Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Walking the Blues Away in the Snowy Mountains [January 18]

No wonder so many Samoans were grumpy when they skipped a day in 2011 to jump over the international dateline. They also lost their status as the last spot in the world where you could watch the sunset; a major attraction for visiting honeymooners. Love and travel have always gone together like a judge and gavel, and the tourism industry has been the biggest winner.

When love unravels, though, most of us want to journey no further than under the doona. Grief feels like a backpack of boulders that even the most laissez-faire airline would ban from the luggage hold, for fear they might bring down the plane.

After my heart was trampled on recently, a wise woman advised me to get out from under the doona and look at the horizon. So when I was invited to go walking in the Snowy Mountains I decided to take her advice and see if some of the most spectacular horizons in Australia could help lighten my load.

On Boxing Day I packed a small suitcase and was driven by my friends Caroline and Charlie all the way from Melbourne to the southern NSW lakeside town of Jindabyne. Just west of the town along the Alpine Way we checked into an eccentric guest house called Bimblegumbie in the foothills of Mount Crackenback (‘great location for a chiropractic conference’, suggested Charlie, trying to raise a smile from his quietest passenger)

Established by owner Pru Parker in the late 1970’s, Bimblegumbie (meaning ‘whistling spear’ in one of the local indigenous languages) began life as a small house on a tree-covered hillside. It has since grown to a rambling collection of one and two-storey cottages dotted around the much-extended main lodge.

Canine pets are welcome here. Dogs can potter around the landscaped gardens dotted with sculptures – everything from a tower of rusted hanging chains to a tree covered with exotic masks. There’s even a piano sitting in an open shed complete with stool for anyone wanting to play a few tunes for the wildlife. The dogs don’t seem to deter the wallabies from grazing on the garden’s lush summer grass.

Up the hill behind the main house Pru’s companion Craig has carefully positioned a wicker chair overlooking the green valley below. He’s also stashed a couple of sets of binoculars in a nearby tree for better viewing; just one of many small, thoughtful touches at Bimblegumbie.

I stayed in the Rose Room of the main house (deep red and green walls) and my friends were in a small studio in the garden. Each day Caroline consulted the maps and planned a different walk for us while Charlie packed the lunches.

Day One we drove back through Jindabyne, past the ski resort of Perisher and up into the Mt Kosciuszko National Park. Parking at Charlotte’s Pass (named after Charlotte Adams, the first woman to reach the summit of Mt Kosciuszko), we added an extra layer of clothing against the cool alpine wind and set off for the Blue Lake.

A paved path led down the steep hill towards the Snowy River. In spite of the summer sun there were still some luminescent puddles of snow on the distant mountain peaks. Purple, white and yellow wildflowers were strewn beside the path as if from a giant’s basket. Crossing the wobbly rocks over the river, we began the steep ascent towards Carruthers Peak.

My grief-clogged lungs were soon protesting but I ignored them. This was exactly the treatment they needed. When you’re struggling for every breath, there is simply no energy left for rumination and regret. We stopped to watch some children sliding down a patch of remnant snow beside the track before we descended to the Blue Lake.

With clouds piling up overhead, the lake was more slate grey than azure. A couple of giant granite boulders provided a windbreak as we ate our packed lunches and listened to the water rushing out of the lake towards the Snowy River. Then we followed the river until we reached another body of water, Hedley Tarn, where patient birds dived for trout. When Charlie suggested we cut across country to re-join the return track above the Blue Lake, I was initially nervous – what if the clouds descend even further? After carefully checking the map, though, we decided to embrace the challenge.

I tried to think about fearless Charlotte Adams as we picked our way carefully across lichen-stained boulders, marveling at the infinite variety of cushiony grasses and the reflective pools of melted snow all around us. My anxiety melted too and I could even summon a smile when Charlie pointed out a rock shaped like an American Indian’s face, complete with feathered headdress. By the time we reached the return path my lungs felt expansive enough to try a spot of alpine yodeling.

Day Two we drove to the busy holiday village of Thredbo and caught the Kosciuszko Express Chairlift to the top of the mountain. Our destination was Dead Horse Gap, a largely downhill walk of about ten kilometers. On the way up I ventured the yodelling chorus from ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ and a man standing beneath our chairlift responded by opening his arms wide and hollering ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music’.

Above the tree line at Ram’s Head Range the three of us turned in slow Sufi-like circles, taking in the 360 degree views of the Snowy Mountains banked up against the skyline. The wise woman was right about the curative effect of those horizons. I’m surprised she didn’t mention the benefits of yodeling too.

Then down we went along the gently winding track through silvery stands of dead gums. Fierce bushfires in 2003 have left these trees looking like bleached coral stranded thousands of metres above sea level. At Dead Horse Gap we found a warm flat rock for our picnic lunch, then walked back to the village along the Thredbo River path. Pairs of brown trout chased each other in circles just under the surface, inspiring us to take a gasping dip in the shallow icy river.

Day Three involved a trip back to Victoria and a much-needed rest for our legs. Tom Groggin, west of Dead Horse Gap and close to the Murray River, is a popular camping spot. Four-wheel drivers can ford the shallow river there but as our car only had two-wheel drive we put on our bathers, hoisted our rucksacks and waded across the stony riverbed into our home state.

On the edge of the Alpine National Park the three of us lay under a shady tree and read books all afternoon. In between chapters we watched a kingfisher defending its territory against wattlebird incursions. On the drive back we stopped at dusk and walked down into a grassy valley where a dozen wild brumbies stared at us in panic before taking off into the forest.

Day Four was another tough climb. From the Guthega Dam (on the confluence of the Munyang and Snowy Rivers) we clambered northwards up a narrow overgrown path, looking for the trig point of the ridge. Grief had snuck back into my rucksack overnight and with every step it seemed to be getting heavier. Just as my legs and lungs were about to go on strike we reached the summit. There were those breath-taking horizons again, and not another human in sight. Yodelling was beyond me but smiling became possible again.

On the final day of our holiday we drove into town and found a shady park beside the Jindabyne Lake. The weather was steamy and the water almost warm compared to the body-shock of Thredbo River. I struck out towards the middle of the lake and trod water there for a while, looking back at the sun-bleached fields surrounding Jindabyne town.

Treading water: that’s how you deal with grief. Not waving, not drowning, just waiting till you catch your breath and you’re ready to head back to shore.

(A version of this piece was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age Travel section on March 17th 2012)