I’ve got a special delivery to make after Christmas. What I’m delivering is too precious to leave in the hands of indifferent postal workers, so I’m going to hand deliver it. The thing is, the recipient is in Brisbane, but I’m currently here in Melbourne – nearly 1500 kilometres away! While I could feasibly take a two-hour flight, the Australian airline industry is in complete shambles at the moment – strikes, ludicrous flight prices, hardly enough seats to go around, which isn’t even factoring in the insane demand around Christmas and New Year’s. If all that weren’t bad enough, flights are getting cancelled left, right and centre, meaning that people have arrived at the airport only to discover they’re not going anywhere. If flying isn’t a reliable option, what is to be done, as Lenin would say? Obviously, the next best solution: drive!
Now, to some, driving for several days on end sounds like an absolute nightmare, especially with petrol bowsers displaying dearer and dearer prices. I don’t mind it, as long as I’m doing it solo: Get up before dawn, covering hundreds of kilometres in a single day and only stopping long after the Sun has gone down. Plus, you go only to the places you want to! It sounds rough and in some respects it is, but as long as you stop and stretch every now and again, you’ll be fine. It’s amazing to realise that, after just a couple hours, you’re in a completely different place without having to deal with the hassle of airport lines and that crying baby on every single overnight flight you’ve ever taken. Another advantage to a road trip is that I don’t get ‘randomly selected’ for bomb testing which happens every time I fly. Given I got a big beard and a bad case of resting murder face, it’s not hard to deduce why. I once joked to a security officer conducting the testing how miraculous it is that I’m always ‘randomly’ selected for the bomb search. His skin flushed red and he repeatedly assured me that this time it was very, very random and denied profusely that I was profiled, but methinks he doth protest too much!
Anyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve gone on a road trip solo and the route I’m taking this time round will take me through some of Australia’s finest nature reserves along the east coast. Unfortunately, with a package that must be delivered on time, I’m annoyed that I can’t visit all these natural wonders. Not that I’d be able to – Victoria, which is the second-smallest state in Australia, is larger than Great Britain, and I’m travelling across New South Wales, a state larger than the country of Turkey, so you’ll need a long time to fully explore what these states have to offer! But I’ve managed to squeeze in a couple of activities on the way up, one of which I’ve done before but enjoyed so much I’ve always wanted to do it again – walking to the summit of Mt. Kosciuszko, Australia’s tallest mountain.
Now, that sounds like a difficult task – ascending a mountain, surely that’s hard yakka! But in reality it’s a few hours of hiking along a paved path – no mountaineering equipment required, no need to scramble up scree or glissade down with your ice-picks! But even though it’s not that kind of climb, the walk can still be challenging and the scenery is still stunning and unique, unlike anything else in Australia. See, Australia’s a pretty flat country for the most part. Even though central Australia, for example, is pretty high above sea level, the altitude changes are so gradual it looks completely flat. But hugging the eastern coast is the Great Dividing Range, a sprawl of mountainous land including some classic snow-capped peaks. They range from the very top of Australia all the way down to Melbourne, practically the bottom of the mainland. But these mountains are not very tall at all; I’ve always called them overglorified hills. Mt Kosciuszko, the tallest Australia has to offer, is a paltry 2228 metres above sea level. In fact, Australia only has four mountains with an altitude above 2000 metres! It’s still high enough that you can see snow in the shade on a summer’s day, but you really have to wait until Winter to see snow as far as the eye can see. Fun Fact: In Victoria, we call the mountains The Snow, because it’s the only place on this continent you have a good chance of finding the stuff. Although it can get freezing cold during Winter, it’s a big news day if that white powder falls in Australia (outside the mountains, of course).
But Kosciuszko is a strange name for Australia’s tallest mountain, don’t you think? It certainly doesn’t sound like an English or Aboriginal name (e.g. Yulara, Wonthaggi, Kakadu, Wilcannia, Woolloomooloo, Geelong, Jindabyne etc.). Rather, it looks quite Polish. That’d be because it is a Polish name (the cacophony of consonants gave it away, didn’t it? What else to expect from the language where źdźbło is the word for “blade of grass”?). A Polish explorer named Pawel Strzelecki explored the area and discovered that this mountain was the tallest in Australia when he ascended it in 1840. He named it after the legendary Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish General and Revolutionary who played big roles in both the American War of Independence and the unsuccessful Polish Uprising of 1794, hence why he’s considered a hero in both nations. Strzelecki is said to be the first person to ascend the peak, but this is probably not true. Aboriginal Australians had been inhabiting the area for tens of thousands of years prior and, surely, someone got bored and climbed it at some point a thousand years ago, right? But even being the first European to do it is controversial, as other explorers were in the area earlier than him and farmers were known to travel through the area as well. But Strzelecki is the earliest explorer to any sort of documentation to verify the climb (although his reporting was incredibly vague since he rarely dated his journal entries, nor did he write about the trip in specific detail!) and his scientific contributions about the surrounding area were significant, so he’s generally given the honours. In the town of Jindabyne, which serves as a gateway into Kosciuszko National Park, there’s a statue in his honour, gifted to Australia by Communist Poland. It oozes with that slimy, socialistic sentiment of a hero of the people leading the way forward to the glorious worker’s future. But while Strzelecki was a definitely a great scientist and explorer, the statue practically depicts him as a prophet, like Moses with his stone tablets – ironic given its Communist origins! The nearby river had flooded and was lapping at the base of the monument, threatening to swallow the statue and take it to a watery grave. Yet the statue stands strong, unlike its country of origin that collapsed thirty odd years ago.
I had arrived in Jindabyne only after a gruelling drive through the Monaro region, where the roads had more potholes than driving surface. This was in the middle of Summer (December-February in the Southern Hemisphere), so I was soaked with sweat, swearing every time my car slammed down violently as I often had to make a decision over which unavoidable pothole to drive into. Overcome with joy that my car wasn’t destroyed from those completely undrivable roads, I pulled into Jindabyne for a quick snack and to replenish my fluids. It was about 3.30PM, and I was weighing up whether I should go to the tallest mountain after all. I thought I’d be getting there much, much earlier, but the Monaro roads proved to be quite a challenge – I’d take on Aotearoa New Zealand roads again in a heartbeat, but not those in Monaro! Anyway, after exploring the little town and stretching my legs, I decided to go for it – the Sun wouldn’t set until 9PM and I had a flashlight so I wouldn’t be caught in the darkness with my pants down (so I thought). Satisfied that I would be fine, I drove to the National Park entry, paid for the pass and…drove for another thirty minutes. It takes a while before you hit the carpark for the summit, and I didn’t even get to park in the carpark – it was already full, and cars were parked for about a kilometre along the narrow road, either precariously on a hill’s edge or in a rut so deep that your car was practically on its side. I chose the rut because I really didn’t feel like falling from a great height that day. Ironic considering what I was here to do, and it wouldn’t be the first time I nearly fell off a mountain, but still!
I walked underneath the scorching Summer Sun, seething as I had already been burnt several times over despite the copious amounts of sunscreen I had applied. I finally arrived at the starting point, where various walks and camping grounds are accessible, but I was only interested in the Summit walk. The sign indicates the walk is three hours one way, so six hours total. The time was 4.45PM. That would mean arriving back at 10.45PM, and then having to drive out of the park and then find somewhere to sleep, which could mean I’d be up until at least midnight (I woke up at 5AM, so I was already a little bit tired). I scoffed at those numbers and reasoned that “I bought the pass, I might as well do it,” and so set forth on my journey to ascend the highest peak on the continent.
So, I’m walking along this path and I’m finding myself asking: Am I actually going up? The answer was no; the path is quite flat initially, which is great to get yourself going and warmed up (as if the Sun wasn’t already roasting me alive, but whatever). To the left is a small mound of grass and stone, which means you turn your attention towards the boulders and streams in the valley to your right. In the shade of the mountains you can see snow, which I always find hilarious given how rosy-red my skin was coupled with the medium-rare temperature of my flesh. Before too long I reached the first kilometre marker, meaning I had eight more kilometres to go. If the rest of the path was like this, then I was in for a smooth journey.
And yes, the next couple kilometres were smooth sailing, apart from the insects that swarmed me as I tried to sit down for a quick rest, a pervasive problem anywhere during the Australian summertime. But the spectacular valley views contrasting the soaring peaks are so breathtaking that I didn’t mind having a couple mozzie bites and flies trying to worm their way into my ear canal. I found myself imagining a little swagman tramping amongst the jagged rocks far below, filling his billy from the streams and foraging through the grass for little morsels of food before setting up camp. However, he may have chosen to move along as several foreboding clouds loomed in the distance. I did notice them, and I had an intellectual understanding that the weather can change quite severely in mountain ranges, but the Sun was still shining away and my experience as a citizen of a coastal city blinded me to the very real realities of alpine climates…
The path began to dip down into a valley, where a little concrete bridge serves as a sort-of unofficial halfway point. I stood on the bridge and watched the Snowy River crawl through the conglomerate of pebbles and stones on its long journey towards Marlo, a little town on the Gippsland coast. I can see why Banjo Patterson, a famous author and journalist who is featured on the Australian $10 note, was inspired to write the famous poem “the man from Snowy River” if these vistas were his inspiration. Fun Fact: I’m related to the other famous author and journalist on the Australian $10 note, Dame Mary Gilmore. She’s my 2nd Cousin four times removed – this simply means that Mary shares a set of great-grandparents (2nd Cousin) with my great-great-grandmother, which is four generations away from me (four times removed).
Anyway, leaving the bridge behind, the path began to rise steeply, really making you work your legs against the gravel. After thirty minutes I reached a charming little cottage called the Seaman’s Hut, an odd name given it’s 150 kilometres away from the nearest coastline, and decided to rest my bones inside for a few minutes. This hut is your standard mountaineer shelter: small but with all the tools and supplies you might need to spend the night in case of inclement weather, suffering from fatigue or any other reason preventing you from completing the trek safely. A few other people were there, but they were heading back from the peak – it was about 6.15PM and the weather looked like it was taking a turn for the worse. But I decided to press on – I’m 2030 metres up, I’ve got about three kilometres left and I’m blitzing the time they said it would take, so why not? Ah yes, the statement of an inexperienced mountaineer – I had unknowingly broken one of the cardinal rules of mountaineering, and I’m lucky I only suffered mild consequences for it…
The trail grew steep and my breath was starting to become laboured since I was very out of shape when I decided to do this, but whatever. I pushed on, scanning my surrounding for the highest mountain in the land. Where, oh where could it be? Was it this one? No, the track is turning away from it. How about that one? Nup, it’s now way behind me. Where was it? Then, I saw the path split and a sign showing the way to Kozzie: right. I gazed up, witnessed the ultimate Australian peak and my immediate thought upon looking at it was: That’s it? Among the other dazzling heights, this ordinary hill is the one that comes out on top? Pun aside, my mind raced with doubts, somehow convincing myself that for the past two centuries everybody who claimed Kozzie to be number one was completely wrong. Yet I climbed up the snow-clad track, maybe to prove them wrong, perhaps to prove them right, but mostly because I came here to climb Kozzie, and nothing was going to stop me.
An ominous grey mist began to descend upon me, obscuring from view the natural stone pillars mere metres ahead. The temperature dropped so violently that I wrapped my charred arms around myself for warmth. I slipped on my warm gloves, having learnt from my lighthouse experience. Gusts of wind slapped me from side to side, blasting loose snow and dirt from the mountain and scattering it in the vales far below. The mist would dissipate for but a moment, allowing me enough time to grab a picture of the ragged rockscapes before enveloping me once more. My skin felt moist to touch, a blessing because of the sunburn. I really should have turned around, but I was so close to the top – I couldn’t see just how close I was, but I was nearly there, just a few more metres!
Then, I saw the cairn that marks the peak, and all of a sudden the mist departed, affording me beautiful views of the mountain ranges that surround Mt. Kozzie. And in that moment I realised that this had to be the tallest one of them all, unassuming as it looks from below. I reached it at 7.00PM, the Sun was still up, shooting solid beams of gold through the grey billows across the border into Victoria. I realised that, for the few minutes I was up there, I was above everyone in Australia, or should I say, they were all beneath me? I enjoyed the joke of being a condescending hoity-toity upper-class twit a bit too much, I think, but coming from a country where class just isn’t a big deal like in other countries, I find that way of thinking as hilarious as it is ridiculous. Anyway, I didn’t spend too long up there – I don’t need much time to absorb those sorts of moments. I left the stones and boulders behind and began my descent, back along the nine kilometres through the mountains.
That’s when I noticed the lightning strikes carving their way through the sky, slamming into the Victorian mountains in the distance. Though their low rumbles barely registered in my ears, the mass of black clouds grew darker and started to move faster and faster, blotting the Sun from view completely, and descended as quickly as I did down the mountain. I cursed myself mentally – gotten yourself into trouble again, have we Jacob? – and picked up the pace. Yet no matter how fast I walked, the clouds stalked me and threatened to overwhelm me. I failed to shake the paranoia that something supernatural was lurking in the fog, waiting to pounce when I least expected it, and picked up the pace.
I reached the Seaman’s Hut soon after, but the picturesque shelter I had first encountered barely two hours ago was gone. Instead, it had become a port in the oncoming storm, my one safe refuge from mother nature – the name suddenly makes more sense. It beckoned me to stay inside, and I truly considered resting for a little while, at least until the fog had dissipated. But I decided to risk it and gun it back to the carpark, another six kilometres away. A truly stupid decision on my part, but I still didn’t understand how the weather could behave this high up – I had yet to experience it, and experience it I did. I hurried away as the lightning strikes lit up the sky behind me, silhouetting the Hut in the clouds that had enveloped the valley.
I reached the Snowy River at 8.20PM, by which time the Sun was rapidly disappearing and the mist had become so thick that standing on one side of the bridge, I could barely make out the other side. I felt a wet splash against my hair when I turned on my flashlight. I shivered in dread at the thought of oncoming rain, so I ripped my rain jacket out of my bag and threw it on, just in case. I hustled along the fast-disappearing trail, no longer able to enjoy the sights.
Night descended immediately, like a light-switch being flicked off. The only light was emanating from my torch, forming a solid white tunnel through the fog. The rain was intermittent, with drops splattering me just as I thought I might not get rained upon. There was no sound, save for the rustle of grass from the stormy winds and the occasional clap of thunder. I had passed the first kilometre marker and felt so relieved: not long until I was back in my warm, cosy car. I began believing that I would escape the worst of the storm. Of course, that’s when it bucketed down. Hard. In a matter of seconds, I was drenched. My pants were so heavy with moisture they were threatening to come down! It became hard to breathe with that much water running down my face and soaking my beard. My rain jacket was unable to stop the torrential rain from soaking my shirt underneath, rendering it nigh useless as drenched clothing clung to my skin and sapped me of my warmth. That white light from my flashlight resembled static as the rain flew through it at all angles and impossible velocities. The wind picked up, assisting my clothes in depriving me of any heat. Clutching onto the waist of my pants, I sprinted as fast as my tired legs could take me (which wasn’t very fast, admittedly, but I’ve never been much of a runner) in sheer desperation. Oh yeah, this during the middle of Summer in Australia!
After the longest kilometre of my life, I made it back to the empty carpark, but I still had a bit to go before reaching my car. The temperature was now so chilly I was begging for the Sun to appear and cook me again. Once I finally made it to my vehicle, I jumped in so aggressively that I nearly tipped my car over (remember, it was in that steep ditch). I ripped my shirt off, fetched a spare one I had in the backseat and drove out of there, heater and wipers on full blast. I noted the time: 9.30PM. If the initial signage was right, I’d still be on the path for another hour, which could have been deadly – it doesn’t take long to be exposed to hypothermia.
Remember how I said I broke one of the core tenets of mountaineering and high-altitude hiking? That rule, as obvious as it sounds, is: bad weather = call it off. Whenever you see the weather turning sour, turn around. Even if you’re a mere ten metres from the top of a mountain that’s been on your must-climb list for years, head back down and try again later. See, as my story has shown, weather can change instantly in high altitudes, often dramatically. If you’re able to see dark clouds in the distance creep up on you, this is in some ways a good thing. You’ve been given a warning, a chance to retreat and try again, or at the very least time to utilise your emergency equipment. You won’t always get that opportunity. And yeah, you didn’t get there today and that sucks. You will be disappointed, but you’ll be alive. One of the top causes of mountaineering deaths is hubris, i.e. choosing to ignore warning signs and losing your life as a result. Sure, Mt Kosciuszko is insignificant in both height and means of ascension compared to the grand poohbahs of Everest and K2, but it’s still a mountain deserving of respect, and that weather event embodied the quintessential moodiness of high altitudes. And that was mild compared to what can sometimes happen!
Getting to the top of a mountain, whether 1,000 metres or 8,000 metres up, is always a 50/50 game: It’s pretty common to ascend a mountain only after several attempts. But that’s okay: the weather will move on and the summit will still be there: just return a bit later when conditions are more favourable. There’s no shame in turning around, especially when your life is being threatened. And never say never: even if I had been smarter and turned around instead of ascending, I’ll be back in a few weeks to try climb it again. This time around, however, I’m coming more prepared: I’m arriving earlier to avoid getting caught in the dark again, I’m packing way more clothes and I’m certainly avoiding the roads in Monaro completely!
But one question remains: How the hell do you pronounce Kosciuszko? Well, Australians pronounce it like “Koh-zee-oss-kough” (‘ough’ as in ‘dough’ – I’m tempted to bust out the IPA, but that won’t mean anything to those who aren’t complete language nerds so a loose transliteration will have to do). But even then we just call it “Kozzie” for short. We like shortening things in Australia because we’re kinda lazy – Hardworking yet lazy, a fascinating combination. Anyway, the Polish pronunciation is more like “Kosh’-chyush-ko,” which is harder to pronounce than Kozzie so nobody does it that way. Except me because I’m a language nerd, but then people don’t know what I’m talking about. However, I prefer to write it as Kozzie, because writing out all those consonants is a complete pain in the ass, if you can even remember how to spell it!
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