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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Heart of the High Country

I count myself fortunate. In my life I have seen the soaring mountains of New Zealand, the Canadian Rockies and the Austrian Alps but when it comes to mountains my heart belongs to the Australian High Country.

The Australian High Country
It always comes as something of a shock to visitors from overseas to learn that Australia (a land most people think of as one large desert) has a mountain range of sufficient height for regular snow in the winter. The "High Country" is that part of the Great Dividing Range that runs from southern New South Wales to southern Victoria. Ski-fields punctuate the higher peaks and while our runs are not long and punctuated by hazards such as snow gums, it attracts the snow fiends.

Last weekend, D and I took a break in one of our favourite corners of the State, a little gold mining town tucked into the mountains, called (somewhat ironically) Walhalla. Far from being the home of the Gods,  at its heyday it must have been more like hell. Walhalla lies in a narrow valley with steep slopes on either side. It is so steep that the cemetery boasts vertical graves and the locals literally had to take the top off a nearby hill to construct a cricket pitch.

Gold...the lure of gold induced our tough forebears to risk their necks and ankles in the pursuit of the elusive metal as they pushed deeper and deeper into the bush. By the late 1890s Walhalla boasted a population of nearly 30,000 people clinging to its vertiginous slopes like mussels to a sea wall. The hills for thirty miles around had been stripped bare of trees, arsenic from the processing poured into the creek and the continual thump of the stampers would have echoed around the hills. D and I to shake our heads in wonderment at how ow these massive bits of iron machinery were brought into these valleys.

Today Walhalla boasts a permanent population of about twenty people and has the dubious honour of being the last town in Victoria to be connected to the electrical grid (less than 20 years ago). When we first visited this area, the road into it was no more than a narrow dirt track. Today it boasts asphalt, bed and breakfasts and a steady stream of tourists. How it escaped the fury of the 2009 bushfires still causes the locals to wonder. It came close, ringing the valley on 3 sides.  Black Saturday took Marysville but not Walhalla. If it had come, there would be no escape from this valley.

Ruins at "Maiden Town"
The little valley is filled with ghosts. Although long since reclaimed by the bush, the countryside is treacherous, littered with hidden mine openings. High above the town and stretching miles into the forbidding hills beyond are the ruins of little settlements, ghost towns which once boasted pubs and shops, families and schools and the many citizens of different lands intent on eking a living from this inhospitable countryside.  Up here the wind doesn't sigh through the trees, it roars and howls.

We did not deliberately choose the weekend of the Australian Rules Grand Final but the happy circumstance meant that Walhalla was quiet. It was also bitterly cold and very wet. Tucked up in our comfortable room in the Star Hotel, D read and I wrote. In the evening we ventured out into the cold, wet darkness on a ghost tour (more on that for a later blog).

For the return trip we decided to go north through "the High Country". This track takes you out past Thompson Dam (nearly dry during the height of the drought) and through the worst of the country devestated by Black Saturday. Few hardy souls go this way even in the best of weather and the rugged track was bearing witness to the storms of the last few months with wash aways and fallen trees making the going tough. The map declares the road "unsuitable for caravans". It would have been unsuitable for anything less than our Landrover!

We pause to look down at the Thompson Dam, ringed by its blue hills and now nearly filled. The air smells of damp gum leaves, cold and fresh.

Thompson Dam
As we drive further north, the snow begins, great wet flakes falling on the windscreen. The scars of the great fires are still very much in evidence. Along the ridge lines, the skeletal sentinels of the great gums fringe the horizon, mute witness to the fire storm. Closer to the road, the limbs of the fire ravished trees bend under the weight of the frosting of pristine snow and in the deep gullies, tree ferns wear their mantle of snow like a lady's petticoat, sweeping into a deep curtsey before the fickleness of nature. We are the first car to break the crusting of snow on the road and everywhere around us is silence.

My heart belongs to the High Country. Where does your heart lie?