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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Russell's Needle and the Nattai Valley: A Pair of Daywalks

Winter is upon us; the days are short and the mist is thick in the Southern Highlands of NSW. It's time for Winter in the Budawangs, a tradition with us since 2008. This year the plan was quite, ah, ambitious. We planned to walk from MT Bushwalker, down the Dummal Creek, along the Clyde and Holland's Gorge Rivers, up the Darri Pass and on to Wog Wog. It's a walk from east to west across the whole width of the Morton National Park. I haven't describe the route from the Darri Pass to Wog Wog for reasons that will become apparent. We had friends with whom we planned the route trying it from west to east: the idea was to use each others cars to get home at the two ends, thus massively reducing the driving.

All of us work in the city, but we met up in Bundanoon where some of us have a place the night before. A pre dawn start and a lovely drive through the Kangaroo Valley at dawn soon saw us at the Mt Bushwalker car park, not far from Fisherman's Paradise on the South Coast.

The idea was to get at least as far as the camping cave at the Gadara Pass on the first day: further if our judgement of the terrain on the day let us think there would be flat ground and some water.

Day One

A good track took us quickly over a mixture of high swamp and rock to a lookout with magnificent views. The trackmarkers on the rock were of yellow paint, and at the lookout there was the mother of all yellow paint dots to indicate "you are here":

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The approach from there to the Garara Pass is fairly easy, with only occasional spreading out to find the track being necessary. We strongly recommend time spent track finding in this country: if there is a track you will go about ten times faster than trying to bushbash, so even if it takes a while it's worth it.

The weather is perfect, and at one moment we see our shadows on the rocks over a small gully, and cameras start snapping like startled hippos:

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There are a few moments of track hauling, and at one point our packs lined up looked like an ad for the brand we seem to prefer:

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Here's one of us at the top of the Gadara Pass: the pointy knoll you can see is skirted, and you can see the beginning of Mount Talatarang at the left:

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Getting down is not too hard, though it is a real pass:

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One of our number had an injured hand, so needed roping up to descend one-handed:

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Here are two of us getting the ropes set up:

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We then march on to find the Pallin Pass, named of course after the great bushwalking pioneer Paddy Pallin, whose name is lent to the decent but pricey chain of gear stores. The track markers begin to run out towards the pass, and we have to fan out to search it out. But we soon find it, and at the top of the Pallin Pass that leads to Mount Talatarang we find what we had expected given the geology and the weather: tolerably flat rock tops where we can pitch our tents, and rock bowels that are full of water after the recent rain. These kind of tops make marvellous high camps when it's been raining (and when it's not currently raining) but are impossible in dry weather unless you haul water up a very long way.

It turns out to be one of the most wonderful campsites we can remember.

Here's one of the rock bowels:


The firemaster takes out his camp saw and with some help tries to get some wood cut off a dead tree. Check out the lens flare on the little coolpix compact that was used for this pic! Surprised that Instagram doesn't' have a filter that does this....

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Soon the firemaster is at work:

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And here is the firesprite you saw in the previous picture:

Day Two

The morning dawns chill and clear with only a few wisps of mist in the valley below us:

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But soon there's a russet glow on the tops of the main Budawangs massif ahead of us:

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Here you can see The Castle to the left, and Shrouded Gods Mountain to the right of the massif. More interesting to us are the deads and gullies you can see in the middle ground. The head to the furthest left is Warre Head, the middle of the three gullies you can see is the one that Dummal Creek flows down to the Clyde River. That's where we have to descent in the morning!!

Here's one of us soaking in the morning light to get strength for that descent:

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Before we leave this magical camp, one of us finds a rock which is an obvious example of continental scalomorphism: the tendency of certain kinds of conglomerate materials to take on the shape at small scales of the overall continental coastline:

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We head out to very end of Talaterang and find the pass down to its shoulder. Here we are fine tuning our descent plan:

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At this point the walk gets much harder, and is rather more thinly documented in photos!

First we have to find the Dummal Creek descent, that involves descending down a ridge off the slopes of Talaterang, towards the end of which it gets very very steep indeed. We keep finding impassable cliffs and have to fan out to find a way down to the creek. Eventually one of us finds a safe-ish way down. It leads to the base of perhaps the largest of the many waterfalls we'll see on our way down: one whose sides are so steep that had we come out above the waterfall, it would have been likley impossible to descend with our equipment.

Time is running out for the day, though, and the chances of getting to the camp where we are to meet our friends in the evening are receding.

As we cross the creek, one of the party slips on the slimy rock and falls. There's no damage, and perhaps its a good warning to us to be careful on the black slime, but it of course raises the level of alarm a little and slows us down. We now see that there's very little chance of making it down by dark. But equally above us there's nowhere to camp without a very long walk back that equally might not get us somewhere by dark. So we decide to go down the creek looking for caves in the cliffs above or flat rocks on which we might spend a night.

We get most of the steep part of the gully completed, by rockhopping down the creek when it is flat, and climbing wide up the gully at the numerous waterfalls. Eventually, just before the gully widens a little, we find  spot where we can camp: sort of.

One of us finds a crak which can be filled with bracken onto which he can then lay his bivvy. One of us finds a high flattish rock:

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The people in the two person tent find a sloping rock which, with some rampart work and engineering can be built up with bark and leaf litter to form a base onto which to pitch the tent

And finally one of takes the comfortable but least safe option: some flat rock right next to the creek: here he is having survived the night and packed up his tent.

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DO NOT DO THIS AT HOME! We were very sure there would be no rain, but many of us where up most of the night checking. At the first sign of rain or weather that would indicate rain elsewhere, this site would need evacuating, as the river could turn to torrent quite quickly. What made it marginally safe is that the creek is so steep that the source of the water is very near, so very distant rain couldn't turn the creek to spate: we would have been able to tell if there was rain near enough to cause trouble.

Day Three

After packing up we made good progress down to the Clyde river. As we changed into rive crossing footware we found that we were under leech attack, which continued for the next couple of days. A bit surprising in winter.

Having crossed the river, we made good progress along the bank until we reached the junction of the Clyde Rive (yes the very same Clyde that some readers might be familiar with at Bateman's Bay) and Holland's Gorge Creek. This was where the campsite we were supposed to have reached the previous night was. We cooeed all the way down the Clyde hoping to make contact with our friends. No luck. And when we got there there was not sign of any camping: the flat area was heavily vegetated, and anyone having camped there would be very obvious.

This was a bit of a worry. In the first instance we were a bit concerned for their safely. But more likely they were just delayed or couldn't find their way down the pass. But this latter possibility had ramifications for us. If they couldn't get down, we couldn't get up.

We tried to put these thoughts aside and headed up the Holland's Gorge. At first we went high along the banks, but it was very steep and choked and progress was minimal. We decided that the best bet was to give up on dry feet, and just walk down the river wading, taking to the banks only at waterfalls or deep pools. Here's one of us whose feet tend to lose skin when extendedly wet not looking too happy about it!

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We went up the creek until reaching a point where we needed to gain a spur that leads up to the cliffline in turn leading to the Darri Pass. Th einitial climb was about 50 metres of almost vertical soft dirt and rock covered in ferns. This photo doesn't do justice to its verticality (nor does the expression on the face do justice to the difficulty!)

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We carried on up the spur. The old Budawangs sketch map showed that we should keep to the SW of the spur, but we carried on up the spur to the cliffline because this was much easier. Time was running out for the day. We carried on along the cliff but soon found why we should have dropped off the the spur to the SE: there were rock ribs which would have required us to descend a long way.

It was now too late to expect to climb the pass. One option was to find somewhere on the cliff-line to camp and attempt the pass the next morning. This tempted some, but it became clear that the problems were many:

(1) It would be a very uncomfortable night, and that would not be conducive to the kind of care that would required to gain the pass safely.

(2) If we attempted the pass and failed the next day, there would be no time to get out by any other route within the time and food budget we had, and one of us would miss an overseas flight.

(3) We had not made contact with the other party, which suggested that the pass might not be easy enough (we knew of no-one who had done it and left notes: only the dotted lines on the Budawangs sketch map indicated it was negotiable)

(4) If it was negotiable, there was still a lot of untracked country above it before we hit tourist routes, and perhaps that had held up the other party, which would in turn likely lead to missed flights.

There was another way out: via Folly Point to Sassafras. The sketch map indicated not a dotted line, but a path leading from a small river flat quite close to where we were. Likely the path didn't exist any more (and the early parts proved not to) but at least it must be passable. Also we knew most of the route from a previous walk (the Japanese Death March here) so provided we could gain a camping cave that was as far as we had got the last time, that would help us get out effectively. The downside was that we'd come out 100k from our car, and perhaps have to hitchhike to pick up our car in very remote country.

So we hauled back down the ridge and found a small flat space near Camping Rock Creek.

There was certainly no sign of camping there recently. And it was oddly overgrown with raspberries (not blackberries) which had to be cleared if we were to camp without shredding our tents and clothes.

We put up our tents, lit a fire and settled down.

Now the fire circle was made with stones fetched out from the creek. As the fire grew, and we settled down for dinner, we were annoyed from time to time by exploding embers that were rather dangerous given how close the fire was to our tents. But then there was an enourmous explosion that blew apart the fire! One of the rocks had exploded, sending fragments of red hot shrapnel flying. One of us was directly in the line of fire, and her expensive down jacket was shredded, and she glowed allover with fragments embedded in her clothes. One person shouted "roll roll". Another shouted "beat her beat her"  The current writer did the beating and prevented any clothes from going up in flames. Extraordinarily no actual bodily parts were hit by the shrapnel.

Here's the victim in front of the fire a few moments before the explosion:

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One shrapnel hole revealed an enormous leech sucking on her belly button! So much bad in so little time. The site was really very leech ridden: our knives were out for the rest of the evening sliding the little buggers off. Earlier in the day we had a "don't ask don't look" policy with leeches: there was no point knowing they were there when we had distance to make up.

Anyhow calm was soon restored, and the only slight problem that emerged later in the evening was that  we realised that our escape route was off the 1:25K topo maps that we had with us, even though it was on the sketch map. That might make finding the Watson Pass up to folly point a little more difficult, though last time we were there there was a cairned and taped route that led to it. Memo to selves: aways bring maps for designated escape routes!

Day 4

We started by carefully translating the track marking on the sketch map to the last bit of topo map we had for the route. It looked as though we had to follow camping rock creek on the left back for around four hundred metres, and then cross and follow a narrow spur up and to the north.

There was no track to be found near the creek, unsurprisingly since the river looks to go into spate quite often which would destroy any tracks, but were able to follow its banks fairly easily, only having to cross (dry foot, thank goodness after the previous day) a couple of times. When we reached the point we thought we ought cross, we fanned out looking for signs of a track. One of us found one! Hurrah! Huzzah! Here's the morale boosting (and somewhat ancient) cairn:

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There was also a route marker on a nearby tree.

That however, was the last sign of track for a long while! We headed up the spur, and then turned to the north, which meant we had to cross a number of gullies. We struck the cliff line, only to find extra cliff in the direction we needed to go. There was a ledge high above us that some of use thought we might have to attain to carry on, but we decided thankfully to instead head down into the gully: we had at some point to cross the big gully so going too high didn't make sense.

Not long after we found a cairned track going the right way. This was the moment of real morale improvement! The track was going in the right direction to reach the camping cave some of us knew, and that really improved our chances of getting to Folly Point.

We ploughed on and eventually came to a crossing of the head of the gully that led up to a steep climb that took us (via a few moments of route finding to the cave. Have a look at the cave in some photos here.

We didn't stop for long as we were anxious to get to folly point, the next possible camp site and the nearest that would enable us to get out in time the following day.

But very soon, with only a few points where we had to fan out to track find, we reached Watson Pass!

Watson Pass was a triple pack haul, but not too difficult. Here's your usual photographer at one of teh climbs:

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And here are a couple of us in the pass  relieved in the knowledge we were almost certainly going to be out safely and on time!

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The ledges between the climbs were very small, leaving us and our gear a little crowded. Hence the wide-angle crampedness of this photo!

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And here's another of us a replicating a pose that he stuck in the same place the last time we did the Watson Pass!

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There was one final stretch after the three pack hauls; a wall with some chain and hand grips to help. It was at this point we came across some NWPS workers who were looking for unexploded ordinance with the aid of the Army! One of them helped our one-handed climber over the last hurdle.

We were now on a very high point, so it made sense to find cellphone coverage. And yes, thank Telstra, we found it! So we were able to organise with our friends coming the other way to pick us up at the Sassafras park entrance. This was another huge relief!

We then got to Folly Point itself, and enjoyed the sun and view, drying out our gear before setting up the tents in the site just below the point.

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Before finally going to bed when the fire dies down, a couple of us go back to the point to look at the southern sky. Amazing. It was better than being in a planetarium. All the nebulae and dark spots in the Milky Way clearly visible. Just wonderful.

In  the morning I dash up to catch the pre-dawn. Here's how it looked from the high cairn of Folly Point:


After a while we all came up for breakfast in the dawn light with The Castle and Shrouded Gods again the background!

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It's then time to head off along the Coast and Mountain Walkers Track (also known as the Commonwealth track). We make reasobable progress and eventually come to a great view. Here's one of us pointing it out:

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We head on, but after a while I think: hmmm. Seen this before. And why are the cliffs on the wrong side?

We have retraced our steps; thinking we know the track has made us over-confident.

We head back to the view we found and look for another way forward. There isn't one! Then abandoning overconfidence we consult the GPS and the map and realize we've come on a longish side track to a lookout. It is a great lookout: one of the best in the Budawangs, and much better than Folly Point itself:

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So we retrace our steps again to find the correct path!

We then charge on with nothing but a couple of two minute breaks find the firetrail that will take us to the main road. There are a few points where we have to stop to track find, but on the whole progress is smooth though it did end up taking four hours.

After a while, the weather starts to get a little ominous and by the time we hit the firetrail the clouds burst. Our plan to lunch there is abandoned, and we swallow as many sweet things as we can to fire up warmth and energy and charge along the fire trail. We walk on past the park car park which we reach exactly at our 2PM agreed time, and soon run into the rescue vehicle! Huzzah! Hooray! Ripper!

Here we are wet but delighted:


Overall an amazing walk. A little more, ah, adventurous at times than some might prefer. But we had an ambitious goal, and an excellent escape plan which we executed smoothly when it became apparent we weren't going to make the east-west crossing. Instead it was and east to north crossing.

Here our our lessons:

(1) use any GPS data or other records you have to give accurate rates of progress on different sorts of terrain. We'll use the GPS logs of this trip to help plan others.

(2) Have a good back up plan, and back up to that, if areas of relatively unknown passability are involved.

(3) Take the best maps of the #$@$!! escape plan as well as the intended route.

Wonderful walk, and many thanks to the marvellous folk who never moaned, and worked together to get us safely back on time!

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