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Ski touring
Blizzard plasters the rocks, then heaven smiles as the sun comes out / Picture: Gavan O'Connor

Perhaps because we live on the edge of a desert continent, West Australians love the wilderness. From the Kimberley to the Canning Stock Route and to the South Coast wildflowers, the natural beauty draws us back again and again.

Further east are the Queensland rainforests and the temperate forests of Tasmania with many deserts in between. All have their attractions.

But I've been visiting another Australian wilderness since 1975. In spite of the beauty of its "sunlit plains extended", it is unjustifiably ignored by West Australians. At last count I had hiked there 22 times for one or two weeks at a time. During those 22 visits, about 40 weeks of hiking, I've encountered other people from WA only three times.

I'm talking about winter hiking in the Australian Alps, mostly in the region between Mt Kosciuszko and Mt Jagungal in the Kosciuszko National Park. There are differences in equipment compared with traditional hiking, of course. While you would wear hiking boots in the Kimberley, for example, in the Snowy Mountains you wear snow shoes or cross-country skis to walk on the soft snow.

Don't be deterred by the word "skis". Touring skis are much lighter than downhill skis and are fixed to the boot only at the toe. You would not be skiing as in a resort, you would be walking. I've been out ski touring and camping in the mountains with friends who've never seen snow before, it's that easy. This year, my 11-year-old son came with me. In two weeks we had one day of sleet and rain and another when we were confined to a hut by high winds.

True, you might strike the odd day of poor weather but that can happen anywhere. There can be few scenes more compellingly beautiful than fresh snow on gum trees. And as for the gentle flakes of heavenly white drifting down from above to waft past your enraptured eyes, "numinous" is the only word that comes close to capturing the magic of the experience.

There's little doubt that downhill or resort skiing is better in Japan or New Zealand than in Australia, but the Australian Alps are made for cross-country skiing. I've cross-country skied in the US and in Canada (and also in the Himalayas, but that's another story). The ski touring in neither of these countries was a patch on Australian touring. The Australian hills were originally a high plateau now cut into by rivers and as a result the Snowys are gently undulating highlands with the best ski touring being along the ridge of the main range - a ridge which also carries the deepest snow and wears it for longer than the resorts in the valleys.

When I go touring in the Snowys these days I carry a backpack with food, fuel, clothes, sleeping bag and a tent. I allow for a week at a time: it's all I can carry. This is the ultimate way to enjoy the wilderness. However, if you appreciate some luxury at night, the mountains can be enjoyed on day trips out of a resort. Charlotte Pass village is probably the best resort in the Snowys to base yourself as it's close to Mt Kosciuszko and you don't need to use the chairlift. Access is also good from Thredbo although you might want to take the chairlift to avoid a long climb. Guthega is the most popular jumping-off point for cross-country touring.

A word of warning, however; the summit area, roughly from Mt Kosciuszko to the northern edge of the Rolling Ground is treeless. There is no protection from the wind and day trippers should watch the weather with exceptional care.

Scattered in the snow-clad plains of the national park and a little further north are several small huts, each with its own history. These huts are available on a first- come, first-served basis. Some, like Horse Camp Hut are picturesque but uncomfortable; others, like the Schlink Hilton, are comfortable and practical but lacking in beauty. Picturesque or not, they are a welcome refuge in poor weather. Each has a fireplace or wood stove but there is no electricity and water has to be gathered from a nearby, icy creek. One consequence of the 2003 bushfires is that there's now a good supply of firewood.

If you have hiked before, then dressing for the cold is about the only adaptation required. If you are relatively inexperienced and want to venture into the back country, then Paddy Pallin and Wilderness Sports in Jindabyne both take learner groups or individuals out on day or overnight tours. (Paddy Pallin also rents out gear.)

There are other ski resorts in Australia with suitable touring areas nearby but only two resorts are near big plains in the surrounding mountains. These are Mt Hotham and Falls Creek in Victoria. Neither wilderness is anywhere near as big as the Kosciuszko National Park.

Like any outback area, the Kosciuszko wilderness must be treated with respect, both for the sake of its surpassing beauty and for your own safety. But that's no excuse for West Australians to ignore it as we appear to do. Go for it. I may see you there next year.

There can be few scenes more compellingly beautiful than fresh snow on gum trees.