I was slated to go ahead of the rest of the team to make sure that the lab we had constructed was ready and to do some dry-runs of our demo before the team arrived. John had also planned to come earlier to get some hiking in before the customer meeting slog started so we co-ordinated our plans so that we would arrive together on the Friday. Not long after making our bookings we discovered that the Monday was a public holiday in Australia (the Queen's birthday) so it turned out to be an opportunity for three hiking days.
John went over the options with me before we left and we had settled on staying in a town called Bonnie Doone. The town is close to Mansfield and about two hours North East of Melbourne near an area called the Australian Alps.
Winter in Australia is pretty green and as we drove out on the backroads towards our motel I was struck by how pretty the countryside is.
The road was dotted with ranch-style farm houses and the hills are steep-sided bumps in the landscape which are quite striking (compared to the rolling hills I am used to).
Autumn foliage is sparse but quite striking and the bottoms of the trees have this even line which reminded me of how the goats in Africa eat to their height and no more.
Not long after the start of our journey we felt quite comfortably "at home in the countryside" - John remarking that it didn't feel too alien until we saw a few roadsigns warning us of the local wildlife.
We collapsed into our beds at about 9pm after a total of 24 hours of travel with less than 6 hours of sleep.
The next morning we had some really good coffee at a local gas station and headed for Mt Buller, the site of the best skiing in Australia. The season is short but the mountain is equipped with a snow making machines and two ski lifts. Our trip coincided nicely with the beginning of the ski season.
As usual I didn't give a huge amount of attention to the plans for the hikes. An Australian at the demo lab site told us not to expect too much in terms of height. The mountains are modest by Colorado and European standards but turned out to be around the height of the mountains we are familiar with in New Hampshire.
Mt Buller is a respectable 1805 m (5922ft) high and the trail that John had chosen led us from a parking lot about 2 mi from the main entrance to Buller up a jeep road and then up a path over the top.
Within a few minutes John pointed out some movement in the bush just in time for me to see the second of two kangaroos vanish off the path. Wallabies look like kangaroos but are darker and smaller and are more common. Though these looked pretty big to me, they could have been wallabies.
The jeep trail took us past some signs warning of poison put out for wild dogs (so be aware that your domestic animal is at risk) and into a light drizzle which didn't deter us. As John pointed out at least a couple of times in the following days: "We've come too far to turn around now...."
The trees are pretty spectacular - without knowing how to identify them we were content to marvel at how they shed their bark and how much of the area showed evidence of fire. I remember from South Africa how the acacia trees set the environment for fire and embrace fire as part of their propagation.
As far as I know wildfire is a real problem in parts of Australia but we saw at least one sign that suggested that controlled burns are part of the conservation plan for the forests areas.
We missed the turn off the jeep trail by about a mile and had to retrace our steps before getting onto the path to the summit.
Unfortunately the mountain was socked in but it didn't take long before we were treated to some spectactular views of the near distance - evidence that the ridge of this mountain must be amazing on a clear day.
As we got into the alpine zone of the mountain the rime glinted on the grass and trees and the temperature dropped. We had started hiking at -2C (28F) and my hands were pretty cold to the point of some numbness for much of the time we were near the summit.
As we approached the rocky ledges that mark the last push to the summit is started to snow quite hard. The snow (more like little balls of ice) was stinging our faces in the wind. At the time I didn't worry too much about it - taking care as we climbed up short steep sections that on any day would have given me pause.
Once we had climbed onto the the West ridge the path became less distinct.
As we reached the top we noticed signs with dire warnings (conveniently placed for people walking in the other direction). By this time the snow was pelting down and there was no trail to be seen.
I found myself wondering about the accuracy of the GPS as we were following the track. I remembered Jeff's account of our trip up Mt Katahdin when his parents followed the GPS reports of our location and saw us go over a precipice a few times in the night because the GPS was 20-50ft off in places. With no clear marked trail heading down how easily could we be misled towards a precipice ourselves?
Good fortune or a consistently good reading on the GPS led us safely down the other side with the temperature quickly rising to a point where we were walking in a fine drizzle and then in overcast cool conditions.
We soon reached the road at the entrance to Mt Buller and Mt Stirling and walked the mile and a half back to parking lot (always a long slog at the end of the day) with a 23km distance (14mi) on the GPS-track log for the day.
We stopped in Mansfield for a really good dinner and well-earned beer. Day two loomed ahead - a 20km (12mi) hike up Mt Feathertop.
More photographs here.