If you’ve ever fantasised about escaping it all to live in a cabin in the bush, Em’s experience of a solo weekend at Johnston’s Hut might be the push you need. The Cabin Series is all about disconnecting from the modern world and connecting with yourself and others, thanks to the escape artists at Unyoked.
If someone dared you to spend a night or two in a hut alone in the wilderness, would you be up for it?
I’m very used to camping with minimal supplies, but have never done it alone, so when tasked with “finding a hut” for myself only, I challenged myself to locate huts that would really bring out elements of minimalism, solitude, and being surrounded by nature. I love talking aloud, and being in the company of others. How would this go?
My search led me to the Victorian High Country Huts Association, boasting hundreds of shelters and cabins scattered all across Victoria that are either antique or restored, primarily suited for emergency refuge only. The one’s I liked most, that required a hike in, I wasn’t allowed to sleep in overnight.
The opposite end of the spectrum were fancy glamping cottages and cabins that seemed overwhelmingly large or extravagant for a single occupant. Finally, I came across Johnston’s Hut, affectionately known as ‘Telemark’ by its caretakers, the Ski Club of East Gippsland.
With little more than a photo and general directions for where to pick up the key and how to get from the road at Fall’s Creek to the hut, I set on my way, in the midst of a cold Melbourne Autumn.
Anticipation Building With The Sunrise
The first sensation I feel on my pre-dawn journey is fatigue. Understandable after a long week’s work in the office and the desire for the brain to wind down. But then a new vigour emerges, as the misty morning fog gradually turns pink with the rising sun. Sharp beams of light propel through the trees, and then I feel excited.
The north-east Victorian countryside is gorgeous with autumn colours, the widespread farms lined with Claret Ash and Maples in vibrant reds and yellows. Rolling hills with small towns are intermittently dispersed, opening up the valley to the Alpine Ranges.
The increase in elevation is dramatic as you twist and turn up the Alpine Ranges road… slowly the tree line changes from dense leafy eucalypts to bare snow gums. The air is far cooler, but the sky is clear and spectacularly blue.
Leaving the car behind at Watchbed Creek, about 5km from Fall’s Creek resort, the track I take leads up the Big River Fire trail. It’s an easy ascent sidelining the creek, and soon opens up to a wide angle view of the Bogong High Plains. This area is sparse, with low-level shrubs and spur fighting against the harsh growing conditions. At first, I judge the environment as unstimulating and bare, but over time appreciate the changing shades of amber and sage, the intricacies in the steadfast grasses and wildflowers.
Wide tracks lead off to a number of other alpine huts, built as shelters by farmers, graziers, bushwalkers and skiers since as early as the 1830s. I can see far around me, and there is no one else here.
Me, Myself & Mountains
I chose to take my time getting to the hut, wanting to explore the landscape it’s surrounded by before letting myself settle in for the evening. There’s an easy circuit leading you up to the bald Mt Nelse, which although not a high mountain, positions you to overlook the many layers of the Alpine Ranges. To the west I can see the tip of the ski resort, foregrounded with valleys defined by trees like spiky grey chin hair. The faraway peaks are already sprinkled with snow. To the east, the mountains form hazy waves, arousing the same enveloping calmness I get when looking to the ocean. The air is so fresh in my lungs. I become vastly aware of my remoteness here. There are no sounds but the wind and my own slow breath.
The descent down to Johnston’s Hut hits the tree line again, the skeletal snow gums almost silver against the grass, still attempting to rejuvenate after the extensive bushfires of 2003.
About 1km down from the main track (part of the Australian Alps walking track), I start to see the red tin roof of the hut peep through the eucalypts.
Like a child I practically skip towards the hut… it’s unassuming under its canopy, yet welcoming and homely. A large stack of chopped tree branches make up the collection of firewood for the impending winter months. The first door into the hut opens up to the emergency refuge, featuring one light mattress, a wood heater, some kindling, wood and matches. The second bolted door I unlock to reveal the cosy insides of Johnston’s Hut. Remarkably well equipped with a gas oven, kitchen counter & sink, solar lights, 10 beds on three levels and enough pots, pans and wine glasses to keep any group of people happy for a number of days. It’s not big, but it’s more than enough. I’m stoked to call this place my home for the night.
First port of call – a nice hot cup of tea. I realise fairly quickly that the running tap doesn’t work, and worry I won’t have enough water to get myself back to the road tomorrow. But on a trip to the strong-standing green outhouse, I can hear the distant sound of trickling water.
A short way down the hill, there’s a creek flowing down the valley, so I run back up to the hut to grab my water bottle and camera, filling up with the clear water to boil. The vegetation is much denser and more boldly coloured here. The moon has started to rise over the mountains, and the afternoon sky is softening to a pink hue.
Settling Into A Night Alone
As the temperature starts to rapidly drop, I light a campfire in the outdoor pit, which is set up comfortably with wooden benches. I imagine a group of friends sitting around here late at night, sharing stories and wine. The warmth of the fire is company enough for now.
At night I peruse through the visitor’s book of the ‘Telemark’… which dates back to the ski club’s first working bee to repair the hut in 2003. Through the myriad of stories, you get a taste for different people’s experience of the space. The nuances of their group dynamics, in-jokes, problems and highlights of their trip all come through so diversely in storytelling. Everyone talks about how much food they ate, how the weather was, but primarily it’s about the skiing or hiking, the gorgeous natural environment, and the provisions made available to them in and around the hut.
You get a sense of how some elements have altered and developed over the years (the toilet door blew off and there’s been a significant upgrade to running water and solar-powered lights). Mostly though, the unwavering gratitude for having a sturdy shelter with beds and blankets, the ability to build a fire even in the middle of a snow storm, and being able to share that experience with others, shines through all the accounts in the book. To be far away from civilisation, but protected all the same.
It’s a wonderfully calm night, despite the earlier wind and the temperature sitting around 2°c. I walk out to the clearing next to the hut and take in the breadth of the starry sky; the moon casting a glistening light over the silver treetops. I don’t even try to capture it on film; I want this one for myself.
Hardly A Trace
After a long, serene night’s sleep, I make coffee and breakfast, finish the novel I was reading the night before and depart the hut by mid-morning. In fact, I’m pretty hesitant to leave — I can do anything I like here. There’s an oddly fulfilling feeling about leaving a place just as you found it. Floor swept, kindling restocked, hardly a trace I was even there.
I pass a National Parks worker on my hike back up the hill (the first person I have seen in over 24 hours), inserting bright orange snow poles along the track. He thought I was a school teacher from the Bogong High School with a group of students. Nope, just me. “Speccy day isn’t it?” He remarks. It sure is.
I take the Healthy Spur track back to the car, slowly bringing my weekend of solitude to a close. After bypassing Edmonson’s Hut, a restored tin hut which was used by a farming family from 1834 and has been continuously used by the local schools and adventure clubs as a refuge during field trips, I get the sense that there is widespread community invested in the ongoing preservation of the High Country Huts. So much effort has been put in in recent years to uphold their purpose and heritage, reinforcing ideas of minimal impact and nature conservation.
As I trundled down the Healthy Spur, surrounded by colourful shrubbery, trickling streams and specks of wild paper daisies, these thoughts stuck with me.
How valuable it is to take some time out, away from the everyday provisions we are convinced we need. To reposition yourself in an atmosphere where only natural forces and your free conscience influence your mood.
Where will you find your solitude?