- From Snow to Ash, by Anthony Sharwood. Hachette. $32.99.
Three books set the gold standard for stories about walking. One recounts an horrendously epic trek across Antarctica in search of Emperor penguin eggs (The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard). The second follows Cheryl Strayed as she loses her boots and finds herself on the Pacific Crest trail (Wild). The third, Mountain Lines, recounts - with both professionalism and panache - Jonathan Arlen's hike from drizzle near Geneva into the sea at Nice.
Omitted from that list are books by walkers who often slept in gilded comfort (such as Patrick Leigh Fermor during his progress across pre-war Europe) as well as quitters (Bill Bryson on the Appalachian Trail), philosophisers (anything by Thoreau) and trudgers sustained by religious faith (any pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago). Anyone guided in a conga line up the Himalayas is also disqualified.
Now we might add to that list a distinctive, charming narrative by Anthony Sharwood, about a walk which ends in our backyard.
From Walhalla in Victoria's Baw Baw park, Sharwood set out to through-walk the Australian Alps trail, 660 kilometres to its finish in Namadgi. The trail's total vertical ascent and descent amounts to 28,000 metres, the equivalent of climbing and descending Everest from sea level three times.
Through all its length the trail passes no towns and crosses only six sealed roads. As for following the spoor of other humans, "the track is often just not there".
As Sharwood correctly notes, the Alps trail is far less popular and less renowned than Tasmania's Overland Track or New Zealand's Milford walks. In fact, he met only three other parties of walkers along the way, two of them soloists. Around Cradle Mountain, more would jostle past in the first few minutes. Those hikers would, however, be committing themselves to walk less than one tenth of the distance in the Alps (65 - quite wondrous - kilometres only).
Sharwood describes himself as "a master of the dark art of clickbait", a journalist who has shifted from print to digital. Where Cherry-Garrard subsidised his slot on Scotty's expedition, while Arlen had a career to come back to, Sharwood is more in the Cheryl Strayed category. He rightly admires her unsparing, unsentimental approach to walking and quotes with approval from her work. Like Strayed, Sharwood seems to be seeking a straight path instead of dead ends, hoping to use wilderness to clear his mind and refresh his heart.
His book comes with health warnings. Sharwood maintains that walking hundreds of tough kilometres requires resilience, good planning and "shoes as comfortable as gloves". That under-states the basic requirements; Sharwood might have included patience, courage and an unfeigned love of nature's world.
Stress is his companion. Set to fretting, "the hiking mind can be as busy as a social media feed". Mind you, Sharwood set up a reasonably fair fight with the wilderness, not weighing himself down with too many gadgets, insisting on only a few essentials. Morning coffee and a warm meal at night rank at the top of his personal hierarchy of needs.
Compensations do abound. For Sharwood, walking remains "free in every sense of the word", "like medication standing up". This walk was free and, for him, quite freeing.
When they turn to writing, solo walkers give themselves another hard job. They can employ none of the usual tricks which pad travel books, whether chance meetings with local characters, gossip with a travelling companion or the intrusion of a cute animal or pet. One exception is the good Samaritan who donates a spare phone charger cord.
Sharwood is happy to be charmed by birds, but leeches never win his heart. The animals to which he directs more systematic attention present serious problems, if not to a walker. He is there discussing the adverse impact of deer and wild horses on the Alps. The author would be relieved were someone to clear dead trees of the trail, but otherwise proposes few interferences with the Alps landscape.
Sharwood writes rhapsodically about hobbits, an arboreal octopus, nature's infinity pool and "delightfully well-behaved native rats", and those are just some captions for his photographs. Shades of bark on snow guns can inspire a bout of lyricism. A few "crinkly and powdery" black leaves tease his curiosity, even when those leaves foreshadow the bush fire which truncated Sharwood's walk by forcing his evacuation by helicopter.
Many hikers might find that pain, fatigue, hunger and fear drive out the meditative spirit which walking alone is meant to prompt. With Sharwood, the reverse is true. His is a thinking, caring man's trek, enlivened by digressions about feral animals, climate change, the cycles of tree regeneration and our stewardship of the Alps.