by David Bigwood
As we round the bend and catch the first sight of Lake Jindabyne it feels as if we are coming home. Below us the hilltops that used to surround the old town of Jindabyne poke through the waters as islands. Beyond, the main range of the Australian Alps stands as a sturdy backdrop against the deep blue of a cloudless sky. And, on the shores of the lake the new town of Jindabyne, the largest in the area and an ideal base from which to explore the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales and, in winter, the dormitory for the skiers and snowboarders who flock to the ski slopes, is spread out. It is a welcoming sight that we never tire of even after decades of visits.
And to cap it off, the soundtrack of the evocative film music of ‘The Man from Snowy River’ is turned up on the car’s CD player.
Most appropriate as this time, it isn’t the skiing or the photography that had brought my wife and I back to the mountains but an opportunity to visit The Snowy Wilderness, a new resort about a half hour’s drive from Jindabyne, which is one of the few places left where latter day horsemen and women can emulate the feats of The Man, that fictitious character who embodied all the traits of the mountain men and their horses in the early days of the white settlement of Australia.
The next morning at the Wilderness the owner’s three German Shepherds bounded joyfully out of his four wheel drive anxious to stretch their legs and investigate the newcomers. We had already been given a warm welcome by Kelly and Cathy who had been grooming their horses ready for a morning ride through the 7,200 acres that is the Snowy Wilderness in the high country of the Snowy Mountains. The welcome from the dogs and Justin McIntosh, whom I had come to interview about his tourism venture, was equally as warm.
A wildlife sanctuary, the Wilderness is a place to experience the Australian bush in all its variety with eucalypt covered mountains that extend almost as far as the eye can see and access to the Snowy River. It is full of wildlife including brumbies, Australia’s wild bush horses so named as it was a Sergeant James Brumby who turned his horses loose when he was posted from New South Wales to Tasmania in the early days of the colony, kangaroos, wallabies, emus, wombats, possums, deer, various lizards, a myriad of birds and, dare I say it, a number of snakes.
The Wilderness is a place where you can ride horses for a couple of hours or go on a several days ride, camp, walk, fish, go four wheel driving or quad biking all with experienced guides, or just enjoy the comfort of a lodge and sit and relax in the glorious mountain air. It is where you can recharge your batteries and rekindle your connection with nature after the stress and slings and arrows of everyday life. And, where you can be waited on hand and foot if you so desire. Gourmet meals are the order of the day even during a six day horse ride when you camp out in the bush.
Justin has something of a reputation as a cook who can conjure up a memorable meal whether it be from a camp oven or a fully equipped kitchen. A good meal, a fine wine and fellowship around a camp fire where as Banjo Paterson, the author of the epic poem about The Man wrote, “the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze” are the best antidotes for tired muscles as many visitors from overseas have found.
We left Snowy Wilderness to continue down The Barry Way, a steeply descending dirt road that has been carved out of the mountainside. I have driven it in a two-wheel drive car but it is more comfortable in a fourwheel drive. It is one of those roads that seem to go on forever. As you round a bend expecting to be close to the bottom, you find that across the valley is the road still going down. Finally, you are down at Snowy River level. Now just a shadow of its former self, it was this river that people had been talking about diverting to the parched inland since the nineteenth century as it rushed the snow melt waters from the mountains on an aimless drive to the sea.
This seemingly unattainable plan began to be realised in the 1950s when the successors to the original pioneers came from all corners of the globe to tame the mountains even further with the Snowy Mountains Scheme and send the waters of the Snowy River to the inland to create power and water for irrigation.
Sadly for the Snowy River, its damming to provide storage for the Snowy Scheme almost killed it. However, it is now being given a second chance at life as increasingly each year more water is released from the Jindabyne dam in an attempt to revive it to at least a quarter of its former glory. It is doubtful that the roar of the Snowy as snow melt water rushes from the mountains will ever be heard again but the river must benefit from whatever extra it gets.
There are many places to camp beside the Snowy along The Barry Way and continuing along it will lead you into Victoria and on to Melbourne.
The following day, we headed up the mountain to Charlotte Pass where the road ends. It is a ski area with a hotel and can only be reached in winter by oversnow transport or cross country skis. From nearby we looked down on the Snowy River as it snaked its way down the mountain to be joined by the waters from Club Lake Creek. There is also a boardwalk by the look out that meanders through the twisted and tortured snow gums that bear the brunt of the severe weather that batters this area each year.
As we looked towards the highest mountains in Australia with their patches of snow we were reminded of why the mountains here look like big hills rather than having the rugged grandeur of the European alps or the Himalayas. It is because geologically the Australian mountains are much older and have been worn down by millions of years of wind and weather.
This time, a view of the Snowy River from the lookout was not enough so we took the paved pathway that leads down to the river several hundred metres away. Stepping stones form a crossing for those who wish to continue to Blue Lake, an ancient glacial lake, and then on to the summit of Mount Kosciuszko, at 2228 metres (7309 feet) Australia’s highest mountain, with a return down the shorter path to Charlotte Pass. Not for us today. So we return up the steep pathway which I have heard called ‘Heartbreak Hill’ and find our trek poles invaluable.
It once was possible to drive to the summit but now you have to walk. The section to where the path crosses the Snowy River is easy walking but from there on there are some steeper gradients but nothing like Heartbreak Hill.
It is also possible to access a shorter path to the summit from Thredbo ski resort via the chairlift. On this route you cross the headwaters of the Snowy River and enjoy the view of Lake Cootapatamba, Australia’s highest lake. Whichever route you take, look out in high summer for the masses of wildflowers that carpet the alpine meadows.
The next day we drove along the Thredbo Valley on the other side of the range to Thredbo passingthe station at Bullock’s Flat where, in the winter, trains run through the mountain to Perisher Valley and Blue Cow ski fields. Soon after entering the National Park there is a turning to Thredbo Diggings where you can camp and fall asleep with the burble of the Thredbo River in your ears and, if you are a fly fishing enthusiast, dream of the prime trout you may catch tomorrow. Last time I was here I watched a family of eastern grey kangaroos grazing in the late afternoon as crimson rosellas fluttered in the trees and nearby I have seen emus and brumbies.
Thredbo has a European air about it with its buildings clinging to the slope opposite the ski field. Unlike the other nearby ski areas, it is a year round resort with activities including concerts through the summer months. There are a golf course, tennis courts and many walks to be enjoyed. And, for the adventurous, there is a ride on the bobsled, or a dash down the mountains on a mountain bike, or climbing and abseiling — all breathtaking stuff.
The road past Thredbo is also an alternative route to Melbourne which is a far more attractive drive than the main highway from Sydney.
A comfortable half day drive is a round trip from Jindabyne via The Barry Way (take the first turn left off The Barry Way which is Dalgety Road) to Dalgety with a return through Berridale, where a welcome awaits at the Snowy River Winery tea rooms. Dalgety was once gazetted as the site for the capital of the newly federated Australia but the traditional Sydney/Melbourne rivalry saw it saved as it was considered to be too close to Melbourne. So, it remains a small settlement on the banks of the depleted Snowy River with hopes that the increased flow promised over the next decade will once again make it a mecca for fly fishers after the elusive trout.
If you have the time — it’s a full day drive from Jindabyne — a visit to the old goldfields at Kiandra is illuminating. It must have been a harrowing place in the winter which explains why the 1860s gold rush was short-lived although the town survived until 1974. Walk though the remains of the town and read the signboards, visit the spot where the discarded artefacts have been collected and re-assembled (take the turning to Mount Selwyn), and survey with sympathy the lonely graves scattered upon the hillside. Marvel also at the signs of the workings that the diggers made all those years ago without the benefits of modern machinery.
This drive will also take you through the new town of Adaminaby, the old town of which, like Jindabyne was flooded by the building of a dam. Unlike Jindabyne, however, the buildings from the old town were re-located at a site well away from Lake Eucumbene. It was a decision that was considered in hindsight to have been a mistake so the old Jindabyne was left undisturbed to the rising waters and a new town was built on the lake’s edge.
Back at the Snowy Wilderness, the brumbies looked round, their grazing interrupted by my approach, camera at the ready. And, nearby a silver mare picked her way down the hill, a very new foal at her side. It was a magic moment in a magic place that is wild and rugged and, in many ways, like the men who tamed this wilderness in the early days of the nineteenth century.
Banjo Paterson wrote The Man from Snowy River in 1890. Do read it.
This article was published in the Australia and New Zealand magazine in the UK.