YOU CAN'T TAKE ANYTHING for granted in the mountains, not even that a starry night will follow a clear and sunny day - like day one of our weekend hike in Kosciuszko National Park.
Our plan was simple: starting at Dead Horse Gap, 4 km beyond Thredbo, we'd walk up Dead Horse Gap Track, deviate to wander through a glacial valley, arrive at our high-country campsite mid-afternoon, then stroll to the top of Australia for sunset, before returning to camp for some stargazing (the new moon promised a pitch-black canvas for the Southern Cross and its cronies).
The following day, we'd follow the Main Range Track for 9 km - past several 2000 m peaks and mainland Australia's five glacial lakes - to end up at Charlotte Pass. Nick, our guide, knows the park like the back of both his hands. And how could you not trust a man whose "bible" is a botanical tome called Kosciuszko Alpine Flora? Yes, Nick knows his wildflowers - no mean feat in the Snowies...
Mount Kosciuszko: Wildflowers
No sooner had we stepped off the Alpine Way and on to Dead Horse Gap Track than we were stopping and stooping to look at our first alpine blooms. It's easy to dismiss wildflower viewing as closely related to other, let's say, mature-age pursuits such as trainspotting and stamp-collecting, but if you've been anywhere near the Snowy Mountains in summer, you'll know wildflowers are cool.
There are 212 flowering plants and ferns in Kosciuszko NP, 21 of which are endemic (found nowhere else). And if that doesn't impress you, how about that pretty rice flower beside the track (aka a Kosciuszko rose), the appetising egg and bacon plant (because it looks like a cooked breakfast) or the flashily named derwent speedwell?
We climbed slowly but steadily through a forest of snowgums for the first hour, many of the trees still scorched from the bushfires that devastated two-thirds of the 690,000 ha park in 2003. But it's above the tree line (1850 m) that the alpine environment really shows its summertime colours.
Wandering cross-country over native tussock grass, we saw sunrays and silver daisies, purple eyebright and seven kinds of buttercup. Sometimes we'd walk through a sweet scent-cloud emitted by an unassuming patch of bog heath (which smells more pleasant than its name suggests).
Passing some markers designating the ski area boundary in winter, Nick showed us how some species survive being flattened by snow for three or four months of the year, only to spring back when the snow melts. Others, like the mother shield fern, sounding like something from Xena: Warrior Princess, simply lie dormant through winter and come alive again in spring.
Mount Kosciuszko: Campsite with a view
There were a few anxious moments when we couldn't see our camp, even from less than a kilometre away, with binoculars: in accordance with National Parks and Wildlife Service requirements, our tents blended so well into their alpine surroundings they were almost invisible. But eventually we spotted them and on our way there, we passed a few daytrippers on the Kosciuszko Walk Track heading back to the Thredbo chairlift - but we were soon alone again.
That's the beauty of this walk: because the chairlift closes at 5 p.m. and doesn't start up again until 8.30 the next morning, there's a whole evening, a night and a morning when it feels as if you've got the entire mountain range to yourselves.
After billy tea and some snacks (olive tapenade, nuts, mussels, salami and crackers), I kicked off my boots and soaked in the sunshine - the only sounds were the wind in my ears and the buzzing of a few flies (chief pollinators of all the wildflowers we'd been seeing). From the doorstep of my tent I felt like a queen surveying her uninhabited kingdom: a broad, grassy valley interrupted by specks of granite, a few flat peaks and a couple of lakes shining in the late afternoon light.
Then came dinner and a 2 km stroll to Mt Kosciuszko for our summit sunset. It's rare to stand alone at the top of Australia; more than 100,000 people trek to the 2228 m summit each summer. Even rarer to be there at sunset (about 8.20 p.m. the night we were there).
Watching the sun go down over Victoria, we could make out the outline of the 1986 m Mt Bogong, Victoria's highest mountain, 90 km away; layer upon layer of purple ridgelines; and, directly ahead, a 1700 m deep ravine called the Murray Gates, birthplace of the Murray River and popular with paddlers for its Grade 4+ whitewater. It couldn't have been more picturesque.
Then, hello, just to remind us that we were in an environment subject to changeable weather, a bank of clouds approached, fast. Within minutes, we were engulfed in white - our cue to return to camp. It was dark by the time we reached the tents and still cloudy, which meant no stargazing, so we each heeded the call of our cosy down sleeping-bags instead.
Mount Kosciuszko: Main Range Track
The next morning, I woke up and poked my head out the east-facing tent flap just in time to see the sun rise and shine on a blanket of cloud covering everything below us. It was another brilliantly clear day. Torn between not wanting to waste a moment of it and pancakes with maple syrup, we compromised and left later than scheduled, with full bellies, at 8.30 a.m. - heading back towards Mt Kosciuszko, before splitting off on to the Main Range Track.
We passed some of Australia's highest peaks (Mt Townsend, Mt Twynam, Mueller's Peak, Carruthers Peak); walked over 450-million-year-old shale that once lay at the bottom of the sea; and traversed the western side of Mt Northcote, looking down on the glacial Lake Albina - the most spectacular part of the whole trek.
Then we crossed what's said to be the windiest ridge in Australia (it was a blustery 30 km/h, according to Nick's hand-held weather station, and three degrees thanks to the wind chill) into one of the nation's most unique habitats: feldmark, less than 30 ha of scattered shale and fragile plants (it was the only part of the walk where we had to keep to the track).
Finally, after gingerly crossing a few snowdrifts, we arrived at the hidden jewel of the park: Blue Lake, which was carved out of solid rock by glaciers, to a depth of 28 m. To see it clearly you have to follow a 200 m side-track to a viewing platform - a peaceful spot.
Then we descended and, after crossing Club Lake Creek and the headwaters of the Snowy River on stepping stones, faced the aptly named Heartbreak Hill that led us steeply up, past snowgums again, to our waiting four-wheel-drive at Charlotte Pass (named after Charlotte Adams, the first European woman to climb Mt Kosciuszko, in 1881).
You can't beat an overnight hike for the chance to immerse yourself in Australia's alpine landscape and this walk really has it all: long summer days, wildflowers galore, fresh high-country air, open and undulating terrain (except for Heartbreak Hill), even a private sunset-viewing session at the top of Australia. You can't ask for more than that - except maybe a few stars...
How to get there: Kosciuszko Alpine Guided Walks - run by Lake Crackenback Resort, on the Alpine Way between Jindabyne and Thredbo - is the only operator offering guided overnight walks in the NSW Snowy Mountains and proud partners of Leave No Trace Australia, a national non-profit organisation dedicated to responsible outdoor travel and recreation. Overnight treks from Dead Horse Gap to Charlotte Pass cost $395 per person, which includes transfers to and from the trail, park entry fees and camping permits, all snacks and meals, and walking and camping gear (day packs, head torches, wet-weather gear, tents, down sleeping-bags, silk liners and Therm-a-Rest sleeping mats). www.lakecrackenback.com.au/walks
Where to stay: Lake Crackenback Resort has an Overnight Alpine Trek Package starting at $589 per person, which includes the overnight trek, two nights at the resort, two breakfasts and one dinner.
When to go: Between November and April. Go in November/December to see snowdrifts and the start of the wildflower season, December/January for the peak of the wildflower season, February to avoid school holiday crowds and flies, and March/April for stable weather and starry nights.
More info: www.lakecrackenback.com.au