Tuesday, 19 March 2013

A Somewhat Spiritual Trip To The Niggerheads And The Fainters

Last year, around August I think it was, I fare-welled my grandmother. She was an amazing person, and someone who I regret not spending more time with in her final years, although the time that I had with her in those final years, although limited, was memorable.

I remember the stories about how she loved the journey up Bungalow Spur to Mt Feathertop, how the scenery changed so often, all the way till the top of Mt Feathertop, and how she loved how the track was often covered in pine needles, before reaching the main crest of the spur.

So, when my Grandfather passed away suddenly in the 2000’s, it gave me great pleasure to know that his final resting place was a place that was very special to him near Rocky Valley Dam.

The Bogongs are of significance to both sides of my family. Once side that found final peace there, and another side had its roots in Harrietville and the cattlemen that used to graze the high country.

When I talk about the Bogongs being my spiritual home, at least you now know why.

Last year, my last conversation with my Grandmother before we said goodbye for the last time was about Mt Feathertop. In her words, it’s amazing that we have been graced with a world with such beauty. She was thankful that she was able to experience such a place.

Proudly on top of Feathertop after losing 45kgs

It is this conversation that lead to me dropping 45 kilograms so I could stand on top of Mt Feathertop again, although I’m afraid that the only spirit that would have shared the summit with me that day would have been my Grandfather, who no doubt was waiting for the day that my Grandmother would be reunited with him from that special spot at Rocky Valley Dam.

And whilst this weekend, as my Grandmother is reunited with my Grandfather in that same special place near Rocky Valley Dam, I would have loved to share the summit of Mt Feathertop with the both of them in spirit, and was actually going to be on the mountain with MUMC on a hut maintenance trip, I find it rather cute that with the closure of the entire area after the recent bush fires that burned from Harrietville to Mt Hotham, that the both of them get some alone time at last in their favorite place.

Frankly, I couldn't have thought of a better ending to their story.

Growing up, I remember my father and my brother going for a hike to the Niggerheads, a small mountain range that rises behind Tawonga Huts near Pretty Valley, named by a non aboriginal cattleman, who believed that the cliff faces that line the range shared a resemblance with aboriginal faces.

In fairly recent times, the name of the mountain range was changed to The Jaithmathangs (Pronounced Yate-Me-Tung), as an exercise in political correctness, however the term “Jaithmathang”, referring to a language apparently spoken by the local aboriginal population that used to inhabit the high plains, was actually incorrect according to local Aboriginals, many who were more offended at the change of name from something inspired by history that both the Aboriginals and white cattlemen shared.

Needless to say, I refuse to use the new name, not because I am racist, but because I believe that our history has a purpose, and the second that we choose not to acknowledge that through something as simple as the naming of a mountain range, is the second that we stop remembering where we came from.

/end rant

Anyway… feeling inspired by an old photo print that sat in the hallway of the house that I grew up in of my brother sitting on top of Mt Niggerhead, with the massive bulk of Mt Feathertop in full view, I thought it was about damn time that I walked the Niggerheads, and made a long awaited return to the Fainters, and maybe even a dawdle over the Bogong High Plains whilst I was at it.

Pretty Valley. It's actually quite pretty here. 

And whilst I was at it, I’d set up camp on the summit ridge of Mt Fainter.

Tonight's camp is somewhere up there near the top...

Now, I’d always remembered my Dad talking about the Niggerheads being untracked, requiring the placement of markers for the return journey, and I kept this in mind as I struck out across open country at the junction for Tawonga Huts and the Bogong High Plains, intending to follow the open ridge into a lightly timbered saddle, sidling a scrubby knoll before sidling into a bully before the summit.

The way is through the middle, to the right, then straight up!

So I suppose you could say that I was somewhat surprised when I reached the saddle in question, and found a perfectly cut track about a foot wide, complete with orange track markers, leading directly to the summit.

Definitely a contrast to the recent reports that a very faint foot track existed that often resembled a creek. By all standards, this was a track just as easy to follow as that across the Razorback at Mt Feathertop.

Classic Mt Feathertop from Mt Niggerhead

Photos just don’t do this place justice. You just have to see this place for yourself.

Rocky outcrops on the northern half of the range are reminiscent of the Main Range, and the view of Mt Feathertop is enough to take your breath away, rising some 900 meters from the valley below, displaying its north eastern spurs in all their glory.

The way is very obvious on the Niggerheads

After my usual lunch consisting of tuna and crackers, and coming to the realization that the next portion of the route will be a purely “off track” affair after finding no trails leading north from the summit, I found the easiest way down from the summit into the saddle to the north east, and found the going to be quite easy, with only very low scrub to battle with.

Navigation? No worries!

Navigation here is pretty easy, with light snow gum cover, you are generally always able to see Little Plain (the broad open plain that separates the Niggerheads and the Fainters), and the rounded knoll that marks the northern end of the range, that you need to sidle on its eastern side.

Poor rock needs some cheering up. 

I found a grumpy looking rock on my travels too.

Looks dry. Its not. 

An hour or so after leaving Mt Niggerhead, I finally reached the edge of Little Plain, and realized very quickly that you are to follow the edge of the plain to the track rather than cut across it to the Fainter Fire Trail.

See… Little Plain, in large part, is a myriad of small creeks that drain off from the numerous springs located within the Niggerheads, most of which are hidden under large tufts of grass, which makes huge potential for broken ankles.

Lesson learned.

Camp is just up there somewhere...

After a quick climb up from Little Plain to a high point at the eastern end of Mt Fainter South, I ended up camping just below the summit in a really sweet spot overlooking The Niggerheads and Mt Feathertop.

Spectacular Campsite Is Spectacular!

And after making a coffee, I made it to the top in time to get some sunset photos.

Someone forgot to tell Mt Bogong to stop showing off.

North Fainter pulling a pose.

Last time I was on or near Mt Fainter, we climbed up in a very long 18 kilometer day from Bogong Village via Bogong Jacks Saddle, camping at Little Plain, before walking out in zero visibility across the High Plains, so it was a nice luxury to enjoy the place a little more than I had in the past.

The next day, after a slight sleep in (a 7am wake up in the high country for me is a blessing!), and my usual two minute noodles and a handful of coffees (remind me to post about my coffee addiction one day…), I went for a stroll out to Mt Fainter North.

Mt Fainter South and its rugged spur

I’d always heard that there are a few heroes among us who climb down the extremely rugged spur leading down from the summit of Mt Fainter South, and immediately up the north eastern spur on Mt Feathertop.

A Heroes Trail. This is one is on my bucket list. 

I can’t say that the idea of following that route doesn't sound exciting, but cant help but imagine the utterly diabolical scrub on the lower reaches of both spurs.

I’m sure a few men have been made on both of these spurs.

Maybe one day. ;)

As for the rest of the day, following the Fainter Fire Trail to Tawonga Huts has never been all that interesting, if anything, the longest four kilometer stretch in the high country, so I’ll just skip ahead to the scene of my next night’s camp.

Tawonga Huts

I’m not kidding. The one thing that I remember on that day of zero visibility some twenty years or so ago when we set off from Little Plain to Wallace Hut over the High Plains was the amount of time that we spent covering the four kilometers along the Fainter Fire Trail to Tawonga Huts. It just never seemed to end.

Although back then, you could literally drive a 2WD on the fire trail, the Fainter Fire Trail past Tawonga Huts has become heavily overgrown in parts, although easy to follow, it was muddy in parts, and had a fair amount of fallen timber to battle with closer to the huts.

Of course, it made my afternoon lounging in the sun at Tawonga Huts even more worth it.

This hut was locked, apparently by the SEC.

…and apart from a brief thunderstorm, it was the perfect day.

The perfect camp site. 

…and it was the perfect place to camp too. The ground here is unimaginably flat in the yards in front of where the old huts stood.

Fail Glowy Shot Is Fail.

I’d promised myself for a while that I’d try and take one of those glowy tent photos, although this one didn't quite go as well as I had planned.

After an amazing nights sleep, and another classic 2 Minute Noodle breakfast with no coffee (I drank it all last night my bad… ), I was off up the quick climb towards the top of the High Plains, with one last view over the Niggerheads and the Fainters.

One last view of the Fainters

And an interesting perspective of the route that I followed on day one – straight up the treeless ridge in the center of the shot, meeting the track in the timbered saddle at the end of the treeless ridge.

The start of the route over the Niggerheads.

There are some really amazing views taking this route too. I’d highly recommend it.

Note the fire retardant on the front of the peak

I can’t miss a last photo of Mt Feathertop from the High Plains. I remember a few years ago on a traverse of the High Plains from Mountain Creek to Harrietville, reaching the edge of the High Plains before descending down Lake Spur to Blairs Hut, being struck in the chest with this view before dropping off the edge of the High Plains.

Every time I walk the edge of the High Plains, this view always blows my mind. Photos just cant do it justice.

Sun Screen. You need lots of it. 

There’s an interesting beauty about the High Plains, it’s a place that I have always enjoyed walking, although it is one of the most exposed days walking that you can do in the high country.

Looks longer than it is. 

The trail basically follows the rim of the high plains above Pretty Valley, as you sidle the slopes of Mt Jim, Mt Bundara (if you can even call it a mountain!), and comes to an end at Cope Saddle Hut, between Mt Cope and Mt Bundara.

Cope Saddle Hut. Not particularly roomy.

At Cope Saddle Hut, after running into a few people who had been a few hundred meters behind me for much of the length of the high plains, we struck up some conversation about a particular item that I carry with me on every hike.

Some people snigger at it, some are amazed, but frankly, it’s one of the things that I never leave without.

The chair. Next to the tent. Yes, that one. 

Yes, I’m talking about my folding chair next to my tent that I bring absolutely everywhere with me.

It’s a HelinoxChair One, it weighs in at around 800 grams, it is VERY comfortable, and it usually slots in my pack somewhere beside my sleeping bag or tent.

I know, people are weight conscious, but 800 grams is not going to break your back, rather it will save your back at the end of a long day.

I get asked a fair bit where to pick up one of these chairs, so if you want to grab one for yourself, they are available on the Helinox website, however, they do sell out from time to time.

/end free promo

To get back to Pretty Valley from Cope Saddle, I followed the fire trail towards Pretty Valley, taking every opportunity to follow the pole lines leading away from the road, with one in particular leading through a very pretty area, containing what may very well be some of the only un-burnt snow gums in the high plains.

Not too many green ones left!

To finish up, I had a thought when I was walking back to Pretty Valley, past those few green twisted and healthy green snow gums  and after seeing the whole Mt Feathertop area only a week or so after it was ablaze, not to mention, being at Cleve Cole Hut on Mt Bogong in 2003 when the Black Possum Spur fires started, and experiencing first hand how fires spread, not by burning a path, but by getting to the next flammable area by any means necessary…

The sheer fact that in the past decade, we have seen three major bush fires tear through our high country is staggering. There is no question, it is staggering.

Whilst there are many opinions and ideas around why these fires were able to spread so fast, in particular, the idea that the banning of cattle grazing in the high country has resulted in an increase in dry litter that fueled fires, the bottom line is that fire, as random as it is, is a natural part of the life cycle of the high country, and creating fire trails, fire breaks, back burning, and grazing a less than 1% portion of the entire national park is not going to stop a fire from spreading.

Having said that, I do miss the cows in the high country, just the same as Peter Garret does according to the log book at Tawonga Huts.

Peter Garret misses the cows too. 

Whilst everyone has an opinion on how to control fires, be it a lack of fire breaks, a lack of grazing, a lack of back burning, after seeing the change in the high country over the past decade, I have no doubt that there is something that is contributing to these fires happening more regularly, however it has little to do with political arguments, and more to do with something bigger and greater that we need to control now rather than later, and most importantly, something that we ALL have the power to control.

But of course, this is not a post about Climate Change, is it?


  1. Hey mate, nice blog. Thanks for linking the Helinox chair! Just what we've been looking for.
    Cheers Darren.

    1. Thanks Darren! The chair is great, isn't it? I'm considering leaving it at home for two trips I'm doing over the next few weeks in Tassie, but I know that I'll regret it if I do.

      Easily one of the best things I've bought hiking with me in some time. Hope its what you're looking for too. :)