Treeless alpine ecosystems cover just 0.5 per cent of Australia. While we might lack huge mountains, what we do have is a network of ranges that run in a long arc from the outskirts of Canberra almost to Melbourne’s doorstep. They host a unique combination of plants, animals and landscapes. Despite our moderate latitude and very modest altitude, we do have significant areas that tend to be snow-covered in winter – in total, an area about the size of Switzerland.
Melbourne residents who enjoy the snow will probably know the resorts – places like Mount Buller and Falls Creek. These get you to the edge of some incredible “winter wilderness”. Even though the Victorian Alps are generally well protected through the Alpine National Park, there are road networks through much of the High Country. In winter the mountains are transformed into seasonal wilderness through the closure of many of these roads and tracks.
There is nowhere else on the planet where you can stand in Alpine Ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis) forest. These are tall mountain trees that have a subtle twist as they grow into old age. Often called Woolly Butt because of their fibrous lower sections, their upper trunks are pale and “gum”-like, mirroring their close relatives the Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans). Alpine Ash forest, which will often host lyrebirds, and a range of possums and wombats, merge – often quite rapidly – into Snow Gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora) as you climb up the mountain. Snow Gums are lyrical in the way they grow – with such diversity of form and so many colours in their bark, from silver and white to red and green. As you climb closer to the treeline they become smaller, trimmed by the cold and prevailing wind, until you emerge into the true alpine zone. In early summer these areas are ablaze with colour, but in winter the snow gives a sombre black and white aspect to the terrain.
There are so many adventures to be had in the Victorian Alps. Probably one of the best ways to experience them is to do one of the long climbs from a river valley to one of the higher peaks. This will often involve a long climb of up to 900 metres of vertical, but will take you from Manna Gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) forests along the rivers into the Peppermint forests of the foothills, which include Narrow-leaved Peppermint (Eucalyptus radiata), and eventually the alpine. Tracing the Howqua River up Howitt Spur to the West Peak of Howitt, or Bungalow Spur up Feathertop, or the Staircase Spur to our highest mountain – Bogong - are all great examples of these classic walks. Once you’re out walking or skiing, what I notice is the silence and lack of people. Just a few hours from Melbourne you can have silence, clouds, the sound of gentle snowfall and a sense of the “big wild” that comes in winter when many of the four-wheel drive tracks are closed. In winter our higher mountains are transformed into temporary wilderness that makes you feel like you’re in Tasmania rather than a few hours’ drive from Melbourne.
Many Melburnians who ski or snowboard will have looked out at the surrounding mountains but not ventured out into them in winter. But a set of touring skis, snow shoes or a splitboard (a type of snowboard adapted for touring) will get you out into the solitude. I once heard a French ski instructor describe the ‘cool, slow’ mood of the Australian Alps which are so different to the ‘fast’ European Alps. Our mountains are like nowhere else. But finding a way to explore this backcountry terrain can be daunting for first timers.
To help people find a way to get into the mountains outside the resorts, the Victorian Backcountry Festival is taking place this September. It will start and finish at the Falls Creek Resort in north-east Victoria. While Falls Creek charges an entry fee, all the tours, clinics and workshops are free.
Everyone is welcome. If you’d like to learn the skills that will help you experience some winter wildness, then check the festival website and come along.
Cam Walker is the campaigns co-ordinator with Friends of the Earth in Melbourne and a keen walker, skier and climber who loves the Victorian High Country and wilds of Tasmania.
Banner image courtesy of Cam Walker.