Thursday, August 18, 2016

High Country Hut Hunt

After putting up with a few of us endlessly banging on about bikepacking, my friend Gary couldn't take it any more and had finally taken the plunge into bikepacking late last year. Being an outdoorsy kind of guy, he had (mis)spent a lot of time in the Australian Alps, hiking and skiing over many years, It was an obvious choice for him to whet his appetite so he put together a solo loop ride that stopped at several of the stockmans huts that dot the Snowy Mountains region. On that ride he had a good time and the huts he visited looked really interesting.

Cue forward to early this year and when Gaz mentioned he was planning another new, longer loop around the Jagungal Wilderness in the Snowy Mountains I was immediately IN! The small matter of organising leave and a leave pass from home were mere details for later......

The final date was set for late April, a very pleasant time to be in the Alps with daytime temperatures in the mid to high teens and night time temps hovering around zero. The elevation would be between about 3000 and 6000ft which is about as high as you can get in Australia. Our mountains really are little piddlers.

Gaz took care of the planning and also invited a couple of  his other mates. For Micheal and Ian it would be their inaugural bikepacking trip, Exciting stuff! I took the lazy option and decided to use my Muru BNT for the ride. Mainly because it was set up and required no thought, not because it was the most suitable bike for the task.......this would come back to bite me but more on that later.

We made the 1400km (870mi) drive down to meet on a Sunday afternoon at Bradley's Hut, by the side of the Tooma Road. Arriving just 10 minutes apart despite the wildly differing routes we took we were soon unloading tents and bikes as we set up for the night.

 Bradley's Hut is at about 5000ft elevation and it was a cool, clear afternoon which would clearly soon become a clear, COLD night.

Not long after the sun dipped below the horizon the frost was forming on our tents and 4 bikepackers from the sub tropics were COLD! We got a fire going in the hut and soon warmed up but it was still an early night. I was pleasantly surprised to find my sleep setup was warm enough to be comfortable in what must have been slightly sub-zero temperatures.

After a hearty pancake and yoghurt breakfast we packed up and prepared to get under way. First off though, we had to drive the cars into the small town of Cabramurra as we would be away for four days and wanted some small amount of security for our vehicles. Micheal and I volunteered to do the 14km drive and subsequent 14km(9mi)/600m(2000ft) climb ride back to Bradley's Hut for the start-proper.

On the initial climb out of Cabramurra we are caught by a guy on a mountain bike who is up for a chat! Highly unexpected but pleasant, he is a local out for a Monday morning spin. He soon peels off down an impossibly steep fire road and Micheal and I get on with getting back. The fly in the ointment on this short ride is the massive descent down to Tumut Pond Dam then the equally steep climb back out.

We need to be on top of that range over there!!

Obviously, the descent is a blast and we are riding the brakes hard as the Muru wants to leap away on the smooth blacktop descent.

A whole lot of brake pad abuse later and we were cruising across the dam wall. This dam is but one of many in the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme. It is mindblowing to think what was achieved from the late 1950s until the early 1970s and the Wiki link above is well worth reading.

A long, slow grind greets us immediately we cross the dam but Micheal and I tackle it in good spirits, chatting away in the warm sunshine. After a while though I am wishing I had taken all of the bags off my bike. The extra weight of the frame bag is doing my head in! The 7km/450m climb takes us 45 minutes. Not bad actually but I will feel it later in the day......

Back at Bradley's Hut we quickly strapped our bags on and prepared to depart. This trip is a fully self supported 4 day ride so we are carrying everything we will need for the next 4 days. The bikes weigh a tonne as does my backpack. Food is heavy! Thankfully we can pick up water from any of the frequent streams that criss-cross the mountains.

All loaded up we got a quick shot of all of us in front of Bradley's Hut, then we were off.

Gary Tischer photo

The climbs were slow and steady with all this weight on board but the descents were a hoot as we rocketed down some twisting, turning descents at just on 70km/h (45mph) through stands of beautiful, amazingly tall Mountain Ash (of which I don't have any pictures).

This forest contrasted with the dead ghosts left by past bush fires higher up on the mountain. All these dead Snow Gums give the mountains a distinguished, silver tone from a distance.

We then turned off Tooma Road at Tooma Dam, another of the Snowy Scheme holding ponds. The trail kicked up and we were soon puffing along a pleasant fire trail under the Mountain Ash. Our target was lunch at the tour's first hut,  Paton's Hut.

We arrived before we knew it really and jumped off the bikes for a look around. Each of these huts are looked after by a small team of volunteers who adopt their hut and make it their responsibility to keep them in good shape. Quite a number of the huts were burnt down in raging bush fires back in the early 2000s, so this stewardship has extended to include complete rebuilds on a lot of huts. Paton's was one such hut.

We lazed around in the by now, quite hot sun and ate lunch while Gaz filled us in on some of the history of the hut and the area. I tell you, Gaz is a walking encyclopedia on this area! 

We then set out for our overnight destination, Wheeler's Hut. Initially we skirted the back of the Tooma Dam. We passed the occasional pair of fishermen who were walking out to their cars after a few days of flicking fly across back country streams. These guys and girls were good sources of trail information and we chatted with each group for a little while.

The trail slowly started to become overgrown with alpine tussock grass. Now, I haven't ridden this particular sort of trail before and this is where it started to become glaringly obvious that I had brought a knife to a gun fight. The fully rigid Muru was not the right choice here as the spacing of the tussocks were rattling the heck out of me and my bike/gear. At least front suspension would have made the ride somewhat bearable and more efficient! Oh, well. It is filed away for next time I ride these type of trails.

The trail started to go quite steeply up and down the closer we got to Wheeler's Hut. 

Eventually we could see the hut glistening away on a distant hillside but there was a large descent into a creek and the subsequent climb out to contend with first.

The crossing was refreshingly cool but we were soon able to warm up on the steep pinches that the last kilometre or so to the hut threw at us.

It was with welcome relief that we climbed the last short hill to Wheeler's Hut. The hut itself was a beauty! It managed to avoid the fires of 2003 and is an original and over 100 years old. Because of it's location, which is a bit out of the way at the western edge of the Park it sees relatively little traffic.

We set about getting tents erected and collecting some firewood as the sun slipped behind the range to our west. As soon as it did, the temperature plummeted and we needed to rug up but watching the sunset slowly slide up the distant Mt Jagungal was spectacular.

Gary Tischer photo.

We managed to get a roaring fire going in the fire pit where we sat around sucking down dehydrated meals. They tasted pretty good but I would imagine that it wouldn't be quite the same if we tried them from the comfort of home.

It had been an easy day distance-wise but with all of the gear we were carrying it was still quite tiring and I turned in for an early night.


Day 2 dawned bright and frosty again, with a nice fog filling the gully below the hut. Eating breakfast and drying our tents saw us ready to roll around 9:30am. I like these gentleman's hours!

Gary Tischer photo.

There was the small matter of that creek crossing to negotiate again but by this time the sun was high in the sky and we were warm from all those pinch climbs.

The other reality was that Wheeler's Hut is effectively on a dead end trail, meaning that we had to back track today across the same tussocky trail that had rattled the stuffing out of me yesterday. Yay!

The plan today was to make O'Keefe's hut for the night but if we had time we also planned to go for a 6 kilometre each way hike, cross country, down to Pretty Plains hut, one which Gaz had not visited before due to it's remote location.

The trail seemed be shaking loose my bar roll every few minutes and I had to constantly stop and retighten the new and untested strap I had made recently. (note: do not go bikepacking with untested gear-unless it is a gear test trip) This was giving me the willies as my previous setup was faultless.

We soon came to another large creek crossing where we met some hikers in the process of crossing. We decided it was morning tea time and plonked down on the far bank in the sunshine to munch away.

Shortly after m.t. we came to a fork in the trails. The trail we were to take had a rather foreboding name - Hell Hole Creek. It didn't sound all rainbows and beer but never judge a book by it's cover they say............

We continued with the general theme of steep rocky climbs followed by steep, rocky and loose descents where you could not hold any real speed. Yep, we were crawling along at a snails pace but I guess it still beat working!

This little snip of Gaz descending off a short ridge pretty much sums up the mornings riding. It doesn't look challenging but when your bike weighs 30kg and you have 10kg on your back things get difficult.

We eventually came to the point where we needed to hike south off of Hell Hole Creek trail. We hid the bikes in the shubbery and headed off at a rather fast clip. We had a 6km hike ahead of us in bike shoes, lunch at Pretty Plain Hut, then a 6km hike back to the bikes. We would need to then pedal 10-15ish kilometres to our destination for the night.

We pressed on with all rapidity until we had covered 2 km. Based on the time that had taken us we extrapolated out and determined that we would be lucky to get back from the hut much before mid afternoon, not leaving us enough time to reach O'Keefe's Hut before dark. (The huts are a first come, first in arrangement and O'Keefe's is in a more popular section of the park)

We reluctantly turned around and wandered back along the Tooma River (a creek really) we had been following until we found a small island in the middle where we plonked ourselves down for lunch. It turned out to be a rather pleasant spot!

Back at the bikes and we pedalled off eastward again. For a few hundred metres anyway, where we crossed the Tooma River again. We refilled our water supplies and brewed up a coffee as it was now afternoon tea time! This may have been to steel us in the face of the huge climb that now reared up from this river plain.

We began pushing our bikes up Hell Hole Creek trail which in the typically Aussie way, went straight up the fall line. Contouring is for pussies! It was a 310m (1000ft) climb over just 2km (1.2mi). The afternoon seemed to get intensely hot and our progress was reduced to a crawl with many rest stops to cool down and catch our breath. The bikes were definitely lead anchors now.

The grade of the trail began to ease but the tussock grass kept forward progress frustratingly slow. After what felt like a loooong time we came to a Bureau of Meteorology weather station. It was a special apparatus designed to accurately measure snow fall. Today, I'm pretty sure it measured zero........

We were soon at another trail intersection, leaving the cursed Hell Hole Creek trail for the nicer sounding Round Mountain trail.

The sun was sinking toward the horizon by this time. Luckily for us the Round Mountain trail was much more trafficked and thus the dreaded tussock grass was almost non-existant on the trail tread and we made quite good speed again.

Even with our increased ground speed it was clear we were not going to make O'Keefe's Hut before nightfall. Plan B needed to be enacted.

Dershko's Hut was just a kilometre or so up the road. We decided to have a look to see if it was already occupied. 

It looked like a little church on the hillside and when Ian peered into the window, our prayers were answered! It was vacant!

We quickly spread our gear out in the two bedrooms and set to fetching some firewood. The hut had a rather efficient looking stove and the wood had to be a certain length to fit in. We used the various saws in the hut and took turns at building up a sweat on the chosen log. That is what I love about wood fires. You get warm twice with them. Once when you cut the wood and once when you burn it!

The main room in the hut was cosy but very clean and that stove looked awesome! We wouldn't be cold tonight.

Again, once the sun dipped below the hills the temperature plummeted. But with that big stove chugging away we were warm to the point of being almost uncomfortable. While we rummaged around organising dinner we heard movement outside, then voices. Three hikers had arrived hoping to use the hut but alas, the inn was full. While they set up camp outside we offered the use of our kitchen area if they needed it but they seemed happy to set up camp outside. They were Victorians and one of them was wearing shorts in the sub-zero temperature so they were clearly acclimatised!

We chatted and read some of the hut's library (some of these huts are very well tended) , pored over the map some, then decided to turn in. A very cosy, warm night's sleep was had by all thanks to Micheal stoking the stove during the night. Cheers mate!

The day's stats make for sobering reading in light of how much effort we expended!


We awoke at something o'clock, still pleasantly warm. Stepping outside was a big reality check for despite the sunny appearance, it was frigid!

There were noises coming from the tents so the Victorian hikers hadn't frozen to death during the night. A fact I am sure they are most pleased about.

We packed up, chiselling the ice from our bikes. Ok, frost then. Remember, we are Queenslanders and this cold white stuff is a bit novel. 

It was nice not to have to dry tents out and air sleeping bags. It made for a much quicker departure.

Gary Tischer photo.

The plan for today was to ride to the base of Mt Jagungul where we would drop the bikes and then hike to the top to take in the views of the Jagungal Wilderness that we were traversing. Then we would pedal on past O'Keefe's Hut to eventually arrive at Broken Dam Hut for the night.

We (I) had been deceived by the difficulty of the ride so far, especially yesterday where we covered a ridiculously small amount of ground for an inordinately huge effort. We were keeping an open mind as to where today would actually end but this early departure would sure help us along.

As soon as we crested the edge of the dell that Dershko's Hut sat in we were greeted by the imposing presence of Mt Jagungal. We were going to climb up there?! Hell yeah!!

After a short and rather pleasant pedal we turned onto the Grey Mare trail.

Not long after that we found ourselves at the base of Mt Jagungal. Time to hide the bikes and hoof it again. I was amazed at how invisible the bikes become in this scrub. Not that we were expecting much through traffic but better safe than sorry.

The hike up Jagungal took about an hour of pretty solid walking. We had soon stripped off our outer layers and were in full on Queensland mode. The trail wound it's way through the bracken which was pretty hard on the legs at times but the path was very well worn and easy to follow. Last time Gaz was here on his solo trip he straight-lined it up to the summit. Now that I was seeing how tough the "tourist" route was, I was impressed with his effort.

Once we cleared the Snow Gums and climbed above tree line the route became more direct. But it also became cold as a stiff southerly pushed us up the mountain. I would be glad of my wind vest once we reached the summit.

The final climb was over huge slabs of granite then we were on top of the world! Well, we were at  6762ft which is pretty high for this old, flat continent. Our highest peak, Mt Kosciuszko is only some 548ft higher at 7310ft so we were doing ok. In fact, we could see Kosciuszko off to the south west of us, just under some light scattered cloud. (in the far distance above the trig point)

We took a few minutes to look around, taking in the 360 degree views. There were a few eagles soaring above us and we sheltered from the wind behind rocks while munching morning tea and watching the ease with which they wheeled and circled.

It soon became too cold to sit and do nothing so we began the hike back to our bikes. We had sporadic mobile phone service on the way down so everyone's phones beeped and pinged for a while. It was tolerable with the view we were taking in....

Once we dropped below tree line we had some shelter and were able to warm up somewhat. It was positively balmy down at the bikes and everyone was keen to pedal on.

I was just up there!!

The rest of the morning consisted on more short, sharp climbs and descents. The kind where you don't really make much forward progress but demand your full attention so you can't really look around and take in the surrounding countryside. Grrr.

Gaz tackles a creek crossing while Jagungal looks down on him.

As we stopped at O'Keefe's Hut we heard voices inside. A lot of voices. There turned out to be a family of 5 or 6 who were hiking along the Bicentennial National Trail (BNT) from My Hotham in Victoria to Kiandra in New South Wales. That is a serious hike in anyone's book and the youngest child was just 9!!

They bid us G'day and shouldered their packs. We said "see you along the trail" then they were off. We strolled around the hut reading the walls. Well, the walls are covered in old newspapers mainly from the 1930s and 40s. I had to marvel at how much the news really HASN'T changed over the last 80 years or so. They were full of "people killed in car accident", "woman murdered by man" etc, etc. Except for the advertising I could have been reading a contemporary newspaper.

Gaz perused the hut log to see who had been there recently. It can be a good way to find out who else in the area and to see their intentions as most hikers describe their route in each log. Partly for posterity and partly for safety during harsher weather conditions I guess.

Each hut has a reliable water source near it and Micheal had wandered off to find O'Keefe's water source. He came back after a short while to say that it was dry. I guess it was late April and a long time since last year's snow melt but this was the first time we found there to be no water. No problem though, we would just top up at the next stream we crossed.

Getting back on the bikes we thought we would catch the family of hikers pretty quickly. Wrong! They were really hoofing it and it took quite a while to catch them up again. Luckily for us we caught them on a downhill so that we could coast effortlessly past. If it had been uphill they would have soundly whupped our butts!

We stopped for lunch by a creek crossing at about 1;30 and we all sat in silence. Everyone was struggling a bit with the slow, tedious nature of the trail. I must admit I wasn't feeling much love right at that time. My bike choice left much to be desired and unfortunately I was a bit "hangry". Luckily food revived me and then so did the cheerfulness of the hiking family as they caught us again. The kids were quite outgoing and almost what one might call "precocious". It was great to see actually.

Micheal was actually crushing it and having a ball on his first bikepacking trip.

The trail slowly began to change. The tussocks smoothed out a bit. The pinches became more manageable and our average speed began to pick up. The country was opening up as we rode north-east toward Happy Jacks road. I had wanted to ride Happy Jacks for years now, well since I had noted it on the map about 5 years ago while on a family holiday in Jindabyne. Now, we were actually going to ride it! We just needed to get done with this Grey Mare trail.

As it opened out more Gaz pointed out where the Monaro Cloudride race route joined our trail. Hey, maybe the Cloudride mightn't be so tough after all? This was my (and the Muru's) kind of trail!

We soon came to the intersection of Grey Mare and Happy Jacks. I was slightly disappointed to see that Happy Jacks was a well used Snowy Hydro access road with a thick layer of loose stone covering it. In my mind I had pictured a seldom used but reasonably well maintained dirt track. 

Oh, well. This is Muru BNT type  trail. It eats dirt road for breakfast and despite it now being late in the day, that is what it did.

We buzzed along Happy Jacks, occasionally stopping to regroup and snack on trail mix. But we were making good ground and Broken Dam Hut was looking a real possiblility before dark. Our Plan B was Happy Jack's Hut which was about 12km(7mi) closer.

The shadows were getting long as we turned into the Tabletop Trail. 12 kilometres from here. How hard they would be was anyone's guess. They turned out to be decidedly steep, in an upward direction for quite some time.......

We spread out a bit along this section as everyone fell into their own pace. I silently cursed the loose uphills then rejoiced in the smooth, grassy trail along the ridge lines while taking in the views over Lake Eucumbene out to the East. I was having a real love/hate relationship with Tabletop Trail. 

The trail eventually climbed into wildflower covered trail that gently dipped and soared. It was sublime as we literally rode into the sunset! Unfortunatly the camera remained holstered along here as I was too into the "flow" to break the rhythm. Not good for a blog that relies on visuals.......Sorry about that chief!

Here is one of Gary's. Luckily he has the self discipline to stop. ;)

Gary Tischer photo.

We rolled down, off the Tabletop Trail into Broken Dam Hut not long before dark. It would be a climb out tomorrow, but tomorrow was another day! Again we quickly set up inside the hut with Ian opting to camp outside. Micheal and I went off to find the hut's water source. This took a little hunting and when we did find it it was somewhat grubby. Nothing some filtering and treating couldn't sort out though.

Dinner tasted particularly good this night as we had covered reasonable distance as well as made our target hut for the night. Being our last night out we could also gorge on whatever we had left. The ride tomorrow was quite a short one back to the cars at Cabramurra.

Broken Dam Hut was in very good condition and it's fireplace was soon bouncing light around the interior as our fire crackled away and we basked in it's warmth. 

Gary Tischer photo.

There had been highs and lows today. But it was still a good day.


Strangely, we were up with the birds this morning despite there being no rush to get under way.

 After a leisurely pack up we began the climb back to the main fire trail. That got us warm quickly!

Gary Tischer photo.

There was a bit of high level cirrus cloud streaming over meaning a change in the weather was on the way. We had been extremely lucky with clear skies for 3 of our 4 days. Day 4's weather would prove to be quite acceptable as well.

The Tabletop Trail proved to be fast and smooth again this morning. There were even opprotunities to get some air over the water bars! The short distance to be travelled today may have added to our enthusiasm.

We took a slight detour to have a look at the 4 Mile Hut.

Gary Tischer photo.

This hut is the only original mining hut left in the Snowys and it shows some interesting recycling in it's construction.

Gary Tischer photo

This hut is not far from the Selwyn Ski feilds and apparently is a popular destination for cross country skiers during the snow season. We were tracking toward Selwyn and our route would take us right through the car park in fact. A few kilometres from Selwyn a mob of Emus ran across the trail. I wasn't quick enough with the camera (lets face it, I didn't get my camera out all morning) to get a shot but Gary took a great shot of a flock of Galahs at the spot.....

Gary Tischer photo.

We were soon overlooking Cabramurra and rolled the last few kilometres down into town to find our cars. We tucked into a delicious burger and coffee from the cafe'. Fresh food tasted pretty good!

Gary Tischer photo.

It was a very easy morning on the bikes and we had them packed onto the vehicles just after midday. Gaz, Ian and Micheal were heading for single track nirvana at Canberra while I was headed for Brisbane, via my parents place as my holidays were quickly drawing to a close.

I would like to make a huge shout out to Gary for all of his planning, organising and knowledge which made this trip not only happen, but made it enjoyable. It might have been a short route by distance standards but it was plenty challenging enough. We couldn't have done it without you Gaz!

 Also, thanks to Ian and Micheal for your awesome company and for making the trip a memorable one. No doubt Ian will be reminiscing as he pedals around in the tropical heat of Honiara!

Gaz put together a short video of our trip. Check it out for lots more of his great phots and video.

Thanks guys. Where to next time...........?

Cheers and thanks for reading.


  1. Wow, sounds like quite the adventure. My legs hurt just thinking about it.

    Those climbs did not sound fun, but the views looked worth it!!

    1. Yes, it was harder riding than it should be but that just adds to the challenge.

  2. Looks like a great trip to take, Gz video was awesome, good work.

    1. Yep, he kept up the hard work even after we got home. It takes a lot of time to put together a video like that.

  3. haha .... great write up Dave :) There will be a next time :) just gotta sort out that leave.


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