Packrafting the Charismatic Colo River, NSW

Rapid Russian roulette
In our inflatable packrafts we drift towards the final set of rapids of the day. Although out of sight, we are warned of their impending presence by a gurgling rumble that resonates through the ravine. The current hastens us forward but the water’s surface is still smooth as marble and the shallow sandy riverbed is crystal clear. It’s inexplicably calm; native birds cheer us along, but all of a sudden the stream accelerates and we need no further encouragement for, unable to resist the river’s momentum, we have reached the point of no return. Its rumble turns to a loud roar. Whitewater appears ahead but most of the watercourse slopes down and is obscured from our position. Someone nervously shouts, “Argh mate, what have you got us into this time!?” before turning his complete attention to the task at hand. Just as the tips of our crafts reach rough water, the full magnitude of the turbulent descent is revealed to us four novices. Senses sharpen, seconds slow, allowing time for the gamble we’ve played to dawn upon us; blind to the safest paths until it was too late.
Cast adrift
Richie leads down the right side, handling it well until he is abruptly pinned against a boulder. He is powerless to escape the river’s pressure, which builds up against his vessel and tips him sideways in slow motion. Taking the same line, I career past Richie, nudging him with my boat, dislodging him and allowing the river to flush him out. Dan is immediately behind and also makes it through intact.
Only Idi remains. The three of us watch as he charges down the middle, dodging trees and uneven stone blocks. Progress at first but then the unpredictable river steers him forcefully towards a rocky cluster. Idi counter-paddles but there’s no point, he is surrounded and out of options. His face contorts with the realisation of his predicament. The inevitable capsize follows. Moments later he surfaces among frenzied waves that throw him around like a leaf in a storm, before jettisoning him into calmer waters, where Dan is able to lend a hand. Despite the close call, Idi is in good spirits, as are we all, exhilarated by the experience.
Practice makes perfect
We regroup on a small patch of sandy shoreline and find a high vantage point from which to observe the wild rapids we’d just encountered. Immense quantities of fresh water squeeze through this narrow corridor of the Colo River on their way to the Hawkesbury River and ultimately the South Pacific Ocean. The kinetic energy before us is inspiring and after examining better routes, we portage back to tackle the same rapids again. Taking different lines each time and feeling that same uplifting thrill as we did on our first.
The riverbank makes for a comfortable lunch spot where we reflect on the journey thus far and how we came to be travelling through this remote and beautiful wilderness environment in such perfect conditions.
Every cloud has a silver lining
During the past two weeks, a persistent wet weather system had settled over much of the state, including the Colo’s catchment area. The grey skies and frequent showers felt like scenes from London, not Sydney. But there was one benefit. Exploring the Colo River had been on my mind for more than two years and the rains were making this possible, by transforming it from a dehydrated trickle into a surging stream. Religiously, we monitored its height through the Bureau of Meteorology, and once it started to ease, from severe flood levels, we knew it was our time.
A few days later we are descending Bob Turners Track into one of the world’s largest gorges, where few people visit. What a privilege to be here. The walk is pleasant and soon enough we meet the river. We blow up the Alpacka rafts and take them for a ‘test spin’ by paddling upstream towards King Rapid, which is the river’s toughest rough water segment. We get very close but are repelled by the gushing outflow and cannot find portage options.
Back at the base of Bob Turners we fasten our backpacks to the front of our cargo carriers and travel downstream. At times we enjoy the faster pace and physical workout that comes with consistent paddling but we are also content to meander along, savouring the sights, sounds and scents of the natural world around us. The ebb and flow of our approach is occasionally interrupted by rapids that turbocharge; first one, then another, followed by the finale, which is by far the tastiest of the day.
Ending with serenity and speed
The rest of the day continues in much the same way sans rapids. In this secluded sanctuary we let the river guide us – all four rafts tethered with cord – floating around broad bends, under overhanging trees and around islets composed of dense plants. We stretch out, as does time itself, feeling a sense of calm pervade the canyon. An irresistible meditative peace engulfs the mind. Perhaps an hour goes by but our pace is too slow to continue in this way. We snap out of the trance and hightail it to the finish at the Upper Colo River bridge, 9.5 hours and 31 kilometres after heading out.
Two years in the making – the wait was worth it!
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100 Hours in New Zealand

We are welcomed by NZ’s highest peaks; Mount Cook’s eternal sister, standing proud and regal in the distance as we conclude our 275km scenic drive from Christchurch to Aoraki National Park. Mesmerising, timeless beauty on such a grand scale. We hike up Mount Ollivier to get a better vantage point and find that “[we] only went out for a walk [but] finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, [we] found, was really going in.” – John Muir

New Zealand had been on my radar for some time, so when I saw return flights for just $400, I knew it was time to cross the ditch and finally explore this magnificent island nation. Two days later my good friend and I touched down in Christchurch about midnight. With 100 hours on the ground, the plan was to make every minute count with an itinerary light on sleep but bursting with experience — from gourmet food to glacial fields, quaint towns to crazy treks, and azure lakes to alpine landscapes.
Our journey through this verdant land with colossal snow-capped peaks saw us travel 1200 kilometres on scenic uncrowded roads. We hiked to Mueller Hut and beyond to Mount Ollivier, the exact climb that inspired Sir Edmund Hillary’s mountaineering career, and then we dashed over to the adrenalin capital of the world, Queenstown. There, we unleashed a rush of endorphins as we downhill mountain-biked the steep trails of the Skyline, followed immediately by a high-speed jet boat trip before finally easing off the throttle as we sipped lager at a boutique pub proud of its creative craft beers. Next, we found ourselves in Wanaka and Lake Hāwea for another quad-breaking tramp (as the Kiwis call it) to the isolated Grandview Mountain, though any calories burnt were countered by crispy wood-fired pizzas for dinner back in Wanaka. The clock struck nine of the hour and our flight from Christchurch was due to depart at the crack of dawn. We hit double espressos, beelined back to Christchurch, caught an hour shut-eye in the hire car, returned the keys and flew over the Tasman Sea back to Sydney, just in time for work. It was an inspiring first trip to NZ and the first, I hope, of many more.

A spontaneous decision to fly to New Zealand with Edan. We arrived in Christchurch at midnight, were asleep by 2.00am but on the beach by 6.00am to be greeted with a golden sunrise to mark the start of our road trip. The plan from there was to squeeze as much as humanly possible into four full days, sacrificing sleep in favour of unique experiences.

Stop and smell the lavender – just one of the many incredible pit stops on our travels

A sea of lavender

There is only a handful of countries in the world with such blue-turquoise lakes due to fine “glacial flour” pouring and streaming down from the surrounding mountains

Roadblock

Somewhere en route to Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park

Rolling hills and luscious colours

Sealy Tarns on the way to Mueller Hut and then Mount Ollivier

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” – John Muir

The red roof of Mueller Hut below

Quintessentially road-tripping

The beautiful Lake Tekapo

Back-burning

Lakes everywhere

Where’s Wally? Scrambling up towards Mt Ollivier

No caption required

The spirit of New Zealand engulfs us and the wonders we encounter in this remote and rugged region draw us ever closer to the natural world around us

Looking out from Mount Ollivier

Looking out from Mount Ollivier over the entrance to Mount Cook National Park

Gas stop

Queenstown from above

Downhill mountain biking the Skyline trails

Horse power

Heading out from Lake Hāwea, Idi and I had the Grandview hike all to ourselves. The isolation was invigorating, not to mention the 1000m vertical ascent and descent over 18km.

We set off from the Grandview trail head under sunny blue skies, but as we ascended, a wicked wind whipped us from the west. We knew it had swept over the snowcapped peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park, but we were still surprised by its icy fury. Despite travelling uphill, we had to wear thermals, fleeces and windbreakers. Our preparation had put us in good stead. In one of the last photos of our New Zealand adventure, Idi begins the descent while I hang back to capture a few photos before he vanishes into the white abyss.

There is happiness and gratitude written all over my face as the New Zealand adventure nears its conclusion at the top of the Grandview hike with windy, near-freezing conditions. We left no stone unturned in our quest to experience as much of this extraordinary country as possible in a short space of time. Thank you NZ and Idi for what I hope to be the first of many unforgettable trips to this country.

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Bushwhacked in the Budawangs

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Cerebral implants of epic proportions 
The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You – it’s the name of a strangely captivating motivational piece by Johnny Truant and somehow it had found its way onto my Kindle reader while en route to the Budawangs. Its message is abundantly clear: seize the day and make your mark. 
Anthony Kiedis’s voice emanates from the car’s speakers and fills the cabin as we drive from Sydney to Morton National Park. It’s music to the ears (obviously), but to five school friends of thirty years, it is so much more because at its core lies a nostalgic potency. Its acoustic tentacles reach deep into the recesses of our minds and deliver old memories and stories to the present. Remember when we were young! Shall we throw caution to the wind once again, for old times’ sake!?
And then, the music fades as we transition into a full reading of Johnny’s 4000-word book. Idi’s stentorian voice is so powerful it puts Anthony Kiedis’s to shame. Idi is overcome with rapturous lunacy, yet somehow the delivery works and complements the words, the passages and its call to action. He reads aloud, eyes aflame: 
You are here now … You have but a nanosecond on the universal clock to do whatever it is you’re going to do. When that time is gone, it’s gone. Forever … There is only now. If you have power, it’s now. If you can change anything, you have to do it now. If you want to be or to have that next great thing, be it. Have it. Take it. Own it. Do it. Become it. Be awesome. Do epic shit. Do it now. The clock is ticking.
Something stirs deep inside Tal’s subconscious. He does not even know it yet but the epic seed has been planted. At a critical juncture in our Budawangs journey, it will germinate, compelling Tal to uncharacteristically throw caution to the wind by advocating an impossible extension to our already long trek. But more on that later. 
Loading up on carbs and gear
First, we pit stop at a fancy Milton restaurant and eat like kings for tomorrow we ascend the Castle, the Budawangs’ terraced tabletop mountain and the jewel in this region’s crown of fortressed peaks. Wined and dined! We fight off the food coma, pile back into the 4×4 and drive directly to a basic lodge on the Clyde River, conveniently close to the trek’s start at Long Gully. Under a canopy of stars, we enter our cabin and prepare packs; always a painstaking process with every item pored over for its utility while striving to minimise weight. Beasts of burden we are not, yet at this stage it is easy to convince oneself that an extra ounce here or there won’t add up to a pounding of one’s stamina. Over eighty- or ninety-thousand steps in tough terrain, investment in intelligent weight minimisation pays dividends step after step after step. By the time we’ve accomplished this packing feat, we have enough time for about five hours’ shut-eye before our pre-dawn departure. 
Alarm clocks ring. Caffeine hit. Make that a double-double for Richie. Hot chocolate for Ezra (what’s the point!?). Set off. 
King of the Castle but our reign doesn’t make the history books 
After a short and sinuous drive, we are at Long Gully. In the dark, we walk past a scattering of faintly visible tents to the trail head and step through the threshold into an organic oasis that calms the mind. Guided by headlamps, we cross the Yadboro River and commence the steady uphill along Kalianna Ridge. We rise up with the sun, and now in full daylight appreciate the spectacular views of the valley behind us. Up, up, up. Time passes. We reach the Castle’s lower ramparts – for bushwalkers, the only way to ascend is to exploit the one and only chink in its armour, by piercing through its torso (‘Meakins Pass’) and scaling its tail (‘the Tadpole’) to the summit. After lots of scrambling we stand atop the Castle and look down 800 metres to where we started, and far beyond in every direction. Pristine panoramas present a sea of greenery, interspersed with black granite cliffs and sandstone walls sunburnt with ochre streaks and, finally, beyond Pigeon House and Ulladulla lies the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. It’s an immersive, wholly mesmerising moment that even the talented brush strokes of a master artist could not convey. For the full picture, one must stand in this very place and soak up the entire elemental experience. We are humbled by its timeless beauty.
We travel along the Castle’s scrubby and rocky summit plateau towards its southern cliff line in search of the logbook. Despite the flat terrain, our pace is slowed by barriers of bristly bush, which thrives up here. Taking the path of least resistance, we zigzag our way southwards, until finally reaching an excellent vantage point of Byangee Walls, albeit with no sign of the logbook. We enjoy a meditative moment in this tranquil setting before cold winds breathe down our necks, ushering us into action to reach our next objective, the Monolith Valley.
Making monolithic memories
Three hours after departing the Castle’s peak and 7.5 hours since starting out, with the sun now directly overhead, we stand at the periphery of the grand Monolith Valley. It feels like an enormous natural colosseum – its central plateau is a maze of dense bushland surrounded by glaring cliff faces and, here and there, imposing stone pillars (‘monoliths’) stand guard over this fragile ecosystem. We sit atop a million-tonne rock with a flat peak; heat radiates from its surface. It is quiet save for nature’s soothing sounds and each of us drifts into a long and peaceful state of rest. Snap, snap, snap – the alien artificial sound of my camera brings Idi, Tal, Ezra and Richie back to life. It is time to move on. 
Birth of a brainwave
At the entrance to the Monolith Valley’s labyrinth, Tal studies the topographical map for a route to Seven Gods Pinnacles, our intended next milestone. Then I suggest, only half-seriously, that instead we climb Mount Owen, descend the narrow gully on its western side, circumnavigate its northerly cousin Mount Cole and approach Seven Gods Pinnacles from the opposite side, before returning to our current spot and only then beginning our return to Long Gully. It is an epic route in itself, let alone as an extension to our already long journey! I fully and reasonably expect point-blank rejections and secretly welcome such, but my friends actually consider the proposal; though in reality it is Tal as traditional lead navigator who needs to be persuaded – his endorsement has the most gravity. Surprisingly, no convincing is required – all that sweat, sun and serenity have gone to his head and nourished the epic seed, sown less than twenty-four hours earlier, into a resilient, highly contagious idea. Be epic! Do it now! The clock is ticking! Carried by the wind, Johnny Truant’s words beckon: 
Realise that time will never stop. Never. It’s like being on a train with no stops that’s always leading you farther and farther from home … You can never get off that train. You can never board a train going in the opposite direction. If you missed a stop, tough shit. If there was this great thing even just two miles back that you decided not to do, you can’t change your mind and go do it. That place is gone forever. 
Just do it. Claim it. Stop waiting for permission to be epic … Want to be epic? Just do epic shit. There’s nothing else to it. Nobody’s going to make you good, or great, or amazing, or epic. Nobody’s going to level you up. If you want that next level, take it. Take it for yourself. Grab it. Become it. Claim it. Do it. Do it. And, if you fail, big deal.
Epic extensions
Optimistically we forge ahead knowing, deep down, that we’re biting off more than we can chew, but still willing, indeed eager, to put our best foot forward and give it a shot. Good navigation (and cairns) sees us move swiftly through the convoluted alleyways of the valley, until the tenuous track dips down and spits us out into a creek bed. It is cooler and darker here as the surrounding mountains cast shadows and thousands of trees form a canopy overhead as they seek ever greater heights in a competitive struggle for sunlight. 
Like the trickling stream underfoot we move slowly, consulting the map and searching for a way to the roof of Mount Owen. Something catches Tal’s eye on the slope to our right – a potentially passable sliver running diagonally upwards offering a less precipitous approach. It’s our best bet. We slip and slide our way up, using exposed tree roots and rocky protrusions as handholds and anchors before abruptly descending into yet another creek bed. Oaky Creek is blanketed by rainforest vegetation and fallen trees. We travel upstream using a combination of moss-covered boulders and vines as bridges and ladders. Ten hours since we left the cabin. Fatigue starts to set in. Again and again we climb and clamber and stumble. The final section of the climb is blurry and then suddenly a steep incline elevates us beyond the reach of the jungle and the summit is attained. Free of the dense forest we can relax amid space and solitude and hard-earned views of the majestic valley below. It is an unforgettable moment.
The sun sits low in the west; still above the horizon, but daylight is now in short supply. It’s a race against time to find a route off this mountain’s north-west edge into the Owen/Cole divide and then to Trawalla Falls and beyond. In the dark, even with headlamps, locating a safe descent would be a miracle. This mountain has been made from the same mould as the Castle – its peak is rocky but quite flat and large swaths are densely packed with spindly trees and thick tall grass. Navigation is confusing and, for a while, exacerbated by countless cairns that lead us down the garden path, until we ignore them. Still, we continue to encounter false leads and dead ends and eventually pause to face the facts. Some heated exchanges ensue before common sense prevails and we unanimously decide to turn back. There are no regrets. We’ve blown our initial goals out of the water and made it to Mount Owen, a peak that eluded me on a previous trek from the Wog Wog side. I feel great. We’ve guaranteed ourselves the ‘tiger walk’ I was looking for given the remaining mega-journey back to Long Gully – it’s the cherry on top to really test our endurance.
By the time we return to Oaky Creek it is pitch black and we fully rely on our head torches. Even with bright, broad-beamed lights it is hard to get a global perspective of our position and with tunnel vision we miss the turnoff to the valley proper. We travel downhill along the creek towards the cliffs of the main plateau for some time. The area feels different – we find ourselves wading through a compost heap of decaying leaves and fallen trees that occasionally give way to engulf legs and hiking sticks. Clearly we are off course and the possibility of an uncomfortable night’s sleep right here becomes very real. There is no phone reception but there is just enough GPS connectivity to give us our position on my iPhone’s Google Maps app (but only if the maps are pre-loaded, which they were!). A blue marker on the screen confirms what we already know. U-turn and backtrack until we find that critical cairn and we’re back on track and into the Monolith Valley. The detour costs us more than an hour but the experience is priceless (after it’s done, of course).
Home sweet home
Through Nibelung Pass and onto the Castle Walking Track we go, which clobbers quads as it twists and turns its way downhill. We step in, on and around the exposed tree roots and rocky outcrops that infiltrate this path until eventually it flattens and widens and we’re on the home stretch to Long Gully, a full seventeen hours after leaving the cabin.
Just two hours later we’ve gone from the mountains to McDonald’s, from Budawang beauty to burger buns, from pure living to processed largesse and it tastes so good! A further three hours later and we’re back in Sydney. Sleep comes easily.
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Reverse Mt Solitary Traverse (in a day)

Crew: Bloom, Bos, Dan, Idi and Richie.
Mt Solitary in the Blue Mountains has become an annual pilgrimage for me and, as I’ve written before, has a special place in my heart. It was an overnight walk here in the winter of 2013 with a group of friends that triggered an epiphany as to just how rewarding and rejuvenating bushwalking can be for both body and soul.
Bushwalking has all the ingredients of a good adventure but my preference has always been for a recipe requiring generous amounts of blood, sweat and tears in order to test one’s physical boundaries and build camaraderie among mates. The romantic notion of an enduring and arduous walk has been gnawing at me for some time and though Reverse Mt Solitary in a Day did not qualify as sufficiently challenging, it did offer a taste of what is to come when I finally convert this idea into practice in the future, whether it be via the classic Three Peaks, K2K-in-a-day or one of the ‘multi-dayers’ in Tasmania.
On this occasion, we reversed the classic Mt Solitary traverse by starting somewhere along Kedumba Valley Rd and finished atop the Golden Staircase (as mapped below). We also threw in a ‘bushbashing’ detour near the Kedumba River, which tested our navigational skills. It was a powerful reminder of just how quickly one can lose one’s bearings in this oceanic woodland …
… this tangled network of fallen leaves, dense underbrush, sudden crags and soaring trees blocked and obscured landmarks leaving us unable to reconcile our physical location with the map. The intention had been to reconnect with the Mt Solitary Walking Track but after roaming through this undulating leech-infested terrain with no sign of said path, we decided there was only one way to end our predicament. And so, we followed one of the many tributaries of the Kedumba River back to our position pre-detour. All said and done, this circumbendibus cost us 2 hours 36 minutes but was priceless in adventure gained and lesson learnt – always travel with a compass!
Having previously written about the beauty of this isolated sandstone plateau, I’ll let the pictures and accompanying captions tell the story for the 2016 experience. Overall, we spent 11 hours 51 minutes in the wilderness covering 26km and accumulating 1,816m and 1,656m in vertical ascent and descent (respectively).
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Pilgrims in Tasmania’s Holy Land: Walls of Jerusalem National Park

By Daniel Frank

Day 1

Crew: Bergman, Doff, Frank and Greenblo.
We were beginning to believe we would have to spend the night out here, perched on the mountainside between trees that were slouching under the weight of snow. It is already dark and there is no prospect of pitching tents on the steep slope. Our goal is Lake Meston Hut. We know we are close but cannot be certain; the trail lost long ago. The little yellow marker on our GPS indicates the hut is surprisingly close; less than 100 footsteps away, but as we strain our eyes we see no evidence of shelter, not even a faint outline. Instead, we are confronted with more of the same black, dense woodland we’ve found ourselves wading through these past few hours. We surge forward in desperation, leap over a small creek and, to our relief, finally find ourselves in a small clearing with the hut its centrepiece. As we enter the ramshackle timber structure, we feel grateful to be here, rewarded for our efforts, and despite its shortcomings, it is a sanctuary for the night.
As we settle in for the evening, I can’t help but reflect on just how far we’d pushed. We are too fatigued for the usual campsite banter, managing only the bare minimum of practical exchanges before drifting off into a deep sleep with thoughts of how we’d reached this point swirling in our minds …
… how differently our first day had begun. We made our way along the arduous and bushy Lake Myrtle Trail. It was mainly ‘off track’, but we had just set off and with energy levels still high we made good progress. As we reached Lake Bill, we caught our first glimpse of the Central Plateau, the heart of Tasmania’s pristine high country. The rocky top of Mt Rogoona lay in the distance and quaggy Lake Bill surrounded by a patchwork of snow. We had passed Lake Myrtle, which glistened in the gentle Tasmanian light. It was prehistoric and both subtly and spectacularly beautiful.
 The rest of that day had progressively become more challenging. The snow cover increased and the track disappeared. Our pace slowed to a mere 500 metres an hour, hampered by thick scrub. We pushed on, not knowing just how much tougher the terrain would become. Its difficulty peaked in those final hours and minutes, when we stood in the dead of the night, disoriented but only 100 footsteps from our sanctuary.

Day 2

Faint rays of morning light pierce through cavities in the cabin’s walls and encourage us out of sleeping bags. The hut had afforded us a good night’s rest and served us well, as it had others before us. The logbook shows that we are the first people here in four months! We proudly call ourselves the ‘winter warriors’, though we are not sure if it was bravery or stupidity that drove us to take on the snow and marshland of Tasmania’s Central Plateau.

We start Day 2 much as we had finished the first. The path is unstable in the icy mush, blocked by yet more snow-bent saplings. Our decision to venture up here during winter is being tested. But at least it is relatively flat and we can see picturesque Lake Meston as we push on.
At the northern end of Lake Meston we come across a lovely little campsite, which had clearly been the preferred choice for those sensible enough to choose summer as the season to meander the Walls of Jerusalem National Park. We move passed it and across an undulating snow-covered plain towards Lake Adelaide. It’s black, tannin-stained water constantly draws our gaze as we walk along its eastern edge. It is overcast and spitting but undeniably magnificent. We stop for a lazy lunch on the trail, just a couple of metres from the lake’s shore.

Tonight, we camp by the famous Pencil Pines at the northern end of Lake Adelaide. The trees are so triangular in shape that they look like props from a low-budget Christmas special. The day had been hard but, this time, we reached camp well before dark. We string up a tarp between the trees to protect us from the rain. We joke and laugh, preparing endless cups of tea from lake water that tastes artificially sweet. The isolation, the beauty, and the challenge were sinking in.

Day 3

In the morning we put on our snowshoes in anticipation of yet more snow. But as we scale up a small hill towards Mt Moriah the snow disappears. Taking our snowshoes on and off subject to the conditions had already become a theme of the trip. Depending on the aspect of the hill, the snow would either be non-existent, icy slush or just plain deep.
At the top we encounter another snow-covered plain which leads to the beginning of Lake Ball. Closer to the lake we come across a strange environment of partially submerged, spongy plants with fast flowing rivulets between them. Hopping across we make it to the other side and what we find astounds us. Lake Ball is partially frozen and thick enough to walk on in places. We just didn’t believe this was Australia – it felt like the Patagonian wilds or the Canadian tundra.
The track continues and once again we are on a hillside. It becomes increasingly steep, probably 45 degrees. One false step and you would slide down to the lake shore and perhaps into it. The snow forces us to slam our snowshoes into the side of the hill to get a footing. This became increasingly important as more and more jagged granite rocks started to poke out. Our fear of falling into the lake was replaced by a fear of being impaled. The rocks looked deliberately carved and strategically placed like fortifications intended to keep people away. The weather and the mountains were trying to kill us, this much was clear.
But like the weather on the Plateau, nothing lasts forever and the track once again flattens out. Ahead of us, the gentle incline of Jaffa Vale leads to Dixons Kingdom Hut, perhaps the most famous hut in the park. It is a shallow incline but the going is tough. The snow is uncompacted causing us to drop knee- or even waist-deep into spiky bushes or gaping holes between the vegetation, over and over again.

Arriving at Dixons is bittersweet. Like us, the hut is cold and damp. We eat lunch and watch the rainfall. We are only half way to Wild Dog Creek Camp. Exhausted and freezing, we consider staying the night but decide to push on, ensuring a quicker, earlier exit in the morning.
Just beyond Dixons Kingdom Hut we see deep footsteps imprinted in the snow. Perhaps we aren’t the only crazy people out here, though we’d not actually seen another person since we set out.
Desperate to avoid walking in the dark again we attack the trail and soon enough reach Damascus Gate. The spectacular glory of the main Walls area presents itself: to our left are the imposing cliffs of Solomon’s Throne and King David’s Peak and to our right innumerable lakes, patches of Pencil Pines and a distant stormy horizon. The despair of lunch lifted. The grueling and relentless battle it had been to reach this point was worth it many times over.
We move quickly downhill towards Wild Dog Creek, passing the Pools of Bethesda. Wallabies and wombats casually graze in the bush as we pass. Our third campsite has tent platforms, toilets and tapped water. It feels so developed. There is also a resident possum that is incredibly persistent in its attempts to pilfer our food. The lack of sustenance among the snow made the animal desperate and unperturbed by our shouts and gestures. Everything out here is tough, even the possums.
Just as we finish setting up camp it starts to snow heavily. We have now experienced all types of weather except (thankfully) a severe storm. Tassie’s unpredictable weather is oh so constant.

Day 4

The final leg of our journey passed Trappers Hut is purposeful. There is still plenty of snow but as we descend little streams of water appear, finally converging and turning the track into a fast flowing creek. Despite only being a few degrees above zero it felt decidedly balmy compared to the cold nights. And, just like that we had left the Central Plateau.

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Expedition X – Midwinter in Kosciuszko NP

The crew, just before setting out from Guthega.
Guthega Power Station greets us early on in our snowy mountains midwinter trek. We’ve been lucky with snow bucketing down in the lead-up to this weekend extravaganza of snow, sweat and solitude.
It is still early on our first day and the uphill battle begins. It is a steep climb, made harder with heavy packs and of course fresh powder snow that could easily swallow you up to your waist, even with snow shoes. Still, we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
In the distance, we see signs of a climatic change. Thick clouds and fog stare us down and reach us with alarming speed. Enshrouded. The wind intensifies, visibility drops and so too does the mercury. We charge upwards and as some of the crew breaks away, they look like silhouetted stick figures in this vast white arena. We reach one of several peaks and thankfully just beyond one we find a place to establish camp; it is not where we had planned to be, but daylight is running out.
By now, we are knackered and desperately want to raise our tents and settle in for a steaming-hot cup of tea. But first, a whole lot of hard yakka – shovels out, lots of landscaping (i.e. create level ground and windbreaks) and finally pitch tents and secure to snow using dagger-length (+30cm) pegs. Everything takes so much longer when travelling in the snow!
At last, we are able to take refuge in our tiny tents, shielding ourselves from the elements while stretching out weary legs and strained backs on a cosy double base layer comprising a foam closed-cell mat and an inflatable mattress (Thermarests in our case). Bliss, for a period. But as time goes on, I realise the snow is further compacting underneath my bodyweight and soon enough my bed is uneven and sloping and as I sleep, I slowly slide toward Richie in what was already a very snug space. Though with the temperature plummeting overnight to 9 below zero, forced spooning with Richie has its practical benefits.
So, with the first night behind us, we further develop our ‘tent city’ and build a kitchen, a communal lounge area and reinforce our windbreaks, which took a shellacking overnight. We then take the opportunity to explore the surrounding mountains free of backpacks, feeling light on our feet, like snow leopards instead of the beasts of burden we had become yesterday. The natural splendour and solitude of this Martian landscape gives rise to a tremendous sense of inner calm and peace. In our hyperactive modern worlds with sleepless, supercharged cities it has never been harder to ‘switch off’, but doing so has the power to switch on one’s senses and awaken that innate connection to the natural world that resides in all of us. I am grateful to be here.
Later, the sun descends and a shadowy curtain creeps along the valley floor. There is a brief but brilliant display of purple hues while the sun sits behind the surrounding mountains, until inevitably it is swallowed by an invisible horizon and night, but not darkness, is upon us. Billions and billions of stars appear and illuminate the sky. It is spectacular and a sight we had been hoping to witness. We stare in awe at its beauty and immensity.
It is so cold inside the tent that by morning the water in my bottle is frozen solid. So, as one can imagine, the urge to pee at night is not a welcome sensation. It means braving the chill and sacrificing all that warmth in the sleeping bag! Though, some of the better prepared among us had devised a convenient way of dealing with this issue without ever having to leave the comfort of their sleeping bags…
In the morning, we are welcomed by perfect weather and we quickly strike camp and begin the arduous return journey. Step by step, in essential show shoes, we travel up and over small crests and into shallow depressions until eventually we start a long steep descent. Down, down, down we go, at pace and only checked by falling into an occasional snowy trapdoor and a wrestle to escape. Was Kosciuszko National Park trying to keep us here a little longer? We promised to return.
Thank you all for a memorable adventure.
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Mt Solitary’s Magnetism Draws Us Back

It’s an arduous climb up Mt Solitary in the Blue Mountains but the views are well worth it. Here, the crew stands in silhouette after pitching tents on its peak just in time for a pinky-purple sundown.

The Blue Mountains is home to so many wonderful walks. One, which holds a special place in my heart, is the Mt Solitary Traverse. It really triggered my interest and passion for bushwalking in Australia, back in 2013. And I know that our crew feels the same way.

After descending for hours from the top of Mt Solitary in the Blue Mountains, we finally arrive at this peaceful spot. It is surrounded by prehistoric trees, both standing and prostrate, scattered river rocks cover the ground and sounds of flowing water fill the air as Kedumba river meanders by.

This year, we return to trek Mt Solitary. It is equally grand and spectacular and exhausting as the first time. We set out and descend the Golden Staircase towards the Federal Pass walking track. The air tastes fresh and clean; just one of the many rejuvenating characteristics of the region. A climb up the Ruined Castle makes for a peaceful pit stop before we soldier on and scramble up Koorowall Knife-edge towards the summit. We pause along the ridge and turn back to admire glorious views on a crystal clear day. The Ruined Castle is a mere mound on the ridge from this elevated perspective.

On top of the Ruined Castle

Lunch is a relaxing affair surrounded by Casuarina trees. Sunlight streams through gaps in the vegetation and provides a source of warmth during our rest.
We pass through Chinamans Gully and enjoy a moment of silence at a lookout with sweeping views. A calming quiet interspersed with occasional chirping birds and a whistling wind. An organic audio of sorts.
Good camping is possible at Chinamans Gully, particularly in wet weather as large overhanging caves afford protection from the elements. But, we push on in search of our campsite from 2 years earlier. It is the perfect spot with good shelter, stellar views and a central place for a warming fire.

Cosy by the fire. Note the makeshift clothes line in the background.

Collect wood, raise tents, kindle the kindling and build a fire. As the sun fades away so does the temperature, reaching a low of just above freezing. Move away from the fire and feel the ferocity of the cold’s claws. We settle in, eat a hearty, hot dinner and sip whiskey in the good company of our 5-strong crew: Franky, Richie, Bos, Blitz and Ben.
Sleep comes so very easily.
Sunrise.
Backpacks re-packed (lighter now) we head off. We scramble, slide and switchback as we descend Mt Solitary into the valley below until we reach its nadir at Kedumba River. It’s a beautiful place to eat lunch and savour the final moments of tranquility in this natural setting before we tackle the arduous climb out of the bush and ultimately return to civilisation.
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After descending Mt Solitary’s steep ridge line, we find ourselves deep in one of the Blue Mountains’ many valleys where the Kedumba river lazily twists and turns over rocks and between towering trees. Cold and refreshing it provides us with a valuable source of water with which to fill our water bottles.

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A relaxing moment at camp. Lightweight foldable chairs a true luxury!

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A moment of silence.

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Early morning cloudy fog creeps through the mountains.

Panoramic photo showing the view from our campsite.

Sunrise at camp.

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Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: 55km over 2 Days in Budawang NP

Report by Daniel Bos and Tal Bergman
Photography by Daniel Bos, Rick Munitz and Seb Ruiz
We set off from Sydney, driving south towards the wilderness of Budawang National Park, and reach the trailhead of our ambitious expedition in the dark of night. Far from city lights, stars reveal themselves in all their luminosity, leaping out of the black canvas of outer space. It is an awesome sight that is too often forgotten when living in the city. With this natural backdrop, our crew, a mixed bag of greenhorns and semi-experienced bushwalkers, cocoon themselves in sleeping bags for a brief night’s shuteye. All sleep soundly, blissfully unaware of the challenging distances and arduous terrain that lie ahead over the next 48 hours … We would come to realise that converting our topographical map’s contours and dotted lines into reality would entail trailblazing through thick defiant bushland, deep valleys, flowing rivers and treacherous cliffs. But we would not have wanted it any other way.
The crew before setting out: Daniel Bos, Daniel Frank, Richie Doff, Seb Ruiz, Shaun Greenblo, Jason Shein, Josh Biggs, Lee Leibowitz, Tal Bergman and Rick Munitz

The crew before setting out: Daniel Bos, Daniel Frank, Richie Doff, Seb Ruiz, Shaun Greenblo, Jason Shein, Josh Biggs, Lee Leibowitz, Tal Bergman and Rick Munitz

We rise at the crack of dawn, don backpacks and set off. Just a few steps in, bulky packs bear down and cause doubts … did Shaun really need to bring that gourmet Indian chicken curry for dinner, did Jason really need an espresso coffee plunger or did we really need to travel with four pro DSLRs among us!? Questions of weight and pack efficiency are quickly swept away by the flowing Wog Wog Creek, which demands that we unstrap gaiters and step out of freshly laced hiking boots to make it across dry. Except Lee, who, shoes and all, wades across unfazed by a splash of water, in the same determined manner that he would later bring to forming new trails in unchartered territory, under the navigational guidance of captain Tal and his first lieutenant Franky, of course. The rest of us are a lot more precious.
As the sun edges up further, it gives way to a morning of spectacular weather, showing off the Budawang region in all its elemental beauty. We make swift time travelling the picturesque countryside around Corang Peak and reach Corang Arch where we break for lunch, which tastes so much better than it ever could anywhere else. A plain sandwich or piece of fruit in this environment, after this level of exertion, is better than any meal at any award-winning restaurant in any city. Some of the crew explore the impressive arch-shaped rock formation that forces of erosion, probably some determined stream, managed to hollow out over an epic period of time. Others choose to conserve energy and sit back and relax; a wise decision in light of the significant distances and tumultuous weather that lie ahead.
Descending the rocky Corang Arch to the valley floor brings us to the junction point for our path home the next day. For now, we take the trail east towards the camping caves at the base of Mount Cole. Crossing the plateau presents another opportunity for our photographers to capture the lighthearted mood of the group surrounded by tall swaying grass. For a perspective of vastness, one of the photos show us as mere specks in this giant field in an endless landscape.
We push on, passing by Mt Bibbenluke and by this stage the compounding effects of distance and the burden of Tal’s pack begin to chip away at his energy levels but not his resolve. “Next time, I’ll be fitter” he promises himself. To add to his sense of fatigue, ominous clouds, claps of thunder and flashes of lightening stare us down from the horizon and within minutes are upon us. The storm invigorates some and unsettles others. The power of Mother Nature in all her glory. Waterproof clothing proves a reliable defence but in the Australian climate (unlike colder alpine regions) the breathability of Gortex (or similar) is always a double-edged sword as sweat builds up from within.
With only four kilometres to our intended destination, we reach an unexpected fork in the trail and neither left nor right provides any sign of being the correct way forward. It’s 50:50 odds. Leftwards we go but before long we are waist-deep in a tangle of plants with thorns as sharp and penetrating as the hawks’ talons that were hovering above earlier in the day. We backtrack and return to the fork and a couple of our crew scout out the area seeking a path. While we wait, comic relief as someone lets one rip, but the fumes are trapped by his waterproof coat and chimney their way up and out past his head, burning his eyes and providing immediate karma.
We follow the scouts in the right direction and time passes in relative quiet save for our footsteps plodding through muddy trails and the steady stream of rain ricocheting off synthetic jackets. At last we arrive at the foot of Mt Cole and after a short scramble enter its dry cavernous overhangs and organise camp. Despite the slightly sloping ground, our campsite is impressive and unique in that it is located directly behind a waterfall flowing off the top of Mt Cole. This cascading curtain provides an unlimited source of fresh water for drinking and cooking and its sound adds to the sense of tranquility of this setting. Soon enough, we are sitting around a warm fire, sipping whiskey and devouring hard-earned dinners, before realising that we, too, are being eaten for dinner by voracious leeches. We survey our bodies, some are unscathed but others and, one in particular, find leeches in some awkward crevices.
Some good old banter ensues around the fire until sleep finally summons with the crew retreating to tents, some sloping more than others.
*   *   *   *   *   *   *
A new dawn. Weary bodies congregate around the fire pit and stoke remnant embers back to life. Its warmth energises and its flickering flames mesmerise drowsy eyes, but we cannot delay departure if we are to cover 30 kilometres today. WTF? Just 30 kilometres after only 25 kilometres the day before. Aching bodies. Really!? HTFU. At this juncture, explanation of bushwalking distance is warranted. Thirty kilometres in this terrain with pack weights of about 20 kilograms is simply not equivalent to 30 kilometres elsewhere. Is it harder by a factor of two or more times? Yes, very possibly; but irrespective of the precise factor, it is undeniably tougher and requires a different type of fitness, even to its cousin of long-distance running. (Note: this does not apply to Shaun, who missed his calling as an Olympic athlete).
Before we strike camp with a ‘leave no trace’ philosophy, Seb assumes the role of medic and tends to those with injuries, in particular Jason’s swollen ankle, which looks like a genetically modified grapefruit. With all restored and packed, we bid our camping cave farewell, grateful for its sheltered embrace.
Today brings with it an appreciation of what is in store for the return leg, or at least part of it. But with ambition becoming the catchcry of this adventure, we are determined to live up to its calling, alas except for climbing nearby Mt Owen, much to Bos’s dismay! We retrace our slippery steps, beat the same peaks and troughs and pass through grassy plains, until we return to the base of Corang Arch. The morning showers have been replaced by blue skies and the group is in good spirits. We stop to study the maps and decide on an alternative route home, heading north to intersect Corang River and then west through an area devoid of markings and trails. We were about to become well-acquainted with ‘bush-bashing’ and have our navigational skills tested.
Just before embarking on this new segment, Franky recalls that he’s brought Anzac Day badges for everyone and despite being a day late, we hold a minute of silence for our national remembrance day. With badges pinned to our shirts we set off across the valley floor. Rolling hills surround us and the route forward is not clear, but before long we register that we are walking on fresh marshland formed by the overflowing Canowrie Creek. The narrow creek’s core cuts through the heart of the hills, drawing us deeper into the wilderness. From here, a semblance of a trail sporadically shows itself but then vanishes, permanently.
Navigation proves confusing as there are no obvious landmarks; no prominent peaks from which to triangulate position and travel alongside the river at all times is fraught with risk because of dangerous impassable terrain. And, unforgivably, we had forgotten a compass; we have an espresso coffee plunger, a solar powered coffee grinder and beans that have been squeezed from the alimentary canal of a South American Jacu Bird, but no bloody compass! Did we refer to some of us as semi-experienced bushwalkers? I think not. This is a rookie error that only one of us had a right to make, namely Josh, since this is his first time out bush. And while he would not have been out of line to have thought “what the fuck are these guys doing!?”, I think he was actually relishing the sudden heightened sense of adventure and the challenge of not having to spend another night out here.
Josh’s hypothetical thoughts aside, the scenery is strikingly beautiful – plants and shrubs exhibiting every shade of green scattered among grey and white boulders and the whole scene punctuated by skeletal trees scorched by recent wildfire. Depending on your perspective, we were either wandering about a real-life quintessential Australian oil painting or through an apocalyptic scene from the bible. I prefer the former, but for the sake of analogy, let us proceed with the biblical scenario of desolation, in which case Tal is Moses, our global positioning shepherd, who, with input from Franky and Lee’s bush-bashing bulldozing power, will lead his tribe to safety.
Meanwhile and back to the 21st century, Bos, Rick and Seb are staring down the viewfinders of their bulky cameras intent on capturing the day from a dizzying array of perspectives, made possible by heavy glassware swinging clumsily about their necks. Suddenly, the raging Corang River appears in one of their lenses in perfect rule-of-thirds composition. The plight of Tal’s people is completely lost on these three photographers, but the rest of the crew realise that the only way out from here is up the steep shark fins ridge we’d been avoiding up until now.
From this point onwards, the day and inevitably night continues in much the same way. We break trail and seek out a path of least resistance, often wading through thick head-high plants in this untouched countryside, returning to the river as the ultimate landmark and guide when it is safe to do so. Just before our final turn away from the river, we come across a section that is calm and inviting but frigid and only Lee, Richie and Shaun dare enter while the rest of us take the time to recover. We resume our hike, the sun sets and just as twilight is upon us we reconnect with the formed trail. Relief. There is still a long way to go before we reach Wog Wog, but navigation will be straightforward from here.
It is a day and weekend of backbreaking work but eternally rewarding on so many levels that only those who were there can truly understand. Thank you all.
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Flashback: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 … Bungeeeee

Time to fly

With a Costa Rica trip fast approaching it’s had me thinking back to San Jose… It is 2004 and my friends and I are in the early stages of a Central & South America adventure meandering south from Mexico all the way to Argentina. I could digress here and endlessly reminisce but I’ll spare myself the nostalgia and get back on point.
A couple of us had already tested our nerve at bungee in one of Mexico’s bustling cities, tethered to the bungee cord with not much more than beach towels wrapped around our ankles!
But San Jose’s bungee is different. The scene is surrounded by greenery, it is quiet, natural and tranquil — the perfect setting to launch yourself from an 85 metre bridge.
One by one, friends step up, resolve conflicting thoughts, find mental clarity, place faith in ropes and jump… free fall… bounce, free fall, bounce, free fall and gradually come to a standstill. The jump may be over quickly but a potent mix of adrenalin and endorphins flood the system, lasting for days.
I’m looking forward to returning to this beautiful little country. Wedged between the Caribbean and the Pacific, this nation squeezes so much in: an abundance of biodiversity, cloudy rainforests, volcanoes, mountains, sun, sea & surf… no wonder it’s known for la pura vida.

After the bungee — jumping for joy; the euphoria cannot be contained

Take off

 

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Flying High – Scenes from the Air

 Hovering over Bondi Beach

A few years ago I flew in a Hughes 500 helicopter around the north of Kauai (Hawaii) in order to capture aerial perspectives of the remote and rugged beauty of the Na Pali coastline. With no doors on the chopper, fresh air blows into the cockpit as the aircraft whizzes through the air and I get the distinct feeling that I am sitting in the abdomen of a giant mechanical insect. I’m consumed by the sights – defiant mountains scarred from battles lost to the patience and power of erosion. Abstract patterns, revealed from up high, are the genius of an artist with a palette of earthy reds, streaming blues and shades of green. The experience is, naturally, inspiring.
5584023551_b2d116b3a0_zSculpted Cliffs, Kauai
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Pacific Patterns, Kauai

Fast-forward to late 2014 when I spontaneously act on a strong desire to see the coastal landscape of my own backyard – Sydney’s beaches – from up in the air. Again, I find myself in a door-less whirlybird looking down at nature’s mesmerising scenes but this time peppered with human activity; crowds of beach lovers – surfers and sunbathers. We fly and hover above some of Australia’s most famous beaches, Maroubra, Bronte, Tamarama and, of course, Bondi Beach.
Seatbelt loose, leaning out of the helicopter with camera in hand, compose, focus, click and repeat. Some of those photographs follow.
131A9340cplScattered, Bondi Beach
1F0A1229cplPeople Pepper, Bondi Beach
BondiWave Formations, Bondi Beach
1F0A1057cplBeached, Bondi Beach
1F0A1100cplTrailblazer, Bondi Beach
131A9182cplPoolside, Bronte
1F0A1364cplGetting Out Beyond the Break, Bondi Beach
131A9347cplTranquil Clarity, Bondi Beach
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Bronte Swirls, Bronte

 

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Mount Solitary Reunion Trek (Blue Mountains)

Introduction
28-29 June 2014
Just before first light, we load cars and make our way from Sydney to the Blue Mountains.
Arrive.
The weather forecast is ominous with +70km/h winds, but the skies are clear and only a zephyr prevails… for now. Katoomba’s quintessential cafe, the Savoy, welcomes us in. Eat, caffeine-ate, debate – to go or not to go. The spirit of adventure saves the day and our twelve-man crew sets off: Jason, Daniel, Dinte, Jordan, Gavin, Jay, Shammy, Shaun, Silver, Haber, Caleb and Steve.
Mount Solitary beckons.
We twist and turn along Glenraphael Drive, catching glimpses of Solitary’s summit.
It’s protected by sheer, spectacular, sandstone walls rising from the depths of the valley floor. Distant cliff faces, wrinkled and scarred, tell tales of time.
Layer upon layer of sediment, deposited by rivers and floods, is compressed and hardened by the weight of the world to form a vast plateau. Millions of years pass by. Shallow seas subside and subterranean forces send rock strata upwards and outwards. Geological pressure, held captive for aeons, can be restrained no longer. The lower, harder rock sheets grimace and contort and bend and flex, destabilising the upper sandstone, which shudders and cracks and fractures and collapses. Earth is being moved and shaped by the architect’s hands of time. But it’s not all gradual and glacial: sporadic volcanic eruptions pepper the landscape with boulders and slabs of stone and magma squeezes through narrow cracks and fills empty spaces to glue and seal the jumble of mountainous rocks. Tableland once more. Time passes. Climate changes. Tectonic tensions tamed. Wind, rain and gravity begin to sculpt and carve forming gullies and valleys, leaving only the hardiest, proudest peaks behind. Eucalypts flourish. Their downward hanging leaves seep aromatic oils. It is picked up and carried by the breeze, dispersed and mixed with vapour and fine dust. Rays of light strike this atmosphere, shorter wavelengths scatter and blues separate from their spectral sisters. This is the hazy blue labyrinth. This is the Blue Mountains.
The Journey
The wind whistles tunes that taunt some and tantalise others as we check backpacks one last time. Let the journey begin.
We descend the Golden Staircase. We step down and out of city skins and feel a fresh state of mind engulf us. Harmony. We are disconnected yet infinitely more connected, to each other and to our surroundings. It is the ideal environment for a real reunion of good friends inspired by Jordan’s visit and actioned by Jason’s planning.

Photo by NSW National Parks showing Mount Solitary in the background and the undulating ridges – which include the Ruined Castle – heading towards it.

By the time we reach the valley floor, we’re sweating and strip back layers in response. At a gentle pace we meander along the flat Federal Pass walking trail, stopping regularly to admire the beauty of this green setting.
Regroup at the turnoff to the Ruined Castle and proceed in single file up steep and uneven rocks towards kingship. Moving along the ridge, shelter is no more. With an icy palm, the wind slaps us about and wipes away beads of sweat. Suddenly, the castle emerges – it’s a collection of enormous boulders and pillars of rock that have stubbornly resisted erosion so that they shoot upwards from an otherwise flat part of the ridge.
It is time to ascend the throne.
Every castle has a weak point. We locate a narrow passage running through the heart of the rock and enter. It is an awkward climb as one by one we chimney up the walls, feeling very exposed until we squeeze through a small opening and find ourselves atop the castle and this ridge’s highest point. Surrounded by stunning scenery, we pause in awe and fall into a moment of silence.
Our reign is over.
We continue along the ridge, take a wrong turn and hurtle down its steep slopes until we rejoin the main trail. We pass through rainforest where giant ferns thrive and coachwood prospers. Just beyond the saddle at Cedar Gap the track rises sharply and we start the climb up Koorowall Knife Edge. It is slow-going as we clamber towards Mount Solitary’s first peak, but all the while we are rewarded with breathtaking views as we inch our way higher and higher. Looking back, the Ruined Castle is but a distant speck reflecting the mileage made and altitude attained. From east to west, a dark curtain of clouds is being drawn on blue skies – it spurs us upwards, intent on establishing camp in dry conditions. Without fanfare we reach the summit, pass through a grove of casuarinas and proceed along the mountain top until we drop into Chinamans Gully saddle where we respond to roaring bellies and assemble tents.
A sudden downpour sends us scurrying to tents and almost washes away our plans for a campfire. But a few good men seek out dry protected ground and stumble upon a series of overhangs west of our main camp. It is a fortuitous finding that guarantees us our desired bonfire experience this evening.
Tonight the wind is both our friend and foe, for it carries clouds and rain afar, revealing universal brilliance but also sends shivers down our spines. And so, we sit around the fire and drink whiskey, absorbing the warmth each has to offer. In the company of friends, we talk and tell stories and laugh and reminisce. Conversation flows freely and naturally from topic to topic for there are no digital distractions to disconnect us and take us off course.
Time passes and the legs need a stretch.
Some of us go for a night wander. We reach a lookout, lie on our backs and lose ourselves in starry skies. Against infinite black, the Milky Way’s blue and pink hues glow and Jason and Gavin marvel at a shooting star that stretches across the ether. The scene is mesmerising but also icy cold as gale-force winds scream over us until we can bear the chill no longer. We stand to leave and notice sounds of song carried by the wind.
We return to find our friends gathered in song. It’s already intense but only just the beginning. It’s a primordial soup of raw emotions and bellowing voices that inexplicably come together as a single primal entity that revels in tribal dance and roaring, rapturous song. Embrace the experience and be liberated.
The next day, we march onwards along the eastern edge of Mount Solitary until we reach the start of the descent that leads us off the mountain. Parts are steep enough that we scramble and slide and often we grip trees and use walking sticks for support. Going downhill can be just as hard on the leg muscles as going up.
Kedumba River appears. Shoes off. Cross. The water is momentarily refreshing and then agonisingly cold. We set ourselves up for lunch on a riverside patch of grass bathed in sun and most of the group braves a pre-lunch swim in the frigid creek water. It’s electrifyingly cold.
As we eat food that tastes so much better, we witness an enormous tree crashing down along the path we just travelled. It strips surrounding trees of branches and leaves and comes to rest.
Reenergised, we pack and leave without a trace. We’re on the home stretch now. It’s a fitting finale, an uphill battle made up of single track and then fire trail wide enough to allow many to walk side by side and savour the last moments of the journey together.
Thank you, Jason, for organising an excellent bushwalk.
Thank you all for making the experience.

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Above the clouds – Barrington Tops

By Daniel Frank
Getting high, the power of prayer, and the long muddy road
Climate change is a bitch. Pacific islands are drowning, storms ravage the earth and scorching summers grow ever longer. So if you are partial to hikes in the Australian bush, the increasing temperatures climate change has brought make the adventure all the more gruelling. Moving through the rugged terrain, it feels as though your body is on fire. But this can be alleviated if you get high
By getting high, I mean go up. Up to where the stringy bark grows, where the wombat reigns supreme and of course, where the snow falls. After a defiantly balmy hike in the Budawangs in May, this is what we did. We got high in the Barrington Tops, and this is the story.
Challenge, extreme
Challenges come in different forms. This hike, beginning at Lagoon Pinch, a few minutes muddy drive from the Allyn River, was going to test our long distance stamina in sub-zero, wet and windy conditions. Not to mention the prospect of snow.
First night’s camp by the Allyn River immediately gave us a sense of just how cold and wet it might be. At about 400m above sea level and more than 100km from the east coast, it was enough to make every breath look like a billow of steam. Thermals, down jackets and beanies made instant appearances as soon as we arrived. After setting up camp right by the roadside, we got a fire going and sipped spirits. Full of anticipation and simply too excited to go to bed we chatted, mostly about gear and what lay ahead. A number of whiskies were consumed.
Bos and Richie had rented a tent and although specifying an alpine edition, they received several different pieces of several different tents. A bit of electrical tape saved the day and enabled these various pieces to hold together. Alpine it was not, but hopefully it would survive whatever the weather threw at us.
The group for this hike was small: Bos, Benny, Lee, Richie and Franky. This was Benny’s first hike with this group however his previous experience would prove invaluable later on. After missing out on the Budawangs due to an injured knee, Richie was like a caged mountain lion waiting to be set free on the steep slopes
On the up
An early start came with a different challenge. As he always does, Lee awoke before everyone, quickly kindled a fire and started boiling water. Whilst getting ready, a gang of five or six kookaburras set up sentinel in a nearby tree. After scoping us out for a few minutes the attack began in earnest. They scooped up frying bacon, attacked Richie’s head (his bright red beanie giving the appearance of an irresistible giant berry in kookaburra eyes?) and daringly harassed us. This continued despite some of us landing (gentle, it should be added) defensive blows as the birds flew by. They knew we weren’t going to hurt them and their sorties persisted. We gave them some bread as a peace offering.
Having driven to Lagoon Pinch up a knee road of mud, we got kitted up, took our traditional group picture and started out. Most of this hike was going to be on fire trail however the gradient was quad-burning steep – about 20%! However what was most notable at the start was the sudden drop in temperature. Now at just over 600m above sea level, it had already dropped a few degrees.
As we began climbing our chirpy conversation was quickly replaced with deep breaths and complaints of sweating. We continued on the steep fire trail for several kilometres. The views were somewhat obscured by clouds but we were focused on the climb ahead. After about two hours the trees broke and a random grass tussock patch appeared on the trail. This was Governors Lookout. We stopped here for an early lunch looking out across the valley towards the snow covered Tops. From here we could see the clouds rising from the valley hitting the Tops. As we prepared our lunch small snowflakes started to fall.

 

In truth I had been praying for snow all week. I wanted to know what it’s like to hike in the cold, proper bone-chilling cold. These small flakes filled me with hope.
As we ascended, small patches of ice started to appear here and there. By the time we hit the beautiful Antarctic Beach forest we were treading on fresh white powder while massive snowflakes fell among the ferns. This was pure magic. We were now about 1200m above sea level hiking through a beautiful forest dusted with snow. The track was wide enough to hike next to each other allowing the conversation to flow nicely. The snow continued falling. We kept getting higher.
Once past Mount Corker, the track flattened out. We passed the turn off to Wombat Creek campsite on our right and continued along the trail. We then came across the turn off to Carey’s Peak on our left and continued straight towards Black Swamp. We had hit around 1400m and were starting to be exposed to the wind. A rustle in the bushes caught our attention. About 30m off the track stood a surprisingly tan-coloured wombat. It was huge – probably knee height with longish fur. We had entered their domain.
After walking on basically flat trail for a while the trees once again opened up to reveal Black Swamp, a large swamp area made up of straw and red coloured tussocks. No longer protected by towering trees, the low vegetation allowed the wind to sweep across the land. It hit us hard. As soon as we stopped we were instantly cold. By this stage we estimated the temperature to be no more than zero, before wind chill.
We continued on across our first creek and were presented with a fork in the road – a locked gate to our right and the track to Aeroplane Hill on our left. The locked gate was to keep people out of an area contaminated with cinnamon fungus, a plant killing fungus that is decimating the sensitive alpine ecosystem.
We were now more than five hours into the trek and it was well after lunch. The small ascent to Aeroplane Hill seemed incredibly difficult. The snow was also starting to reveal kangaroo, bird and dog tracks. A hive of activity presented to us as crisscrossing prints and impression left by the true inhabitants of this wild land and but for the snow we would have been none the wiser. On the top of Aeroplane Hill we saw a trap, possibly for feral dogs or pigs. This point brought us to 1531m above sea level. It was windy, we were feeling the chill and the clouds looked menacing.
The fire trail gave way to walking track and dropped down a little in altitude. The trees broke once again to reveal a beautiful creek studded with boulders and a large camping site on the other side. We had reached Junction Pools. It was a surreal sight covered in snow and we were the only ones there!

 

The wind was blowing fiercely and it was time to set up. There was lengthy debate about where to set up camp with Bos momentarily melting down over optimal site selection. We needed some place to set up the tarp to protect us from the wind but also needed some flat ground to get something like a decent night’s sleep. After finally settling on a spot we set up tents, the tarp and then started with the fire.
A very thoughtful camper before us had stacked wood on a makeshift barbecue area but it was covered in snow and ice. In anticipation of the damp conditions we had brought up 8 compacted fire logs with us. This was an incredible effort considering each one weighed over a kilo. But getting a fire going with enough thermal intensity get these logs burning took a long time. After many attempts using some newspaper we still didn’t have enough heat. But it was the power of Benny’s lungs that pumped and puffed enough oxygen into the wet kindling to finally get it going. Once one of the logs caught it gave off enough heat to sustain the fire and start drying out the wood we had stacked around. Unfortunately damp wood gives off abundant smoke. As we sat around the fire throughout the night, the wind blowing and swirling, the smoke constantly tormented us. But in these conditions we had no choice, the fire was more than just something to do, it was warmth and a focus. We squinted as the smoke stung our eyes. With the temperature well below zero the heat was worth the pain. There was one positive – smoke did catch the light of our head torches which made for some atmospheric photos.

 

Dinner was a sort of frantic affair. We were all trying to get the calories in so we could settle down in front of the fire to dry out and have some whiskey and chocolate. Once we had eaten noodles, freeze dried meals and/or pre-cooked sausages we set ourselves up for a bit of relaxation. Richie got the tunes going with The War on Drugs suiting the setting perfectly.
Both Bos and I had wet feet and so proceeded to dry our shoes and socks over the fire. I managed to singe the rubber on my shoes but Bos took this one step further. He left a rock quite close to fire to heat up with the ultimate goal of resting his wet socks (with feet still inside) on the rock to dry them out. However he left it there just a little too long. As he put his foot on the rock his sock melted instantly creating a massive hole.
After an hour or two the fire miraculously built up enough to provide some substantial warmth. We were full, warm, and everything was set up for the night. We unceremoniously put out the fire and went to bed.
I awoke throughout the night to the unmistakable sound of rain on a taut tent. While my new tent held up well, Bos and Richie were subjected to a form of water boarding as the water penetrated through their tent.
With no wood left and the rain pelting down we had breakfast and packed up. Benny discovered the power of a warm cup of tea on a cold morning. Everything that went into our bags was wet. Much of the snow had melted in the rain and the visibility was very low. These were the conditions we needed to test our mettle (and our gear).
The track to Edwards Swamp was strewn with wombat dung, a reminder that they ruled up here and could ‘go’ wherever they wanted. Again the trees broke and we were presented with a beautiful swamp area with a strong running creek and gentle rolling tussocks. We hit the turn off towards Carey’s Peak but there was a problem. The rain had caused the creek to rise and it was at least five metres across at the point of the track. We walked down the creek a little to find a narrower point but jumping across seemed like a sure way to wet(ter) feet. We found a pile of rocks that we could have dumped in the shallower part of the creek to enable us to get across without getting to wet. But Benny had other ideas. In what could be portrayed as either healthy risk taking or stupidity, he gave me his bag, picked a spot and jumped across the creek. To everyone’s surprise – including his – he landed on fairly solid ground despite only being centimetres from the side of the creek. We all followed suit, taking off our bags and swinging them across one after the other.
We continued along towards Carey’s Peak. We saw wallabies and yet more wombat poo and the hoof prints of brumbies. The rain continued and a sense of urgency washed over us as the thought of walking for several more hours in the rain became ever less appealing.
The track undulated with some small hills, a few more small creeks, swamps and grassland appearing and disappearing behind the squalls.
We reached the turn off to Carey’s Peak. The track was now a muddy slush and rose steadily uphill over a series of steps. This was hard going. We hadn’t eaten for a while, it was cold and wet. We eventually reached the turnoff to Carey’s – it was a 1.2km return trip. The weather was still atrocious. Mist was thick and rolling through trees. It didn’t take us long to come to the conclusion that Carey’s Peak was a white out and any views of Stockton Beach would be of the imagined kind only.
So we continued back along the loop towards the top of the Corker Trail. We had a quick lunch while huddling together at one of the gates and then descended. What took us about 3 hours coming up took about 1hr 40min going down. We flew downhill only stopping momentarily to let dirt bikes pass. Their fumes lingered in the moist mountain air, their tires creating ribbons of fresh mud in the track.
We reached the cars, muddy, wet, but eminently satisfied. We left the car park after a quick pack up, stopped at Boot Hill and had a couple of beers. There was an obligatory pit stop for post-trek fast food in Maitland and then onto the F3.
We had gotten high, been above the clouds and survived a freezing night in the snow all in good spirits and in good company.
Mountain love
Franky
Stats
Day 1: Distance — 15.2km. Elevation gain/loss — 1012m / 247m.
Day 2: Distance — 16.8km. Elevation gain/loss — 260m / 1037m.
Total: Distance — 32.0km. Elevation gain/loss — 1272m / 1284m. Max altitude above seal level — 1573m.
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A Fragment of Solitude

A piece by Daniel Silver describing a weekend hike to Mount Solitary in the Blue Mountains.

10am on a windy Saturday in late June. Having left Sydney a few hours earlier we shoulder the self-conscious anxiety of that great metropolis, painstakingly dissecting all matters of whether and weather.
Admire the forecaster but humour the forecast.
Gratitude to the wind. She fans the flames of wonder. And we descend the Golden Stairs.
It is customary to choose from the bush a stick tapered to a point at one end, a little over waist height. It is curious the attachment one develops for his stick when all his possessions are behind him.
In a clearing we look out over Jurassic ferns with herringbone fingers. Trees adorned with acrobatic vines.
This is the birthplace of the colour green.
Directions. This way to the Ruined Castle. The first ascent draws first beads of sweat. Huge boulders chaotically arranged in perfect balance at the summit. We leave our bags in search of a route to the apex.
Roar the flames of wonder atop the Ruined Castle.
There is a grove of casuarinas at the first peak of Solitary. To reach them we scramble. Hands grip the mountain. Howls the wind the rain is coming. We laugh in reply.
From a distance the Blue Mountains appear deep blue.
At last the ground is soft underfoot. A bed of damp spindly leaves meanders beneath the buttresses of lazy trunks littered with small acorns scored by false trails. We make camp in Chinamans Gully.
The same is true from no distance at all.
We take shelter in a nearby cave. On the wall, black scrawl memories of former occupants and dancing red devils. The flames of wonder welcome the bitter cold.
There is nothing like a fire when you really need it.
We dance to the rhythm of heart beats deep in the belly of the dancing flames.
On the other side of the camp is a lookout. We lay on our backs let our bodies take the curve of the earth and peer into the space between the stars like figureheads on the prow of a cosmic ship.
The wind talks in its sleep.
Morning breaks. We warm our bellies with coffee and oats and laughter. We remove all traces of having been anywhere. We head east to the Kedumba River.
The path is steep. We step till we skip till we skid till we slide. Say, is that the river?
The water must be lonely for it clenches our chests and rips the air from our lungs. Gratitude to the lonely water. We breathe deeply while we lunch in the sunshine.
Gratitude to the trekkers who hear trees fall.
There are three moments of silence to remember: trees, wind, birds.
The final ascent. Lever by lever. One foot urged to follow its brother. Before us the sun returns to its mother. The end of one path the birth of another.
Dusk at the gate.
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The Stromlo Effect — MTBing in Canberra

Playground at Stromlo (photo taken by We Are Explorers)

Introduction
These weekends away are like an addictive drug. Formula known. Patents, nonexistent. Just throw in a potent mix of adrenalin and adventure, a dash of daring and a sprinkling of camaraderie (after all, happiness only real when shared – Christopher McCandless). End product – endorphins and experience. Long lasting. Real. And nothing better.
The Main Event
Our eight strong crew – Turfy, Angus, Hans, Henry, Jimmy, George, Bos and Tom – head south to Canberra in pursuit of some mountain biking madness. Stromlo’s the name of the park where the trails snake and crisscross the mountain offering a rush for all – beginners through to pros.
We finally arrive at Stromlo, semi-rested after staying at the YHA hostel on Friday night and the mountain beckons. We introduce ourselves to her at the Playground and test our technical skills. Riding on narrow logs, hitting small jumps and attempting the seesaws which leaves us scurrying away with tails between our legs. And then, finally, after some flat-tyre false starts we tackle the mountain proper. We climb and weave, up, up and up some more, knowing full well that the downhill is the dividend for our ascent.
Summit. Regroup. Admire the beautiful views and the white hemispherical observatory. The weather is pristine. Blue skies and a warm radiating sun pierces the cool Canberra air. We follow the Skyline Trail and shortly after, the downhill commences. It’s all single track and it’s as fast and explosive as you desire; the only limit being one’s ability and nerve.
At first, nothing surrounds the track besides small rocks and scrub so a false move here would be forgiven. But as we progress downwards, we reach the tree line and find ourselves careering past thick trunks and boulders. There’s no room for error now and the exhilaration is heightened. The mind becomes singularly focused, impervious to everything but the task at hand. It’s akin to meditation – it’s the Stromlo Effect, enabling eagle-eyed perception, hypersensitive fingers feathering brakes and fluidity in body to absorb the bumps and jumps and accelerate out of spiralling corners.
The descent is almost over but she has one last trick up her sleeve – a small launchpad. With speed we approach and then… lift off; propelled into the air, weightless flight, if only for a short moment. A state of natural intoxication ensues.
The After Party
After a day that broadcasts a few replays of the Main Event, a revitalising mountain-top lunch and more jumps in the Playground, we are well and truly knackered. We bid Stromlo farewell and after a time regroup at King O’Malley’s Irish Pub where we clink glasses and welcome another form of intoxication.
Thank you all for an excellent weekend and Turfy – thank you for organising.
Stromlo MTB Map

Stromlo Forest – MTBing Trail

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Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Flying high above Rio

Flying high above Rio

The 2014 FIFA World Cup is about to kick off in just two days’ time with Brazil and Croatia set to battle it out in the opening match. It’s had me thinking back to a South America trip some years ago where friends and I meandered south from Mexico and somehow made it all the way to Argentina. From these travels, Rio definitely stands out as a remarkable city and always reminds me of my first hang gliding experience (at Rio Tandem Fly). If I were there now for the World Cup, I’d have to (briefly) pull myself away from the energy and magnetism of the football in order to fly, once again, hundreds of metres high above this beautiful coastal city.

View from the air with the beach making the perfect landing strip

From the air, exquisite natural scenery – impressive mountains, lush greenery and white-sand beaches, and also visible – the nation’s severe socio-economic divide with expensive high-rise buildings a stone’s throw away from the favelas.
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Kayaking in Sydney Harbour

Kayaking
Kayaking route – 12.6km
Reminiscing
One of my earliest memories of kayaking was when I was ten years old. My family and I were at a friend’s holiday house in Bundeena when I casually decided to go for a kayak. The previous day we’d walked to some squishy, soft sand areas, which would swallow your legs with every step you took. The feeling was sensational and I wanted to return there by kayak. I paddled and paddled venturing far beyond the safety of the bay sitting atop my paddling boat with no life jacket. I recall feeling liberated and rather proud of myself for setting off on my own small expedition… until I couldn’t find my way back, having missed the re-entry turn back into the bay by a wide margin.
Hours later, now fully comprehending the vast expanse of the sea and feeling utterly lost, I was miserable. Paddling and exhausted, I hoped that my family was looking for me. And, indeed they were – the entire Bundeena community had been mobilised – every boat, jet ski and kayak was covering ground to identify a lone kid paddling along. My mum, thinking the worst, was overcome with worry and was physically sick.
Eventually, I came across a small boat and signalled and signalled and waved and waved, extending the paddle into the air to improve my visibility… and finally they came my way. With the kayak tied to the back of the boat and me safely aboard we started to try and work out from where I’d come. I had no idea. But, after some time had passed, one of the searching jet skis noticed the kayak being towed off the back of the boat and the rest is history. I returned to a distraught but utterly relieved group of friends and family… and just in time for them to cancel the search-and-rescue helicopter, which was due to take off at any minute.
Other kayaking experiences have not been as memorable aside from one in Sydney Habour where my friend’s two-man kayak began to sink… and sink it did. With me in a ‘one-man’ and my two friends now treading water, they held onto the back of my kayak with one hand and with the other they clung to a fully submerged ‘two-man’. Every stroke felt as though I was padding through cement. Progress was glacial but after what felt like an eternity we made it back to shore (Nielsen Park) from somewhere in middle harbour and to my good friend’s relief, we had salvaged his kayak.
Today
Fast forward to 2014, Queen’s Birthday long weekend. I’m up for getting out any and every weekend for any type of adventure – big or small. Today’s fun was meant to be spent at Manly Dam MTBing but with my bikes inaccessible I had to work out an alternative. Kayaking sprung to mind (probably something to do with just finishing James Castrission’s extraordinary book – Crossing The Ditch) and after booking a quality double kayak at Sydney Harbour Kayaks ($40/hr) at The Spit my good friend and I were off. Incidentally, he’d spent nine days crossing Africa’s biggest lake, Lake Victoria, (also the world’s 2nd largest freshwater lake) a few years back. Suffice to say, he’s comfortable in a kayak.
Today’s route saw us head out of from The Spit past Sandy Bay, around Grotto Point headland and alongside Balgowlah Heads cliff line until we could clearly see Manly. With a southerly brewing the water had a bit of chop to it and a couple of ‘mini rogues’ made the paddling interesting, especially with no skirt to prevent water from entering the kayak. Although, Gortex jackets and thermal under-layers certainly served their purpose today.
U-turn and head past North Head into a headwind and towards Obelisk Bay (yes there are Obelisks standing tall amongst the trees). Stop. Admire the serenity of the sea. Commence return. Pass the old, eroding forts at North Head, into Hunters Bay, past Balmoral Beach where Awaba St (home to the Balmoral Burn) rises prominently and steeply, and finally back to The Spit.
After covering a mere 12.6km but starving nonetheless, we wined and dined at Pizza Pesce Birra, which was packed with people and dished out some of the best pizza I’ve eaten.
So, to conclude, very happy to have got out today and dabbled in some kayaking after all these years. I’ll definitely be back for more and it’s good to have another activity to add to the weekend repertoire.
kayaking kayak
Getting out
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Flashback: Downhill MTB at Thredbo

Check out the shocks on these downhill bikes
With an upcoming mountain biking trip planned for Canberra, I couldn’t help but think back to Easter 2010, where two good mates and I spent a few days on the slopes in Thredbo downhill MTBing on some adrenalin pumping trails.
Here’s some footage from those few days (warning: motion sickness may ensue).
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SUPing at Fairy Bower (Manly)

Photo by Matt Smith (Buy it here)
It’s the Queen’s birthday long weekend and the bad weather’s been threatening all day, but in the end it’s been all talk and no action. The surf is forecast is pick up tomorrow to about 4-5 ft says Coastal Watch and until it does Stand Up Paddling (SUP) is an excellent alternative when there’s only a small bump around.
Headed to Fairy Bower today to try out SUPing for the first time. Hired boards at the Mambo Coffee and Tees surf shop on the Shelly Beach boardwalk for $25/hour and hit the water with a good mate. Superb conditions: crystal clear water, small swell and, best of all, for the most part there was no one else around. To be free of the usual crowds is pretty rare these days and it was definitely far more tranquil and relaxing to have the place to ourselves.
As for the SUP experience, it was definitely harder on the core and legs than I’d expected and it was as good a feeling as surfing. It’s also strange to be ‘standing’ on the water the whole time, which gives a whole new perspective compared with surfing. I’ll be keeping this activity in mind for days when the surf is too small.
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Stairway To Heaven (In The Budawangs)

Introduction
Adventurers throughout history have struggled to answer the question: why? There’s the famous quote by English mountaineer George Mallory – “Because it’s there” – while the Australian Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson said, “If you have to ask the question, you will never understand the answer”. – Dick Smith in his introduction to Crossing the Ditch by James Castrission.
The waiting and anticipation is finally over, tonight we venture to the wilds of the Budawangs. It is time to convert planning into practice, research into reality. To bring to life the dotted trails and contour lines on maps and satellite imagery; to put our groundwork to the test; to experience and explore. Our destination offers incredible natural diversity – deep valleys and caves, majestic monoliths sculpted by the hands of time, rainforest remnants, sedge swamps and imposing massifs, which when ascended present views so spectacular that one is instantly humbled. For two nights and two days, the spirit of adventure engulfs us and the wonders we encounter in this remote and rugged region draw us ever closer to the natural world around us.
The Trek
Friday night, 23 May 2014

And we’re off, after a hearty Italian dinner we commence the 4.25-hour drive to Long Gully campsite. The weather is perfect, unusually warm for this time of year with May 2014 set to be the warmest on record. The roads south are free of traffic and we’re soon upon Milton. Cars and crew regroup for a convoyed approach to Yadboro via 42.9 kilometres of meandering dirt roads. It’s pitch black save the cars’ headlights and the giant plumes of ochre dust they illuminate. Many lefts and rights later we reach ‘base camp’. Headlamps on, insects swarm. Pitch tents. Sip Scotch by our fire until sleep summons.
Saturday, 24 May 2014

With predefined common objectives, Saturday calls for an early start. Still, there’s time enough for gourmet bacon-and-eggs for all, cooked by chef Lee. Ten of us are packed and prepped, pumped to start beating a path but, alas, only nine of us head out as even Richie’s tenacity and endless enthusiasm cannot overcomehis torn knee ligament sustained just 24 hours earlier. Click the crucial group photo, bid Richie farewell and take our first pack-laden steps.
Just 300 metres in, we’re crossing the Yadboro river and then moving along Kalianna Ridge toward the south western corner of the Castle. The pace is brisk and the climb tough, at one point Goldy describes it as “brutal” but as we progress upwards the views behind us become ever more impressive and rewarding. Not just of the valley we leave in our wake but the towering grey-black walls of Mt Owen to our west and Mt Nibelung to our northwest. And, of course, as we rise further, we travel alongside the Castle’s lower walls, which reveal layers of rocky pebbles, covered and compressed and held captive millennia ago; only now slowly being released as erosion takes its gradual but inevitable course.
The track is uneven and jagged with protruding tree roots and the going is relatively slow. Shortly after midday we’ve covered 6.3km and an elevation gain (loss) of 911m (-275m) when we reach the Green Room. It is refreshingly cool as dense clusters of trees form a canopy that diffuses and weakens the sun. Moss covered boulders are stacked in impossible positions. Pools of cold fresh water accumulate and prehistoric plants stretch out and weave in every direction. Sweating faces savour a splash of cold water.
Tackle a few more short steep climbs with the assistance of chains and suddenly Monolith Valley opens its heart to us. The track leads directly to an isolated monolith the size of a small building. It beckons. We climb. It’s top is flat, perfect for a lunch stop.
Recharged after lunch, we part with packs and explore the valley’s complex array of intertwining tracks and false leads. It’s easy to get lost here and careful navigation is vital. We push on through thick sharp shrubbery hoping to reach Seven Gods Pinnacles but we’re disoriented and think it’s much further than it is. Still, we are lucky to stumble upon an immense sandstone arch, which marks our turnaround point. But the valley doesn’t release us that easily, not before Franky believes he sees a Funnel Web, Jason subsequently endures a case of arachnophobia and Blitz and Bos slip into hidden waist-deep pools of water.
Return to packs. Rest. And, Goldy requests “a moment of silence”. At once, it makes sense to everyone and not another word is spoken for a time. It’s beautiful. Complete silence but for the sounds of nature, wind swishing leaves, birds chirping.
Back from whence we came and then a short downhill dash to Cooyoyo Creek, where we set up camp and replenish water supplies sourced from the trickling creek.
Saturday night, 24 May 2014
The cavernous cliffs of Cooyoyo – well spotted by Shaun – become our home for the evening. The overhang is a frozen stone wave and we sit in its embrace. The ground is layered and tiered creating a natural amphitheatre that positions us comfortably around the campfire.
Heat radiates and fiery redness flickers and dances upon jubilant faces. We sit back, devour deserving dinners and Lee, Andrew and Franky raise the bar by barbecuing sausages and salami that they share around.We drink Scotch and conversation ensues, reflections of our day’s efforts. We try our hands at photographic light writing successfully capturing our word of the day – Progress – and also the region we’ve come to discover.
For some, sleep calls but others relax a little longer and as the fire reduces to embers and its brightness fades, our eyes adjust and are struck by the sky – overflowing with burning-blue stars. Jason and Silver persuade us to walk the length of the creek to get a better vantage point. Don headlamps. Walk. Scramble. Arrive. The sight is awe-inspiring – stars innumerable, the Milky Way an auroral haze and occasional shooting stars. It is only natural for this to be the conclusion to our day.
Day 1 sees us cover 11.4km with an elevation gain (loss) of 1097m (-619m).
Sunday, 25 May 2014

Rise with first light and admire the sunrise. Eat. Pack. Visit exquisite lookout. Move on. Today is about the Castle.
The steep uphill out of Cooyoyo warms aching legs and rids the body of residual Scotch, especially for Franky. Suddenly, we’re at the widest part of the Tunnel on the Castle’s western side – this is the most direct route to its eastern walls from where the ascent of the Castle can be made.
We enter the Tunnel’s mouth. Swallowed, we move through the slender belly of the mountain before it spits us out the other side.
Liberated of packs, our steps are longer, our pace swifter. A few hundred metres past the Tunnel exit, the climb begins in earnest. We clamber and scramble some more until we confront a steep, almost sheer, section. It requires judicious use of handholds and footholds; Lee scales it first and drops a rope. Jason is keen and goes next. It’s challenging but we progress! Onwards and upwards. We reach the tadpole tail and those summiting first say to those below: “don’t look out until you’re up here” their voices full of excitement. Natural beauty abounds – Mt Owen and Mt Nibelung opposite, Clyde valley and the Yadboro basin hundreds of metres below. It’s timeless, serene, mind blowing. We fall into another moment of quiet.
With time a constraint we start to descend but some of the team encourage us to keep going. And so, our ascent continues. We climb a series of large stone masses and steep rocks using ropes and other natural elements that give us purchase. The tadpole’s tail guides us towards the Castle’s peak until finally we are atop the Castle proper. The stunning vista of the Castle plateau opens up before our eyes and some distance ahead we reach the best panoramas of all – the striking walls of Byangee basking in the sun, pointy Pigeon House, the double terraced cliffs of Mt Talaterang to the east and finally the ocean, such is the extent of the visibility today.
Retrace our path. From an elevation of 863m we descend. Plant life changes with the drop in vertical and as we approach Long Gully at 95m above sea level, rainforest vegetation becomes more prolific. In the valley, surrounded by trees, the sun is fading rapidly. The Yadboro river appears, its cool waters impossible to resist – swim, submerge, cleanse. Redress. Darkness is upon us. Headlamps are handy. And so it ends, in just the same way as it began – together, as a team – all ten of us, with Richie there to greet us at Long Gully, a fire burning and meat cooking, a champion in his own right. Day 2 gives us 10.6km and a vertical gain (loss) of 850m (-1325m) taking us to a trek total of 22.0km with gain (loss) of 1947m (-1944m).
Thank you friends.
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Flashback to Northern Thailand (Pai) Trek 2003

With the approach (and now conclusion of) our Budawangs trek, I’ve been completely engrossed in all things related to trekking and the outdoors these past few weeks. I’ve found myself looking back at photos from long ago… late 2003 or early 2004 to be precise where I spent a number of weeks in Thailand.
With my first year of uni out of the way and after working as a maths tutor all year, I travelled to Thailand with a group of good mates. Much of it was spent on Thailand’s idyllic islands, indulging in beach paradise and lively full moon parties but as time has passed, I’ve found myself reminiscing most about the trek I did with three of my friends in the northern region of Thailand called Pai, near the Myanmar border.

Four good mates in the wild untouched hills of Pai

Candlelit dinner on our first night

One of the host families during our stay

Bamboo shelter for our second night – tight squeeze but surprisingly comfortable

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

End of the trek with refreshing pineapple

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