Day 61-62: Australia’s highest peak - Mt. Kosciuszko
The night before we reached the high-elevation town of Thredbo, we stopped at a campground called Geehi Flats along Swampy Plain River.
(Below) Kangaroos came into the campsite to forage on grass. We watched from the campervan, which served as a blind.
Mount Kosciuszko is Australia‘s tallest mountain (7,310 feet) on the mainland, located in the Snowy Mountains. We walked into the visitor’s center and took one look at the map. I blurted out, “Wait, Snowy Mountains? Snowy River?!” I didn’t realize that we were near the Snowy River watershed. It never occurred to me to look up one of my favorite movies as a kid - Return to Snowy River. It was the second installment following The Man from Snowy River. We passed by a hotel honoring the first film from the early 80s, and I knew we were in the right place. Trailer for Return to Snowy River: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3y_7obhMAwE.
Snowy River watershed, Snowy Mountains
In addition to Kosciuszko, four other peaks in Australian territory are higher, including Mount Menzies in Australian Antarctic Territory at 11,007 feet.
We’ll save you the suspense - we never summited Mt. Kosciuszko. But the ski hill chairlift was irresistible. We had a window of pleasant weather, albeit unseasonably warm for the high-altitude town of Thredbo. The Thredbo ski hill is well-known for its snow sports in Australia, but also the wide range of mountain biking trails in summer. Every other chair on the lift had one or two bikes hanging from the rack behind each bench seat. We grabbed ourselves tickets and hopped on, riding as far up as the lift would take us.
From there, it was an additional one hour hike to the Mt. Kosciuszko Lookout. Patches of snow were still visible here and there. Habitat was reminiscent of Alaskan tundra with vegetation not exceeding one foot high. Wildflowers seemed to be in peak bloom season. Left to right: alpine mint bush (Prostanthera cuneata), rice-flower (Pimelea sp.), silver snow daisy (Celmisia longifolia.), mountain celery (Aciphylla glacialis), coral heath (Epacris microphylla), candle heath (Richea continentis), purple eyebright (Euphrasia collina)
The main trail was an elevated boardwalk made out of metal mesh to protect native vegetation and a mosaic of snowmelt underneath. This prevented a dirt trail becoming a rut, leading to extensive erosion. Over 100,000 people visit the mountain each year.
We passed a couple of avid runners on the trail. There is an ultramarathon race each December that starts on the coast and ascends to Kosciuszko summit, 240 km (150 mi) away. Having not exercised at altitude all winter, we were content with our 4km (2.5 mi) hike.
At the lookout, we were still about 4.5 km (2.8 mi) from the Kosciuszko summit, but we could see a rounded peak in the distance with a few people on top. Back in the late 70s, it was still possible to drive all the way to the summit, but the road was closed down for environmental concerns. Now a footpath remains.
Mt. Kosciuszko summit (below, center)
The clearest water we’ve seen yet was flowing down the mountain. As the last of the snow melted, and unprecedented rainfall occurred this year, creeks and bogs were full.
We returned to the chairlift and took a ride back down to Thredbo. Curiosity about the Snowy River watershed took us to a drive further north where we could explore the river flowing northeast away from Mt. Kosciuszko.
A short boardwalk took us into the snow gum habitat, a small subset of eucalyptus that prefer to live on the harsh treeline between subalpine and alpine zones. It is the only tree that grows at this altitude.
Snow gum are more twisted and stunted than those growing at lower elevations due to the climate and blasting effects of snow, ice, and wind. The patterns in the bark are certainly beautiful. Leaves are thick and leathery to withstand harsh winters. Australia is the only country in the world where a single genus of tree (eucalypt) occurs from the ocean, to the desert, to the mountains. The grandfather snowgums like this one (right) are two to three hundred years old.
On our way down the mountain, we drove into the foothills southeast of Kosciuszko National Park, and dropped quickly in elevation. Storms started to build around us and we had to stop and listen to the thunder. Our camp for the night was in a grassland valley.