On top downunder: Tramping Mt Koscuiskos

By Rachael Oakes-Ash

The Snowy Mountains are primarily known as a winter ski destination but when the winter snow clears, the beauty of the alpine landscape is revealed, writes Rachael Oakes-Ash.

Nolen Oadya of Koscuiszko Alpine Guided walks understands me. He knows my idea of roughing it is having domestic champagne. So he has seduced me into an overnight summer trek in Australia's Snowy Mountains with promises of Bedouin tents, gourmet food and strapping young men carrying my pack. Like all good seductions, the bait is not what it seems.

A former World Cup freestyle skier, European cup winner, photojournalist and ski coach, Nolen has lived in the Snowy Mountains town of Jindabyne for 20 years. In 2001 he organised the All Terrain Mountain Bike Challenge that attracted international competitors to its lakeside position through Snowy Mountain bushland.

The following year it was the Red Bull Rails competition for snowboarders and skiers, in Nuggets Crossing, Jindabyne. Then it was the Red Bull Ride mountain bike event for two years running, again held in the Snowy Mountains. Now it's Snowy Mountain Cookies, a joint venture with his life partner and mother of his child, with a range of chunky cookie mountain flavours sold in cafes and restaurants of Australia.

With a passion for the Snowy Mountain region of New South Wales and an entrepreneur's mindset, Nolen was the perfect choice to develop the Kosciuszko Alpine Guided Walks when local entrepreneur Bruce Marshall decided to promote summer treks in the wilderness - though I am told Nolen is the front man for the guided walks and our guide, Doug Chatten, is the brawn.

The first night is spent at Novotel Lake Crackenback in the Southern NSW Kosciuszko National Park which keeps my alter ego, Mary Millionaire, satiated with its lakeside location, open fires, golf course and indoor swimming pool.

Lake Crackenback is a six-hour drive south from Sydney. Come winter, it's home to hardy skiers who prefer their apres luxurious and remote, away from the disco beats of the ski-in ski-out crowd at the nearby ski villages. Australia's swanky Thredbo resort and its 5.9km super trail is a mere 15-minute drive away, while the Ski Tube Alpine Railway is on the edge of the resort property and transports skiers and boarders slope side at Perisher Blue's 1245ha of skiable terrain.

But, this time, I'm wearing trek boots to cover 26km of Australian bushland over the two-day/one-night trek. So it's early to bed to rest my normally stiletto-clad tootsies in preparation.

We meet the brawn the next morning, early, too early. From a distance Doug Chatten is young. Up close he is rugged in a mountain-man way. Years of outdoor living have left a permanent glow on his face which has weathered under the Australian sun.

As a professional guide Doug has trekked most of Europe and North America. Like Nolen, he's a keen skier and bushman. Doug specialises in outdoor education and the Leave No Trace practice, which means we have to store our ablutions in a canister that will be brought back after the two-day trek. I can hear Mary Millionaire screaming.

Leave No Trace is officially known as a centre for outdoor ethics. It's an international, non-profit organisation for responsible outdoor education, promoting minimal impact on natural environments. Put simply, leave nature the way you found it.

Doug sorts through our packs, discarding unnecessary items and lightening the sherpa's load. We have our own superhuman, Stuey, who will be transporting our packs into the backwoods. I wish it were me Sherpa Stu was transporting as we cross the newly thawed Snowy River, barefoot, trek boots hung by their laces around our necks. The walk has begun and my feet are already numb.

We are doing the easy path, a paved walkway that winds around the ranges. For those of minimal or general fitness, it guarantees to provide photo opportunities without muscle tearing. Groups are limited to six to keep it personal. We have five on our tour and we're all female, which makes Doug our master or our rent boy, depending on how you look at it. One of my fellow trekkers is a marathon runner and I make a mental note not to follow her lest I end up in Boston or New York.

It is said that walking is meditative. As we climb the paved hill I am aware of every breath and every step and as the climb gets longer I hit a rhythm that, once reached, allows me to take in the scenery of snow spotted summer hills and sparse terrain.

The Snowy Mountains, or the Snowies, are primarily known as a winter ski destination. When the winter snow clears the beauty of the alpine landscape is revealed. Alpine marsh marigolds in purple and yellow and snow buttercups in white dot the scrub on either side of our walking trail.

Settled by stockmen, graziers and landholders in the 1800s, the Snowy Mountain Range stretches from just below Canberra to 10km short of the Victorian state border in the south.

The area is now home to more than 34,000 people, a few sheep and cattle and the infamous brumby, or wild mountain horse tamed by the Man from Snowy River in the Australian bush poem written by the man featured on Australia's $10 note, Banjo Patterson. First published in the Bulletin news journal in 1890, the poem tells the story of stockmen as wild as the horses they chased.

Kosciuszko National Park takes up most of the Snowy Mountain region and is the largest national park in New South Wales. The country's highest glacial lakes are found here, and the nation's tallest mountain, Mt Kosciuszko at 2228m. To stand on the peak of this mountain, the roof of Australia, is our goal.

Day one we explore Blue Lake, a natural crater of fresh water. Australia is known for its original naming of landmarks - the Great Barrier Reef, the Snowy Mountains. Blue Lake is no different, named simply for being blue. A glacial lake carved out 10,000 years ago, Blue Lake is 28m deep and cold, very cold. It's a spectacular image with sheer granite cliffs, waterfalls of ice and bubbling rapids leading into this cirque lake.

This impressive sight is even more so when viewed while lying on my back as we decramp our muscles and inhale picnic lunch. Next stop, base camp for home-cooked food and river-chilled wine. We just have to walk through another two hours of rocky outcrops and scrubland to get there. Mary Millionaire is looking, hopelessly, for a taxi.

Sherpa Stu has done a good job of setting up camp in a sheltered outcrop. Two canvas teepees represent the kitchen and the bathroom (or canisters), thankfully placed on opposite ends of camp. One-person cocoon tents are scattered around the main Bedouin tent where we meet for home-baked meals, billy tea and shared storytelling.

It would be a stretch to call this five-star camping but Nolen's wrist is safely back in the luxury of Lake Crackenback resort and cannot be slapped.

Our chef cooks dinner for six in a frying pan built for two. She puts Jamie Oliver to shame with her tenacity, safe in the knowledge trekking folk are hungry folk.

I have never been camping. If I had then I may have settled into post-meal slumber more easily. As it was, zipped into my down sleeping bag and single mattress, I tossed and turned throughout the night, convinced there were bogey men in the moors.

I popped my head out the top and perused the landscape lit by the moonlight. Little did I know my fellow trekkers were doing the same - never at the same time, so each thinking we were alone in our insomnia. I must have drifted off, for the next thing I remember is the smell of pancakes at sunrise. We devoured them in the clean mountain air.

Over breakfast, Doug tells us tales of Laurie Seaman, who perished in a blizzard on the way to the Kosciuszko summit in 1928. His mate, Evan Hayes, was lost in the snow behind him and found dead lying on his skis when the weather broke. Seaman waited for his mate but died waiting. The Seaman's Memorial Hut marks the spot.

After 6km of morning trekking I am happy to set my eyes on the hut but there is a mountain to conquer and three more kilometres to go. We approach the peak from behind, along a dirt track dotted with snow. The wind picks up and it's cold, despite the cloudless sky and the summer season but we all take a moment to mark the occasion as we step on the mountain peak which, when viewed from above, looks more like a hill - but my thighs know otherwise. We're not alone. Day trekkers have made the pilgrimage from Thredbo, using the chairlift to help them ascend. Cheaters, I think. Wise men, says Mary.

The majority of the trek from Mt Kozzie to Thredbo village is well paved with wooden decking, meaning anyone of moderate fitness can climb the mountain. I am surprised how disappointed I am to see other people on this track, despite my lack of sleep. The solitude of outdoor life has crept up on me but it's all downhill from here and I can hear the cappuccinos of Crackenback calling.

It's amazing how much energy you have left when the end is in sight and for the first time I overtake the marathon runner, sprinting along the wooden decking to reach the chairlift ride down and the waiting van below, Nolen at the wheel.

The final night is spent back at Crackenback between crisp sheets on a queen-sized base and mattress, full flush toilet, room service, and trek boots airing out on my private lakeside balcony.

I dream of mountain men riding brumbies bareback and find myself rising early to watch the dawn light on the water. Nature has got under my skin and I am keen to stay longer but Mary has her Mulberry bag packed and the engine running. It's going to be a long ride home.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Qantas offers daily connections to Canberra via Sydney. Lake Crackenback is a five-hour drive south from Sydney or two hours from Canberra.

Further information: Kosciuszko Alpine Guided Walks operate from Novotel Lake Crackenback.

Overnight treks include: Blue Lake and Kosciuszko Peak, explore the glacial lake, Seaman's Hut and Australia's highest mountain, Mt Kosciuszko (moderate).

Multipeak and Glacial Lakes, suspend over the Snowy River bridge, peak Mt Twynam and onto Blue Lake, peak Mt Kosciuszko, explore Lake Cootapatamba, the high ground of Ramshead's granite boulder country (hard).

Mt Stilwell and Kosciuszko Peak untracked alpine terrain of Mt Stilwell and Australia's first chairlift (no longer running) with views across Monaro Plains. Peak Australia's highest mountain (moderate).

Day treks include: The Jindabyne Movie - trek the film locations from Jindabyne, starring Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney (easy).

Mt Tate Trek: Windswept snow gums and alpine vistas. A day trek between two watersheds and views of Guthega Ski Village with trailside ski tow relics from the 1960s built by dam workers (moderate).

Pass to Pass Trek - 20km from Charlotte's Pass to Dead Horse Gap. A natural amphitheatre, steep rocky slopes, two peaks, some lakes and Australia's snow gums.

Kosciuzko Alpine Guided Walks operate from November to April. Full day and overnight treks are available in easy, moderate and advanced.

All specialised equipment, camping provisions and catering is provided except personal bushwalking items such as clothing and trek boots.

Accommodation is available in one, two or three-bedroom lakeside apartments. The resort features a restaurant and bar, swimming pool, golf course, walking trails, fishing, fitness club and tennis courts.

Booking: Contact your nearest Aussie Specialist Premier Agent on 0800 151 085 or talk to your local travel agent.

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