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The Hiking Of Mount Jagungal And Blue Lake - The Adventures Of Kosciuszko National Park

by Nicholas Atgemis |

Part of me does not want to tell you about Mount Jagungal. Blue Lake I can easily talk about because everyone was on it. But not Jagungal. I felt like I was indigenous to the land, that is had remained unspoiled, that I was one of God’s chosen few to enjoy his microcosm uninterrupted. The pandemic had rendered out most of my desires to be a man of international standing. I am sure I wasn’t the only one. But I just started figuring out in April last year what might give me great pleasure in using the abundance our nation has to offer for experiences and travel since we were all going to be confined to borders indefinitely and I certainly don’t have any friends with private jets nor the casual disposable income to quarantine upon my return. So the first of my expeditions I checked off in September last year, that was to snow camp on a ski tour. I had done snow shoes and an overnight in the snow but not a particularly long sojourn. Ascending little Twynam my guide Lewis said to me “if we can just make it across there we will see Blue Lake below”, it was frozen at the time. I said I didn’t have it in me. We summited Little Twynam and called it a day. Or maybe I did see the tip of the lake, I can’t be sure, it was howling with wind and the snow was in my face. That’s the funny thing about summiting - you think you are going to stand atop and have this glorious moment where you bask in your success. However, it’s usually howling biting wind that is alarming and fills me with apprehension that if a gust picks up I’ll be thrown onto the last set of rocks I scrambled over and so I hold onto that cairn or that plinth to steady me. As we walked out of the park through muddy soil in September, soil that days earlier had enough snow that we could traverse across it in skis, I asked Lewis if he would take me out again in the summer time, with that romantic notion in my head that I would be up there like some Austrian out of The Sound Of Music, skipping along lovely plush grasses between brooks streaming crystal fresh waters. Except that I know what camping is really about. Taking a dump in the winter ski tour is a kafkaesque experience trying to contort your body into some unnatural position to plonk your waste materials into a plastic bag that then gets fed, with that piping hot feel beneath the plastic covering, into a tube that barely takes the girth of what you need to feed into a device more commonly known as a poo tube. Yes, that is more like what it’s about and before I romance you again, let me express to you the brutality of nature, or what I used to refer to as “the agricultural experience”. We of the city would like to, and most probably from reading books that glorify the Russian peasant’s life or that of a Dickensian countryside, think of the country as a place of great repose; long green pastures of quiet solitude and the occasional squawk of a cockatoo or the distant moo of a cow. But out there in the Kosciusko National Park, and let me be more specific, especially in summer, it is brutal. The march flies, for example, appear to me the size of a gold two dollar coin, with a proboscis that looks more like a needle and boy does it bite. The only good thing is that if you strike them you will usually kill them, you don’t need to be Bruce Lee on your hands. And when they are smashed you can see the kind of egg they were trying to shove down that proboscis into your arm. By the time you have assessed the March fly (in USA they call them horse flies) you have a new one trying to do the very same, now in your lower back. Within a short period you realise the flies outnumber you by millions to one, so it’s pointless killing the next one, or the one after that, but you do it anyway. Lewis had not informed me about the March flies, which I find very clever. I knew it wasn’t going to be all beer and skittles but to be fair, if March flies had been in the brochure there might have been some stalling on my behalf. We met at his home, unpacked one car, re-packed another (his Hilux - we would be taking roads through relatively deep creeks and my city SUV was not manly enough to tackle such terrain though I had put it forward for the job so I could come back into the city with designer dirt). Then we were off. We arrived at the top of Charlotte’s Pass and wasn’t it as busy as Pitt Street. I thought we would be the only ones on it, I was wrong, it seemed as though half of Patagonia’s customer base as well as every family looking for a way to ruin their otherwise sunny blissful day with kids who would moan “are we there yet?” whilst building resentment towards their parents in later life psychology group meets where they complain “you never listened to us, even when we told you we were tired and thirsty you still dragged us to Blue Lake that day, don’t you remember?” “I was just trying to get you kids off your iPads” “Gary, you need to let Jenny speak and stop interjecting please”. And then once we put down the flaps to the tray of the Hilux and I extended my new striking brown hiking poles with cork handles from Paddy Pallin, tightened the laces around my new entry level Scarpa boots and fixed the clips of my borrowed backpack to my torso, I was on my way on a new adventure with Lewis who wore less clothes, old Nike hiking shoes, looked far less conscious of what he was wearing and in doing so was far more authentically himself. For Lewis, and I think he would agree with me, he couldn’t write this stuff in quite the same manner, or if he did, perhaps it would be more technical and less fluffy. He is more the person to experience things but then again, he is an avid reader and his French is better than mine and with a less formal education. He is just one of those people that exists and exists well. He is twenty four years old and when I watch him go about his business, whether it be tying knots or lighting gas stoves with his mittens pulled back over the fingers with the flint sparking in the cold evening air, it just seems to be much more natural, everything that is, for him. Quite often I find myself watching him saunter over bush land like it was no biggie and I think to myself that perhaps I misspent my youth and that in some manner I am reliving it through him. He will age just like the rest of humanity, he will know pain and suffering just like the rest of us, but for the moment he is like that crow that swoops down over the highlands to take what it needs from the land only to fly off again into the distance with that effortless of something which knows neither the past nor the future but merely ‘is’. Down a hill that reminded of the land we walked out of in September, only now everything was exposed. Large clumps of grasses and heath. Towards the end of the descent, a creek, crossed over by a series of stepping stones and on the other side, sphagnum moss, the first I will see of much of it. Lewis stops me. “Don’t touch it” he says “it is native to the Alpine, it holds ten times its weight in water and if you step on it it takes years to recover”. Oh, that’s another thing, which I believe I have mentioned in the past, he is, and without that city privileged Bollinger Bolshevik vantage point, both a naturalist and a conservationalist. Over a slightly dusty track with our 20kg packs on we traverse up the incline, then down some, then up some. Not so many false summits, in fact, one wouldn’t suggest they were summits at all, but certainly not rolling hills in any form, but eventually we arrived at the gate to Blue Lake, just a small mounted sign with an explanation and there, below and beyond, a greeny blue lake and the mountains behind. Now in summer it was glorious, well not glorious, it didn’t seem to need such a superlative. Perhaps glory is the Matterhorn in the background as you descend into Zermatt. No, this was more a sweeping beauty or a heady panorama. We took the track down to Blue Lake. There Lewis went off to rock climb with his friends and I took a small spot by a pebbled inlet (if that is what one calls it) and parked myself on a grassy knoll and prepared myself for a swim in the still very cold (say 4 to 8 degrees) lake and put Bushman’s over myself in anticipation of the March fly attack which was imminent. Never has a scene of such beauty as I took in there, the sharp granite faces to the left and in front where climbers called to each other in a foreign climbing language, the now azure water directly in front, the gentle breeze blowing and the book I read, it’s grainy beige pages with black text in the direct sunlight with that soft smell that comes from a book close to the nose, never never has such splendour been interrupted as badly as those flies did every minute or so, preventing you ever escaping off into the ether of it all. You were firmly remaining in the present, on high alert, as though might as well have been in a foxhole in the midst of a firefight. In the evening as the light went down we ascended up to a camp spot where a number of climbers were camped for the night, enjoying the sun setting over said vista. A group of those people. Foreign to myself. They had that commonality between themselves climbers and mountaineers, so you might think, would have. A generosity of spirit, acceptance of people’s differences and a respect for each other’s craft and experiences. That being said, one could imagine that if you spent enough time with them then you would find those small factions that exist wherever there are humans and there is history amongst people. That night we had dehydrated Morroccan couscous and lamb. Honestly, if my local cafe served such great food I would eat there every day. How can these climbing people get dehydrated food right and my local cafe serves a soggy sandwich. Go figure. I enjoyed listening to the story being told. There was no camp fire, it’s not permissible in the park, but there was a flask of whisky and a vape I brought which had some very special oil in it and by the time I’d indulged in both I was ready to go to bed. I would say bed, but a tent with a air mattress and foam sheet is never really a bed. I had wild dreams and awoke to take a pee, always concerned there might be a copperhead around as I walked around like a zombie in the dark, the canopy above littered with stars fresh to sleep ridden eyes. Then dawn. The collapse of the tent, your goodbyes as the others start to rise. Off we went to ascend Mount Twynam which we never managed to summit in September because I didn’t have it in me. It was difficult country to walk over, occasionally spaghnum moss which we were able to circumnavigate, but that Alpine country, though appearing from the distance like grass, is not grass at all. You need watch your step or you will fall between into a brook or twist your ankle on sub brush. Like the March flies, like our country in general, you must never take it as a picnic or a backyard - the Australian bush is far too Picnic At Hanging Rock for that - always fraught with some danger, save for Lewis, who does indeed treat it as a picnic, but few of us are gifted with such patience and acceptance. As I scrambled over the last rocks to get to the plinth, the mangled trigonometry pyramid lying on it’s side on the small break in rocks below, the wind picked up, as it does, and I was left with that same residing feeling every time I summit, that feeling the Buddhists say in words - to journey is to arrive - once you are there, there is the momentary joy of taking in the vista, that you did indeed succeed in that which you set your mind to. But jointly at those moments I also recall what the Russians say “what’s the greatest hell on Earth? - Success.” For now that it was done, we had to find a new challenge next season. And then how many mountain summits before they just became another thing to do? We ate a soggy wrap, well, I ate more than my fair share, and Lewis therefore ate that horrible thing they call oats or some such stuff, with that powdered milk I detest. I would rather cannibalise Lewis than go for that stuff - I am pretty sure Lewis knows that which is why we usually carry a plentiful amount of food. Now it’s rather boring describing the descent and ascent back to the car, suffice to say we passed those said families where fathers were going to have their backs crippled with children needing piggie backs and wives who looked like they’d rather be getting their feet rubbed or nails done at the local Asian massage parlour/salon. They say you only see what you want to see. I beg to differ. It seemed pretty plain to me it was a nightmare waiting to happen. I looked at Lewis. I told him I loved being a father, that I was very present with my daughter, but I had no patience for this kind of family life. I think he thought I was rather limiting myself. But I beg to differ again. As one English critic once wrote ‘the greatest obstacle to art is the pram in the hallway. From Charlotte’s Pass we drove back into Jindabyne, stopping along the way for a swim in Spencer’s Creek where the water was a Hemingway cool and fresh. The silt in the creeks is soft under food, the rocks slightly slippery and there are branches and twigs you need to watch out for. 5km out of Jindabyne we took a dirt road through private property and three creeks, one of which was substantially deeper than the others and a family were lying on inflatable lilos and needed to move in order for us to pass. Half an hour later we were again doing battle with March flies as we mounted our backpacks and applied sunscreen to walk the two hours of track to Cesjacks Hut, crossing a paddock in the final stretch which lead to the corrugated iron shack with a separate long drop adjacent. Lewis pulled out some head nets and for the first time since we started hiking I had some respite. We camped at Cesjacks for the night. Though it was intended that we could sleep in the hut, thinking that there would be no other travellers on our intended camp site, we were surprised to see there were two couples in their later years and another group of campers which were returning from Mount Jagungal that evening. The two couples were scout masters and we spent a few hours conversing about knots and hiking routes and the kinds of topics you would expect those that occupy remote camp sites to talk about. There is a natural camaraderie amongst these types, a certain level of respect and conviviality just because you have found yourselves in this remote part of the park and therefore are also seeking a different experience from the usual suspects that arrive in the mountains. I would dare say that they have a more spiritual side to themselves, more mellow than thrill seekers. Towards twilight I was complaining to the group about the flies that were biting any part of my skin that was exposed and managing to penetrate the cloth of my t shirt too. I was tired from the heat. The others all had that subtle look on their faces of those that have heard the city types complain about the flies, again. “Oh well” said Peter, “they will soon die down and then it’s the shift change”. “The shift change?” “Yes, the flies go and the mosquitoes come out” “Lewis!” “I told you Nick, it’s type 2 leisure. You can’t expect to have the glory without the suffering.” In the long drop there was silence but for the sound of flies buzzing intermittently. Some of the flies had been caught in the webs that lined the roof and walls - dinner for the spiders that remained concealed between cracks. There was a reminder in these parts of what life really is. We in the city are consumed by our daily lives of music in cafes, jackhammers, the passing of a bus, the clank of a barista tapping out his basket. We seldom have silence or a silence broken by natural sounds only. In that long drop, strangely, I felt the sense of life circling around. How almost everything had an innate sense of wanting to live but that everything would decay and die. These structures that we built, this long drop, how long if we walked away from it all would it take to become the homes or flora and fauna until one day a strong wind blew it over and everything that had made its home there either perished or simply moved on and begun another life elsewhere. I fell asleep listening to the Audible version of Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson switching my earphones over to noise cancelling mode so I need not hear the din of those that remained chatting by the side of the hut. I awoke very cold, it had dropped to below ten and the heat that had exhausted me was replaced with a chill that required my sleeping bag. We rose at 530 to do what we really had come to do. Neither of us had hiked this land so it was going to be exciting for both of us, and a challenge. We loaded our smaller day backpacks with four litres of water each and with lunch and a light shell jacket. By a brook not 30 metres from the camp site we refilled our four litres and set off into the early dusk light, crossing the river and moving through the first hollow to the escarpment on the far side. “This is called a frost hollow” said Lewis. It had different vegetation and it will be the first to freeze over as winter arrives. Now that we were getting very remote the spaghnum moss was everywhere and it was impossible for us not to walk over it. Then we came to the first of many hills and the scrub got thicker, we started to move through heaths and scrub that was reaching our waist. At the top of the hill the snow gums, dead and alive, and granite boulders. Onwards down the hill, then across another meadow, it also filled with moss. It was like this for a number of hours, perhaps three. By the third hour the scrub on the incline was chest high and the sun was now upon us, the sky blue but dotted by white patches of cloud. The noises you make out there are all that you hear, that and the wind. Everything else is silent. You can hear your breath as you take the incline. Lewis often wanders off into the distance. Occasionally I call for him when I lose sight of him. I always like him in sight. There is an apprehension you feel out there, winter or summer, that if you get lost or injured you are fucked. Now we come to the last hills and as we ascend there were billy buttons and paper daisies and other wildflowers of which there seem to be very few common names on the web but plenty of their botanical names which really don’t make for good writing. Yellow, mauve, white dotted the low scrub, green heavier bushes on the escarpments. As we made our way to the summit I noticed the trig frame had keeled over. We got to the top, touched the plinth and soaked in the surrounds. The Victorian Alps to the south, you could make out Kosciuszko and the mountains that Lewis had snowboarded off in winter, making a video for a brand of ski goggles called Sun God. We ate lunch on a small ledge below, though it was hardly a ledge, a patch of grass between rocks. There was reception at this altitude and so I did what most of us do in this modern life, I posted it all to instagram, also to let people know where I was in case we got lost on the way back! Such is my general nerves with respect to type 2 leisure. We had made good time, four hours and ten minutes. We stayed there hydrating and relaxing for half an hour. I would love to say we sauntered back down the mountain but it was still quite enduring and descending the heavier chest high scrub was it’s own challenge, avoiding the granite boulders and the cracks between. A rolled ankle would certainly take the edge of my return. Between the moss and low scrub you needed to watch for brooks too. When we arrived back to cross the river we stripped and had a swim. I kicked my feet in the water and knew I was roughly cooked. We still had another 3 kms to cover back to Cesjacks, the breaking down of our tent and walking back to the car. There would still be March flies to attack us, whilst we did our best to enjoy the river, and whilst we trekked back to the car. It was  Australia Day the following day. Lewis’ mum asked me for dinner. The rain set in and everything cooled down and the flies were gone. I slept for fourteen hours. At dinner it was a lovely bunch of locals, ones I knew well now. The chatter was topical, there was a difference of opinion about whether Margaret Court was entitled to her own values. The debate over whether Australia Day should be moved to another day, the mentioning of invasion day, the plight of indigenous tribes. Lewis was perhaps the most woke at the table. For me, much of it didn’t really matter anymore. All I could think of was that eventually the Chinese would take over the whole country and none of it would really matter in terms of people’s rights. But not for now. For now it was the remnants of the old country, the descendants of Banjo Patterson’s Snowy Mountains. They still rode horses, in the winter they still came across brumbies. One of the party, Tony, was a proper rider, often going walkabout on his horse for days in the Victorian Alps. They all knew the ski fields better than google. It was nice to sit back and listen, though I couldn’t help but tell a few stories of the city and a few bits of bragging, like the time Natalie Portman stopped past... I must have told that story a hundred times by now. I left the mountains two days later with a plan to return. I had, before I departed Sydney, wondered whether I was done with them. A friend had said “you will know once you get there”. I am not done with the mountains yet. They are in me now. They are where my favourite adventures begin and end.