From Snow to Ash by Anthony Sharwood

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

You can’t help but admire someone setting off on a journey like this. Any long distance walk in back country requires mental and physical doggedness, and the 660km Australian Alps Walking Track is right up there. Having walked bits of the same route, I looked forward to this book taking me on a tough slog through the rest.

Anthony Sharwood’s trek took place in a summer that Australia will never forget. Starting in the late snows of 2019, within weeks he found himself in the hub of the fire season from hell. The book chronicles his travel (mostly walking) from Valhalla in Victoria to Mackeys hut in NSW, where he was extracted by helicopter about 150km short of the finish.

The action is roughly chronological, beginning with some background on the author and finishing with a post-fire return visit. It is not presented as a detailed diary of every day on the trail, rather as a series of snapshots with brief descriptions of parts of the trail and landscapes.  This is interspersed with fragments of history or science and encounters with walkers and locals.

The book concludes with two chapters on the fires and their aftermath. The flames are unseen until the last minute, but the signs are all around and the sense of foreboding is palpable:

 “The moment I start worrying is when charred black leaves begin twirling down from an uncertain sky, dotting the snow grass tussocks like chocolate shards on cupcakes.” [p1 and 255]; “I touched a leaf. Cold. Another. Also no warmth.” [p3 and 257].

This section of the book is short, but for me, was far and away the best thing about it. The drama in the alps is heightened by his concerns for his wife and child who are in danger of being trapped by   fires on the NSW south coast.

Conversely, the story of the walk reads more like a series of blogs than a book. It offers neither detailed track descriptions nor a compelling narrative of the journey. He acknowledges that John Chapman has written a definitive guidebook, so a reader should not expect that. But the missing ingredient was a strong sense of place.

There is an art to writing about long distance journeys on foot. The author is our eyes and ears for the entire journey and has a few hundred pages to maintain our interest and turn the interminable into the stimulating.  Different authors apply their own styles – the painstaking diarising of Wilfred Thesiger, the wit of Eric Newby and the soaring descriptions of Dervla Murphy.

The common thread of great travel writing is that the reader quickly becomes a fellow traveller.  The author’s experience becomes your experience, entirely immersed in the same space and time.

From Snow to Ash offers that experience only rarely. There are so many digressions that it felt like being trapped inside the author’s head with its discordant thoughts clamouring for attention: “The hiking mind can be as busy as a social media feed” [p59].

Train-of-thought-writing using sports journalese can be the enemy of the succinct: It is an absolute cracker of a morning. A belter. A pearler. An absolute bloody ripsnorter. You’ve got to say this about sport: it has the best words and they’re just as good out of context [p 141].  When it comes to epic and transformational journeys, less can be more.

Occasionally, a little nugget pops out that really does work.  As he moves upstream on the Thomson river: “Exploring rivers at various stages of their life is one of the best things about hiking. Rivers run young and old at the same time. They are nature’s time machines” [p28].

Two highlights of the book are the tension-filled fire descriptions and Anthony’s willingness to use the extreme weather imagery to confront the elephant in the room:

“Our mountains need inoculation, not hospitalisation. We need to take the ‘c’ word off the list, because climate is a huge part of the equation”. [p276]

Other aspects of conservation were also well-handled and he was careful to provide balance, while using objective evidence to make his point.

“These horses…represent wildness and beauty and unconstrained freedom, and when you see brumbies in the flesh they are indeed wild and beautiful and free.

“But the brumbies are pests….Inside the exclusion plot, healthy bushes and native grasses flourish. Outside it, most of Cowombat Flat is picked so bare by the equine grazing machines it looks like a fifth-day cricket pitch.” [p178]

For lovers of the high country, as Anthony clearly is, this eye witness account of an encounter with extreme fire on one of our most valued landscapes, is both enlightening and disturbing.

 “Anthony Sharwood is a Walkley Award-winning journalist specialising in sports, the outdoors, weather and climate.”

From Snow to Ash

(August 2020)

by Anthony Sharwood

Hachette Australia

ISBN: 9780733645280

$32.99 (paperback); 281pp

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