There was no car park where they said the car park would be. Just a locked gate at the end of a dirt road on a lonely plain dotted with brumbies. After leaving the bitumen, we saw not one car nor human on 35 km of road. Even the brumbies fled on sight.
We smeared Aerogard on before setting off, then left it in the car. Have you ever been bitten by a march fly in Australia's high country? It's like being pricked by a really big needle. The bastards are enormous. They're everywhere, too.
We also left the phone charger and cord in the car. That meant no compass when the phone ran out of charge, because our compass was a phone app. Stupid. No chance of emergency calls either. Stupider.
Still. What's the worst that could happen to a dad and his 10-year-old son -- inexperienced hikers both -- without navigation or insect repellent in a designated wilderness area?
My son and I spent three days over summer on a hike to Mt Bimberi, the highest peak in the Australian Capital Territory. It's 1911 metres above sea level. That's just 300 metres lower than Australia's highest peak, Mt Kosciuszko. It's a serious mountain by Australian standards, or so it felt to us.
Why Bimberi? Because we were Christmasing in Canberra and because it's proper back country. I wanted to get my son off his iPad and me off my phone. I wanted to immerse ourselves, for once, in an entirely de-digitised landscape.
The walk started tough. We lugged our packs over a forested ridge called the Gurrangorambla Range, which was clearly designed by masochists and named by drunks.
Relief came at a thing called Oldfield's Hut. It's one of 100 or so huts remaining in the NSW and ACT high country (about 30 were lost in the 2003 fires). Many are old cattleman's dwellings which now serve as emergency shelters, especially during winter snowstorms.
Hut etiquette goes like this. Sleep outside in your tent unless your situation is serious, but by all means go inside any time to take shelter.
It was mid-afternoon. We made a quick fire and brewed tea and cup-a-soup, drinking it on the porch while eating Vita-Weats and salami. A storm started to brew over Bimberi. Could we beat it? We thought we could.
We thought wrong. Not 15 minutes after swimming naked in the frigid Goodradigbee River in brilliant sunshine, a big black beast of a cloud tipped buckets on us.
Drenched, we retreated to Oldfield's, dried off, made another fire, cooked pasta, then set off again in twilight. Now we had to decide where to camp.
Our original plan was to camp at a natural clearing in the forest called Murray's Gap, about halfway up Bimberi from the hut. But light was beating us, so instead we made the snap decision to camp at a plain called Dunn's Flat.
Know what the best thing is about sleeping in a flimsy two-man tent when it's raining? Sleeping in a flimsy two man tent when it's raining.
Remote camping makes you hyper-aware of the fingernail-thin veil of nylon between you and misery. This doesn't work when you're camping in a public campground with power sources and amenities blocks and shops selling Paddle Pops. If our tent failed here, our trip would fail.
Here's another thing about remote camping. You make decisions. Trying to beat the storm: bad decision. Retreating to the hut and cooking a meal there: good decision. Camping earlier than planned: another good decision.
When you think about it, our kids aren't involved in decision-making. Not until their teens anyway, when they make all sorts of decisions about peer groups and drugs and the rest of it. Little kids have their lives kind of laid out for them. We make decisions on their behalf.
My son was an equal partner on this trip. Together we sized up the weather, our energy levels, our menu, a dozen other things. Dare I say it, it was as engaging as a video game.
He was learning too. We were both learning. When you camp you need flat ground. But flat ground under trees is no good with wind and lightning around. An open plain like Dunn's Flat was perfect. But the trick was to pitch the tent somewhere dry, not swampy.
It's all about reading the grass in these mountains. Tussocks too big means snakes and moisture. Smaller tussocks mean dry soil, fewer snakes and flatter ground to sleep on. Reading the bushes is important too. There's a white-flowering shrub that always grows near water around here. You don't want to camp near water. You do, however, want to fill your bottle from those glorious clear mountain streams.
Morning. Weet-Bix. Powdered milk. Bleah.
Summit day. With not much phone charge (therefore not much compass time) and a sketchy path ahead, we had to be switched on. But we had assets on our side. Already we had been staring at this mountain for a day. We knew its shape. We understood that we had to hook around it and climb the long ridge leading from the southeast.
In a way I relished the idea of climbing the mountain on feel. I know that's the sort of attitude that leads to news stories that end with helicopter rescues, but when you think about it, a compass is just another gadget. I wanted to show my son that you could think your way up a mountain.
He got that. He could see that the south-western flank of Bimberi, visible from down at the hut, was too steep, the scrub too thick. I could see him trying to grasp the spatial dimensions of the mountain -- creating a little map in his head, the way he memorises video game virtual landscapes.
In an age of TomToms and Fitbits and EPIRBs and the rest of it, we never navigate anymore. We don't trust our gut to get us from A to B. But I think blokes in particular have a strong drive to go on feel. That's one reason why we refuse to use maps while driving. (The other, no doubt, is that we're just stubborn oafs.)
Mountains always looks different when you're actually on them. But if we kept that overall picture in our head, we'd get where we were going. Well, that was our hope.
The walk up the main part of Bimberi was a tough slog for 10-year-old legs. Mine too. The path disappeared and reappeared, as a recent hiker's blog had warned. But mostly the path was there, aided by little cairns (rock piles) put in place by hikers. We added to the piles. That part of the ascent was fun.
The worst part was the false summit. We reached what we thought was the top but, nuh-uh, still a kilometre to go. Grumbles ensued, but we made it. And when we turned the full 360 degrees -- the only signs of humanity a dirt road here, a plane contrail there, a dam in the distance.
But my favourite thing about the summit wasn't the grand sweeping vista, but a tiny thing which would have been unremarkable to most eyes. It was alpine mint bushes.
These fragrant little green shrubs are common in the Mt Kosciuszko area, 100 km or so to the south. There were other similar bushes as we climbed Bimberi, but not the mint, which you smell from 10 metres away.
My son and I both found this fascinating. Think about it. Here is a plant so sensitive to climate, it grows only on the last few metres of a remote mountain. It was like the rarest Pokemon. My son grasped this. I could see him processing the information, thinking about it, ruminating on it.
Amazingly, on our return to civilisation, we determined that we had been just 50.8 kilometres from Parliament House in Canberra as the crow flies. Since no crows were available to fly us directly back to Canberra, we'd had to hike. Which was fine. Going down is a lot easier.
When we made it to the car, it was still sitting alone on the plain, the leaden clouds threatening more rain.
So what did we learn? Well, life's not like that. You don't get your sappy little life lesson from a hike like you do at the end of a movie. My son got straight back on the iPad. I went back on my phone. Life continues.
But I'm thankful for wild places like the Bimberi wilderness. They're beautiful and they make you feel small. But I guess we expected that. In retrospect what thrilled us the most was the sense of genuine discovery at every point of the hike. In an over-Googled world, it's nice to be surprised by what lies over that ridge, in that valley, inside that hut. You can't put a price on that.
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