We knew the grocery store didn’t open until 6.30 so were afforded somewhat of a sleep in. Shortly after it opens we march up and down the aisles. Muesli bars, candy, chips, baked beans, coke, bread. Whatever we can find to stuff into our faces and bags to fuel us for the days ahead.
The morning starts with the climb up to Mt Hotham. Its the biggest climb of the route, 1300m over 60km, although it was also probably the easiest major climb of the route, being the only one with a sealed road for the entirety of the climb. By lunch time we are passing through the high plains and up to the summit and Mt Hotham Cross, the high point for our trip at 1870m. From the top the view is simply breathtaking. Its a climb I’ve done before but on the previous occasion was in a storm and visibility was down to about 50m through the fog and rain. This time however, the hard work is rewarded, a clear day reveals range after range of mountains stretching away beneath us. From where I stand there is no easy path to Melbourne. Only up and over each mountain that stands in my way. Even if I wanted to turn back to Canberra, the path that brought me here through Kosciusko and the Snowy Mountains was perhaps tougher, steeper and more remote.
We blow through the 10km descent that takes us to the turn off to Dargo High Plains Rd. The bitumen gives way once again to gravel and we work our way through the snow gums, the fields covered in native grasses and the crystal clear pools of water as we cross the plateau. The sky quickly grows dark with storm clouds and suddenly we find a sense of urgency to drop some elevation and get out of the bad weather. We’ve been lucky with the weather until now but pushing through a storm on the slopes of Mt Hotham is not my idea of fun.
Despite the black clouds we manage to avoid most of the storm except for a few rogue rain drops, but once we hit the paved descent, we could see the aftermath of the storm steaming off the black-top. We’d managed to just dodge the rain but it left us a little surprise. Despite doing all we could to scrub off speed in the wet conditions, we were still flying over 80km/h down the steep road into Dargo.
A small town with a population of less than 150, Dargo seems like a town out of an old western movie. Only a few houses spot the road into town, which is itself no more than a pub, a general store and a couple more houses. We don’t stop long, an afternoon snack and we bid the small town fair well.
The afternoon sun beat down on us as we snaked our way through a valley, following the Wonnangatta River towards by far the most daunting task of the Hunt 1000: the ascent of Billy Goats Bluff Track. I’d heard the tales of this track, seen the bumper stickers on passing 4WDs declaring “I survived Billy Goat Bluff Track” and knew the numbers: 7km, 1100m of elevation gain. We knew it was going to be extremely challenging and yet, some part of us decided it would be better to get it out of the way that evening, in the cool night air, than to leave it until morning. And so it was, with the last of the sun’s light leaking from the sky we began the slow march, dragging our bikes up the side of the mountain. By torch-light it was painfully slow going, the track was so steep and rock-strewn that solid footing was in short supply.
A foolish decision perhaps, but the one we made. 3 and half hours of struggle. Push, apply brakes, step, repeat. The entire time precariously balancing on rocks and dirt and rubble, trying not to slip halfway back down the mountain. At some point about half way up I was surely having an existential crisis. What was I doing here? Why was I doing this? After three long days covering 600km of some of the hardest, most rugged terrain in Australia, the effort had caught up to me. I was exhausted. If there had been a single flat spot of ground on that trail I would have curled up in a ball and slept right there. Alas there wasn’t and I had no choice but to continue.
After finally summiting the Bluff, and firmly planting our feet on the first piece of flat ground in what seemed like an eternity, we were presented with a new problem. One I was barely awake enough to tackle. The trail didn’t go through. The route we had been prescribed appeared to disappear into what once maybe was a trail, in the dark it was hard to tell, but which now certainly was overgrown and impenetrable. We started blankly a the screens of our Garmin GPS devices and devised a short detour, continuing down the steep rutted out slopes on the other side of Billy Goats Bluff Track, before turning off onto Pinnacles Rd which would return us back on course.
It was 2 am by the time we made camp. I barely remember throwing out my bivy or crawling inside to pass out, I was utterly exhausted, but the relief of knowing the hardest was now behind me was comforting.