If I’d seen the exit route Caz had planned for us that afternoon maybe I wouldn’t have been enjoying myself so much – paddling about all carefree and innocent down in the Nymboida Gorge on my lilo.
The day started easily enough with a bush bash off Moses Rock Road, through some familiar forest of blackbutt, white mahogany, low heath plants and forest oaks. It took about 45 minutes to reach the end of the ridge where a large formation of rock protrudes from the scrub, giving us clear views up and down the Nymboida River valley.
This stretch of the river is renowned worldwide as a white water rafting destination with grade 3 to 5 rapids, depending on the water level, grinding their way around massive boulders and dropping into long peaceful pools of deep green water.
We peeled off the ridge and began our descent through scrub that was dense and scratchy with a low growing understory making it impossible to see more than a couple of metres in any direction. This whole area is encompassed by Nymboi-Binderay National Park, protected as recently as 1997 and covering 17,243 hectares of remote bush and river environment about 25km north of Dorrigo in New South Wales. The name of the park comes from the local Gumbaynggirr Aboriginal language. “Nymboi” is their name for the river itself, while “Binderay” means river. According to National Parks, there are several recorded Aboriginal cultural sites in the area, ranging from ceremonial and mythological sites to open campsites and scarred trees although none of these are marked on maps. Importantly, the Nymboida River also contains part of the only remaining wild breeding population of the critically endangered eastern freshwater cod (Maccullochella ikei).
With only a couple of dirt access roads pushing along the ridges, it is the Nymboida River that provides the main route through the park.
It took us 45 minutes of steep downhill scrub walking before we popped out onto the rocky riverside. Stinking with sweat and heat from the walk, the deep fresh water was a blissful sight. We threw our packs down and yanked out the lilos but, no matter how desperate I was to get in the water, blowing up an airbed takes time. We blew and we blew until the river danced before our giddy eyes and 20 minutes later I was finally able to launch out into the water.
We paddled down the first big long pool, weaving between the odd boulder, and then pulling out above an unnamed rapid. Here we waded and rock hopped around weeping callistemons, eking out precarious lives in cracks and hollows between the flood prone rocks.
On the other side of the river, the bank had turned into a sheer rock wall, about 30 metres or more in height. As we made our way slowly around the rapid and down the bank I was too busy watching where I put my feet, keeping an eye out for snakes, negotiating boulders with my lilo tucked under my arm. When I did finally look up we were far enough down to see around the bend and along the sheers walls of the Nymboida Gorge.
I love that moment when you see a spectacular landscape for the first time. There is the ‘wow’ factor that makes the mouth drop open, a feeling of elation at having worked hard to see something worth double the effort. Nymboida Gorge has all this. Sheer rock walls towered over each side of the river, more than 60m high on the right hand side of the river. The gorge runs for at least 200m and makes for a splendid lilo paddle. Lying back on the airbed, I let the river and the wind carry me past the high cliffs. Welcome swallows flitted by, dipping high and then low, swinging close by the cliffs and tucking under rock ledges to check their nests.
At the end of the gorge a smooth rock slab sloped out of the river. With some extra water, and a small square of foam mat, we soon had a pretty fun slide ride. Up and down I went, until out of breath from the increasing speed of each slide.
All the fun and games: the thrill of the beautiful gorge, the relaxing float, the slide riding, the cool deep water, the complete absence of other people or signs of civilisation, a nice lunch, a warming sunbake. All this ended in terror.
The exit route Caz had selected for us was by far the shortest route back to the top of the range and back to the road. By being the shortest route, it was also the steepest route. I could see two distinct ridges heading back from the river and assumed we would be heading toward the northern most ridge, a longer route but obviously quite steady and acceptable. The other option was more cliff than ridge. As we wandered past an old fishing camp site and started heading up, I realised my mistake.
The terrain got steeper, rockier, more exposed. I felt way outside my comfort zone as the trees thinned, the step-ups became bigger, the drops more exposed, as we climbed and scrambled. It was all there – hand holds, clefts in the rock for our feet, occasional trees to clutch onto – but I didn’t want to pause or look down. Caz asked for a quick photo stop, at a point that would illustrate the sheer madness of this exit route. I laughed in a mean, maniacal way and said I would stop once I didn’t need to use my hands to walk up a hill. Caz had used this route before, many years ago, and so knew that we would be fine and I trusted his judgement but…crap, it was steep and certain muscles were tingling with fear.
Quote by Avery Stonich:
‘ “If it terrifies you, do it.” I read this somewhere once, and it is absolutely sage advice. Things might not work out how you expect, and you might get a little banged up along the way. But in the end, you’ll be a stronger, happier, more confident person.’