If arriving at Rumpff Saddle was exciting, walking through the Hotham ‘tunnel’ was little short of euphoric. The only thing I can compare it with was finishing my first marathon. Unfortunately, as with the marathon (because it was the Great Ocean Road Marathon and it is actually 45km, not 42.1km), there were still a couple of kilometres to go before we could actually ‘finish.’ We walked the extra 2.2km into The General Hotel at Hotham at about 10.30am in a state of more or less complete exhaustion. I do not say this lightly. We did not really expect to be able to check in then, so were very happy to order coffee and enormous muffins. I cannot tell you how good these were, nor how good everything that we consumed at The General was after two weeks on the trail. It was also unimaginably good to have long, hot showers, to view our photos without worrying about battery consumption, to wash all our clothes and to be able to Facetime/Messenger-call our parents and sons.
The snowfall that weekend in Hotham was extraordinary: we learnt that walkers who had not planned to stay, did, and that others extended their break from one to two nights. How serendipitous that these two nights and days coincided exactly with what we had already booked! This kind of thing is usually the opposite of our luck. At Hotham, we not only bumped into another AAWT walker, who I will call ‘S’, but reconvened with the walkers we’d met on The Viking: ‘A’ and her son-in-law ‘J’. Being able to exchange experiences with these people and confer about future plans was incredibly useful and exciting. We went from feeling that we were the only people on the trail to being part of a community almost instantaneously.
Indeed, we began again with S and met up with another northbound walker, K, at Loch carpark. The four of us caught up with A and J at Dibbins’ Hut, then again that night at Cope. This became the pattern for a considerable number of days: we all walked more or less alone but convened in the huts in the afternoons to cook and share stories. At Roper Hut we were also joined by N who had been volunteering with the big running event on that weekend at Falls Creek and was planning to walk the rest of the way to Tharwa. Suddenly having this whole social aspect to the AAWT was really nice, but also quite overwhelming. We became more conscious of what they were doing and carrying that we weren’t – and vice versa. I know K in particular will have a lasting inspirational impact on me: she was carrying less than 15kg, going solo and was considerably older than us, having done so many other comparable trips. It must suffice to say we picked up as many tips on reducing weight and walking into your 50s as we could!
It was very cold, wet and slushy walking out of Hotham and up onto the Bogong High Plains. That first night back on the trail was -2 degrees C – and we were camped on a ridiculously drafty and exposed sleeping platform! I was sleeping with two pairs of socks, thermals, a jumper and beanie on and was still cold. But the weather improved after that with each hour that passed and, on the whole, walking all the way from Cope through to Wills Huts was relatively easy and enjoyable, due to the huts to cook, warm up and relax in, the well-used walking tracks and the beautiful scenery.
Our first perceived challenge in this section was crossing the Big River. We’d had a report from a southbound walker that it was ‘mid-thigh’ deep a day or two before. But snow was melting rapidly – and a six foot young man’s estimation of depth is not necessarily that helpful! As it turned out, however, we needn’t have worried. The chain spanning this river is reassuring and it was more fun than anything else to roll up our shorts and sports sandal across.
A far more real challenge faced us the following day. From Wills Hut to Taylor’s Crossing is about 26km with about 500m up and 2000m down. It is rated as 12.5 hours walking in the guidebook. We never planned on doing this in one day: the difficulty was in how to split it up. It was hard to know how long it would take to get to Gill Creek, given that the track in this section was flagged as very overgrown. Previous walkers had suggested that it might anyway be better to aim for Four Mile Creek. This idea was also attractive to us as it would mean we could get all the way to our food drop the next day instead of just the Crossing (and this would have consequent advantages). So we set out early, hoping to get to Four Mile Creek. This was all going well in terms of having reached Gill by lunchtime. But not only was the climb up Wombat Divide excruciatingly long and hard in extremely sultry weather but we were surprised by no less than five snakes! These were all cleverly camouflaged on the stick and bark-strewn track. One brown-snake-looking snake actually reared up at me and made me shriek; the others were smaller and more sluggish copperheads which just slid away. Thankfully Eight Mile Loop track was wider and clearer and we could relax a little. On the other hand, it went on and on for absolutely ages. We were very relieved to finally reach Four Mile Creek about 5pm – only to find that there was absolutely nowhere to pitch a tent!
Possibly we could have crammed our tent right next to the road. But, given our experience at Chester’s Yard, we were very hesitant to trust the kind of people who might be using such a road. We therefore had no choice but to push on all the way to Taylor’s Crossing, thus catching up again with A and J who thought they’d left us long behind. Our arrival there at 6pm made this day our longest on the AAWT with about 10.5 hours of actual walking, excluding breaks. It was lucky that we only had a short walk through farmland the next day to make our cache as, once again, we were totally exhausted.