Discover the joy of hiking through Victoria's Alpine National Park.
Up ahead, as the track between Falls Creek and Mount Hotham climbs towards the crest of a stark, above-the-snowline hill on the Bogong High Plains, I can just make out something bobbing across the grassy horizon. Then the dark forms stop and, with every Scarpa-clad footstep I take closer to them, it soon becomes clear that what I can see is a quartet of magnificent chestnut brumbies.
My heart begins to race; strains of the Man from Snowy River theme music play involuntarily inside my head; and the realisation of what is a guilty pleasure dawns. As rousing a sight as it is, wild bush horses like these, being an introduced feral species, are banned from alpine national parks and are systematically removed, when they can be caught.
Soon enough the brumbies are off, and so is my walking party. It's the early autumn, earlier this year, and we're a few hours or so into the Falls to Hotham Alpine Crossing, a key walking trail in Victoria's Alpine National Park. The total distance is 37 kilometres, which can be covered in three days, staying at night on specially-designed, environmentally-forgiving camping platforms and campsite, each with toilet facilities and located close to historic huts along the walk.
But a senior member of our party is (ahem) averse to camping and has persuaded me and the rest of the party to undertake the walk in a single day. He has taken some pity on us by shaving several kilometres off the route by driving us to Cope Hut, outside of Falls Creek, and beginning our walk from there. It's still going to be a challenging 24 kilometres or so in a day but at least we are able to walk without a heavy pack.
It really feels like we're striding across the roof of the country, the sky just that little bit closer to the barren terra firma. Occasionally, with the light as sharp as a government whip's tongue, there are welcome splashes of colour, as we encounter the delicate wildflowers for which the alps are renowned. Yet, in this treeless, largely colourless environment they're more like dabs of Texta in a child's unfinished monochrome colouring-in book.
Hiking across vast heathlands and herbfields and by the occasional peat-bog, by late morning, exhilarated we reach the edge of the High Plains and plunge into a valley where we negotiate our path through a wondrous forest of gruesomely gnarled snow-gums surrounded by hillsides full of the grey trunks of trees, like thick stubble on an old man's beard, from wildfires.
As we head downhill we're grateful for the retractable alpine walking sticks issued to us before we set out. We take lunch, packed for us in the morning back at Nelse Lodge at Falls Creek, our overnight base, at a scenic spot about half-way down into the valley overlooking Mount Feathertop, at 1922 metres, Victoria's second-highest mountain.
Even though cattle were long ago removed from the fragile high country, the mark of the cattlemen has never been fully erased, a highlight of the crossing is the historic, heritage-listed cattlemen's huts, some more than a century old, dotted across the route, each of them triumphs of preservation. Wallace Hut, for instance, was built in 1889 and is the oldest cattlemen's hut in the region.
It's been relatively easy going but some time after lunch our hour of reckoning arrives. I shall never rubbish Australia's supposedly puny peaks after my encounter with Swindlers Spur, a steep, to say the least, one kilometre climb from the bottom of a valley into which we'd spent a few hours descending. Not long into the ascent, my heart, like a gorilla trapped in an undersized cage, feels like it's trying to leap out my chest. When I eventually reach the mountaintop I've also arrived at the point where I've stopped asking, "how many kilometres left?", for fear of the answer.
By late afternoon, on the relatively straight and narrow, the chalets of Mount Hotham village finally reveal themselves. The forest of dormant ski-lift towers and skier-free grassed runs feels almost melancholic. It's like walking through an abandoned fairground. But any melancholy is replaced by a sense of relief for me and my aching inner-city feet, as well as a modicum of achievement, when I sight, in the distance - not another mob of brumbies - but the distinct form of a white waiting van from Nelse Lodge, ready to deliver us back to Falls Creek.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Victoria and Tourism North East.
Falls Creek is a four-and-a-half hour drive from Melbourne. If you're travelling from Sydney fly to Albury which is a just over two hours scenic drive from Falls Creek. Qantas operates regular flights between Sydney and Albury. Phone 131313 or see qantas.com
Before embarking on your walk, stay the night at the cosy and convivial Nelse Lodge in Falls Creek. It's open throughout the summer walking season with the owners able to organise return transport at the end of the walk. See nelselodge.com.
Moderate fitness is recommended for the walk. Camping platforms and campsites must be booked with Parks Victoria prior to your crossing. Phone 131963 or see parkstay.vic.gov.au.
FIVE MORE CLASSIC VICTORIAN WALKS
GREAT OCEAN WALK
A 104-kilometres route along the state's rugged west coast. Expect to encounter lush national parks, bountiful wildlife, deserted beaches and shipwrecks.
SURF COAST WALK
Both beautiful and accessible, the Surf Coast Walk on the edge of the Victoria's Great Ocean Road, can be explored on foot or by bike.
GREAT WALHALLA ALPINE WALK
The Australian Alps Walking Track is 680 kilometres long but you can tackle the first 40 kilometres with a fully-guided and catered hike over two days, beginning at Mt Baw Baw.
GREAT SOUTH WEST WALK
Experience most of the Great South West Walk's finest attractions, including caves, wildflowers, wildlife and wetlands, by taking shorter walks, such as Cape Bridgewater and Discovery Bay.
GREAT PROM WALK
Wilsons Promontory National Park is a favourite of Victorians with the three to four days (35 kilometres or 53 kilometres) of the Great Prom Walk encompassing most of its features.