Summer in Thredbo
I FELT MY HEART thumping as I tightened my grip around the handlebars of the mountain bike. I was at the bottom of Australia’s tallest mountain, and if I could only handle the induction course, soon I’d be 600m higher, and about to fly down the new six kilometre gravity-fed flow trail.
The idea had seemed much more plausible just a few hours ago.
Travelling from Sydney
A couple of days earlier, Fil, Alex and I had thrown our backpacks in the car and left work early, keen to beat traffic and get to Thredbo early.
The plan was to fit in as much as possible into two days – summiting Mount Kosciuszko, mountain biking down it and then wrapping up the weekend with some relaxing fly-fishing.
The 500km road trip cleared the work-week worries from our minds and we arrived in Thredbo after dark, having taken the last leg from Cooma slowly, watching out for wildlife on the road.
The sun had been in our eyes the past hour, illuminating every curve in the land, as well as each twisted snow gum with its branches raised in welcome. We dropped our bags off at the hotel, rugged up and headed to the pub for a quick beer with Dawn, who was showing us around the mountain over the weekend.
It only took a few minutes before we were adopted by friendly locals, and before we knew what had happened we’d been invited and taken along to a party upstairs. We stayed long enough to wish a happy birthday to Danny – finding out that he was one of the MTB gurus who’d be teaching us in a couple of days – and meet a few more of the locals.
It was the perfect introduction to a town that turned out to be as welcoming and warm in summer as it seems in winter.
Chairlifts in the summer
Saturday morning I woke early, unwilling to miss a minute of the day. I met the boys, and we went for a quick wander to get our bearings. We donned warm jackets and walked around the park, checking out the MTB pump track and meeting a different sort of local – a young kangaroo who watched us approach before hopping away up the hill – before heading back to the hotel for breakfast.
Breakfast dispatched, we went for a short walk along the Riverside track.
The Thredbo River flowed steadily beside us as we hiked between it and the golf course. We kept our eyes open for more wildlife, but all of the wombats, echidnas and platypus that we’d heard about kept themselves well-hidden.
After a quick dash back to the hotel for our day packs, we met up with Dawn and walked across the bridge to the valley terminal to find our guide, Dan Salter, who would be leading us up to the summit of Kosciuszko.
Dan – the walks guru at Thredbo – looked the part, with his hefty backpack and friendly grin. He ran through some quick safety notes on climbing Kosi, as he (and almost everyone we met) affectionately refers to the mountain as.
We took the Kosciuszko Express chairlift, riding up to an altitude of 1930m. It’s a ride I’d taken innumerable times before, but always with a snowboard hanging below me. Somehow, the drop below is scarier in summer – despite the beautiful views, you can also spot each sharp rock and boulders scattered below the lift rather than a blanket of snow.
We jumped off the chairlift and took a second to enjoy the view while Dan provided a history lesson on Thredbo village. Climbing the tallest mountain in Australia may sound intimidating, but the 13km intermediate walk isn’t too bad.
During the 7.5km ascent, you only climb to an altitude of t sea level, which does impact slightly on your breathing, but the walk itself isn’t overly steep or strenuous.
We started out on the path, with Dan pausing regularly to introduce us to the alpine animals we saw on the way up, such as the spotted mountain grasshopper that leapt away from us, and the wolf spider we found hiding below a tuft of grass, as well as the different bushes, plants and flowers that grow here.
Trees stop growing at around the 2000m mark, as cell growth for trees is impossible when the average daily temperate is below 7°c. However, while the snow gums petered out, other alpine species have blossomed.
Dan lined us up on a bridge along the gridded walkway, and then bounded down to the stream we were crossing to show us an 800 year-old mountain plum pine that’s embedded along the rocks of the icy water.
His enthusiasm was infectious, and soon we were keeping an eye out for tiny marsh marigolds and sprightly anemone buttercups (the second-largest buttercups in the world), all the while suspecting that there’s not a single blade of grass in this area that Dan doesn’t know a fact about.
Continuing our upward climb, we found our first snowbank. I couldn’t help but grin, even though it’s summer and I’m here to climb, not to ride. We trudged across the snow while young families stopped to play, and I cast a jealous eye on their snowmen.
We stopped at the Kosciuszko lookout to catch our breath and eat a quick snack, adjusting our backpacks and outer-shell jackets. The steady pace of our walk had kept us warm, but while resting, we could feel the chilly air creeping in at the edges. From here, we could see the rounded peak of Mount Kosciuszko nestled behind some nearer peaks. At this point, we should have reapplied sunscreen.
We did not.
Past the lookout, the track descended slightly as we crossed the headwaters of the Snowy River, and the landscape changed regularly; at times grassy, and other times a maze of moss, fen and heath.
We stuck to the path, obeying Dan’s request that we tread carefully and treat the park with respect.
When we reached Lake Cootapatamba lookout, Dan told us it’s the highest lake in Australia, and explained how it was created (a post-glacial lake that formed during the last ice age) and the origin of its name.
Cootapatamba is an adaptation of an Aboriginal phrase meaning ‘the place where eagles drink’, referring to an old story about an eagle that was hunted down and killed for swooping away with an infant.
As we admire the view, Dan tells us about another walk that he guides, a 19km alpine lakes walk that starts in Thredbo and ends in Charlotte’s Pass, visiting some of the other alpine lakes in the region. If we’d had an extra day, I’d be fitting it in this trip, but I had to settle for promising Dan I’d return soon.
The top of Kosciuszko
Looking out to the south, the sky was so clear we could see mountain peaks all the way through to Victoria. We hiked onwards, and upwards, keeping Kosciuszko firmly in front of us. Far from alone on the path, we were regularly overtaking – and being overtaken – by other hikers.
When we reached Rawson Pass, less than 2km from the summit, the incline increased. We clambered over the final snow bank, the steepest and slipperiest of the three that we’d encountered, and then corkscrewed our way to the summit. We cheered, and raised our arms in victory as we walked to the monument at the top.
Our mountains may not compare with the world’s tallest, but reaching the top of Kosi is still a special moment, and the panorama it provided us of the surrounding mountains was awe-inspiring.
We grabbed a spot on the side of the mountain, where other walkers were already scattered, and ate lunch looking out over the Monaro plains.
Retracing our steps involved sliding over the snow banks we’d just climbed through, which was a blast. And as always, the return journey felt much quicker – though I could have sworn there were some new steep uphill sections we didn’t walk down on the way to the summit.
We reached the top of the Kosciuszko Express and rode the chairlift down.
Below us, the ground drops away and I’m struck silent by the view – I’ve never taken a chairlift down a mountain before, and to see the afternoon sun hitting the village chalets is a beautiful sight.
It was after 4pm by the time we arrived back in the valley, and we ran to the bobsled, dragging Dan along with us. We had just enough time for a ride before it closed for day, something we’d been looking forward to all week.
We climbed aboard our sleds – Dan in front; Fil and Alex behind me – and held on tight as we were towed to the top of the run. It’s a 700m track, but we all pushed our carts at the fastest speeds and it felt like it was over in barely in a second.
It might be designed for kids, but as we thanked Dan and walked to the hotel, I looked back with a tinge of regret, wishing for a longer track and a second run.
Around dusk, we ventured back up the riverside track; we’d heard that there’s a particular part of the river the platypus play in around dusk, and were keen to spot one. We sat by the river, as patiently and quietly as our tired and slightly sunburnt bodies would allow, but there were no platypus sightings for us that night.
Commiseration was sought at dinner at Cascades, before an early night’s sleep.
School holiday fun
Summer is hotting up at Thredbo for kids. From the bobsled to the leisure centre, with a waterslide and inflatable obstacle course; there’s a whole range of activities for them to get stuck into.
This summer, they’re adding even more with the Kids Club Night Adventure, a new guided night-time walk to meet local wildlife like wombats and pygmy possums, as well as the MTB Adventure Day Camps, where kids can kick-start and boost their mountain biking skills under the watchful eye of the qualified instructors.
Mountain bike class
It was an early start the following morning for our MTB class with instructor Tim Windshuttle. I’d never mountain biked before in my life, discounting that one time that I tried racing down a gravel path, only to tumble off and tear my leg open in two places. Tim, who has years of practice and knows the trails as well as Dan knew the mountain, kindly chuckled at my concerns, then had us all on our bikes and out on our first cross-country trail.
We rode the Pipeline trail first, a beginner multipurpose path that’s a great introduction to biking. It cuts down through the rear of the village, where we jumped straight onto the Thredbo Valley Trail, another beginner multipurpose path. Within the first few hundred metres, my calves were splashed with mud and I was in love with trail riding, though I was a little shakier than the rest of the group. Tim, who rides as though the bike is a natural extension of his body, paused periodically to let us catch our breath.
It was an exhilarating feeling, racing through the bush and coasting over the suspension bridges. Focusing on the five or so metres immediately in front of me didn’t leave any space in my mind for feeling nervous, and I soon found myself pushing my bike faster and faster.
The Valley trail had only recently opened, now that the first stage of work was complete. All up, for us, it was a 6km journey to the ranger’s station where we were picked up, but eventually the trail will stretch for 25km, all the way to Lake Crackenback Resort. It’s a gentle and scenic trail, without any complicated or technical sections, and a great path for beginners to start on. Back at the valley terminal, it was time to trade in our regular helmets and get kitted up in some slightly more serious gear.
Wearing a full-face helmet, and protective guards on our torsos, arms and legs, we were still standing in the alpine centre when my heart started thumping.
I’m so accident-prone that I’m banned from flying foxes, and as we cycled over to the skills centre for our downhill induction, my adrenalin skyrocketed. Tim showed us the neutral riding position again, and we started riding down a ten-metre stretch of hill, working on our control of the brakes.
Tim was first in the line, and he took the corners with a grace that made it look like the easiest thing in the world. Alex and Fil followed, wobblier than Tim but quickly getting the hang of it. Dawn rode down third and, although she hasn’t done much downhill biking, she had no difficulty in mimicking Tim’s actions.
I rolled unsteadily towards the first corner, and started choking up the brakes instantly. Over and over – for what seemed like an eternity, but was only around 20 minutes – we pushed our bikes up the hill and then rode back down, and each time I gripped the brakes tighter.
At our first break, I made the decision that inevitably made my mother happy and gave the others ammunition to use against me for the rest of the weekend. Though Tim was certain that with a bit more practice, I’d be fine on the flow trail, I decided to stick with the spirit of the relaxing weekend away. I watched Dawn and the boys head up the mountain, and I went back to Danny to trade over my helmet and bike for a second time.
Relaxing with wombats
A few minutes later, sitting comfortably on my now-familiar cross-country bike, I went exploring by myself. I rode out along Pipeline again, taking it a bit slower and enjoying the scenery. This time, rather than the Valley trail, I took the Bridle Loop Path.
Another multipurpose path, it’s an intermediate track that winds backwards, sitting slightly higher in the hills, and is narrower and more technical than the trails we’d ridden that morning.
When I hit a section of track that was all churned up, I realised that I didn’t have the path to myself, and that it was lined with wombat burrows. I dropped my bike and leant down to take a peek inside one, before remembering that wombats are nocturnal and probably wouldn’t appreciate a rude midday wake up from an intruder, before riding on.
I beat Dawn and the boys back to the valley terminal by a couple of minutes. They wasted no time filling me in on exactly what I’d missed out on, which aside from a couple of hilarious-sounding tumbles from both Fil and Alex, is just a downhill track that’s designed to accommodate beginners, as long as they haven’t psyched themselves out completely.
At that point, I promised myself that I’d be back in Thredbo soon, following up Dan’s alpine lakes walk with a serious attempt at downhill riding with Tim.
Fly fishing lessons
All of us were stiff and sore in a rewarding sort of way, but we didn’t rest for long before heading to meet Craig “Daf” Daly for our fly-fishing lesson.
Standing on the village green, we practiced casting with the light fly-fishing rods, flicking our arms back and forward as we tried to perfect the motion.
I started to think that I had the hang of it, until I saw Daf cast the line out and realised he could target exactly where he wanted the end of the line to go. I kept on practicing.
Once Daf was confident we’d mastered the casting movement – and that were sensible enough not to catch anybody with the fly – he took out his tackle boxes and explained to us the science of making and choosing the right fly (see Luring them in, this page).
I recognised some insects that Dan had shown us during our walk the day before, such as the plague soldier beetle, with its green wings and bright orange body. Daf carefully selected a fly for us to use that suited the season, and set up the rods.
It was a cruisey afternoon; casting gently into the Thredbo River while we discussed competitive fly-fishing, the conversation only interrupted when Daf spied a trout sitting just upstream from us. We continued casting more quietly, before the silence was broken by a shout.
Daf had hooked the trout and was working it back to himself. He reached down into the water and pulled out a beautiful brown trout – a beauty at just under 30cm long. He quickly removed the hook from its mouth, and released it back into the water. We continued fishing for the rest of the afternoon, rewarded at the end by conversations, a game of pool and a cold beer at the pub.
As we drove home early on Monday morning, I thought about how similar a summer in Thredbo is to its winter.
The town is still filled with people who love their jobs – and who love the outdoors – and there’s a whole range of things that you can get lost doing. Some things, such as tearing down the flow trail, are best done fast.
Others are best done slowly, like drinking a Kosciuszko Pale Ale, or casting the perfect line. It’s a town that rewards every visit, whether it’s warm or cold, no matter how fast you move.
The lure we used was a deer hair caddis emerger, handmade by Daf.
The fly mimics the caddisfly during its transformational state between pupa and adulthood. Daf’s collection of lures ranged from fish roe – tiny orange and red beads that look like fish eggs – to fully developed imitation adult flies.
Made with a range of materials including fur, hair, feathers and synthetics, these flies are hand-stitched together and designed to look as authentic as possible for a fish looking upwards towards it.
Getting there: It’s a 500km drive from Sydney or 600km from Melbourne, and you’ll need to get a park pass for your vehicle when you arrive at Kosciuszko National Park, or pick one up from the information centre in Thredbo.
During summer, you can fly to Canberra Airport and transfer; or there’s a range of coach services available from Canberra or Sydney.
When to go: The chairlift at Thredbo is open year-round, so any time you can get there you’ll find something fun to do. Summer activities run between October and May.
Other activities: Aside from walking, mountain biking and fishing, you can also enjoy golf, tennis and abseiling. There’s also the leisure centre, which has a sports hall, swimming pool, squash courts and bouldering wall. And don’t forget the bobsled!
More info: All the details for transport, accommodation, activities and conditions can be found at www.thredbo.com.au