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.
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).