Feet First Australia

exploring Australia (and sometimes further afield) 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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Walking and Wine as Therapy

I love the self-satisfied physical weariness from bushwalking remote from the sights, sounds, smells and hard edges of civilisation. Because I’m too fond of my knees to jog, and dislike figure-hugging Lycra and controlled atmospheres too much to work out in a gym, it’s my near-perfect exercise, and a great partner to my other aerobic passion, dancing.

As well as justifying high-calorie refuels, expending energy on a dance floor or mountain slope gives me a high that not only soothes sore feet and aching muscles; it also exhilarates me, empowering me to do it all again the following day.

In contrast, however, the stress of two ongoing family health crises over recent weeks has left me bordering on punch-drunk, emotional exhaustion draining me of energy. A common experience, according to the internet!

Several studies conclude that while physical activity has little or no impact on mental performance, and sometimes even a positive effect, mental stress can markedly affect us physically. At its worst it can impair judgement, reaction time, situational awareness, motivation, alertness and memory, leading to sub-optimal performance.

So last week, when the depressing grey sky cleared – yes, I know we need the rain! – to a gorgeous sunny blue, I drew on my remaining judgement, reaction time, situational awareness, motivation and alertness and took myself off for a therapeutic stroll at a historic Goulburn Valley winery.

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Founded in 1860, Tahbilk has been owned and operated since the 1920s by five generations of the Purbrick family. It’s a charming place to visit, if only to wander around the heritage buildings – an episode of Phryne Fisher was filmed here. There are, of course, delicious wines, including the estate’s signature Marsanne and Shiraz from pre-phylloxera vines dating back to the mid 19th century; and a café which overlooks the extensive network of billabongs, backwaters and creeks. There are also walking tracks to tread between wine tasting and tucking into seasonal regional fare.

Tahbilk’s Eco Trails network opened in 2005, after ten years of understory plantings to bring wildlife back to the wetlands, and the construction of paths, boardwalks and two bird hides. (Groups can also book a 30-minute Eco Trail Cruise.)

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Having registered at the café – management ask walkers to sign in, so they know where to start searching if you don’t return – and paid my gold-coin donation, I followed the well-formed track down to historic Long Bridge. Built from estate-hewn timber to replace a ford on the site, shortly after completion of Goulburn Weir in 1889, and extensively repaired after the destructive 1954 floods, the bridge was completely rebuilt in 1996, again with timber cut and milled on site.

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Long Bridge, c.1996

Across the bridge, I soaked up vitamin D as I strolled a 5.6km curlicue of flat compacted gravel track and boarding. Through floodplains thick with mixed wattles erupting in late winter yellows; past majestic river gums that have stood here for centuries; along waterways dotted with black swans, pelicans and moor hens and rows of grape vines reaching into the distance.

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I skirted massed fluffy reed and pools of rain and photographed bark, wattle blossoms, bird boxes and afternoon sun reflected off the water.

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I didn’t raise a sweat. Barely upped my resting heart rate. But boy did I feel better afterwards.

And to increase the restorative effect of my day out, I bought some Tahbilk wine to take home.

 

Melanie Ball’s website

Melanie’s photography as art and clothing

Wearable Art from Appliquez Moi

 

 


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Walking in ancient footsteps

A week ago tomorrow Simon and I stepped off the Jatbula Trail, having walked more than 60km from Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) to Leliyn (Edith Falls); and there we celebrated completing the walk (and made up for six days of freeze-dried food) with barra and buffalo burgers and scrumptious rosella and plain scones hot and crusty from the Leliyn kiosk oven.

Graded moderate because of its length and the need to carry a backpack rather than its profile, the Jatbula Trail traverses relatively flat country from waterfall to waterhole to gentle rapids, following a route trodden for millennia by Jawoyn aboriginal people. So we were delighted to find ourselves camping, and sometimes walking, with a couple from Tasmania, two work colleagues from Brisbane, and a group of Jawoyn, two Jawoyn Rangers, a father and six community children walking the track, all for the first time, as part of a school holiday program.

Their company added an unexpected extra cultural layer to a week of geology, birds, subtly changing environments, refreshing swims, and rock art sites, that otherwise would have been limited to a close encounter with an extraordinary ochre female figure who lured men to their doom!

The following photographs are a tempting taste of this wonderful Top End walk:

Melanie Ball’s website

Melanie’s photography as art and clothing

Wearable Art from Appliquez Moi


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Red Red Rock and other outback hues

I’ve visited Australia’s Red Centre several times in the last thirty years yet each time I return the colours still surprise and delight me – ancient ochre rock, subtle shades of green across hardy desert plants, chalky white ghost gum stripes, all against a blue sky backdrop. So does the sun’s power to wash out those colours in the middle of the day, when I am, unfortunately, often out walking with camera at the ready, and to intensify them at dawn and dusk.

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Uluru takes on many different hues during the day.

Over the last week Simon and I have done five walks with colours and textures in common yet all distinctly different. We circumnavigated Uluru, delighting in its curves and crevices and the stories about their creation; trod the Kings Canyon rim walk, sans chiffon and killer heels – why attempt to best that famous scene in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, when we were doomed to fail? – and teetered on the edge of cliffs that are vertiginous even in hiking boots; wandered through a grove of red cabbage palms dating back to the Gondwana era and watered by the world’s oldest river; climbed to the highest point on the Larapinta Trail, to look out over mountain ranges worn by time from Himalayan heights; and, our current pick of the five – have you got a favourite outback walk? – approached Ormiston Gorge from the vast pound behind it, rock-hopping back to the car down a corridor of fractured, sloping, layered stone rearing skyward.

Each walk was like stepping into a painting. See what I mean!

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Gorgeous grevillea (TBC) and Tall Mulla Mulla

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Simon on the edge atop Mt Sonder and dwarfed by geology in Ormiston Gorge

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Layers in the rock on Mount Sonder and a eucalypt at Redbank Gorge


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A Flinders Ranges double bill

by Melanie Ball

Melanie Ball with her book Top Walks in Victoria

Simon and I last visited the Flinders Ranges about three years ago, to do the 3-night private, guided Arkaba Walk – think canapés on arrival in camp, hot water bottle to warm your swag, wine and gourmet meals, and final night in the historic homestead.

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During the course of that wonderful journey across Wilpena Pound (on the Heysen Trail) and in the lee of the magnificently striped Elder Range on private Arkaba Station, we made friends with the couple who run the walk and station stays, Brendan and Cat, who generously allowed us to camp behind the station’s historic stone woolshed on our return. So this time around we began each morning looking out of our tent at first light on the Elder Range.

We came back to Flinders Ranges National Park to walk independently. But which walks? (Do you have any favourites? Would love to hear.)

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Wilpena Pound is a geological artwork, a great rock bowl at the heart of the park and Adnyamathanha creation stories (the highest point, St Mary’s Peak, is the head of one of two serpents who surrounded an important corroboree and ate the participants, after which their bodies turned to stone). The best vantage points for appreciating the shapes and the textures of the pound and the park are deep down in its folded gorges and up in the air.

Having limited time and neither the money for a scenic flight over the pound nor the aerial skills of the wedge-tailed eagles that cruise over it, Simon and I chose the Bunyeroo Gorge Geology Walk and Mt Ohlssen Bagge.

Bunyeroo Gorge (8km return, easy grade) follows the Bunyeroo Creek through the Heysen Range, a product of hundreds of millions of years of geological sedimentation, compaction, buckling and erosion. We spent about 3 hours on this walk, treading a fairly easy trail along and across an often dry creek bed littered with every colour of stone – pink, red, grey, blue – chipped and smoothed by time and water. Informative posts name and describe the different rock work along the way, the calcareous shale, sandstone, quartzite, siltstone and limestone, the seafloor flute casts and stromatolites, sedimentary layers upended to vertical and buckled to serpentine curves.

Our companions on the walk were majestic river red gums that have experienced hundreds of scorching summers and probably as many flash floods.

In the 19th century, bullock teams and wagons loaded with copper, mail and produce took this route through the range to the western plains, and the walking trail ends at a gate beside a huge river gum where the creek broadens and straightens to run across the flat.

The Bunyeroo Gorge trail is unformed and rough in places but there are no hills and this stunning walk is suitable for big kids and small.

Our second walk, next day, beneath a chalky blue sky, was up Mt Ohlssen Bragge, on the pound rim. And unlike the previous day’s leg stretch this hike (6.4km return, grade moderate-hard) is steep, exposed, rocky and worth every energetic step uphill and knee-testing one down again. We passed several family groups having fun – climbing up rocks seems to have endless appeal for many children – but questioned the sensibility of one couple with a toddler in a backpack because some of the rocky slopes would be a challenge, if not a risk, for the bub-carrier.

Having followed Wilpena Creek from the Visitor Information Centre and cafe (good hot chocolate) through the gap that leads into the pound, we crossed the creek and climbed from leafy, riparian eucalypt forest up through native pines, she-oaks, grevilleas with pretty, curlicue red-and-green flowers, and acacias with wattle blossoms 1.5cm in diameter (the biggest I’ve ever seen). Climbed and climbed to a rocky aerie on the pound’s rim (and then down again).

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It’s a gobsmacking view from up there, taking in Wilpena’s battlement-like walls and flat floor, the distinctively striped battlement-like Elder Range and the plains to the east.

You could spend days exploring the wonderful nooks and crannies, the big-sky views and the many cultural sites in and around Wilpena Pound but if you have the time – or energy – for only a couple of outings on foot then I reckon that Bunyeroo Gorge Geological Walk and Mt Ohlssen Bagge are the perfect double bill.


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Walk Safe & Comfortable

 

by Melanie Ball (this post is based on an article written for and published in Royal Auto in 2010)

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As Simon and I set off on a 9-week walking-focussed road trip around NT, WA and SA, the time seemed right to remind myself and others how best to keep safe on foot.

I love  bushwalking. Because it stimulates every sense – a sandstone cliff lifts my gaze to an expanse of blue sky patrolled by a whistling kite, fingers trace an insect’s scribble on a tree, each step intensifies the smell of eucalyptus, or rainforest humus, or seaweed – and nothing compares with the self-satisfied weariness after a day on foot and the guilt-free pleasure of sating an exercise-fuelled appetite with high-calorie treats.

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But bushwalkers also break limbs, suffer hypothermia and dehydration, and become lost and spend unplanned nights outdoors, their rescue engaging numerous people and making headlines, and some die from their misadventures. However there are ways to limit the risks to life and limb (and self-esteem) that don’t detract from the fun of going bush on foot.

Books and web sites repeat mantras such as “always plan for the unplanned” and “expect the unexpected” but some people do not even expect the expected or plan for the likely; just look at Mt Kosciuszko! It’s a fairly easy 6.5km walk from the Thredbo chairlift to the top of Australia (2228m) and you’re rarely alone on the metal walkway on a sunny summer’s day. But alpine conditions can change suddenly and dramatically so why do people – even teachers leading school groups! – ignore the warning signs and set off in coffee-shop attire when dressing sensibly and carrying water, a muesli bar, and a waterproof jacket might save their life?

The biggest mistake bushwalkers make, says Sgt Ian Colles, Coordinator, Blue Mountains Police Rescue Squad, is insufficient planning and preparation.  “They don’t take enough equipment, they don’t know where they are going, and they don’t have basic navigation skills.”

WHAT, HOW & WHEN

DSC_7146 (664x1000)Choosing an Australian hike is like visiting a lolly shop. The assortment, from city-fringe stroll to remote multi-day trek, can tempt you to take on too much.  Don’t! Select a walk that suits your group’s experience, age and fitness; and that doesn’t necessarily mean one that everyone completes without raising a sweat, just one that doesn’t test limits of endurance and enjoyment.

Research the walk’s grade, length and profile (climbs and descents). Check track conditions (with park authorities), weather, and fire danger ratings before departure, and cancel/postpone if extremes are forecast. Download a map of the track and buy a topographic map for longer hikes – and learn how to read a map and use a compass.

Four is the optimum minimum group size, because someone can stay with an injured walker while two seek help, but coordinating four people is sometimes impossible. Solo bushwalking has unique risks (and pleasures). When doing a remote day walk or overnight hike, tell someone your plans and contact them on your return so they don’t raise an unnecessary alarm.

Fill in walk registration logs where provided and/or leave a note on your car. You can download a “Trip Intentions” form, with safety hints, from Victoria Police’s Search & Rescue Squad webpage. Blue Mountains walkers who register their intentions with authorities are asked for information about medical conditions, intended route, etc. so that the police don’t have to waste time asking for this if you make emergency contact.

On the trail, don’t make or follow shortcuts because this leads to erosion and plant damage and increase the risks of injury and becoming lost. Only go off-track if you’re experienced at wilderness navigation. And if you do become lost (or injured), and a brief scout around reveals no obvious way to safety, stay put. Make your position visible, relax and conserve energy, food and water.

WALKING GEAR

The worth of what you wear and carry becomes clear only when something goes wrong. Footwear is a vital piece of hiking kit however the variety can bamboozle.  While walking sandals suit many situations, including hikes with water crossings, because they grip while allowing your feet to breathe, and ankle support is important on rougher tracks and when carrying a pack, one of my close friends wore elastic-sided boots in all conditions and some people still swear by Dunlop Volleys!

“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 this article, 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.” Always wear in new boots/shoes at home and treat hot spots as soon as they develop; blister pain can be dangerously debilitating. WARNING: gruesome blister photo further on.

Socks affect comfort (and safety) too. Some hikers advocate wearing two pairs, others one (you can buy socks with distinct left and right for a perfect fit). Only trial and error will reveal what your feet prefer. _MEL1128Erskine Falls (664x1000)

And although they provoke repetitive quips about lost skis, hiking poles can lessen jarring on hills and improve balance on slippery stepping stones. Swinging the poles forward as you walk can also stop fingers swelling.

Unless you are into nude bushwalking, and there are websites and at least one designated trail for those inclined, what else you wear depends on climate. Cotton is cool in warm weather but is cold when wet so jeans are downright dangerous in alpine country – take note Kosciuszko summitters! Outdoor shops are full of synthetic-fibre layers that keep you warm even when wet. How you put them together is personal choice. I wear cotton leggings in hot weather to limit heat rash and allergic reactions to foliage and in cooler temperatures hike in thermal underwear and modesty shorts. A windproof and waterproof jacket should be in your pack whatever the weather.

As for clothing colour: I wear rainbow stripes to decrease my risk of being run over by a snowplough and increase my chance of being seen and rescued should I lose my way. FTlegsBut my colour preferences are unusual. “I don’t know why they [walkers] want to wear blue, grey, black,” says Sgt Colless, because such colours make lost and injured walkers difficult for air crews and ground crews to see.  “Black and dark blue is nearly invisible in the bush,” he says.  “Wakers should wear high visibility clothing.” And don’t worry about scaring off the wildlife; you don’t need to wear boring environmentally-sensitive colours to have welcome encounters with birds and animals. (Bright colours also look better in photographs.)

Queensland, Australia

In addition to sunscreen, sleeved shirt and shading hat, warm-weather hikers need to carry sufficient water. I prefer a collapsible, bladder-like bag with tube and mouthpiece rather than a water bottle I’d have to stop to retrieve and uncap. And even on short walks you should take energy boosting snack bars, just in case. A notebook and pen, a compact head torch, a box of matches in a waterproof container, and a whistle (for attracting attention), are other lightweight items that could get you out of a pickle.

FIRST AID GOW blister DSC_7441

A first-aid kit is a must on long and/or remote walks. Blister-specific treatments used early can make the difference between a wonderful walk and a nightmare: hikers’ wool protects suspect spots and cutting a hole in adhesive padding puts some space between your boot and a hot spot/blister. Insect repellent, anti-itch cream and antihistamine tablets can keep bites and stings in check. Elastic bandages work for sprains and snake bites.  And you never know when you’ll be glad of your first aid training.

TECHNOLOGY

As in everyday life, technology now plays an integral part in adventuring and few bushwalkers step out without some electronic link to the world. Many walking tracks have limited or no mobile network coverage you have to hike up a ridge to make an emergency call. A popular alternative is the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB or EPIRB), which emits a signal that is detected (conditions allowing) by satellites and aircraft and relayed to a rescue coordination centre. PLBs should only be activated in life-threatening situations when no other communication system is available and penalties apply for unnecessary use. PLBs with integrated GPS cost from $400, however the Tasmanian government hires them through Service Tasmania for $40 per week, and a free hire system operates in the Blue Mountains. You can also hire them on line with Australia-wide delivery. The Blue Mountains beacon loan system is part of the “Think Before You Trek” initiative between the NSW Police Force and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. “The beacons get all the attention,” says Sgt Colles, “but we push people to plan and prepare so, hopefully, they will never need to use the beacon.”

We put too much emphasis on technology, says Peter Hillary, who made satellite-phone calls from atop Everest fifty years after his father scaled the mountain.  “I was interviewed by CNN on the summit.  It was bizarre when you think of it in terms of 1953 [four days passed before England learned of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s success] but technology is here to stay.” BOG43The danger is people relying on technology over planning and preparation.  Hillary thinks the Queensland, AustraliaGPS is a marvelous aid but should only be used in conjunction with the more traditional, older navigational system – map and compass.

 

Off all the hiking equipment available now, though, Peter Hillary’s favourite is a stove.  “It’s survival,” he says.  “Melting snow and ice, bubbling water, it’s life… a very happy sound.” Carry a hiking stove even on a day walk and you can boil water for a cuppa with a view!