Hotham Huts Walk, Mt Hotham: Decadent French feasts sustains hikers in this Aussie alpine experience

On an autumn sojourn in Mount Hotham I am greeted by the sort of decibels that could kick off a winter avalanche. Alt rockers Steakface have taken to a temporary roadside stage outside The General, a High Country hangout where punters are clutching pints of the house brew (The Genny) and stamping their feet on hastily installed fake grass. It's not the quiet off-season vibe I was expecting.

Inside The Genny I grab dinner under a snowmobile hung from the timber roof and have a quiet pint of The Genny out on the balcony watching the sunset behind the tall mountain peaks I will be clambering all over the next morning.

After a solid night's sleep I'm off on a Hike'N'Feast along the Hotham Huts Walk with Alpine Nature Experience, a company that runs year-round hiking, cycling and camping adventures in the Victorian High Country.

Founder Jean-Francois Rupp says the Victorian alps have all the beauty of their European counterparts but with far greater accessibility. "The flora and fauna is very unique, the snow gums change colours every day, and the sunsets over the mountains are some of the best I have seen in the world," Rupp says. "The Australian high country has beautiful views, fantastic people, great history and amazing food and wine."

That food and wine is the carrot dangled by Rupp's Alpine Adventure Experience because, at the end of this day-long hike, comes the feasting back at the company eco-camping base, but first the hard work.

We meet once again at The Genny, and the view is as daunting as the night before, we will walk down into the valley then ascend to the opposite peak, we then follow that peak around in a semi-circle back to Hotham Central. To a novice hiker it looks like I would need three days, and possibly a horse to complete it, but our guide, Shannon, who actually runs these mountain trails for fun, is adamant our small group will be fine.

We will take a break at each of three huts – Silver Brumby, Spargo's and Derrick's. The weather is gorgeous but rain is forecast so we have plenty of back-up clothing, even in summer the weather in the High Country can turn on a dime.

Descending into the valley we stumble across the ghostly reminders of the snow season. Hundreds of ski lift chairs have been unhooked and stacked in the tall grass all lined up like the skeletal remains of a giant winter beast. But while the snow season infrastructure may be in slumber, the rest of the mountain is wide awake with summer life and, as we walk past the ski lift graveyard, waves of grasshoppers ripple in front of us with every step, cockatoos fly overhead and Shannon shows us the selfies she took recently with the area's wild brumbies.

Our first stop is at a hut related to these famous horses. The Silver Brumby is a 1993 movie starring Russell Crowe in search of a mythical steed in the High Country. The hut was originally built for the movie in 1992 but was rebuilt on the bank of Swindler's Creek in 2006, complete with a fire pit and tree-stump seating, as a respite for travellers whether hiking in summer or cross country skiing in the more unforgiving months.

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After morning tea by the trickling creek we wander back up the track and along to the base of our next mountain. This is the serious bit and Shannon decides to get us in the mood with a song. She cheerily asks if we have ever heard of The Song that Never Ends a children's ditty by UK puppet entertainer Lamb Chop. We don't, so she finds it for us and blasts it out of her phone: "This is the song that never ends, Yes, it goes on and on my friends".

"Well, this is the climb that never ends," she says still smiling, then turns and walks up the track, children's song still blaring away.

It is a fun, and brutally honest, reading of the next hour or so as we climb, climb and climb some more. If we slow too much we are threatened with another rendition of Lamb Chop's kiddie earworm from Shannon who barely breaks a sweat. It is a welcome and fun distraction from the pain and before we know it we emerge into a clearing and set eyes on Spargo's Hut.

This heritage-listed hut is one of the oldest structures on the resort and was home to prospector Bill Spargo in 1927. Inside it is like Bill never left with a camp bed, bottles and candles strewn about but he did eventually strike gold and moved to more palatial digs.

A couple of hours more and we arrive at Derrick's Hut where we set up for an alpine lunch.

Built as a day shelter for ski tourers by the Wangaratta Ski Club in 1967, this timber hut is named for the rather tragic story of Charles Derrick, a cross-country skier who died in 1965 in a blizzard while attempting to ski from Mount Bogong to Mount Hotham.

The lives of these early explorers are writ large across the landscape. We have had a magical day but as we eat the rain circles us with claps of lightning and thunder threatening but never following through. But it is an entirely different proposition to live here, year round, off the land. It is a pioneering spirit that paved the way for our winter playground but came at a cost.

On our way back we come across the plaque honouring Derrick who died so close to safety in Hotham that he could see the village.

We see it too and on our final hill, Shannon challenges us to run and we give it a try but peter out before we finally take a seat on a single remaining chairlift dangling in the breeze. We are sore, sorry but exhilarated – and ready for the feast.

A short drive to Wire Plain and we weave through the snow gums to the Alpine Nature Experience camp. It is based around a large central teepee with special tents strung between the trees, it is all designed to leave as little footprint as possible.

"We have a strict leave no trace approach," says Rupp. "What we take in, we take out. This applies to the entire eco-village, and we don't set up any infrastructure that would leave a permanent trace to the site. The idea is that if we were to vacate, the site would be restored to its original condition within 12 months. We also have a conservation and environmental plan so, in reality, the site would probably be in a healthier condition than when we found it with many young snow gums now growing at the eco-village."

What is designed to leave a trace long after you have left the camp is Rupp's incredible French cooking. Squint and you might just be in a different alpine region altogether as marinated chicken is charred in the camp's pot-bellied stove with broccoli in garlic oil accompanied by the finest wines from Rutherglen where Rupp used to work.

I tell myself I have earned my feast, and that I have expended more calories that I am now taking in, but as I reach for a third helping of duck-fat potatoes, my maths may be a little off.

THE DETAILS

MORE

traveller.com.au/mount-hotham

mthotham.com.au

EXPLORE

Alpine Nature Experiences offers bespoke summer hiking experiences like the Hike 'N' Feast (full day experiences from $190 for adults and $145 for children under 16 (not suitable for under 12s) in a group of six people or $245 a person for a couple as well as eco-village camping. They also offer winter activities including the "Igloo to Skidoo" overnight adventure that sees you snow-shoe at sunset to the eco-village for French cheese fondue and take a scenic skidoo ride (from $289 a person). Seealpinenatureexperience.com.au

DRIVE

Mt Hotham is a four-and-a-half hour drive north of Melbourne, including a stretch of what might be the most incredible alpine views in the country.

STAY

Summer or winter the Sun Apartments are a great spot to stay. The two-bedroom, two-level apartments are walking distance to The Genny and just down the road from Hotham Central. There is a two-night minimum in summer. Prices from $730 for two nights for two adults. See hothamsunapartments.com.au

Paul Chai was a guest of Alpine Nature Experience and Hotham Alpine Resort.


 

 

 

 

 

 

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