From The Back of Buggery
In Australia we have the colloquial term “the back of buggery “, which means “further away than the middle of nowhere”. I have just literally returned from such a place, and it was the hardest work I’ve done in a long time.
We awoke on Tuesday morning at 3:30 am, after having little sleep on such a hot January night, already packed and ready to go. We were meeting the others in our hiking troupe at Hayley’s brother’s place, from where we would embark on the 5+ hour drive up into the Victorian Alps. As long-time readers of my blog would know, I have a special love of the alps, and have hiked up there many times to different places and along different routes, and this one looked to be a beauty!
The hike we had planned was meant to be a four day walk, from the car park at Mount Howitt track, past the MacAlister Springs hut, over a series of peaks called The Crosscut Saw, to Mount Speculation, then across in unmarked wilderness trails to The Razor, across to The Viking and back to the car park. We’ve done a bit of hiking and we usually do it faster than the times in the guide books, so we figured we could do this track in 3 days instead. We were mistaken, and the labels on the map should have given us a clue as to what we were in for.
Names included The Terrible Hollow, The Horrible Gap, The Devil’s Staircase, and of course Mount Buggery itself. We soon learned why these places earned these names.
After a 5 hour drive, we eventually made it up to the Mount Howitt car park. Loaded up and ready to go, Hayley, her younger brother and sister and I were each carrying around 20 kilograms of food, water and camping equipment. It was a warm day, about 25 degrees Celsius, so water was in high demand. Our first day’s aim was to make it from the car park to Mount Speculation, about 15 kilometers in total, and easily achievable, or so we thought. Just past Mount Speculation was a freshwater spring named Camp Creek where we would be setting up for the night. And so we set off.
The first part of the hike was an easy stroll to MacAlister Spring hut, about an hour walk across highland swamps and fields of wildflowers, and already covering 5km of our hike. It was quite warm, even at 11am, and the sweat was already dripping from our faces. Though the beauty of the floral meadows was captivating, this was just a gateway for the real star of the show.
Just beyond McAlisters Spring, the bushland opened up to show us the mountain valley called The Terrible Hollow. On the south side of the hollow was a series of sandstone cliffs called The Devil’s Staircase, some of the most rugged terrain I have ever seen, plummeting downward for several hundred metres into the hollow. Anyone unfortunate enough to slip and fall here would have one hell of a time trying to get back out, if they survived. It was at this point that we started to wonder whether our planned trip was overly ambitious.
From this point it was upward to Mount Howitt West Peak (see top photo) where we could see for the first time what our journey entailed. Before us, like the jagged teeth in a shark’s mouth, lay The Crosscut Saw, 13 individual peaks, each one seemingly larger than the last, with deep crevasses on either side of the ridge line. This was where we were headed.
Still quite spritely in our steps, we descended the West Peak and int the first of the Crosscut Saw’s valleys. The sun up here was harsh, the thin mountain air offering us little protection from its burning rays. And we were sweating. Sunscreen and more sunscreen.
The first part of the Crosscut was was pretty easy, meandering across the first and over the second and third “teeth” of the sawblade, over rocky shale and around small boulders. The landscape dropped away on both sides into deep valleys that few people have ever ventured into.
Wildflowers were everywhere, with alpine daisies, paper daisies, billy-butons and small flowering shrubs covering the hillsides. It’s amazing that such beauty could survive in such harsh climes. These alps are covered in snow and ice for half of the year, and battered by sun and windstorms for the rest of the year. Luckily for us the weather was kind enough to be calm. But it was quite hot for hiking.
After the first few “teeth” of the Crosscut Saw, the trail started to degrade to shelves of rock and larger boulders. The footing was often made up of loose stones which made walking all the more difficult. Our packs were starting to feel heavy, and we were hungry. We decided to make Mount Buggery our lunch spot, as we could see it at the end of the Crosscut Saw, only a couple of kilometres away.
Once the Crosscut Saw entered the treeline again, any progress forward was slowed by the constant weariness about our footing. Overbalancing and falling over was out of the question, as it would mean certain massive injury or even death. This was not a place one would like to get hurt, and there was the ever present reminder that this was a dangerous place. Apart from the physical dangers offered up by the landscape, we were always on the lookout for venomous snakes. Luckily at this point we hadn’t seen any, but we knew they were there. Snakes are always around in the mountains.
It took a full 3 hours to traverse the 4 kilometres of The Crosscut Saw, all the constant ups and downs, the poor footing, the 20 kilograms of gear on our backs, and fatigue starting to set into our legs. We forged on, sipping water as we went, and eventually made it to Mount Buggery. We learned first-hand where the name Mount Buggery came from, and it has nothing to do with a lack of women in the Australian outback. From the Australian Geographical Name page on Wikiski:
“There is circumstantial evidence that the name was first applied by a member of the Melbourne Walking Club, Stewart Middleton. During the 1934 Christmas period he and five other members of the club walked along the Buckland-Buffalo divide to Mt Selwyn, fought their way through dense scrub on the Barry Mountains to Mt Speculation, followed the Cross Cut Saw to Mt Howitt and finished at Merrijig via the Howqua River. There were no tracks of any sort until they reached Mt Howitt and Stewart, perhaps not quite as fit as he could have been, was finding the going tough after the descent from Mt Speculation. Faced with the prospect of yet another laborious climb he exploded with the words ‘What another bugger! I’ll call this mountain Mt Buggery.'”
We had just ascended it from the south, and knew once we had descended the north side into a saddle called The Horrible Gap that this name was more than apt. We had some lunch on the top of Mount Buggery, but by this time it was already 3pm. Our late lunch proved to be a big mistake, our bodies were more worn out than we thought. I checked the soles of my feet and discovered that both of the balls had massive double layer blisters on them from all the up and down walking. Other members of the party were feeling dehydrated, underfed, with stomach pains and cramping. This was not a good sign.
From Mount Buggery, the descent was into The Horrible Gap, a descent in altitude of 250 metres over equal distance, a gradient of about 45 degrees. This was horrible on our knees and feet, as steep descents always are. Then the final insult. Looking up from Horrible Gap to the peak of Mount Speculation, we realised given the way we were all feeling, that our next section was going to be quite a trial.
The ascent up Mount Speculation from Horrible Gap is a 1500 metre section of grassy steppes, punctuated by vertical 3 metre rock walls. It’s an ascent of 300 metres, which doesn’t sound like much, but given what we had already been through, this just about brought us to the end of our collective tethers. At one point we had to free-solo climb a 4 metre rock wall with no ropes for protection, easy if you weren’t carrying packs, but difficult with an extra 20 kilos on your back.
This last section took up about an hour and a half, and when we finally arrived at the top of Mount Speculation, it was with a sigh of relief. We were all just about out of energy, and were on autopilot, one foot in front of the other, plodding slowly down to the Camp Creek campsite, where there was fresh running water and a sheltered position to set up out tents for the night. At this point we completely abandoned our mission to move onward toward The Razor and The Viking, and were considering what other options we had.
We were all feeling utterly broken. The combination of less than 3 hours sleep, a 5 hour drive and an eight hour hike, combined with heat and exhaustion had taken its toll. To move forward would be folly, but we needed to get back to the car somehow. The prospect of an eight hour hike back to the car and then a 5 hour drive was not an option. We decided that that next day we could do one of two things: we could gather enough water to make our way back to Mount Buggery and camp there for the night, or we could push through all the way back to McAlister Spring campground and camp only an hour from the car. We would make that call in the morning depending on how we felt.
There was a thunderstorm that night, lightning and rain woke us up several times from our slumbers. We were also visited by a very large alpine brushtail possum who had decided he wanted to eat the scraps from our dishwater. A warm night, but sleeping on thin mats in the humid conditions made for fitful sleep.
The next morning we awoke, sore and a little worse for wear, but feeling better nonetheless. The decision was made, we would walk back as far as Mount Buggery, and if the ascent up from Horrible Gap didn’t kill us, we would attempt for a final push back to the MacAlister Spring campground. Packed up and ready to go, and loaded up with enough water, we made our way back up to the top of Mount Speculation. It was a cooler day, and a thick mist hung in the air, wetting our clothes and faces as we hiked. This time we would ensure we were well fed enough to make the journey.
From Mount Speculation, the view of the valley was spectacular. Looking across to The Razor and The Viking, I could see that they were both made up of parallel strata of sedimentary sandstone. To think that once upon a time, all this was below the ocean, and at some point a massive upheaval of the ground brought these points of rock jutting up into the air like massive stone thorns. The journey across there would have to wait until another day when we had more time, and were fitter.
After lunch on Mount Speculation, we descended once again into The Horrible Gap. The ascent up Mount Buggery from the north was grueling, and took us a full 40 minutes, further reinforcing the name for us. We decided we would push through for the MacAlister Spring site, even though we had enough water to stop at Mount Buggery. Several hours later, after once again traversed the Crosscut Saw, we arrived safely at the campsite, worn out again, but nowhere near as bad as the previous night. And I’m glad we did, because the next morning, we received the ultimate payoff for our troubles. The Terrible Hollow filled with clouds, like a sea of white below us. Simply stunning.
This was one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done. It illustrated the harshness of the Australian wilderness in all its terrible glory. When one wonders what it might have been like for the first people who ever traversed this rugged landscape, what they might have seen and thought, I think the name Mount Buggery pretty much answers that question.