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Monday, May 2, 2011

The Wollemi Crossing

Note: tracknotes for this walk can be downloaded  here

Four years in the planning; exploratory trips at both ends and finally, success: we walked across Wollemi National Park from East to West. A climb down to the Wollemi Creek, then walking down the Colo and Capertee rivers to Glen Davis in the west. It's the narrowest point, and only 40km from the end of one dirt-road to the beginning of the next, but for most of the walk you are either wading through water or walking on sand - and sometimes quicksand! Oh, and that's ignoring the climbs into thick vegetation and over house sized boulders which on the third and fourth days are required every few hundred meters to avoid rapids. This is not by way of bragging (well, not only) but rather to emphasise that this is not a walk to be undertaken lightly. It needs meticulous planning, experience of the riverine conditions, practice on soft sand, and good general bush skills. You absolutely must have an EPIRB or PLB: there is no way out between the beginning when you climb down into the gully and the end, so if you have any kind of accident you need help. There is no phone reception anywhere. You need also to check the water levels very carefully - ask the NPWS before you leave how wadeable it is. But the water levels before you go aren't all that matter: you also need to be confident that there won't be flash flooding, which in the narrower gorges could pose serious risks. So check the weather forecasts for the Central West and for the Blue Mountains. If either talks of more than 5mm or so of rain think carefully; if more than 10mm a day for a few days, reconsider.

Enough of the warnings, on to the trip description!

We did all our river level and weather checking, and the forecasts were for sun and occassional showers. But in fact there was perhaps two minutes of sun for the first four days. These days began as they ended; gentle mist alternating with light rain.

In these conditions we walked from the Couloul Range firetrail car park down to Crawfords lookout, and then down the Andersen Pass (yes it's named after you Lise-Marie) to Wollemi Creek. The Andersen pass is all bush bashing, but saves a bit of time compared to the cairned route.

Crossing Wollemi Creek, we followed the track to the junction with the Colo River, where we found another party camped in the rain on sand which, to our eyes, was alarmingly close to river level (a sudden rise in the river level would have been bad news). There are no photos from this day as it was very wet and we were pressed for time: getting the camera out of its dry bag would have slowed the party too much.

We found the cave we had camped in on one of our exploratory missions (photos and description here) and settled in for the night, drying out our wettest gear on the fine roaring fire that Paul always seems to manage in the wettest conditions.

The next morning, Day two, it was off down the Colo; fairly easy walking and we met another party coming the other way. At this time we had no idea just how surprising that was. Research with the NPWS since, inspired by looking at the log book, suggests that usually only one or two parties a year attempt this walk. We found a rock overhang to sit out of the rain for lunch and brewed a cup of warming tea. Later that afternoon we arrived at the confluence of the Colo, Wolgan and Capertee rivers. We needed to pull out the camera here!

Here's one of us getting excited about arriving:

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In the next photo she poses with an imaginary fish. The pose is inspired by calendars of women in waders that she discovered when looking for women's waders - goretex leggings connected to waterproof neoprene booties that enable you to wade down the river dryfoot. Each of us took a different approach to river-walking, one in these waders, one in traditional boots and gaiters (pictured), and one in 'wet waders' (fisherman's boots designed for good grip on slimy rocks). All worked equally well. The main issue is boots filling with sand, which can be prevented by gaiters with elastic at the bottom.

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The next photo shows the confluence of the two smaller rivers to form the Colo. The right hand stream of water is the Capertee River, the left the Wolgan. You can see it's getting narrow and busy. The water level is very low (1.37m at the Glen Davis gauge). Last December there was a big flood and we could see the damaged vegetation well above our heads all up the Capertee. The water would have been several metres higher than in these shots.

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Given the continuing rain we were keen to find a cave to camp in. Some exploring of the cliffs produced nothing, and we were about to give up when we found a substantial boulder cave next to the river that allowed us all to eat dinner in shelter, and Paul to roll out his bivvy in luxurious dryness. There's room for a tent next to it too.

Day three dawned misty and wet, as usual, and we headed up the Capertee. The next photo shows one of the breaks in the more passable terrain. The rapids became more and more frequent, meaning long periods pushing through vegetation on the banks.

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This next picture here shows typical terrain on this part of the river: deep pools as in the foreground, and rapids and waterfalls caused by rockfalls. The scrubby bush to either side is the only way forward. We have since heard that the great floods earlier this year (Thanks, Friends of the Colo!) have scoured the Capertee, moving much sand from the Capertee to the Colo. Thus the Capertee had more deep pools than usual, and the Colo more sand to walk on. It also smashed the riverine flora. Only mature Allocasurina were spared. One side effect is that it was a bit like walking through military defences: we were walking upstream, so there were saplings and twigs pointing at us like weapons.

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One of our number was bivvying with a tarp. The tarp proved absolutely invaluable in allowing us to have tea breaks in relative dryness, helping keep us warm and maintain morale. It's taught us that even when tenting, one of these ultralight tarps might be worth its weight in wet conditions. Our pack weights on this trip, by the way, were 12.75, 13.6 and 13.8 kilos, including food for six days and 1.5 litres of water each.

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Camp that night was on a sandy flat amongst Casuarinas, and we were very lucky: the only really extended break in the rain was when we made camp and had dinner. The stars were visible for the first time, and we coinfidently expected sun the next day.

Day four dawned grey and wet. This day was perhaps the hardest and most rewarding of all. There were extraordinarily beautiful rocks and cliffs, most of which we don't have photos of because of the rain. But here's one rock that coincided with a break in the weather - a towering roadblock in the middle of the river!

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Although sadly the amazing cliffs were mostly unphotographable, this shot gives some idea of the kind of gorge that the river runs through. The mist trickling down the top of the cliffs is how they appeared for the entire trip.

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The sand flats are covered in roo and wombat footprints, which is delightful, and every stretch has a couple of Rock Warblers, a small, gray and russet-brown bird that is only found in the sandstone country within 300km of Sydney.

The river makes frequent changes of direction as it winds through the gorge, and each reach has its own character. The previous photos are from a wide, sandy east-west reach where we could make rapid progress. Immediately before this was a much narrower stretch with the most impressive cliffs we have seen in the Greater Blue Mountains (we dubbed them the Eleven Gods): 300m orange sandstone cliffs with tall buttresses like roughly carved figures. Most of the day was in narrow reaches like that one, climbing up and around pool after waterfall after rapid.

Towards the end of the day the valley widened, and we could walk well above the river in open woodland with ferms and grassy clearings nibbled by roos and wombats. Just as afternoon turned into evening we reached a clearing we call Wombat Flats, where we have camped on previous expeditions. We have also seen this area described as 'Pan's Glade' but that seems far too Norman Lindsay-ish. It is flat, and there are a lot of wombats: Wombat Flats. Once again the tarp is pressed into service to make the camp comfortable!

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The next day we walked out to Glen Davis, and a bit before lunch came to the Wollemi Wilderness sign, where we took the customary victory shot:

Soon after comes an exciting moment: four years ago we buried a box of tinned food at a grid reference so we could feast on arrival. Here's the photo of us having just dug it up! It even had a very fine bottle of wine! (the same could not be said of the tinned stew!)

Fortified by a lunch of tinned food, very welcome after freeze-dried dinners, we walked on to Glen Davis, where the weather was much better. This next photo shows the Capertee valley narrowing, back in the direction we had come from, as we walk along the coal-dark road into the widening valley.

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The old Glen Davis pub is now a 'boutique hotel', but there was no room at the inn! Or rather, there was plenty of room but we hadn't booked and they don't take walk-ins (or at least not ones that smell like us). But when we found that the council camp site had hot showers we had all the luxury we needed, and while we waited for Karola to pick us up the next day, we got to explore the remains of the town - reduced from the 2500 shale-oil workers of the 1940s to a dozen or houses - and in Paul's case the amazing birdlife of the Capertee Valley - one of the best birding spots in the state.

Here's a gratuitous photo of a lovely flowering gum tree that was planted in abundance:

And the camp site with the hot showers!

A truly magnificent trip. Four years in the planning, and well worth it. It would have been lovelier if sunny, true. But there is a real satisfaction in having completed it, ahead of time, in taxing conditions and keeping ourselves comfortable through good decisions, decent bush skills, and careful preparation. Despite the rain it was a really enjoyable trip. Well done guys!


  1. Sounds like a great adventure. Everybody looks a bit soggy, and I wonder if it wasn't starting to get slightly chilly in the Blue Mountains this time of year with all that water on you. Well done!

  2. Thanks Chris! Keep tuned for the fuller version: this is only a draft. Yes it was a bit cold given that we were wet from the top (rain and plants) and from the bottom (river!). The one planning thing that Paul and I would have done differently is to take an extra merino base layer. We needed to keep the one we had dry for nights and emergencies, and it would have been good to have one to walk in - the first couple of days walking in a shirt and shell was a bit marginal.

    But it is an amazing gorge. I just wish I could have had photos of the magnificent bits! A future trip just for that purpose to come....

  3. Oh I just chanced upon this blog by accident and was inspired by this trip. I am an Event Organiser of the bushwalk group called Sydney Explorers [www.meetup.com/Sydney-Explorers], tasked with hsting more of the adventurous trips such as this. Therefore would love to lead such a long and challenging walk. How to get more details of the walk, maps and hints? How to connect with you guys? Steve

  4. Hi Steve
    There are track notes posted at a link at he top of the blog entry. Happy to talk if you leave an email address. Or google Friends of the Colo and ask them - they know this area best.

  5. Hi there,
    Sounds like a great walk. I've been thinking of doing something similar and wouldn't mind getting a hold of the track notes. When I click on the link at the top of this story it takes me to icloud...not sure why. Are you able to email them to me please? cheers Flint flintdux(at)gmail.com


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