Positioned to the northwest of the undulating Main Range and south of the open, grassy, terrain of the Kiandra Goldfields and Long Plain area, the Jagungal Wilderness combines the best of both neighbours. The mixture of open plains and rugged peaks provides impressive scale to the Jagungal Wilderness and particularly emphasises the imposing stature of Mount Jagungal itself. At 2061m above sea level, Mount Jagungal is the seventh highest mountain in Australia – it was also to be the destination and focus for our long weekend of bikepacking.
Driving to our starting point at Round Mountain car park, we passed through the Kiandra Goldfields along the Snowy Mountains Highway. This is a spectacular drive in its own right; the ribbon of black bitumen winds through open plains, past historic huts (two of which have recently been rebuilt by the Kosciuszko Huts Association) and up into Australia’s high country. Just before reaching the car park, the road drops down a spectacular descent to Tooma Pond Reservoir and Dam before climbing back out and among the snow gums.
We’d experienced suitably mountainous weather during the drive, with alternating rain and sunshine, but as we pulled into the Car Park at the start of our cycling adventure, the clouds parted, and we were afforded a patch of sunshine. Our plan for the weekend was simple – ride our bikes towards Mount Jagungal, camp near a historic hut, summit the mountain by foot, camp beside a different hut, and ride back out again.
We were trying to keep our plan fluid and open because our efforts to lock in a more developed plan during the preceding weeks had been hampered by several park closures, impassable river crossings and road works. Our final change had occurred just 24 hours earlier when a new trail closure had been updated on the NSW Parks website. Speaking of which, it is always worth checking NSW NPWS for park closures before heading to the mountains, otherwise you may be in for a nasty surprise, and the need for an even nastier detour!
So it was, we’d settled upon a forked tongue route, entering, and exiting the wilderness via the Round Mountain Trail, before spearing off along Grey Mare Trail to both the north and the south over our three-day ride.
A special place in the wilderness
Packing your camping equipment onto a bicycle always takes a bit longer than you think (see here for more tips and advice on bikepacking) and coupled with the long drive, it was 4pm by the time we were ready to start riding. Within a few hundred metres of the car park, ascending a short rise, we were afforded our first spectacular view of the ride. With the trail winding downwards, our eyes were directed beyond the trail, over forests of snow gums and grassy hills towards our first sight of Mount Jagungal.
The following descent, one of the longest of the weekend, had Jon and I grinning from ear to ear, hooting and hollering as our bikepacking rigs flew along the smooth gravel trail. We had descended 100 vertical metres over just a couple of kilometres, and these sharp changes in elevation were to be a regular occurrence. Crossing a small river, the trail continued, with a few longer stretches of flat trail mixed in with undulations.
During the next 10km we continued to enjoy views of Mount Jagungal as it grew closer, and larger each time the trail turned in its direction. We also had three seasons of weather as a short sharp rainstorm turned to hail, before quickly blowing over and revealing the late summer sun again.
An hour or so from the start, we rounded a corner and caught sight of a signpost for Derschkos Hut. This cute little historic hut is a particular favourite of mine, and I’d last visited it while riding the Hunt 1000 last year. Nestled in its own tiny valley, we’d planned to have a look and then push on towards O’Keefes Hut a further hour or so along the trail.
There was a small group of hikers camping beside the hut, having spent the day walking the trail we’d just come along; after a quick chat we walked our bikes away from the hut and out of Derschkos Valley. Cresting the small rise, we were immediately struck by the stunning view of Mount Jagungal in the evening sunlight. There was a small clearing to our left that shared the view, and we quickly came to a decision – this would be our campsite for the night.
With a few hours of sunlight remaining, we could have easily pushed on, but it was such a special spot that we were happy to take our time pitching our tents, distracted all the while by the constantly changing light on the mountain behind us. Camp made, we settled ourselves on a nearby rock for cups of tea and dinner. Campers often talk about the fire being a bush TV, but with our Jagungal view, we were perfectly content.
We stayed on our rock until the light had well and truly faded, before retiring to our tents to rest for the day ahead where we hoped to view a few more huts and summit the mountain.
To the top of the mountain
After a few downpours overnight, we awoke to a cool morning and cloud-filled sky. Mount Jagungal was still visible, but with ominous clouds in all directions we were prepared for the worst. Following coffee and breakfast, our tents were still visibly wet from the night’s rainfall. So rather than pack away our wet tents and camp somewhere new that night, we decided that it made more sense to leave our camp intact, and spend the day riding and hiking, returning to sleep in the same spot.
I’ll happily admit that this was an easy decision with many benefits. Firstly, our tents would have the chance to dry, without being stuffed into soggy bags. Secondly, we’d be able to ride around with significantly less weight attached to our bikes, a plus in this environment. And finally, for me at least, I was very happy to be returning to such a stunning camping spot. I’ve camped in a few different spots in this part of Kosciuszko NP, and our current location was up there with the best of them.
Decision made, we packed rain jackets, gaiters for our hike, snacks, lunch, and our cameras and headed down the trail towards Grey Mare Trail. Arriving at the trail junction, we turned our bikes left and towards the north, in search of O’Keefes Hut.
Where yesterday’s trail had been mostly smooth, hard packed dirt and gravel, Grey Mare Trail was immediately different. Soft loamy mud and tussocky grass dominated the trail, making progress somewhat slower as we traversed the hillside. We passed the Mount Jagungal hiking trail and, noting its location and nearby stream, continued along. We met more hikers, enjoying the Round Mountain walking trail, if not enjoying the now drizzly weather quite so much.
An hour or so from beginning, we emerged upon a clearing along the trail and the site of O’Keefes Hut. This hut has a great vantage point, looking east along a valley in one direction, back towards Mount Jagungal in the other. Another set of hikers were just departing the hut, coincidentally a couple of friends from Canberra. We proceeded to enjoy a quiet and relaxed early lunch at the hut, before saddling up for the return to the hiking trail and our main mission for the day.
The hiking trail is quite hard to spot, being barely less than a footpad and without any signage. We parked our bikes to the side of the trail and transferred rain jackets, first aid kits and some snacks to our hip-packs. We also donned our well-travelled gaiters that we’d brought especially for this hiking section. I’d summited the mountain once before – about five years ago – and I’d remembered the trail being heavily overgrown and quite prickly. So, we’d added gaiters to our bikepacking pack-list partly for this reason and as some small measure of snake protection.
Within the first few hundred metres of hiking the summit trail, my memories proved true, and the gaiters were called into action as the trail became totally covered in bushes. While the trail is well worn, you are mostly walking it by feel as you push your way through waist and chest deep bushes. This continues throughout the first third of the route, which is also the steepest part of the trail. Before long we emerged from the bushes onto the saddle of the mountain, a totally different and more sparse landscape of low scrub, wildflowers, and snow gums.
Atop the saddle we faced a severe wind, which had been barely noticeable at bike level. No surprise as the summit trail climbs over 400m of elevation. After passing through the gum trees on the saddle, the trail turned upwards and over a more barren section, towards the rocky summit. Here we passed our hiking friends from Derschkos, on their way down the trail. They were fully covered in rain jackets and long pants, a sight different to our shorts and t-shirts and evidence of the more severe winds that we were to encounter at the very top.
As we were about to climb the final push, a rocky section to the summit, we encountered our first snake of the trip. It slithered away off the rock it had been sunbaking upon as we drew near, and before we were able to fully identify it. But it served as a good reminder for us to be extra vigilant as we continued. After clambering the final metres to the summit marker, we were met with a savage wind that quite literally blew my hat off. Jackets were quickly put on as the wind strived to rob us of all our body heat. It was so strong that we decided not to hang around for long before making our descent.
The summit hike is around 5km and well worth doing. Despite the wind, we could appreciate magic 360-degree views. We tried to do some peak spotting, but our knowledge was severely lacking in this area. Returning the way we’d come; it was some relief to be back in the bushes and out of the wind. It was also nice to stop for second lunch beside the bikes and warm up for a moment.
With the afternoon ahead of us, we decided to visit one more historic hut, in the opposite direction of where we’d been before. Heading back along Grey Mare Trail, we continued south towards the aptly named Grey Mare Hut. This section continues to provide stunning views of the high country, but it also proved to be the most challenging section of trail that we’d ridden so far. Alongside a couple of very steep hike-a-bike sections, and a few more trailside snake spottings, the trail itself can only be described as rough. Regular bumps, grass tussocks, rocks and undulations made it very difficult to maintain any sort of rhythm and made even the flat sections more tiring to pass through.
Arriving at Grey Mare Hut, atop its own slightly challenging hilltop, I could see why many of my bikepacking friends spoke so highly of it. With views across a valley to Mount Jagungal, the site would make an excellent camping spot – that we’d have to experience another time. Satisfied with our day’s endeavours and with thoughts turning to our own camp, we pointed our bicycles back in the direction of Derschkos and retraced our steps.
It was a real pleasure returning to a ready-made camp, with dry camping gear and an easy dinner waiting to be rehydrated. Once again, we sat on our rock of choice until the last light faded before returning to our tents.
The last day
We’d experienced a variety of weather conditions over our Jagungal long weekend, but luckily the worst of the weather had been saved for our last night. There’s nothing quite like sleeping in a tent to elevate a storm’s intensity and that final night camping in the Jagungal Wilderness was no exception. Thunder, lightning, lashing rain and winds could be heard throughout the night and we were grateful to be in the relative shelter of the trees and hillside behind our tent and nowhere near the mountain summit we’d hiked yesterday.
Thankfully, by morning the rains had eased to less than a drizzle. Opening my tent door, Mount Jagungal was hidden behind some wispy white clouds and the landscape felt much changed for the night of rain. It was our last morning, so we didn’t hang around too long beyond a morning camp coffee and packed away our wet tents to be dried at home.
We made our way leisurely back towards the car, with views of Round Mountain dominating our vision, signalling an end to our weekend dominated by Mount Jagungal. Our leisurely ride wasn’t without hills, especially the final climb that we’d enjoyed descending just a few days ago. We’d only been away in the wilderness for a couple of nights, but it felt like much longer. Taking our time, camping for two nights in the same spot, and filling our days with a variety of adventure and wonder left us feeling refreshed, satisfied, and filled with just the right amount of wanderlust to spend the drive home readily cooking up the next adventure.