Saturday, 6 April 2013

Dandahra Gorge - Gibraltar Range National Park

The full moon threw a sheet of silver light along the steep sided valley, illuminating the smooth bark of brush box trees lining the boulder strewn creek. We lay on a huge flat rock: no tent, water flowed around us, small bats flitted across the moonlit sky. This fantastic bivvy site was smack bang in the middle of the creek, about 3 metres above the water, with enough room to sleep four or five people. A neatly jammed piece of driftwood provided the only way up or down off the rock. It was a miracle of sorts, being the largest clear, flat area we could find at the end of a long, tricky day of walking. Then the full moon added its magic touch, lighting up the shimmering treetops and creeping its way along the creek bed towards us.

We were deep in the folds of the Dandahra Gorge in Gibraltar Range National Park in northern NSW, exploring the gorge as an overnight walk. We started at the Mulligan's Hut campground in Gibraltar Range National Park where we followed the track out past Barra Nulla Cascades, into the dark wet reaches of the rainforest before veering onto Dandahra Falls track, also known as Forest Walk, and past tall flowering mountain banksias with their bright yellow flowers littering the dark rainforest floor.  A right hand turn onto Junction Spur Trail and soon the easy walking was over. After scrambling over some logs and shrubbery we emerged onto a high point where an old sign told us that this now abandoned trail had originally been marked by a local search and rescue organisation. Using metal star pickets as trail markers, we followed the line of the ridge as it lead down to the junction of Dandahra Creek and Little Dandahra Creek. Initially the star pickets were invisible beneath years of forest regeneration but, as we made our way out onto the ridge proper the vegetation thinned out and we could follow the rusty trail posts as they progressed down, down, down to the creeks below. 

The dry, north facing ridge we were walking down was covered in a thin, open canopy so we got spectacular views up the valley to Dandahra Falls where the creek tumbles its way down into the gorge below. We examined the view carefully as our aim was to rock-hop up the creek bed and then pick up the ridge closest to the falls, on the south-western side, and follow it back up onto the plateau. This was a chance to get a good view of our planned exit route. Before us was certainly a wild looking little valley with the gully immediately below us ending in a sheer, curved cliff line.

Walking down the Junction Spur Trail proved trickier than it looked. Although open forest, the ground was a jumble of small rocks that kept unbalancing us. On top of this was a sprawling carpet of a thin, prostrate vine that acted as a constant network of trip lines. We picked our way down the increasingly steep slope, trying to maintain our footing but stumbling more often than not.

As we wanted to head up Dandahra Creek, back towards the falls, we veered off Junction Spur early to avoid some rock-hopping. It sounded a good plan as it would save us half a kilometre or so of creek walking but the side ridges down to the creek were all steep and bare. We made it, but after some tiring backtracking around a sheer little gully that blocked our descent.

The creek was so very beautiful. It slid its way around boulders and over slabs. Rainforest gullies were tucked into each bend. On some of these corners it looked like a 'garden of eden' with epiphytes growing profusely on the trees and rocks. We clambered around small cascades and rock hopped from side to side as we slowly weaved our way deeper and deeper up the valley. There was very little in the way of campsites, very little flat ground on the creek banks, just boulders and more boulders the further we went. Our final bivvy site really did feel like a bit of a miracle. We had decided to scrape out a rough pad on a small patch of bare gravel under some trees until Caz found the helicopter landing pad we ended up sleeping on. With the moonlit night, the remarkable placement of our sleeping rock and the beauty of the creek this campsite was voted by us "campsite of the year" for 2012. 

After the magical moonlit night the second day of our walk was a success and a failure. In the morning we continued rock hopping up the creek bed until the boulders became so large they were impassable. Unfortunately, we knew we weren't at the last ridge yet, which was our planned exit route. We certainly had not made it to the base of the falls but without rope, and with time running out, that seemed an impossibility. Added to that, we wanted to start our ascent as the day was getting warm and we had no idea how long the climb out might take - or if it was even possible. A quick muesli bar and an even quicker discussion and the decision was made to take the ridge immediately to our left and see what it brought. Up we went. 

The gradient on our exit route was steep, we had to gain 450m in elevation over a distance of 750m. We scrambled up the slope, clutching the stems of small shrubs that were precariously held into the loose soil. At several points huge granite cliff lines and boulders forced us to traverse around the ridge until we could snake our way through gaps and gutters between the rocks. At the top of the climb we  hauled ourselves quickly up a near vertical grassy slope at the top of the gully.  Short and sweet, before we knew it we were back on the plateau. Nothing like taking the direct route (see our Nymboida River Lilo blog).

It was only a short weave, through a beautiful forest of close growing walking stick palms, and we were back on the Dandahra Falls Track. While we had missed taking the last ridge as our exit, the one in front of the falls, we at least made it back up out without having to backtrack. Because we had exited one ridgeline early we had missed the anticipated close up views of Dandahra Waterfall. But, as we wandered back along the main track we were already making plans; rethinking what we had done and had seen. Planning another trip; maybe coming in from the top next time, maybe doing a through walk all the way along Dandahra Creek, maybe take some ropes, maybe exit up the northern ridges. The options seemed endless. The exploration of Dandahra Gorge was not over, just beginning.


  1. Cool bivvy! I must head north soon and spend some time exploring some new playgrounds. Nice work.

    1. It's great when everything comes together for a nice campsite. Not a good place to go sleep walking though.

  2. Lovely stuff, thanks for sharing; though I have to disagree with you about "bivvy" sites - trust me, a night in my motorhome is a lot more comfortable! Cheers, Ian
    P.S. I've been to what was once a proposed lookout for Dandahra, great viewpoint.

    1. Hi Ian, I'm pretty sure we have been to the 'proposed lookout' site you mention. Does it look straight at the waterfall and accessed via a small foot pad (unmarked) that comes off the old Dandhara Falls track? Caz.

  3. I've updated this post today to correct an error - in case you missed it, we walked over some 'prostate' vines..I mean prostrate vines..LOL. Hope you enjoyed the story, and the typo! Chrissy.