Hiking With Ben

Tales from the Wilderness

Up and Down the Cobungra

Walked April 2023, Posted Thursday 1st June 2023

Contents

Empty spaces on a map invite curiosity, and on my map of the Bogong High Plains there was a large area east of Mt Hotham and south of the main plains unknown to me. The name Paling Spur conjured up hints of hardship and navigational woe, while Swindlers Gap had a lot of history but little current information. That sparked me to plan a walk centred on the Cobungra River taking in these mysteries, and a break of fine weather mid-autumn was the perfect opportunity to go exploring.

The Cobungra Valley

LS and I ate our lunch at the Brandy Creek Picnic Area while reading about the local history on a sign behind the picnic table. There were only a couple of other cars parked here, which was an encouraging sign for a quiet walk 1. With lunch done and packs on, we made a start on the fire trail leading down to the Cobungra River.

My initial impression of the fire trail was disappointment: it appeared to have been recently covered with dirt and rocks, leaving a very lumpy surface that was awkward to walk on. Given the current mania for upgrading these fire tracks I was concerned that the whole thing may have received this treatment, but I needn’t have worried. After a short way it reverted to a quiet grassy 4WD track.

Snow gum forest along the Brandy Creek fire trail.

Walking through the snow gums was really quite enjoyable with the mild autumn sun, the fresh smell of the forest, and the easy downhill track. We got occasional glimpses of the edge of the high plains ahead of us through the trees. As we descended we came across large old trees scattered through the forest, gnarled and twisted, and other trees tall and elegant with every branch curved, their shining leaves catching the afternoon sun far above.

After half a kilometre we passed the Cobungra Ditch track 2 on the left and a locked gate across the fire trail. After another half kilometre we arrived at a side track on the right leading to the site of the Brandy Creek mine. We left our packs and went to explore.

The Cobungra Company The Brandy Creek Mine pioneered the use of hydraulic sluicing in the Victorian Alps 3. Water was obtained from the headwaters of Swindlers Creek and directed to the mine along a race of 7 miles 5 chains (11·4 km). High-pressure water was used to wash out the dirt from a long-buried river system, which was then directed through slice boxes to extract the gold. Today the race is used as the route for the Cobungra Ditch walking track.

It’s been ninety years since the mine was worked 4, but the landscape is still scarred. Piles of pale dirt and rock were bare of vegetation, and on the exposed earth were outcrops of finely-layered shale. Interspersed were mirky pools filled with waterweed. But despite the industrial past there was some attractiveness in the unusual appearance of the site. And nature was slowly reclaiming the area: plenty of trees had popped up, scrub was growing between the mounds, colourful fungi were bursting from the earth, and frogs were croaking from the pools.

The site of the Brandy Creek Mine still shows the scars nearly a century after the mine was last worked.

A short way further down the fire track we passed what appeared to be the site of the old Cobungra township, where white quartz stones were spread out in lines across a large clearing. A newspaper report of the time described the town as “built on the north side of a ridge from the main range leading down to the river, and in about as uninviting a spot as could be well determined upon in the ranges” 5, which fitted well enough.

We continued along, with a short flatter section giving our legs a break, before resuming the descent. Ahead of us the high plains rose ever higher as we dropped lower. While today’s downhill walk was easy, we’d pay for it tomorrow by climbing up to those plains.

Northward we could see the Cobungra valley winding between the ridges. The Cobungra is a noisy river, and we could hear it rushing over its stony bed before we could see it. The descent steepened as we neared the base, and turned right for the steep final section down thorough a stand of big old trees. Between the trees we could see the grassy valley floor and the stream flecked with foam.

The last section of the fire trail before the river.

At the end of the track we found an old broken sign pointing the way to Paling Spur and Cobungra Gap, and another warning “Unmarked Track – Navigation Required”, both of which were exciting to see. One of the aspects of this walk I was looking forward to was that it was mostly new ground. This was the first section where I’d need to navigate to find our way along the valley to the base of Paling Spur.

Before continuing we walked down to the river. It was already in deep shade, reminding us of the short daylight hours at this time of year. The water was flowing swiftly and was deeper than I’d expected. We’d be fording the river a little way upstream so this was of some interest.

The Cobungra River was already in the shade.

We put our gaiters on for protection in the long grass of the valley, and made a start along a faint foot pad. Every step we took through the grass resulted in an explosion of bright green grasshoppers. In amongst some trees we passed a big pool, disturbing a couple of ducks.

Heading up the Cobungra River valley.

The valley began to widen, and the trees thinned out to give us more sun. Autumn was turning the grass from green to yellow. Either side of us rose dark green forested ridges, forming the borders of our little world. Ahead a small pointed peak stood out. This marked the end of the ridge dividing Swindlers Creek from the Cobungra River, and also marked where we’d be camping.

The grass had started out fairly short, but almost without us noticing it had become taller and taller. Tussocks grew as mounds with solid bases close to waist height, and were topped with fresh growth to chest height or more. We angled away from the river in search of easier going, having lost the foot pad.

Deep grass made the walking harder than it looks.

Unexpectedly we reached a little side stream 6 which was flowing strongly in a deep bed, making it hard to find a spot to step or jump across. Fording it would be annoying due to the steep banks, plus neither of us wanted to take our boots off just for this little creek. We were saved by the discovery of an old tree trunk lying right across the creek a short way upstream which we used as a bridge.

After crossing carefully we came across some wet ground which seemed to be the tail end of another tributary. While wallowing around in the grass I spotted an old dead tree with a branch neatly sawn off. Figuring this meant it was on the line of the old track I headed that way, and found an easier route.

The valley sides closed in, bringing us back to the river. We found a tree with an orange arrow nailed to it, with another on the far side of the river. This was the ford we’d been expecting. It was a pretty spot with the water mottled by shadows, and trees arched above, still lit by the sun.

Fording the Cobungra River.

We’d brought hiking sandals to use for river crossings, and this was our first opportunity to try them out. The ford wasn’t ideal, with large rocks creating thigh-deep holes in the river. I crossed first and took my time since most of the stones in the river bed were slimy, though the sandals helped. I got across without mishap, then went back to help LS cross. While we were changing back into boots LS discovered a leech had attached itself to her leg… the first of many, many, more.

The track entered a scrubby section, but was easy to follow, and it wasn’t long before we arrived at an idyllic clearing. As soon as I saw it I hoped very much it was our campsite, and indeed it was. There was plenty of flat ground to camp on, which was covered with short grass and patches of golden everlastings. Scattered trees provided shade, and the valley walls enclosed the site on almost every side. From right next to us came the sound of the two swift rivers.

We dropped our packs and had a look around. I found a place to collect water just upstream of the camp. Immediately across from our campsite was the confluence of Swindlers Creek and the Cobungra. The two rivers flowed head-on towards each other down their respective valleys, before both turning to the south, leaving an elongated stony gore between them before they joined. It was a beautiful sight.

The confluence of Swindlers Creek (left) and the Cobungra River (right). The campsite is a stone’s throw to the right.

The late afternoon sun warmed us as we pitched the tent and prepared our gear for the night. With everything set up we explored some more, enjoying having this wonderful place all to ourselves.

But the sun was dropping, so I fetched water and started on dinner. I’d originally planned this walk for summer. Now in mid-autumn the sun was setting much earlier, and down in the valley we lost the sun even earlier. The sky turned pink, as did the top edge of the high plains to the east. A fog started rising from the ground, and the air turned chilly. It was time for bed.

Paling Spur

It was a peaceful night in the tent with the twin rivers bubbling away close by. There had been some low fog around, but the skies above remained clear, so the stars and Milky Way were spectacular. When dawn arrived it was grey outside with the valley filled with cloud. A fringe of tall dead trees stood out in silhouette on the ridgetops, and fog blew through the forest near camp. Spiderwebs were covered in glittering dewdrops.

Our intention today was to climb Paling Spur then head to Youngs Hut for the night. It wasn’t a big day, so given the cold morning we slept in, waiting until the sun made an appearance above the edge of the high plains before getting up.

A cloudy sunrise down in our valley.

The cloud began to break up while we ate breakfast, then cleared completely as we finished our packing. Just as we were preparing to leave we were surprised to see a walker coming towards us along the river. Alex was following a similar route to us, but taking three days not four, and heading to McNamaras Hut instead of Youngs. We were both intending to come back via Dibbins Hut and Dungeys Track 7 through Swindlers Gap.

The Paling Spur track had an orange arrow right behind our campsite to mark its start, and from there it was easy to follow. Alex set off at a cracking pace, and we followed rather more slowly. A short way up we passed a pile of bones, a goat or foal maybe, but no skull to give us a clue.

Looking back to where we’d camped from the start of the Paling Spur track.

The lower section had some scrub to push through, but the foot pad itself was clear. We climbed steeply through mature forest featuring some majestic old trees. Like yesterday’s forest, this area seemed to have escaped the fires of recent years. It was really rather pretty, with occasional fungi and lichens for some colour. A flock of black cockatoos flew overhead, their harsh cries ringing through the forest.

After an hour we stopped for a rest, having climbed about 250 metres. Here the forest changed to a mess of thin-trunked snow gums. This also marked where the steepness of the track lessened, so although we were still climbing, the walking became easier.

Climbing Paling Spur through the snow gums.

Glades began appearing in the forest, which was an encouraging sign that we were nearing the top. Surprisingly we crossed the edge of a sphagnum bog in amongst the trees on the ridge. At last the climb tapered off and the vegetation opened out to plains fringed with snow gums.

Near the edge of a large grassy clearing we passed a boulder with a small cairn on top, a marker for walkers heading the other way. Dominating the whole area was a gigantic lone snow gum, a far better marker than the little cairn.

It was time for a lunch break so we stopped under the tree, surrounded by drifts of golden everlastings. To the west we had views of Hotham Heights and Mt Hotham, the latter soon covered by cloud flowing across its summit.

The gigantic old snow gum where we stopped for lunch.

We had a lunch of cherry tomatoes, baby capsicums, crackers, hot tea, and macaroons. The feature was marinated olives: everything tastes better out in the wild, and the olives were amazing. While we ate a magpie was out hunting for its lunch in the grass, later returning to a big nest up in the top of our tree.

Despite its reputation Paling Spur had been straightforward. It was clear that the track had been receiving some attention with the scrub trimmed back on the upper part. But even so, there must be enough traffic along it to keep the foot pad fresh.

We packed up and continued on, as it was well after midday and there was still a fair way to go. The foot pad could only be followed for a short distance before it was lost in a maze of brumby tracks.

Now that we’d reached the high rolling country of Youngs Tops I knew the navigation would be more difficult. There’s very little in the way of landmarks up here, just one small grassy plain after another. A few years back I’d been up here on a daywalk and reached a point not far away 8, so I was able to use that experience to help steer a course.

Views from Youngs Tops.

The walking was pleasant, with intermittent fungi and patches of scrub brightening the landscape, and with occasional views of Mt Cope and up towards Feathertop. But it was all rather repetitive, and began to drag on us. We climbed up a long grassy valley, which I remembered from my previous walk here, then reached a thick wall of snow gums. The faint track passed through the trees via an archway, with the trees curving up above the gap.

The archway through the wall of trees.

At length we reached another distinctive grassy plain, one I knew well, which was directly above Youngs Hut 9. We dropped down the right side of the valley where the walking was easiest, then crossed carefully to the other side, avoiding the bogs and rivulets that feed the stream flowing down the valley.

There was no one else at the hut. I chose a spot on the grass out the front and pitched the tent. It was still damp from the dew last night and could use all the airing it could get. Just as I finished we both heard an eerie howling from far down the valley to the southeast, which sounded like a pack of dogs excitedly greeting each other.

When we took our gaiters off LS found a few more leeches on her legs. I didn’t have any leeches, but did have globs of blood in my socks and gaiters where they’d fed and dropped off. I really hadn’t imagined leeches would be a problem in the Alps, but I guess the river valleys are a likely enough home for them.

I started dinner early this evening so I’d have time to head up to see the sunset. The sun was dropping quickly, and the tent was already in the shade. I cooked in the hut: soup for a starter and pasta for the main meal. With that done I walked back up the valley to the plain where there was an expansive view to the west.

Heading up the valley to see the sunset.

There wasn’t much cloud in the sky so I wasn’t expecting a lot of colour tonight, but the striking silhouettes of the trees provided some interest. My own silhouette stretched out a hundred metres across the grass. The sun’s warm yellow glow didn’t count for much, with the air very chilly.

The sun passed behind a band of cloud on the horizon without raising much colour. Higher in the sky a sliver of the new moon was followed by Venus, and a few planes left thin contrails. With the sun down a fog rose out of the ground amplifying the chill. The sight of the bare trees silhouetted against the pink sky with the ground a blur of luminous fog was worth the walk.

Fog began rising as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon.

Back down at the hut I found the tent was collecting moisture from the damp breeze, and was wetter than when I’d pitched it. In the hut I made a hot drink. LS had got the fire going, so we sat in front of it enjoying the warmth and gazed at the glowing embers.

Every now and then I headed outside to look at the stars. The whole sky was ablaze with millions of stars, sparkling like jewels. The Milky Way stretched south to north in a thick stripe of cloudy colour. With the hut as my refuge it was easy to go outside for a while to try some astronomical photography, then head back inside to warm up.

The Milky Way above our frosty tent.

I went out to cut more wood to keep the fire going. While I was out there I found the tent was covered in a thick, soft frost. The hut felt deliciously warm in comparison, and the crackling fire was mesmerising.

Eventually it was time for bed, but neither of us really fancied going outside to a freezing cold wet tent. So we dashed outside and brought the groundsheet in to lay on the floor, then put our sleeping mats and bags on top of that. We hung our packs on hooks to keep them out of reach of rodents. It was very pleasant going to sleep in the dry, spacious hut, with our heads next to the dying fire.

Swindlers Gap

The night in the hut was great. A few times I heard mice scurrying, but when I shone my torch around the hut I didn’t see anything. Until morning, that is, when the chubby little mice got bolder and eyed us off from holes in the wall above our heads.

I wanted to make an early start today since we had the biggest day of the walk in front of us: heading down to Dibbins Hut before a potentially difficult section to Swindlers Creek via Swindlers Gap, then, if time permitted, returning to our first night’s campsite. So we were up with the sun, cooking breakfast in the hut then packing up. I tried drying the tent in the sun (we’d left it up last night), but it was still damp when I packed it.

We started walking in sunshine with just a few clouds blowing down from the northwest. The sun’s warmth was in sharp contrast to the cold wind. Passing the site of the original Youngs Hut, we found a family of flame robins flitting around in copse of snow gums. The males with their brilliant red plumage were spectacular, and contrasted with the dull-coloured females.

Heading up to the high plains along the ridge from Youngs Hut.

There’s a last line of trees before the plains begin, and we stopped there for a rest. When planning this walk I’d hoped we’d have time for a side trip to the rivers of broken basalt blocks that run down into the Bundara Valley, but with the unknown Dungeys Track in front of us and limited daylight it wasn’t worth it. A happy decision as it turned out.

Up on the treeless plains the cold wind was more pronounced so we didn’t linger, marching up the pole line to the junction. At just under 1,800 metres this was the highest we’d reach on this walk. Off to the northwest Feathertop wore a cap of cloud that stuck for a long time. We turned left and started descending towards Dibbins.

It wasn’t long before we re-entered the trees. The sun hadn’t reached this west-facing slope yet, so the rocks and fallen leaves were slick with dew and required some care. About a third of the way down we could see the Basalt Temple directly ahead, the tumbled basalt crowning the ridgetop. We skipped that side trip too, for the same reason we skipped the earlier one. Another happy decision.

The Basalt Temple.

The descent was a sizeable one, and we couldn’t go too fast with our heavy loads and a slippery track. We met a few people on our way down, making this the busiest part of the whole walk.

At Cobungra Gap we turned left to follow the track down to the valley, passing the empty (paid) camping platforms, and passing a few tents pitched on the (free) grass next to the river. We crossed the Cobungra River with the luxury of a bridge. We’d been walking for a couple of hours so decided to stop for a snack and hot tea.

This was the spot where we’d leave familiar walking tracks and start on Dungeys Track — provided we could find it. We began walking down the valley away from the distant hut, hoping to pick up a foot pad. The grass was fairly good to walk through, a little lumpy but not the great mounds we’d encountered on the first day.

Starting our walk down the valley.

We crossed a boggy section and headed away from the river towards the right side of the valley in search of better ground. We picked up a faint foot pad, which gradually became more defined until it was obviously the track we were after.

The valley itself was beautiful with a floor of yellowed grass, fringed with scattered trees, and hemmed in with gentle green ridges. To our left the Cobungra bubbled in its bed, snaking back and forth across the valley. We had blue sky, sunshine, and cool air. A perfect day.

The picturesque and peaceful Cobungra River valley.

As soon as we’d turned the corner from the hut there was a feeling of remoteness. The valley narrowed and widened again, but kept on going. It felt like we could keep following it for miles, but I knew from the meagre information I’d found that soon the track was meant to climb away from the river to reach Swindlers Gap.

We passed through an old fence line, then crossed a small creek. These were the cues for the track leaving the valley 10, and I found it without trouble. This part of our walk had concerned me the most given how little I knew about it. Would I be able to locate the track? Would we be bush-bashing for miles? I needn’t have worried. If anything the foot pad became more distinct in the scrub compared to the grass, much as we’d found with Paling Spur.

I’ve just spotted where the track leaves the valley.

The track climbed steadily and surely through scrubby forest, with occasional views over the Cobungra valley below us. As we climbed we gradually got further from the river until we could no longer see it. We reached the crest and began descending into a gully on a south-facing slope, again shaded and damp, making the leaf-covered track slippery.

The gully was thick with vegetation, and from somewhere inside it came the musical tinkling of trickling water. We reached the creek, which was so tiny we could just step across. The creek dropped away quickly in a deepening gully, while the track contoured across the rocky hillside.

We zigzagged steeply down to meet a larger creek in a grassy valley. This seemed like the ideal place for lunch, so we stopped. While we rested we checked our legs — a habit now — and inevitably found more leeches. Even after removing them they tried coming back for more.

The beautiful grassy valley where we stopped for lunch.

It was a serene place: lush grass, green forested hillsides, a bright blue sky, and the sound of a bubbling creek. Civilization felt infinitely far away. There was enough room here for a tent, and it would be a great place to spend a night.

When we set off again the track, which was extravagantly marked with two orange arrows, began a steady climb up the southern side of the valley towards Swindlers Gap. The gain in elevation was only a hundred metres or so, but this did put us back into scrappy snow gum forest.

Swindlers Gap wasn’t anything more than a small saddle without views, though it did merit no less than four orange markers. We began the descent to Swindlers Creek. It felt like we were connecting a link to the start of our walk.

Being once again on the southern slopes the forest was shady, cool, and damp. The dampness brought out the fresh smell of the forest, the fallen leaves, and the earth. Occasional fungi and flowers gave us a bit of colour: orange, tan, and purple. There was some fallen timber on this leg of the track, the first we’d had, but nothing hard to get past.

Tiny golden jelly-bells growing on dead wood.

Through the trees we could see Swindlers Creek far below. It looked tantalizing: a mountain stream rushing along grassy flats. We were looking forward to being out on the grass in the sunshine again. The track continued its long descent, then contoured into and out of a deep side gully, before finally dropping down to meet Swindlers Creek.

The creek was crystal clear and flowed over a bed of pebbles. The far side was bordered by more pebbles and great mounds of grass. The creek was already in heavy shade, contrasting with the sunlit grass on the far side. Surprisingly there was no obvious place to cross. An orange track marker was directly behind us, so we knew we were right where the track reached the creek.

After considering our options we settled on a spot and changed into our sandals. Removing our gaiters revealed the latest batch of leeches, with one on my leg as fat as my little finger leaving a wound that didn’t stop trickling blood for a long time.

Swindlers Creek at the ford: the water was freezing cold.

Despite the awkward appearance of the crossing it was easy enough to drop into the water. It only reached our shins and the clean pebbles gave good grip, so it was easy to cross. But the water was icy! It was distinctly colder than we’d had on the first day when we crossed the Cobungra.

I’d considered camping here but sunset wasn’t for nearly four hours, and any extra walking today would shorten tomorrow’s walk out to the car. So we decided to push on to our first night’s camp, which was only about 2·5 km downstream.

The very brief track notes I’d found said to cross the creek and stay on the far side, following it downstream to the confluence with the Cobungra. There appeared to be a foot pad leading through the grass, so feeling content with our situation we set off.

Setting off down the Swindlers Creek valley. That smile won’t last long.

The first hundred metres went well, then the nightmare began.

The grass that had looked so nice from a distance was terrible to walk through. Each clump was a huge mound around waist height, taller on average than we’d had on the first day, and there were far more of them. Above the mounds the leaves of grass spread out head-high and hid the ground. We pushed through between the mounds, but hidden below were lumps, holes, mud, water, and fallen timber. We stumbled along in slow motion wondering what had happened.

We hadn’t got far when a sheer outcrop of rock blocked forward progress along the creek bank. We could either cross the creek or climb around the obstacle. Since we were meant to be staying on this bank I decided to climb, which quickly became a rather airy scramble.

The valley may look as neat as a park, but the grass was deep enough to hide tributary streams and entire fallen trees. Just ahead is the rock outcrop that blocked our progress along the bank.

From up on the side of the valley the scene below looked peaceful and wild, a bright ribbon of water bordered by grassy banks, but our frustrating experience coloured my perceptions and I couldn’t enjoy the view. The grass up here was short and easy to walk through, though there was also some scrub.

We dropped back down to the river, and back into the giant mounds of grass with their hidden snags. We struggled on slowly in this green hell. In the first hour from the ford we only covered 600 metres, and not all of that was forward progress.

We reached a place where the narrow river bank was so choked with fallen timber that it was impossible to pass. Heading up the side of the valley wasn’t possible, so we bowed to the inevitable and switched to sandals to cross the creek. The water was deeper here than before as the creek was more confined. After crossing we decided to keep walking in our sandals since further crossings were certain.

The other bank proved to be no better, and we stumbled along the same as before. I found a dry backwater of the creek which looked like it may give us a clear run, but that didn’t last long and left us on a tiny pebbly island in the middle of the creek.

A higher perspective of the creek from one of our detours up the side of the valley.

It was time to switch to the right bank again. As we headed that way I was astonished to spot a daywalker, who was catching us rapidly. He seemed a little concerned for our safety (or maybe sanity), but we assured him we were fine. We discussed our mutual difficulties with the track. I suggested that the track seemed to switch from side to side. He said he’d come to the conclusion that there was no track at all, which I was in no position to dispute. He sped off with his enviably light daypack, but having far more need than us to escape before nightfall.

We completed the crossing to the right bank, and struggled onwards. We were both feeling the frustration and weariness of this day, and the atmosphere between us was strained. After more floundering along in the grass and fallen timber we reached a point where it was impossible to follow the bank at creek level. We climbed to where some sketchy contouring might get us further. We considered going higher, but that would involve some bush-bashing on steep ground. We considered the lower option again. We ummed and ahhed before giving up and just heading straight up the hillside.

Hard going in the deep grass.

Crawling uphill through the bushes I was shocked to find myself on a track. It was a clear foot pad through the forest, the same sort of track we’d had before we’d forded Swindlers Creek. The slow realization of what must have happened was crushing: after crossing the creek the track must have continued on its way as it had, not following the creek, but climbing above the creek valley.

I’d misinterpreted the vague track notes as saying the creek itself should be followed, rather there being a track in the creek valley to follow, and took the apparent foot pad leading downstream as confirmation. In my defence I didn’t see any indication of there being a track — some of those track markers from earlier would have been handy — and both the daywalker and Alex (who we met again tomorrow) did exactly the same as us.

With hindsight and a clear head I should have realized that something wasn’t right as soon as we got to the first impassable rock. Why did I keep struggling along the creek bank when I’d seen that the going was easier higher up? It was blazingly obvious now, but when tired it’s very easy to go wrong and stay wrong.

A magnificent tree towering above the creek, but already in shade with the daylight starting to run out.

It was two hours since we’d forded Swindlers Creek and we’d only covered 1·2 km, with at least as much still to go. For a while I’d been considering how much longer we could afford to struggle along the creek before we’d have to surrender and find a campsite. But now we had a path I felt we were in with a chance.

We breezed along the track up above the creek and that rotten grass. Where the valley widened and turned left the track dropped back down to the grassy flats. The creek likewise made a sharp left turn in its pebbly bed, the spot marked grimly by the skeleton of a horse on the grassy bank. Looking down the valley I could see the familiar ridges behind our campsite less than half a kilometre away.

The valley made a sharp left turn, and our campsite was now within reach.

I managed to stay on the track for a while, needing to rely on intuition and luck given that it was hidden under the luxuriant grass. But it didn’t matter too much: while the grass was deep, it wasn’t as bad as before. Though I still managed to fall over a couple of times when my tired feet caught on something hidden in the grass.

LS spotted an orange arrow on a tree a long way down on the edge of the valley, which marked where the track began heading up the hillside again. We followed it while below us Swindlers Creek wound back and forth across the valley. When we’d almost reached the campsite the track wasn’t showing any sign of dropping down to the creek 11, so I decided to bush-bash down to the valley floor.

We stopped on the stony bank of Swindlers Creek just upstream of its confluence with the Cobungra to take our boots and gaiters off, and to harvest the latest crop of leeches. Crossing Swindlers was awkward so we took care, not wanting to end our day with a cold bath. Between Swindlers and the Cobungra was a narrow barrier of stony earth. On the other side we plunged into the Cobungra and emerged right where I’d collected water for our camp on the first night. Despite being the bigger stream it was easier to cross, though we almost capsized when our grip on each other’s hands slipped.

About to ford Swindlers Creek. At this point the Cobungra River flows parallel a few metres to the left, and the two join just past the tree on the right.

The Cobungra River looks larger than Swindlers Creek, but was easier to cross.

It was a huge relief to reach our familiar campsite. Just a short while ago it had seemed impossibly far away. But there was no time to rest as sunset was less than an hour away. So I hurriedly put up the tent, fetched water, and started cooking our meal while preparing my gear for the night.

Darkness fell in the middle of dinner. With the warmth of the sun gone a fog began to rise, chilling the air. When dinner was done LS went into the tent, while I stayed up for a while to enjoy my first rest since lunch, and to write up my notes for the day.

The day’s walking had been great until the wrong turn after fording Swindlers Creek. From then on it had been a very rough afternoon. It could have been worse though: if we’d been delayed by doing those side trips then we’d have camped back at the ford. That would have left the nightmare section until tomorrow morning… it hardly bore thinking about.

Downstream and Uphill

It was with weary relief that I got into my warm sleeping bag last night. The night was cold and the stars were bright, though they weren’t a match for the previous night. Twice I heard high-pitched yipping and howling, somewhat different to what I’d heard at Youngs, but likely canine again.

With the dawn I expected a grey morning like our previous time here, but when I looked out of the tent I was delighted to see a clear sky and everything covered with dew. Immediately after I got up the sun rose over the edge of the high plains. Every drop of dew it touched sparkled with light.

As the sun got higher more and more of the valley was ablaze with light. Every bush was netted with spiderwebs, and each web covered in dew, so every bush was illuminated. Where the sun warmed the valley the dew steamed off in wisps of fog, adding to the spectacle. It was a wonderful sunrise, not for colour, but simply the white light.

Sunlight catching the dew-covered spiderwebs adorning the bushes.

The valley glowed as the sun steamed off the dew.

I boiled water for our breakfast, then we finished our packing. I left the tent out in the sun as long as I could to dry it, but since this was the last day of our walk it didn’t matter too much.

Today’s walk was simply a reversal of our first day. We were off at a reasonable time, but weren’t rushing since there was no point in getting back to Melbourne too early just to get stuck in traffic at the end of a long weekend.

The sun had yet to reach the scrubby section along the river bank, so we got a cold shower from the drenched bushes. It didn’t take long to reach the ford and we crossed quickly, being old hands at it now. We were also old hands at finding leeches, and weren’t surprised to find more. It wasn’t the last we saw of them either: back at home we found one on a cupboard door after we’d unpacked.

We enjoyed the last of our river valley walking through the golden grass, hemmed in by the forested ridges, and under another bright blue sky. At times like this it can be hard to believe that later this same day we’d be back in the dingy city.

Crossing Murphys Creek on an improvised bridge.

I managed to stay on Dungeys track for the entire length of the valley, apart from a detour to use the fallen tree to cross Murphys Creek. The past few days had honed my intuition for this style of track. Passing the pond near the fire track we again surprised a duck, which flew off quacking in alarm.

At the base of the fire track we had a short break to remove our gaiters and farewell the river before continuing. The fire track started with a very steep climb. It was hard work, but at least we gained elevation quickly, with the river soon far below but still clearly audible.

A last glimpse of the silvery waters of the Cobungra River down in its valley.

A flatter section was a welcome break from the climb. We had a rest, then resumed the grind up the ridge. The forest was nice without being spectacular, but it’s hard to appreciate the scenery when working hard.

Alex caught us on one of the climbs. He was going along at his usual great rate. Yesterday, like us, he’d been unable to locate the track after crossing Swindlers Creek, and had camped somewhere in the valley having been benighted. He raced off ahead of us.

Elegant trees high above the fire trail near the end of our climb.

We counted down the landmarks: the clearing with its odd piles of quartz stones, the side track to the Brandy Creek mine site, and the junction with the Ditch track. The last half kilometre up to the carpark dragged on, but eventually the roof of the shelter came into view, then we were back.

Alex was at the carpark finishing off his lunch, and we said our farewells when he left. We got changed and had a rest before starting on the drive back to Melbourne.

There had been so much to enjoy on this walk: the river valleys, the alpine meadows, the sunrises, the blazing stars, the excitement of new territory, but more than anything the magical campsite nestled in the arm of the Cobungra at the confluence of those twin rivers.

Yesterday while struggling down Swindlers Creek I’d never wanted to come here again, but even at the time I knew that would soon fade. Already I was thinking about finding the rest of the track we’d missed, and walking the Cobungra Ditch. We’d managed to fill in much of the blank space on the map, but there was still so much to do.

References

  1. The closure of the main road to Falls Creek due to a landslide had pushed people into the Hotham area. When we drove past Diamantina Hut there were over a hundred cars lined up on both sides of the road, all the way along the straight and around the next corner. The Federation Hut area must have been bedlam that night.
  2. The Cobungra Ditch Walking Track Notes, via www.mthotham.com.au.
  3. The Argus, Monday 16th February 1885, p 9. Hydraulic Sluicing at the Cobungra Mine.
  4. Brandy Creek Mine to Cobungra River Track Notes, via www.visitdinnerplain.com.au.
  5. The Argus, Monday 2nd February 1885, p 4. The Cobungra Diggings. The same quote appears on an information sign at the start of the fire trail.
  6. This was Murphys Creek which, incidentally, was the site of mining activity around the same time as Brandy Creek, though we saw no evidence of it today.
  7. The Argus, Saturday 9th February 1929, p 46. Dungey’s Track: A Horse-Pad in Alpine Country. This article presents an interesting account of a walk along Dungeys Track nearly a hundred years ago, along with some related history.
  8. I was attempting a circuit from Dibbins Hut up to Youngs Hut, down Paling Spur, along Dungeys Track through Swindlers Gap, and back to Dibbins Hut. It was my first time up on Youngs Tops, and the difficult navigation took much longer than expected. I decided to turn back before I’d found the top of Paling Spur, which was just as well in hindsight.
  9. The hut referred to as Youngs Hut these days is actually an old SEC survey hut. The original Youngs Hut was located a couple hundred metres to the northwest where there are clearings for old cattle yards.
  10. Siseman, John (1997). Victoria’s Alpine National Park: A Bushwalker’s Guide (1st ed). MacStyle Media. p 141. ISBN 1875293248.
  11. It looks as though the track continues around to the ford we crossed on the first day, though I haven’t confirmed this.