Above the clouds – Barrington Tops

By Daniel Frank
Getting high, the power of prayer, and the long muddy road
Climate change is a bitch. Pacific islands are drowning, storms ravage the earth and scorching summers grow ever longer. So if you are partial to hikes in the Australian bush, the increasing temperatures climate change has brought make the adventure all the more gruelling. Moving through the rugged terrain, it feels as though your body is on fire. But this can be alleviated if you get high
By getting high, I mean go up. Up to where the stringy bark grows, where the wombat reigns supreme and of course, where the snow falls. After a defiantly balmy hike in the Budawangs in May, this is what we did. We got high in the Barrington Tops, and this is the story.
Challenge, extreme
Challenges come in different forms. This hike, beginning at Lagoon Pinch, a few minutes muddy drive from the Allyn River, was going to test our long distance stamina in sub-zero, wet and windy conditions. Not to mention the prospect of snow.
First night’s camp by the Allyn River immediately gave us a sense of just how cold and wet it might be. At about 400m above sea level and more than 100km from the east coast, it was enough to make every breath look like a billow of steam. Thermals, down jackets and beanies made instant appearances as soon as we arrived. After setting up camp right by the roadside, we got a fire going and sipped spirits. Full of anticipation and simply too excited to go to bed we chatted, mostly about gear and what lay ahead. A number of whiskies were consumed.
Bos and Richie had rented a tent and although specifying an alpine edition, they received several different pieces of several different tents. A bit of electrical tape saved the day and enabled these various pieces to hold together. Alpine it was not, but hopefully it would survive whatever the weather threw at us.
The group for this hike was small: Bos, Benny, Lee, Richie and Franky. This was Benny’s first hike with this group however his previous experience would prove invaluable later on. After missing out on the Budawangs due to an injured knee, Richie was like a caged mountain lion waiting to be set free on the steep slopes
On the up
An early start came with a different challenge. As he always does, Lee awoke before everyone, quickly kindled a fire and started boiling water. Whilst getting ready, a gang of five or six kookaburras set up sentinel in a nearby tree. After scoping us out for a few minutes the attack began in earnest. They scooped up frying bacon, attacked Richie’s head (his bright red beanie giving the appearance of an irresistible giant berry in kookaburra eyes?) and daringly harassed us. This continued despite some of us landing (gentle, it should be added) defensive blows as the birds flew by. They knew we weren’t going to hurt them and their sorties persisted. We gave them some bread as a peace offering.
Having driven to Lagoon Pinch up a knee road of mud, we got kitted up, took our traditional group picture and started out. Most of this hike was going to be on fire trail however the gradient was quad-burning steep – about 20%! However what was most notable at the start was the sudden drop in temperature. Now at just over 600m above sea level, it had already dropped a few degrees.
As we began climbing our chirpy conversation was quickly replaced with deep breaths and complaints of sweating. We continued on the steep fire trail for several kilometres. The views were somewhat obscured by clouds but we were focused on the climb ahead. After about two hours the trees broke and a random grass tussock patch appeared on the trail. This was Governors Lookout. We stopped here for an early lunch looking out across the valley towards the snow covered Tops. From here we could see the clouds rising from the valley hitting the Tops. As we prepared our lunch small snowflakes started to fall.
In truth I had been praying for snow all week. I wanted to know what it’s like to hike in the cold, proper bone-chilling cold. These small flakes filled me with hope.
As we ascended, small patches of ice started to appear here and there. By the time we hit the beautiful Antarctic Beach forest we were treading on fresh white powder while massive snowflakes fell among the ferns. This was pure magic. We were now about 1200m above sea level hiking through a beautiful forest dusted with snow. The track was wide enough to hike next to each other allowing the conversation to flow nicely. The snow continued falling. We kept getting higher.
Once past Mount Corker, the track flattened out. We passed the turn off to Wombat Creek campsite on our right and continued along the trail. We then came across the turn off to Carey’s Peak on our left and continued straight towards Black Swamp. We had hit around 1400m and were starting to be exposed to the wind. A rustle in the bushes caught our attention. About 30m off the track stood a surprisingly tan-coloured wombat. It was huge – probably knee height with longish fur. We had entered their domain.
After walking on basically flat trail for a while the trees once again opened up to reveal Black Swamp, a large swamp area made up of straw and red coloured tussocks. No longer protected by towering trees, the low vegetation allowed the wind to sweep across the land. It hit us hard. As soon as we stopped we were instantly cold. By this stage we estimated the temperature to be no more than zero, before wind chill.
We continued on across our first creek and were presented with a fork in the road – a locked gate to our right and the track to Aeroplane Hill on our left. The locked gate was to keep people out of an area contaminated with cinnamon fungus, a plant killing fungus that is decimating the sensitive alpine ecosystem.
We were now more than five hours into the trek and it was well after lunch. The small ascent to Aeroplane Hill seemed incredibly difficult. The snow was also starting to reveal kangaroo, bird and dog tracks. A hive of activity presented to us as crisscrossing prints and impression left by the true inhabitants of this wild land and but for the snow we would have been none the wiser. On the top of Aeroplane Hill we saw a trap, possibly for feral dogs or pigs. This point brought us to 1531m above sea level. It was windy, we were feeling the chill and the clouds looked menacing.
The fire trail gave way to walking track and dropped down a little in altitude. The trees broke once again to reveal a beautiful creek studded with boulders and a large camping site on the other side. We had reached Junction Pools. It was a surreal sight covered in snow and we were the only ones there!
The wind was blowing fiercely and it was time to set up. There was lengthy debate about where to set up camp with Bos momentarily melting down over optimal site selection. We needed some place to set up the tarp to protect us from the wind but also needed some flat ground to get something like a decent night’s sleep. After finally settling on a spot we set up tents, the tarp and then started with the fire.
A very thoughtful camper before us had stacked wood on a makeshift barbecue area but it was covered in snow and ice. In anticipation of the damp conditions we had brought up 8 compacted fire logs with us. This was an incredible effort considering each one weighed over a kilo. But getting a fire going with enough thermal intensity get these logs burning took a long time. After many attempts using some newspaper we still didn’t have enough heat. But it was the power of Benny’s lungs that pumped and puffed enough oxygen into the wet kindling to finally get it going. Once one of the logs caught it gave off enough heat to sustain the fire and start drying out the wood we had stacked around. Unfortunately damp wood gives off abundant smoke. As we sat around the fire throughout the night, the wind blowing and swirling, the smoke constantly tormented us. But in these conditions we had no choice, the fire was more than just something to do, it was warmth and a focus. We squinted as the smoke stung our eyes. With the temperature well below zero the heat was worth the pain. There was one positive – smoke did catch the light of our head torches which made for some atmospheric photos.
Dinner was a sort of frantic affair. We were all trying to get the calories in so we could settle down in front of the fire to dry out and have some whiskey and chocolate. Once we had eaten noodles, freeze dried meals and/or pre-cooked sausages we set ourselves up for a bit of relaxation. Richie got the tunes going with The War on Drugs suiting the setting perfectly.
Both Bos and I had wet feet and so proceeded to dry our shoes and socks over the fire. I managed to singe the rubber on my shoes but Bos took this one step further. He left a rock quite close to fire to heat up with the ultimate goal of resting his wet socks (with feet still inside) on the rock to dry them out. However he left it there just a little too long. As he put his foot on the rock his sock melted instantly creating a massive hole.
After an hour or two the fire miraculously built up enough to provide some substantial warmth. We were full, warm, and everything was set up for the night. We unceremoniously put out the fire and went to bed.
I awoke throughout the night to the unmistakable sound of rain on a taut tent. While my new tent held up well, Bos and Richie were subjected to a form of water boarding as the water penetrated through their tent.
With no wood left and the rain pelting down we had breakfast and packed up. Benny discovered the power of a warm cup of tea on a cold morning. Everything that went into our bags was wet. Much of the snow had melted in the rain and the visibility was very low. These were the conditions we needed to test our mettle (and our gear).
The track to Edwards Swamp was strewn with wombat dung, a reminder that they ruled up here and could ‘go’ wherever they wanted. Again the trees broke and we were presented with a beautiful swamp area with a strong running creek and gentle rolling tussocks. We hit the turn off towards Carey’s Peak but there was a problem. The rain had caused the creek to rise and it was at least five metres across at the point of the track. We walked down the creek a little to find a narrower point but jumping across seemed like a sure way to wet(ter) feet. We found a pile of rocks that we could have dumped in the shallower part of the creek to enable us to get across without getting to wet. But Benny had other ideas. In what could be portrayed as either healthy risk taking or stupidity, he gave me his bag, picked a spot and jumped across the creek. To everyone’s surprise – including his – he landed on fairly solid ground despite only being centimetres from the side of the creek. We all followed suit, taking off our bags and swinging them across one after the other.
We continued along towards Carey’s Peak. We saw wallabies and yet more wombat poo and the hoof prints of brumbies. The rain continued and a sense of urgency washed over us as the thought of walking for several more hours in the rain became ever less appealing.
The track undulated with some small hills, a few more small creeks, swamps and grassland appearing and disappearing behind the squalls.
We reached the turn off to Carey’s Peak. The track was now a muddy slush and rose steadily uphill over a series of steps. This was hard going. We hadn’t eaten for a while, it was cold and wet. We eventually reached the turnoff to Carey’s – it was a 1.2km return trip. The weather was still atrocious. Mist was thick and rolling through trees. It didn’t take us long to come to the conclusion that Carey’s Peak was a white out and any views of Stockton Beach would be of the imagined kind only.
So we continued back along the loop towards the top of the Corker Trail. We had a quick lunch while huddling together at one of the gates and then descended. What took us about 3 hours coming up took about 1hr 40min going down. We flew downhill only stopping momentarily to let dirt bikes pass. Their fumes lingered in the moist mountain air, their tires creating ribbons of fresh mud in the track.
We reached the cars, muddy, wet, but eminently satisfied. We left the car park after a quick pack up, stopped at Boot Hill and had a couple of beers. There was an obligatory pit stop for post-trek fast food in Maitland and then onto the F3.
We had gotten high, been above the clouds and survived a freezing night in the snow all in good spirits and in good company.
Mountain love
Day 1: Distance — 15.2km. Elevation gain/loss — 1012m / 247m.
Day 2: Distance — 16.8km. Elevation gain/loss — 260m / 1037m.
Total: Distance — 32.0km. Elevation gain/loss — 1272m / 1284m. Max altitude above seal level — 1573m.
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