Blue Mountains - 40 years on


Recently, a couple of members of our bushwalking club, Karen and Bob, bought themselves a bush block and house near Dargan in the Blue Mountains and offered to lead a long weekend of walking to show fellow club members the highlights of their region. The Blue Mountains are synonymous with bushwalking, but I had only walked there once, some 40 years ago. This seemed a good opportunity to correct that, and so I found myself in the company of Karen, Bob, Christine, Janet and Lorna, camped on the broad grassy clearing next to the house, surrounded by the bush.

The forecast was for a very hot weekend, but having the comforts of home - hot shower, cool verandah for the end-of-walk beer and a nice sheltered area to cook meals - promised us an enjoyable few days of bushwalking.

Gooch's Crater (5 km - 180m descent - 180m ascent)

A thin mist had greeted me when I emerged from my tent this morning, cocooning the forest in a pale grey wrap. However, by the time we had eaten breakfast and headed off from Dargan follow a dusty firetrail deep into the surrounding forest, it had already begun to lift. The start of the trail to Gooch's Crater lay was surrounded by forest that had been severely burnt in the fires of October 2013. Now, just over a year on, the level of regeneration was impressive.

The trunks of the eucalypts were covered in dense green epicormic shoots, telopeas were sporting their bright red cone-flowers and the nectar was dripping down the long flowering spears of the grass-trees. On the forest floor, many understorey shrubs were reshooting from their blackened bases and the sunlight pouring through the fire-opened canopy filled the gaps with flowering herbs.

In the regenerating forest

We left the cars and started our walk down a smaller white-soil retrial, surrounded by these regenerating trees and shrubs. The canopy remained dead, grey and open, which allowed much more light to the forest floor and, consequently, a rich array of flowering plants and shrubs – the red cones of telopeas and nectar-soaked flower-stems of grass trees highlighted the way, as we slowly headed downhill. By now the sun had burnt off the last vestiges of cloud and with the sun came the cicadas, singing their harsh bush song from the trees above.

Approaching Gooch's Crater

Reaching a rocky outcrop, the track turned to a narrower footpath that led us down a long spur, occasionally vanishing into the post-fire landscape. However, Bob and Karen knew where they were going and we soon emerged out of the forest and into a low heathland. This was again in full regeneration, but the dense burnt stems of heathland shrubs were no friend to light-coloured clothes and my clothes soon began to resemble those of a coal-miner. This was not completely inappropriate for across the valley we could see the landscape blot of the Clarence Colliery, reminding us that this region of the Blue Mountains has many a coal seam beneath it.

The hanging swamp of Gooch's Crater


Sandstone cliffs above the Crater

A pagoda formation

The heathland track took us past a series of sandstone pagodas, jaggedly sculpted by wind and rain. From these, the sandstone cliffs dropped away to reveal Gooch's Crater, a misnomer in that it is a flat-bottomed amphitheatre – sheer rock walls lining a hanging swampland of lush green reeds and sedges – an impressive sight.

Crossing the heathland

Fern-lined edge of the gully

The sandstone walls

From the view point, Bob and Karen led us around the curious rock formations and down into a narrow rock-walled gully that formed part of the same system. The habitat had changed dramatically, as we picked our way around the spongy sphagnum bog and along a fern-lined rock face to reach the far end of the Crater – once again a magnificent view of this lush green swamp, surrounded by sheer sandstone cliffs. A large overhang provided some pleasant shade for a bite to eat and a chance to take it all in.

Roc overhang alongside Gooch's Crater

Leaving the swamp, we picked our way carefully down a rocky, fern-covered gully to reach a flatter creek system. This enabled us to make our way around the rocks and up into the next rock amphitheatre, smaller and steep-sloped, but with a pair of enormous rock overhangs, one forming an arch into the cliff face – another superb setting.
Climbing into the second overhang

The big rock overhang

View out from the arch overhang

Rock pagodas near Gooch's Crater

Exiting via the dry water course

The way out from here was a short steep scramble up a rounded water-worn sandstone chute to yet another superb view point over Gooch's Crater and the surrounding rock pagodas, before completing the loop of this hidden gem.

Gooch's Crater from the north

We had crossed our outward path and the day was beginning to heat up, so we all headed quickly back through heathland and forest to reach the cars. It had been a great introduction to this part of the Blue Mountains, a short walk but one with a variety of habitats and magnificent views. However, now it was time for lunch and a siesta. It was a good way to pass the heat of the day before Bob and Karen would show us another part of the region – one steeped in history – the Zig-Zag Railway.

Zig-Zag Railway (6 km - 110m ascent - 120m descent)

The topography of the Blue Mountains made it very difficult to find a suitable rail route across and, in the 19th century, the Lithgow Zig-Zag was built to overcome an otherwise insurmountable climb up their western flank. Three stone viaducts, a tunnel and two reversing points were built over three years and the rail was used from 1869 until 1910, when it was replaced a by the 10-tunnels deviation. It remained abandoned until 1975, when it was re-opened as a heritage railway taking tourists. Safety concerns led to its second closure in 2012. The October 2013 bushfires and subsequent vandalism have damaged some of the infrastructure, but much still remains and the rail line and surrounding bushland can still be explored on foot. It makes for a fascinating walk through one aspect of the history of the Blue Mountains.

All ready to go at Clarence Station

A derelict train at Clarecne

After a short car shuffle in order to leave a means of escape at the end of our walk, we assembled at the platform of the disused Clarence Railway Station to begin our exploration of the Zig-Zag railway. Heading westward along the crushed stone, sleepers and rusted rails of the long disused track, we pass through a lushly vegetated cutting to enter the mouth of the 500m long Clarence Tunnel. The cool air of the tunnel rushed out to greet us, a welcome addition to the late afternoon warmth.

As well as being long, the tunnel was gently curving, which meant that for a while we would be in total darkness – it was time to bring out the headlamps. After a a small light appear in the distance – literally the light at the end of the tunnel. The air became warmer and we emerged into the open once again.

Inside the Clarence Tunnel

Shortly after exiting the tunnel, we also left the rail line to follow a faint track up through a scrubby eucalypt covered slope. The track widened and soon emerged to look over an slope of open heathland that had been burnt in the fires of a year ago. We descended through low black skeletons of banksia, hakea and casuarina.

Passing through a section of regenerating forest

Crossing the heathland

The casuarinas were regenerating well, forming a low carpet of soft green needles, speckled with the pinks, white, yellow and blue of wildflowers and clumps of yellow isopogon cones. By the time that we reached this open landscape, high cloud had partially veiled the sun, watering down its heat and making walking much more pleasant – it had been a good plan to have a siesta and set out later in the afternoon.

The way down from the plateau

After a brief detour to look down on a deep grassy valley where workmen on the zig-zag railway once had built their cottages and shelters, we continued down the track to the edge of the sandstone cliffs – a point that overlooked both the old zig-zag line and the new double line that takes today's train traffic.

Looking down on the old and new rail lines

The old Zig Zag Station (built in 1869)

Then it was down our own zig-zag, a set of wooden steps and path that took us down the edge of the cliffs to the railway line below. We emerged at the Zig-Zag Station, crossing the double lines to check out the old 1860s station building, platform and the last zig-zag tourist train, which ran from 1975 to 2012. The place was a veritable train museum – even Thomas the tank engine was there, though like everything else in a state of disrepair.

AtZig Zag Station ....

Entry to the tunnel

.... where Thomas the Tank engine has retired

Exiting the Zig-Zag Tunnel

The bottom signals station

Looking up at Viaduct No. 1

Not many walks wander down a carriage

The lovely stonework of the viaduct

After exploring the station, we reversed direction, like the trains of yore, to head up the zig-zag line. Following the sheer sandstone cliff around, we passed through a short tunnel to be greeted by the sight of the nos 2 and 3 viaducts on the side of a deep valley.

Above us were the stone arches of the no 1 viaduct and, to save a bit of time, we clambered up to them, moving quickly from zig to zag. The workmanship of these tunnels and viaducts, built by Italian stonemasons in the 1860s was impressive.

Panorama of the Lithgow Zig-Zag showing all three viaducts

The rail crosses Viaduct No. 1

A sadly vandalised carriage

Abandoned siding with our shuttle car - end of the walk

From Viaduct No. 1, it was but a fairly short stroll along the gentle incline of the railway, passing through one last cutting to reach our shuttled car. This had been a fascinating tour through the history of this region,  but the day had been hot and a cold beer awaited – it would be great to return to the house and sip it on the verandah as the sun slowly set in the west.

Birrabang Canyon (5.5 km - 190m descent - 210m ascent)

Today, Karen and Bob had planned for us an introduction into that renowned Blue Mountains pastime of canyoning. Considering that the forecast maximum temperature was to be 36°C, the cool rain-forest clad bottom of a canyon seemed the best place to be.

We headed off down the Bells Line of Road, leaving one car at the exit point and taking the other a further kilometre on to the start. To the south-east lay the southern edge of the Newnes Plateau, its sandstone massif deeply dissected by a series of creeks flowing out into the Grose River Valley. Over the eons they had carved narrow slot canyons into the soft rock of the plateau. Birrabang Brook was one such creek.

Heathland of the Newnes Plateau

Heading towards Birrabang Brook

Rock formations at the edge of the plateau

Crossing the main road, we disappeared quickly into the bush, an open eucalyptus  mallee woodland that had escaped the worst of the fires of 2013 – its canopy was still intact and the light groundcover of flowering herbs and shrubs provided a scattering of pink, white, yellow and blue blooms as we passed.

We quickly reached the end of this spur – Karen did a quick reconnoitre and, between some exposed rocky tops, found the descent path into a tributary creek. We scrambled down and into the creek bed to see for the first time the lush beauty of mossy rock and fern clad banks. We also reached our first wet-boot section, confronted by a cool knee-deep pool between two sheer rock sides. This, however, is part of the joy of canyoning and we waded on through, knowing that many more such sections lay ahead.

Descent into the canyon

Getting down into cook fern country

The tributary creek leading to Birrabang

A legless lizard in the creek bed

This tributary brought us quickly into the Upper Birrabang Canyon – a place of sheer and narrow rock walls, where trees angled their way up to reach the light, and where the waters had carved out sweeping overhung curves into the mossy base rock. It was a cool world of half-light and stillness that we slowly picked our way down the creek as it flowed from pool to pool. Words do not do it justice, but hopefully the photos that follow will.

Below - a series of photos showing the pools, overhangs and constrictures of the upper Birrabang Canyon

After emerging from a particularly narrow and overhung section, where the sky appeared as a jagged narrow slit above, the canyon changed character.  It became slightly broader with a V-shaped base covered in lush rain-forest trees and shrubs – the sun shone through and dappled this primal world in its light. Our progress slowed as we encountered the odd large blocking boulder that needed a climb up and around into the thick rain forest, or found ourselves clambering over log-jams of broken trees – a testament to the force of water that can come down here in a storm.

The long wade continued for much of the time, watched by the occasional big red yabbie and made more interesting by the occasional waist-deep pool.  Again, the photos below will show better than words the features of the lower canyon.

Below - a series of photos showing thefeatures of the lower Birrabang Canyon

By the time that we reached our exit point, the canyon was more a deep V-shaped ravine rimmed by cliffs. The shady creekside spot beneath the coachwoods was a good place to enjoy an early lunch before commencing the climb out – after all it was 36°C up there and a good 10°C cooler down here.

On the climb out of Birrabang

Karen checked her GPS and we headed upwards through the trees on a steep slope covered in loose litter. As we climbed the forest became more open and the sun began to break through and, on reaching the base of the line of cliffs, the temptation was to return to the cool bowels of the canyon.

The exit gully from Birrabang

Nonetheless, we pushed on, heading steeply up the right-hand side of a gap in the cliff-line to finally reach the tops. From the jagged, eroded cliff top, there were superb views back down into the canyon, across to the sheer wall of Dalpura Head and out over the Grose River Valley. The dark rocks were also reflecting the 36°C heat back up, and we were thankful for the strong breeze that blew as we continued the climb out, less steeply but across open heathland.

Dalpura Head

Rock formations above Birrabang Brook

By the time we reached the high point on the Dalpura Ridge and wandered back along its spine, through the mallee scrublands to the trailhead, my clothes had dried. Even the cicadas seemed to be half-hearted in the heat and it was a relief not to have to walk any further, but the day had been really worth the effort. Birrabang may be classified as an easy canyon, not on par with the ones that require 30m abseils down waterfalls, but was a great introduction into the world of canyoning in the Blue Mountains – it certainly has me hooked.

Aboriginal Rock Art

View through the trees

The human history of the Blue Mountains stretches way beyond the rail way constructions of Europeans. For millenia, aboriginal peoples have called this region home and there are many sites that bear witness to their presence, some dating back over 20,000 years.

Once the heat of the day had passed and siesta time was over, Bob and Karen took us to visit a couple of rock overhangs containing some remnants of aboriginal artwork.

Rock shelter art site

The artists and their descendants are long gone, but the stencils of hands in red and cream-coloured ochre were a poignant reminder that this land was not "terra nullius" when Europeans arrived to transform this continent - for better and for worse.

The Pinnacles to Perry's Lookdown (11 km - 710m ascent - 650m descent)

My last walk in this re-introduction to the region was a more classic Blue Mountains bushwalk - a descent down the sandstone cliffs into a deep valley and a climb out again. The only downside to this was that the entry and exit points, 10km apart as the crow flies were over 30km apart by vehicle. The long car shuttle meant that our little group were raring to stretch our legs when we reached the trail head of the Lockley Track at end of a long dirt road to The Pinnacles.

View over the heathland of The Pinnacles

Track up through the scrub to Mt Stead

The temperature extremes of yesterday had passed, but it was still heading for 30+°C and the overnight showers left a haze of humidity across the plateau, as we headed out along a narrow sandy footpath across the thin soil and sandstone bedrock of The Pinnacles. The fires had missed this area and the dense, scrubby heath was bespeckled with spring wildflowers.

The track quickly led us across an open saddle and over the mallee-covered knob of Mount Stead to reach an undulating grassy heath. The views to either side were expanding to reveal cliff-line and valley, while ahead lay the rounded top of Lockley Pylon. We climbed quickly to the cairn on its top, stopping but briefly to take in the glorious views, southwards over the cliff-lined Govett Gorge and northwards up the Grose River where the steep walls of its valley faded blue on blue into the horizon.

View across the heath towards Mt Banks

The climb up to Lockley Pylon

Looking across from Lockley Pylon to Fortress Hill

Panorama over the Grose Gorge from Lockley Pylon

From the Pylon, we followed the track down to top of the line of sandstone cliffs fringing Govett Gorge. Gaps in the cliff-line framed the views out over the valley as we picked our way down towards Dufaur Head, southern guardian of the wide mouth of the gorge.

The Grose River Gorge fades into the blue

Descending from Lockley Pylon

A gap in the cliff-line

Just before the head, Karen and Bob found a narrow gap in the rocks that looked directly down onto the forest of the valley way below. It was our route down and was a spectacular route indeed, plunging steeply down a narrow winding track that hugged the cliffs.

View from the edge of the cliffs

Start of the route down to Govetts Creek

The track down the sandstone cliffs

On reaching the base of the sandstone, the track made a series of long zig-zags beneath the canopy of scrubby eucalypts. We were following the Dufaur Buttress, following its tiered levels down towards the valley floor. Occasional breaks revealed the cliffs and blue-tinted hills above the canopy. The valley floor steamed in the stillness, heat and humidity and my shirt was soon saturated.

View across the trees towards Docker Head and Mt Banks

Looking back up to Dufaur Head

Scrubby mallee forest on the lower slopes

Grose Valley landscape

A quick dip in Govetts Creek

It was a great relief to see the tall white giants of the Blue Gum Forest - they signalled our arrival at the valley floor and at Govetts Creek. The clear waters of the creek, rippling their way over its stony bed were too inviting - packs, boots and socks were quickly discarded for a refreshing soak.

View back through the trees to Dufaur Head

Crossing Govetts Creek

Afterwards, we meandered a bit beneath magnificent trees of the forest, enjoyed a spot of lunch and wandered down to the junction of Govetts Creek and the Grose River for another swim in its cool pools.

One of the taller blue gums

The floor of the Blue Gum Forest

Junction of Govetts Creek and the Grose River

Grose River landscape

Finally, it was time for that which could not be avoided - the 600m climb out of the valley. Moreover, a change was in the air, the cloud that had begun to stream overhead from the west was now turning thicker and greyer, and the forecast possibility of storms was looking more like the reality. We headed off, climbing steadily up Perry's Track, well-served by sets of steps, as it pushed steeply up through the forest that covered the spur of Docker Buttress.

Leaving the Blue Gum Forest

The rain arrives

Sheltering from the rain below Docker Head

The climb was steep, but not difficult, certainly not enough to explain why half way up I felt like I had "hit the wall" - a drop in blood pressure, low electrolytes or sugar levels, perhaps? Who knows? The outcome was that our ascent slowed down, with several breaks, just as the first drops of rain fell and distant sound of thunder rolled across the valley. By the time we reached the base of the cliff-line, we were in the midst of a thunderstorm, soaked by heavy rain, with thunder and lightning all around. Being beneath the cliffs seemed a good place to be - one almost instantaneous thunderclap - lightning flash must have been due to a strike on the clifftops, just 100m higher. A couple of members of our party saw a glowing plasma disc of "ball lightning" race across the forest floor - exciting stuff!

The storm passed on as we climbed the last few sets of steps to reach the lookout at Docker Head, to be greeted by a spectacular post-storm panorama where the emergent sun illuminated the cliff lines of Mount Banks and the Grose River Gorge starkly white against the dark eastern skyline of the departing storm. That alone made me feel better.

Looking up at Perry's Lookdown

Edgeworth David Head after the storm

With the hard part of the climb now over, we strolled up to Perry's Lookdown for one more chance to admire the impressive landscapes of the Grose River Gorge. It was a great way to end my rediscovery of the Blue Mountains.

View from Perry's Lookdown over the Grose River Gorge

Thanks to Bob, Karen, Janet, Chris, Lorna, Linda and Peter for your pleasant company on this long weekend, with special thanks to Bob and Karen for their hospitality and for sharing "their" Blue Mountains with us. It was the perfect program - an exploration of some of the local geographic features, a bit of history, an introduction to canyoning and finishing on a "big landscape" walk. I certainly won't be waiting another 40 years before I return.