Mount Howitt to Barry Saddle – AAWT

AAWT Stage 5 (trip 4) – Mount Howitt to Barry Saddle

Written by Mark

With my PhD thesis finally handed in I was keen to head to the hills and start my contribution towards the mighty AAWT 2014 challenge. Luckily for me it was the Easter break, meaning that I acquired a trusted hiking buddy in Vanessa to join me on my post thesis adventures! With only 5 days until the infamous Boogie (“Boogie Boogie Party Party”) Festival and with only 2 hikers we were limited in our options and therefore opted for the Viking Circuit (with additional extension hike to Barry Saddle). Luckily, I did not feel that my manhood was threatened by Jon’s intimidating words as Jacob had been earlier in the year. “A small section of the track.” Maybe, but somebody had to do the damn Viking Circuit. It turned out that what proceeded would include some of the highest and lowest moments of both Vanessa and I’s hiking careers.

We eventually left Melbourne on a cold Monday morning; if you have never done it before, it is a beast of a drive across and then up to Licola! A casual stop in one of the lovely towns along the princess highway for a salad bap (and some extremely expensive photocopying) gave us the energy we needed for the remaining drive, including a further 90km or so from Licola up a pothole filled dirt-road to our starting point. We knew that we were going to be playing catch up for our late start for the rest of the hike.

Morale high and the start of the hike

Day one

Mount Howitt to Mount Buggery

We finally left the Howitt car park at 2.38pm (this became a bit of an in joke as every time we checked the time from then on it always seemed to be 38 minutes past something!). It was certainly not the early start we had hoped for but still, morale was high as we set off on the hike. The first few kms were pretty easy following an old vehicle track along to Vallejo Gantner Hut, a loo with a view and the pleasant Macalister springs. We knew this would be our last water for a while but we didn’t hang around for too long as we had a long way ahead of us!

The lovely Vallejo Grantner Hut

Soon after the springs we made it to the junction with the AAWT (finally, Gregory would start his contribution to the challenge) and after identifying a few peaks across the valley, with the help of a kind knowledgeable gentleman, we started our trek along the Crosscut saw. It was a beautiful afternoon and the views across to our future destinations of the days ahead were quite spectacular. With 13 knolls it was a pretty up and down affair but a lot of fun hiking along the ridge. We soon lost count of the knolls and with the sunlight soon ready to depart we stumbled across a flat bit of grass and decided to set up camp for the night. It turned out to be a belter of a spot – perfect views for sunrise in the morning and surprisingly sheltered (although it was hard to tell how!). We rested up (after a few rounds of 500) as we had a big day ahead if we were to make it across to Viking Saddle the next night.

View of The Viking from the start of Crosscutsaw

Day two

Mount Buggery to Viking Saddle

We woke up to a view of beautifully white velvet clouds filling the valley, aka “The Terrible Hollow”, below us. Vanessa also commented on the sunrise being quite spectacular but I was too lazy to rise for this. We were still a little confused as to where we had ended up camping – had we already been over Buggery? It turned out that the first climb of the morning was up Mount Buggery (the first of many entertaining names along this part of the AAWT) and you worked out pretty quickly why it was called so!

Coming over the top of Mt Buggery unscathed we descended steeply into the aptly named Horrible Gap. The track continued north and then climbed steeply north east up to the summit of Mount Speculation; with a few rather dangerous rock climbing missions along the way. We reached the top to see wonderful views over the area and one step closer to the ever more glorious looking Viking. Upon Speculation we realised that the names of the peaks along the circuit provide quite interesting vocabulary that scream for a mimed selfy. Luckily we only realised this upon the summit of Mount Speculation and not Mount Buggery (phew!). We will leave you to work out the locations of the below selfies…

IMG_0442 IMG_0443 IMG_0472

We continued a little past Mount Speculation to find our originally intendedcampsite for the first night and stocked up on water before quickly scampering along the 4WD track around to Catherine saddle. The waterless campsite provided some nice looking logs for a nice lunch break. The sun still shining brightly and the breeze calm.

Burnt snowgums on a blue sky canvas

Fully nourished we commenced the hike to the summit of Mount Despair; another peak with “lots of snowgums” which offers “no views” – a phrase we got used to reading. The endless descents and knolls (over a lovely red conglomerate undefined and rarely marked path) were briefly interrupted to views of The Razor to the north, before finally leading us to Viking Saddle – our campsite for the night. A lovely spot for a campfire and a green thai curry before resting up ready for another long day ahead.

I don’t tend to sleep well when camping, the first few hours normally go fairly well and then I have to wake up every 30-45 minutes to turn over after one side of me goes numb. Well, I was in the most enjoyable part of my nights sleep (the first few hours) when I was rudely awoken by a fairly alarmed and awake Vanessa.

“What was that?” she said. This was a pretty redundant question to a man that had just been woken up, who was also wearing earplugs.

“There it is again, it is someone screaming!” Although I didn’t hear anything, as I hadn’t had time to take my earplugs out, I tried my best (unsuccessfully) to calm the situation by suggesting that it was not made by a human. We then laid there talking about all the possible situations that could lead to human screams in the middle of the night somewhere near Viking Saddle. The conclusion was that there was either a mass murderer about, or it was a bird. Luckily for us it must have been a lyrebird, although we never did see that lovely family from earlier in the day by the water hole. Eventually my usual sleeping pattern resumed.

Day three

Viking Saddle to Little Viking (Via Barry Saddle)

Day 3 was not to be the most productive when it comes to smashing AAWT kms. Before our hike Mr McElwee informed us that there was “no point doing the hike AT ALL” unless we made it out to Barry Saddle. Intimidating a man as he is, we obliged. Our original plan was to camp at Viking Saddle two nights in a row but at the last minute we decided to pack up our stuff, hike up to The Viking and leave our packs at the summit for the 10 hour hike out to Barry Saddle and back. We proposed that we would find somewhere between The Viking and its smaller sister – South Viking. This turned out to be a great decision. The climb up to The Viking was quite tough (doing it twice was enough, three times might have been one too many) and there was a number of occasions where the backpacks came off and had to be shoved through a tight gap in the rocks. Vanessa went through first, then the packs, then Gregory. Upon reaching the top we were rewarded with our best view of the cloud filled terrible hollows below – quite stunning!

Terrible Hollows

With very little water remaining we took all our empty bottles and our lunch supplies and headed down The Viking to the east into the Barry Mountains. Although our trusty guidebook suggested that the track would be pretty much markerless we were pleased to see that additional markers had been put in place and the track was well defined. We passed a women walking the other way who had made it from Barry Saddle that morning pretty quickly so we were hopeful that the hike would not be 10 hours as expected. We continued along the ridge steeply descending into the valley below. The path leading us over many “tree-topped knolls” offering “no views”.

It was at some point during this morning that Vanessa’s hardcore hiking schedule started to pay its toll. Her Achilles was causing a fair amount of pain and unease so an early lunch stop was called in a small break from the usual overgrown surrounding bush area. After lunch our progress was promising and we eventually wound our way upon Barry Saddle. We were expecting Mr McElwee and Miss Schmidt to be heading to Barry Saddle the coming weekend so we wrote a note left some gifts and packed it all up in a ziplock back and buried it all under a big pile of bark under the Barry Saddle sign (as pointed out by Vanessa).

Vanessa indicating the location of the surprise for the continuing Melbourne Adventure Gang

We were very pleased to find a very full looking water tank at the campsite of Barry Saddle and had plenty of empty tankards that required its contents! Unfortunately, some little “friends” were also keen for their share of the good wet stuff. Looking into the top of the tank we could see a rather large amount of squiggly looking worm type creates. Positive that the tap would have some kind of filter (and upon inspection of the first vessel) I was pretty sure that our friends would not make it into our containers. How wrong I was. Filling up Vanessa’s camel pack was a particular highlight. The main pack looking very much worm free I rushed to show Vanessa with excitement, but we both simultaneously noticed that a couple of these crazy critters wiggling around in the tube to the mouth piece. Vanessa was not impressed and our efforts to remove the worms were unsuccessful. This proved to be the turning point of our trip from some of the greatest views and weather of our hiking experiences it was slowly turning sour. However, the worms and bad Achilles was only the start.

Sunset before bedtime

After soaking Vanessa heel in some lovely cool worm water we left Barry Saddle and retraced our steps to the base of The Viking. The pace was good but without cooking equipment to boil our “fresh” water we were becoming more and more dehydrated and more desperate. I soon resorted to the only bottle that was “worm free” but it didn’t last long. Let’s just say that desperate times called for desperate measures.

Sun and moon in one shot – two different worlds

The climb to the summit of The Viking was much steeper coming from the east but also a lot of fun, although we imagined it would not be so fun in the wet! We found our packs, to much delight, and walked only a little further to the saddle between the Viking peaks to set up camp for the night. We boiled all our water and flicked out the soon dead and floating critters. A cup of tea with dinner and a beautiful sunset and moon light from each side of the open saddle took away all the negativity from the day and put team morale back to the dizzie heights of the previous days ready for our final day of hiking. Or so we thought…

Day four

Little Viking to Wonnangatta River (via the wrong path)

We awoke again to find stunning views of the cloud filled hollows as we got an early start to a long day. Our intended hike was a 900m drop down to the river bottom followed by a reciprocal climb back up to the Howitt flat plains and our car. A tough day’s walking but doable assuming the tracks were easy to follow…

Even Terrible-er Hollows

A quick climb to the south Viking provided the final views of the day before a steep descent into the river valley below. No longer being on the AAWT had a number of downfalls. Number 1, and most importantly, we were no longer knocking off kms for our challenge. Number 2, the track was no longer maintained or marked at all. Number 3, the track was not walked as often, which meant even previous foot-tracks were hard to spot among the bushy regrowth. The latter two downfalls really took their toll quickly and we were soon quite off track and marching slowly through ridiculous river-beds and fern-tree infested forest that we can only assume had never seen human live before. We were not too concerned though, as long as we continued south we knew we would eventually hit the river at the bottom.

Mark rugby tackles fern-trees: wrap the arms Gregory!

I led from the front and shoulder-charged a path for us through the relentless overgrown bush of large ferns, rosemary trees and blackberry bushes and after a quick water fill (from one of the streams heading down the slopes to the river valley below) and lunch stop our bush-bashing mission continued. The sounds of the larger water flow of the Wonnangatta River were well received, if a little overdue, and we soon worked out that we were only 500m to the east of the river campsite we had originally aimed for as a lunch spot. The bushbashing cuased us to arrive there 4 hours later than expected and we therefore took the wise option of setting up shop for the night and eating our final dinner. The hike we intended for the afternoon would then be a simple walk the next morning back up to the high plains. We had a look at our resources after dinner and worked out that we had enough breakfast for the morning, a couple of wraps with a single boiled egg for lunch, a bag of salted cashews for snacks and an emergency pack of noodles for an emergency dinner.

An unexpected day five

Wonnangatta River to Mount Howitt car park to Boogie

It seems that the gods were now officially against us.

Packed up and restocked on water we were all set to cross the river along a large fallen tree. All was looking good until seconds after the below photo was taken. As soon as I reached the other side of the river I disturbed a wasp nest and they all went for Vanessa. She did a pretty impressive job to not fall in whilst turning and running back along the log. Unfortunately she did have a stung arse to show for it.

Fallen tree wall of death!

Thinking back on it now I am still not really sure how we made it. Past the wall of death the “bush walking” continued and I was personally really struggling to hold it together. These were the toughest of times. I think Vanessa will agree, the official low point of the week had hit us. Not many words were spoken, tears were held back at times and as the hours ticked on the possibility of camping for another night with limited supplies looked more and more likely.

Just when the thoughts of “should we be making an emergency call soon” started to become more realistic, we stumbled across a 4WD track. The initial thoughts were confusing and of doubt. This was not what we has expected. But after digging out the compass we worked out the track it was heading in a north-south direction and could only be the track from the carpark up to Macalister springs. We were not completely confident but then, we found people! Actual human beings! It had been a while since stumbling across humanity and I could have almost hugged them.

“IS THIS THE TRACK TO MOUNT HOWITT CAR PARK!!!?!?!?!?!” said multiple times in less than a second with excited yet exhausted voices. They must have thought we were crazy! Or at least pretty damn weird.

With this amazing news in hand we almost ran back to the car! Such an awesome feeling, so happy, so relieved. The car appeared into view and the whole ordeal was over.

Vanessa drove down the track back to Licola. Both of us pounding anything edible we could find in the car as well as the trusty cashews left from the hike. Trying our best to find any signal to let our Boogie friends know of our lateness was tough but we finally managed to send a text or two. We were ravenous, all the food in the car was gone instantly and with nothing much of interest at the Licola general store our hunger led to a very silly mistake – we went south from Licola…

I still don’t really know why this happened but it did. Boogie was not on our minds. We just wanted a trusty hot meal. We headed south to Heyfield and we would be punished severely for such stupidity. Being Easter weekend the pub in Heyfield was packed. We ordered food promptly and sat down. There was a lot of people in the pub who had not eaten yet and the longer we sat there the more we realised we wouldn’t be getting ours anytime soon. I cannot recall how long exactly the food took to come out but I can tell you it felt like a fucking millennia! The food was not even good when it came. We then continued south trying to get a good enough signal to get the sat nav going. Once we did it was too late to go back. We were going to Boogie via Melbourne.

We eventually made it to Boogie around midnight, drank port by the campfire and told our stories to our very relieved friends and loved ones (well the ones that were still awake or sober by this point).

And the good news after all this was… only a few weeks until the Anzac weekend hikes… YAY!

Trip summary

Total Ascending (TA): 1480m
Total Descending (TD): 2270m
Total Distance of AAWT completed (TKM): 23km
AAWT Points: ((TA+TD)/1000)*(TKM/10) = 8.63 points