Matt and I had been revving each other up for the better part of a week prior to taking this trip. We were checking the forecast every five minutes, and with every update this winter storm was just getting bigger and bigger. It was promising over a meter of snow in the alpine areas, along with solid falls in areas of New South Wales that very rarely, if ever, receive any snow. We had been waiting for conditions like this for years, and the fact that it was due to arrive on a weekend just made this so, so sweet.
The first location on our list was the Sugar Pine Walk, in Laurel Hill, which is Just up the road from Batlow. I’ve been to this spot a few times, but have never really scored the right conditions. Last time I drove down there (6 hours each way) I managed to miss the snowfall by around 3 hours. I arrived there at around 10am to a solid number of tourists and rain, and when I stopped to get something to eat on the way home at around 3pm, you can imagine the look on my face when i saw stories on instagram appearing with the place covered in snow.
One thing I did notice though, on the drive down there last time, I took a bit of a scenic route through the Brindabella Ranges, just to the west of Canberra. I’d never been through this area before however it’s beauty really struck me. Tall pine trees lined the roads, along with farmlands and a variety of quickly changing landscapes. It seemed to me like there were a huge number of photography opportunities up here when the conditions were right.
Our plan was to head to the Sugar Pine Walk first to try and beat the crowds, then head up to the Brindabella ranges as we thought that this area could be absolutely stunning under a blanket of snow.
Part one of our plan worked out perfectly. I picked Matt up on Friday night, and we drove down to Gundagai before heading off to Laurel Hill first thing on Saturday morning. We arrived at the Sugar Pine Walk to see exactly what we’d been hoping for, a decent layer of snow covering these beautiful, tall pine trees. What struck me is the silence of this place. Snow is so rare in Australia, so to be standing in a forest with snow falling all around you just seems so serene. We shot a few different compositions here, while avoiding walking down the main corridor of the forest to avoid leaving footprints for other photogs. After an hour or so, the crowds started to pour in but we did manage to capture some really soft sunlight creep into the forest just after sunrise. We did have a good laugh at some girl trying to make a snow angel, she really could have picked a better spot. She lay down on about 3cm of snow covering thick, wet mud, and by the time she was finished her clothes were absolutely soaked. Hilarious.
If you’re looking an overpriced breakfast, then look no further than one of Batlow’s cafes. It’s a tiny town, and it doesn’t look like it gets too many tourists. I get it, they need to make money somehow, but we’re talking $20 for a coffee and bacon and egg roll. If you’re doing a sunrise mission down this way then there’s really no other option, fortunately it was pretty tasty though!
Next on our list was the Brindabella ranges, this is where things started to get a bit hectic. Before we left Matt Barry had asked me “do you think we’ll need chains?”, I said “nah, she’ll be right, it’s a 4wd”.
We drove up into the ranges through Tumut, and the plan was to head towards a town called Wee Jasper, and from there we would sail on to Canberra. I didn’t stop to fill up in Tumut because it looked like we had plenty in the tank to get to Canberra.
The first part of the drive up into the rages was just beautiful. By the time we were about a hundred meters above the snowline we really were into territory that we’d never seen in Australia before. We drove through farmlands, pine and gum tree forests, all covered in at least a foot or more of snow. We stopped pretty much every ten minutes to shoot landscapes that we thought there’s every chance we may not ever catch like this again.
After about an hour of driving and shooting the road conditions started to get just a little more sketchy. There was no phone reception up here, but from what we saw in town it looked like we just keep following the same road and we would be fine. We were now quite a bit higher in the ranges, the snowfall was heavy and getting heavier, the road seemed a little narrower and were were now driving though up to a foot of fresh snow. Like driving on sand, the car would sort of twitch and squirm a bit, but on these flat roads we seemed to be doing okay. At one point we came across a tree down across the road which we had to clear before we could press on. Another five kilometers or so down the road we started to descend. Snow accumulation was lessening quickly, until the point we were below the snow line again. We were slightly relieved as we felt it was starting to get a bit dodgy, we just wanted to be out of there.
We descended down into a valley only to discover we had to head back up into the ranges to get through to Canberra. There was no way through the valley, we had to go back up the top. Signage indicated we weren’t too far from the edge of Canberra, and we thought to ourselves “no way can it be worst than what we just went through”, wrong. Once we were back up above the snowline the road quickly deteriorated. It was a narrow, unsealed, muddy road, that also happened to be hugging a cliff face. We don’t know for sure, but we think we must have gone a fair bit higher than we did on the other side of the valley because the snow was absolutely dumping and the coverage over the road seemed to be more than a foot.
We carefully made our way up the mountain till we came to a tight left hand corner. The corner was sort of angled down into the high side mountain a bit, and the car struggled for traction. I hit the gas, and the car just slid sideways into the side of the mountain. We couldn’t do anything about it. Before we knew it the car had slid into the a ditch and was bogged. We freaked out for a second; there was no one around, the snow was getting heavier, we didn’t have reception, and the car was low on fuel. In desperation, i started digging out the snow from around the tyres. I had no idea what i was doing, but i thought it would be worth a shot. I jumped back in the car and managed to move it forward a fraction. We found out the key to avoid getting bogged is to just keep momentum up. We were able move forwards a bit, then backwards, then forwards a little bit more, then backwards, until we got to the point where we were able to get the car out of the ditch.
Once we got onto the flat road again we drove a little further until we were able to eye the next corner. This one was just as tight, and covered in snow as the last one, the only difference being that this one angled down the face of the mountain. If the car decided to slide down this corner, it would keep going off the side of the road, and drop a good hundred meters or more. It was at this point that we thought we may be in some fairly serious shit.
Our options were; keep pushing ahead, run the risk and hope that we were near the end of this dodgy section of road, stay where we were and hope someone could help us out, or try to reverse back out. I considered sending my drone up into the air to suss out the road ahead, but it was snowing a bit too heavily, and I wasn’t too keen to risk losing it. We decided that our only option was to head back down the hill and try to make it to Tumut. Two problems with this; first, the road was too narrow and slippery to turn around on, so i’d have to reverse for a few kms before the road became safe enough to turn around on. Secondly, Tumut was 80kms away. The car was saying we had 90kms of fuel left in the tank (just an estimate). Still, this seemed like the best way to go, the first job was going to be reversing around the corner that i’d just previously managed to bog us in.
I lined the car up pretty carefully with the corner and gave it the right amount of gas, and fortunately we managed to sail through it without too many dramas. Next up we managed to 180 the car after doing a fifty point turn against the cliff face. A bit sketchy but we felt we had to. My palms were sweating the whole way back to Tumut. I knew we were cutting it so fine in regards to fuel. The drive back up the range alone ate into the remaining km range by about 20 kms. If we were in a petrol car and ran out before hitting the servo, it wouldn’t be a huge drama, but my car is diesel, and if you run out of fuel in those cars it really is a disaster. The fuel pump relies on diesel to lubricate it, and if you run out of fuel it can seize up and cost thousands to replace. 40kms out of Tumut the fuel light came on. We eventually rolled into the servo with 2kms of fuel left in the tank. We were just so relieved we had made it out of there all okay. We couldn’t care less about how much time we’d cost ourselves. I told the guy at the servo where we had been and he was amazed, he said to us “you guys definitely shouldn’t have been up there in that car, worst road conditions in twenty years up there mate” I’m surprised the road wasn’t closed to be honest. It really was that sketchy.
After fueling the car back up, we fueled ourselves with Quarter Pounder meals and hit the road to Oberon.
Within about two hours of leaving Tumut we were back into the snow again, which just got heavier and heavier on the way into the town, again, we’re fortunate we made it in as the road should have been closed. It was a flat, sealed road at least, but through some sections there were large wind drifts piled up over the road which we had to ease our way over. Full on, blizzard conditions hit us as we moved in, crazy winds, driving walls of snow would spin across the road in front of us. If we weren’t so tired we would have pulled over a hundred times just to take it all in. We eventually made it to Oberon at about 8:30 just in time to grab a steak and many, many beers, which just went down so well after the day’s activities. We both slept like logs that night.
Being the dedicated photographers we are, we both got up a bit before sunrise to suss out what the sky was doing. I think we were both relieved to see that it was looking to be a dud with thick low cloud everywhere, so we went back to bed. By around 8:30am it was absolutely dumping in town. I’d have to say it was the heaviest snowfall I’ve ever seen in Australia. The whole town was white. Oberon is one of those towns that receive a dusting of snow every winter, but the fact that all the locals were out having snowball fights and building snowmen told us that this was pretty unusual. It was like walking thought a mountain town in Canada. Just incredible to witness in Australia. Of one the locals told us he had lived in Oberon his whole life and hadn’t seen anything like this in at least twenty years.
One thing that shits me about these small country towns, is that the restaurants never run heating, we had the same problem in Batlow. We walked into a cafe for breakfast only to discover that it was no warmer inside than it was out. All the staff wear scarfs and ski jackets. We suffered through it and smashed down what turned out to be an amazing big breakfast and coffee.
All the roads in and out of Oberon were closed, and we were looking at a small chance of being stuck there overnight. Apparently the local snow plough had slid off the road. We wandered around town and took a bunch of photos and just tried to take as much of it in as possible. It really was a beautiful sight. To be honest I found shooting in these conditions pretty challenging. The light was just so flat, with white foreground, white background, you had to make your subject stand out as much as possible against the snow. Even using roads as leading lines proved difficult as they were pretty much all covered in snow.
We hung around the hotel until about midday when the local council announced the roads would be re-opening. Within minutes we were in the car heading through to Lithgow. Our plan was to check out the Zig Zag Railway, which had been closed for repairs for a couple of years. Parts of the railway featured impressive viaducts which hug the cliff side of the Blue Mountains, looking down into Katoomba. We had never shot them before, but were pretty pumped at the idea of being able to shoot them covered in snow. Australia, being what it is never really holds snow for too long below the alpine areas. It’s just too hot. We knew that as soon as sunlight hits the snow, it’s going to start to disappear. We didn’t have much time, and we didn’t really know where to go.
We drove to the main Zig- Zag railway Terminal to see literally hundreds of tourists. The place was closed but this snow storm had been all over the news so we figured it was all the Sydney locals heading up to the mountains to check the snow. From the terminal, we had no idea how to get to the viaducts, I suggested we send the drone up to try and find it as i couldn’t see anything on google maps. Just as I switched it on Matt yelled out that he’d found it, but it was a bit of a mission. You could either hike the railway for maybe around 5kms, or we could go off-road. We took the off-road option.
The road down was pretty crazy, and it really pushed my Santa Fe to the max. I gotta say, I’m pretty happy with this car. I’ve given it absolute hell over the time I’ve had it. Sand, snow, serious off-roading and it just takes it all. It’s been so good to me. We made it to within half a kilometre of the track and walked down the rest of the way. We were pretty sad to see that we had missed most of the snow, only a few patches on the tracks here and there. Regardless, the place is pretty epic, and has a very eerie feel about it. We hiked the track for a couple of kilometres and checked out a few abandoned stations along the way to the viaduct. We didn’t get really get the shots we were after down here, but it was definitely worth checking out. Just another one of many of the Blue Mountain’s hidden Gems. We shot down here for a couple of hours and by then we were absolutely finished. Enough snow, enough shooting, we just wanted to get home.