Near the nation's capital, Ben Stubbs discovers an untamed wilderness where only the hardy survive.
My head torch flickers, strobing across the mist that is collecting at the bottom of the valley. It is 4.30am and we are up to our ankles in snow melt. We are led by the sight of the craggy dome of Mount Jagungal, sitting like a moonlit anvil in front of us. As we emerge through the trees, a solitary mountain brumby spooks and bolts off into the night, leaving us wide-eyed and alone on the edges of the Snowy Mountains.
Located 2½ hours by car from Canberra, the Jagungal wilderness area is a scrag of rivers full of spawning trout, wind-burnt peaks stripped by the elements and only the hardiest mountain animals.
Our two-day, 40-kilometre trek takes us to the northern stretches of Kosciuszko National Park, one of the largest parks in Australia, with 690,000 hectares of mountainous terrain pushing through south-eastern NSW, to the Victorian border. The pocket around Mount Jagungal was once brimming with thick scrub and diverse wildlife but the raging bushfires of 2003 scorched the entire area, leaving it barren and apocalyptic and a shadow of its former self.
As we set out along the track from the trail head below Round Mountain, we can see spindly grey fingers pointing towards the sky, the remaining snow gums that once covered the hills. On a smaller scale, though, life is returning to this wilderness, with the heath and herbfield ground cover at our feet noticeably thriving.
About 50 kilometres south of Mount Jagungal is the summit area of the Main Range, with Mount Kosciuszko, Blue Lake, Mount Carruthers and the walks near Thredbo drawing the majority of tourists who are looking for a weekend away in the Snowy Mountains.
More difficult to access and further away from the facilities of Thredbo Village, the Jagungal area receives a fraction of these visitors, which keeps its appeal as a wild destination intact.
Slowly trekking along the dirt path that coils like an intestine across the hills, we come across the occasional wallaby hiding in the brush, circling crows on the horizon and sunken paw prints in the mud that reveal the presence of feral dogs, pigs and mountain brumbies within the national park. At the sight of disturbed ground next to the track, we follow the scuffs to a thicket of bush over the hill.
We pull through a clump of twisted eucalypts; there are gouges in the trunks and the acrid smell of feral pig is followed by muffled grunts of a mother pig behind us. Before we move she has appeared, a big barrel-shaped sow standing in her nest dug into the underside of a fallen tree. We edge back out into the open as quickly as we can towards the track.
For 16 meandering kilometres we walk, drinking from crystal-clear creeks, spotting kestrels swooping above the trees and stepping carefully through fields of thick mountain tussocks still slick from melted snow.
Approaching the plain below the towering Mount Jagungal, we walk through a scooped-out valley that echoes the passing of a glacier long ago. Through a patch of misshapen trees we discover Derschkos Hut, built in the 1950s by the Snowy Mountains Authority to accommodate a hydrologist. Today it serves as accommodation for trekkers and cross-country skiers. It has an antiquated potbelly stove that warms the two spartan rooms, which have sheltered many walkers from blizzards, fires and snakes (as we read in the guestbook). This weatherboard hut is one of 80 in the park that provide refuge for modern explorers. With not another soul in sight we decide to spend the night in the hut, its walls speckled with soot from cooking fires that have burnt throughout the winter.
That afternoon we venture through the chest-high scrub and over fallen snow gums to the Tumut River in search of fishing holes. A number of the tributaries in this northern area of the park were once crammed with gold miners panning shoulder to shoulder in the muddy water as they searched for their fortune.
The gold miners of the nearby ghost town of Kiandra were the first known people to introduce skiing to Australia, with eager miners using improvised cross-country skis to get between their plots as quickly as possible during the boom years of the mid-1800s.
We hop across the waterfalls and rapids looking for a good fishing spot, hopeful of catching tonight's dinner. Our flies twitch across the mottled surface; after three hours of casting and recasting, there's still not even a bite. We return to the hut with wet feet and an appetite for a bush dinner.
Over billy tea, a few smuggled chocolates and damper cooked in the coals of the fire we share stories of the Kadaitcha man, a mythical Aboriginal spirit-being who exists in folklore as the arbiter of justice. This legend might not chill us as much as childhood nightmares of the headless horseman or the yeti but it does prompt us to check and re-check the rattling door throughout the night.
Mount Jagungal was once an important meeting place for the Aboriginal tribes of the region, who congregated on the peak for the annual Bogong moth feast.
This is where we head next morning, just before dawn. With head torches we tramp along Grey Mare Trail, then cut up towards the ridge, through the heath and clinging undergrowth that line the base of Mount Jagungal.
On top of the ridge we can see the wind has swept it clear of nearly all vegetation and it is strewn with granite boulders, as if they're discarded marbles on the forgotten edge of the mountain. We reach the top of Mount Jagungal just as the morning light leaks across the valleys below, revealing the snow-fringed expanses of the main range.
At 2063 metres, we gaze across the knuckled hills leading to the impenetrable Geehi gorges and across the plains to Australia's highest mountain, Kosciuszko, at 2228 metres.
We catch our breath here but the wind launches a fresh assault.
A few drops of rain herald the deep grey clouds of a storm front approaching and we know we'll have to hurry back to shelter. From start to finish, Jagungal is a wild place.
The Round Mountain entry to the Jagungal wilderness area can be reached via the Snowy Mountains Highway, passing through the towns of Adaminaby and Cabramurra along the way. If coming from Canberra, it is also possible to enjoy the back roads through Tharwa and Yaouk.
There are numerous huts in the park but it is advisable to have camping equipment and sufficient food for the duration of your trip as weather can change quickly.
For more information on the Kosciuszko National Park, see www.visitnsw.com.
To legally fish in the rivers of the Jagungal wilderness area, you need a NSW recreational fishing licence. Fishing is permitted all year. Phone 1300 369 365.