A Hard Day's Night in the Budawangs


Inland from Ulladulla, near the upper reaches of the Clyde River, lies a region of pristine wilderness, The Budawangs. This is an area of deep gorges, flat-topped mountain islands protected by rocky ramparts and untouched forests and creeks. The landscape has a "Lost World" quality, and we were anxious to experience that on this walk. Like many visitors to the South Coast, we had had a glimpse of the Budawangs through climbing Pigeon House, a conic and iconic mountain on its eastern fringe, but the true heart and soul of the Budawangs lies further west in a central massif dominated by The Castle. This was our goal.

Once again, our mate Trevor the fisherman, provided us with transport along the dirt forest roads over the Clyde River and on past Yadboro. As we approached the starting point for our walk at Long Gully, we caught glimpses of The Castle shrouded in mist through the tall eucalypts. It would be a while before we saw it again. Loaded up with our camping gear we set out. The track started at the 30 m contour and took us through tall eucalypts, crossing Yadboro Creek on a set of natural stepping stones and into a superb rainforest gully, densely covered with tree ferns, palms and woody vines that intruded on to the path. Climbing steadily the vegetation slowly changed to dryer sclerophyll forest with a tussock grass understorey and the occasional large termite mound up to 2.5 m high.

Upper reaches of the Clyde River

Setting off

mmCrossing the Yadboro

In the rainforest gully

2.5 m termite mound

We moved quite quickly, even with full packs, until we finally reached a steep conglomerate slope that took us to the base of the first rampart of cliffs guarding the heartland of the Budawangs.

Here the track changed dramatically as it followed the cliff line, winding left then right, rising steeply then dropping sharply as it avoided the many large boulders, overhangs, waterfalls, clumps of mallee and other obstacles at the base of this 130 m high conglomerate cliff. Each step taken was either over exposed mallee roots, up on to a rock or down into a hollow - flat ground and a clear track were rare luxuries as the dense shrub layer overhanging the path tried to snag our packs as we passed.

A hard slog on the conglomerate

The cliff had many overhangs

The Castle remained invisible to us high above the cliff line, but the dark jutting prow of Mt Owen in front of us warned us of the difficult climb still ahead. It took an hour to travel one kilometre and our planned itinerary was becoming severely compromised.

The southern end of Mt Owen

Finally, we reached a gap in the cliff line and the final steep ascent up to Nibelung Pass began. We hauled our packs over a crest at the 600 m contour and, finally, the sheer 150 m high inner ramparts of The Castle appear at the top of a steeply rising, heavily-treed slope.

We found ourselves on a small flat area with the remnants of a fireplace, a nearby stream of running water and a glorious view over the forests and valleys of Clyde catchment to the south. We had lunch, and decided to set up camp here and make a dash for the top that afternoon.

View through the Nibelung Gap

Inner ramparts of The Castle

Entering The Tunnel

It was amazing how quickly we could climb with just a light daypack in place of the two heavy backpacks. Half-way up the timbered slope, we looked up to the sheer rock face and spotted a group of climbers just starting their descent - using a rope on a very steep rock slope close to the vertical drop of over 100 m! This presented a new dimension to our climb, as I suffer from fear of exposure to height.

The track led up to "The Tunnel", a crack in the narrow rock ridge leading up to The Castle plateau. Passing through first squeezed you vertically, then horizontally before exiting on the eastern side. From here, a track followed the base of rock face for a few hundred metres to a steeply-rising gully where the final ascent of The Castle began in earnest. At the base of this gully we met the descending group and had a chat with them - apparently ropes were essential for the final 30 m climb onto the plateau, as the alternative route was not obvious and even more exposed. We took stock, and having passed our youthful belief in our own immortality, decided to climb as high as we could but not take any unnecessary risks.

MClimbers descending from The Castle plateau - we did not climb past here

Zig-zagging ever more steeply and narrowly, with a series of interesting rock scrambles, we eventually emerged at the top of the "Tadpole's Tail", the local name for the narrow rock ridge leading up to the plateau of The Castle. We were at 807 m, just 30 m below the top of The Castle and the feeling of exposure increased dramatically - instead of a steep drop behind and a sold wall in front, suddenly there was an almost vertical drop of over 100 m on either side.

Scrambling over and around several large boulders, we found a platform for a bite of food and some water and a chance to take in the magnificent vista of the Budawangs; to the east lay the immensity of the Clyde River Gorge, rimmed by rock-walled plateaus, to the south-east, the rock-capped cone of Pigeon House stood in splendid isolation, to the north, the rocky razorback of the "Tadpole's Tail" sloped away towards the gap into Monolith Valley, guarded on either side by Mount Nibelung and Shrouded Gods Mountain, names evocative of the landscape. To the west the prow of Mount Owen ended sharply, and the forests of the valley floor disappeared hazily into the horizon.

Pigeon House

Mount Nibelung and Shrouded Gods Mountain

The Byangee Walls and Pigeon House

We did not go any further. We had not succeeded in our plan to "conquer" The Castle, but we had met a challenge and felt part of it, immersed in the heart of this awe-inspiring wilderness. The mountain had taught us a valuable lesson - if you set your goal too narrowly you will invariable face disappointment, but if you aim to be part of something greater you will be rewarded.

The Clyde River Gorge

Descending, we continued along the eastern rock face to avoid the claustrophobia of The Tunnel, crossing back to the western side at Nibelung Saddle. A quick detour of 500 m here enable us to peer into the entry of Monolith Valley, but the time was too late to go further, as we had originally planned. As we descended to the campsite, the late afternoon sun lit up the walls of The Castle. We were in our tent and asleep very early, as misty cloud began to form around the mountain tops above us.

Half an hour later, the first drops of rain began to fall! There is something comforting about sleeping dry in a small tent to the sound of raindrops on the cover. It rained steadily for a few hours until near midnight, when we woke to silence and a curious pale light flashing through the tent wall. Getting up, we looked to the east where the clouds lit up with sheet lightning every 10-15 seconds - the coast was being hammered by a monster thunderstorm. Too far to hear the thunder, we were treated to a midnight spectacle of "lumiere sans son". Just before falling back to sleep, I contemplated the wisdom of sleeping on top of a cliff face under crossed aluminium poles if a thunderstorm passed by.

Nibelung - guardian of Monolith Valley

Cool grotto at the entrance to the Valley
Our campsite under Mount Nibelung in the evening and next morning

Morning offered us a new visual treat - we were surrounded by a thick damp fog as the Budawangs put on their "Lost World" face. There is nothing less pleasant for a camper than packing up a wet tent, but we did so quickly, put on our wet weather gear and commenced the steep descent, past fog-shrouded cliff faces and through the rain-dripping overhanging vegetation, which quickly soaked us from the thighs down.

150 m of descent saw us emerge under the cloud-line, where we could watch the mist rising up from the valley floor to join the foggy shroud above us. We felt privileged to have seen two such different faces to the beauty of this wilderness area in one single trip. Retracing our steps along the same rough track (but add dripping wet to previous adjectives), we descended to Long Gully, where Trevor was already waiting with a hot coffee to warm us up - he had come early in the fear that we might have been washed off the mountain the previous night. Thanks for all your help, mate!!

Fog-shrouded cliff face

Mist rising from the valley floor

Yes, this is the track

Descending the mallee root ladder

Back at Ulladulla again, with the sun once more emergent, we basked in it and dried our gear. We had been part of a greater presence and felt rewarded.

5 tips for climbing The Castle:

•  Unless you are young and very fit, make it a day trip and carry a light pack - hauling 18 kg packs with camping gear and extra food up 600+ m is hard on the legs.
•  Go with someone who has been before and knows the path near the top
•  Take a rope
•  Leave your fear of heights behind
•  Seek not to conquer The Castle but to be part of it