Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Trekking in the Australian Alps is no skip through a meadow

Mark Rowe joins the Walhalla Trail, part of a mind-boggling wilderness endurance test

Twists and turns: The distinctive shape of snow gums form a whalebone canopy along the Walhalla Trail

The cry went up: "Tiger snake!" Some animals have misleadingly fearsome names, such as the antlion, which isn't a lion. But "tiger" and "snake" carry baggage, especially in Australia.

In the time it took me to work this out, and study the undergrowth for the reptile, I noticed I was now alone. My four walking companions had taken an eighth of a second to put 50 yards between them and danger.

I clambered over the rocky outcrop back to the path to join my hiking colleagues. The tiger snake, they pointed out, is one of the deadliest snakes on the planet. Inside I was secretly pleased to discover that underneath that laconic "no worries" veneer, even seasoned Australians can have the wind put up them.

The brief flirtation with the tiger snake was the only moment of mild alarm during a quite superb walk in the Australian Alps. I was hiking the Great Walhalla Alpine Trail, which runs for 24 miles from Mount Baw Baw ski resort to the former gold rush village of Walhalla, 100 miles east of Melbourne. The walk also represents the first two, or last two, days of the 422-mile Australian Alps Walking Track, a mind-boggling test of wilderness endurance that joins Walhalla to Canberra and takes six weeks.

If you want to walk in Australia, you must bring all your gear and lug it around for the rest of your trip. The Great Walhalla Alpine Trail is an ideal solution to this quandary: all you need is a day pack and boots. Everything else, including food and drink, is provided. You meet at the Star Hotel in Walhalla, leave your bags there and travel up to Mount Baw Baw at about 5,000ft. There you have dinner with your fellow walkers, sleep in a cabin and strike out early the next morning with your guide. At the end of day one, you camp out before continuing to Walhalla.

The trail is long, but generally not too arduous: a couple of short, steep climbs, and one knee-cracking descent on the second morning. The Australian Alps form part of the Great Dividing Range, from Cape York in the north to Victoria, and we climbed three summits. The appeal for a European is not just that so many of the species – such as the platypus and the sugar glider, a species of possum – are entirely alien; it is that they are there at all. At 5,000ft in Britain you will be lucky to get more than a few hardy lichens, but here exquisite flowers thrive.

The most striking feature of the mountain is the snow gums, which form a whalebone canopy for much of the hike. This meant that huge vistas were limited, but occasionally the cover disperses into a magical grove with views of rolling hills to the horizon.

At around 15 miles we passed through a woodland of silver wattles. It was so breathtakingly beautiful that everyone simply gawped. These trees have an aesthetic grace and the absence of lower branches makes them rise like patterned needles.

We reached the night's camping spot a little further on. Tents sleep two people, but are comfortable. Dinner is a decent three-course meal and wine is included. It may be wise to go easy on the wine, as the next morning kicks off with a sharp descent. But these last six miles were among the most attractive of all. The trail here follows the tramlines back to Walhalla, switching back and forth around creeks and offering superb views back towards Mount Erica, one of the peaks you pass over.

We entered Walhalla on a high: far below were the restored houses of the village; on the other side of the steep-sided valley was the vertiginous cemetery. But there was also euphoria that we had ticked off so many miles. On arrival at the Star Hotel, our host Michael Leaney cracked open a bottle of champagne. As a way to sign off a walk, it deserves to catch on.

How to get there

The Great Walhalla Alpine Trail ( www.greatwalhallaalpinetrail.com ) runs from October to April and costs £480 per person, including a night at the Mount Baw Baw resort, a night's camping (equipment provided) and one night at Walhalla's Star Hotel, all meals and a professional guide.

Further information:

For more information on Victoria, go to www.visitmelbourne.com/uk

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