On both sides of the old logging trail, callicomas form a shaded tunnel through the surrounding rainforest. Walking silently, daydreaming about the journey ahead, I suddenly pop out of darkness into a patch of open sunlight. Straight blackbutts emerge from the forest and stand guard over stark white paper daisies growing on the track. Leaf litter crunches underfoot. The bush here looks slightly stressed and dry as the hot spring weather continues and smoke haze hangs in the air.
We are high in the hills of Bindarri National Park, just west of Coffs Harbour, near the headwaters of some amazing creek systems. Here, contour lines gather closely together on the topographical map forming a deep blur of gullies and creeks and spurs: enough to feed the wild imagination and daydreams of any walker.
Our plan is to plunge into the depths of the main valley in these hills. Taking one of those steep spurs on the map, we hope to reach the Urumbilum River and then work our way to the base of the 40m Mirrong Falls. How we get back out of there is still undecided.
Initially, the old logging trail provides easy access, for the first few kilometres, but suddenly our way is blocked by two recent and extensive treefalls. Scrambling over the mess of vines and branches is slow going and brings our first scratches, on shins and hands. There is worse to come.
The trail becomes more overgrown the further we get from the park gates until we reach the point on the map where we want to descend to the river along an old snig line that is now indistinct with decades of regrowth. While there is minimal low scrub, the ground itself is covered in a deep layer of forest detritus - sticks and branches of all sizes, leaves, bark, fern fronds and more sticks. Crashing down the steep slope we get scratched, poked, pierced and impaled. Even the tree ferns are no help as their trunks are rough and covered in small sharp spikes and make painful handholds.
The pleasant morning walk turns into a tough, steep bush-bash and it is creating frustration and anger. I take a step onto what looks like solid ground between two small trees but everything gives way beneath my foot. It is just leaf litter, thigh deep. My left leg slides straight through it and continues down the slope but my right foot remains behind. I feel split in two. I've also slid behind a thick dead branch. The branch is crossways and caught against the two trees like a limbo pole. It's pinned me against the slope and I have no idea how to extricate myself. I'm covered in dirt and my pack has me wedged me in tight against the ground. Stuck, tired, scratched and split in two: you've got to love the Australian bush: the saying about doing the hard yards to reap the rewards springs to mind.
As I'm trapped, I have time to contemplate the question - does a hard walk make the destination more beautiful? If I could be dropped straight into the Urumbilum River and Mirrong Falls without raising a sweat or scratching a shin would I appreciate it less and find it less inspiring? Does effort expended relate directly to our level of satisfaction?
At the moment I don't have the answers. Caz helps rescue me from my bind and we are off again, sliding and stumbling our way down the increasingly steep slope. The dominate blackbutts and tallowoods give way to rainforest as the singing river becomes louder and we get our first glimpses of it below. The slope steepens yet again and bands of rock block our way but brushbox trees tower above us, bangalow palms form part of the understorey and we use them both to step and swing our way down to the river.
The coolness of the rainforest feels refreshing on our sweaty skin. We grab a large vine and use it like a fixed rope as we zig-zag beneath a rocky overhang and finally emerge onto the river. It's been a surprisingly difficult and tiring descent so lunch is high on the agenda and we sit on a rocky gravel bed snacking away as the river swings around us disappearing beneath a medium sized block up of boulders before reemerging a few metres downstream. This high in its catchment it is difficult to call the Urumbilum a 'river' as it is only a few metres wide. The water is crystal clear, the mountains here being remarkably untouched by human development.
We begin boulder hopping upstream, criss-crossing from side to side and climbing around more beautiful clear pools. Knowing we may face a pack swim, due to the steep terrain and narrow river, our packs are double bagged inside. Turns out, the only swim we take is a voluntary one. The river is fairly low and before long we round a bend and the narrow, streaking whitewater of Mirrong Falls is visible ahead.
Beneath the waterfall is a deep pool: soft emerald green in colour but, where it drops away into deep holes, the water looks black and bitterly cold. Massive flood-polished logs lay jumbled together beside the rocky bank where we stand. It is hot, we are dirty and scratched and covered in grit. It is enough for the pool to look inviting and so I strip off and plunge in. Despite my immediate tortured screams, Caz jumps in after me. The water is ridiculously, painfully cold. There is no question of swimming over and sitting under the hammering waterfall. It might be good therapy for our tired muscles but after just two desperate breaths of air I'm out of the pool again and scrabbling to make it to the sunlit rocks.
We pick out a campsite with waterfall views then start to relax and enjoy the stunning nature around us; whip birds call in the forest, a lyre bird dashes across the creek, flowering marara hangs over the lower pools, an eel stealthily searches the cracks and crevices of its shallow run. As night darkens, two lone fireflies flit through the canopy and the dirt walls of the riverbank light up with spectacular clusters of glow worms so that it feels as if we are surrounded by stars.
We are in no rush to leave Mirrong Falls and the morning pack up is leisurely. Always liking to loop our walks, rather than retrace our footsteps, we get going at 8:30am and strike off up a steep gully beside camp and emerge onto a distinct spur. The forest is drier and more open on this side of the valley and we pass through a pretty patch of bangalow palms then pass two wonderfully large angophora trees which tower over everything around them. The ground is still covered in slippery dry leaves and a layer of fallen sticks but this is certainly an easier route than yesterday. It takes just an hour of direct, steep, uphill walking and we are on top of the range again. We emerge onto another old forest road and follow it back to the Urumbilum River, about two kilometres above Mirrong Falls. We stop for morning tea by another pretty, but small, waterfall that cascades it's way into another deep green pool. A swim is tempting as the uphill walking is hot work. I remember the cold water from yesterday and just can't bring myself to take another dive.
The walk back is a leisurely stroll along a maze of forest roads back to the car. There is none of the heartache or pain felt the day before. It gives me time to wonder at my earlier questions about effort and reward. I decide it's probably best if I stop thinking too much about questions and just enjoy each moment. There will always be hard parts on any walk in the Australian bush and after a few days at home they all have a way of fading into easy memories.