Feet First Australia

exploring Australia on foot


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A Pedestrian Love Affair with Tasmania

A few steps into the 800km I trod over the last 12 months, researching Top Walks in Tasmania (my third book, due out in October), I fell in love with Australia’s island state. Not so passionately that I’m packing my bags and abandoning country Victoria, but neither does it feel like a brief fling. This promises to be a long-term affair involving multiple crossings of Bass Strait by plane and ferry for assignations.

Given its spectacular coastline and often intimidating mountains; its luxuriant cool temperate rainforests and precipitous dolerite cliffs rearing from inky depths; its glacier-gouged alpine lakes, wild rivers and more waterfalls than any one state has a right to, I was fool enough to doubt that Tasmania would seduce me. But on 55 walks, each of which only intensified my feelings, I got sand between my toes and salt spray up my nose, walked in the footsteps of mulish convicts and cartoon-character pied oyster catches, scaled ridges and delved into gorges, and I was smitten!

These are five of my many favourite Tasmanian encounters on foot:

Walls of Jerusalem : 3 days

Hiking in this national park, in the Central Highlands, was a spiritual experience, no less intense for it being my second visit. Natural battlements of biblical proportions, uninterrupted views of Tasmania’s tarn-jewelled Central Plateau, prehistoric pencil pines and the reactions of first-timing companions contributed to the park’s impact. My Dad dying while I was standing atop Mt Jerusalem further intensified it.

 

Slide Track, Bruny Island : 13km one-way

The Slide Track follows an old timber tramway line from South Bruny Island forest to Adventure Bay, where a Who’s Who of mariners, including captains Cook, Flinders and Bligh, found safe harbour in the late 18th century. The track is not maintained and difficult to find in places, the leeches are voracious and it took us triple the estimated 3 hours to complete (in the dark) but the forest was lush and festooned with fungi and the weathered timbers perfect for damsel-tied-to-railway-tracks photos.

 

Lost World, kunanyi/Mt Wellington : 5km loop

We found it but navigating the Lost World, on kunanyi/Mt Wellington’s north face, took hours longer than suggested by the younger bushwalker who recommended it. His aunt and I did, though, stop repeatedly to photograph dolerite columns (standing and fallen), Hobart views, and each other among the rocks and alpine gums. And while my friend’s legs are shorter than mine, so she found some manoeuvres challenging, I ripped the bottom out of my trousers and day pack sliding down several slopes. All in a day’s fun!

 

Mt Amos, Freycinet Peninsula : 6km return

Most tourism images of Wineglass Bay are taken not from the popular (which means commonly crowded) main lookout but from Mt Amos, the second of the four peaks making up The Hazards mountain range. Vertigo and rain aside – water makes the rock slippery – climbing Mt Amos’s exposed pink granite slopes gives you access to a grandstand view of what many people argue is Australia’s most beautiful beach, Freycinet Peninsula, Great Oyster Bay and mainland Tasmania.  There’s even a chaise lounge rock part way up!

 

Tolkien Track, Styx Forest : 3km loop

You don’t have to be a Lord of the Rings devotee to appreciate the otherworldliness – Middle Earth-ness if you like – of this short walk. The magnificent sentinels of the Styx Forest are centuries-old Eucalyptus regnans, the tallest flowering plant on the planet and the world’s second tallest tree species, commonly called swamp gums in Tasmania and mountain ash in Victoria. Gandalf’s Staff, the grand master of the Tolkien Track, is 84 metres high and so big around it would take a horde of hobbits to hug it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Victoria’s Bloomin’ Walks

A 3-hour bushwalk in the Warby Ranges, north-east Victoria, on a sunny Saturday a week back, reminded me why I love Australian wildflowers, many of which date back to Gondwanaland and link us to other continents created when the supercontinent broke up.

 

Western Australia is the undeniable star of Australia’s annual spring and summer wildflower spectaculars, with floral carpets in high-vis hues unrolling across acres of outback. But Victoria puts on a colourful show too.

 

In peak seasons it’s almost impossible to hike anywhere in Victoria without seeing flowers, but these five favourite walks are ideal for indulging passions for florals.

 

McKenzie Nature Conservation Reserve, Alexandra, Eastern Ranges

An easy 3km amble through a patch of rare, remnant eucalypt forest on the edge of the Goulburn Valley never ceases to delight. A mixed assortment of winter fungi make way for spring and summer wildflowers and if you stop to look at one you’ll discover half a dozen other varieties in a few square metres.

 

Mt Hotham to Falls Creek, Victorian Alps

When the snow melts, paper daisies, snow gentians, pea flowers, buttercups and many more flowers open to the alpine sun and embroider the exposed high plains with colour. If you’re not up for the full walk between ski resorts (20+ kilometres), a shorter walk from either end will soon have you among the blooms.

 

White Box Walking Track, Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park, north-east Victoria

Don’t let the mostly flat terrain and short distance fool you. When the wildflowers are out, this track through old gold mining country forested with box and ironbark can take much longer than you planned. I set the known record of 5 hours treading the loop with friends equally as enamoured with flowers as me!

 

Lighthouse Hike, Wilsons Promontory, Gippsland

One of my favourite Victorian walks, a long 2- or 3-day loop to the Prom lighthouse via the Waterloo and Oberon bays, gains a whole new level of wow when the coastal heath is blooming. Washes of white, pink, and red augment landscapes worked in granite grey, multiple greens, sand yellow and sky blue.

 

Hollow Mountain, Grampians National Park, Western Plains

Suited to adventurers of all ages, this fun walk-cum-clamber in Victoria’s sawtooth western ranges, begins in a sea of Grampians thryptomene, one of more than 900 native plants found in the mountains. Down at ground level, you might also see cartoonish yellow-and-brown leopard orchids. And once you start looking…

 

These wildflower walks, and many others, are described in detail in my book Top Walks in Victoria, published by Explore Australia


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The Bothersome Business of Buying Boots

“What hiking boots should I buy?”

The answer to this common question is simple: buy the boots that fit your feet!

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“I could list a whole lot of attributes that I think a hiking boot should have,” mountaineer and adventurer Peter Hillary told me when I interviewed him for an article on bushwalking technology and safety some years back, but if you find boots that lack in some areas but are really comfortable, they are the boots for you.  “If you’ve got uncomfortable feet your great adventure has got serious limitations.”

And not everyone is a fan of traditional hiking boots at all. One of my close friends wore elastic-sided boots in all conditions and some people still swear by Dunlop Volleys!

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I recently had to buy new boots, an activity I dread more than scaling a steep scree slope or navigating a slimy log, because while my feet are a standard, off-the-op-shop-shelf width and length, my toes are slightly squared, so many boot lasts – the last is the foot-shaped mechanical form around which the boot is made – don’t fit. I am extremely jealous of friends who have found a boot brand/style perfect for them and buy the same one each time without issue.

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In contrast, my hiking boot history is a who’s who of manufacturers. Over the years I have walked in Zamberlan, Hi-Tec, Scarpa, Footprint (made by Birkenstock) and Oboz boots but I have always been eager at day’s end to slip my feet into something more comfortable! My first hiking boots were too small (incorrectly fitted), which contributed to the near life-long abuse of my big toe nails. Some boots have rubbed, necessitating the taping of toes and heals before every walk. One pair made my feet sweat worse than usual – which is saying something – so I on-sold them soon after purchase.

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This time around I spent four hours trying on eight different pairs of fabric, hybrid and leather boots in Melbourne’s Little Bourke Street. The heftiest and most expensive proved to be the most comfortable so I brought home a pair of leather-and-goretex Asolo 520s. Frustratingly, our on-track relationship is not yet living up to the in-shop promise but a podiatrist thinks it is my feet rather than the boots and, unfortunately, I can’t sell them on ebay!

With a few helpful hints, though, you might have more success.

What do you want the boots for?

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Footwear is a vital piece of hiking kit but the variety can bamboozle.  While walking sandals suit many situations, including hikes with water crossings, because they grip while allowing your feet to breathe, ankle support is important on rougher tracks and when carrying a pack. You need a sturdier boot for heavy pack walks than you do on lighter weighted day walks, because the added burden on your back changes your posture and bodily stresses.

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Boots should have a thick enough and firm enough sole to protect your feet from rocky ground and side protection from rocks and sticks.

Talk to the salespeople. Many know what they are talking about and will point you towards the right style of boot for the job.

Size and fit?

Even if you have worn the same shoe size for years, get your boots professionally fitted.

Boots should fit snuggly, so your feet don’t move around, but not tightly, and allow your toes wriggle room. Try them on at day’s end (when your feet are swollen) and with the socks you plan to wear.

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With the boot fully unlaced, move your foot as far forward in the boot as possible. In a correctly sized boot you should be able to slip your index finger down inside the boot at the back of your ankle. This determines there’s space when your foot slides forward on descents under load.

Also walk up and down the ramp (good shops have them). And put your foot behind you and tap the toe on the ground; you should not be able to feel the front of the boot with your toes (vitally important on long descents).

Try on several different boots and compare, even one of each make on different feet. And don’t buy the first one that feels good; you can always come back to them.

Do try makes recommended by friends but remember that their shape might not suit your feet.

Falls Creek to Mt Hotham Walk, Victorian Alps, Australia

Put a sock on it?

Socks affect comfort and safety. Ask shop staff what they recommend but only trial and error will reveal what your feet prefer. Having worn thicker, wool-and-nylon blend Explorer-type socks for years, and tried the double layer system that many hikers swear by, I now wear thinner, left-and-right socks for a perfect fit.

Wear them in?

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ALWAYS wear-in your new boots/shoes at home and on short walks before tackling anything major. And treat hot spots as soon as they develop, because blister pain can turn bushwalking bliss into hiking hell.

 

Feet booted and comfortable? Get walking!

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Escaping the Family on Foot

People bushwalk – hike, tramp, ramble, trek – for different reasons and in different ways. The ten Brisbane mums I met walking the three-day Six Foot Track with Blue Mountains-based company Life’s An Adventure were on their eighth annual escape from their families.

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Members of a thirteen-strong walking group – it’s got a waiting list! – the women live in the suburb surrounding one of Brisbane’s oldest primary schools. Four of them have known each other since childhood; the rest met at the school gate, on tuck shop roster and holding timepieces at swimming carnivals. Aged from 52 to 59, with one 46-year old youngster, they have thirty-seven children between them, all but three of whom attended the historic primary school.

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When the ten women I met on the Six Foot Track first came up with the idea of a walking holiday, over a brie stuffed with cranberries and a glass of NZ sav blanc, it wasn’t really about the hiking. “It was about escaping our humdrum suburban routines and replacing it with adventure,” spokeswoman Nicola explains. “It wasn’t until we had done our first hike – Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand [in 2008] – that we understood what a multi-day hike really was.”

 

Since then they have done eight guided and self-guided walks in New Zealand (The Routeburn Track was one of Nicola’s favourites) and Tasmania, and on the Great Ocean Walk in Victoria, with a core group of six doing every one.

 

None were bushwalkers before their first trip but their number includes regular cyclists, boot camp attendees and masters hockey players, so they are not unused to exercise. “We are okay with training before the walk,” Nicola says. “However none of us wants to carry a pack of greater than 7.5kg… We wouldn’t take on Kokoda. We wouldn’t do a walk that didn’t have someone else prepare our dinner; we are all mums who have to cook every night so not cooking is one of the joys.”

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Cut as a bridal trail in 1884 to shorten travel time between Sydney and the Jenolan Caves, the Six Foot Track – it was made wide enough for two loaded drays to pass – was officially reopened as a walking track a century later. It starts and ends with a bang, dropping from a cliff-edge view of the Megalong Valley down rock and timber steps into lush fern forest tucked between undercut sandstone that frames a slice of blue sky, and finishing among Jenolan’s jagged external limestone cliffs and exquisite cave decorations. Yet the Six Foot Track is more about history than scenery, with a long, uninspiring day-two climb up a gravel road, and Nicola doesn’t rate the walk highly against others they have done.

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But Life’s An Adventure, the company with whom they’ve also walked on Maria Island, impresses. (It offers 17 walking holidays across Australia, including a fabulous two-day guided walk into the Wolgan Valley, west of the Blue Mountains.) “The girls in the office are always super helpful… and they get some mad requests from us,” Nicola says. “We pay in dribs and drabs and bother them with queries about pillows and sleeping bags and taking bottles of wine and then we harass them to chill it for us in the evening!”

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There are no better walking companions than those who have their priorities worked out and when the Brisbane Mums headed down to Coxs River for pre-dinner drinks and a dip at the end of day one, glasses and champagne bottle in hand, I willingly followed them slightly astray.

 

 


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Why bushwalk? Why not?

I’ve embarrassed myself on downhill and cross country skis. I’ve pedalled kilometres of rail trails and mountain biked down Mt Buller (which resulted in several physiotherapy sessions).

I’ve ridden horses in Victoria’s high country (sore knees), a donkey in Egypt (shaken and stirred), camels in the Sahara Desert, around the pyramids of Giza and in the James Range, south of Alice Springs, and motorbike taxied through Bangkok’s gridlock.

I’ve abseiled, skydived and scaled indoor rock climbing walls.

And all these adventures confirmed that I’m happiest under my own power with only shoe leather – or, more often these days, some man-made polymer – between me and terra firma.

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So why do I love bushwalking? Other than not having to don Lycra and work out in an air-conditioned gym?

What’s not to love about breathing air perfumed with ozone, wildflowers and rainforest humus? Tasting salt spray and hugging shaggy giant red tingle trees and smooth, pink-barked angophoras? Feeling the sun’s kiss and the sting of icy blasts? Hearing the music of wind, water and bird song?

One of the many highlights of my walking life was sitting trackside on the Cathedral Range, near Marysville, central east Victoria, watching a male lyrebird in full display performing a remarkable repertoire of bird calls to an apparently unimpressed entourage of hens.

What’s not to love about standing atop a mountain taking in views of multiple ridges in darkening shades of blue; and crouching in leaf litter studying a rain-beaded orchid?

Or gazing across country so flat you can see the curvature of our planet; and exploring crevices in Earth’s crust, with millions of years of geological craftsmanship at your fingertips?

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Or walking where the first Australians left their marks in ochre over thousands of years; and where chained convicts inspired by the lash fashioned Colonial era engineering feats?

Or pitching a tent among snow gums or in the shadow of a soaring cliff and dozing off under a canopy of stars or a moon so bright it casts shadows?

And then there’s the chocolate and jelly snakes, the trail mix (scroggin to some) that gets you through a walk; and the guilt-free pleasure of tucking into high-calorific food, such as Aunty Betty’s indulgent individual Belgian chocolate steamed puddings, after working your body hard up hills and down. OFF_pudding_belgain

A friend of mine, Coral Eden to give her deserved acknowledgement, has gone down in hiking history for her selfless act of carrying the makings of golden syrup dumplings up Mt Bogong, Victoria’s highest peak (1986m), and cooking dessert for eight in Cleve Cole Hut.

But perhaps bushwalking’s main attraction for me is that, unlike nonsensical sports – apologies to joggers; I’ll never fathom your motivation! –  I can, and intend to, climb mountains, explore deserts, follow ancient river beds, and go on fungi hunts on foot well into wrinklehood – albeit with the increasing assistance of trusty walking poles, to ease the stress on my knees.

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An online search unearthed a quote that sums up my rest-of-life philosophy:

“We don’t stop hiking because we grow old –

We grow old because we stop hiking.”  

Finis Mitchel

 


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Hero Worship

While some bushwalks merge into each other over time, others create memories that are vivid to the point of sharpness.

Such is the Stinson track in World Heritage-listed Lamington National Park, in southern Queensland, which I remember in crystal clarity, despite the sweat that blurred my vision on that epic vine-forest trek.

And why? Because there’s a remarkable story behind this walk – a plane crash; a misdirected, failed search effort; an extraordinary survival story; and a heroic rescue mission – a story that made a humble bushman and his mountain-top home famous.

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Photo courtesy of O’Reilly’s Rainforest Resort

 

 

 

 

 

 

In January 2017, O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat is celebrating the 80th birthday of the crash and Bernard O’Reilly’s rescue of the two survivors with walk-and-accommodation packages (from $535 per person) including a choice of two challenging anniversary day hikes. You can “Walk in Bernard’s Footsteps”, a trek from his family’s then-guesthouse to the crash site (37km over 13 hours), or tread the “Rescue Route”, 14km return up and down Christmas Creek.

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Although you visit several breathtaking lookouts following in Bernard’s footsteps, these are hikes more about history than scenery, as you can read in my Sydney Morning Herald article (2002). Nor should they be taken on lightly. You’ll need to train to appreciate these historical adventures.

Anyone with hip or knee problems should opt instead to read about the rescue in Bernard O’Reilly’s book, Green Mountains.


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Wildflower Wanderings

Recent rains have left much of Australia’s famously “wide, brown land” sodden and very green but whatever the conditions – drought, flood or idyllic in-between – Australia’s ancient mountains, volcanic plains and deserts – unrolled flat to the horizon or gathered into dunes – pack a visceral punch.

These landscapes can leave you literally breathless, and make it almost impossible to lower and narrow your focus. Do so, though, and your rewards are floral gems in every rainbow colour; flowers that burst from fertile soils or struggle through unforgiving rocky ground; flamboyant look-at-me blooms and shy performers that open in sheltered nooks where only the inquisitive will find them.

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With cold, wet wintry weather finally starting to loosen its grip, the native blooms dotting my Victorian country garden remind me of the gobsmacking wildflower displays through which my husband and I drove and walked last year while researching my recently released second book, Top Walks in Australia (published by Explore Australia).

Home to half of Australia’s 24,000 native plant species, many of which date back to before it broke away from the Gondwana supercontinent, Western Australia is the headline act in our annual floral extravaganzas. But every state and territory has places where you can tiptoe through the tulips, so to speak.

Here are some of my favourites:

TOP W.A. WILDFLOWER WALKS

  1. The Loop walk (9.5km), Kalbarri National Park – grade: moderate

kalbarri-loop-1Renowned for its much-photographed Murchison River gorge scenery and the natural window that frames the view, this rocky walk is softened with wildflowers of every shape and size, including the stalky, sky-reaching pink pokers (Grevillea petrophiloides).

2.  Cape to Cape, ½ a day to a week – grade: moderate

cape-to-capeWalking along WA’s southwest coast, from surf beaches to precipitous cliff edges between capes Leeuwin and Naturaliste, is spectacular year round. But in spring, the flowers that unfurl across the heathland capping the sea cliffs are the icing on the cake.

3.  Sullivan Rock to Monadnocks campsite (15km loop) – grade: moderate

sullivan-rock-bibbulmunArguably the best day walk on the 1000km Bibbulmun Track, and only 80 minutes’ drive from Freemantle, this loop reveals an assortment of flowers, from delicte orchids growing from cracks in the exposed granite slabs to grevilleas and other stunners on the plains.

4.  Mundaring to Mundaring Weir (10km) – grade: easy-moderate

weir-wildflowersTo follow the first/last section of the 560km pipeline constructed in the early 20th century to transport Perth Hills water to the Kalgoorlie goldfields is to walk through engineering history. Add ridiculous numbers of wildflowers, including showy red, pink and yellow peas, and you’ve got a cracking short walk.

5.  Bluff Knoll (6,5km return) – grade: moderate-hard

bluff-knollStirling Ranges National Park, in the state’s south, is a wildflower wonderland and Bluff Knoll (1095m) commands views reaching to the sea. The short but strenuous climb takes you from rocky slopes decorated with gravel bottlebrush to hardy, wind- and snow-tolerant stubby montane that erupts in spring colours.

OTHER TOP WILDFLOWER WALKS

  1. The 24km (hard) summer-season day hike from Hotham to Falls Creek in Victoria’s Alpine National Park traverses high plains festooned with floral beauties like paper daisies, Billy buttons and delicate purple-on-white alpine gentians.
  2. There are so many different wildflowers along the two-day Coast Track, in Royal National Park, south of Sydney, that appreciating and photographing them can severely slow your progress!
  3. As well as showcasing the remarkable geological features for which South Australia’s favourite island is famous, the new Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail reveals the island’s abundant floral wealth. Indulge!
  4. Whether you venture to the edge of Cape Hauy to look down plunging cliffs to inky sea or climb Tatnells Hill between Waterfall Bay and Fortescue Bay, you’ll discover that Tasmania’s Tasman Peninsula bounds with gorgeous native blooms.

All these walks are written up in detail in Top Walks in Australia, available from me or online.