Rumpff Saddle to Howitt Plains Carpark – AAWT

posted in: Australian Alps Walking Track | 0

AAWT Stage 4 – Rumpff Saddle to Howitt Plains Carpark, hiked in reverse (Howitt Plains Carpark to Rumpff Saddle)

Written by Jake

It all started with a conversation over dinner with Jon and Vanessa and a large contingent of the self-proclaimed ‘Adventure Gang’. The challenge for 2014: complete the Australian Alps Walking Track between us, through a series hikes to complete each of the sections. Theoretically it didn’t sound that crazy. There were reportedly 16 ‘manageable segments’ that could be completed over weekends or slightly extended weekends.

So…the challenge was set.

Lorelei and I already had a trip planned for the Australia Day long weekend: a hike called the Viking Circuit that included a section of the AAWT. In his email to the adventure gang about the AAWT Challenge, Jon informed all that: “Jacob & Lorelei are covering a small section of the track during the hike they have planned for Australia Day weekend but this counts towards the challenge”.

I immediately felt disappointed. Was Jon trying to tell me something? Was he saying the Viking wasn’t good enough? Was Jon threatening my manhood? Jon’s innocuous email plagued me; I felt I couldn’t just do the Viking Circuit; it wouldn’t contribute enough to the challenge. And so…the plotting began.

Could we do a larger section of the AAWT in the same area? What about the section from Mount Howitt to Rumff Saddle? It seemed like a manageable enough section of track, based anyway on the completely undetailed hand drawn maps available online. But it involved a different start and end point.

We only had one car (well Caroline’s car anyway), but I had figured out we could theoretically do a one car key swap. But we only had three people… hmm make that two people (you can be glad you didn’t come Kat!). A one car key swap involving two people didn’t sound that dreamy.

We were on the verge of reverting back to our (lame?) Viking Circuit plan again…then I had a fateful stroke of brilliance/stupidity. I called the Licola Caravan Park to book Friday night’s accommodation and asked out of curiosity whether there was a track transport operator in the area. I was told there was not. I explained what we wanted to do and then I was told I could “try calling Ralph”. With a phone number and no real expectations I called Ralph and asked him if he could help us. He said “I don’t think that will be a problem…but there is a bushfire in the area that you should keep your eye on”. How very promising!

Ralph – The man of the moment and his unnamed 1970’s Land Rover at Howitt Plains

So some guy named Ralph, with no particular connection to anything, said he could drive us from Licola to Howitt Plains (a 5 hour return trip) and pick us up at the other end three days later approximately 60km from where we started. Nothing could possibly go wrong with this plan. With more confidence in the plan I made my way to the Victorian Government Bookshop and purchased the required topo maps (we needed three which seemed a bit extreme). I then found the Australian Alps Walking Track Guidebook – which I decided to purchase. Upon reading the relevant part of the Guide I realised the scale of what I had planned for the long weekend. At least one day would be 11 hours, and the other two, probably around 8 each.

So after confirming several times with Lorelei that she “actually wants to do this” (previous incidents have arisen from overly ambitious hiking plans, including one where she stated she would never go hiking with me again but this time she kept saying, “I kind of feel like killing myself this weekend”) and a couple of follow-up conversations with Ralph it was confirmed. We were doing it.

True to his word his word Ralph rocked up at 7am, driving an amazing 1970’s Land Rover, to pick us up from our camp site. The Rover struggled its way up to Howitt Plains Carpark in around 2.5 hours. Despite the blaring engine on any uphill slope and the banging and rattling every time we went over ruts, Ralph still managed to tell us more stories and other fascinating, and sometimes dubious, information than we could have ever hoped for. We thanked Ralph for the lift up and set off.

Day One

Howitt Plains Carpark to Chester’s Yard

We did the easy hike to the lovely MacAlister Springs with it’s loo with a view (recently upgraded too). Then the hike from Howitt Plains to Mount Howitt was relatively straight-forward, particularly as we’d covered the section of track four times on a previous trip. The track got a little harder on the way to Mount Magdela (which we’d also climbed previously). After having lunch on Magdela, we began a steep decent, with the track basically disappearing completely. My left knee was already starting to give me trouble. It had only been 4 hours walking and I was already having problems – this does not bode well for the next 2.5 days! When Lorelei asked whether we should turn back – I refused.

image 2
How could I turn around with views like this? We’re pretty sure we could see Mount Buffalo in all it’s majesty also

Aside from very occasional trail markers, the track over King Billy 1 and 2 didn’t really exist. We renamed the King Billys the “Moron Brothers” because “they don’t get along with others”. We seemed to just be climbing up boulder stacks onto repeated false peaks. King Billy 1 appeared to have about 5 false peaks. There was even a false peak between them that we initially thought was King Billy 2. Even though we’ve previously climbed more false peaks than we care to think about, (Mark and Lucie – think Alice Rawson peak!) they still seemed awfully taxing on our bodies and confidence!

image 3
There were occasionally signs, but they always seemed to be in placed where the track was really obvious!

After the ‘Moron Brothers’, we made our way along a vehicle track toward a camping area that we understood to have ‘reliable water’. We heard the faint sound of running water ahead – very exciting since there had been no water on the track since Macalister Springs. The ‘reliable water source’ turned out to be a pretty small flow – but big enough to fill our water bottles. However, given the marginal flow, I was nervous for the trail ahead – where we would be relying on reputedly less reliable water. It was a cold night and despite the heat that would soon be upon us, we woke up with frost on the ground and rubbing our hands together as we prepared to depart. Day one turned out to be our easiest and most straight-forward day.

Day two

Chester’s Yard to…Low Saddle via Mt McDonald…or then again, maybe the Barkly River?

We had decided day two would be our big day: expecting 11 or 12 hours of walking. However, if we thought negotiating the non-existent track on day one was hard – day two was on a whole new level.

The day started with yet another false peak. There we were lounging around and greedily drinking water on what we thought was Mount Clear when we started looking at our topo map and into the far distance trying to identify peaks. Then came the unwelcome realisation that the large mountain we were looking at many miles away was in fact Mount MacDonald – and we were supposed to be climbing it that day! What’s worse, even once we topped that peak, we were supposed to walk a further 6km down a ridge from it to the camp – the next water spot on our track. We also realised that we were not even on Mount Clear yet – which was probably another kilometre further west and involved yet more climbing to summit. I immediately freaked out (primarily due to our geographical revelations, but also because I heard people coming and I hate getting passed by people!), and I declared that we had to get moving.

So we got over Mt Clear and began descending the other side. We saw the large plateau of the aptly named ‘Square Top’ ahead of us. It turned out Square Top had absolutely no discernible track over it or around it. So we wandered along the plateau, bush-bashing through snow gums and shrubs, and eventually started descending (actually there was some time in between looking at topo maps and trying to confirm where we were and where we should be going – we made ourselves do far too much sidling, especially given how much more hiking came after). Then thinking we had ‘descended onto High Cone’ – I told Lorelei we should keep following an imaginary track straight down the hill – I insisted for some reason on ignoring a cairn that was placed on the left of track trying to lead us down another side of the mountain along a track. Lorelei was very skeptical about this course of action but was too hot and scared of the mood I’d gotten into to fully relay her strong sense of doubt.

Things got pretty weird on this trip – desperate times call for desperate measures I guess.
Things got pretty weird on this trip – desperate times call for desperate measures I guess

So we bush-bashed down for a long while and eventually realised we were going a long way down and had not found any semblance of a track. We’d now already been walking for about 5 hours. Lorelei called lunch to recoup. She sent me scouting while she put together our wraps and after some long consideration of the topo map, I realised that the large, conical peak to our left must surely be High Cone. Lorelei was pretty mad at me as we climbed back up the hill to the junction where she had wanted to follow the marked track!

Then we took the actual track (at least for a start when it existed) to the base of High Cone. There was a bit of track from the cairn on Square Top, but then no discernible track over or around High Cone at all. It was apparent during this section that there were other groups having navigational issues too, one of which we followed (having given up on our own navigational skills). We recall them saying “I hope you aren’t following us we have no clue where the track is”. We began sidling High Cone with this group, which caused my already really sore knee even more pain.

Eventually we gave up and climbed over High Cone (thinking this might help us be better navigators – particularly as by now we’d hastily gone ahead of the other group) and started dropping down the other-side. After we met yet another lost group on the other-side, who were travelling in the reverse direction, and who thought they were already at the base of Square Top – we continued along what we thought was the track. Oh…yeah about that. We had missed yet another invisible unmarked junction and were now heading off down the hill bush-bashing. This time Lorelei had taken the lead – so at least we were even (kind of). Pissed off with ourselves that we’d basically made the same mistake of walking ages down a hill in the wrong direction again(!), and so soon after doing it before, we sidled uphill again and eventually joined the saddle towards ‘the nobs’. At this point I feel I should just note so that there’s no confusion: nobody else we saw on the track was trying to do the same amount of dumb length/route we were.

Now we had an epic climb over ‘the nobs’. At this point we were really pretty short of water, the afternoon sun was beating down and we were suffering. We’d already been walking for around 9 or 10 hours. Lorelei made me stop for a few breathers on the steep climb up the nobs – she figured a minute’s break was better than passing out like her body wanted to. Atop the Nobs we scouted ahead at Mt McDonald again (which by then we’d renamed “Mt McDick”). We then dropped down the other side of the nobs – yet again we couldn’t find any track – but at least we could see a 4WD track further along and we knew we wanted that. We aimed straight for it and eventually joined it. We had now reached the base of the track up Mount MacDonald. We had about 700mls of water between us – and the hope of finding water somewhere soon became overwhelming. My tongue felt like it was swelling, my throat was as dry as the Mallee, and my knees felt like they were about to explode. Lorelei was in marginally better shape and offered to walk an extra 2km in each direction to get us water from a spot on the map…we just had to find that spot first.

We followed the 4WD track past a campsite and then oddly started to descend a bit. Natural undulations we presumed (our brains weren’t working that great by this time). After a fair way down the 4WD track we looked to our right and realised we had now dropped down well below the ridge up to Mt MacDonald. We had missed yet another completely unmarked and certainly not obvious turn-off. At this point I was not even concerned. I knew that if we dropped far enough down the 4WD track we would find water at the Barkly River. Both of us also thought we could hear running water down a steep gully to the left of the track (we were hallucinating). Lorelei, worried about me and still somewhat determined to take on Mt McDick then offered to bush bash down to try and get some water from what we thought was a running creek 1km below the track. After making the steep descent to the alluring ferns, and what seemed like a long-time, Lorelei yelled back up “THERE’S NO WATER”. It was dry. So she climbed all the way back up, getting scratched to bits the whole way and I declared that we would have to drop all the way down to the river – as without water Mt McDick would probably kill us. Even though we were now deviating from the Australian Alps Walking Track – we decided that given the circumstances, maybe we could claim Mt MacDonald anyway.

image 5
Schmittsky sacrificed her legs to find water, but couldn’t find any! Ouch

After a seemingly endless descent down to the river (during which for some reason I found new energy and forgot about my knees) and around 10 river crossings, we arrived at what we decided was a ‘perfect campsite’. It was now 8:45pm and we had been on the trail for 13.5 hours. It was getting pretty dark but we had just enough light to have a quick wash in the river. Then we cooked and ate dinner in the dark, and immediately went to bed, exhausted.

Day three

Barkly River to Rumpff Saddle

Okay…so now for day three. We had hiked 13.5 hours yesterday. My knees were even worse. I declared my left leg a passenger. But trying to simply drag my left leg around was putting pressure on my right knee, making it worse. Lorelei found me some ‘wizard sticks’ to aide me along. We had an epic climb back out of the river valley to Low Saddle. A climb that we have now decided was probably bigger than the climb over Mt MacDonald would have been the day before! But at least we got water! We finally arrived at what we thought was Low Saddle, both already pretty well buggered. Then we realised…oh we’re not even at Low Saddle yet. Great.

Never a truer sign has been written – although finding this sign on day three was not much help.
Never a truer sign has been written – although finding this sign on day three was not much help

When we did finally reach Low Saddle we eventually located the AAWT at a junction and began a completely ridiculous and horribly steep climb up the innocent-sounding ‘Mount Sunday’. With a tree down every hundred metres or so, rocks everywhere, and the track very steep, and the heat, we were both really suffering, especially me with my sore knees. It was already way too hot (the hottest day forecast for the weekend), and we wanted to chug all of the limited water we had. The streams on our topo maps weren’t running (except for one little river branch Lorelei missioned to earlier, which was already way back). Somehow our legs got us to the top of Mount Sunday. On the way up I got a welcome phone call from Ralph who was checking our progress. I told him to pick us up from Rumpff saddle at 5:30pm (at that point we knew we couldn’t make our original 4pm goal).

The view confirmed we had done a lot of walking – way off in the distance we could make out Mt Clear, Square Top, High Cone and the Nobs (look at the farthest horizon).
The view confirmed we had done a lot of walking – way off in the distance we could make out Mt Clear, Square Top, High Cone and the Nobs (look at the farthest horizon)

From Mount Sunday we began to descend. At this point I was barely crawling along and starting to get moody. Lorelei made us stop for lunch, she thinks maybe some food will help us (“there’s water in the cucumber!”). Then we proceeded down a really steep descent, followed by a really steep ascent, followed by really steep descent followed by…you get the picture (repeat repeat). We climbed “Mount McKinley” about 7 times (false peaks!), we also climbed Mount McWizard (named after me and my wizard sticks) and then the soul-crushing Mount McFuckschmitt – aptly named because we thought we were done with steep climbs, we were knackered and it was the steepest MoFo track we’ve ever walked up. Lorelei could hardly move up it in the heat and with the fatigue (she sucks at up and I suck at down). Even Lorelei, the gal who struggles for the first few hours of hiking every time and then is annoyingly peppy after 6 hours of hiking, was suffering and suffering something severe!

Lorelei post Mt McFuckschmitt...
Lorelei post Mt McFuckschmitt…

Then we finally, and happily, hit another junction: now we knew we (only?) had another 6km of walking to get to Rumpff saddle, and the topo map suggested it would be a little more mellow (assuming we were reading it correctly…but we weren’t so confident about our map reading by this stage). Despite being both truly destroyed, extremely dehydrated, and me walking like a drunk wizard with bad knees again – we made good time. After walking for about 10 hours total for the day, to our amazement we rounded a corner and saw the most glorious sight. Probably the best view I had had on all the three days. The view of a 1970’s Land Rover sitting majestically on the grass. We immediately chugged our small amount of remaining water.

Best view of the whole trip.
Best view of the whole trip

Ralph, our ‘knight in miss-matched shoes’, came strolling up the road (he said “this place has gone to shit” or something like that – he’s an ex head of a CFA group who despises regenerating bush as a fire hazard and is notorious for doing things like setting fire trucks on fire to show that they are stupidly flammable). We greeted him enthusiastically. He then offered us some water – it turned out he had a tap rigged up to the outside of his truck which is connected to two 20 litre water tanks. Ralph was now officially our hero. He then took us to a mountain stream that was cascading off a rock ledge next to the road. We were so excited about the abundance of water we filled all of our bottles, and Lorelei even chugged a bottle just to refill it again!

After a long drive down from the mountains, and an equally long drive to Traralgon (where it got up to 42 degrees that day!) we settled on an Indian place for dinner. I finally went for a pee – my first in probably about 8 or 9 hours. What came out was disturbing. My wee was brown. Not yellow, not orange, but a full-on proper brown colour. Freaked out, I didn’t flush it so that I can go tell Lorelei to check it out. She came back looking completely shocked and a bit worried.

Yeah…I’m not sure brown wee is a sign we’ve had a good weekend. We’re not sure if we did. We don’t entirely regret the adventure, but nor would we say we enjoyed it. We certainly don’t want to do a trip like it again….at least not until the memories of the pains and struggles are a little more hazy and clouded out with our pretty pictures.

Trip summary

(including Mount MacDonald, which we are claiming)
Total Ascending (TA): 3465m
Total Descending (TD): 4155m
Total Distance of AAWT completed (TKM): 53.9km
AAWT Points: ((TA+TD)/1000)*(TKM/10) = 32.9 points

Total Trip Length: 59.9km

Do we think we’re going to finish the AAWT this year? Lorelei says “No fucking way, half of it’s in bloody NSW and from what we can tell most of it is not even marked!”. I guess at least now, we have some idea of what we are up against!