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When your tour guide informs you after a long day that there will be a 4 AM wake up call, the obvious response is to organise a mutiny. But then, this is only the second day of the tour, so patience may be called for. It seemed to me that the reward for such madness should, at least, come close to compensating us for the interrupted sleep– a bird’s eye view of an erupting volcano, perhaps, or a front-row seat as thousands of wildebeests thunder past on their annual migration.

The denouement for the first day of this adventure (for which several hundred people lined up at the designated spot) was a complete bust. It was supposed to be the best photo op of the trip– the sun setting over Uluru. Only there was no sun, and the monolith itself was obscured by ash clouds from recent fires. At least our guide was good enough to break out some bubbly and hors d’oeuvres.


There had been rain in recent weeks, but the light rains followed 156 days without any precipitation. While we were eating dinner, lightning bolts flashed in the sky and those who ventured out from under the shelter felt a drops. For most members of our group, it was their first experience sleeping in the great outdoors in a swag.


There were some looks of dismay as the Europeans realised that a fat roll of canvas was going to be home for the night. Dingoes or no dingoes, lightning, rain or flash flood. There was talk of tents, a discussion Tamara gently steered back to the benefits of sleeping under the stars. My previous trip in the Kimberley had prepared me for this and I was looking forward to it. What I didn’t realise until the next morning was that I had thrown down my swag in a nest of ants. It made for a long and itchy night.

After breakfast, at the designated sunrise viewing stop, we milled about with the rest of the tourists, unsure of what exactly we should be looking at. Kata Tjuta, (the Olgas) were barely visible in the distance because of the haze. The most obvious points of interest were a couple of brushfires that seemed to be burning out of control.


Both Kata Tjuta and Uluru are remnants of a huge bed of sedimentary rock, worn down over some 40 million years following the retreat of an inland sea. It is believed that Kata Tjuta may have been a single rock, even bigger than Uluru before weathering wore it down to thirty-six separate rock domes, one of which remains 150 meters (about 500 feet) higher than Uluru.


Between Ayer’s Rock and the Olgas lies an ancient valley made up of sand layers which hold water, much of which seeps into Lake Amadeaus, ten kms north of the Park. Some of this water is estimated to be seven thousand years old. The dunes themselves are older still, fundamentally unchanged for 30,000 years. Our destination for the morning is the valley of the wind trail, which is too hot to tackle in the afternoon. That is the reason for the ungodly wake up call. When I step into the magic of the Olgas, all thoughts of mutiny evaporate like a sprinkling of raindrops in the desert. It is magical.


As our eyes drink in the stark, beautiful landscape, Tamara tells us about the plants and animals, the myths and history. We should be on the look out for euros, she tells us. One of our group is soon fishing in his pocket for a coin. Not that, she says, the euro is a sub-species of the most widespread kangaroo, the Common Wallaroo or Hill Kangaroo.


They have shiny button noses like koalas and wombats. Euros hop on their short legs in an upright posture. They are less elegant than Red and Grey Kangaroos on flat ground, but bound up rocky slopes with ease. Not far down the trail, one of our group spots one, but by the time I have my camera ready, he is too far away for a good shot.


At the end of our 7.4 km walk, we jump on ‘Snooty’ for a very long ride to our next destination– King’s Creek Station. I should explain here that the vehicle we are on is one of several owned by WayOutback, and in the interests of identification, each one has a name. Snooty is a 4 wheel drive bus that seats sixteen. In addition, we are hauling a trailer, which holds all the food and kitchen supplies. More about the trailer later.


We’ll be backtracking past Uluru to the Curtin Springs Roadhouse, then heading North on the Luritja Road, about 170 kms of dirt. Drive too slowly on a dirt road and you feel every bump, too fast and the vehicle shakes apart. We drove at the automotive equivalent of a fast trot, skimming the tires across the tops of the ridges, which were formed by the action of the tires themselves. Just beyond the Curtin Springs Roadhouse, we catch sight of Mount Connor, another monolith, larger but a lot less famous than Uluru. Curtin Springs cattle station is a mere million acres, so Mt Connor hardly takes any room at all.



This is camel country. Most of the early European explorers used camels, and when they finally had all tracks in place for the trains and telegraph lines, they were too dear to their handlers to put down. Here and there, handfuls of camels were quietly released into the wild. Today, there are an estimated one million rogue camels roaming the outback.


We reach King’s Creek Station at last. Some of our group head to the roadhouse for a drink after dinner. I spread out my swag under the stars. It would be good to have a long night’s sleep at last.


Every once in awhile, our local newspaper ( not known for outlandish or salacious stories) comes up with a headline that could be straight out of a supermarket tabloid.  This morning’s paper had one of those.  The mysterious “spy” apparatus that contributed to the successful rescue of Tim Holding, Water Minister for the State of Victoria, was not revealed, but it did catch one’s attention.

It has to do with some thermal imaging technology being developed for the Australian Federal Police to track fugitives. No one at any level of government would actually fess up to providing it for the search, but authorities insisted that Tim was treated no differently than any other lost citizen.  Right.  I’m sure they would have sent out a spy plane for me, too.  And I could have been there.  I’m just as foolish as the minister, maybe more so.  And nowhere near as fit.

The story began a couple of days ago, when the thirty-seven year old cabinet minister decided to go hiking.  It is still winter, here, remember, and the mountain he chose to climb is notorious for bad weather.  At 1922 meters (6306 feet) Feathertop is only  the second highest peak in Victoria, but when the weather is clear,  the views are stunning and  it is a magnet for hikers in summer and winter.


Faithful readers who followed my misadventures in the Victorian Alps last year may be wondering why I have not followed up with another snow camping expedition.  The answer can be summed up in one word– Feathertop.  My companions had decided (without consulting me) that they were going to carry nearly thirty kilos (66 pounds) of skis, boots, tents, food and gear up a steep mountain in order to camp out, melt snow for water, and hope the weather gods would give them one good, clear day.  It did, but the snow was too treacherous to summit.

Their tents were just outside Federation Hut, Tim Holding’s last abode before he disappeared.  Here are a few excerpts from Alan’s report on the trip I missed– “5 hour up, the last 2 km very hard through probably not that much steeper… needed frequent stops to get breath.  On the last day [we were there] one fit guy climbed it in 3 hr with a full pack plus two 4 ltr wine casks…. wind buffeting us as we climbed feathertop, so retreated and skied part way towards MUMC hut but stopped before getting onto NW spur ridge as intermittent whiteout, and would be steep decline on windy ridge…

“Howling gale last night but hut, tents mostly protected.  All but 7 cm snow blown off leaving icy surface in most places… When we arrive to climb feathertop we find boilerplate ice, too difficult for skis or plastic boots.  The man [they had seen earlier at the hut with his fifteen year-old son] is further up with bloodied face, frozen with fear, standing at the bush that saved his fall but afraid to move.  We kick in steps… and get him down to the saddle….”

Tim Holding set out from his car to tackle Feathertop on Saturday afternoon.  At 6:30 that evening, he sent a text message to his partner that he was at the hut, 200 meters from the summit.  Sunday morning he headed for the peak, telling other walkers that he would turn back if the weather conditions were bad.  He didn’t have snowshoes, crampons, an ice ax or an emergency beacon.  And he was alone.

“In those conditions I made good progress, made it on to the summit and in fact the summit’s not marked and I walked over the top and started walking down the other side,” he said. “When I realised I’d gone too far I turned and walked back over the summit and as I came down the other side to return to the Federation Hut I slipped on some ice and fell.

“I fell a long way, a long, long way. It wasn’t a controlled descent and I fell until I reached a small ledge, slipping and sliding on the ice and there were unbelievably three other walkers.”

The group checked to see if he was alright and asked if he wanted to join them but as they were headed towards the summit and dressed in snow shoes, he decided it would be too dangerous for him to attempt to walk along the slippery ice.  So, he headed down to lower ground, thinking he would walk in the snow and follow a creek down the mountain, find the Owens River which would lead him to the Alpine Road and safety.  That was his second major mistake.

The following day there were around eighty members of the police and volunteers out looking for him, including helicopters and the mystery plane.  He was found by a helicopter over 2.5 kms (1.5 miles) away yesterday morning.  He was cold, out of food, and a bit disoriented, but otherwise fine.  And he still had water.  He was a very lucky man.  In a TV interview, he said that he thought he was going to die.

Alan’s take on the high profile misadventure goes like this– “We turned back 3 times at the lower end of this very rise. [where Tim Holding slipped and fell] Once for extreme wind and twice because each time we judged it too slippery without crampons, especially for coming down when you can’t kick your toes in to make a grip. We obviously made the right choice.”

My fellow cyclist and avid back country skier did his very best to make the adventure up on Feathertop sound appealing, but unless he promises me my very own helicopter,  I think I’ll pass.  Life is short enough, and there’s plenty of wine down here in the plains.  And water comes right out of the tap without having to be melted.  Stay tuned.  Life is always interesting down under.

It was all going wrong. I had deviated off the white path just far enough to plunge my boots into icy water. The gale force wind I had battled to get here now seemed the least of my worries. Floundering in the soft snow, I wriggled out of my pack to get a grip on myself. The whole world had suddenly turned threatening.  What had seemed a bit of a lark in the planning stage now conjured up dark clouds in my brain. If my socks were soaked I would never make it.

If I could have had Dorothy’s wish at that moment, I would have abandoned my companions. I would have clicked my boots together and disappeared back to Kansas, my real birthplace. Back to someplace warm and dry. friendly and safe. After a summer in North America, winter down under was proving much too real.

In the Alpine region of Australia, in the Great Dividing Range, the first week of August is mid winter.  There can be some serious snow. And it gets cold. Not frostbite cold, but cold enough to kick you out of your comfort zone and make you think twice about thermals.

I had gone winter camping exactly once before. It was in Spring in the Sierra Mountains of California. The weather was above freezing and I don’t remember feeling even mildly uncomfortable. It was part of a Sierra Club course.  To get us in the mood, a sardonic physician showed us slide after slide of bodies he had helped recover from the mountains,  narrating the grisly show with the facts leading to each disaster. It was a litany of despair.

A number of the victims had made simple mistakes in preparation or judgment which cascaded into errors that cost them their lives. These were not candidates for Darwin Awards; simply ordinary young people. His mission was to jar us out of our feelings of invincibility and especially out of blue jeans.  Wet cotton is worse than death.  It can leach warmth out of a body quicker than melting icicles.

It was the rapelling (abseilling in Australian) that terrified me. The girl who fed me rope as I lowered myself off the face of a cliff told me later she had never seen such sheer fear outside of a horror movie. I was older than most of the others, old enough to realize that I could actually die. Walking backwards off the edge of a precipice seemed like the height of folly.

What was I doing now floundering waist deep in snow, hapless as a newborn seal.  Hadn’t I learned over the  years? I remember being captivated by Alan’s snow camping Polaroids.  He had passed them across the table like dirty pictures, his secret life.  We knew one another from cycling.

He was getting me hooked.  Winter is not something you get a good sense of here in Australian cities.  It gets chilly and it rains but it never snows.  The days grow shorter and the nights longer.  People hunker down as if it were something to be endured.

But I have lived in cold climes.  I love cross country skiing and the prospect of seeing winter in Oz had irresistible appeal. And Alan was very experienced. He’d been doing it for thirty years. He wouldn’t let me die. Would he?

This is the first part of a few posts on my recent adventure in the Alps. Stay tuned.

I must admit to indulging in a bit of hyperbole, literary inflation if you will. We did not actually have the smallest tent at the campground. I saw one that was even smaller, and I may not have suffered from the worst sniffles ever, but our little abode was dwarfed by most of those around us. I must say Australians have this car camping (caravan) thing down to an art form; Americans are amateurs by comparison.

When the pros hit the campground, out comes a tent that could easily provide shelter for six in the Antarctic, followed by cots, sleeping bags, chairs and tables, a barbecue and four-burner cook top, a rug (no, I’m not making this up) and an Eskie, of course. (That’s a cooler for you yanks and Canadians.)

Port Fairy is a tiny town about three hours from Melbourne that is host, once a year, to a huge folk festival on Victoria’s Labour Day weekend. The town swells from some 2,700 peaceable souls to about ten thousand festival goers and another twenty or thirty who swing into town for free bands and buskers. Needless to say, this taxes the available accommodation to the breaking point. So, most people camp.

Those with flexible schedules show up early. I arrived on Thursday afternoon when the town still looked very sleepy. I latched on to a couple of people I knew and enjoyed a nice, relaxed dinner and breakfast in one of the more popular cafes in town. By Friday night the hordes had arrived. The music began at 6 pm and carried on until early afternoon on Monday. I knew I was in trouble Friday night when my throat got sore.

I’m sure there are people who handle colds with aplomb, with the same sort of equanimity that enables them to set up a tent, drive a golf ball or do taxes. I am not one of the chosen few. I get all snotty and miserable and go through entire forests of paper tissues. I sneeze and make everyone around me shrink away. I can’t imagine how performers cope in such situations.

After investing in the tickets and the campground and luring my wife down on the train, I could hardly pull up stakes without hearing the music. So we went, Friday night and Saturday until mid afternoon. By that point I knew I didn’t have the stamina to carry on, despite a musical lineup to die for– the Duhks, Peggy Seeger, Ron Sexsmith, Loudon Wainwright III, and Faerd, a trio from Scandanavia.

We had heard some wonderful music performed by Mamadou Diabate, an amazing musician from Mali, a threesome from Quebec called Genticorum, a lovely Scottish diva named Eddi Reader, Trouble in the Kitchen and more. We soaked up the flavour of the festival, the food, and learned how to carry beach chairs from tent to tent and set them up right quick.

Maybe next year we’ll do it up right, with a bigger tent, a camping stove, morning coffee, servants, perhaps. And absolutely no cold. Stay tuned. You never know what’s in store for your reporter down under.

Flickr Photos


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