In recent years this column has reported on several personal items lost in the High Country only to be reunited with their owners some time later.
First we had the case of the kayak lost on the Snowy River near Guthega, thought smashed to smithereens after Brad Jeffries was tossed out of it in a surging torrent of water, only for it to be found and returned to its happy owner 18 months later.
Then we featured the camera left by Canberra bushwalking luminary John Evans atop Dutchies Peak in Namadgi National Park that was found 18 months later and returned (April 27, 2019).
Now comes the remarkable tale of two hiking poles reunited with bushwalker and sports journalist Anthony Sharwood, seven months after he was forced to leave them behind while being evacuated by helicopter ahead of a fire storm approaching Mackeys Hut in northern Kosciuszko National Park.
"I asked the chopper pilot to give me two minutes to pack my gear," recalls Sharwood. "He gave me one".
Grabbing as much of his gear as he could, Sharwood didn't have time to pick up a shirt and his two prized hiking poles which had accompanied him for 400 kilometres of his epic trek along the Australian Alpine Walking Track (AAWT).
The inferno cut short Sharwood's attempt to complete the 660km track from Walhalla in Victoria to Tharwa, but his hasty exodus may well have saved his life.
Fast forward to last month and just as his book detailing his attempt to walk the track, From Snow to Ash (Hachette Austalia) hit bookstores, Sharwood received a call from skier Darren McKenzie. The cross-country skier had retrieved his poles and shirt and was bringing them back to his Sydney home.
"It's a testament to the mentality of back country folk that no hut visitors moved them or stole the shirt," says Sharwood.
Now, if you look closely at the photo of Sharwood and his returned poles, you'll notice they don't match. That's because when you attempt an epic walk like the AAWT you have to expect the unexpected.
Just 87km into the trek while navigating through a maze of fallen logs on the Black River, Sharwood accidentally dropped one of his prized carbon fibre poles.
However, back on terra firma, Sharwood stumbled on a sturdy stick which just so happened to be exactly the length of his remaining pole. Phew.
Pole and 'Stick' as he nicknamed his new walking companion, stood Sharwood in good stead until their sudden separation at Mackeys Hut on New Year's Eve.
From Snow to Ash isn't just about the trials and tribulations of tackling Australia's toughest hiking trail "which goes up and down like a yo-yo all the way to Canberra", it's also about the author's journey of personal discovery.
Sharwood isn't shy in revealing he wanted to "hit the trail" to escape the rigours of the digital world and modern professional life where "the more meetings you schedule, the more you must be doing" and "where people barely qualified to tie their shoelaces rise through the ranks because they use the latest jargon and are good with calendars". How true.
What makes reading about Sharwood's life-changing trek through an iconic wilderness even more enjoyable are the characters he meets along the way. Like Simone, a seasoned long-distance hiker, who is attempting the track in record time, and who just so happens to have a spare phone charger cord when they bump into each other, the day after Sharwood's stops working. Talk about serendipity.
Then there's 'Rivermate', a foul-mouthed loner holed up in a campervan, who Sharwood meets on the banks of the Mitta Mitta River while rejigging his walking route due to a temporary closure of the AAWT between Mt Wills and Mitta Mitta. The exchange between the two while Rivermate attempt to fatten-up Sharwood with dim sims and other culinary delights "that keep the kids of heart surgeons in elite private schools" will have you in stitches.
Before embarking on his pilgrimage, Sharwood described the Australian Alps as being ''like our inland Great Barrier Reef ... morbid as it seems, I wanted to see them before them became something else".
Well he certainly got his wish, and more. "Tragically, the recurrent alpine megafires of the 2000s have turned snow gum woodland to grassy meadows, and tall, elegant alpine ash forests to scrub," he bemoans.
Snow to Ash is destined to become a bushwalking classic not only because of the tumultuous events which unfolded in what turned out to be Australia's 'summer from hell', but also for the wit and humour in how Sharwood, a Walkley Award-winning journalist, masterfully tells his story.
Sport fans will revel in his crafty use of sporting analogies like "black-and-yellow grasshoppers that jump as far as you can putt a shot" and "if your feather duster was six foot tall and grew legs and took up sprinting, it would run in as ungainly a manner as an emu". You can picture the emu right now, can't you!
Meanwhile, conservationists will cheer at the much needed spotlight he shines on the damage to parts of the High Country caused by feral horses and goats. "It's like graffiti on the Sistine Chapel." Indeed.
At several points Sharwood laments that even among the bushwalking fraternity, the AAWT is relatively unknown. "Maybe one day it will get the attention it deserves", he implores.
He needn't worry. For in penning Snow to Ash, Sharwood has almost single-handedly achieved that.
- Parts of the AAWT are temporarily closed due to fire damage.
Australia's answer to the Appalachian Trail
Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT): The total vertical ascent of the 660km-long AAWT, which extends through the alpine areas of Victoria, NSW and the ACT, is more than 28,000 metres, which is like climbing and descending Mt Everest from sea level three times. The full five- to seven-week hike is attempted by as few as 100 groups or individuals annually.
Did You Know? Comparisons of the AAWT are sometimes made to the other great mountain trails of the world like North America's Appalachian Trail. According to Sharwood, "it may surprise you to learn that no peak on the Appalachian Trail is as high, or as likely to see snow in summer, as the top dozen or so peaks along the AAWT."
Trekking Tips: Three tips Sharwood would give to anyone thinking of tackling the AAWT.
- Take snap-lock bags. I included them to hold food but ended up using them to scoop water out of streams too shallow to dip bottles into.
- Wear gaiters. Alongside trekking poles, they're top of the list of equipment I was seriously considering not taking but incredibly glad I did.
- Don't feel you have to divert from the track to climb every mountain along the way. We've turned mountains into binary objects. You either climb them or you've failed. Mountains don't work that way. You can enjoy them without standing on top of them.
High Country? Readers of this column often ask about nuances between the terms High Country, alpine, and Snowies, asking if they can be used interchangeably. Sharwood provides the best explanation yet. "In NSW, the Australian Alps are usually called the Snowy Mountains or Snowies. In Victoria, they use the term High Country. The Snowy Mountains are also sometimes called the High Country, but the Victorian High Country is never called the Snowy Mountains. Meanwhile, the bits of the Australian Alps in the ACT are generally just called the Brindabellas - even though there are other ranges - but never the Snowies or High Country." Got it?
WHERE IN CANBERRA?
Clue: Near one of Belconnen's first roads
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Roger Shelton of Spence who was first to correctly identify the location of last week's photo (above), sent in by Bill Crowle, as part of the exterior of a secretive-looking warehouse on the corner or Iron Knob and Beaconsfield streets in Fyshwick. Any ideas what it houses?
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and suburb to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday September 12, 2020, wins a double pass to Dendy, the Home of Quality Cinema.
With current COVID-19 border restrictions you'd be risking a ride in a paddy wagon (or divvy van) but on his pre-virus trek along the AAWT, Anthony Sharwood was able to do what every self-respecting hiker to the infant Murray River at Cowombat Flat does - straddle it with one foot in NSW, the other in Victoria.
While battling dehydration on a potholed section of AAWT in the Victorian High Country, Sharwood noticed a puddle in the shape of Australia. "With the reflection of nearby trees, it looks like the whole of Australia is a land of forests," says the author. "In reality, forest covers 17 per cent of the continent's land mass, roughly half that of when Europeans arrived in the late eighteenth century." Food for thought.