12 months after record rainfalls had put paid to a planned Round Hut Circuit walk, Dad and I returned to the Jagungal Wilderness. With three days of walking ahead, we had chosen a variant of the Circuit, following Hell Hole Creek Trail west/north west from edge of the Jagungal Plains. From there we would follow the Tooma River back to Tooma Reservoir.
We couldn’t have hoped for a better weekend: clear blue skies and mild day-time temperatures were on the cards. As we set off from the Round Hut carpark, cerulean blue interspersed with textured white clouds extended above us. To complete our variant, we had chosen to do the walk in a clockwise direction, with a plan to camp at O’Keefe’s Hut on the first night.
After fording the icy Tumut River, which flows through a serene alpine grass valley, we ascended a steep service trail. On the way up we crossed paths with a school group – the only walkers we would see for the rest of our trip – who had camped at O’Keefe’s the previous night. It seemed we had missed the “opportunity” to spend time with a large group of teenagers by only one night.
We followed Farm Ridge through copses of snow gums and open grassy ridge-top country while clouds ballooned behind the ranges to the east. All the while we were bathed in soft Autumn sunlight. The quality of the light deepened as the day drew on. We battled an endless sequence of small ascents and descents that started to take their toll.
Dusk was falling as we made it to O’Keefe’s Hut, a typical corrugated iron sheleter, lovingly rebuilt by the Kosciuszko Huts Association after it had burnt down in 2003. The sunset daubed the skies, mountains and trees with lavender pink hues: the Snowy Mountains have produced some of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve been witness to. We slept in the hut and had breakfast at the rustic wooden table while sunlight poured in through the small windows.
From O’Keefe’s Hut to Hell Hole Creek
Setting off in the cold morning’s air, we soon passed Mt Jagungal’s rocky face; it had loomed large across the horizon throughout the previous day’s walk. With a big day ahead, we decided not to summit and instead pushed on. We passed the headwaters of the Tumut river – at that point just a small creek – noting a perfect informal campsite right on the river’s banks.
The turn off to Hell Hole Creek Trail is just after the sub-alpine plains that stretch south of Mt Jagungal. Though well signposted we somehow conspired to miss it, despite taking a break right nearby. Dad had walked ahead and I had to drop my pack and sprint ahead to call him back.
Why Hell Hole Creek has inherited such an unflattering name, I’m not sure but the trail was definitely steep as hell in parts, cambering and curving across hills sown with the tallest snow gums (eucalyptus pauciflora) that I had ever seen.
The Creek’s name became doubling puzzling when we finally emerged from forest and had our first view of the Tooma River valley and its intersection with creek. A small grassy triangle sat at the confluence between the two water courses: stunned by the seclusion of the place we immediately decided to camp there for the night, even though our plan had been to walk a few kilometres further. A fire scar showed that we weren’t the first walkers to feel this way.
We tried unsuccessfully to catch trout before dark set in and icy, humid air swamped the valley: I could see the moisture in my headlamp’s beam.
It got cold that night, so cold that even with every single layer on I had trouble getting warm. Eventually I managed to cinch the hood of my sleeping bag up tight enough to stem the heat loss and drifted into an uncomfortable sleep. The night was also made surreal by the intermittent passage of aircraft overhead and the late arrival of a 4WD, which splashed across the river before disappearing up Hell Hole Creek Trail. The next morning we woke to a land of mist and frost.
After a few more testing hills and a couple of cold river fords, we reached the north end of the Dargals Trail, a super highway by comparison. Mindful of the fact that we may have to do a 12km road bash to make it back to the car, we pushed on as fast we could, pausing only for a lunch break overlooking the Tooma River and a rest at Patons Hut. Patons Hut is another well appointed hut on the trail and only a few kilometres from the trailhead. This could be a great place to return for a family backcountry experience.
Arriving at Tooma Reservoir, through forests of alpine ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis), felt like an anti-climax after such a wild walk through what felt like pristine sub-alpine landscapes. We waited in vain for a east-heading car to hitch a ride back to the Round Mountain trailhead. A few cars were heading west but not a single one came our way. I had heard more plains fly overhead the night before.
Eventually, we faced the facts: I would have to hike back to the car, alongside the road. Leaving Dad and the packs, I set off at the fastest pace I could manage, carrying only a compressible daypack and the bare essentials. Fortunately, after days of walking around with a 15kg+ pack, the sensation was akin to floating.
Road bashing is never the highlight of any backcountry experience but I found solace in the truly massive old-growth alpine ash forests around me. Only a few kilometres from car, I finally heard a car come up behind me. I flicked out a thumb and, to my joy, the car pulled over.
‘Here’s trouble,’ said the driver as he wound down the window.
As I walked up alongside them I was delighted to see my Dad in the backseat. He had almost blocked the road when the car slowed down to cross the reservoir’s dam. Despite enjoying the walk for the challenge, I was glad to travel the last few kilometres in luxury. It was another layer to our experience of the snowy mountains and our journeys through it.