breakfasts, minibus transfers from/to Launceston, and national park fees. Go to http://www.tasmanianexpeditions.com.au

I was a guest of Tasmanian Expeditions.

The Frenchman’s Cap trek is described in detail in my third book, Top Walks in Tasmania, published by Explore Australia and available on line.


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Foot-Sure in the Snow

Having tried downhill skiing as a young woman – I fell off International Poma, at Falls Creek in Victoria’s high country, part way up, and lacking the confidence or experience to ski down the run I walked up the slope carrying my skis, reaching the top too weary to tackle any slope other than the gentle Home Run back to our chalet – and cross country skiing more recently, I have found the white season alpine sport for me and others happiest on their own two feet.

Last Friday, Lake Mountain turned on the perfect late winter day for me to tread the 5km Snow Shoe Trail, an easy loop through regenerating snow gums and across heath plains thick with snow sparkling in the sun.

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I first encountered snow shoes at 16 when I visited Canada with my Dad. I didn’t try the sport then but bought a pair of traditional children’s snow shoes (the adult ones were too big to bring home). Resembling elongated tennis racquets, with wooden frames criss-crossed with strips of animal hide, these travel souvenirs hung on my bedroom wall for years.

The snow shoes I hired on Lake Mountain last Friday were very different beasts. Made of red plastic – I was never going to strap on the blue alternative – with metal studs, they were about 25cm wide and 40cm long and, unlike pesky skis, didn’t slide anywhere when I placed one foot in front of the other!

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One of the many things I love about bushwalking is getting away from civilisation and crowds and, I’ve now discovered, I can escape snow-loving crowds wearing snow shoes. The glorious weather had attracted hundreds of tobogganers and cross-country skiers to Lake Mountain but I was mostly alone on the well-signed snow shoe trail that loops east out of the village/resort and then north, within a network of groomed cross-country trails. Trailing yeti-like footprints, I walked for two hours through the skeletons of snow gums killed in the Black Saturday fires and the leafy, green-and-yellow barked sapling eucalypts growing among them, and across heath plains pillowed with snow cut through here and there with creeks and patched with ice-crusted pools.

While I saw skiers through the trees and heard others, for much of the time the only sound was the snow crunching beneath my feet and the thumps of branches weighed down with snow dumping their load on the ground and rebounding skywards.

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Back in the busy village, noisy with tobogganers and builders of snowmen, I assumed that the popular 800m uphill walk to the top of Lake Mountain would be groomed and removed my snow shoes for the climb. I was right, and safely negotiated the summit track and the uncleared short detour to Marysville Lookout, for tree-framed views over the valleys and town.

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The snow on the 300m side trail to the Alps View, which I can only assume was stunning, was deep, however, and after sinking up to my thighs several times within a few metres I reluctantly gave up and, cursing my foolishness in abandoning my trusty red weight spreaders, and too tired to climb back up again wearing them, I headed back down the hill.

A snow shoe convert, I climbed into my car and headed home to spread the word.