Start High, Go Low

I went to the Blue Mountains, about 2 hours west of Sydney. A guy I know had a gig with his band up there, so I caught a ride with him and saw his show Friday night, then started on the trail Saturday morning.

Well, I had planned to start in the morning but I had to get one more town into the hills and the bus/train schedule were uncooperative. So I got on the trail about 11.30h. It was a wonderfully sunny day, and it’s a bit different from what I was used to in the states. Normally, you start at the bottom of a hill, then hike up, camp and hike down. Here you start at the top of the valley/canyon, and hike down first. So before you got down you get the view of the valley.

It was amazing. The valley was rimed with huge cliff walls and a rich eucalyptus forest down below. After a good eye-full of the view, I started the walk, which first scurried me along the rim of the canyon walls, giving a good feel for the vastness and a good look at the structure of the valley. I met a few folks on the trail, mostly walking in the opposite direction from me, one was a Dutch fella on a mountain bike doing a similar program as I: a year long working visa. His program was a bit more structured. Jobs already laid out for him and his group. Mostly fruit picking, then time off to travel on their own.

After about 5km of skirting around the rim of the canyon, I began a steep, very steep, decent into the valley at Perry’s Lookdown. Most of the names of prominent features in the area are named after the first white explores to discover the area. The waterfall-esque decent flows into a stand of Blue Gum trees, eucalyptus denii. It’s a fairly young stand, skinny white trunks lead up to a high canopy, while long flowing grass covers the forest floor like a shag carpet. The light brown trail (or track as they call it here) contrasts with the living green grass and compliments the dying brown patches. A few lesser developed trails shoot off from the main drag, and the impressions of raw horse hooves and droppings shows evidence of the wild brombies which live in the valley.

After a standing stop to admire this unique arboretum with the steep sun rays trickling through in the late afternoon, I pressed on only to find a scout group heading towards the forest from the campsite I had planned to stay at. I was invited to join them and share their campfire for the night, if I choose. Of course I did.

Every scout troop around the world is the same… I could match up each of the members of this host troop to kids I know in my troop back home. At first I thought some of the antics were to show off to me, but again recalled my own troop, and realized it was most likely the usual way. I really miss that environment. being around young minds, tantalizing them with tidbits of information, playing on their natural curiosity.

If it was a group I was really involved with, I may have tried to make the evening more progressive, by incorporating skill sets they needed to get signed off in the evening activities around the fire. Maybe it was just this group, but they didn’t seem to have the drive for rank advancement as we do in the states, or they had just decided to make it a easy evening. Another curious thing was they didn’t plan group meals as we did back home. We would have the patrols plan and develop their meals as a group, a team effort. Here they each had their own cooking device, either a methane burner or use the open fire, and the cooked their own meals.

I had just brought a tarp and rope to build a shelter with, which was well tested and proved its ability. It rained all night long. I had a bivy sack around my bag, a water proof shell which also provides a mosquito net and general protection from the elements, but I think I would have managed all right with just the tarp. The next morning, the rain let up in patches, allowing time to get breakfast made and gear packed with out getting everything soaked.

I was ready to go before the scouts, and we were heading in opposite directions anyway. So I thanked my hosts, wished them all the best and started on the water coated trail. Not so much that the trail was flooded (although it was in spots), but more that the leaves of the foliage which hoarded the space between 1 and 10 feet above the trail seemed to hold about 5 gallons of water each! My nylon shorts and gaiter covered boots were no match for the persistent releasing of water as I burrowed through the jungle valley.

Upon leaving the camp, I started my slow accent up the valley. I was now hiking up stream, paralleling the main river of the valley. With the rain still coming down in varying degrees, the river reflected this by it’s mud brown color and evidently fuller banks. Evidently, because often the trail would lead right into the river. A glance across to the continuing trail on the other side indicated a crossing. But where?

A closer examination helped me realize the usual fording method, stepping stones, were well masked by the flooding torrent of the river. So with a happened upon walking stick, I would gingerly probe the river for the way through. Most steps resulted in having my already soaked boots covered with the determined flow of the runoff.

Finally, what may be the most impressed visual sequence in my mind of the bushwalk unfolded before me. I should have realized that since the gradual grade had slowly increased to a fair climb, I was nearing the end of the valley. But my mind must have been elsewhere because as I came out from under a small canopy of trees and happened to glance up, the fog opened a small layer like curtains on a stage and revealed this mammoth cliff towering above me. The upper layer of fog didn’t clear so I couldn’t even see the top. But it didn’t matter. With the rain still coming down and the river raging beside me, I was awestruck as I continued to stare and slowly progressed up the trail before me.

The path curved to the left just a few degrees, my eyes absorbing every bit of the rock wall before me, and as I moved closer, the trees gave way to the continued lateral greatness of the geology and finally with the gust of a stiff wind, I was introduced to a huge waterfall coming straight down upon me! I had no idea it was there. The mist spray was masked by the rainfall and the sound blended perfectly with the rest of the raging river. It’s hard to describe this in very animated form in person, the words aren’t there to convey the emotion, the awe, wonder, yada, yada, yada, all that and more!I attempted to photo the exodus of water upon me, I’m still waiting for my film to come back (see photo to right). But that won’t tell the story right either.

When I regained control of myself, I continued up the trail, which twisted it’s way up the stone face which first caught my attention. The trail was steep, rocky, wet, and even at times assisted by metal scaffolding to ascend the huge rock. With the fog continuing to obscure the distant sights of the valley as well as the trail just before me, I felt I was on one of the exotic worlds in the game of Myst. Especially when the metal stair structure blended with the vertical sandstone, both ascending into the mist.

Soon, I recognized the trail sign that first directed me the day before along the rim of the canyon. The vantage point which just the day before gave me a preview of my adventure was now locked in a misty whiteout. It was about noon. I then checked out at the ranger station and continued on for another hour to the Blackheath train station and started my 4 hour ride home and the slow process of drying out.

About the author

Adventure Correspondent Cameron L. Martindell is a freelance adventure travel and expedition writer, photographer and filmmaker who founded in 2000. He has contributed to Elevation Outdoors Magazine, The Gear Junkie, National Geographic, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Outside, Backpacker, Wired, Australian Geographic, and others. He has been to all seven continents and lived on five of them, including a four-month stint at the South Pole. Cameron has more than 10 years of mountain search and rescue experience, is an Eagle Scout, has been an Australian bush firefighter, competes in sailing regattas, plans national and international youth programs, guides Oregon rafting trips and Australian bush backpacking trips.

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