Travel Story The Snowy Mountains: Where the wild things are

Photo of Mark Thornton

Australia’s high country contains a wealth of natural delights.

While quietly casting a fly for trout on a Snowy Mountains river last summer, I was overjoyed to see a platypus surface 3m away.

It didn’t notice me and happily splashed about for 10 minutes, diving and scrabbling among stones on the bed of the upper Murrumbidgee River while I watched enchanted. These delightful creatures don’t live in WA but are not uncommon in New South Wales and you can spot them in secluded waterways, provided you’re stealthy. 

A couple of days later, at dawn, I disturbed three brumbies. These were not the scrawny, underfed horses one sometimes sees along the roadside but big magnificent beasts — a stallion and two mares, all pale chestnut with blond manes and tails flowing as they galloped away. While some people consider brumbies in our national parks to be pests, they are nonetheless a stirring sight — and it’s not exactly their fault they are there. Many people now accept them as part of the landscape.

These animals have bloodlines going back to at least 1804, when Sgt James Brumby turned his horses loose on leaving his NSW property for Tasmania. He was the inspiration for naming all wild horses brumbies.

The Snowy Mountains Brumby Sustainability and Management Group estimates there are about 2500 in Kosciuszko National Park. Although they are shy and you usually have to go bush to see one, Australia has the largest wild horse population in the world. There are an estimated 400,000 nationwide.

No matter their status, chance encounters with animals like these make you glad to be alive and give thanks that we still have places where the wild things are.

These are just a couple of surprises during a week’s driving and camping trip with my family through the Snowies, as they are affectionately known. The need to preserve this wilderness led to the creation of the huge Australian Alps National Parks and Reserves.

The Snowies are a popular destination but statistics provided by Destination NSW suggest they’re little visited by West Australians — a surprise, because the Snowies are Australia’s only truly alpine region.

A large part of the Snowies are within Kosciuszko National Park. At 6900sqkm, it’s the largest national park in NSW and contains Australia’s highest mountain, Mt Kosciuszko, the Snowy River and popular ski fields.

You don’t have to walk far from the road to see alpine flora, caves, gorges and historic huts used by mountain cattlemen, and the further you go the better it gets. It also has great trout fishing and is the source of Australia’s two longest rivers, the Murray and Murrumbidgee. 

The park is recognised as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Within its boundaries are six wilderness areas including alpine and sub-alpine areas with plants not found anywhere else on the planet. Native fauna found here includes endangered species such as the corroboree frog and the mountain pygmy possum. 

Even in summer, the high country valleys and hollows retain melted snow in a series of peat bogs, some of which are several metres deep and contain plant matter 15,000 years old. The park is also home to some famous Australian trees, notably snow gums and mountain ash, the tallest flowering trees on Earth and second in height only to Californian redwoods.

Park authorities encourage visitors to hike into the wilderness, where you can camp where you like. 

For more sedate adventurers, particularly those with small children, they have provided numerous camp sites — some spartan, where you carry out everything you carried in, and others with toilets, benches, tables and fire pits. 

Such camp sites can be many kilometres down a track from the main road so you don’t miss out on the wilderness. At one site I woke at dawn to a strange thumping sound: peeping out of the tent I saw two male kangaroos boxing, something I’d never seen despite years of bush trips.

The wilderness and animals draw some to the mountains, others look for historic human activity such as significant Aboriginal areas or more recent sites such as Kiandra.

Kiandra hosted one of the shortest gold rushes in Australia, from 1859-60, when 4000 hopeful diggers lived there and had the choice of 14 hotels. Today it’s a ghost town but some original buildings remain.

The best way to see the Snowies is to follow the series of roads that encircles them. A good start is Cooma, a 90-minute drive from Canberra. There you can stock up on camping gear. Head south-west to Jindabyne, then Thredbo and Tom Tom Groggin, a great camp site on the upper Murray with heaps of wildlife. 

The road then heads north to Khancoban and Cabramurra, the highest permanently inhabited town in Australia, built to service the Snowy Mountains hydro scheme. Then comes Mt Selwyn and just beyond you join the Snowy Mountains Highway at Kiandra. Go north to Tumut then turn around and come back down the  highway right through to Cooma.

All along the roads are tracks leading off into the high country. You’ll need a good map for these but they will take you to places named simply “wilderness” on the map. It’s difficult to pick a favourite among so many great camp sites but the one at Blue Waterholes takes some beating. It’s a 90-minute slow drive up a rough track — a four-wheel-drive is recommended — through the wonderfully named Bimberi Wilderness. Brumbies are not uncommon along this track.

From the camp site, you can walk up or down Cave Creek, which appears blue because of dissolved minerals. Downstream is more spectacular. You have to wade the shallow creek several times to reach spectacular Clarke Gorge, a narrow defile with 100m limestone cliffs. 

On our last night, we camped not far from Yarrangobilly Caves — very much worth a visit. The 440 million-year-old limestone caves are open for guided or unguided tours and you can stay in Caves House if you book early enough.

 It was a secluded site and as we sat by our fire it seemed appropriate to read aloud The Man from Snowy River. There in the twilight, the high peaks stark against the first stars, Banjo Paterson’s words assumed their full power:

“And down by Kosciuszko, where the pine-clad ridges raise

Their torn and rugged battlements on high,

Where the air is clear as crystal and the white stars fairly blaze

At midnight in the cold and frosty sky,

And where around the Overflow the reedbeds sweep and sway

To the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide,

The man from Snowy River is a household word today,

And the stockmen tell the story of his ride.”

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