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The spectacular ‘shiny’ granite peak of Cerro Torre in the Mt Fitzroy massif, taken on the long walk up through the Rio Blanca valley.

Well, it’s taking me a little while, but am getting there – the next big stop on our Patagonian adventure after Torres del Paine, was to head by bus from Puerto Natales, into Argentina’s tourist town of Calafate (quick day trip to the spectacular Perito Moreno glacier) and then across the border via the iconic Route 40 to the amazing walking in and around El Chalten.  Just a word on Patagonian buses: they are fast, clean, affordable, regular, on time, comfortable, and have free wi-fi!

We based ourselves for 5 days at the low key outdoors-focussed climbers town of El Chalten, set smack in the middle of the Los Glaciares National Park. With a very cool but unselfconscious frontier vibe, this was a spectacular part of an already spectacular trip – even the view from the bathroom of our little flat was of the beautiful peaks of the mountains (we stayed at Apart el Cabure and I’d recommend it – just 3 little low key local flats, around USD$50 per person per night for 4; warm and good hot water, and super lovely and helpful owners).

Somehow, the cloud gods were on holidays on the day we chose to hike up to the peak, and we were blessed with beyond perfect weather – mild, sunny and not a breath of wind. Apparently this is pretty rare – or so everyone told us. But as you can see from the pics, it really was impossible not to be gobsmacked every which way you looked.

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The canon-shot of falling ice cracking off this hanging glacier was deafening across the valley on the hike up.

Take a quick tip from me (which we took from the owners of our accommodation) – fork out for the bus which takes you up the valley from el Chalten early in the morning for about 40 minutes, so you can take the less trafficked, more gradual and absolutely beautiful walk beside and above the river through up to the  Poincenot campsite at the base of the massif. It’s an alternate walk-in instead of constant 4-hours of steep uphill direct from the township. Your knees and lungs will love you for it. This way takes you through mossy Antarctic Beech forests and above roaring rivers, and also has curious signs that basically say ‘run like hell if there is a fire’ (because apparently you have to be told!).

If you have it in you, when you get to the base of the Cerro Torres (Mt Fitzroy’s towers), on the other side of the campsite, where climbers camp overnight before tackling the towers, there is a hell of a final steep rocky switchback slog, gaining another 400m in altitude, up to the famous Laguna de Los Tres glacier lakes above. Worth every bit of blood, sweat and tears, according to my Duracel-bunny-like buddy, Deb and her loping son Tas, who made it look like a Sunday stroll.  I meantime sat at the now tiny Rio Blanca at the base, and just took it all, in blissful peace. The extraordinary shininess of the rock towers is apparently caused by the repeated frosts, sluicing off the surface of the rock over millenia.  Whatever it is, it’s spectacular.

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The final 400m altitude gain via switchback up to the Laguna de Los Tres from the Poincenot pack-in campsite

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Walking up the Valley (or should I say, being blown up the Valley!) towards Torres del Paine

I can’t believe it’s been two years since I have written on my blog – how disgraceful! I don’t want you to think I haven’t been walking in all that time, as in between life-as-usual, I have actually done some really wonderful walks – I celebrated my 50th on the Larapinta Trail – unbelievable!; did a multi-day walk on the Ridgeway in the UK; have done some lovely walks around Victoria, including some of the Goldfields Track (my next aim!); walked the Portuguese coastal camino with my daughter, and have just been lucky enough to return from Patagonia – a decades-long dream to walk the Torres del Paine.  And importantly, finally, at the end of last year, my 4th guidebook, Best Walks of the Great Ocean Road, hit the bookshelves. So I clearly owe you a bit of catch-up – let’s see how I do! – and hopefully hear about some of your walks, too.

Patagonia – the southernmost areas of Chile and Argentina – was my first venture to South America, and it won’t be my last. What an incredible 4 weeks, and so easy – bus transportation is fast and comfortable, food is good and plentiful though it helps to like copious quantities of red meat,  people helpful and the walking is spectacular!

First stop: Torres del Paine’s ‘The W Walk’

IMG_3568The 106km ‘W Walk’ around the Torres del Paine massif in Chile has been on my bucket list since I first saw a photo of those incredible spires 20 years ago. And it did not disappoint at all.  A long flight from Melbourne to Santiago, then to Punta Arenas and then a bus to quaint Puerto Natales and yet another bus into the NP was rewarded with a magnificent refugio-to-refugio walk in pretty amazing weather (we were very lucky!). We did the walk independently (very easily) using a local Chilean travel agent to book the refugios and connecting transport, which was very easy and saved us huge wadges of cash. W mapThe refugios are clean – have rooms with multiple bunk beds (If you prebook you can get the lower ones – some are pretty vertiginous!), hot communal showers and can be pre-booked with linen so you don’t have to carry heavy packs, and full board – evening meals are hearty 2 courses and will line your stomachs – and lunchpacks consist of (huge) slabs of bread with meat and cheese and a muesli bar and fruit. For those with more stamina and who are seriously pack-fit, there are excellent camping grounds beside all the refugios.

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Leaning into the wind (already!) as we leave the first refugio

The walk itself is not technical, only reaches altitudes of around 1200m, and the trails are relatively clear except for a bit of rock scrambling up on the final stage to the Towers, but fitness definitely helps – we scaled 1100 flights of stairs in the 6 days, according to our pedometers.  Daily distances are not too long, unless you do some of the optional climbs to some of the bigger lookouts at Los Cuernos (worth it!) – usually around the 16km mark. But one factor you have to take into consideration is the wind. I haven’t experienced anything like it – you hear the gusts coming before they hit you – it sounds a bit like a dozen diesel locomotives at full pace – and you know to ‘brace’ (seriously, as they reach up to 120km an hour.  The lighter weights of us (not me!) were bowled over a couple of times, and one of our 9kg backpacks was tumbled along by the wind like it was a cotton ball. It’s impressive and very wild!

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View back to Los Cuernos (‘the horns’) on the Torres del Paine W walk

We took the option of the boat out from Refugio Grey, rather than retrace our steps, and that was a good call. It takes you up to the face of teh wave-like Grey Glacier and past its various icebergs, and rewards you with a legendary Pisco Sour made with glacial ice as a nice end0-of-walk celebration. We also opted to stay a couple of nights in Refugio Grey at the end so we could do a day walk further up the pass, across some mighty suspension bridges (leave your fear of heights at home!) and clamber down to the iceberg-filled Grey Lake. This walk is seriously very, very beautiful.  Seriously one of the best walks, and most varied, that I have ever done. It did not disappoint one iota. If you ever get the opportunity, grab it with everything you’ve got and go for it.

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Grey Lake icebergs

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Magellanic Orchids – just wow!

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Grey Glacier, from the track beyond Grey Lodge

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Eucla - it's a LONG way from anywhere (C) JP Mundy 2014

Eucla – it’s a long, LONG way from anywhere

Looking west across the 'bite' of the Great Australian Bight

Looking west across the ‘bite’ of the Great Australian Bight

Well, hello after a VERY long time – I feel I owe you about a year of posts, as I have been travelling like a loon with work this year and haven’t found the time to update you – this year has seen me in Mongolia, Viet Nam, Canada, Wales, Nepal and India – though regrettably, not out and about doing much walking, other than the gorgeous Ridgeway in England for my birthday in May. In the June holidays though, the kids and I decided it was road trip time and drove 4,500km across the Nullabor Desert to Perth. It was epic – in the genuine sense of the word. Where else can you drive dead straight for 90 miles (145km), and then they have to put a 6 degree bend in the road to account for the curvature of the earth???!!!! And along the way, the road doubles up as an airstrip for the Royal Flying Doctor Service?!

Across the Nullabor

Across the Nullabor – Yes.  It’s flat.

Anyway, we had a great trip, across our vast and beautiful land: the Great Australian Bight was full of humpback whales and their babes, lolling about just metres from the cliffs and the beauty and silence of the land was very healing for the busy, 21st Century soul. Oh and finally, finally, I got to visit the incredible Wave Rock. Just. Wow.

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One of the hidden limestone blowholes, that connects to the Great Australian Bight – about a kilometre away, and blasts fresh salt air up at you in teh middle of the desert!

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 A number of the ‘settlements’ across the Nullabor are actually just petrol stations. 

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A salt lake road crossing outside Nullabor

Late afternoon looking west across the Bight

Late afternoon looking west across the Bight

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Autumn leaves in Bright - living up to its name!

Autumn leaves in Bright – living up to its name!

Had a totally glorious family weekend up in the High Country last weekend – in perfect Autumn weather. The autumn leaves were just starting to turn in the beautiful mountain village of Bright, the night air was crisp and cool, and the daytime skies were blue, blue, blue! There is so much to do and see around there, even outside of the ski season, so it’s really worth the 4 hour drive from Melbourne.  Local produce stalls are very distracting, with walnut and chestnut farms, olive groves, and berry and hop farms on either side of The Great Alpine Road to delay your journey, not to mention the VERY tempting vineyards – we had a very indulgent Autumn degustation lunch at Gapstead Winery: think quail and slow roasted autumn fruits – yummmmmm!  Our favourite roadside stall was selling roasted chocolate and chilli pumpkin seeds! Needless to say, our pantry is bulging!

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Bins of freshly harvested walnuts at Gapstead

The kids and I did some off-road ‘adventure’ segway-ing in the morning with Peter of Bright Segways, up and over rocky bush trails, through forestry trails and even over a swing bridge across the Ovens River. Who knew you could 4WD on a segway?! This is hands-down pretty fabulous family entertainment and a real crowd pleaser. What a hoot!

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Segway-ing beside the Ovens River near Bright

 

On our second day, we took in a very easy and picturesque 30km stretch of the ‘Murray to the Mountains’ Rail Trail which runs 106km from Wangaratta to Beechworth. The section we did was virtually flat, and the entire trail is sealed all the way, with short distances between towns, and a number of trail-side cafes catering to cyclists – so it’s very family-friendly, and a more achievable option than riding your bike from the valley up to the top of Mount Buffalo, which seems to be a pretty popular – if masochistic – activity (it takes bout 2 hours of straight up – great training if you’re planning on entering the Tour de France!). The section which we did (a far more leisurely 2 hours) takes you past beautiful pastures and farmland, much of which was originally sown to tobacco, and you frequently pass the old tin tobacco drying sheds.  Today there are  instead hanging hop gardens and all those lovely orchards and vineyards I mentioned. It helped us greatly that we had a willing aunt and uncle who assisted with the car shuttle, but you can also time your ride to coincide with a Victoria Rail Coach (yes, that’s a bus masquerading as a train!), which purportedly will put your bikes in the luggage compartments below and get you back to your starting point – probably best to ring ahead and check.

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Autumn colour on the Murray to Mountain Rail Trail

On our way back to Melbourne, we detoured for the stunning, windy drive up Mt Buffalo – one of Victoria’s first national parks and original skiing centres over 100 years ago.  It’s stunning granite outcrops and alpine plateau meadows are so dramatic and quite unusual in Victoria.

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View from the base of ‘The Horn’ at Mt Buffalo

Mt Buffalo is the home of the Australian Alp’s endangered Bogong moth, as well as the equally endangered historic Mt Buffalo Chalet, which is thankfully about to get a $7m refurbishment. There are also endless bushwalking options, including the aptly named ‘Big Walk’ up the mountain. But it’s the short (1.6km) but very sweet clamber up Mt Buffalo’s ‘Horn’ which tops everything off – literally – at 1,723 metres (5,653 feet). While the only-way-is-up, the walk is not hard and there are plenty of rocks and the occasional seat to lean against and catch your breath as your mountain-goat children leap blithely from boulder to boulder!

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Walking up The Horn at Mt Buffalo

 

The view from the top was pretty special to be honest – 360 degree views across the Australian Alps, with Australia’s highest peak, Mt Kosciousko in NSW, a very remote but visible presence. Despite the clear, calm weather, it was a chilly 10C at the top, even in the middle of the day, so I can imagine it is pretty hostile at times – road access to the Horn car park is closed in the winter months, when the whole plateau is often covered in snow.

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View from the start of the climb up The Horn, Mt Buffalo

 

The walk/climb to the top has recently been upgraded to make it safer and more accessible – steps are cut directly into the rock, or have been installed in some places, grip has been laid in particularly slippery areas and railings are provided where needed – especially on the top of the enormous summit boulder where there is a directional plinth and signage indicating surrounding peaks. All this makes the short walk a great and really interesting option for families with children, with the reward of stunning panoramas at the top while your heart stops tap-dancing in your chest. There now – I think I have described my perfect weekend.

 

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View north-east from the summit of The Horn, Mt Buffalo

 

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Melbourne for Dogs - who could resist that brown-eyed retriever?  Not me!

Melbourne for Dogs – who could resist that brown-eyed retriever? Not me!

I can’t believe it’s been almost 3 months since I managed to update my blog!  Well, actually I can, as I have been pretty busy, with work trips to Mongolia, Canberra, Hanoi and Cambodia since then (plenty of stories and sights to share). But my big news is that the first copy of my new book, Melbourne for Dogs, has just arrived in my hot little hands today, as an advance copy from the printers.  Honestly – the anticipation has been almost too much to bear – it’s been somewhat like an elephant’s gestation, 2 years in the making and finally it has popped out fully formed in glossy, glorious colour!

RSPCA Victoria have come on board and endorsed it, which is wonderful, and we’ll be launching it at the Melbourne Dog Lovers Show, which will be at the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton from 2nd – 4th May 2014.  You can pre-order it from Woodslane online, or after the show, it will be available in all good bookstores and online, as well as through RSPCA shops, and some vets and pet stores as well. It will retail for $24.95, but if you buy one at the show, it will be on special for $19.95. There are over 700 off-lead dog parks and 50+ off-lead beaches in there, as well as a series of longer dog and people-friendly walks to keep you entertained, in the style of the Melbourne’s Best Walks book.  I do hope you and your pooch enjoy using it to explore (off-lead) pastures new – Indie and I certainly enjoyed researching it!

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View from Arthurs Seat ridge, south-west to Sorrento and Port Phillip Bay (c) JP Mundy 2013

Time for a day out. Too much work and not enough walking, makes for a dull life, so Deb and I skived off yesterday and bit off a biggie – The Two Bays Walk: 28km from Dromana, on the Port Phillip Bay side of the Mornington Peninsula, up and over Arthurs Seat (for non-locals, that’s a big hill, not a chair, in case you were wondering!) then down through glorious bushland to Cape Schanck lighthouse overlooking the Bass Strait.  It’s only an hour’s drive from Melbourne, but feels like a million miles away. We started from the carpark at the Bunurong Track, at the corner of Latrobe Terrace and Bayview Road. Purists might want to start from the Dromana Visitor Information Centre, which adds another 2km of suburban road walking to the start of the track, but that didn’t appeal to us, as we were here for the bush, and we thought 28km was enough for anyone in a day! The walk is very well signposted with the ‘Two Bays’ fairywren emblem and arrows along the way, the only potential point of confusion being the high numbers of kangaroo superhighways (no seriously, there are a LOT of kangaroos) which criss cross the second half of the track as you descend towards the coast.

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Eastern Greys on the ‘Kangaroo Super Highways’ near Bushrangers Bay (C) JP Mundy 2013

The first part of the walk is a steady but not too harsh climb up a well made path with spectacular views across Port Phillip Bay, which winds up, around and along the ridge-line of Arthur’s Seat. You can make detours to pretty Seawinds Gardens (you could start the walk from here if you didn’t want to walk up Arthur’s Seat) and the summit along the way, but are soon descending down from the bushland, past a lovely dam for a quick 30 minute walk through some quiet suburban streets, before heading past vineyards and bucolic farmlands to enter into the first of a series of joined reserves and national parks for the remainder of the walk.

ImageBeyond Arthur’s Seat, the walking is fairly easy – mostly flat or gently undulating and following through lush ironbark, blackwood and banksia forests.  The Greens Bush section contains some of the biggest healthiest stands of grass trees I have ever seen, and their towering flowering spikes (up to 4m+) are just glorious, though occasional ones are perplexingly wonky!

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Apart from the magnificent bushland, in full flower at this time of year, we came across an echidna and fairy wrens, plenty of parrots and a good collection of fierce bull ants on the sandy parts of the track. Some of the string of reserves have been reclaimed from old grazing property, so we even came across drifts of blue forget-me-nots and canna lilies along one of the fern tree-lined gullies, though hopefully the fantastic local ‘Friends of’ groups are seeking to clear the introduced species over time – for now it feels like walking through English woodlands in places.Image

There were a number of delicate native orchids popping up but also some flowers neither of us could recognise.  Do any readers know what this spectacular plant is?  it looked a little bit like a ‘chicken and hen’ plant, but was a 1.5m high and 3m high shrub just drenched in 1cm wide flowers. Gorgeous!

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Oh… and there’s also kudos for anyone who can tell me what type of caterpillars make up this seething mass: they were each about 15cm long and crossing the track en masse beneath our clomping feet!

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The final leg of the walk brings you out above magnificent, isolated Bushrangers Bay, which is apparently where two convicts from Tassie landed in the 1800’s after commandeering a schooner, using it as a base for their maraundering. From there, you hug the coastal scrub above the seacliffs, the waves of Bass Strait pounding below you, before coming out at Cape Schanck light station.  We’d pre-ordered a taxi (Peninsula Taxis in Frankston) to collect us – as it’s a darn long walk back if you haven’t arranged a car shuttle. A warning that Optus phones don’t have any coverage for the last half of the walk, though Telstra 3G seemed fine throughout.

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A welcome sight at journey’s end: Cape Schanck Light Station (c) JP Mundy 2013

If you have a few more days and you’re just getting warmed up, you could prebook to stay overnight in the lighthousekeeper’s cottages at Cape Schanck, then set off west along The Coast Walk in the morning, through Point Nepean National Park for a further 30km to Portsea.  From there, it’s a walk out to Point Nepean and a further 30km back along Port Phillip Bay via the more pedestrian Bay Trail to Dromana by which time you’ve completed the 100km triangle which makes up the Mornington Peninsula walk!  If you don’t have the time (or energy!) to do the full Two Bays walk at once, it can be broken into lots of short and easy walks.  The walk into Bushrangers Bay (6km return), accessed from the car park on Boneo Road (Rosebud-Flinders Road), or the walk into Greens Bush (accessed via Greens Road) would be a perfect short day out – the tracks are easy and interesting for kids too.  None of the Two Bays walking is suitable for dogs though (even on-lead), as it passes through a number of national parks and protected areas, where dogs are not allowed, and for good reason when you see the beautiful and delicate flora and fauna along the way. There are also no water stops, shops or toilets along the way, so you’ll need to be self-sufficient. In terms of time you need to allow, you’ll know your own pace – if you’re a fit marcher, you’ll get through in 6 hours.  An average walker used to reasonable distance might take 8 hours.  The delightful Deb and I are dawdlers (or rather, I am, and Deb is just incredibly long-suffering and patient!), so with lots of stops to gawk at the scenery, flowers and fauna along the way, a good half hour for lunch (and for me to huff and puff up the stairs!), we took 10! Whichever way you do it, just do it.  It’s a perfect walk.

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View at the end of the day – back at Arthur’s Seat – Sunset across Port Phillip Bay (c) JP Mundy 2013

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Amazing what you find hiding in your draft folder ….. 3 years later!  For the Melbourne for Dogs readers:

Am finally into the nitty gritty of Melbourne for Dogs, and decided to check out some reader recommendations for great off-leash dog walks.  Gardiner’s Creek Reserve in East Burwood, right next to the Deakin University campus was top on my list. And of course after weeks and weeks of unremitting 30 degree plus heat, the designated day dawned ….. bucketing rain, fabulous lightning and thunder and radio warnings of flash floods!  Well, that was annoying.  After an hour, it eased up so I thought I’d give it a crack anyway.  My enthusiastic co-author was all for it, so we picked up our trusty two-legged companion, Deb and headed north.  My readers are right – Gardiner’s Creek Reserve is just perfect for off-leash bound-y dogs, with around 2.5km of tracks through the manicured bush reserve and the opportunity to get their feet wet in the meandering creek – though thanks to all the rain, the creek was more a roaring torrent, so even Expeditioner Indie had to keep her distance or risk taking a water-slide detour to Port Phillip Bay.

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