Saturday, 25 May 2013

Apsley Gorge - success or failure?

Sometimes a trip is a success. Sometimes it can be a failure. Often it is difficult to tell the two apart. Our recent foray deep into Apsley Gorge is a case in point. Its sheer crumbling walls tower more than 140m high in points and its sparse water course appears and disappears beneath and around massive boulders and landslips that cover the gorge floor.

We had planned a three day, downstream exploration of this rugged gorge. Unfortunately, by lunch time on day one I had pulled the pin, turned the trip around and headed us home. But, I'm beginning at the end of the story.

Firstly, this trip started 6 months ago when we did a day trip down into Apsley Gorge, in Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, and headed upstream - walking, paddling and climbing our way to the big pool at the base of the gorge's second waterfall. Above us, on the viewing platforms of the National Parks rim walk, some bewildered day trippers watched on as we paddled about in the massive pool at the base of the falls (see photo above).

Amazed by this spectacular gorge we made plans to return and navigate downstream from the big pool, through unknown territory, through the lower gorge until we reached a known exit ridge another 5km downstream.

Which brings me to last weekend: clear skies, sub-zero overnight temperatures and the packs loaded with three days supplies, a vinyl "packraft", climbing rope, carabiners, hexes, wire and slings - as prepared as we could be and as a result loaded up like donkeys.

Access to the gorge floor is via an extremely direct route but a reasonably straight forward one. The weight of my pack added an extra challenge on the descent and even as we began making our way along the gorge floor I struggled with my balance, rock hopping across uneven boulders and rubble. The weight of the pack made each big step up and down a workout. Beside me, Cas bounced along excited as a boy scout on patrol, constantly staring up at the impressive cliffs on either side of us.

Only 200m downstream we came to our first long pool. The "packraft" had to be inflated and our packs, and us, shuttled to the other end of the pool. After another stretch of rock hopping and then another pool to paddle across, more than two and a half hours had passed and we had travelled a staggering 800m. To add to the mood we were being fired on by an enemy above. Unseen feral goats on the cliffs, and the generally unstable nature of the gorge walls, sent the occasional rock pinging or sliding down the loose slopes.

At this point came our first waterfall, which dropped about 5m to a wide pool. We would need the rope and some hexes to get us down but unfortunately this didn't feel like a place to linger and rig ropes. Shattered, fresh shards of shale littered the smooth bedrock around the waterfall. It was up to Cas to rig up ropes for our descent. Unfortunately I have no rope or climbing experience or knowledge. I sat in a sheltered spot and watched a melon sized rock crash into the pool below, hurled from somewhere on high with no sound or warning until it hit the water. Cas remained blissfully unaware of the falling rock, it's sound hidden by the noise of the waterfall. He was unfortunately not well protected, standing on a small ledge beside the waterfall.

At this point, once descended, the rope would be pulled down behind us. However, the overhanging angles of the smooth, waterworn rock shelves made climbing back up look like an extremely difficult proposition. This was clearly a point of no return. The topographical maps showed that the gorge dropped another 90m over the next two kilometres and we could not see around the next bend. The closeness of the walls suggested another waterfall lurked just around the corner, and then another on the next bend, and maybe another. We had limited hexes and one wire and each waterfall meant potentially leaving at least one piece of gear behind. The weight of my pack became another nagging issue in such difficult terrain.

So I pulled the pin. The pinging rocks, the unknown, the fear taken hold of a weak mind. Waiting for Cas to rig the ropes gave doubt time to seep and corrode and undermine my purpose.

Cas, as always, took my decision in his patient stride. He rigged up the ropes anyway and paddled across the pool to see what exactly did lie around that next bend. As suspected another waterfall loomed, slightly bigger and falling into a spectacular long pool of still, brown water. He paddled back and reported what he had seen and the fact that while there his camera had broken after just one shot. Even more reason not to go on!

We backtracked, back paddled and rock hopped back upstream. We camped one night down in the gorge beneath an adequate overhang to the music of more falling, sliding rocks plummeting down the cliffs.

But that night, we both realised what a successful mission this had actually been. We had got a really good idea of what the unknown section of the gorge would hold for us. We could now come back more prepared, with extra hexes and wires and chocks, lighter packs, blast through in Spring as a big day trip or light weight overnighter and get a couple of keen friends to come along for added safety and support.

So, failure or success? Or a bit of both? Or a lot of neither. Just another great experience and another great plan for the future in this wildland.


  1. Success without a doubt! What an incredible gorge to explore, but the sound of rock fall also makes me nervous.

    1. It really is a spectacular gorge isn't it!! Becoming a bit of a favourite of ours. Maybe helmets next time for those pinging rocks.