Trip Report: Hillclimbs & Huts (Part 1)

Eyes on the horizon, squinting to look further and further. We were beginning to feel hyperopic in a couple of ways. Earning the leave required for another remote trip means long hours behind the desk. After some weekend exploring closer to home, I realised the Mountains were calling. Some short hours drive away. I must go.

Leave booked, and then rebooked, we were now scheduled to arrive in Victoria at the end of the school holidays, phew! Other than looking at Bright during their Autumn festival, we had no other plans. Maps in hand and fuel in the tank, did we need any?

Swag rolled, but too excited to sleep. We departed late morning after packing the clothes, camera and coffee. We intended to fill the fridge in Victoria. Rolling into Gundagai, as we had a few times; and as I recall – a few more times as a kid. We opted to stop for a stretch and a light lunch. We found a place, a few customers outside that looked good, and it looked familiar.

We didn’t recognise the lady behind the counter, for the young couple who served us a big breakfast last time we were there, but we loitered for service. After a while, and several moments of eye contact we were still unacknowledged. There was no sign asking for counter ordering. But, it was all made clear when she barked at us. Did we want food? Well, yeah…. but not now. We don’t do outward aggression as well as I would like sometimes, so we passively ordered two teas, takeaway, instead.

Taken away, to the nearest Bakery, and the smiling embrace of customer service. Happily asked and given, we ordered some freshly baked pies to eat. The LandCruiser’s side steps provided a bench for the bitter woman’s tea. Terrific, spicy curried pies. Washed down with tea we wanted to forget, we went back to the highway.

Even after all these years, and the kilometres, one thing we both still really enjoy is each other’s company and the open road. So the rest of the drive to Bright, was essentially perfect. The corrected rear wheel track by Jmacx Engineering proved to be amazing on the highway. Unexpected, but we were able to enjoy the speed limit comfortably and safely. With that, we made good time and wound our way around the backroads and hill twists to Bright. Stopping only for a roadside brew.

Unrolling the swag along the creek, the air was fresh. Like, really fresh. We were at the picturesque NRMA Holiday Park. I donned my down vest and we walked back into town. Stalking a place to eat, we weren’t in the mood for fancy. Especially given my Rossi work boots were looking less than suburban. The Brewery was dominating the street, plenty of ambient lighting spilling into the street, and obviously enough liquid amber to keep the patrons warm and talking. Ordering at the bar, we found a barrel to sit at, and watch the crowd. A very good burger later, we were on the street again, looking for a coffee house. We found a Pizza joint and were soon walking back to the swag with oversized espressos.

After a hot shower, we retired to the swag. The excitement and anticipation of leaving for the Mountains now subsided. The relief to be on the road is like an anxiety blanket: just-heavy-enough and comforting. To be here, or rather there, or in transit…. was enough for me to drop off to sleep, content.

The following morning found us refreshed and recharged with a new energy. Firstly, where-to for breakfast, and secondly…. the mountains. Even though we had climbed to get here, Bright feels cuddled and protected. Shrouded in thick smoke from nearby burn-off. There was an unknown altitude hidden beyond the golden trees, where that cold air originated from. It was sending out sparks of giddiness for me. Choosing to acclimatise and sit outside, we dined on a deliciously hot and oversized plate of poached eggs, house beans and other hipster-approved  condiments. We collaborated on a shopping list for the IGA we had spotted.

I lingered over breakfast to appreciate the number of dogs out with their owners. Border Collies in almost all of the flavours, I was melting like my breakfast’s wilted spinach. Their adventure to the cafe, with promise of unequal shares in the bacon or banana bread appeared to be a Sunday ritual. Their owners absently resting one hand in their fur; the other, turning the page of their local paper, or reaching for their cappuccino.

Staring at Border Collies doesn’t climb hills, so we walked back to camp, retrieved the LandCruiser and like clockwork – filled a basket of the necessities in IGA. Feeding the National Luna in our parking space, another happy activity that only a roadtrip can boast.

After filling up with fuel we were off and rolling. Small, barely existent settlements signed along the way. The changing colours of Bright’s deciduous flora spread along this road. Dominantly yellow with violent bruises of red. With no particular plan, we decided to drive to Hotham. Before long the road narrows, the lines change to an exciting yellow and we were climbing. Slowly at first, but finding our rhythm of rev range and cornering. Coming to a lookout I pulled in, for a rest of the dizzying climb, and to take it in. It being the stunning, dead eucalyptus sentinels. Amazingly domineering and a stern reminder of firepower. And yet, from further away – the rolling layers of mountainside – all I can see is its resemblance to the fuzzy backside of a shy Koala.

Throwing open the door I was immediately struck with the cooler air after our climb, and the wave of diesel fumes. I asked David if he spilt some when filling up, without waiting for an answer I grabbed my camera and walked over the edge of the area. After a few shots, I walked back to the LandCruiser. Seeing diesel leaking from its underbelly struck me incredulous. We had already done this dance in Central Australia, offroad. Anne Beadell’s corrugations had cracked our tank, how could the sealed alpine highway have done anything? Throwing my hands in the air, we continued our climb. The leaking was from up high, out of sight. I was beyond the drama, we would drive about until we ran out of fuel for all I could care.

As it happens, once the level dropped, so did the leaking. All we could guess, without climbing under there, was that it was overfilled and the steep climb had maybe caused it to spill over.

Before long we were making the foreign traverse along a bluff, sealed road with tall snow markers guiding our way. Winding along, the view was outstanding. Completely alpine, unlike what we had ever seen before.

As Hotham grew closer, we were feeling like we were travelling to the end of a long curling road, we had no idea what would greet us at the finish line. As it happens we found a typical looking ski resort type settlement. Mostly empty given the season. There was a Hotel, without much sign of patronage. We parked at a lookout to take it all in, it was very windy and the chill was tearing at my face. We turned back and stopped again at Diamontina Hut, hikers were gathered here, some coming, some resting, some returning to their cars. It was a picturesque spot, a little more sheltered. I pined a moment, one day I would love to return and traverse the Razorback myself. Instead, we explored the hut, ideal for some photos and deliberation about our next move.

The Hema HN7 told us the Blue Rag Trig Track was nearby. Given its fame and reputation, it was a given we should have a look. Backtracking a little bit, we pulled off the main road and dropped off the hillside. The road was unsealed but in good condition. Someone was making their exit as we passed but they would be one of only two vehicles we would see. The track narrowed and wound its way around the mountains, kicking up cream dust the deflated tyres absorbed the corrugations well.

We were greeted by a dam and a hairpin ascent to start the infamous trail. Airing down a little more, hubs locked, negotiated the gutter before immediately beginning the climb. The track was more open air now and interchanged from cream to rich brown.

A few descents made interesting with larger washouts to tease out a little flex from from the LandCruiser. Warming up now, we were enjoying the tracks diversity and getting amongst the deadwood. Eventually, the track narrowed to a single vehicle access and I sat a little more upright in my Recaro. The climbs becoming steeper and rockier.

Amazing and hypnotising, we ambled along in low range for some of the steeper bits but there was no need to get out and pick a line, there was only one to choose. At one point, bullbar kissing the sky, the trail appeared to come to a junction, I threw the LandCruiser left. As the ascent climaxed, my jaw dropped with the bullbar. This was a cute plataeu, a single vehicle rest stop for when the track is congested with opposing traffic. Nothing but sky on the other side. I had made the wrong turn. Boring holes into my Hema HN7 reverse camera, I cautiously reversed out.

Shortly after, we met a bloke with his son coming back down, his 4.2L diesel engine sounding at home in the high altitude. He would be the only traffic until late the next morning. Alone with the mountains, we drove on.

With every climb a little steeper, the rewarding view was twice as intoxicating. The clouds were gathering, playing with the light that only added more depth to the view. Like the track before and behind us, the mountains appeared to be perpetual. Straining to focus, we could see layers, upon layers of fuzzy peaks.

The final ascent, marked by the visible Trig point was a dog legged one, with a steeper finale towards the plateau. Out of caution, I engaged low range. The track was the most exposed along this part. The crowding fauna drawn back to allow the troposphere to bare witness to our climb. The final scrabble was loose with scree and slightly washed out, but was no issue. We were up.

The first track of our alpine adventure, we were thrilled to be there. And chilled to the bone once we opened the doors. The wind was fierce, whipping about with wild abandon compared to Hotham. Camping here would be bleak, no other word for it. Attempting to take a few photos with shivering hands, we noticed the swag had slid back, hanging off the roof rack. David’s frost bitten fingers had struggled that morning, and the climb had let him know.

We climbed down to the next peak where one side was closed in with fauna and the other, open but windfree afforded a beautiful view through the grey deadwood.

Sheltered, David unrolled the swag and set about lighting the fire pit. I watched the sunset, this particular one, now ranking an almighty close second, in my all time favourites.

Roasted potatoes, flame licked chicken and salad tastes even better at 1700m above sea level. We could see three other campfires on far off neighbouring peaks. The wind was roaring but our sheltered camp was undisturbed. However, our night’s sleep was unequivocally one of the coldest. The wind presented us a cloud blanket, swallowing our Blue Rag camp until the dawn melted it away….

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