Page 104: The Victorian Alpine Region
     
  Porepunkah (Poor Punker), Bright and Hotham.  
  The gateway to the Alpine Region, they call it. Our caravan is situated on the south-west bank of the Ovens River in a really lovely caravan park.

Ovens - that name keeps coming up. We drove through a small town called Ovens on our way to Porepunkah, there's a Mount Ovens and H.M.A.S. Ovens, a submarine, is on display in the Western Australian Maritime Museum in Fremantle. The internet makes it difficult to research unless Ovens' first name was Microwave or Fanforced. We found it eventually; Irish-born Major John Ovens (1788-1825) seems to have made quite an impression on Australia in his short life.

Once upon a time there was a single track railway running from Wangaratta to Bright. When it was closed and the rails and sleepers removed, the old track was paved and dedicated as a walk and cycle track known as The Rail Trail. Having been a railway, the gradients are so gentle that it has become very popular with cyclists. It passes right through Porepunkah along the far bank of the river. In Wang the river is brown and sluggish but up here it is as clear and sparkling as any mountain stream.

As I mentioned above, this is the gateway to the Alpine Region. All we had to do was turn left out of the caravan park entrance and drive straight on. Naturally there is no snow at this time of the year but we wanted to see Mount Hotham before the ski season started. On the way we stopped off in Bright for a walk around and a bite of lunch. It's a lovely little place which is in danger of being spoilt by becoming too popular. They have built a Woolworths store there which will open in a few weeks. The locals think it's wonderful, expecting cheap prices. Maybe, but they still live in a remote catchment and Woolworths is not a charity.
 
     
   
  Bright by name, bright and clean by nature. The Bright War Memorial in the town square.  
     
   
  Bright's trees are mostly European. Some councillor once proposed replacing them with Eucalypts and was almost strung up.  
     
 

Leaving Bright we were soon climbing steeply into the mountains, hairpin bend following hairpin bend as we ascended. The outside temperature began falling as we gained altitude. The road frequently ran along a ledge with an almost shear drop for a thousand feet on the left hand side which made Pam more than a little nervous.
"What if he falls asleep at the wheel again?" she thought. "How will I climb back up to get help?"
After considering this question for a while, light dawned.
"Get help? Who am I kidding? I'll be as dead as he is."
But 'he' wasn't in a dying mood. You couldn't nod off on that road if you tried.

We came around one bend and the landscape changed instantly, bare silver trees stretching to the horizon. These were Alpine Ash which had been destroyed by a 2003 forest fire. Unlike Eucalypts, Alpine Ash trees never recover from fire but their dropped seed pods burst open in the heat and the young trees germinate between the dead trunks of their parents. Eventually the dead trees will rot and fall, their nutrients returning to the earth to feed the next generation. It's just a shame the process takes so long. You may remember we saw exactly the same thing in the Snowy Mountains.

 
     
   
  The ghostly silver of dead Alpine Ash trees covered the slopes.  
     
  Towards the top, the road became less twisting and the terrain opened out to give some magnificent views. By now we had climbed to 6,000 feet above sea level (Porepunkah is at 1,000 feet) and the temperature had dropped 12°C.  
     
   
  This section of the Alpine Way is quite a road, more often than not cut out of the hillside as the photo shows.  
     
  Unexpectedly we came to a short tunnel and as we emerged, there was the ski resort of Hotham right in front of us.  
     
   
  The ski resort of Hotham. How many weeks in each year is it occupied, I wonder? You can see part of one ski lift tower on the right of the picture, but there were many different lifts. Just looking at the slopes was enough to give us vertigo; these people must be mad!  
     
   
  A better view of Hotham from on top of the tunnel. Note the yellow road markings and orange road edge indicator poles. They are a feature of the road all the way up, as were signs informing us that the road surface is slippery when coated in ice.  
     
  To put the height into perspective, Hotham was just below 6,000 feet above see level. The summit of Everest is over 28,000 feet high. Still, who'd go skiing on the summit of Everest? And you really do feel as if you're on the roof of the world. One last picture.  
     
   
  Ridge after ridge to the horizon. The road by which we'd ascended (I think), the Alpine Way,
can be seen running along near the top of the second ridge.
 
     
  Mount Beauty  
  We'd seen the signs, we'd read the brochure; now to visit the place. Mount Beauty is a small town in a valley adjacent to the Ovens Valley. That meant another drive over the top and lots more hairpins and steep drops. On the way we came upon Sullivans Lookout. Now, I have no idea who Sullivan was or what he/she did, but from that roadside platform we obtained our first sight of Mount Beauty.  
     
   
  Mount Beauty, nestling down in the valley. But what is that white speck in the sky (circled in yellow)?
Let me see if I can enlarge it.
 
     
   
  Oh, look Pam. What a surprise, it's a glider!  
     
  As we sat having lunch at a picnic table in a Mount Beauty park, something caught me eye. It looked like a parachute descending very fast. I pointed it out to Pam who declared, "Aliens! It's aliens." The object disappeared behind the wall of a dam, still plummeting. I should have known what it was immediately but it took me several frustrating minutes to realise it was the drogue which is attached to the end of a glider winch cable. (In this application a drogue is a small parachute used to slow the descent of the steel cable which the glider pilot has released at altitude, giving the winch controller a chance to wind the cable onto the winch drum as it descends. The alternative is a tangle of cable on the ground too horrible to contemplate.)

"Ha", I thought. "Now I know where the glider airfield is."
If I sound sneaky it's only because I am sneaky. Pam had no objection to visiting the airfield although she has zero interest in gliders or gliding. She knows, however, what a large part of my life it was for many years and is quite happy to sit in the car and read or solve Sudoku puzzles. She even encouraged me to take a flight despite the cost being the equivalent of 60 litres of red wine (when bought in casks and on 'special'). The wine finally triumphed but it was close.
 
     
   
  Two aircraft had previously launched and disappeared into the wide blue yonder. About to launch was the IS-28 (right), the instructor, standing by the cockpit, giving a final briefing to his student already seated. Finishing his preparation
was the pilot of the single seat Cirrus (left).
 
     
  How it brought back happy (and not so happy) memories of days gone by. I was never a great pilot but I did enjoy instructing and I like to think I was good at it, especially with students who lacked confidence. With them I could empathise. I can so easily recall the disastrous days after I became a solo pilot when my ability to land a glider deserted me - but only when I was alone in the glider. With an instructor in the back seat ready to rescue me I was confident and (mostly) got it right. Solo I used to call my arrivals 'marsupial landings' as I used to bounce down the runway like a kangaroo, much to the consternation of my instructors and the amusement of everyone else.

Once airborne I was trapped; staying up indefinitely was not an option, I had to land sometime. It spoiled my flight. All I could think of was those final few seconds. Then, out of the blue, light dawned. My aim should not be to land the glider, it should be to NOT land the glider.

Let me explain. When I descended and levelled out over the runway, if I prevented the glider from touching the runway, then it would slow down until the wings could no longer support the weight of the glider and it would sink onto the runway without enough energy to bounce skyward again. So simple! Problem solved. After that, the part of every flight I enjoyed most was the landing. And I'd like to thank my instructor throughout that period, Les Doddemead, for his endless faith and encouragement when I was ready to give it all away. What I learned from Les made me a better instructor in later years.
 
     
   
  At somewhere between 800' and 1,000' the IS-28 pilot releases the cable, the drogue parachute opens as the launch cable falls away. The IS-28, now free of earthly tethers, turns towards an 'active' cumulus cloud where it's pilot can expect warm, rising air to carry it up to, perhaps 6,000' or more. Free, solar energy lifting it towards the cloud. And from there to another cloud and so on. Magic!  
     
 

Then it was the turn of the Cirrus, a much higher performance aircraft than the IS-28. Attached to the cable, up it went just like a kite pulled by a child on the beach. Soon it dispensed with the cable and climbed freely in a thermal towards the clouds. In no time it was out of sight, heading . . . where?

Back on the airfield Pam urged me to wait for the IS-28 and have a flight. After some soul searching I said no. Those days were fantastic but they're over. We left to visit the Mount Beauty Information Centre, the best we have ever visited. Then, after checking out a couple of caravan parks, we photographed Mount Bogong, the State of Victoria's highest peak, before heading home.

 
     
   
  Mount Bogong, Victoria's highest mountain, towering to 6,500 feet.