Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - The High Country

On the lower slopes and tableland areas of the Alps, the trails lead through grassy woodlands inhabited by fan-tailed cuckoos and yellow-faced honeyeaters, and open forests of mountain swamp gum and narrow- and broadleaved peppermint. In spring, these forests are vibrant with the yellow blooms of Ovens wattle. Above, on the wetter montane slopes, higher rainfall results in thicker vegetation. Eucalypts such as brittle gum, blue gum, and mountain grey gum stand proud above a dense understory of tree ferns.
 
Above 3,800 feet, the scenery changes abruptly, and you find yourself tramping through sparse forests of stunted and twisted snow gums, carpeted with low-growing shrubs, grasses, and herbs. In early and midsummer, the white flowers of the mint bush and rare light-blue ufrasias bloom in profusion. Higher still, above 4,500 feet, you reach the alpine zone, where even in summer the temperature barely rises above 50°F and the severe winters prevent any tree growth. In places, the cold air regularly drains into basinlike valleys, creating unusual treeless bowls ringed by snow gums.

The best way to experience this environment is to hike part of the Australian Alps Walking Track, a fully signposted 400-mile trail that runs almost the entire length of the range. The most popular section stretches 15.5 miles across the Bogong High Plains, from Cope Hut, near Falls Creek, to Mount Bogong. That may not seem a great distance, but count on three days and two nights to complete the one-way trip. You can break your trek by camping out in the bush or in one of the basic huts, but you need to be completely self-sufficient and prepared for cold weather.

Only one mammal, the rare mountain pygmy-possum, is restricted to the alpine and subalpine zone. This resilient creature, one of the smallest of all marsupials, is also the only marsupial that stores food to last it through winter. It was thought to be extinct and known only from fossils, until a live specimen was discovered in 1966. Only about 3,000 survive in the Bogong area, and they remain vulnerable to foxes and cats. Other members of the alpine mammal community include the bush rat, which lives in a grass-lined burrow beneath a rock or log, and the broad-toothed rat, once widespread throughout southern and southeastern Australia but now found only in scattered areas.

Even on the highest peaks, you'll come across lizards and snakes basking in the summer sunshine. Remarkably, the Victorian High Country has some of the highest densities of reptiles recorded anywhere in Australia, with tree dragons, skinks, the southern blue-tongue lizard, and the copperhead snake being particularly common. Many lizards spend the winter massed together in hollow logs or hibernating under boulders deep beneath the snow.

A detour off the track, known as The Staircase, leads to the summit of Mount Bogong. Though this trail is only five miles long, parts of it are steep, especially the last half-mile, and with little more than rocks covering the summit, it's quite exposed. It's worth the effort, however, for the magnificent panorama, extending across the high ridges and down to the distant plains, encompassing almost the whole of this extraordinary alpine wilderness.

Continued in: Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park

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