Messages from our surroundings – Mount Kosciuszko Easter 2012 Part One

Messages from our surroundings – Mount Kosciuszko, Easter 2012.

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn

There is a present day view of Australian life much richer than that provided  by Tim Flannery and John Doyle during their trip to Mount Kosciuszko for their recent  ABC1 television show “Two on the Great Divide”.

Life is much richer than the trivialised discussion about which the non-indigenous explorers first reached these high places.

In their blokey way they related some aspects of contemporary life to the ‘birth of modern Australia’ – but they left out something far more substantial – and which is of major importance for life in this part of the world .

I know this because, a few weeks before the ABC put their program to air, I too had walked to Mount Kosciuszko – and had a real and unexpected learning experience. I was surprised when they left this aspect of the walk out of their account of their ascent to the apex of their travels on the Great Dividing Range.

Report from an “Easter” trip to Mount Kosciuszko, 2012.

During what passes as “Easter” in the Southern Hemisphere, I recently took a very pleasant day-trip walking from Charlottes Pass to Mount Kosciuszko (and return) in the Australian Alps – 18kms in all. A bit of stretch but along an easy track – it was formerly a dirt road and now closed to all but official vehicles.

Other members of my family were over at a working bee at the Illawong hut in the Guthega valley. Participation in the Illawong Easter working bee is a part of the process of seeking membership at Illawong. As I don’t ski (more of a plodder) I was drawn to act on an impulse gained a few years back – to walk to Mount Kosciuszko.

I had camped alone at the upper part of Island Bend at a site near the former airstrip  – a grassy place where kangaroos came to eat. The grass where I camped had been freshly mown by the NPWS for the coming Easter campers.

After a night of high winds blasting the tree tops and tent walls, I was up with the dawn (brrr – chilly)  for a bit of breakfast and  then to drive via Perisher to Charlottes Pass and to the start of the Moumt Kosciuszko walking track.

Picture – “Er. Excuse me mate is this table taken?” Campsite at upper level of Island Bend, the grass freshly mown by NPWS for Easter campers – and where the kangaroos come for some green pick (as they may have once done when areas were cleared in the  now bush clad ranges amidst by indigenous mosaic burning).


I can’t say I had any specific reason for being drawn to make this walk – but it definitely ‘spoke’ to me. I did not expect it to tie in with my vague general interest in how First Peoples related to this high alpine country.

I had started early (for me) as I knew the road from Perisher to Charlottes Pass was to be closed to vehicles later in the morning for a fun-run as part of a Back to Perisher event.  I was at the start of the walking track at 8 a.m..

Having checked the walk at the Cooma visitors centre on the way to the Kosciuszko National Park I knew that there were not many proper parking spaces and to park by the edge of the road. Even at 8 a.m.. there was already a good number of cars parked in this way. Some may have been taking the Blue Lake walk, which also sets off from here.

The author – at start of Illawong track, Guthega.

There were a few others making the walk to Mount Kosciuszko from Charlotte Pass as I set off – a slow, steady trickle –  but there was plenty of space between us to allow for silently communing with the surroundings as I walked along. This was not due to last. A sort of secular pilgrimage to the mountain-top lay ahead

I use the expression “what passes as Easter” since this former ‘pagan’ Northern Hemisphere festival is calculated as being the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox, and here we were in Autumn.

How can we connect our forms of representation to our actual surroundings when we are denied the wider contextual cues from the seasons etc?

There was a very chilly wind as I set off. And a few days after I did this walk the first snow of the season fell – with 5 cm of snow covering much of the area. Rites of Spring? Hardly. There are many things which are back-to-front in the land of Oz, and this misplaced Easter is merely one of them.

But Saturday 7 April 2012 was a sunny day in this part of Australia, the big gale winds overnight  had eased to a steady chill wind, and no rain was predicted. Indeed, sunburn was one of my main concerns and I had made good use of sunscreen at the car before setting out.

My other concern was having enough fluid for the walk, as water is relatively heavy to carry – and i was travelling as light as possible.  A small backpack, with some extra warm gear, map, compass, water bottle and eats. I knew my water-bottle was not enough for the 6 hour trip

My solution to this was to also carry a small gas burner and a lightweight billy in my day-pack, with the hope of finding some water somewhere along the way to make a cup of tea and refill my water-bottle. Wood fires are not permitted in this part of the Kosciuszko National Park.

The many lower ranges are covered with the ghostly forests –  white skeletal trunks of dead snow-gums destroyed by a recent great bush-fire – and these provide a mute reminder of the  dangers of fire out of control.

A 1840s account (provided in Bill Gammage’s book, “The Biggest Estate on Earth” )  also mentions this feature  – dead trees – in the region, so the history of bushfire may be more complex than simple mismanagement by the present administration.

To get a better fix on that one would need to find out when traditional fire-stick farming practices ceased here. And from the accounts provided by Gammage, it is clear that there was much traditional burning still going on here in that time. An open question requiring open minds.

Most of the track from Charlotte Pass to Mount Kosciuszko, though, is above the tree-line. The alpine vegetation either side of the road consists of varieties of low and dense wiry scrub. I lack the vocabulary to accurately describe this low, heath-like countryside.

Picture – view near start of track from Charlotte Pass. Who was Charlotte?

As I walk I know that, like The Fool in the Tarot pack, I am surrounded by my own ignorance. Part of my lack of knowledge of plants is congenital, I suspect, but I also have  a conscious aversion to Latin and scientific European naming systems of Australian plants.

What was the name of the tree we know as Banksia, for example, established long before “Two on the Eastern Coast” – Cook and Banks – sailed into Botany Bay in 1788?

We miss the true poetry of this country by not being able to access indigenous naming systems, which assign plants (and so much else) a place in the overall scheme of things, usually by way of Dreaming stories which combine all manner of factors in a kind of grand Glass-bead Game.

All of the low scrub in this high country is covered by thick snow in winter, and is made up of extremely hardy bushes . I find that, in addition to the real risk of snake-bite by placing feet where you can’t see, it is virtually impossible to push through this tangle of rough low scrub without some kind of pre-existing foot-track.

There is some recognition that early European explorers followed Koori trails as they pushed into the country and proceeded to bestow new and foreign names upon its features.

Naming the highest ‘peak’ after a Polish hero is another instance of the operation of a ‘totemic operator’ by which European explorers used features of their own social landscape to map what lay before them.

Patrons and officials could be so honoured, along with others of their own social rank by way of acts of ‘modest’ mutual recognition.

If you pause to reflect, is it not bizarre that the highest point in Australia is named after a remote Polish hero? But then, so much of modern Australia is named after other remote British sources (Sydney? Hobart? Melbourne? Brisbane? Adelaide? Perth? Darwin?), a Polish ring-in does not stand out as starkly as it otherwise might.

There were some interesting rock formations in places along the ridges as I followed the easy road. They briefly reminded me of some familiar Central Australia ‘sites of significance’. How did local Koories here see the country I wondered in passing?

How would the Warumungu lawmen of Central Australia ‘read’ this country? In 1983 I had travelled with a representative group of traditional owners in the Warumungu land claim by bus from Tennant Creek (Northern Territory)  to Canberra (and the High Court). Senior men and women and their families.

They had all wanted to see snow – but we lacked the funds for the return trip home at that time so a trip to the snow was out of the question. What a pity! Coming from the desert they really wanted to see the snow! Thanks to Charles Perkins we did get to see the salt-water at Manly beach instead. Another time perhaps?

Half-way along the track from Charlottes Pass to the Kosciuszko summit, the former public vehicle road crosses a concrete bridge spanning a stream which is the headwaters of the Snowy River. A very pleasant place to stop as, in addition to the modest flowing stream,  some large rocks in formation provide some rare shelter from the wind (and shade from the sun). [On reflection, this must have been an important place for Koories for these, and other, reasons.]

Picture – Snowy River headwaters

After reading the National Parks signboard advising not to drink the water without boiling it (due to micro-organisms) I relaxed my concern about my water supplies, knowing I would be able to drink the contents of  my water-bottle and pause here on return – and do that very Australian thing of boiling the billy – at the head of the Snowy River, what’s more!  A round of Waltzing Matilda would have completed the picture! No jumping into this cool billabong for me, though.

(On their TV show Tim and John filled their water-bottles from this source, stating something like, “ if you can’t drink the water here, where can you?” If only. I would like to know what the NPWS people thought of that bit of advice!  There is a real risk here of water contamination from the human dimension too, I figured, with  so many walkers pausing here before completing the next 4.5 km stage to the toilets. I assessed my chances accordingly.)

From this source of the Snowy, i continued up the relatively gentle climb, enjoying the thought that it is mainly downhill on the return trip. The next landmark is the solitary Seamans Hut – a stone-walled shelter built in memory of a man of the same name who perished for lack of shelter years ago. It would be most welcome when the country is covered with snow, and a misty blizzard blowing.

From there it is a short walk to Rawson Pass where there are NPWS toilets. A NPWS traytop Toyota had passed me while I was taking brief shelter from the chill wind at the Snowy River, and it carried the ranger (or staff member) to this high out-house. Quite an elaborate set of toilets too, I was surprised to find (basing my knowledge of NPWS toilet facilities for walkers on the Royal National Park south of Sydney, and other NSW National Parks). But there was no water available. Even hand washing after using the toilet was done by a chemical cleanser similar to that found in the wards of hospitals.

And it soon became apparent that, in addition to the winter demand from skiers, the summertime demand for toilets was greatly increased by the large stream of people arriving at Rawson Pass from the Thredbo side of the range – being brought up by some form of chairlift from the valley below – and having a shorter 12 km return day walk to the top of Australia’s highest mountain.


It was here things started to get interesting in unexpected ways. I paused at Rawson Pass, at the junction of the two paths, to read a relatively new signboard, attached to a low rock, recounting how First Peoples visited this area. This provided information about the significance of the features before me.

The sign told how the nearby tarn (and the highest lake in Australia), Lake Cootapatamba,  was the Dreaming site of the Great Eagle Maliyan who brought fire to South-Eastern Australia.

Lawmen from both sides of the range would come to meet here each year, but only those who belong to the Fire ‘moiety’ of their residential groups. That is, from the coastal side, half of the social group (that associated with Fire) would travel here to meet with others from the inland side of the range – and they too were from the Fire side of their group.

Brilliant social arrangements these since they prevent people who live apart from becoming victim of the sort of geographically defined bounded group more familiar in our own Western Ways. Of course, there would be many types of exchange relationships between these two residential groups, including those of marriage.

As I did not record the details on the sign I later regretted not having the nous to take a picture of the  sign and text with my phone’s camera. My recollection is that it is more or less in line with what I found out later via google (and see Grant Brodie photo of the Lake):

“The aboriginal dreamtime stories tell that Lake Cootapatamba is home of the ancestral eagle “Maliyan” who brought fire to Eastern Australia. This rocky country is his hunting and camping ground. …


Aboriginal elders associated with “Fire Law” travelled and met here every year for ceremonies and secret meetings. From south of the Murray came the Gippsland Yerrung (eagle hawk men) who met with the Monaro Merrung (eagle hawk men). These tribal elders met near ‘dead horse gap’ and travelled up here together to the lake.”

I was greatly surprised by this remote aerie – an Eagle’s camp and fire ceremony site up here in an area associated (in my mind) with cold, rain and snow. How apt that the Great-Eagle-Nest is near the highest part of Australia!

My earlier time with Warumungu speaking people in Central Australia (very much fire country) had provided me with a beginner’s grounding in the Fire side of life from an indigenous Australian perspective.  Hmmm, food for thought.

Having cast my eye over the sign and across to Lake Cootapatamba, and conscious of the need to press on, I joined the growing throng from Thredbo to complete the next stage to the summit. The day had warmed up and the early chill wind – which was a bit of a trial on the Charlotte Pass track – had died away.

I was surprised how very casually some of the day-trippers took this walk  – being dressed as though ducking out to the shop next door or off to the beach. While many were well prepared, some seemed totally unprepared for a change in the weather. They were in luck. The day was a beauty.

The chance for a little peace of mind on my part was over, and there was much chatter from the many people enjoying a pleasant outing, friends talking about all manner of subjects which had nothing to do with their present surrounding, parents placating unwilling children in order to reach the summit. A general hubbub.

Some listened to music on their earphones – music from distant places, no doubt, far removed from the songs of this place. It often strikes me that modern people erect a wall of sound to keep their actually surroundings at bay – did they have spaces within them for the messages from this country? How about a recording explaining the surroundings at least?

It was an easy walk from Rawson Pass to the top of Australia’s highest mountain. Nothing like what would be required to reach the top of highest peak in New Zealand-Aotearoa, where proper mountain climbing gear would be required. Mouth Kosciuszko is no Aoraki – Mount Cook.

Which raises the issue of a dual naming for Australia’s highest peak, – and for the Kosciuszko National Park itself? I found, later, other have already touched on those issues.

The general hubbub of my fellow day-trippers did not cease at the summit. A group of women walkers sat behind me and filled the space with their various concerns. Young lovers cuddled. Families played out their games. Photos taken.


Picture – At Summit Mt Kosciuszko

While I applaud all those who get out and do something, I  could detect no behavioural evidence for the old proposition that man is closer to god (or any other transcendental form) at the top of a mountain – even at “Easter”.