Just before first light, we load cars and make our way from Sydney to the Blue Mountains.
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 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.