The river is a water green snake sliding across grey rock and it lies far down in the bottom of a steep sided gorge: scree slopes and bare cliffs tower either side. The landscape dwarfs us as we pick our way along the crumbling gorge rim. Down there amongst the boulders, around the next corner, through the deep pools, lies The Inaccessible Gulf.
And, with a name like that, who wouldn't want to try to get in for a closer look.
Accessing the Chandler River is a knee breaking affair as it lies more than 300m in elevation below the crumbling ridgetops, yet it is less than 500m in distance as the crow flies (or in this case, plummets) from the tableland to the river below. Between the ridges of dry forest (New England and Silvertop stringybark, Yellow Box, wild rosemary, wattles, geebung) there are steep gullies of ever-moving scree, and pockets of dry rainforest with a darker, denser foliage which are home to occasional Red Cedar and Moreton Bay Figs.
Once we make the river, we dump our packs and begin the walk upstream. At first we scramble around the edge of the dark pools and jump across a couple of small cascades but before long the sheer sides force us into our small boat. The scoured bare rock on the banks is evidence of the ferocious floods that channel down this narrow course and nothing grows until 15 metres or more above the river's current level. We paddle towards a collection of giant boulders, they are tumbled together on a bend where the river turns 90 degrees. The size of these rocks makes me wish I knew a better word for things so immense - something like enormotlithics (my own creation) or a strong word like wackersteins (German for boulder or stone).
By nature, by name: The Inaccessible Gulf is inaccessible to us on this trip. It isn't actually our destination, but a peek inside would be nice. Without ropes, the big boulders prove too much of an obstacle so we relax for a while on top of a grey wackerstein, awestruck by the grandeur of the geology around us. This weekend's walk was actually always meant to be just a leisurely overnight trip down into this spectacular part of the New England gorge country: below Wollomombi Falls, downstream of The Inaccessible Gulf, and all within Oxley Wild Rivers National Park.
Back at camp, after our foray to the wackersteins, we are busy watching a shy rock wallaby that has taken shelter behind a rusty fig across the river. At first I think it is the wallaby moving about but suddenly a small landslide downstream makes the noise of a thousand rattling rocks talking to each other. A cloud of dust billows up from the slope. Geologically speaking, these gorges are still making themselves. Come back in a million years and the place could be a wide valley of open grassy river flats and completely unrecognisable.
On top of the plateau we make time to explore the marked walking track which takes us around to where the Chandler and Wollomombi Rivers both plunge off the escarpment almost side by side. Wollomombi Falls is the highest waterfall in Oxley Wild Rivers National Park and it drops 330 metres from the tableland. Just below the base of the waterfall a knife edge ridge divides it from the nearby Chandler River before the two rivers come together and disappear into The Inaccessible Gulf where cliffs tower hundreds of metres above the river bed below.
The walking track extends down to a spot called Checks Lookout which gives stunning views along the sheer walls of the The Inaccessible Gulf and back to Wollomombi Falls in the distance. This whole area offers, by far, some of the most spectacular, rugged scenery on offer in Australia. When in flood, the two waterfalls side by side are an astounding sight. I know I'm waxing a bit lyrical about this remarkable landscape but, it is in the hope of bridging some kind of inaccessible gulf of my own - that gulf between the words I write and the effect I want them to have. That is, trying to access that description or idea that inspires someone not to just read about Oxley Wild Rivers National Park but to step past the pictures and experience it first hand. It is a bridge worth building, and a gulf worth crossing.
Apart from the usual National Parks website, you can try http://www.armidaletourism.com.au/guides for information about Oxley Wild Rivers National Park and the whole New England area. For local outdoor information and gear we recommend the friendly and remarkably helpful staff at Armidale Outdoors in Rusden Street. After a visit to Armidale Outdoors pop around the corner to the Goldfish Bowl wood fired bakery and cafe for a drop dead delicious toasted BLT and quality hot chocolate.