hiking

Hiking Through History on the Goldfields Track

This is a guest article by Lachlan Robertson

We were following the line of a spur downhill when the bush erupted with cries. Panicked currawongs squawked from the canopy where they had been nesting. We stopped walking and watched as a dark shape passed over a break in the foliage. A wedge-tailed eagle was circling overhead, searching for unsuspecting prey. It continued to pirouette for a few minutes before dismissing the currawongs in favour of less aggressive prey. With the commotion dying down, we hitched our rucksacks and continued along the trail.

The Dry Diggings Track is advertised as a walk through Gold Rush history. One link in a three-part walk known as the Goldfields Track, it winds through the hills between Castlemaine and Daylesford. After the discovery of gold in 1851, the promise of new wealth drew people from across the world to Victoria’s goldfields. In just three years, Melbourne’s population grew from 29,000 to 123,000 and was known as the richest city in the world.

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Australia’s colonial history is remembered along each leg of the walk. On our first day, the bush was pockmarked with the remains of small-claim mines. These hills just south of Castlemaine promised only a small yield of gold to prospective miners, and so were sold off to individuals. Their efforts to seek out every possible ounce of gold within their claims left the land scarred, giving the terrain a new classification: broken bush.

Walking the Dry Diggings Track, it was difficult not to be saddened by the environmental damage wrought in the blind search for gold. The effects are still felt today. Native wildlife frequently fall down and die in exposed mine shafts. There are ravines cut through the bush by torrents of water pumped miles from their source in Musk by enterprising miners. Now these artificial gullies are tangles of blackberries and nettle. And everywhere we walked stood brick chimneys, marking former miners’ huts and their brief prosperity.

However, there is much beauty to be found on the Dry Diggings Track. The route traverses volcanic plains and sandstone hills. The trail follows river courses and winds into the hills. Walking down into Vaughan Springs on our first night, we stopped to watch the convergence of two streams below us. We were constantly aware of the diversity of birdlife around us, enjoying the calls of pied currawongs and kookaburras. We encountered a feral beehive living within the knot of a tree beside the track. On our final morning, we awoke to the first frost of the year and had to shake the ice from our tent.

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The Dry Diggings Track is tailored to both mountain bikers and walkers. When planning your trip, understanding where you will refill your water bottles is very important. Vaughan Springs camp site, where we spent our first night, is located beside the Vaughan River and has drinking water on site. However, between there and our next campsite the only available water was at the Chocolate Mill on the Midland Highway. These concerns matter less to mountain bikers, who can cover much greater distances in a single day. Similarly, sections of the walk follow dirt roads rather than bush paths that would be gentler on hikers wishing to avoid unnecessary ‘road-bashing.’

To walk the Dry Diggings Track is to enter Australia’s fraught history of colonialism and environmental damage. The landscapes carry marks of mining practices now antiquated. These hills are now protected, the bush afforded time to reclaim broken ground. 

Enjoyed this article? Read Lachlan's poem 'Digger Country' here.


Lachlan Robertson is a writer living in Trentham, Victoria, with interests in ecocriticism, fantasy fiction, and poetry. Lachlan is a keen beekeeper, hiker, and horse rider.


All images courtesy of Lachlan Robertson.

1900 Footprints: A Journey for the Plight of Threatened Species

This is a guest post by Tristan O'Brien.

With a growing list of over 1900 Threatened species in Australia and an ongoing struggle for resources to combat this issue across the country, what does the future of sustainability and biological diversity look like in Australia? 

As the world’s population migrates into cities and leaves the countryside, our physical and emotional connection to natural places is being broken. Indeed, the first modern ‘urban’ areas in Europe have existed for only around 200 years, a mere fraction of the eons our species has spent living with a much closer connection to the land. Globally, more than half of the world's population live in urban areas, whilst in Australia, the number of people living in cities dwarfs those living in rural areas at a staggering 89%. 

How many people in this country are now able to experience the Australia described by Banjo Patterson? ‘For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.’

Surely, this is having an effect on our motivation for and understanding about why protecting ecological integrity is important here in Australia. In protecting threatened species and responding to climate change, we are struggling to fulfil our responsibility to lead as a developed nation.

Tristan O'Brien will walk 1900km to raise awareness and funds for our threatened species.  Image: Camilo Mateus

Tristan O'Brien will walk 1900km to raise awareness and funds for our threatened species. Image: Camilo Mateus

Reconnecting with our HumaNature for the long term

It is clear to me that as Australians, we have a unique opportunity. We are economically stable, and have a high standard of living, low population density, and some of the most beautiful and diverse landscapes on Earth.

Developing a greater outdoor culture in Australia will ensure that future generations are equipped with the knowledge to protect biodiversity. Getting our city populations outside and reconnecting with our amazing environment will go a long way towards developing motivation and political will to restore our fragmented landscapes into the future.

This cultural change can happen at a grassroots level, by taking friends and family to our own favourite spots and sharing our enjoyment of natural places. This is why organisations working towards these changes are so important, especially if they are able to reach a wide audience and involve them in environmental issues in an engaging way.

Another exciting movement is the way our understanding of what it means to have nature in a city is changing, particularly by changing cities themselves to contain and function as unique ecosystems. Side effects of including nature in the function of cities include greater social cohesion, a decreased chance of developing a mental illness, reductions in crime*, and increased productivity**.

Logo design: Bel  én Elorietta.

Logo design: Belén Elorietta.

But what about responding now?

Unfortunately, many environmental issues are pertinent now, and cannot wait for future generations to make the first response. For example, historical land clearing in Adelaide’s Mt Lofty Ranges ending in the 1980s has left an ‘extinction debt’ of nearly 50 of the 120 bird species that originally existed in the region, eight of which have already disappeared.

Continued land clearing, mining activities, invasive species, urban sprawl and climate change are just some of the pressures threatening many species around Australia that require immediate action to prevent further species loss.

Therefore, it is important for Australians to support organisations that are actively carrying out restoration works right now.

So what are we going to do about it?

1900 kilometres for 1900 threatened species

In my own efforts to highlight these issues, from mid-September I will be undertaking a long-distance walk called 1900 Footprints to raise awareness and funds for conservation projects in Australia. The walk will take me from Adelaide to Melbourne and across Tasmania.

In walking one kilometre for every species listed as Threatened in this country, I hope to garner interest from individuals, groups and organisations for changing the way we think about our connection with natural environments and to fundraise for on-the-ground conservation initiatives.

Funds raised will go towards two organisations that are making a real-world difference in these areas:

BioR is a volunteer-run, scientifically-informed restoration organisation that reconstructs habitat for declining species in cleared agricultural landscapes. They will use funds from 1900 Footprints to install a nursery and nesting boxes for declining bird species in a 1700ha restoration site near Monarto, South Australia.

Wollangarra is an outdoor education centre that helps young people connect with themselves, their peers and the natural environment by taking them hiking in wild areas of the Victorian High Country. In these places, they perform important, on-the-ground conservation works, including weed removal, track maintenance and tree planting. Funds from 1900 Footprints will be used to sponsor disadvantaged young people to attend these life-changing courses and connect with the wild Australian landscape.

Please help me with 1900 Footprints by sharing this project with your family and friends and by donating to the project.

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Tristan O’Brien has worked in ecology, sustainability, outdoor education and eco-tourism. He is passionate about communicating environmental conservation through design, writing, photography and outdoor education. He completed an Honours year in Environmental Biology, investigating habitat use changes of woodland birds following controlled burning.

You can find him on Twitter at @TristanAvella


Banner image courtesy of Tristan O'Brien.

*Wolfe, M.K. and J. Mennis, Does vegetation encourage or suppress urban crime? Evidence from Philadelphia, PA. Landscape and Urban Planning, 2012. 108 (2–4): p. 112-122. 

**Nieuwenhuis, M., et al., The relative benefits of green versus lean office space: Three field experiments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 2014. 20(3): p. 199-214.    

Hiking Lerderderg State Park (With a Dog)

This is a guest post by Fam Charko.

If you want to get out of the city for a day or a week, Lerderderg State Park has it all. It’s only 1 – 1.5 hours to the west of Melbourne and provides outdoor experiences for all types of visitors. It has free car camping spots right on the river, 4WD and motorbike tracks, challenging hikes up and down steep razorback ridges, mountaintop vistas, wheelchair-accessible day picnic areas and hard-to-get-to hiking trails that leave you breathless with effort. This park has been a spiritual refuge for me for years, and I want to share with you a challenging two-day pack-hiking route that includes some beautiful riverside camping.

The reason I personally like this park is that despite its proximity to the city, it is very easy to get away from the motorbikes and really feel like you are miles away from civilisation. It feels much more remote than you would expect from a State Park. Every year there is at least one news article about an unprepared day hiker with no map who gets lost and is forced to spend an uncomfortably cold night in the park, before being airlifted out by helicopter the next day. How embarrassing. Don’t be that person. Bring a paper map, a compass (and learn how to use it), spare rations and water in addition to your GPS and phone maps. Mobile coverage is okay in most of the park, but certainly not available everywhere. 

The Lerderderg River snakes right through the park and when it runs, its waters run cold and tan-coloured, forming many great swimming holes along its length. The park’s more remote areas very much resemble a national park, with the gorge sporting gigantic pile-ups of logs and organic debris from countless flash-floods, lined with stunning wildflowers like native heath, orchids and bush peas. There are birds, wombats and swamp wallabies galore. Some threatened species can be found here too, like brush-tailed phascogales, common gliders and common bent-winged bats. Unfortunately, there are also goats. Lots of goats.

A side note on hiking with dogs in Lerderderg State Park

A big plus for me is that in this park there are areas where you can bring your dog for company. Hiking with my Aussie Shepherd is one of my favourite things in the world. The first time I took Loki hiking was in this park. You should have seen his face when it dawned on him that the place was full of sticks - priceless.

Your pooch is allowed on the lead in the sections of the park that are not marked conservation or reference zone. They are not allowed in the Mackenzie’s Flat day visitor area, but you can pass through to get to the trails. 

If you are hiking the razorbacks, it is advisable to have your dog wear an outdoor harness so you can help him climb any steep sections. Another heads-up is on snakes: I once had the great fortune of seeing a beautiful eastern brown sunning itself on a log right next to the trail. I also had the great fortune that my dog didn’t notice it before I did. Always stick to the trail, and consider restricting hiking with dogs to the colder months of the year, when our slithery friends are hibernating. 

Loki the Australian Shepherd ready for adventure.

Loki the Australian Shepherd ready for adventure.

This route starts down the south side of the park, at Mackenzie’s Flat picnic ground, where you can park your car overnight. 

My canine sidekick and I were there in May and the river was dry as a bone. This happens a lot, so always make sure you carry enough water with you. I bring a few litres plus a very good water filter and iodine pills, so I’m able to take water from rock pools. Loki carries his own water in his backpack, together with his food, bed, snacks, poo bags and of course my hip flask of rum. 

The first few kilometres to Graham’s Dam follow the river in a north-westerly direction, passing many riverside campsites and wombat holes. In summer and early autumn the river is dry, making it easy to cross, but in other seasons be prepared for multiple river crossings and getting wet feet. As this part of the walk is flat and close to the car park, I spot bits of rubbish left behind by campers and day hikers. This is often the unfortunate reality of easily accessible areas, but don’t let that deter you if you want to bush camp without hiking a long way: the campsites themselves are all quite stunning. They are flat and grassy, with amazing views of the gorge and some even have their own private swimming holes.

Our hike starts out great with Loki sticking his nose in an old wombat hole occupied by a wasp nest and promptly getting stung on the forehead. As I mutter curses under my breath and pull out the stinger, he looks up at me with a stupid grin on his face and his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. Dogs… it’s a good thing they’re cute. 

At Graham’s Dam we cross the river and hike half a kilometre to the start of one of the park’s more challenging trails. The aptly named Spur Track quickly rises a steep 400 metres and follows a razorback ridge. The map says it will take me 1.5 hours to hike all of the 2.5km. I don’t believe I will take that long, but I’m wrong. Within a few minutes I’m sweating and panting as I haul myself and my big pack up the shale slope, using my hands more than once for the steep sections. Loki has no problem getting up there. He engages his 4PD (four-paw drive) and climbs up like a mountain goat, hopping from one rock to the next. 

When I finally make it up the steep section and the slope becomes more gentle, I can hear a faint bleating. I climb onto a big boulder next to the track and am treated to a breathtaking view of the river. The gorge walls on the other side rise a near-vertical 200 metres from the water.  I can see some struggling little saplings trying to get a foothold, imagining larger trees eventually getting too heavy and falling into the river below. Those pile-ups of logs in the gorge all of a sudden make a lot more sense. 

I am using my binoculars to look at some small, inaccessible caves when I see them: a herd of goats happily chewing away on tough shrubs. They balance effortlessly on the steep rock face, never disturbing the treacherously loose shards of shale as they navigate the ravine on tiny hooves. As always when I see feral animals, the trained ecologist in me wrestles with the compassionate animal lover. I watch cute piebald kids chase each other up and down the rocks, fearing for their safety every second. Of course they never fall. Eons of natural selection have perfected their mountaineering skills in this inhospitable landscape. Inhospitable to their predators, that is. For them it is a comfortable home and they are thriving at the expense of Victoria’s native species. With a sigh, I move on and give silent thanks that I’m not the one who has to do the very necessary annual cull.

Continuing up the slope, the vistas only get better. I frequently stop to catch my breath and take advantage of large boulders sticking out over the valley to enjoy a raptor’s view of the gorge. One time, I spot a small peregrine falcon gliding on the updrafts below. My shirt and the back of my pack are drenched with sweat by then. I’m glad I brought enough water. 

The author and her dog.

The author and her dog.

About halfway up the spur, Loki alerts me to human traffic coming up the back of us. I’ve barely cleared off the narrow path when a trail runner passes me with a cheerful ‘hello!’ He continues speeding up the hill, shirt off and gleaming with sweat, a cloud of aftershave trailing behind him. I feel like I’ve just seen a ghost. Was that really a guy running up the hill that I just took an hour to climb? He wasn’t even out of breath! I resolve to become fitter this year as I soldier on to the end of the track. 

When we make it to the top, Loki and I celebrate with lunch and a dried pig’s ear. The Lerderderg Tunnel Access Track is an uneventful service road lined by young eucalypts obscuring any views of the gorge. But at least it goes downhill. A short way to the north, the track veers right and on the left there is a locked gate that allows access for hikers and management vehicles. We squeeze through and follow the service road down to the river. At the bottom, we marvel at the large structure that is the weir. This concrete giant diverts the river to the Merrimu Reservoir, which supplies Bacchus Marsh with water. We hike a ways up the river and make camp near the only waterhole that is not green with algae. The water filter is doing a good job here and soon we are enjoying our dinner.

Night falls and Loki and I bask in the warmth of a small fire. Every now and then sparks land on his thick fur, but he doesn’t care. He’s curled up next to me, alert, staring into the dark, always on guard duty. I watch the microbats fly their feeding patterns along the tree line, their tiny silhouettes projected on a background of a million stars. The gorge is silent and beautiful.

It’s a rough awakening to the screeching of sulphur-crested cockatoos the next morning. I moan and pull my sleeping bag over my head. I love being woken by a dawn chorus, but these guys are more like the avian version of the Sex Pistols; good fun, just not first thing in the morning. Grumpily reminding myself that nature is beautiful, I get up to make our breakfast. 

Our first challenge ensues as soon as we start our hike. I check my map for the Long Point Track trailhead, but it’s not detailed enough to show the exact location. We walk upriver for a while, but the path quickly disappears into a thicket of inaccessible underbrush. I switch on my phone and check my GPS map. Still no love. We walk the same stretch of river a few times, right in between the razorback and the steep cliffs on the south side. When I pull out the map once again and follow the altitude contours with my finger, I realise I need to go up somewhere. I scan the area around the weir for the faintest sign of a trail and my heart sinks as I realise I’ve been looking at it the whole time: it is a 30-metre vertical climb up the razorback. 

“Okay mate,” I say to Loki, “We wanted adventure. We got it.” He looks up at me happily. I briefly consider tying him to me by his lead in case he slips, but quickly decide that would be super stupid. He weighs 26kg and I’m already carrying a 16kg pack on my back that makes climbing a vertical wall challenging enough. If he falls while attached to me, we both go. After examining our options, there’s nothing else for us to do but climb. 

The Lerderderg River when it is full.

The Lerderderg River when it is full.

Loki goes first. Turns out he’s actually quite capable of climbing. It does help that he is a young, healthy working breed with plenty of energy. If your dog is large and less spirited, I do not recommend taking this route. On the steepest sections I have to help Loki by lifting him by the handle on the back of his harness. I won’t lie: lifting a dog with one hand while holding on to a vertical rock face with the other is tricky. By the time we reach the top, we are both panting and the adrenaline is making my hands shaky. But hey, what is an adventure without ever getting out of your comfort zone? Another boring day in the office, that’s what.

The view from the razorback, however, makes up for it in spades. The windy 360° views are absolutely breathtaking. It’s a really narrow trail with ravines on either side, so I can recommend keeping your dog on a short leash as you make your way over the loose shale. The trail keeps rising steadily until we reach marker 510 and Blackwood Ranges Track. This well-maintained management track is part of the 280km-long Victorian Great Dividing Trail, also known as the Goldfields Track. To give you an idea about the effort it takes to hike Long Point Track, it has taken us about 1.5 hours to hike a little over 2km. 

Turning south on the Blackwood Ranges Track, it’s an easy hour downhill until we reach Link Track No. 1, which descends steeply back into the gorge to connect with Graham’s Dam. I love this part of the hike. It’s a bit challenging going downhill over the loose shards of shale, but there are many places to veer off the track for a rest and a spectacular view of the river. On one of those breaks I look down on the backs of not one, but four wedge-tailed eagles flying in the ravine below me. Two parents and their chicks are surging upward on a thermal, swooping straight past me and out of the ravine, as if they are being shot up into the sky by invisible slings. I whoop at them as they ascend and shade my eyes until I see nothing but small specks drawing circles against the cloudless sky. There sure is magic in this place, and it has feathers and mottled wings.

The last few kilometres back to Mackenzie’s Flat are blessedly horizontal and allow a cool-down for tired legs. I feel tired yet satisfied and am a little reluctant to leave this amazing place. In an hour I am back home, enjoying the memories of the wild and my sore calf muscles for a long time after. Loki sleeps for two days straight.

Tips

  • You and your dog both need a reasonable level of fitness.
  • If you bring your dog, make sure it’s wearing a sturdy outdoor harness so you can help it through steep sections.
  • Good hiking boots, water and navigation tools are essential.
  • Binoculars are a great addition for wildlife watching.
  • Check the weather predictions and the state of the river before you go; unexpected flash flooding in the park happens regularly. Use common sense when choosing your campsite.

Fam Charko is a marine biologist, environmental educator and science communicator. She helps people reconnect with nature using science, storytelling and immersive experiences in the local environment.


All images courtesy of Fam Charko.

Jade Hameister: Melbourne’s Teenage Polar Explorer

In April, Melbourne teenager Jade Hameister posted a selfie on Instagram almost every day. She described the weather, the food she’d eaten, her current mood and her location. On the surface, it sounds like almost any young person’s Instagram feed. But in her pictures, Jade is squinting against the cold, wrapped up in thick layers, her face framed by a fur-lined hood. She’s not just dealing with the onset of a Melbourne winter. As the temperatures range around -25ºC, Jade’s mood evolves from ‘tired’ to ‘exhausted’ and then, on Day 10 of her expedition, to ‘pumped’. 24 hours later, Jade Hameister became the youngest person in history to reach the North Pole.

The Hameisters have always been an adventurous family. Jade’s father Paul became the twelfth Australian to climb the Seven Summits, and Jade conquered Mt Kosciuszko with him at the age of 6. By 12 she had trekked to Everest Base Camp, partly a wish to ‘go and see where Dad had been’. It was on this trip that Jade met Vilborg Arna, the first Icelandic person to solo ski over 1100km from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole. Vila inspired Jade to take on her own adventure. She decided to become the youngest person in history to conquer the Polar Hat Trick: skiing to the North Pole, the South Pole, and across the Greenland glacier.

With her dad at her side, Jade set her plans in motion. In 2016, to trek to the North Pole from Barneo, the temporary ice base established by a Russian team every year from which adventurers can make the trek. A year later, to then ski 540km across the Greenland ice cap, coast to coast. Finally, she aims to follow in Vila’s footsteps by skiing from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole, a journey of 1,170km. This “Hat Trick” would see Jade become the youngest woman in history to ski across Greenland, and the youngest person – ever – to ski to the Poles.

Walking along the beach at Lorne, you might be surprised to find a teenage girl dragging tyres along the sand. It’s one of the ways that Jade trains for her polar expeditions while based in our very different climate, preparing to ski pulling a sled of her own bodyweight carrying all her equipment and supplies. ‘We were pulling sleds at the beach and in our backyard, and also up the Thousand Steps along a track,’ she explains. The Hameisters have always made the most of the Victorian landscape to prepare for adventures abroad, climbing Mt Bogong together before their Base Camp trek.

Still, nothing in Australia could prepare Jade for the alien world she would enter in April. ‘The environment was pretty extreme and surreal,’ she says. ‘But I think the training that we’d done was pretty good.’ It took longer than expected to get going, with cracks in the sea ice making it difficult for the Barneo base to be established. At one point it looked as though the base wouldn’t be set up in time for the expedition to reach the Pole. The team, made up of Jade, her father Paul, polar guide Eric Philips and cinematographer Peter Nyquist, had to adjust their plans to cover over 150km in just 11 days.

Life on the ice settled into a routine: getting up early to make breakfast and melt snow for drinking water, skiing for 6 to 7 hours to cover approximately 15km each day, and back to snow-melting and cooking in the evenings, when Jade would post her Instagram updates. When asked if she ever thought it might be too much, Jade admitted to ‘a few extremely tough moments – but I think the fact that we’d worked that hard over a year, I didn’t want to give up.’

The landscape was not one of featureless white, as you might imagine, but made up of ‘lots of rubble and compression zones where the sea ice collides to create one to three metre-obstacles that you have to ski over.’ While the establishment of the Barneo base had been more difficult than in previous years, such obstacles were apparently more common, too. At one point the team reached a stretch of open water, which they crossed by putting their sleds together to make a raft, then pulling each other across. “That was pretty cool,” Jade laughs. While no wildlife made itself known to them, they did come across some polar bear tracks in the snow.

‘It was all absolutely incredible but I think my favourite moment was actually making it to the Pole. That was pretty special,’ says Jade. There is no permanent landmark to indicate the place – only their GPS could tell them that they’d reached their goal. As the sea ice is constantly shifting, Jade and her team were only on top of the world for a short time. ‘Once we got there and set up our camp we would have drifted off the pole in like half an hour,’ she explains.

One history-making expedition later, Jade is home in Melbourne, settling back into the routine of school and homework like any other teenager – except for her polar training. Greenland is next on her list and she’s not taking the challenge lightly. Her Instagram feed is still testament to her determination: CrossFit, weight lifting, and out dragging her sled again.

It is truly inspiring to see a young woman raised in Melbourne who has such love for the outdoors. Whether she’s dragging a sled in the Dandenong Ranges or across Greenland’s glacier, Jade is clearly connected to the landscape and passionate about exploring it. She hopes to pass on the inspiration she felt meeting Vila to young women everywhere through her adventures. ‘One of the big things I wanted to get out of this trip was to inspire young girls in particular to chase their dreams and become more fit and healthy,’ Jade explains. ‘Dreams that are unique to them and not for other people.’ 


Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape. 
You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra