Day 1 (and the night before):
I had long ago decided to celebrate my completion of an intense three-years-in-two paramedic course with a walk to the Eldons. It had been on the list for a long time, and after the Spires last year, I finally felt like I’d earned my ‘stripes’ to complete such a remote and difficult walk. I didn’t get a chance for quite as much pre-walk excitement as usual, finishing the last piece of assessment at uni on the Friday morning (17 February), and heading up that evening for a car camp off the side of the Lyell Highway. Even the very rare treat of fish and chips for dinner and a good old catch up chat as we drove didn’t seem real just yet. We pitched the tent during a much-desired break in the rain showers. We were expecting three days of pretty high chance of rain showers, including that evening, so we would take whatever reprieve we got!
We slept a bit too well, which made for a rush getting packed the following morning. Brad, who had driven all the way from Strahan with his boat, was earlier than we were but waited patiently as we sorted ourselves out, and seemed at least as enthusiastic as we were about his part in our little adventure. It’s always good to meet other people who pursue what they love with passion, and Brad was just that. This was pretty clear from the way he spoke about what he did, his care in explaining surface tension, dead insects and why the fish could be found where they were as he took us on the bumpy ride across Lake Burbury. He knew the lake bottom like the back of his hand, and fortunately for us could spot the submerged rocks and trees he knew were there well before we could (which was pretty much as they passed by us!).
Having dropped John and myself off on the first run, Brad returned to get Graham. John and I spent the time drying ourselves and our wet weather gear in between passing showers (we’d got rather wet on the crossing), and having a bit of a scout around. When Brad returned with Graham, he also presented us with a lovely looking rainbow trout, which he gutted and scaled before handing it to us in a bag. It was certainly a first for us, and very much appreciated. We said our goodbyes, and set off to begin the walking. We had our boots back on as we walked a short way up the western side of the river, until arriving at an appropriate point to cross first the Eldon River, then the South Eldon river. The first was wide but shallow, while the latter proved more of a challenge for those of us with short legs if we so desired to keep our undies dry!
On the far side we donned our boots, adjusted clothing to better reflect the weather (much better than forecast and expected!). As we made our way through an extensive flat section we admired beautiful open forest and cursed hidden trip hazards. We finally commenced on the climb, which was to be over 1200m with our full 9-day packs. We had a rough gps route, which we consulted at times, but otherwise took our cues from others who had been through before and left evidence of their route. We were very grateful for this in parts, particularly as we gained height and the scrub became more dense. While progress seemed way too slow initially and I probably wasn’t the only one worried if we’d make Eldon Peak, we made better time as we got higher. We were wet, but by no means uncomfortable. When we finally broke out of the forest and onto low scrub, then the boulders, it was just wonderful to see the peak ahead, even if it was under sunny hailstorms. In some ways, it was a false sense of achievement, because the final climb took much longer than it looked like it would. The weather, however, didn’t hold, and the cloud dropped and we found ourselves in a very slow crawl over slippery lichen covered boulders in snow. All of a sudden we were very cold, tired and ready for the day to be over. But we got there, and stood with relieved smiles on the summit cairn. We’d made it!!
It was a short walk off the summit to a beautiful flat area dotted with lovely tarns where we pitched tents on pineapple grass interspersed with cushion plants. Graham learnt what it was to get such cold fingers mixed with not eating enough food that it made him feel physically sick, but after a bit of first aid he was feeling good enough to poach our trout in his gas converted trangia. We had an indulgent dinner that night of soup for entrée, followed by poached trout and balti chicken. The trout was by far the best I’ve tasted – so good that it didn’t even need the salt, pepper and butter we’d got out in preparation. I don’t think it took much for any of us to fall asleep after the 8 hours of walking we’d just done.
The next morning we woke to a rather white world, and all our best-laid plans went out the window. Our 6km-long boulder hop would be near suicidal in the snow covering they had so we chose to bide our time and see how the weather panned out over the next few days. We were all conscious that the first group Brad had ferried up had done similarly to us, got snowed in, and had no choice but to turn back… we would bide our time hoping for a different fate, and knowing there wasn’t anything at all we could do to influence it!
We ate and slept, and got glimpses in between showers. It was just lovely!! Fortunately, the snow melted pretty fast, even though it continued to snow, hail and rain on and off all day. A weather window allowed for a weather update, which seemed more favourable. It also allowed us to enjoy partial views and even a touch of sun. Reassured there was still hope for us, it was nice to enjoy yummy food and just be, doze and wander around. I felt like I was finally catching up on the last two years worth of missed sleep!
We woke early to stars and a good feeling. Sure enough at 6am the skies were mostly clear and it was lovely to have the tables turned and be able to look down on a sea of cloud in the valleys. It was beautiful. Bloody cold though, with tarns and tents both frozen.
We soon warmed up, dried out, stripped off and started making very slow and convoluted progress on wet, lichen covered massive boulders. Though we only had to cover a short distance as the crow flies, I’m sure we walked, climbed and clawed more than double it!
We did make sure we enjoyed it, however, and decided to keep walking past our first camp option as it was mid afternoon and we thought we should make up for the rest day we’d just had. As we climbed back up from the lowest point we tasted our first real scrub, and it wasn’t much fun. We were shortly back on boulders and that was a bit wearisome too. When it started to rain (unexpected if we were trusting the morning’s weather forecast), John suggested we go with a rough camp even though we were short on water. Both Graham and I wanted to go the final 900m to a possibly nicer spot. John agreed but I’m not sure he was that happy about getting wet again.
The 900m included a very slow 500m of more big nasty boulders that were now wet again. Then we came to a bit where the gps route had us sidling around a long slender single contour line. The cloud chose that moment to part just enough to see a huge towering rock structure. I think all our hopes sank – it certainly didn’t look easy or inviting. But it turned out to be ok, and the going was much easier than we feared. We arrived at a nice but wet campsite and set about getting warm. It had taken us 11 hours all up, so it was probably understandable that we were feeling rather tired again! It was a pity about the last hour’s worth of rain, but we acknowledged we’d been lucky not to have had it all day!
I woke and made first use of the amenities. I was somewhat distracted however, as the cloud parted and revealed the surprise of Eldon Bluff and Castle Mountain so close! The others followed suit as we slowly struck camp, and though it clagged back over and we were forced to start walking in the mist, I had high hopes for a lovely day ahead. We dropped our packs between Eldon Crag and Bluff, where we’d initially intended to camp, and headed to the crag. On the summit we watched the mist lift and began to relax into the warmth of the sun. It was nice to get things dry a bit, to walk without our packs, and to have such wonderful views!
Back at our packs we admired the campsite, which gave views of Eldon Peak to one side, and Eldon Bluff to the other – a lovely spot, we unanimously agreed. Our packs went back on as we headed along the ridge towards Eldon Bluff. We dropped them at the appropriate point, fought a stack of ants over lunch, then took the very short climb up what were (today!) very nice scrambly rocks! Then emerged onto a beautiful, fairly level top of cushion plants, small tarns and the odd rocky outcrop. It’s an absolutely stunning spot. There were mountains all around and we all thought it would be one of the best campsites ever – in good weather! We celebrated with brie and crackers, with mango and cranberries for dessert, and took a stack of photos on and around the summit before leaving by an indirect but more scenic route.
Back to the packs and we knew we had ahead of us a long scrubby traverse under the bluff’s cliff line. It was better than expected, if more up and down-y, and we soon popped out the bottom, disturbing the local wombats and finding the bluff too big to fit in a photo. We camped a short way along the ridge in amongst the scrub. It was the earliest we’d made it in to camp and the first night we’d not had to cook in tents due to the weather, so we hung gear out to dry in the sun and sat out and chatted as we ate our food.
We woke early to lovely sunrise that turned the sky and bluff almost unreal colours! At the same time I discovered I’d passed my degree (not really unexpected, but nice for it to be official). After the excitement was over and we’d eaten some breakfast, Graham and I went off to Dome Hill while John dried and mended gear, had a wash, and otherwise enjoyed the morning. It proved to be scrubber than we’d anticipated in parts and our bare knees paid for it. It was also a decent distance, but we had Zane and Nick’s footsteps to keep us company from time to time, which was kind of cool given how remote we were (we wouldn’t see another person for 9 days) On the summit we celebrated Graham’s 500th point with the left over bikkies and cheese, then headed back to John, arriving at 12.30 with all our curses about leptospermum.
As we ate lunch, Graham found out he’d got a bit of work he wanted, then we headed off to Lake Ewart. Again, it was scrubber than expected till we hit the lakeside, and we were happy we were at least heading down hill! We found and signed the log book, discovering there were only about 7 entries since the first in 2010. Then we headed across the button grass plain for the final scrubby push up onto the flat area below Castle Mountain. I was in the lead and probably did a positively horrid job of pushing through the scrub for the two guys, both of whom are taller than me! When we popped out, we found some lovely sheltered spots for the two of us out of the wind next to the largest of the tarns. We took photos of the mountains, pandani and tarns, and shared dinner together again. We retired to our tents hoping that the next day wouldn’t be toooooo wet.
It wasn’t so wet to start with, and was far from cold, so we headed off on a side trip to Castle Mountain. We were pleasantly surprised as the going wasn’t as bad as we expected, given the trip reports we’d read. We found places where others had been through scrub, marked by bent back branches. When we came to the final climb we came across a pretty good pad that took us all the way to the summit. By now it was rainy and cold, so we made the stop a brief one. We were back at the tents within three hours and set about an early lunch before striking camp and heading for High Dome.
Graham managed to break a pole and split the tent fly as he zipped up the door, so the three of us made a hasty repair with a roll of tenacious tape in a period without too much rain. Finally sorted, we set off for a scrubby climb, accompanied by the odd olive whistler. When we made it up, we wound our way along a waist-high scrubby ridge and onto a nicely cut track up an unnamed hill. As we walked along the ridge the sun appeared and began to dry us out, and the view opened up the further we walked up the hill. I put in an order for a new tent when we got reception (given we’d need it in 10 days of being back!), then we dropped down to the saddle between the hill and High Dome, where we would camp for the night.Again, the wombats raced off as we intruded, and the currawongs squawked in protest. It was nice to see our repair hold as we gently pitched the tent. Again, we cooked undercover.
We woke to a disappointingly and unexpectedly wet morning and not much of a sunrise. We stayed in tents waiting for the rain to clear so we could climb High Dome with the hope of some views. No luck. John made the wise call to just head off. We did so, climbing to the summit in whiteout conditions. We had a brief glimpse of outlines on the saddle between the two peaks of High Dome on the way back, but that was all. Oh well, we’d just have to come back and do it with views another time. We packed and made our wet and scrubby way towards Five Duck Tarn. None of us had any desire to push on in the wet and cold towards Junction Hill, even if it afforded more impressive views. We got warm, and spent the afternoon listening to rain on tent flies.
We woke to a crispy cold clear morning, and spent the sunrise hour watching mist on the tarn, drops of water on buttongrass stalks and spider’s webs, and golden light across the plains. We eagerly awaited the sun’s warmth and delayed our start by an hour so we could hang clothes out to dry to make things more comfortable before we set off. After a bit of a bash we hit a lovely little pandani grove near the saddle, then walked onto a good solid track (Ewart’s track) up the other side. This made for some easy, and purely delightful, walking in parts! We enjoyed finding lots of the original blaze marks from Ewart’s track, and felt a lot of gratitude to the man. Otherwise we took simple delight in being dry and having both sun and views, which wasn’t bad for the ‘cloudy’ forecast, and low mixing height we had expected. When we arrived, Junction Hill proved to be a wonderful little hill with spectacular views and quite large tarns. It would make fantastic camping if the weather was right. It was so nice, in fact, that we had rather an extensive lunch as we just couldn’t draw ourselves away and there didn’t seem to be too much reason to rush.
The lovely walking continued, with some spectacular track work amongst myrtles as we dropped off Junction Hill and towards the next unnamed hill on the way to Rocky Hill. It also awarded us with open walking and excellent views, giving the feeling of walking on the top of the world. Onwards we walked, taking our time, frequently expressing our delight till we reached the end of the saddle connecting the unnamed hill and Rocky Hill. We dropped our packs and made the final open climb without any weight on our backs. Again, we drank up the views. We could have sat there for ages, except we needed to drop down to the flat area some way below to make camp. It was, unfortunately, a very scrubby descent through a forest of scoparia (we found out on our return that there’s a track there if you look hard enough), but the campsite was nicely nestled amongst pine stands that were thousands of years old.
We ate together again for the final night, shared John’s dessert then got into bed to avoid the mozzies and the cold!
We all knew today was our last day, which usually comes with mixed emotions. We had both the desire to linger, savor and enjoy, but also to get back to all the things we knew we had to do. We started off with some nice walking, which turned into a slightly scrubbier knee-waist high fight through painful leptospermum, with intermittent tracks. Lower down we said goodbye to the swifts and walked onto very recent track work! The sound of traffic became more and more dominant as we descended. The river crossing was straight forward, and we popped out onto the highway sooner than expected. We were surprised to find two other cars in car park, but had chips, tarts and mint biscuits on our minds to give them too much more thought.
We decided this one was definitely an epic. Special thanks to all those who played a role in making it possible!!
All up: 86.1km, 5137m ascent
The following includes all lunch, snack and striking of camp breaks.
Day 1: 10.3km, 1255m ascent, 9:31 hours
Day 2: Rest day
Day 3: 10.6km, 643m ascent, 11:08 hours
Day 4: 9.8km, 615m ascent, 9:11 hours
Day 5: 14km, 490m ascent, 9:43 hours
Day 6: 10.2km, 611m ascent, 9:46 hours
Day 7: 7.6km, 453m ascent, 5:29 hours
Day 8: 11.8km, 727m ascent, 9:25 hours
Day 9: 11.7km, 361m ascent, 7:23 hours