Weekend of 22nd and 23rd June 2019
Walking: Steffen Daleng, Joan Chan, Michelle Brown, Rob Wildman
As we rolled over the crest of the Great Stony mountain and headed down what I thought was the simple ridge to the Kowmung River at the bottom of the hill, we suddenly came upon a jumble of rocks where I couldn’t see over the lip. I’m used to ‘features’ like this not appearing on topographic maps, but where did this cliff line come from? It was now nearly 4:30pm on the shortest day of the year and that meant only one thing – it would be dark very soon and we were still a long way from the bottom.
I hadn’t walked in this part of the Kanangra wilderness for quite a while but the planned route was mostly on tracks and my memories of walking in this area involved long mostly clear ridges which descended to a river somewhere. As with all memories, the good bits stuck and the other bits were always eclipsed by the memory of a wonderful camp site at the end. I had forgotten that in the past I had nearly always walked in this area in September or October where the daylight lasts till well after 6.
In proposing a walk like this, I was, I suppose, attempting to be everything to everyone. I love to invite new people out into wilderness areas such as Kanangra and this time I had asked two people, Joan and Steffen, with whom I had never done an extended walk, to come along. This could have been a big risk. I had also cherished memories of this area from long ago and, feeling my age, had a desire to get into it while I still could. As well, I had decided, after campaigning recently on some environmental issues around the election, I would try to make a video explaining how National Parks should not be taken for granted, ever.
Could I possibly cover off all these wishes in the one walk?
I had planned to take the group out to the walls, down past the Coal Seam Cave and Cottage Rock, turn right toward Bullhead Mountain, swinging off at its summit and crossing over Great Stony mountain, down a ridge which hovers over the Bulga Denis Canyon and on to meet the Kowmung only about a kilometre from Orange Bluff. On the map, this is about 11kms.
I had actually done this walk some 30 years ago with another friend and it was the first walk I had attempted to go off track. I still remember the thrill and the fear of heading through the bush being guided only by a compass. I had no recollections of this off track section being particularly difficult so I treated the walk as a casual stroll in the mountains, suggesting it was only going to be a 4-5 hour downhill romp. First mistake!
Rounding up Michelle and Steffen in Sydney’s inner west, we drove out to meet Joan at Glenbrook and then on up to Oberon and Kanangra. Stopping only at Blackheath for a quick coffee, we arrived at the Kanangra car park at about 11:00. We bustled around checking all the gear inclusions and exclusions and making sure we had all the food and essentials. There had been a lot of borrowing of gear and lots of bags with the ‘just-in-case’ material as there always is at the start of these ventures. When we set out at 11:25 everyone looked like they did this sort of thing every weekend.
We made quick time down to the Walls lookout and took the southern branch of the track over Mt Maxwell and down off the Murrarang Tops to the Coal Seam Cave for lunch. There was very little water in the famous plastic tank and no dripping off the overhang which indicated that this area was still in a very dry spell. Flying past Cottage Rock, we took the turnoff for Bullhead mountain and within 300 metres we had fallen into the trap of taking the wrong ridge, climbing back up and reorienting ourselves on the correct one. There are a number of false leads off this ridge and we had done what many others had done before.
The trek down to Bullhead is a long affair going down and up over several rocky points in the ridge but after about one and a quarter hours we figured we were at the point where we needed to launch off. Here the bush is light and we made quick progress to the edge of the mountain and saw our route across the saddle to Great Stony mountain. Dropping down to the saddle was precarious and the scramble up Great Stony was steep and slow. Did I say I had forgotten how hard this was?
We crested and then found the correct ridge on the other side. This rolls gently down to a pinnacle which opens up a vista of the river far below and in the distance along the river, Orange Bluff. Now this is where it got interesting. Here the hill just disappears. You can see the ridge you need to be on but there doesn’t appear to be a way down.
At this point we did exactly as I had done some 30 years before – we veered off to the left onto another less steep ridge where the going was a little easier. But unlike the earlier time, we kept heading down the same ridge. I realised later, when looking closely at the topo, we had previously traversed back onto the correct ridge and came up to some magnificent views of the canyon below.
Going down rough, flinty, scrappy hillsides is not in Michelle’s list of likes so we had to drag her along to what she must have thought was certain death. Everyone was getting tired and it was now nearly 4:30pm with sunset about to happen. The bush on the ridge thickened just as we started to hit some steeper sections and we couldn’t see ahead, fearful of ending on a hidden cliff or dropping into a ravine.
We just needed to get down. We sidled into what appeared to be a dry creekbed as the head torches came out. Somehow, there was a new level of calm about the situation we were in. We all just settled down to the task of making sure everyone was safe and getting to the river together with no accidents. The bush thinned out a little as we got further down but creeper vines kept tripping us all and just increasing the frustration. How far did we need to go? We couldn’t see further than the headlight allowed so we had no idea how far up the hill we were. The blind bush bashing went on for about the next 1.5 hours until we finally found ourselves in a kind of no-return slippery dip, sliding down some 20 metres to land on the first flat land we had seen for some time.
We had landed in the dry Bullhead creekbed but we still didn’t have a clue as to how far the river was away. The creek twisted and turned down a tight valley until after nearly an hour we broke out onto the Kowmung proper. I know this must have been extraordinarily frightening for some of the group who negotiated gingerly each slippery slope to the to the next dry waterhole.
My memory of this junction told me that we would have to wade across the river to get out of the creek mouth, so I had told everyone to be ready to get wet. Poor Steffen, who had no experience of this dry continent and its lack of water, had visions of a chest deep river much like what he was used to back in Denmark. He was a little concerned, understandably, especially trying to do this in the black of a moonless night. As it turned out, the whole river topography had changed and we just walked out onto a dry rocky riverbed, incredibly relieved to be there.
So now do we go on to Orange Bluff or stay where we were? The decision was quick particularly as it was approaching 7:30pm and I had no memory how good or bad negotiating the river would be.
Across the river was a flood plain overflow and this provided a fabulous level camping spot. After clean warm clothes, lamb curry and Persian rice, a cigar and a shot of whisky, all we could manage was crashing into beautiful warm sleeping bags.
The next morning was grey and overcast and it had started to spit. With the prospect of the day being a lot easier we didn’t actually care about the rain. The short trip down to Orange Bluff turned out to be all out of the river as there are banks on either side with grassy tops. Too easy.
Orange Bluff, when we arrived there, turned out to be as beautiful a camp spot as I had remembered it and so we devoured the thought of what a night here would have been like.
The return trip up Brumby ridge was uneventful, just endless up with the first section being the most arduous. We all settled in and plodded our way to the First Top, arriving about 3 hours after we had started. The rain had held off for most of this section but as we got higher the temperature dropped quickly and each slight breath of a westerly wind reminded us that it was winter and we were in Kanangra.
The height gain on the second day was about 840 metres which is quite a climb, not quite in the league of the 1800 metre Hannel’s Spur, but a hard day anyway. We ended up taking about 6¼ hours to do the whole thing so we were ready for a short stop at the kiosk at Jenolan Caves. The leg muscles were now like Plasticine and when we stopped at the Caves, we all hobbled across the road to the cafe, like geriatric cowboys. And the cafe was about to close so no hot food. The growling waitress behind the bar upstairs, who poured our drinks belligerently, made sure we were not going to outstay our welcome anytime soon.
I got very little imagery recorded and nothing about the conservation fights which had been so much on my mind before the walk. I guess I had been concentrating on the wrong things again! The funny thing is though, now that the first day is well behind us, there was a kind of re-assurance that we actually did well in getting down to the river all in one piece. Wrapped up in the little puddles of light that were our torch beams, the bush was somehow comforting and safe, allowing us, this time, to celebrate our success.
- Steffen at the Walls Lookout
- The group at the same lookout
- Just after the Coal Seam Cave looking towards Mt Colong
- Camp on the Kowmung floodplain
- Joan and Michelle at Orange Bluff
- New boots = blisters
- The end