Bidding adieu to the summer hiking season and the expectation that Easter will be cold like previous years, the weather surprises us with a final hurrah to Summer. I’m happy as I’m spending Easter with my parents on the beautiful Sapphire Coast (southern New South Wales) where we have enjoyed great places like Ben Boyd National Park, which I’m still to share with you!
A conundrum emerges in the days prior to leaving however, accept a surprise invite to walk the Crosscut Saw and shorten the holiday with parents or leave plans as they are. I decide the former and get ready for a 26 km, 2 night, 13 peaks of up and down joy just for the fun of it.
The Crosscut Saw (the Saw) is a steep uprising of granite peaks, with similarly sharp ridges flanking its sides. In places the trail is completely exposed, running along short razor backs that offer spectacular uninterrupted view of this vast and remote back country. 81 kms from Licola in the Alpine National Park, the Saw is book ended by the the Howitt Plains in the south and Mt Speculation to the north. It keeps company with other geological features such The Viking, Devils Staircase, The Terrible Hollow and Horrible Gap. You can only imagine how the first explorers were greeted in this environment to endow the area with such names. The Saw is surrounded by well known locations within the Alpine region, Mt Buller in the west, Mt Buffalo in the north and Mt Feathertop in the north west. The Crosscut Saw forms part of the 655km Australian Alps Walking Track, extending from Walhalla in Victoria to Tharwa in the Australian Capital Territory.
The road from Licola winds steeply into the Alpine area and most of it is familiar, it’s the same road to Lake Tali Karng, just a left instead of a right at the main junction on top of the plains. It’s not long and we pass the airport, why didn’t someone tell me, I could have cut out the road journey! It’s a strange site nestled in the alpine meadows and encroaching snow gums. The airport has a fully sealed tarmac and reasonable looking facilities. We surmise over its use and conclude it must be part of the infrastructure to manage the park and fight the devastating fires that so characterise our temperate forest and alpine areas.
Howitt hut is another worth while stop before arriving at the Howitt Plains car park. One of the larger old style huts, entering through its open door way is like stepping back in time. You can just imagine the hardship of driving cattle across the plains, the bitter winds and unpredictable snow storms. It’s cool this morning, but warm in the hut. It’s enormous fireplace silent now, still has the capacity to roar to life for the wayward traveler lost in a seemingly endless plain of snow and gnarled twisted gums. The reality of it’s use is brought to life by a can of SPAM (tinned meat) sitting on the mantle.
It seems everyone has had the same idea we have. Utilise the gift of warmer weather and open roads to experience the alpine region one last time. Before the mountains usher out their visitors, the road closes and they’re left to dance privately gowned in winters mist and crowned with snow that few ever have the privilege of gazing upon.
We’re heading to Macalister springs, a camp ground across the saddle from Mt Howitt. The walk is over easy plains grass with little undulation. A kilometre or so out there is the option to walk a final hill or take the scenic route, we opt for the latter and are rewarded with amazing views.
From our vantage point the Crosscut Saw stretches out to our right, the Devils Stair case in the shadows below us, and the Viking out in front of us. The landscape is like a bowl and in the valley to the west is the Wonnangatta river and the remains of a cattle station by the same name. Cattle grazing began in the Howqua and Macalister River areas in the mid 1800’s and later extended to include most of the grassy forested slopes, river flats and snow plains. The Bryce family pioneered the area and you can experience the history visiting the ruins. Jonathan our lead hiker recounts his memories of a visit in his younger years. It’s an adventure for another time for the rest of the party.
The camping is quite dispersed and rings the cliff contours from the Devils staircase to the Macalister Valley. Flat ground is a premium and we search all the sites before making a decision. We take the high ground up above the memorial Vallejo Gantner Hut, close enough to the spring, great views from the most amazing outdoor toilet on earth and a hope that the wind doesn’t pick up in the night.
The toilet is a landmark of all it’s own, in fact I wouldn’t put it past people just to come out here to sit and think in this most amazing of locations. This is no ordinary toilet block, with a skillfully architected geometric design set on the precipice of the valley edge and adjoined to the camp site by a little sky bridge someone has a passion for outback toilets. The features don’t stop there though. Inside is wood paneling, floor to ceiling glass, a toilet seat and not the indestructible stainless steel, freeze your butt to the pan type and not one but two toilets, well toilet spots anyway. There is only ever one toilet operable, but don’t worry there is a fail safe should there be a problem with the first. This is truly starting to sound like a real estate ad, but that’s OK this is a bit of real estate you would be proud to own. I think I might even be able to convince my wife to camp here. Kudos to the person in Parks Victoria that wrote the business case and funding request to get this one through.
Not to be outdone by the toilet block is the Memorial Vallejo Gantner Hut, affectionately known as Gantner’s, but its beauty belies a story of tragedy. The young Gantner had moved from San Francisco to Melbourne and accidentally, but fatally discharged his firearm on a rabbit hunting trip. His mother sought permission to be build a hut in his memory, which took three years due to the poor access and adverse conditions. As far as huts go in the Alpine region this is the Hilton or Marriott of huts, it made Howitts Hut look a motel 8. Built as an A frame Gantner’s Hut has a stone floor, huge fireplace, dining table and chairs, shelving and what makes it five star is the loft with floor to ceiling glass, looking out in the direction of the Crosscut Saw. I have to remind myself I’m in a back country environment.
There are huts of varying quality dotted all over the alpine region, many of them a throw back to the cattle grazing days and some more recent for safety. We’ve seen huts across the Bogong Plains, Mt Feathertop, Wilsons Prom and now the Crosscut Saw. All of these huts are for the safety of visitors like you and me to this spectacular but at time unforgiving land and many a life have they saved. Enjoy, respect and leave them better than you found them. While they are primarily for emergency survival situations, Ganters on this occasion doubles well for a family with young children taking time out of their busy schedule to introduce their kids to a nature many never see. Better than being on the couch watching TV or playing games.
Rested and with tents pitched we make our way to the summit of Mt Howitt for what is shaping up to be an amazing sunset. Mt Howitt is less than a kilometer away joined to the campground via a little saddle which is also the route to the junction with the Australian Alps Walking track and the Crosscut Saw. Unlike the peaks of the Saw the summit is a rolling plain, similar to Mt Bogong, and once the climb up the saddle is complete, it’s a leisurely meander to the top.
From here the trail leads down to Mt Magdala and looking to where the sun is stetting you can see the reflection of the buildings at Mt Buller. To our right is the back of the Crosscut Saw and it looks just as imposing from this angle. The wind is lightly whipping up through deep gashes near the summit and the rolling hill like summit belies its dangerous gullies and ravines. I leave the group and find a place of solitude to soak in this almighty site.
Our shadows are growing long and the brown grass and alpine shrubbery has turned golden in the diminishing rays of the setting sun. it’s time to head back, the wind starts to chill and the mountain reminds us she can be a benevolent queen but equally a brutal task master. Tomorrow will be a big day and we spend sometime over dinner discussing the plan. Some of the peaks are very exposed and look pretty sheer, I can feel my palms getting a bit sweaty just thinking about it. I remind myself where there seems to be no way, God will make a way, I’ve experienced that over and over again. I share my thoughts with Jess, Claire and Lachie’s former Outdoor Ed teacher who as joined us for the walk. Jess has great insight and reminds me that wide and easy is the path that leads to misery and destruction but narrow is the path that leads to our true destiny as God intended. This would become an ever true picture as we engaged the Crosscut Saw proper tomorrow.
The team head in early but I remain captivated by the crystal clear sky and starry night. I wander down a little track I noticed earlier in the day, just a few 100 meters from the tents to a look out over the Crosscut saw. With a little wrangling I make my way through to a clearing and an exposed ledge.
The mountains looks so peaceful, there is just a hint of breeze and the temperature seems to have stabilised. As my eyes adjust I notice a milky white haze in the valley, it’s fog and it’s filling the area like bubbles in a bath tub. Before long only the peaks of the Saw are visible. The fogs continues to creep up towards the saddle we crossed earlier but stops like a dam wall that won’t overflow. It’s like an invisible force is holding it back from spilling with abandon into the next valley. I guess it has hit a thermocline where the temperature gradient is somehow limiting it from moving forward.
I can hear the laughter of a group of campers I passed on the way, jovially sitting around the campfire, enjoying the tamed but at the same time untamed flames of the fire, drawing it’s warmth and captivated by it’s dance. The trees behind them glow as if with angels wings, it’s the moon making a late arrival from behind the cloud banked in the east. It casts it glow across the mountain peaks in an eerie whitish, grey and the fog now uncloaked in the valley shows it swirling mass. It’s as if a giant creature is penned in a great cavern.
With the hour getting on, I relinquish this much loved spectacle for the warmth of bed, it’s a big day tomorrow.
Distance from Melbourne – 330km or 4 hrs, closest town is Licola.
Park Type – National Park, fireplaces, pets and firearms are prohibited.
Camping – There is camping at Macalister springs, as well as unofficial spots on the Howitt Plains, Crosscut Saw and Mt Speculation. Macalister Springs has a composting toilet and a selection of dispersed sites, although flat ground is at a premium.
Water source – There is a water source at Macalister Spring that was flowing while we were there. We saw no evidence viable water on the Crosscut Saw. There was water on the low flank of Mt Speculation. Check with the local rangers office in regard to the sites you plan to stay at. If you plan to drink the water it will need to be appropriately treated.
Attractions – Mountain views, peak and razor back walking, physical challenge, exploring, birds, peace and quiet