The snows came early this year.
It was only mid-May, and already the tops of the Australian Alps were covered with white. Even down in Jindabyne (934 metres) where we were staying, wet flakes settled briefly on our noses before puddling into cold water. Late one afternoon we tried to drive up to Charlotte Pass, at the top of Kosciuszko Road, only to be turned back by a nice National Parks employee who laughed at our Queensland-plated rental car and asked us where our snow chains were. We had to be satisfied with a view-stop at the Waste Point Lookout and a drive up to Threadbo, where, in spite of grey skies and light flurries, the road was still open.
We had tried to get snow chains, but winter rentals are a seasonal business, and with the ski season not due to open for another three or four weeks, none of the rental shops were operating. Snows fell in the Australian Alps in April this year, which is unseasonably early – although snow can fall any time from May to October, significant falls before June (when the ski season usually opens) are unusual. Australia is a relatively flat, dry continent with the alpine area comprising a minute (about 0.15%) proportion of the total landmass. The country’s highest point, Mount Kosciuszko, at 2228 meters, has a bare peak in summer, and the alpine area only hangs onto the smallest patches of snow, tucked into shady hollows, between winters.
The next morning we tried again and this time succeeded, albeit slowly and carefully, in making it up through the slush, snow and ice to Charlotte Pass and the fabulously gnarled snow gums that line the aptly named Snow Gums Boardwalk.
Snow Gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora) are amazing trees. Living between 1500m and the tree line, they have adapted themselves to the extreme conditions of the alpine slopes. Curled against the wind, the snow gums have a bark that changes colour in response to climactic conditions and external branches that slope down to allow the snow to fall off. As one writer puts it: “it is their twisted shapes that makes you stand in awe and feel humbled, moved, and inspired by their resilience and determination”.
The plants and animals that live here, many of which live nowhere else, are well adapted to the snowy conditions. They are, however, vulnerable to the already-measurable effects of climate change, and it is likely that the next decades will see significantly changes in this unique landscape.
Many species will probably be lost entirely within our lifetime.
It’s a shame, isn’t it?
Until next time…