Out Back and Up High

Words and photography by Tom Le Lievre

This story first appeared in issue #14 of Like the Wind


Come on, I’m not a stupid Englishman. Australia doesn’t have snow and mountains.” My first response to hearing about Australia’s Alpine areas and ski resorts.

I had spent my first two years Down Under in the hot, rugged and relatively flat Red Centre and Northern Territory: places where undisturbed wildness stretched for hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometres. This is the landscape that helped me discover trail running, in the depths of the Larapinta Trail – a trail that stretches 223km from Alice Springs, into the West MacDonnell ranges, and finishes at Mount Sonder, a 1,380m high mountain that pierces the desert floor.

It was a place that allowed my imagination to run wild and my mind to hit reset after the chaos of the UK. It was in this simple solitude that I found a new identity for myself. But the idea that there was snow and mountains here was ridiculous.

Turns out I am a stupid Englishman.

Running hut to hut in the Victoria Alps

Time to go “out bush”

“You stand there, you there, and you over there. Now smile.”

This is about the 400th time I’ve said this over the past week, and it’s growing old fast. After six days – 70 hours – photographing graduations at the University of Melbourne, I’m ready to escape and go “out bush”. I check my watch. Only five minutes has passed since I last looked. I swear it’s been an hour. I hit the watch a few times and check again. Six minutes.“You stand there, you there, and you over there. Now smile.”

I hadn’t adjusted well to my move to Melbourne and resuming some form of “normal life”. It’s hard to go from sitting in the back of a pickup watching the sunset with a beer one week, to being a nine-to-five commuter the next.

Just as I resign myself to the reality of the never-ending cycle of graduation photography and prepare to crumble, I hear words that I can only describe as euphoric: “That’s a wrap.” Panic ensues and all the photographers manically pack away their gear, eager to hit the pub and celebrate the end of a stressful week. I, on the other hand, have something else in mind. Remembering the Alpine areas I was told about years earlier, I took to the internet and discovered that:

A. They are real, and

B. They’re within driving distance of Melbourne (a city of 3.8 million). Just 40 minutes’ drive from Melbourne and you’re in the Dandenong Ranges: a temperate rainforest with peaks up to 600m, tree ferns and dense, lush bush, as well as Lyra birds, a bird that can pretty much mimic any noise. Not quite doing it for you? OK. Drive an hour and a half to Warburton and you’re in the foothills of the Australian Alps with peaks up to 1,250m at Mount Donna Buang. If you’re really hard to please, drive three-and-a-half hours to Bright, a small, picturesque town in the Alps surrounded by vast alpine forests and peaks, including the summit of Mount Feathertop at 1,900m.

And this is just in the state of Victoria. Every major Australian city is on the fringe of wilderness.

That’s the beauty of Australia – you don’t have to make compromises. You can have your cake and eat it too.

The Larapinta Trail (photo by Chris Ord)
Snow on Mt. feathertop 1,922m

The sacred lake

My friend Majelle and I jumped in the car and departed on a mission to run around Lake Tali Karng in the Australian Alpine National Park, a five-hour drive from Melbourne.

We aimed to complete an 80km loop above the Valley Of Destruction, arriving back at our starting point the following day. The lake – a sacred site to the Gunai Kurnai people – is notoriously difficult to access and the trails we had come to run were overgrown and untrodden in places – probably owing to only a handful of people using them each year.

Despite the long drive and gruelling trail, our spirits were high, and only dampened at the end of the day when we realised we had forgotten our tent poles. However, from there, the trip slowly turned into a nightmare.

Even though it was the end of December (summer in Australia), it began to snow and the temperature quickly dropped below zero. We had underestimated our supplies and our very inadequate gear failed to keep us warm. We knew hadn’t even taken enough food.

We sought shelter in a run-down cattleman’s hut (page 89) and dismantled an old table made of planks to sleep on and wait out the weather off the ice-cold ground. Not that we got any sleep.

In the morning we reassembled the table and left for another long and hilly day on the trail.

The scenery around the lake is epic: dense forests, grassy plains and the tough hills that lead right down to the lake shore. However, despite the beauty around us, it’s probably fair to say we didn’t plan adequately for this trip: we lost the trail, had to tackle steep hills, the freezing cold and a lack of food.

The thing is, despite these setbacks, this trip is one of my fondest running memories – indeed, fondest memories of my time in Australia. Our lack of preparation and surprise at our terrain and surroundings almost brings me full circle: I hadn’t believed there were Alps in Australia, and on my trip to Tali Karng I once again realised I’d been naïve in that I hadn’t prepared for the beautiful toughness of the terrain or the unexpected change in temperature that far from the city.

Australia is so much more than beaches and suburbs, although that’s often the impression those who haven’t lived there may get. But Australia is a patchwork of contrasting landscapes, from sacred lakes to mountain ranges. Leaving the city behind, a remote world opens up – although you should probably check you remembered your tent poles.

Tom Le Lievre is a photographer, trail runner and lover of big hills. Run hard, eat well and smile. You only get to do it once.

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