As a fan of Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby books, I had been looking forward to this section of the AAWT as many of the place names were resonant with childhood memories. Cowombat Flat, Tom Groggin, The Pilot, Tin Mines: these places had a mythic ring, even though I had never actually been past Cascades Hut before. Believe it or not, I actually wanted to see some brumbies, having glimpsed only small groups on previous trips. I was therefore rather surprised to learn that this was some people’s ‘least favourite’ part of the track. Yet, having now done it, I can see why this might be the case.
There are so, so many brumbies here! You can’t help but notice and think about this deeply as you move through this section of the AAWT. We initially suspected that we might see some soon as we came off Johnnies Top and stepped over more and more brumby mounds, some of them very fresh. My husband thought he heard horses in the night from our campsite at the bottom of the mountain. Then, walking out along Buenba Creek the next morning, we started to smell that distinctive musky tang of wild animal. Coming over a small knoll we were thrilled to find a couple virtually spot-lit in a sun ray! But the excitement palls when one small mob becomes two, then four, then eight – then mobs of up to 30 animals. In total, the number we saw was honestly not far off 1000. There is a lot of dung on the track and many of the creeks have been churned up by hooves. Those first few horses we saw in Buenba were scared of us and got away as quickly as possible; the Cowombat mobs less so. These definitely came sniffing around our tent in the night. One game stallion between Tin Mines and Cascades went so far as wheel around us snorting fiercly and pawing the ground. He was only protecting his mares – but we were only trying to walk along the track.
Another reason why this is not the best section of the AAWT is that Cowombat Track itself is actually very tedious. Once you get on to this section it is essentially 55km of the one track, much of it hard gravel bordered either by drab scrub or, worse, recently bulldozed firebreaks. After so much of this you begin to wonder what it was that you thought was so pleasurable about walking anyway – when there is nothing to see and nothing to do but drag one foot after another up and down another dusty hill all day long. But then, the magic. With every kilometer past Tin Mines, the dull khaki-coloured landscape is gradually transformed into open forest, springy snowgrass, mountain vistas and, ultimately, a carpet of sweet-smelling heathers. Higher up and closer to Thredbo everything starts to shimmer with silver. It’s a bit like being reborn.
Sorry, I have got ahead of myself. Before the Cowombat Track, there IS a lot of lovely walking in this section of the AAWT. We really enjoyed walking up Davies Plain Ridge and then the Misery Trail in light but dramatically thundery showers. This was exquisite live snowgum forest – which we were really beginning to appreciate after seeing so much deadwood. We even saw an emu here! Limestone Creek proved to be a delightful place to camp, with very mineral-tasting water that I’m sure some people would have paid a lot for. It was also a really nice change to traverse the Stony Creek section: although ‘not defined’ it was in reality an easy-to-follow footpad above a tinkly creek with an abundance of flower and bird life, not to mention soughing trees.
Many walkers evidently complete this section in much less than the seven days we had allowed. Indeed, we ended up doing it in six ourselves due to sudden reception at 3pm on Bob’s Ridge followed by an even more sudden mutual desire for a shower and pub meal that day rather than next! What our more leisurely plan allowed for, though, was the opportunity to complete a number of side-trips: to the Mt Murphy Historic Area, the Limestone Caves, Forest Hill and the source of the Murray and up The Pilot. While I wouldn’t necessarily do these again, all except the Limestone Cave excursion were very worthwhile. Coming into sight of the Murphy crushing plant initially seemed like being transported to ancient Mayan ruins. Then the realisation that it is just crude concrete and brutal utilitarian design, no matter how striking. It would be so interesting to hear or read more about what went on here. We couldn’t help but reflect on the enormous contrast between all the interpretives (and scant remains) at Red Jacket and all the remains (and no interpretives) here. Fascinating as this area was, however, I wouldn’t recommend the camping. We spent the latter part of the afternoon trying to avoid all the ants and a slightly uneasy night hoping no one would drive in.
Possibly there was some updated information somewhere about Limestone Caves and Hut that I didn’t manage to find prior to the trip. At any rate, we followed the instructions about finding both and couldn’t find either. We did find a whole camping ground that wasn’t mentioned in the guidebook – and a ‘private property’ sign across a turn off exactly where we thought the hut might be. A couple of mountain bikers who had driven in that way told us that they hadn’t found caves or huts either, but that there was a hut ruin quite a long way further down the road. We didn’t think it was worth pursuing, given that we’d already added about 9km to our day.
Our trips to Forest Hill and up The Pilot, on the other hand, were amazing. Both were quite challenging in navigational terms, given that there is no real track to either – just tape and/or cairns. But that only led to a greater feeling of triumph when we had succeeded. The cairn marking the NSW/VIC border is really something, mostly because it genuinely is a cairn with no words or foreign building materials yet complete clarity about what it marks. We took a bottle of water from Indi Springs and treated it like wine later with dinner. Very special. As were the views from the Pilot and the opportunity to add our names to the cairn on top. It was good to know that S, A and J had made it up there too, now days ahead of us.