The sky is darkly bruised, the breeze stiff. Without a guide, we forge along a faint track on the roof of Victoria in Australia’s southern alpine region, completely encased by mountains. The two-way radio strapped to my pack crackles briefly and, aside from the odd marker pole reassuring us we’re on track, there’s no sign of civilisation. I think to myself, damn, we’re so hardcore.
Ah, who am I kidding? Our group of five were let loose in the High Country; our mission, to walk the Falls to Hotham Alpine Crossing, a 37 kilometre route bridging two major ski resorts. Though we’re tackling it on our own two feet, someone else is lugging the gear and food; it’s the perfect balance of luxury and challenge. I mean if I don’t find my way to camp tonight there’ll be no Moroccan lamb and Tempranillo to wash it down, and if there’s no Moroccan lamb or Tempranillo…well, I don’t want to think about it.
Jean-Francois Rupp of Alpine Nature Experience is our hero for this adventure, taking care of all the responsible-adult stuff and leaving us to wander the wilderness carefree. Alpine environments require care and, having grown up in the French Alps, they’re second nature to him.
Mountains are like a latino lover: drop dead gorgeous but also, at times, tempestuous and wildly unpredictable. Only a day earlier, thick fog and 70 millimetres of rain hammered the area we’re walking in.
“A lot of people love walking but find it daunting to plan a trip like this,” he says. “There’s gear, logistics, route-finding and assessing the weather. We take care of all that.”
A morning briefing gave us – theoretically – all the tools we’d need: a topographic map, trail notes, mapping app, plus a lesson in handheld radios (for when mobiles are out of range). But the biggest draw for me is that there’s no big backpack to weigh me down on the hills ahead. Okay, that and the promise of Tempranillo.
With the curtain of cloud now hoisted well above the horizon, the vastness of earth and sky is awe-inspiring. The Bogong High Plains float between 1,600 and 1,800 metres – a mass of heath, grass and wetland scattered with clumps of wildflowers quivering gently in the breeze. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to swirl around with your arms wide and sing the “the hills are alive…” a la Maria von Trapp.
The ground covering makes for a cushy start, notwithstanding the fact that yesterday’s deluge has turned parts of the track into a running creek. Frogs croak. Boots slosh. We leap from one raised cushion of grass to the next. But, so far, we haven’t lost ourselves and the mere fact of walking independently really enhances the sense of discovery.
In winter, snow lays a blanket of white over everything here and the only occasional trail markers are tall pine poles – numbered for easy identification in a whiteout. At Pole 333 we detour to historic Westons Hut in the West Kiewa Valley, a steep descent through skeletons of snow gums (burned in the 2006 bushfires) that gives us a prime view of imposing Mount Feathertop, which is Victoria’s second highest peak at 1922 metres.
Westons is one of many historic huts that litter the High Country, reminders from a time when its grassy meadows were considered prime grazing for cattle and sheep, and hardy mountain men built shelters from slabs of snow gum or corrugated iron. The practice continued from the mid 1800s until 2005 when grazing was deemed too damaging to this fragile alpine environment.
Tawonga Huts marks the end of our first day and, after 20 kilometres and almost seven hours on the go, Jean Francois’s camp looks as welcoming as a five-star hotel. A white cloth covers a trestle table, fairy lights hang from a massive twisted and gnarled snow gum, and our sleeping quarters – a cross between a hammock and tent – span the trees like spiderwebs.
Jean-Francois braved knee-high rivers and rough tracks to meet us here, towing a custom camper trailer fitted out with everything from USB charging points to a hot shower. Only one of us is bothered to use it straight away though, our sights set instead on the frosted glasses of Billson’s Beechworth gin and tonic, clinking with ice.
It’s an irrefutable fact that food dominates the minds of hikers and Jean-Francois’ is seriously good. “In France, we don’t shop for a recipe, we shop for good seasonal produce and then design a menu around it.”
He takes the same approach here and our antipasto spread includes smoked chicken and prosciutto from Tawonga South Butchery, and goats and cheese and brie from Milawa in the King Valley.
“The quality of food and wine available in this region is amazing and we use local and organic as much as possible,” he says.
On an open fire, the long-awaited lamb is chargrilled and served with roasted vegetables and an orange and herb salad, and it’s about fifty times better than the two-minute noodles and canned tuna I usually dine on when out hiking in the wild.
With bellies full, we perch on logs fireside with a glass of that smooth Tempranillo we were promised. Dancing flames crackle and pop. A billion stars argue with a full moon over who is brighter. We’re the modern day equivalent of mountain men and women – sans cows and horses.
“My motto is that simplicity is luxury,” Jean-Francois says, and it’s a claim that seems accurate on two counts. Not only do we not have to worry about logistics, life itself is simple out here. Mobile coverage is sporadic and there are no reminders of the city life we’ve left behind.
“You don’t need much to be comfortable,” he says. “With a little bottle of gas, a battery and a solar panel, we have hot water, refrigeration and good food. That’s all that’s essential.”
Minimising environmental impact is also important to Jean-Francois. He participates in the global movement 1% for the Planet, he plants snow gum seedlings with a Mount Hotham nursery and runs a leave-no-trace operation.
Later I slink away to my treetop home, hovering discreetly above the grass and bush, and it envelops me like a cocoon though, albeit a spacious one. The base is surprisingly rigid and there’s only a gentle bounce when I roll over that lulls me to sleep.
“MY MOTTO IS THAT SIMPLICITY IS LUXURY. YOU DON’T NEED MUCH TO BE COMFORTABLE.”
Day two is considerably hillier but a cloudless blue sky keeps us pumped. Three mobs of wild brumbies scatter over the hills, manes trailing in the breeze. A descent through snow gums leads to Cobungra Gap and the chunky log cabin of Dibbins Hut where a snack and a soak of the feet in the nearby creek revive us before the solid climb up Swindlers Spur.
At Derrick’s Hut we laze on grass sprinkled with golden paper daisies and purple grass trigger plants, beneath the shade of a moss-covered snow gum. Our packed lunches include possibly the best – no, definitely the best – muffin of my life; double choc and caramel, slightly crispy on the edges and gooey in the middle. It’s enough to fuel us up Mount Loch where 360-degree views take in the Razorback Ridge, Mount Feathertop and our end point, Mount Hotham village.
When we eventually rendezvous with Jean-Francois again, he says: “I’d be very happy if people get to the end of this walk and decide they’re going to buy their own gear and get out there more.”
Personally, I feel we’ve been spoiled beyond redemption. From now on, it’s camping the Jean-Francois way or bust.
The beginning of the trail is at Falls Creek: a 4.5 hour drive north-east of Melbourne.
The picturesque mountain town of Bright, on the Ovens River, deserves more than just a drive by. Linger for outdoor sports, wineries and great food.
The swanky Bright Colonial Motel has a dedicated bicycle wash bay, maintenance bench and lockup.