One of the favourite overnight hiking treks in the Victorian Alps is the hike across the narrow, steeply sided ridge line that is The Crosscut Saw which is a ridge 20km east of Mt Buller, with options of camping at Macalister Springs at the southern end or at Mt Speculation at the northern end.
The walk from Mac Springs to Mt Howitt is a 2km moderate grade ascent to 1742m at the very exposed and often windy bare peak well above the tree line, easily done with a day pack with water, snack, gloves, beanie, wet weather gear, and warm vest.
The optional hike across The Crosscut Saw (1705m elevation at its highest peak) to Mt Spec (1668m elevation) is not one for those afraid of heights, and does require a good degree of preparation and fitness – it is very exposed and requires some 600m of ascents and 600m of descents one way, plus if you wish to get up to Mt Spec, it does require a bit of heart stopping rock clambering which is best done with a small pack, or, if a big pack, then passing the pack up to your colleagues. The only reliable water source on this hike is at Camp Creek which is 45min return hike, 1.2km north-east, down from the Mt Spec camp areas which give a nice view but are very exposed – be warned! Mt Spec to Mt Howitt is 7.5km 2.5-3hrs with about 700m ascents and 700m descents.
There is also an optional 2.5hr 8km circuit walk of Bryce Gorge with waterfalls (in season) about 10-20min drive before the Mt Howitt car park.
Another optional hike from the Licola approach is from McFarlane Saddle 14km past the Arbuckle Junction which allows a 2 day 33.5km circuit walk down to the hidden Lake Tali Karng, although the descent and return steep ascent from the lake can be skipped.
Macalister Springs is a lovely camp site at around 1600m elevation surrounded by snow gums and relatively protected from prevailing winds, and it has a small water source that runs most of the year (although people do recommend boiling it to make it potable as there is potential risk of Giardia but the myth of the nematodes has been dispelled).
The site also features a “4 star” hut and pump out toilet which makes it that much more pleasant – the toilet even has an expansive window looking out over the valley to the south!
The Vallejo Gantner hut was built by volunteers in difficult access conditions over two year period 1970-71 by the Gantner family in memory of their 19 year old son Vallejo (grandson of wealthy Melbourne retailer Sidney Myer) who died in an accident. It boasts a central stone fireplace, although this, as well as the sleeping area should only be used in extreme circumstances – hikers are expected to be self-sufficient and bring their own tents, warm clothing and cooking gear. Outdoor wood fires are not permitted, especially within a 1km radius.
Fortunately, the hut, toilet and camp region were spared the alpine bushfires which devastated the region last decade.
Interior taken with the Olympus mZD 8mm f/1.8 fisheye lens.
The region does have potentially deadly although relatively good natured, highland copperhead snakes (Austrelaps ramsayi, colour can vary from brown form to black form, thankfully bites from this species are quite rare as they tend to avoid biting unless they are grumpy on a really hot day or you antagonise them severely – we did encounter 2 within 20m of the camp, basking in the midday sun on our walking path and neither seemed too keen to move out of our way! They become quiescent late April-Nov, mate in Spring, and are mainly diurnal except for very warm nights, and tend to be active earlier in the day in Autumn compared to Spring and Summer, rest under fallen logs and amongst tussocks of grass, prefer to be near water, feed mainly on the multitude of skinks in the area).
Bring a snake bite bandage, know the first aid for snake bites and bring an EPIRB radio beacon – otherwise you will need a companion to walk to top of Mt Howitt area to get mobile reception and call for help. Even then you may need to be carried 5km to the car park then either driven to the air strip or a 3hr drive to the hospital at Traralgon – I am guessing a chopper evacuation would be needed to save your life this far from medical support and anti-venom! Don’t play with snakes, don’t step on them, wear boots and gaiters on any tracks!
The camp is extremely popular with school and uni groups – the night we arrived there were 60 Geelong Grammar Timbertop high school students and 15 teachers camping there – having hiked up 1000m ascent to get there!
Our tents in one of the several camp areas – this one is adjacent the spring itself – about 100m downhill from the hut and toilet. Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens at f/5.6 on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark I Micro Four Thirds camera – makes a great compact combo to have handy in your jacket pocket!
Getting to Macalister Springs from Melbourne
It is a long way by car – allow 6-6.5hrs drive plus a 1.5hr 5km mildly downhill hike to the camp site – that is an all day proposition – hence one should aim for a two night camp rather than just overnight to make the long drive worthwhile.
The gravel access road is seasonally closed from Queen’s birthday in June to Melbourne Cup in November!
The drive from Melbourne to Traralgon will take about 2hrs depending upon traffic conditions – try a meal at Momos – it was delicious and great coffee to boot.
Traralgon to Licola will take around 90 minutes, the last half is through winding alpine roads, much of it along the Macalister river valley.
Take the right fork in the road BEFORE the bridge at Licola (there is a general store with petrol and diesel), and from there it will take around 20 minutes on bitumen, passing numerous river-side camp grounds to get to the bridge over the Wellington River and from their it is all uphill, winding, alpine gravel roads – 30 minutes to Arbuckle Junction, then a further 45 minutes to Mt Howitt Car park. That is a total of 3hrs drive from Traralgon to Mt Howitt car park then the 1.5hr walk.
From the car park, it is a 1.5hr, 5km mildly undulating walk to the camp (might take you 2hrs back up on a warm, sunny day!)
Getting to Macalister Springs from Mt Stirling or Mt Buller
Shorter drive from Mebourne with much less gravel roads, but a much harder hiking route – several options – all require > 1000m strenuous ascent with a heavy pack to the very exposed Mt Howitt or the Crosscut Saw – with only a few areas to collect water once you leave the Howqua River.
1 hr gravel road drive from TBJ at Mt Stirling (seasonally closed!) will get you to Upper Howqua Camping area (elevation 800m) which can be used as the start point for your hike. The Helicopter Spur hike departs the camp to the south-east, while the other 3 routes have a shared initial 3.5km hike criss-crossing the Howqua River in a easterly direction from the camp.
Hike maps have been posted by someone on the net here.
Via Helicopter Spur:
- Helicopter Spur is graded difficult -steep, often difficult, scrambling over rocks, total ascent ~800m to AAWT over 6km, then 150m descent before climbing 200m gain at Mt Magdala then descending 200m to Hellfire Creek campsite (creek may be dry!) for a total of 10km hike taking fit, experienced walkers 4-5hrs, this walk does take you past Picture Point and Hell’s Window.
- Upper Howqua Camping area to Picture Point 5.5km, 2.5-3hrs, 700m ascent
- Picture Point to Hellfire Creek campsite 4.5km, 1.5-2hrs, 320m ascents plus 290m descents
- Hellfire Creek campsite to Mt Howitt, 3km, 1hr, 260m ascents, 80m descents from Big Hill
- “exhilarating but potentially dangerous”
- seems you need knee protectors, march fly swat and perhaps climbing gloves to get you over the 3 rock bands intact, and one to avoid in wet windy conditions
- next day hike to Mt Howitt (3km, 1hr ~200m total gain), then down to Mac Springs
Via Mt Howitt Spur:
- perhaps the most popular spur to hike up
- 8.5km, 900m ascent to West Peak (1725m elevation) and then Mt Howitt (1742m elevation)
- requires crossing the Howqua River a number of times, then crossing the South Branch of the Howqua River at the 3.5km mark from Upper Howqua Camping area
- avoids The CrossCut Saw
- descent takes 2.5-3hrs
Via Stanleys Name Spur (SNS)
- Upper Howqua Camping area to SNS via the Queen Spur Road disused logging track crossing the Howqua River a number of times, 7km, 2-2.5hrs and 450m ascent
- SNS to The Crosscut Saw
- you may need to battle some blackberry bushes on the way up
- you get to walk a section of the Crosscut Saw but avoid the more difficult Mt Buggery and Mt Spec sections as well as the tallest peak of the Crosscut Saw
Via Queen Spur:
- 7.5hr 15km ascent via Queens Spur to camp at Mt Spec
- Upper Howqua Camping area to SNS as above for SNS – 7km, 2-2.5hrs and 450m ascent
- SNS to Mt Spec via Queen Spur and Mt Buggary (1605m) 8km, 2.5-3hrs with initial 100m descent to cross the headwater of the King River South Branch (last chance for water unlesss it is dry in summer or droughts) then 420m ascent requiring rock scrambling and following a faint track to Mt Buggery then 200m steep descent into Horrible Gap before the final 250m ascent to Mt Spec with rock scrambling
- then need to walk across The CrossCut Saw to Mac Springs
Getting to Macalister Springs from Lake Cobbler
This is a rather long 5-5.5hr 330km+ drive from Melbourne via Whitfield (either via Mansfield or via Milawa) and really needs a 4WD to get to Lake Cobbler where there is a camp ground and nearby waterfalls and option to climb Mt Cobbler.
The hike up to Mt Spec from Lake Cobbler is more gentle than the ascents from Upper Howqua camp site.
One then continues over the CrossCut Saw to Mac Springs.
See Part II – hike to Mt Howitt in the clouds.