Australia’s Alps: Exploring the high country

By Kris Madden 11 May 2010
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High above Australia’s plains are sweeping mountains, rich in history and alive with activity

WHEN PEOPLE THINK ABOUT Australia, they often imagine a flat, dry continent, or the beach, ‘reef’ and ‘the rock’. But Australia has a significant and untameable high country, where a different set of Australian legends and traditions were born.

The Australian Alps stretch for nearly 400 km from the nation’s capital at Canberra, ACT, through southern New South Wales, and along the Great Divide in eastern Victoria. Here lies more than a million and a half hectares of rocky landscape where a chain of national parks, protected areas and alpine environments provide a habitat for hundreds of species of plant and animal life found nowhere else on the continent.

Like Australia’s wildlife, its Alps are unique. Rather than craggy pointed peaks created by continental collisions like most of the world’s mountains, they are the remnant of a huge rift that formed when New Zealand abandoned Gondwanaland nearly 100 million years ago.

Aboriginal tribes lived in this alpine environment for thousands of years, and knew its flora, fauna, geography and seasonal changes intimately. The landscape forms an important part of the complex network of ceremonial song and story lines which criss-cross the country.

After visiting the Alps, it is no surprise that this region has been named one of Australia’s National Landscapes, and was included in the National Heritage List for its outstanding natural, indigenous and historic values.

Exploring Australia’s alpine country

One of the best ways to explore Australia’s high country is to self-drive the major touring routes such as the Great Alpine Road (Victoria) or the Alpine Way (NSW), which will take you past authentic country pubs, historic towns, alpine resorts and stunning scenery.

The Great Alpine Road winds its way for more than 300 km through Victoria from Wangaratta to Bairnsdale in the heart of Gippsland. Not far from Wangaratta, you should take the first of many detours, this one to Beechworth, Victoria’s best-preserved gold rush town.

In the 1800s, Beechworth was the administrative centre of the Ovens Valley goldfields and the main street is lined with grand old buildings, mostly banks that are now guesthouses or restaurants classified by the National Trust. The town also has a close history with Ned Kelly, Australia’s most infamous bushranger. You can visit his prison cell as well as the courthouse where he was committed to trial. More Kelly memorabilia can be seen at the Burke Museum, perhaps one of the best regional museums in the country.

Back on the road, it’s just a few more kilometres before the turn off to Milawa. If you like your food and wine, you could easily while away one or two nights here. Traditional pub meals are an essential part of any journey through the Australian countryside, and in the high country the servings are hearty and the hospitality warm. Brown Brothers Vineyards is the star attraction of this traditional farming and wine area, but the Milawa Cheese Company and several excellent restaurants give it a gourmet dimension.

At the Mount Buffalo National Park, waterfalls, rock formations and alpine lakes set amongst snow gum woodlands form a stunning backdrop for summer time activities. In winter it’s a popular tobogganing, downhill and cross-country skiing area. The road winds steeply up the mountain and there are a number of lookouts below that have sweeping views over the cliffs and across the mountains all the way to Mount Kosciuszko in New South Wales.

The Alpine National Park is Victoria’s largest and contains a greater range of flora and fauna than any other national park in the state. While snowfields are the primary winter attraction, the warmer months are perfect for bushwalking through dazzling wildflower displays of more than 1100 native plants. If you’re lucky you may catch a glimpse of the rare mountain pygmy-possum, thought to be extinct until 1966.

This is also Man from Snowy River country, a place fixed in the national consciousness by one of Australia’s most famous poets, ‘Banjo’ Paterson, who wrote about the area’s wild bush horses and the men who gave them chase.

One of the best ways to experience the high country is to follow in the footsteps of these legendary stockmen on a horse trek over several days.  As you ride through the mountainous terrain, you’ll encounter high peaks, rolling high plains, historic huts, mobs of kangaroos, fast flowing mountain rivers, old goldmines and a network of mining and cattle tracks that were cut into mountain sides over 100 years ago. Historic huts, once built as shelters, are now used by four-wheel drivers, trail riders, bushwalkers and skiers.

From the aptly named township of Bright, the Great Alpine Road snakes its way through the valley via charming little villages such as Smoko, and then climbs up to the alpine resorts of Mount Hotham, one of the State’s premier ski resorts.

Getting off the beaten path: Snowy Mountains and Kosciuszko

For those seeking to get off the beaten path, follow the more adventurous (and for some sections, unsealed) Barry Way for 500 km from Bairnsdale to Canberra. Pass through remote sections of the Snowy River and Kosciuszko national parks, the latter containing Australia’s highest mountain.

A detour to Namadgi National Park is a must for its rich heritage of ancient and modern human history. Aboriginal people lived here during the last ice age 21,000 years ago. More recently, space tracking stations operated here from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. Honeysuckle Creek was the first place on earth to receive the images of Neil Armstrong, and his historic first steps on the moon.

You can try skiing ‘downunder’ at the resorts of Perisher Blue, Charlotte Pass, Thredbo and Mt Selwyn, or head cross country to the picturesque Lake Jindabyne. In summer the area is a playground for guided walks, rafting, canoeing, kayaking and mountaineering adventures.

Another way to truly immerse yourself in Australia’s High Country is to take the challenging Australian Alps Walking Track from Walhalla to Canberra which winds for more than 600 km through seven national parks covered with peppermint forests, tall stands of alpine ash, snow gum woodlands and sub-alpine grasslands. Rivers carve a tortuous course through rugged mountain country, often running underground to emerge as hidden lakes shielded from the world behind rock barriers. The whole walk can take between eight and 10 weeks one-way but you can join the track at many places between Walhalla and Canberra.

Although Australia’s mountains may be diminutive by world standards, they are home to some of the country’s most challenging environments. It is a landscape that shows the dramatic contrasts between Australia’s vast array of environments, and from one season to the next inspires and challenges the spirit.

Kris Madden is a journalist specialising in eco and sustainable tourism. Between travelling and writing she is involved in marine mammal research and conservation. This is an edited version of an article first published by Tourism Australia.

High country huts of the Australian Alps