Hi All; Ben here. We’re back with another guest post, this time by Michelle Herbison, please have a read and comment at the bottom. Thanks for reading.
A note from Michelle Herbison:
I’m a journalist currently living in Torquay on Victoria’s coast. During my spare time I write for my blog, Cutting Corners, about life, adventure, cooking and other various hobbies I have. I like doing things on the cheap, saving money and appreciating the little things. Getting into hiking around our area appealed to these values of mine.
My first hiking experience was on a year nine outdoor education camp somewhere near the King Valley in Victoria. It was an exhausting, action-packed week in which we seemingly didn’t stop to rest anytime during the four days. We hiked all day, arrived at our campsite, set up our tents, got dinner cooking, washed our dishes and suddenly it was time for bed. In the morning we got up early, packed up, and did it all again. After a similar hike around Wilson’s Prom the following year I decided hiking was great fun but too complicated to organise and too exhausting to undertake. I went backpacking and trekking with porters in India and Peru, but it was a while before I was brave enough to start trying multi-day hikes independently.
A couple of years ago my partner and I did a few day walks during our travels around the state and decided to get into proper hiking. The Mount Difficult trip in this post is only the second overnight trip we’ve undertaken on our own. I’m sure we still have plenty to learn but we’re loving the journey.
Whoever gave Mount Difficult its name was certainly not being ironic. I found this out the hard way on an Easter trip around the well-trodden Northern Grampians route to Briggs Bluff. We picked this trip because it’s a two-day loop, the first on the list of Grampians overnight hikes from Parks Victoria. Admittedly, my partner and I are fairly new to independent hiking but we like to think we’re fairly fit. The trip up and down to the summit of Mount Difficult from Troopers Creek campground is more than what I’d call a hike – it’s a treacherous scramble and steep climb over rocks – much more of a strategic challenge than a mere walking trip.
We set off at just after 10am from Troopers Creek campground into the quiet, mild mizzle (our highly technical term for a cross between mist and drizzle). Both of us were carrying full packs (65L and 75L), weighed down with enough water for the full two days and one night – nearly 10L in total.
The first 15 minutes or so of the walk was a steady, gradual uphill through bushland but before we really felt warmed up, suddenly we hit the rocky outcrop and the challenge began. It took us about three hours to get to Mount Difficult campsite and it was a solid three hours of unexpectedly tough pain and struggle. Scrambling up and over rocks and boulders with my massive, heavy pack on my back was made even trickier with my shorter-than-average legs and a face full of mizzle.
Don’t get me wrong, the scenery is absolutely amazing. It is totally awe-inspiring to be up close and personal with these massive rock faces that are such an unusual and special sight in Victoria. I think the clambering over them would be an even more enjoyable experience with a smaller pack on a challenging five or six hour daytrip.
Probably due to the dreary weather, we managed to get by the whole of our first day without seeing another person, which was really quite nice. For our first two hours of walking we were still among the trees but just when we made it high enough to catch a view, the clouds cleared and we could see an expanse of forest with paddocks beyond. Another thing I will say at this point is the track is really very well-marked, with yellow arrows strategically placed at basically every spot you might wonder whether you’re going the right way.
When we arrived at Mount Difficult campsite a little sign gave us a brief overview of what our options were but we were super glad we’d bought the proper Northern Grampians walking map from Brambuk – the national park and cultural centre in Halls Gap. I reckon if we hadn’t had done a double-check we could easily have found ourselves going entirely the wrong way.
As a general guideline, if you’re doing the two-day trip, you want to go right(ish) at Mount Difficult which involves a brief rock scramble before descending into the Wartook Basin. The downhill was sometimes gradual and sometimes quite steep, taking us about 45 minutes. It was interesting to see the landscape change to bushes and long grass, and it was nice to be on a less rocky path. We were ready for a late lunch by the time we reached Long Point West Hiker Campsite. We enjoyed a burrito wrap, a sachet of tuna, half a carrot, a handful of beef jerky and some Gatorade each before setting off again.
After this, we had our first stable straight run in the whole day. 4WD tracks took us to Long Point East Hiker Campsite via two creek crossings which would have gotten us wet if there had been more recent rain. We then went up the hill on the other side of the valley, back up the Mount Difficult range. This time the uphill was much easier but still rocky. It was a nice forest walk for the afternoon and I felt like I could get myself into that nice hiking relaxed rhythm. Later on when we were getting higher up, the full-on rocks showed their faces again and we had some more challenging gorge scrambles and traversing of rock walls.
When we reached the intersection where a right turn heads to Briggs Bluff and a left turn returns to Mount Difficult, well, that’s where we went a bit wrong. I’m going to blame the long day of walking for both of our momentary brain lapses, but it’s probably not a great excuse. Basically, the little metal map on the track tells you where you are and where the track is, but not where the campsite is. Somehow, without thinking we needed to double-check on the map, both of us remembered the campsite was left. It was right. So we ended up walking an hour or so back in the direction of Mount Difficult, away from our destination of Briggs Bluff, before we realised something might be wrong.
The area is basically a massive rock face on a slight angle with lots of rock puddles – no dirt or sand, no cleared spaces, very few trees. During this hour both of us knew we were close to the campsite but neither were quite sure just how close. It didn’t seem to make sense – we were on rocks. Where could we pitch a tent? It must be over that hill over there. No, not this hill – maybe the next one? Not quite? It must be soon…
Both of us had absolutely had enough by this point. We’d been going for about seven hours, we were hungry and cold and tired and our ankles hurt from walking sideways on rocks for too long. It was about 5.45pm and overcast, ominous conditions. A quick check of the map told us we were definitely mistaken and had taken the wrong turn. Our hearts sank. Then it quickly dawned on me that we’d done more walking than we needed to for the first day. My heart un-sank.
Although we missed the opportunity to check out the lookout at Briggs Bluff, the further we walked now the less we’d have to do tomorrow. This gave me hope. We decided to give up on Briggs Bluff and its ugly diagonal rock faces so continued on, hastily, towards Mount Difficult campsite, hoping to get there before dark. Soon the track turned back from rock to earth and we started looking out for clearings beside the track to use for emergency landings. It didn’t take long until we found one, and we were so glad!
After a quick inspection of the site we downed packs and got moving. One of us set to work putting up the tent and the other got dinner cooking. When everything was sorted and we realised we still had an hour or so of semi-sunlight left in the day, we sat back and realised we’d really struck gold with our little illegitimate campsite.
We really didn’t plan to stay off the beaten track but considered this a critical situation that was justifiable so we just relaxed and enjoyed the evening. It really was quite nice to be completely isolated and alone. Our site was a clearing just big enough to fit our little two-man tent, with a track continuing to a lovely clifftop ledge – our own private balcony with a fabulous view. This was an awe-inspiring, if chilly, spot for dinner, breakfast, and the next morning’s tent pack-up. We could see much of the North-West Grampians, paddocks beyond, Mount Stapylton and even (we think) the lights of Horsham in the distance.
We deduced that this area was about halfway between Briggs Bluff and Mount Difficult campsites, at probably 700m elevation. Of course in mountain terms, this isn’t very high at all but I felt a significant difference in the coldness of the night and the time it took for our water to boil for dinner. Maybe it was just the wind! As soon as dark struck, probably about 8pm at that time of year, I suddenly became extremely tired and cold and ended up going straight to bed in all my clothes and leaving them on all night.
I worried I’d have some pretty serious pain in my joints and tendons after all that rock scrambling but the next day I woke up surprisingly energised and without any significant pain. After a quick breakfast of cereal bars and scroggin, we packed our stuff and said goodbye to our miracle campsite. The walk to Mount Difficult campsite was straight and easy. Since we had the extra time on our hands, we didn’t hesitate for a moment about taking the extra route to the top of the mountain.
I can’t believe I would have reconsidered this part of the walk if it was slightly later in the day. The view is amazing and it’s totally worth it – no matter what! It’s quite hard to tell from the tree-ridden Mount Difficult campsite that the summit really does offer an awesome 360 degree view of the area. It’s a fairly short hike up the rock to the triangulation station and huge cairn signifying the top. We spent a bit of time marvelling at the view, getting giddy from the height and took some silly photos of ourselves. Lake Wartook is an awesome sight from above but it wasn’t until after the trip that we realised why there wasn’t anyone using the expansive, still waters for recreational pursuits like paddling or water-skiing. It’s a reservoir. Alright, question answered.
From here, we needed to descend the challenging part of the route which we climbed up at the start of the first day. Going down is of course much easier, but less of a cardio buzz and more of a stress for the joints. While it took us three hours to come up this part, puffing and panting, the downhill took a leisurely two hours and three-quarters including a lunch break. I was pleasantly surprised by this part of the route the second time around – I think it shocked me a bit on the first day, so it was nice to find that it wasn’t as tricky as I thought it might be to come back down. We made it back to Troopers Creek campsite where we’d left our car at a fairly early 2pm.
Overall the trip was definitely top-heavy in that we did too much on the first day and not enough on the second. However, if we’d have followed the map properly this wouldn’t have been such an issue. Looking at the route throughout the day on the first day (when our brains were still functioning) we were really amazed at just how much ground we were expected to cover in the first day, especially considering it was much less on the second day. We were amazed to find that we went up, down, up and across a mountain range all in one day. The Parks Victoria information sheet we were initially guided by suggested the first day would take between six and seven hours. In all our other (admittedly limited) hiking and day-walking experience, we have found we usually take half to three-quarters of the suggested time. That day we walked for eight hours. This gives you at least a hint of an idea as to why this place is named Mount Difficult.
After experiencing the trails and analysing the route, it became apparent to us that there are various other options in terms of routes to take and that it would be possible to complete most of this trip while avoiding the challenging climb between Troopers Creek and Mount Difficult. This is something I would consider next time, although I am kind of excited by the challenge of those rocks and I certainly don’t want them to beat me. Mount Difficult is certainly what its name suggests – difficult. But it was equally as challenging, amazing and enjoyable.